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Old Technology Fuels New Energy Boom

Old Technology Fuels New Energy Boom thumbnail

With U.S. oil imports hitting a 17-year low, the mainstream media has awoken to the fact that, as I pointed out three years ago, peak oil is not happening anytime soon.  Charles Mann’s excellent cover story in this month’s Atlantic, “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?” focuses on an obscure, exotic, though potentially vast source of energy: methane hydrates, or crystalline natural gas trapped below the seabed.  If early exploration ventures by Japan, and other countries, succeed, this gas “could free not just Japan but much of the world from the dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has bedeviled politicians since Churchill’s day.”

An Associated Press story last week reached a similar conclusion about “unconventionals” in general: companies are opening huge deposits of shale gas, “tight oil,” and other hard to reach petroleum sources that will essentially flip the energy world upside down, as the United States returns to its status among the world’s largest exporters of petroleum.

Both of these stories, though, share a common misconception, captured in the AP article’s headline: “New Technology Propels Old Energy Boom.”

In fact, the technologies underlying today’s petro-boom are not new at all; they are innovative applications and refinements of technology that has existed for decades.  Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to take the most obvious example, has led to gushers of new oil and gas.  And drillers have been fracking wells for nearly 60 years.  More than 1 million wells have been developed using fracking since the 1940s, according to, an industry-supported website.

The early use of fracking to get at reserves previously thought of as unrecoverable, shortly after the turn of the 21st century, came about after exploration companies began examining geologic formations using x-ray computed tomography, or CT scanners.  The CT scanner was invented in 1967.

Tinker Imaginatively

What’s happening today is not a new-technology revolution; it’s an evolution of new applications for existing technology.  We are doing things that we’ve been doing for decades in cleaner, more efficient, more effective, and more sustainable fashions.

That may sound like a fine distinction, but it’s an important one: Silicon Valley has for years invested in sexy new technologies, from smartphones to social media to exotic solar power materials.  The technology for embedding sensors in a drill head so that technicians on the surface can map a formation as they drill it is not all that sexy, and it didn’t come from a VC-funded startup in a Mountain View garage.  It came from drilling engineers in the field figuring out, incrementally, how to do things better, cheaper, and smarter.  Often, as in the case of the 21st century oil and gas boom, imaginative tinkering can be more fruitful than reinvention or laboratory R&D.

Leaving aside, for the purposes of this blog, the question of how we can move toward a carbon-free energy system in a world suddenly awash in hydrocarbons, the next phase of technology will almost certainly focus on how to better store, transport, and distribute the seemingly limitless supplies of natural gas now becoming available.  The difficulty and expense of liquefying and transporting natural gas have been a drag on the wider use of the relatively clean fuel for many years, particularly in the transportation sector.  In 2012 GE Oil and Gas introduced its Micro LNG plant, to power remote industrial locations and fuel long haul trucks and locomotives, and last month the company debuted its “LNG In a Box” system for small-scale retail fueling stations.  The Norwegian gas producer and distributor Gasnor in 2009 launched the world’s first specialized, small-scale LNG carrier, the Coral Methane (pictured above) designed to deliver fuel to remote ports along Norway’s coastline.

These are not “new technologies,” and they’re not being developed and funded as such.  But they’re exciting innovations.  And they are helping to power an energy transformation that will shape the world’s economy and its geopolitics through the rest of this century.


13 Comments on "Old Technology Fuels New Energy Boom"

  1. Plantagenet on Sun, 12th May 2013 9:06 pm 

    The discovery of large amounts of natural gas doesn’t change the peak oil story. It simply means that global economies increasingly will be shifting to cheap NG as peak oil starts to limit the supply of cheap oil.

  2. GregT on Sun, 12th May 2013 11:45 pm 

    I guess the comment above that; “peak oil is not happening anytime soon.”, could be considered to be factual. In the US it already occurred over 40 years ago.

  3. Kenz300 on Sun, 12th May 2013 11:59 pm 

    Can you believe anything that FORBES prints?

    It is an infomercial for the RepubliCON owner, Steve Frobes, and the RepubliCON party.

  4. BillT on Mon, 13th May 2013 12:38 am 

    Forbes is corporate bullshit in capital letters. Nothing more. The capitalist economic age is grinding to a halt. The elite are grabbing all they can get while it holds together. Nothing more. Nothing less. There is no energy peak ahead, it is all behind. Peak NET energy per capita was reached decades ago and we have been on the down slope ever since. Say about 1970. THAT is when real growth stopped and ‘paper growth’ took over to cover the loss.

  5. jackmehoffer on Mon, 13th May 2013 12:39 am 

    there’s no commercial methane hydrate production anywhere and why is oil $96 a barrel?

    Point and Figure Chart shows double top breakout May 2, price target $110

  6. Newfie on Mon, 13th May 2013 1:25 am 

    The concentration of atmospheric CO2 just passed a milestone at 400 parts per million. Either we run out of (affordable) oil, or we fry the planet to a crisp.

  7. Dmyers on Mon, 13th May 2013 3:19 am 

    “…in a world suddenly awash in hydrocarbons…the seemingly limitless supplies of natural gas…” (extracted from the article)

    All that comes to my mind here is the glazed over look of a deer in a spotlight mouthing “we’ll believe anything”. Old technology? Yes. New energy boom? No.

  8. Harquebus on Mon, 13th May 2013 3:54 am 

    Exactly right BillT.

  9. GregT on Mon, 13th May 2013 5:53 am 

    “THAT is when real growth stopped and ‘paper growth’ took over to cover the loss.”

    And THAT, coincidentally, was the same time period (1968 ) that silver coinage ceased to exist in both Canada and the US.

  10. Mike in Calif. on Mon, 13th May 2013 6:17 am 

    …and it can’t be a weak economy driving down oil use (in the West), hence imports. Afterall, we’re in a recovery. March unemployment dropped by a tenth of a percent. Nevermind that the labor force participation rate is at 1979 levels or that a record 90 million eligible Americans are not working. Nevermind that this fantastic glut of energy has failed to torpedo oil prices and sink them to the historical ~$30.

    Sorry BillT, but if Forbes is bullshit, they’ll ‘discover’ that dried BS is combustible and declare it inexhaustible.

  11. Arthur on Mon, 13th May 2013 8:42 am 

    Not so sure that this Forbes stuff is total BS. There can be no doubt that there are the equivalent of trillions of barrels of oil in the soil. Technology progresses and could make recoverable tomorrow what is uneconomical today, to the extent that concerns for the environment will overtake fears of running out of fossil fuel. Let’s hope that the eroei of the new fossil fuel is low enough that it will not push renewables from the market. In the long run there is no alrernative.

  12. Ed on Mon, 13th May 2013 11:49 am 

    Debt today is a claim on future economic output. Debt is as high as it is now because they have conned everyone into thinking that economic (energy)growth will never end. It’s a Ponzi scheme. The article is just trying keep it going for a little bit longer. The people at the top are converting their money into physical assets, as we all should be doing if you can. When it collapses, debt and money will be worth nothing. People who own physical assets will rule, people without will either be able to sell their labor if they can or die if they can’t. The 1% don’t care about building out the renewable energy infrastructure because they own most of the physical assets of the world.

  13. Arthur on Mon, 13th May 2013 1:34 pm 

    Whether the 1% will hold on to their material assets, will only be true if no revolution will occur, a big if. It is not for nothing that a lot of 1%-ers actually favor tax increases, because they are scared that the unwashed and unkempt will come and get the goodies, no questions asked.

    “The 1% don’t care about building out the renewable energy infrastructure because they own most of the physical assets of the world.”

    That is true and the reason why the renewable energy revolution should and could come from grass roots, not ‘from above’:

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