Three ways that oil matters for the crisis in Iraq

For months now, Sunni militants from the Islamic State (better known as ISIS) have been seizing control of large swathes of Iraq. ISIS is now threatening a major oil-producing region of Iraq. But it wasn’t until they encroached into semi-autonomous Kurdish territory and near the Kurdish capital of Erbil — an oil boomtown full of Western companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil — that the Obama administration decided to authorize airstrikes against ISIS

Innovation in oil & gas — it ain’t over yet

To read the newspapers these days, you’d think that all the innovation in energy is involved in bringing down the cost of solar panels or building even bigger blades for windmills. But innovation still continues apace in oil and gas, both in pulling them out of the ground and in finding new ways to use them.

“We haven’t been giving the big oil companies enough credit,” said Dominic Basulto in The Washington Post. “ Sure, we may see their print ads or watch as they tout their accomplishments on TV, but deep down, many of us believe that the brightest minds have moved on to something new in energy innovation. But that’s not true.”

That’s important because if we’re going to use our abundant natural gas supplies to wean ourselves off of foreign oil, we’re going to have to be sure the current superabundance of natural gas isn’t just a flash in the pan. Moreover, we’re going to need innovation in making the transition to methane-based liquid alcohol fuels easier as well.

As most people have heard by now, even our best technologies can’t extract more than about 10-20% out of an oil or gas reservoir from the earth. Simply doubling that rate would give us access to huge, new quantities of domestic fuels.

There’s also a concern that fracking wells will have a much shorter lifespan than traditional gas and oil wells. Then there’s all that natural gas being flared off in the Bakken. Ending that conspicuous form of waste will require some new technology.

All these problems are being tackled through innovation, however, and that’s what Basulto is talking about.

Although everybody knows about fracking — the technology of forcing sand and water into the rock to break it up — few realize that the real novelty that makes up the current upturn in production possible is horizontal drilling, which allows access to entire geological strata without making the territory look like a pincushion.

“Today, drilling rigs are so good that they can punch holes in the earth that are two miles deep, turn the drill bit 90 degrees, drill another two miles horizontally, and arrive within a few inches of the target,” said Robert Bryce, author of “Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper,” a book about innovation in the energy industry. But horizontal drilling hasn’t stood still. ExxonMobil has developed an “extended reach” technology that can push outward several miles further deep in the earth. “Extended reach reduces our environmental footprint and in offshore applications will limit our presence in the marine environment,” says the company’s website. It may have been developments like this that prompted President Obama to give a green light to exploration off the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida last month.

The same innovations are occurring with natural gas fracking. Innovators have made an improvement called “sleeve technology” that surrounds the drill bit and allows highly accurate placement of stimulation treatments. The result is that wells can be drilled twice as fast as a few years ago, at a lower cost. With increased precision in both drilling and fracturing, wells are being made more productive as well. Erika Johnsen on Hot Air said, “Data from the Energy Information Administration’s Drilling and Production Report shows that a Marcellus Shale well completed by a rig in April 2014 can be expected to yield over 6 million cubic feet of natural gas per day (Mcf/d) more than a well completed by that rig in that formation in 2007.” That’s a huge improvement in the space of seven short years.

All this is good news for the effort of substituting natural gas-based ethanol or methanol for foreign oil in our cars. After all, one of the fundamental considerations is that there will be enough natural gas around to keep the price reasonable. With so many competing proposals for employing natural gas — electrical generation, the industrial revival, LNG exports, etc. — it’s crucial that we keep expanding production.

So it’s encouraging to hear the news from Clean Energy Fuels, T. Boone Pickens’ baby, which has been building a “CNG Highway” across the country to service long-haul tractor-trailers. CEF has just completed the first leg of this nationwide network, connecting Los Angeles and Houston.

But much of the nation still lies outside the reach of natural gas pipelines and CEF is figuring out a way to serve them, as well. Last month the company opened a filling station in Pembroke, New Hampshire that will be served by a “virtual pipeline” of high-tech tractor-trailers making round-the-clock deliveries. This will allow the station to pump 10 million gasoline-gallon-equivalents (GGE), twice the volume of CEF’s largest existing station. More important, it will open up large areas of the country that have not had access to CNG. This natural gas-based substitute will sell for 30% less than gasoline.

Technology never stands still. Sometimes it forces us to give up things that have become familiar or even seemingly permanent. But as Robert Bryce said, the new technology is usually “faster, smaller, lighter, denser and cheaper.” And in the case of methane-based liquid fuels, it will mean freeing ourselves from foreign oil as well.

Can algae become the new biodiesel?

Supporters call it “clean diesel” to differentiate it from “biodiesel,” and indeed, there is a difference. Soybeans, the main feedstock for biodiesel, have only a 2-3 percent oil content. Some species of algae can have up to 60 percent oil content. This reduces the land requirements for growing a crop by a factor of 30.

So is algae biodiesel one of those great ideas that is always just over the horizon? Or has it germinated long enough that it may finally about to become a reality? The outcome still appears to be up for grabs.

The term “algae” actually cover a whole spectrum of organisms, from the 20-foot ribbon-like “seaweed” that grows in ponds and along littoral shores to the mid-ocean, microscopic “plankton” that is the diet of whales. All have one thing in common – they use carbon and sunlight to photosynthesize organic material. And they are good at it. Some species can double their mass within 24 hours. Thousands of species thrive in varying environments. Last summer, a red algae “tide” that feeds on farm runoff at the mouth of the Mississippi River “bloomed” to cover 5,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico, killing all manner of birds, fish and marine life, including hundreds of manatees. “If we can figure out how to make energy out of that,” President Obama told an audience at the University of Miami, “we’ll be doing alright.”

The idea of harvesting algae for energy was first suggested by Richard Harder and Hans von Witsch, two European scientists at the outbreak of World War II. Nothing much developed, however, and interest didn’t revive until the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, when the Department of Energy set up an Aquatic Species Program to pursue research.

Funded with $25 million over the next 18 years, the Aquatic Program investigated thousands of species, finding the Chlorella genus the most promising. It also made an important discovery. When Chlorella is deprived of nitrogen, it can increase its lipid (fat and oil) content to a remarkable 70 percent of mass! Remember, soybeans are only 2-3 percent lipids. But this created a conundrum. While depriving algae of nitrogen might may increase lipid content, it also severely inhibited growth. The Aquatic Program had not yet resolved this dilemma when it was disbanded in 1996.

Private companies picked up the research, however, and have tried to overcome it with genetic engineering. While pursuing this, they have developed two methods of cultivation. The easiest is to grow algae in open pools or “raceways” that devour large areas of land, since sunlight can only penetrate a few centimeters into the algal mat. The problem here is that most species are highly sensitive to variations in acidify, temperature and humidity. Their high lipid content also means they synthesize fewer proteins, which makes them extremely vulnerable to invasive species. This makes it very difficult to bring them up to commercial scale.

The more advanced technology is “photobioreactors,” conducted in large networks of glass or plastic tubes. The system overcomes environmental difficulties but is very expensive. In 2009 Exxon combined with J. Craig Venter, the decoder of the human genome, to try to develop a commercial method for developing algae-based fuels. After investing $600 million, however, Exxon pulled out of the enterprise in 2013, saying commercialization was 25 years away.

Nevertheless, several small companies say they are now making progress. Algenol, a Fort Myers, Fla. company, says it has developed a revolutionary “3rd generation” technology that can produce ethanol, jet and diesel fuel 8,000 gallons per acre, 18 times the output of corn-based ethanol, at $1.25 per gallon. Sapphire, a San Francisco company, has opened a 100-acre Green Crude Farm in New Mexico and hopes to be producing 100 barrels a day next year with full-scale commercialization by 2018. And Aurora Algae, a Hayward, Calif. firm which has operated a test facility in Western Australia for the last three years, has just announced an open-pond operation in Harlingen, Texas that it hopes to expand to 100 acres.

There is one great irony to all this. A full-blown algae industry already exists, providing feedstock for food additives, cattle silage and nutritional and pharmaceutical products. Some highly specialized fatty acids derived from exotic species can fetch $10,000 per gallon. In fact, the current industry sees algae-for-fuel as a rather low-grade use. “Until more federal funding is available, my members are going to continue growing for the higher-value products,” Barry Cohen, executive director of the National Algae Association, told Slate’s John Upton. “We have algae companies that are growing for the ingredients industry, the food industry and the nutraceutical industries. If they can grow the right species, those companies will buy every drop they can make.”

What makes these operations viable, of course, is their high-value end products, which cover the costs of growing algae in commercial quantities. An algae-for-fuel industry will either have to: a) develop new species that are much more efficient or b) perfect mass-production techniques that can bring prices down to an acceptable range. Only then will “clean diesel” become a competitor. For now, the industry seems headed in the right direction.

Let freedom ring: Oil companies, capitalism and fuel choice

It’s a free county, ain’t it? Americans have many choices that are denied to citizens of other less-fortunate nations. But we forget how many decisions are made for us, sometimes out of necessity, such as paying taxes; sometimes out of greed, such as the monopolistic actions of oil companies in denying many Americans the ability to purchase alcohol-based fuels at their corner gas station. Try it someday! On your way home from work, on your shopping trip to your friendly supermarket or on your way to see a movie at your favorite theater, make a stop for fuel at a gas station. Make sure to have some gasoline in your tank, because it likely will take you a lot of time to find a gas station that sells E85 or even E15.

Now, I went to Harvard Law School for four days, before I decided that there were too many lawyers around and memorizing case studies was not my forte. But Harvard provides significant value added, apart from being near Harvard Square and Boston. I was exposed to terms and content related to antitrust, restraint of trade, collusion and monopolies. Now, I didn’t stay long enough to know whether those concepts applied to oil companies that restrict consumer choices of alternative fuel. Probably not, because I am sure, by now, one of my Harvard colleagues would have filed a well-reimbursed case to break open the fuel market to options like ethanol, methanol and more. But whether legal or not, oil companies deserve their comeuppance for limiting many of us who, too often, are required to use more expensive, environmentally harmful gasoline, instead of existing, safe, alternative fuels.

How do they do this? Well, if you are a gas station owned or franchised by an oil company, your contract and rules related to behavior often prevent you from adding a pump or adding to an existing pump to sell E15 or E85. As relevant, since oil companies generally require the stations they own to buy fuel from them, and since they don’t sell E15 or E85, adding a pump would be akin to waiting for the hereafter (and acting on faith that you will get there).

Wait, there is more! Every now and then an oil company wants to publicly show it is a bit beneficent (for image purposes), but don’t hold your breath with respect to proof that image and reality are the same. Sure, you might find an alternative-fuel pump near the rear side of the garage proximate to the men’s room, or, if you are lucky, on the side of the station near the air pump. Most oil-company-owned stations and franchisees are generally precluded from putting an alternative-fuel pump under the covered island or space out front. They also face restrictions on advertising alternative fuels as an available product and oil-company pricing limits competition from alternative fuels.

Congress has refused to enact open fuels legislation, which would require oil companies to open up their gas stations to other fuels. Ongoing efforts by public and private sector advocates, as well as nonprofit groups, to encourage policies that would convert older cars to flex-fuel vehicles and to encourage Detroit to build more FFVs could well lead to a large consumer market for alternative fuels and generate a positive market reaction among independent gas companies and, perhaps, even some smart oil companies. While I have been wading through the pros and cons of allowing oil companies to increase exports to other nations, I do believe that if increased exports are in the nation’s future, they should be approved only if the oil companies agree to require their stations and franchises to offer alternative fuels in a primary space alongside gasoline. A bit of tat for tat is in the public interest. Let freedom ring for consumer! Let capitalism mean competition for gasoline and alternative fuels at your nearby gas station! Oh, I forgot, alternative fuel station!