On Aug. 27, a major landmark will have been reached in the oil and gas industry. For all but a few Americans, this day will pass by without even a thought about what happened exactly 150 years ago. However, on Aug. 27, 1859, the most important step toward industrialization was taken in Titusville, Pa., when Edwin L. Drake drilled down 69.5 feet into the ground near Titusville and struck oil. It was the first well deliberately drilled for oil, and was the launching point for the modern petroleum industry. Unfortunately for Drake, about a month and a half later that same well caught fire and burned to the ground, also becoming the first well fire on record.
The world has changed quite a bit since Mr. Drake drilled that first well, and most of those changes occurred because of his actions. The industrial revolution, creation of the automobile, planes, space travel, plastics and polymers are just a few of the accomplishments that have come about because of oil. The U.S. economy quickly became the largest economy in the world as we embraced oil and energy. The more oil we consumed, the more we wanted. We became addicted. There was always going to be plenty of oil for everyone. Right?
Fast-forward 150 years from Edwin Drake’s discovery and you will find a nation in the middle of an energy crisis. A nation that was once a global leader is now dependent on foreign oil. We have become accustomed to extremely low gasoline prices, and when those prices climbed a little, the country went into an uproar calling for the heads of the companies causing these high prices. We have begun to think that low energy prices and abundant oil are a right of the American people.
Unfortunately, the numbers don’t always agree. The U.S. makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, and we consume 25 of the world’s oil (20 million barrels/day). We also hold only 2.5 percent of the world’s reserves. Combine that with the fact that aging fields are running out of oil faster than they have in the past (depletion rate), and fewer large fields are being discovered, and now you see a national disaster brewing.
For the past 25 years, our presidents have said to the American people that they are going to end our addiction to oil. Campaign promise after campaign promise has been left unfulfilled as presidents met face to face with the truth about our oil addiction. Once again we are faced with the same campaign promises. The current administration has promised to end our reliance on foreign oil by increasing renewable energy supply in the U.S. The two areas that are receiving the most attention from the administration are wind and solar.
Wind energy and solar energy have been around for years, but have never made a substantial impact on the U.S. economy. The president has told the American people that this is the answer to our addiction to oil. Congress has allocated billions of taxpayer dollars to fund these sources of energy in an effort to make true on his promise. These dollars may help build more wind farms and solar panels, but they will do absolutely nothing to end our addiction to oil. Wind and solar currently make up a combined 0.35 percent of the U.S. energy supply. Even if we double the amount of energy produced by wind and solar, it would not account for 1 percent of the total U.S. energy consumption. What is worse, it doesn’t even address the real problem — transportation.
Every day, Americans drive more than 250 million cars and trucks as they head to the office, school, a friend’s house, shopping malls or wherever else their desires may take them. These 250 million vehicles are powered by gasoline, which is produced in refineries and comes from oil. In fact, 76 percent of the oil we consume (15 million barrels/day) is used in transportation. We could cover the U.S. with wind farms and solar panels, and it would not replace oil in its role in transportation. Why is the president not talking about this? Why isn’t he focusing his attention on the 250 million cars and trucks running on oil? “Cash for clunkers” is not even a Band-Aid on this problem.
All these decades after Drake successfully drilled the first oil well, the very solution that can end our addiction to oil was the very thing that burned his well to the ground — natural gas. Natural gas will not be the end-all solution to our transportation needs, but it will be the bridge fuel that gets us there.
The biggest challenge is the “chicken or the egg” question. Who will buy a car if there are no stations to fill up, and who will build the station if there are no cars to fill up. The great thing about natural gas or CNG (compressed natural gas) is that the technology exists to convert existing automobiles to run on CNG. Each year more and more conversion kits are being built for other models, and as demand increases more kits will be designed. Since existing cars can be converted, we don’t have to purchase a new car in order to take advantage of the new fuel.
The second biggest challenge is the distribution network that needs to be in place to service the 250 million cars — how we get the fuel to the fueling stations and then how we retrofit the stations to provide the new fuel. One great thing about natural gas is that the distribution network already exists. Natural gas vehicles run off the same natural gas that you use in your home to cook with. Stations may need a bigger line, but the network is there. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel to get CNG into the transportation network.
And the last challenge is the one that CNG can’t promise, a fuel that will last forever. CNG is finite: It may be able to sustain our needs for the next 100 years but it will not last forever, and we don’t expect it to. The problem that all administrations have had over the past 25 years is that they are looking for the Silver Bullet — the one thing that will solve all their problems — which simply does not exist. Natural gas is not the end-all solution to our reliance on oil; eventually we will run out of natural gas just as we are running out of oil. However, with the recent discoveries on the shale plays in the U.S., it has been calculated that the country has enough natural gas for the next 100 years. Natural gas is the bridge fuel to the future.
One hundred fifty years ago Edwin Drake began the largest expansion of the U.S. economy. One might say that he is responsible for just about every major accomplishment and innovation the world has seen over that time period.
The Age of Oil is coming to an end, and just like Drake’s first well, it is natural gas that will bring that end about.
Don Briggs lives in Lafayette and has been president of the Louisiana Independent Oil and Gas Association since 1992. His son Gifford Briggs, LOGA’s vice president, contributed to this month’s column. To comment on this column, e-mail