Tired of high gasoline pump prices? Wondering why, with our fearsome energy hunger, all the energy seems to be in the Middle East?
That was yesterday's story.
Almost overnight — well, in a few short years — the energy picture has been changing. We are not energy beggars anymore. We have energy bounty — and that does not include the energy from wind and sun, or the controversial energy from the atom.
Now we have plenty of the most versatile of the hydrocarbons — more versatile than coal, and oil. It is natural gas; and it is going to change the face of America remarkably quickly, whether it is used to make electricity for electric cars or is burned directly in cars.
Natural gas is the new oil, maybe the new gold, and certainly the most exciting energy development in a long time.
Indeed, it is a Cinderella story: a hopeless orphan who is now the belle of the ball. Originally, natural gas was found in conjunction with oil and was regarded as something of a nuisance. It was mostly cursed and “flared” or burned at the well; and it is still flared when there is no way of moving it to market, either in a pipe or as a liquid. Cities favored a low-grade gas made from coal for lamps and heating because coal could be transported by rail.
But natural gas turned out to be a wonderful feedstock for fertilizers and many other manufactures and chemicals. It also demonstrated its superiority over coal gas for heating and cooking, and a network of pipelines spread across the nation.
Even as the usefulness of natural gas spread, so did the political desire to control it. The Federal Power Commission, the predecessor of today's Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, issued what became known infamously as the Permian Basin decision. It said that natural gas in interstate commerce had to have the price regulated by the federal government.
The result was two classes of gas, interstate and intrastate. It was a disaster, coming as the demand for gas was rising.
Then came the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, which meant that gas was wanted for things oil had been used for up until then. Growing gas demand coincided with severe shortage not only in the pipelines, but also in proven reserves in the ground — low regulated prices had cut into exploration. The outlook for gas was bleak.
By 1977, the Carter administration had declared natural gas a “depleted resource.” There was panic. Newspapers listed all the good things we got from natural gas. Congress decided it was too useful to be burned, and it passed the Fuel Use Act.
Henceforth, gas was to be husbanded. Pilot lights on domestic cooking stoves were banned, as were all decorative uses of flames. Even the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery was nearly extinguished.
In 1987 natural gas was deregulated, and the companies started exploring and drilling again. The gas shortage transformed itself into a “gas bubble.” When I told a meeting of Wall Street analysts in the early-1980s that natural gas would again be used for electric generation they were disbelieving. As I left the building, one analyst said to another, “Very droll, but he doesn't know what he's talking about.”
But it did happen, and in a big way; not only was more natural gas being sought, but technology was set to change the amount of gas available and the way it could be used.
The first technological advance was a very efficient, gas-burning machine for utilities, the aeroderivitive turbine. Then came horizontal drilling, which allows a single gas or oil well to stretch out tentacles for miles in every direction. This drilling technology opened up old gas and oil fields for further exploitation and made new ones very profitable.
The final jewel in the natural gas crown was the ability of drillers to start breaking up rocks in the shale band — between 6,000 and 9,000 feet below the surface — in areas that were not before thought to contain gas. The Marcellus field, extending through Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio, may turn out to be the largest shale field currently being developed.
El Dorado enow — except for environmental concern about the chemicals used to break the rock, in a process called fracking. Also, groundwater has been affected in many locations; and there is video of tap water burning.
But proponents of natural gas point out that it has half the greenhouse emissions of coal, and few or no nitrous oxides. Natural gas is set to do for the United States what North Sea oil has done for Britain and Norway. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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Natural gas is nifty stuff. It burns twice as clean as other fossil fuels, leaves no ash to be disposed of and is critical to many industrial processes.
It is used for everything from drying grain to distilling liquor. It also can fairly easily substitute for oil as a transportation fuel. Buses in big American cities increasingly run on it, as taxis in Australia have for years.
Its history is a tale of how markets work, how technology can broadside the best futurists, and how planners and politicians can get it wrong.
More important than the lessons of history is the fact that we appear now to have more natural gas than was ever predicted, and we can look forward to possibly hundreds of years of supply at present rates of use. And it could slay the foreign oil dragon, or at least maim the brute.
Trouble is, because of its tortured history, natural gas has often been put on the back burner.
When the first commercial oil well, the Drake, was sunk in western Pennsylvania in 1859, natural gas, or methane to give it its proper classification, was not on anyone’s mind except deep miners, for whom it was a lethal hazard. The Oil Age began without natural gas. When it was found in conjunction with oil, it was unceremoniously burned off: a process known as flaring.
In the United States, natural gas faced political problems as well as infrastructural problems. Natural gas production was regulated by the predecessor of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Federal Power Commission. It was bound by a legal ruling known as the Permian Basin Decision that kept the price of natural gas artificially low, discouraging new supplies and new infrastructure, such as processing plants and storage. This led to shortages and to a lack of confidence in the future of natural gas.
During the energy shortages of the 1970s, natural gas was discounted by the government and much of industry. Congress panicked and passed a piece of legislation called the Fuel Use Act, which forbade the use of natural gas for many things, including pilot lights in new kitchen stoves. Utilities were told not to even think of burning natural gas: It was too precious and there was too little of it.
Gas demand declined precipitously in the 1980s. And in 1987, the Fuel Use Act was repealed. Along with deregulation of gas, a gas boom resulted.
But it was technology that changed everything. New drilling techniques increased supply. New turbines, based on airplane engines, started to enter the electricity market. They were clean, easy to install, and reached high efficiencies of fuel-to-electricity conversion. Today, 30 percent of our generation comes from these “derivative” machines.
So successful was natural gas in the 1990s that new concerns about supply shook the industry; and the public was told that gas would have to be imported from the Middle East, especially from Qatar. Permission was sought to build dozens of liquefied natural gas terminals around the coastlines.
Now it looks as if natural gas is a fuel with an enormous resource base–thanks to technology. The technology in question is horizontal drilling. Imagine you sink a hole 2 miles into the earth and then send out horizontal roots in all directions from this vertical trunk. That, in essence, is horizontal drilling and it makes available trillions of cubic feet of natural gas trapped in close formation shale deep in the earth.
Ironically, or fittingly, this takes the energy story back to Pennsylvania where a vast shale field called the Marcellus is being developed and will write the next chapter of hydrocarbon energy. This is good because it is plentiful, it is here and it builds on extant pipeline infrastructure.
Of course, it makes investments in many “alternative” sources of energy, particularly ethanol from corn, look like very poor investments. Cars and trucks that run on natural gas are an appealing alternative to ethanol with less disruption of the food chain and stress on the farms. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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