Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Desolate Middle Ground on Shale Gas

Something happened last week that represents an unfortunate defeat for the Middle Ground in the persuasive contest enshrouding unconventional domestic fossil fuels, particularly shale gas.

In Congress, March 13, senators couldn’t muster a filibuster-proof super majority to pass a measure, lately given indirect support by the Obama Administration (stories here and here), calling for taxpayers to subsidize vehicles that run on natural gas.  This was intended to displace continued consumption of fuels made from crude oil, which remains substantially imported from problematic nations, and, needless to say, increasingly expensive.

Unlike hydrogen, electric, or other alternatives, natural gas vehicles do not pose so much of an economically-challenged, long-term transformation.  Even while relatively inconsequential New York has lost four years in a shale-directed drilling moratorium — studying the prospect for exploiting its own indigenous resource — natural gas has gone into glut, continentally, and become inexpensive.  Manufacturers have already produced trucks and cars capable of running full- or part-time on compressed, sometimes liquefied, methane.  And, on the fill-up side, there’s a public station even in downtown Syracuse (current price $1.98 per gallon of gasoline equivalent), two more in the suburbs, and still others coming.  In certain cases of back-and-forth transport — such as the United Parcel Service, or public transit like Centro — CNG, LNG, or NGV by whichever acronym already makes economic sense without subsidy.

The feds could have sped up this already slowly rolling train.  But some elected officials instead hung back on the station platform, bickering with inflexibility.

The Republican’s conservative wing couldn’t hack it due to their unrealistic ideological stance that government shouldn’t impose energy policy by meddling in the market.  And some from the Democrat’s liberal wing joined them, largely because its well-meaning, well-educated (but still willfully misinformed) base has lately become riled about the supposed dangers of hydraulic fracturing.

One side’s despised Crony Capitalism sometimes glides seamlessly in waltz step with the other side’s Welfare for Corporate Pigs — even if it’s a gas meter that’s ticking out the beats. 

What a strange dance that is. 

Meanwhile, lost in the middle is a bi-partisan majority — ranging from President Obama to fossil fuels baron T. Boone Pickens — which takes a pragmatic, open-minded view of the whole energy picture:  The burden to consumers, and to the economy, of gasoline and diesel.  The fully external costs of our oil-protective wars.  The shovel-ready jobs represented by federally assisted technological advances in unconventional resources.  And the net environmental (and ethical) benefits of an energy policy in which we Americans seek to manage our own impacts.

The promise of domestic energy represents not just the Same Old Contest between environmentalists and industry.  This debate is also — even more crucially — a contest pitting the middle against both the far left and far right.  In killing this latest version of the Pickens Plan, the middle lost again.  For now.

In New York, there are certainly parallels for this defeat of the middle — which could be one possible outcome of our own Ceaseless Shale Gas Debates.  But I sure hope not.

Instead, I look forward to the day when “Buy Local” includes both sweet corn and shale gas.  Some may be concerned only with visions of their backyard devastation, but I see soldiers coming home from their devastation — and driving to jobs on drill rigs in bi-fuel Silverados.  I see industry, under first-class regulatory oversight, safely fracking shale far beneath land owned by my own fellow Upstaters.

And me, as an end consumer, more than happy to pay for it.

That’s my inter-connectedness of life.  That’s my community.  That’s my home rule.  That’s where I want to go.

1 comment:

Hell_Is_Like_Newark said...

Subsidizing natural gas vehicles is not necessary. Natural gas, even in its compressed form, doesn't have the energy density to really be practical as a vehicle fuel. Plus there are other technical issues (I worked on a natural gas vehicle project years ago) that make natural gas an inferior fuel choice.

A better alternative that needs no subsidies to work is GTL. Exxon & Gigamethanol developed a natural gas to gasoline process. The process will make gasoline for under $3 per gallon (which includes a $1.45 margin).

For diesel, Shell's Pearl GTL plant went online this year and Sasol announced plans to build a GTL plan in Louisiana. There are a number of other companies marketing GTL tech. There are two companies offering pilot plants to Petrobas; micro channel units small enough to be mounted on oil rigs to convert the associated gas to syn-crude. Sundrop is working with Chesapeake as Chesapeake announced it is looking at GTL as well.

IMO (based on my own research) GTL is profitable as long as oil is above $60 per barrel. Might go as low as $40 as the tech has really been improving in the last five years.

So we turn natural gas into liquid fuel we use already. No need for special filling stations or engine modifications.

The biggest holdup right now is the uncertain regulatory environment. Any investor is going to be wary of investing billion when your energy source (fracked gas) might get cut-off by new EPA rules.