A New Energy Era

Can natural gas save the United States?

This article is the third in a three-part series on America’s energy crisis. See part one: How Energy Made the Modern World; part two: Energy and the Debt Conundrum.

The United States sits on top of the world’s largest supply of natural gas. In the last half-dozen years, the often-demonized oil companies have perfected two technologies that can deliver that clean-burning resource in quantities sufficient to replace imported oil as a transportation fuel. Significantly, natural gas can increase fuel economy, reduce greenhouse gases and do it all for a substantially lower cost per gallon than a gasoline (or diesel) equivalent.

How does this natural-gas revolution work? Since the early 1950s, geologists have known there are massive deposits of natural gas within nearly impenetrable shale formations in several areas of the country, including the Barnett Shale in Texas, the Haynesville Shale in northwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas, the Marcellus Shale along the Appalachian chain in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas.

Despite their continued demonization by politicians and the press (including conservative Bill O’Reilly on the Fox cable channel), oil companies have been innovating—inventing technologies and techniques to bring that otherwise unrecoverable shale gas to the market.

The first technique is called “horizontal-directional drilling." Based on satellite imagery, ground-penetrating radar studies and other geotechnical-imaging techniques, well locations are chosen above shale formations. Wells are drilled into the shale formation thousands of feet deep, and when the drill reaches a gas- (or oil-) bearing level, it makes a 90-degree turn into the resource-rich area.

Then, the second new production technology is applied: to facilitate the flow rate and create an economically viable production well, the shale is fractured. This is done by injecting pressurized steam and “fracking fluids” down the well. Then, ceramic pellets or sand particles are forced into the fractures to maintain the space necessary for the gas or oil to flow.

Beneficial modifications to fracking technology are being developed rapidly. For example, one methodology adds fibers to the mix of hard, small grains used to hold open the cracks in the shale. The fiber promotes more flow for a longer period of time, improving “conductivity." Another system employs specialized pipe fittings. Much like valves, the pipe fittings, when activated, can crack a vast volume of petroleum-reserve rock. This process also uses about half the water of conventional fracking and requires much less time to complete. As a result, fracking costs, and therefore per-barrel prices, can be reduced. Another new development has eliminated the need for water in the fracking process. It employs liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) as the fracking medium. A mix of LPG gel and sand is pumped deep into the shale formation (often more than a mile underground). The heat at such extreme depths causes the propane gel to heat up and vaporize. The propane, in gaseous form, returns to the surface with the natural gas and is then recaptured and recycled.

As a result of the horizontal-directional drilling, fracking technologies and their continuous improvements, nearly two quadrillion cubic feet of clean-burning, domestic natural gas has become available to the U.S. market. That is the number two followed by fifteen zeroes. How much natural gas is that?

The United States currently consumes twenty-three trillion (i.e., twenty-three followed by twelve zeroes) cubic feet of natural gas per year, using it to generate electricity, manufacture products, and heat businesses and homes. Nearly all of that gas is produced domestically and transported safely, efficiently and economically through underground pipelines. With two quadrillion cubic feet of available supply, the United States has more natural gas than it can use in nearly ninety years at the current rate of consumption.

Currently, only 1.5 percent of the natural gas produced in the United States is used as vehicle fuel. With the new supplies of natural gas, that can change dramatically. New shale-gas supplies can be used to fuel cars, trucks, trains and ships, as well as airplanes. It is easy to visualize natural gas fueling buses or cars. There are natural-gas buses and taxis operating in Washington, D.C., and in many other large cities in the country.

But how can natural gas power trucks and trains and airplanes? It is quite easy. Natural gas can be refined into diesel and jet fuel. In fact, refineries to synthesize diesel from natural gas are already in operation.

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