Here is the introduction of Ben’s post.
“Why gas?” Good question…
It was meant to be a jingle, not a prophecy…
In Australia back in 1990, we were subjected to a saccharine , family friendly bit of advertising extolling the virtues of “natural gas” for cooking. The tag line? “Why gas? Well just because!”.
Twenty two years later, you could be forgiven for thinking that energy policy makers had been locked in a room and shown this commercial non-stop, Clockwork Orange style. Because whenever you look for an answer to the question “Just what the hell are we going to do next about energy?” the answer seems to come back, regular as, well, clockwork.
As is often the case with Ben’s keen observations of his world, my thoughts were provoked by his post. I believe there are several reasons why natural gas has become such a popular and politically correct answer to our near term future energy needs. Here is a slightly edited version of the response that I posted on Ben’s blog.
Ben – the primary reason that gas is so “popular” these days is that it is being marketed by some of the most skilled communicators in the world who are backed by the deepest pockets on the planet.
Multinational petroleum companies figured out several decades ago that natural gas was the near future fuel that best fit their existing core competencies. They could keep on drilling in difficult geologies, keep making deals with despots, keep running pipelines and tankers, and keep encouraging utilities to build cheap machines that needed a continuous supply of fuel.
Compared to oil, gas has serious physical limitations – like the fact that natural gas tanks can only contain about about 1/3 as much energy per unit volume as gasoline tanks even if you are willing to build tanks that can withstand 10,000 psi. Unless someone builds the pipelines, methane gas is an explosive, hazardous byproduct of both coal and oil extraction operations that needs careful attention and flaring in order to save the lives of miners and drillers.
However, the petroleum company marketers seized on the “environmental” benefits argument as something that they have been using in their market share battle against coal since the days when they convinced Churchill to convert the British Navy from domestic coal to oil extracted from imperial colonies. As long as the gas is properly treated and such contaminants as hydrogen sulfide are removed, it burns quite cleanly, even allowing the use of open flames inside homes without chimneys.
The “environmental” argument for gas capitalized on making use of existing corporate core competencies – the oil & gas companies already controlled a number of large “astroturf” organizations that had been established long before the original basis for the term had even been invented.
Petroleum companies have also had a major presence in the opinion influencing commercial media since the days when the Texaco Star was as frequently seen as Milton Berle. (I am not sure how well that allusion will play down under, but here is video that might help make my point)
Some people wonder why the major multinational energy companies virtually ignore the existence of nuclear energy. The answer is that it is so vastly different in terms of energy density, intellectual input required and machinery used in the process that oil & gas companies have no natural advantages (other than massive access to capital) that would help them prosper in an atomic focused world.
A world that allowed the use of atomic energy on a risk equivalent basis with petroleum would be one in which petroleum companies would be about as profitable as silicon or aluminium raw material suppliers.
Their product will always remain useful as an input to a number of industrial products; it is almost irreplaceable as a fuel in weight sensitive transportation applications like aircraft and personal automobiles. However, as bulk fuels, the market value of oil and natural gas would be quite diminished by the existence of an unlimited supply of emission-free nuclear energy from thorium and uranium that costs somewhere between 1/1000th to 1/10th as much per unit heat as the current market price for petroleum products.