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Is the end of cheap natural gas and oil upon us?

February 27, 2013

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The cheap price of unconventional natural gas in the United States is an exception to the global trend of increasingly costly fossil fuels. With natural gas cheaper than coal, gas-fired generating plants are displacing coal plants. The change is lowering carbon dioxide and mercury releases.

G.E., along with other firms, is expecting to profit from the gas generators they bought at bargain rates when such facilities ceased operating because of high natural gas prices. G.E.’s newly-developed combined cycle gas generators are 60 percent efficient, and sales are expanding. For fracking of natural gas to be profitable, some experts suggest its price will have to double.

While U.S. oil consumption is down and production from shale oil is up, pundits believe prices will rise since we used up the cheapest, most easily-captured oil.

After World War II, energy policies contributed to the destruction of public transportation, while the interstate highway system unleashed urban sprawl. Individual homes were encouraged over multifamily dwellings. Energy conservation was ignored.

We are locked into a very inefficient energy infrastructure. Our consumption-oriented lifestyles are less viable in an economy of limited job opportunities, low pay, rising health care costs and taxes, and high levels of debt.

Tad Patzek, an engineer, has pointed out a number of problems related to securing new sources of hydrocarbons. Deep ocean drilling yields more oil, but the wells can cost $100 million to drill and another $50 million to bring the oil to the surface. Oil needs to sell at $75 a barrel to cover the cost of the operations.

The first drilled oil well in the U.S. in Pennsylvania was only 69 feet deep; the 1901 gusher in Texas was more than 1,100 feet deep, while deep ocean wells are approaching 40,000 feet. These distant, deep sources of supply are costly in terms of the energy and materials consumed.

If a new well is developed off western Norway in the North Sea, it could pass through 10,000 feet of water and 25,000 feet of sea bottom to secure hydrocarbons. It could require a well casing of 36-inch-diameter steel and another 7-inch-diameter pipe inside the casing to bring up the oil. Cement will be used to seal the casing, and a blowout prevention unit must be installed on the ocean floor.

Patzek indicates that drilling in our Arctic waters presents new costly challenges. Everything needed to drill and ship oil from the Arctic will have to be brought in by ships from places such as Seattle and Vancouver. The wells will be drilled in shallow waters that freeze down to the sea bed and will require components to be dug into the seabed to protect them from ice, making them difficult to service.

Transport by oil tankers will be limited from late fall through early spring. An additional 350 miles of pipeline are needed to bring the oil from the seabed to existing pipelines.

Another oil disaster could add billions of dollars to our energy bills.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Feb. 27-March 5, 2013, issue

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