For a state that likes to considers itself a pioneer on environmental issues, the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 were disastrous for California.
Earlier this month the nation celebrated National Drive Electric Week, with events in 195 cities. Read more
Forget those iconic palm trees. Oil rigs have become just as much a part of the Los Angeles landscape as the towering trees that line the city’s sun-drenched boulevards. Los Angeles County is home to 6,065 oil and gas wells, and one in three Angelenos lives within a mile of a drilling rig, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council released Wednesday.
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(Photo: Long Beach oil well at Alamitos Bay, posted to Flickr by BSYC LongBeach)
The five-member Board of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has unanimously voted to approve 10-year energy efficiency targets that will vault America’s largest municipally-owned utility, which provides service to around 3.9 million people, to national leadership in energy efficiency.
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.
What would you say about an investment opportunity where your product is four times cheaper than the commodity it is trying to replace and there are 77 million potential customers waiting to use it?
Does that sound like something that you would like to put your money into? Well that’s the opportunity that awaits anyone willing to invest in the infrastructure and technical changes needed to substitute natural-gas-based ethanol for foreign-fuel-based gasoline in our cars.
A full-fledged prospectus was presented this month by Miles Light, professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a report called “Natural Gas Based Liquid Fuels: Potential Investment Opportunities in the United States,” written for the recent Goldman Sachs Energy Summit.
Professor Light lays out the situation in very clear terms: “Low natural gas prices and new technology present an opportunity to market and sell liquid fuels in the form of ethanol and methanol to U.S. consumers. Per unit of energy, oil is almost four times more expensive than natural gas. This implies a potential arbitrage opportunity to convert natural gas and natural gas liquids into a liquid fuel. In the U.S., 14.5 million vehicles can currently utilize ethanol fuels. These are the so-called ‘Flex Fuel’ vehicles. Another 16.1 million FFV ‘Twins’ can utilize ethanol with a software upgrade, and 46.9 million conventional fuel vehicles can potentially be converted for $150-$250 each. In all, this presents 77.75 million light duty vehicles, or 31.8% of the national light duty fleet, that would potentially purchase natural gas liquid fuel, if prices were attractive.”
You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “If we can capture just 2 percent of this market…” Well, this is it. There are opportunities up and down the line, from auto mechanics performing flex-fuel conversions on conventional engines to major corporations building plants to convert natural gas to ethanol.
What Light is talking about here is the wholesale substitution of a portion of our natural gas resources for the oil we import in order to run our transportation sector. True, we’ve cut down on imports so they now make up less than half of our consumption for the first time since the early 1990s. But what people are missing is that we still pay the same amount for that oil because the price keeps rising. This continues to put a $380 billion dent in our trade balance every year — not to mention that much of this money goes to countries that actively support hostile actions against America and its friends and allies around the world.
So what would it take to make this transition? There’s certainly been a lot of activity to date. However, most of it has concentrated on utilizing compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG). T. Boone Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels is in the process of building a “CNG Highway” to service long-haul trucks from coast to coast. He’s already completed the first leg from Los Angeles to Houston. Those big 18-wheelers have room for the larger gas tanks and travel fixed routes along the Interstate Highway System that can be serviced by relatively few filling stations.
But passenger vehicles are a completely different matter. They travel everywhere and would require a whole new national infrastructure to fill their tanks. The auto companies have already offered a few CNG models but they haven’t sold well. It’s the chicken-and-egg problem — people won’t buy cars before the stations become common and the stations won’t be built until there are enough cars on the road.
With ethanol, however, there is already an infrastructure in place. The country is presently outfitted with 2,394 gas pumps dispensing E85, a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. (The gasoline is there just to start on cold mornings.) Most of these are concentrated in the farm belt but they’re starting to make their way into major cities on the East and West Coasts as well.
The point is this: these stations have been set up to handle corn ethanol. This is the result of the 35-year government effort to promote biofuels. But Light suggests that these stations could just as easily dispense ethanol made from natural gas. No new technology would be necessary, nor would it require any special permission from the government. (Methanol, which is a little easier to synthesize than ethanol, has a greater toxicity and would require some additional approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.)
So according to Light, this is where the investment opportunities lie. The conversion of natural gas to ethanol is the first and most important step, but Coskata, Inc. already has a working facility and Celanese Corporation is converting coal to ethanol in Indonesia. Light estimates that, at current and foreseeable prices, the return on investment could be as high as 46 percent.
Then there are all the intervening steps. “Alongside the core ethanol production opportunity, there are several related supply-chain developments projects, such as production facility development, ethanol fuel marketing, fueling station upgrades, blending facility expansions, and vehicle update kits,” he writes. All are well within the range of private investment. No government subsidies or mandates would be required.
In other words, the conversion of significant portions of our auto fleet to natural gas presents a whole world of opportunity just waiting for imaginative, ambitious investors to take advantage.