In Case You Missed It
Boulderganic Fall 2009
Student Guide 2009
Boulder Weekly Sweet 16 Anniversary
Summer Scene 2009
Best of Boulder 2009
Annual Manual 2009
Newspaper of the Future
Kids Camp Guide 2009
Wedding Marketplace 09
Student Guide 2008
Best of Boulder 2008
Annual Manual 2008
Join Our Mailing List
|August 14-20, 2008
Back to Letters
Yes, we can (drill our way out)
by Paul Danish
It has become an article of faith that we can’t drill our way out of our dependence on foreign oil. Environmentalists, Democrats, Republicans, even T. Boone Pickens, will all tell you so.
But, actually, we probably can. It all depends on what we’re drilling for.
It is true that the chances of finding many new multi-billion barrel conventional oil fields, like Spindle Top or West Texas or Prudhoe Bay, are slim (not withstanding the fact that such a field probably exists beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). Chances are the best we can hope for is to find enough new domestic oil deposits to keep U.S. production from falling much further — which is reason enough to drill aggressively. Indeed, the oil industry isn’t even trying very hard. According to the trade magazine Oil & Gas Journal, last week only 387 drilling rigs operating in the United States were drilling for oil.
But 1,571 others were drilling for natural gas. And therein hangs a tale.
It’s been largely ignored by the national media, but oil companies — energy companies, if you prefer — have been finding staggering amounts of natural gas in the continental United States lately.
How much? An industry-funded study released last month said the widely accepted estimate of the country’s proven natural gas reserves should be raised by 50 percent, to 2,247 trillion cubic feet, from an estimate of 1,530 trillion cubic feet made at the end of 2006. (The latter estimate was made by the Colorado School of Mines-based Potential Gas Committee.)
At present rates of consumption, the old estimate represents an 82-year supply, compared with a 118-year supply for the new estimate.
The reason for the surge in natural gas supplies is that oil companies have learned how to turn a drill bit 90 degrees and drill horizontally for a mile or two into gas-bearing rocks. A horizontally drilled well penetrates thousands of feet of gas-bearing rock; the same well drilled vertically might penetrate less than 100 feet.
The upshot is that gas fields that were uneconomical to develop with vertical wells are economical to develop with horizontal wells — and all the more so when a second technology is brought into play: hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water and sand into a well under sufficient pressure to induce cracks to propagate through the surrounding gas-bearing rock. The cracks increase the flow of natural gas.
Use of these technologies in combination makes it possible to produce gas that is trapped in shale, a rock with low permeability. The United States has enormous deposits of gas-bearing shales. About five years ago, companies using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing started successfully tapping into them in a big way.
How successfully? Last year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, U.S. natural gas production, which had been stable for years, shot up 9 percent.
The first big boom in shale gas occurred in the Barnett Shale in north Texas, which by some estimates contains more than 250 trillion cubic feet of “technically recoverable” gas.
Two other shale formations — the Haynesville Shale in northwest Louisiana and the Marcellus Shale, which underlies parts of Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky — are thought to have gas resources of similar or larger magnitude. Beyond that, there are at least 19 other shale formations around the country thought to have substantial amounts (measured in trillions or tens of trillions of cubic feet) of recoverable gas.
The point is that there’s mounting evidence that the U.S. has enough natural gas for the country to seriously consider substituting it for a substantial percentage of the gasoline and diesel fuel it now makes from imported crude.
T. Boone Pickens thinks the U.S. could divert the seven trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year from generating electricity to transportation uses, by using wind turbines (about 200,000 of them) to generate the electricity instead. The boom in natural gas production suggests that the windmills might not be necessary (although if they were built an even larger amount of gasoline could be prudently replaced with gas).
To be sure, replacing tens of millions of gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars and trucks with compressed-natural-gas-fueled ones, and fitting out tens of thousands of service stations with natural gas dispensing pumps is not a trivial task. But it is a straightforward one.
And to be sure, there are good reasons for not substituting a gas addiction for an oil addiction: Natural gas is still a finite resource; burning it still produces CO; drilling is icky; hydrogen produced by wind and solar power is a better alternative; and so on.
But the question we’re considering here is a narrow one: “Can we drill our way out of our dependence on imported oil?” The answer, to borrow a phrase from Sen. Barack Obama, is, “Yes, we can.”
back to top