No turning back: why natural gas production in the U.S. has to grow
Given rising gas prices and growing instability in key oil-producing regions of the world, it is increasingly obvious that the United States must aggressively promote the use of alternative energy sources while at the same time expand the production of oil and natural gas here at home.
Here’s why: over the past two decades, the growing demand for energy in the U.S. has exceeded domestic supplies of crude oil and natural gas. And, currently, alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power are not producing at a high enough capacity level to make up the difference.
Moreover, as the nation moves toward a more conservation-minded future, natural gas will be indispensable for the large-scale viability of such new green technologies as electric cars (more on this below).
Fact is, natural gas is a key ingredient in the production of some of the most basic, everyday items we depend upon for our existence. And in order for natural gas to be economical for these many uses in manufacturing, it must be produced domestically.
Consider this: Virtually everything that we use on a daily basis contains a component that used natural gas or oil in its manufacture, either as a fuel or as a “feedstock.” A feedstock is defined as the raw material that is used in an industrial process to manufacture something else. There are no alternatives for these petrochemical feedstocks. Without them we go back to making everything out of wood and stone.
Using oil and natural gas, the petrochemical industry manufactures chemicals that serve as "building blocks" in making everything from plastics and clothing to medicine, computers and other products. They contribute essential materials for making food and beverage containers, surgical gloves and gowns, fertilizer, blankets, cold weather and rain gear, sneakers, computers, insulation, cameras, medicines, artificial joints, auto and aircraft parts, disposable diapers, CDs, and many more key consumer products.
Propane, a fuel that is used to heat homes and fire up our backyard barbecue grills, comes from natural gas. Propane is used in literally hundreds of residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural processes, such as forklift operations, metal galvanizing, grain dryers, and ink-drying.
Hydrogen is being touted as a clean transportation fuel -- hydrogen-powered cars have been a dream of many environmentalists for years. Did you know natural gas is being used to generate hydrogen for such purposes? Ongoing research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy is exploring the conversion of natural gas into “ultra-clean” fuels for other uses, as well.
Natural gas is also important to our domestic food supply. The vast majority of fertilizer used in agriculture is ammonia-based, and you need natural gas to manufacture ammonia. Also, ethylene, which comes from natural gas, is used to accelerate the ripening of bananas, and to mature the color of citrus fruits. It is also used to increase the growth rate of seedlings, vegetables, and fruit trees. It is fair to say that without sufficient supplies of natural gas, our food supply will be adversely affected.
The list goes on. Ethylene glycol, which comes from natural gas, is a key element in the plastics industry for the manufacture of polyester fibers and resins, including the primary component of plastic bottles for water and soft drinks. Ethylene glycol’s antifreeze capabilities make it an important component in the low-temperature preservation of biological tissues and organs to be used for transplant to save lives.
More obvious is the fact that natural gas is a very important source of energy consumption in general. Approximately 22 percent of the energy consumption of the U.S. comes from natural gas. More than half of all U.S. homes use natural gas as the main heating fuel.
The biggest use of natural gas in North Texas is electric generation. Luminant, the wholesale power unit of the former TXU Corp., generates a considerable portion of its electricity with natural gas, while also relying on coal, nuclear and renewable energy such as wind power. Where are we going to get all that electricity to charge up those electric cars of the future? Most likely from natural gas-fired electric generating plants because it is readily available, cleaner than coal, and nuclear plants currently take over 10 years to get through the permitting process.
Currently, we import about 10 percent of our natural gas and that percentage could decline as domestic production increases. Because the conventional sources of natural gas in the United States are just about tapped out, it is fortunate for our economy that technological advances in drilling are enabling us to produce natural gas from such “unconventional” sources as the Barnett Shale and other shales around the country. At 4.5 percent and growing, natural gas production from the Barnett Shale is an increasingly important to the national supply of natural gas.
Hence, exploration and drilling for natural gas in the United States must continue – whether it be in Fort Worth, North Arkansas in the Fayetteville Shale, or in Pennsylvania and neighboring states where the vast Marcellus Shale awaits exploration. These shales are the future of natural gas supply in our country.
Ed Ireland, Ph.D. is executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a consortium of 11 of the leading energy companies operating in the Barnett Shale that are dedicated to promoting energy education and best practices as it relates to oil and gas leasing, drilling, production, transportation and marketing in the Barnett Shale.
c. 2008 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Reprinted by permission