With all this natural gas, who needs oil?
It's home-grown, plentiful, and touted as the best way to wean the US off Mideast oil. But there are limits to how far the US can tilt toward a natural gas economy.
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Now along comes natural gas, oil's quiet fossil fuel sibling. Like many energy sources, it holds both promise and peril. America does harbor large supplies of the fuel, which would help it break free of the vicissitudes of Arab sheikhdoms.Skip to next paragraph
Yet extracting it from shale is causing new environmental concerns, and the historic volatility of domestic supplies evokes old issues of reliability.
Which leaves one fundamental question: How far can America really tilt toward a natural gas economy?
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No one disputes the prevalence of natural gas in America's basement. For evidence look no further than an Erector Set of pipes and docks and storage tanks in the marshes of Sabine Pass, La., on the edge of the Gulf Coast. There, Houston-based company Cheniere Energy Inc., which opened the facility four years ago to import natural gas amid an impending shortage, is now spending billions to transform it into an export site.
In fact, as recently as five years ago, oil and gas executives thought the nation's accessible natural gas reserves were almost played out. The industry was proposing building 47 import terminals to bring liquefied natural gas into the US. Five were actually constructed. Now most of them sit underutilized.
In March natural gas imports hit a 20-year low while domestic production hit a 20-year high. The US is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world.
The dramatic turnaround in supply is a product of technological advances and high oil prices. Hydraulic fracturing, the controversial drilling technique, has made it possible to access trillions of cubic feet of natural gas locked in shale formations deep beneath vast swaths of the country. High oil prices have made it economical to extract.
The US Department of Energy estimates that 482 trillion cubic feet of natural gas exists in the US. At the current rate of consumption, that's a 90-year supply.
"In a very short period of time, it has completely transformed the outlook for energy in the United States," says Mary Barcella, a natural gas expert at IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass.
Natural gas already plays a major role in the American economy. It's the primary way more than half of Americans heat their homes and cook their food. It's also used to generate one-third of the nation's electricity and is a major component in the chemical and manufacturing industries. Almost daily, its footprint is expanding because of the sudden surfeit of supply and low prices.
Just consider the nation's highways.
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Ralph Nastro likes to boast that in his new truck he can now "drive and barbecue" at the same time. Just a month ago, Suburban Disposal Inc., a big New Jersey waste and recycling firm, assigned him its first roll-off garbage truck powered by CNG.