On April 22, 2012, the Christian Science Monitor published a lengthy feature article titled With all this natural gas, who needs oil? that helps illustrate the extent of America’s current love affair with methane, a fuel that we have been using commercially for about 150 years.
According to some of the people quoted in the article, converting more trucks, buses, and power plants to use natural gas is a “no-brainer” that should have been done a long time ago. Even though that transition was not done then, these same people think it could be done today – virtually overnight.
Though the article does eventually point out that natural gas extraction activities have hazards and environmental impacts that must be mitigated, the general impression that one gets from the article is that anyone who would even consider using a different fuel source in a modern power plant would be a little kooky. You can find the following quote on page 2 of the article.
No one disputes the prevalence of natural gas in America’s basement. For evidence look no further than an Erector Set of pipes and docks and storage tanks in the marshes of Sabine Pass, La., on the edge of the Gulf Coast. There, Houston-based company Cheniere Energy Inc., which opened the facility four years ago to import natural gas amid an impending shortage, is now spending billions to transform it into an export site.
In fact, as recently as five years ago, oil and gas executives thought the nation’s accessible natural gas reserves were almost played out. The industry was proposing building 47 import terminals to bring liquefied natural gas into the US. Five were actually constructed. Now most of them sit underutilized.
In March natural gas imports hit a 20-year low while domestic production hit a 20-year high. The US is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world.
The dramatic turnaround in supply is a product of technological advances and high oil prices. Hydraulic fracturing, the controversial drilling technique, has made it possible to access trillions of cubic feet of natural gas locked in shale formations deep beneath vast swaths of the country. High oil prices have made it economical to extract.
There is balance and caution in the article, but the author never really explores some of the technical reasons why natural gas still faces strong competition from other fuels and why it has not been a clear winner in many markets. There is no discussion about energy density, the challenge of safely storing an explosive vapor, or the large capital investments required to build out an extensive distribution infrastructure. Methan gas has many advantages as a fuel source, but the people who made other choices in fuel selections over the past 150 years have not been universally short sighted.
Sometime soon, I plan to write a little more about energy density and the importance of having fuel sources that can be warehoused for later use.