Forty years after the Arab oil embargo, which triggered decades of turbulence in the energy markets, there is a sense of plenty at last. There also is a sense, says Barry Worthington, executive director of the United States Energy Association, that “technology came through.”
And it has. Windmills are producing more and more electricity around the globe; the cost of solar energy, particularly rooftop collectors is falling; and there is, above all, enough natural gas and oil to keep a voracious world supplied.
In oil and gas there is real technology triumph, the culmination of decades of effort by the government and private enterprise to develop better ways of mapping reserves with 3-D seismic surveys, horizontal drilling and finally the development and deployment of geological fracturing, known as “fracking.”
With fracking, a well is drilled vertically and then two horizontal wells shoot off from the mother well; one for breaking up the rock with sand, water and chemicals, and another for transporting the oil or gas, which has been loosened from shale formations. This technology has revolutionized oil production and made the United States — which has abundant oil and gas-bearing shale — a potential gas exporter, and possibly self-sufficient in oil.
In 1973 the energy picture was pretty bleak, and it remained bleak through the decades. The United States was resigned to the reality that it could not be self-sufficient in energy. Natural gas, according to the then-Deputy Secretary of Energy Jack O’Leary was a “depleted resource” not worth worrying about. Oil production was declining and consumption was climbing.
Coal was the great hope because there was a lot of it and it could burned, made into a gas and turned into a liquid for transportation. With coal and nuclear — then still a cutting-edge technology — electricity would be the only safe bet.
In 1973 climate change was a phrase yet to enter the language, and only in obscure academic settings was the possibility of global warming hinted. The rage of what was a relatively new environmental movement was directed toward coal and nuclear. But, for social and political reasons, it settled on a course of hostility — bordering on the psychopathic — toward nuclear, which stumbled first in public esteem and then in the marketplace, mostly from costs driven up by delay occasioned by environmental litigation.
The world oil picture was changed by technology as well. Not only was extraction better and cheaper and, therefore, possible in increasingly hostile environments and in very deep water off shore, but oil was discovered in the Southern Hemisphere, where old-line geology had declared it would not exist.
The challenge now, as seen by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, is to make the burning of fossil fuels more environmentally benign by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Moniz was at a ministerial conference in Washington this week to push for the capture of carbon from coal-burning plants, the most intense emitters. This embryonic technology, known as “carbon capture and storage,” removes the carbon dioxide from the effluent streams chemically. Then it is compressed to a liquid and pumped into geological formation for storage. In time, scientists believe, it will eventually harden and become part of the earth that hosts it.
Twenty-three nations represented at the meeting heard Moniz spur them on to greater effort to catch the wave of technological euphoria and to see if King Coal, now under attack by environmentalists and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, can be helped back onto his throne.
Since 2009, according to Moniz, the United States has committed $6 billion to carbon capture and eight large demonstration projects are under way. China, often dismissed as an environmental renegade, is working on carbon capture.
“It is wrong to think that China doesn’t care about the environment,” said Sarah Forbes of the World Resources Institute, which has an office in China and is working with the Chinese.
There are more questions than answers about whether carbon can be captured from utility chimneys cheaply and whether enough of it can be kept out of the atmosphere to make the effort worthwhile. But the effort is under way.
Remember, it took 40 years to beat back the energy crisis.