For several decades, the United States was haunted by what energy analyst Randy Udall calls the "specter of depletion." Despite robust drilling, domestic supplies of oil and natural gas continued to decline.
Books such as "The End of Oil" and "High Noon for Natural Gas" proclaimed the imminent end of easy access to hydrocarbons that had fuelled growth of the U.S. and, really, the world economy.
That narrative has been forced to take a seat in the back row. Those books might still be right, in the longer run, but for now, it's rock 'n' roll time as new technology pries hydrocarbons from tightly congealed formations deep underground. Talk abounds in the United States of "energy independence," a rhetorical shake of the fist at Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and oil-exporting countries. (Canada seems to be excluded from this angry "take that, pal"). There's even talk about exporting natural gas.
Udall, who has both a brother and a cousin in the U.S. Senate, has been studying energy since the 1980s, when he first started worrying about global climate change. Later, he directed efforts to ramp up energy efficiency and renewables in Aspen. About a decade ago, he co-founded a group called Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA.
Repercussions of this boom are giant. For the average American, this bounty of gas means savings of $300 to $400 a year, said Udall.
U.S. per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases have stabilized, even dropped, as electrical plants that burn coal are being replaced by plants that burn natural gas, which has become cheaper and produces only half the carbon dioxide emissions. Coal has dropped from 52 per cent of electrical production eight years ago to just 43 per cent now. Some analysts expect a further drop to 35 per cent yet this decade.
What happened? In a recent talk in Golden, Colo., Udall pointed to technology, daring and persistence by drillers in both Colorado and Wyoming, as well as in Texas. "It's wizardry. It's beyond technology what these guys are doing," he said of efforts to extract natural gas and oil from stingy shale formations.
Hydrofracturing, if much reviled, is one of the key advances. Used since the 1940s, the technique has been improved and is crucial to extracting the natural gas that is encased in tightly bound particles of sand. But there are other techniques, too. Udall observed that computers might be employed more extensively in drilling than any other industry.
Panels of speakers at the Vail Global Energy Forum held in early March agreed that this bounty of natural gas gives the United States — and really, the world — breathing room while we figure out more sustainable energy sources that pose less risk of causing costly and disruptive climate change. The flip side of that coin is figuring out greater efficiency of existing energy, which also has many challenges.