Natural Gas Is Our Best Hope for Energy Independence

From Charles Hugh Smith at the OfTwoMinds.com blog, here's a report from Ray W., an energy consultant. It offers some hope that the United States can overcome its oil addiction, with smart planning and effective leadership. Can we do it? Time will tell.

I try to understand the key dynamics of the energy marketplace because I believe that we have reached peak oil and the modern countries are so dependent on fossils fuels. The report below seems to be very objective.

I worry that the Saudis and big oil companies have so much influence in our government that our energy policy will remain the same, until we run out of money.

Of the three main fossil fuels, natural gas is uniquely situated.

Oil is nearing peak production. To find new reserves, companies such as BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil venture into ever more hostile environments, both physical and political, spend ever higher amounts of money, and take ever greater risks. Deepwater Horizon, the oil platform that detonated and sank in the Gulf of Mexico and spewed four million barrels of crude into one of the world’s most productive fisheries, is a tame example.

For real expense and environmental risk, look at the tar sands in Canada; for political risk, look at the Niger Delta. The increasing cost of oil exploration and production will consume a larger share of GDP, just as health care does, and if we continue to expand our dependency on oil, we will continue to erode the standard of living for all but the very wealthy. The trajectory of the price of oil is structurally upward.

Coal is simply nasty. It’s advantage: it’s plentiful and therefore cheap. Otherwise, it’s a supremely destructive substance at all stages of its exploitation, from mining to transport to combustion to ash disposal.

Natural gas is far more plentiful than oil and far less environmentally destructive than coal.

Gas produces about 40% of the carbon dioxide of coal for the same kilowatt-hour of power generation. It leaves no solid waste at all, unlike coal, which leaves tremendous piles of ash that must be disposed of and that are susceptible to environmental catastrophe. The Kingston spill in 2008 deposited 5.4 million cubic yards (about four times the debris of the World Trade Centers) in the Emory and Clinch Rivers in Tennessee.

Gas contains no mercury, lead, arsenic, or other heavy metals as does coal. At pipeline quality, its combustion produces no sulfur dioxide (the main cause of acid rain) and far less nitrous oxide (the main cause of smog) than coal.

Gas is transported by pipeline, which is extremely efficient. Pipelines, being underground, are also visually and logistically unobtrusive and, despite the recent tragedy in San Bruno, California, generally safe. Far more people have been killed in coal-related accidents, not to mention aviation or automobile accidents, than have been in gas-related accidents.

Now we come to extraction, where things get more complicated.

In the past three years, the amount of natural gas produced in this country has increased 16%, from 18 to 21 trillion cubic feet. This is attributable to recent rapid advances in two drilling techniques: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The high price of gas earlier in the decade spurred the development of these technologies, which extract gas from solid rock, rather than from conventional pooled deposits.

Extraction presents some serious environmental issues. Some gas deposits contain a fair amount of sulfur, which must be removed and disposed of. Most extracted sulfur is made into sulfuric acid for industrial purposes. Other deposits contain carbon dioxide in quantities as much as 12 percent by volume, which reduces the resource’s greenhouse gas advantage. And it takes a great deal of energy to drill for gas. The rigs generally run on diesel. The recently developed techniques for extracting gas from shale formations also consume large amounts of water. That said, gas extraction doesn’t use nearly the amount of energy or water as coal mine excavation.

Water will be the limiting factor for expanding gas production in the United States. Some shale gas producers have been working diligently to find environmentally acceptable ways to minimize the use of water, mostly through reuse. In shale gas production, the water is injected under pressure to fracture the rock, which liberates the gas.

The injected water contains several chemicals to provide for the optimal viscosity to enhance fracturing while still being liquid enough to withdraw easily. Most producers use less than a dozen chemicals, which comprise 0.5 percent of the injection stream. The very high numbers of chemicals (approaching 600) quoted in the film "Gasland" are an amalgamation of all the chemicals ever used for fracturing across the industry.

Some producers are racing to gain first-mover advantage in the shale plays, which seem to pop up every three months. These producers tend to be less cautious than others, and this is how accidents happen. But there is nothing intrinsically more hazardous or risky about drilling for gas in shale formations than drilling for conventional gas, or drilling for oil, or mining for coal.

Gas-bearing shale tends to be several thousand feet (one to two miles) below the aquifer. There is virtually no way for the gas to migrate into the aquifer except through the vertical component of the well that penetrates the water table en route to the gas resource. Gas wells, like oil wells, are encased in cement to protect the surrounding ground from seepage. Sloppy procedures can result in bad cement jobs. But this risk is present for any gas or oil well; it is not particular to shale gas.

The United States can substantially reduce oil usage and coal usage and improve carbon dioxide emissions by increasing the production and consumption of natural gas. We can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% within weeks, simply by switching about 15% of coal-fired electric generation to gas-fired, using existing spare capacity in the gas-fired fleet.

There is plenty of gas to make this happen without risking huge price run-ups. Gas prices on average might move up about $1.00 per MMBtu, from the $4.00-$5.00 range to the $5.00-$6.00 range. While this would be a 20-25% increase, other costs would go down, specifically the costs of coal-caused pollution. This does not consider the future value preserved by slowing climate change. Also, increased demand would spur increased production, which would moderate such price increases.

Eventually, gas use will have to be reduced if we are to avoid the worst of climate change. Increased gas use is a transitional strategy for the next 20-30 years, to provide time for renewable energy and efficiency technologies to be developed and deployed. However, even at that point, gas would still have a role. It is the logical fuel to use to complement the intermittent nature of renewable electric generation.

Technological improvements are likely in electric storage, but electric storage is unlikely to be economical enough to span all 24 hours of the day. Gas, delivered through pipelines, is an on-demand electric generation fuel, unlike coal or oil, and can respond instantaneously as minute-to-minute consumer demand and renewable generation fluctuate.

If we craft public policy to favor gas to displace coal and oil, we have to be careful not to grow complacent. Gas is not a panacea for climate change. It is still a fossil fuel. However, it is a readily available, pragmatic, interim solution as we move to renewables and efficiency over the next 20-30 years.

 

Quotes for Steve Jobs on Death, Changing the World, and Following Your Heart

Steve Jobs said:

Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

via The Financial Philosopher

 

Texas, PIIGS, Debt, and Bailouts

Background

The governments of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain (PIIGS) have borrowed and spent far more money than they can ever pay back.

In the United States, Texas is known for its independent attitude. The governments of California, Illinois, and New York  have borrowed and spent more money than they can pay back.

From John Mauldin:

My grandfather was born in West Texas in 1859 (not a typo). His uncle (a Kelly and Irish) was a charter member of the Texas Rangers, which was formed around 1836. When the mayor of Waco telegraphed the Rangers in the 1870s that there was a riot in town and to please send the Rangers, he got a telegram back saying they would be there on the noon train. The mayor met the train and was dismayed to see that only one Ranger got off. When asked why he didn’t have more men with him, the Ranger supposedly replied, “There’s only one riot, isn’t there?” That became the motto of the Rangers: “One riot, one Ranger.” These were the toughest SOBs in a tough state. And the uncle was Irish to boot.

Texas started out as a republic and was independent for nine years. The treaty that made us a state allows us to either split into five states (wouldn’t that change the balance in the Senate?) or to leave the union, at our choice.

I was once in a hotel bar (a shock, I know) somewhere in Africa and was asked where I was from. “Texas,” I replied. “Interesting,” came back the response; “Whenever I meet someone from America they always say they are from the US or America. Except when they are from Texas. Then they are always from Texas.” Yep. Texas is a state of mind, and those who come here eventually adopt the state as their own. Just seems to happen.

Now, a thought game. What would happen if California and Illinois and New York came to Texas and said, “We think your taxes should double so that we can finance our debt, and please buy even more of our debt next year to pay for our unfunded pensions. Oh, and while you are doing that the Fed is going to print massive amounts of dollars (far, far more than they are now) and destroy the value of the dollar, so your Texas pensions will be worthless.

My guess is that my fellow Texans would look around and decide which Ranger to set on these guys, and make it clear that this was not the ride we had signed on for, and dust off that old treaty and work out an exit strategy.

Understand, in the runup to the recent election our sitting governor talked about secession. I was been in meetings with Very Serious Texas Politicians where secession was earnestly discussed 15 years ago – maybe over some whiskey, but with the conclusion that Texas might be better off without the crushing debt that was coming down the pike.

Do I think that could happen? No. The Fed will never choose hyperinflation, and I do not think you can find 60 Senators to decide that bailing out the states that let their own spending and taxes get out of control would be acceptable with their voters. Further, even though I am a very proud Texan, after 9/11 it was not the Texas flag that brought a tear to my eye, it was the Stars and Stripes. It would have to take a series of massively stupid decisions to bring Texas to the place where it would even remotely consider leaving the union.

Now consider, if I have some pride in being Texan, with less than 200 years of history, proud as it is, what is it like to be Greek or Irish or French or German or any of the European mix? What deep cultural roots must they have? Nearly every country at one point was on top of the heap, and all have rich heritages. There is history around every corner in Europe. Except a history of unity.

If you ask a European in that African bar where he is from, does he say Europe? No, he is from a country. (Unless he is Basque. Or Catalonian. Or Welsh.) One is not from Great Britain but from one of the divers components of the UK. And a large number of Scots want out. Could Belgium split apart? Possibly.

But essentially, what the eurozone is asking Germany (and the Dutch and the rest of “core” Europe) to do is bail out Greece and perhaps much of the rest of the periphery, and to assume massive deficits and rising taxes. Because for there to be enough money for the deficit nations to borrow cheaply, there must be an AAA rating and a 30% cash-to-loan deposit, as I understand it. Spain or Ireland may try and borrow their share of the bailout fund (such irony), but they do not get that AAA rating. For all intents and purposes, it is on the back of Germany and, to some extent, France.

Will German taxpayers go along with that? Will France?

Will the Germans still finance the Greeks in 2013 when they have not whittled down their deficit and the Greeks still want to retire at 50 on full pensions? Will the Irish decide that it is in their best interests to take on massive debt so that French and German and UK banks are paid back? Can the solution to a debt problem be more debt?

Will Texas singlehandedly bail out California so their prison guards can continue to make $100,000 a year? Tough questions.