Synfuel technology had been developed by oil-starved but coal-rich Germany. It was put on the back shelf during the postwar era of cheap gasoline and was now getting a fresh look. Synfuel processing was complex and expensive, but the oil era was ending, many analysts believed. Any alternative would be useful in the new energy war.
A few years later, while on a trip to Saudi Arabia, I heard oil industry specialists speaking with alarm about a coming bust. Those higher prices in the late 1970s had prompted an oil glut. In 1984, the bottom fell out. Synfuels and most alternative energies were packed away. From Texas to the North Sea to the Middle East, oil fields were shut down and workers were laid off.
Oil stayed relatively cheap until the first decade of this century, when it surged again as demand increased in China, India, and other developing economies. Once again, a warlike effort was urged to break foreign oil dependence – this time by developing alternatives such as solar, wind, and geothermal as well as reviving nuclear .
Now a curious thing is happening. The hydrocarbon supply chain is forking. The oil side is still costly and dependent on overseas sources. The natural gas side, which used to rise or fall in lock step, is emerging as the great hope of energy independence. As Alex Marks writes in a Monitor special report, natural gas has become so plentiful and cheap that it has fundamentally altered the energy security outlook for the United States.
The natural gas economy came on us virtually overnight thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It is based on the breakthrough idea that there are huge amounts of natural gas trapped in subterranean formations, the product of ancient plant and animal life smashed under miles of geological strata. By fracturing this rock, the gas is extracted and fed into the gas network. The technique is somewhat controversial because of concern over contaminants, though nowhere as dangerous as a seafloor oil well blowout or a nuclear meltdown.
Natural gas could give the US and other parts of the world several decades of relatively clean energy. The energy war, in other words, may be winding down – for the moment.
Before we disarm, let’s acknowledge that both the oil and gas eras will end at some point – probably before the century is out. Consumption will deplete resources. Wells will get more expensive to develop. Prices will rise and rise again.
And then what?
Synthetic fuels rely on coal, which, though plentiful, is dirty. Nuclear has its well-known downsides. Renewables have not yet shown the muscle needed to support a thriving global economy. Conservation always helps, but gains made from conservation are usually gobbled up by new energy appetites. (In the Carter era, no one plugged in a cellphone at night; now everyone does.)
The bright blue flame of natural gas has given us an important weapon in the energy war: time. Let’s use it to discover what lies beyond the age of hydrocarbons.