It’s fairly well known that our modern world runs on hydrocarbons. The atoms of carbon and hydrogen have the ability to combine in a bewildering array of combinations, from a few molecules, such as natural gas, to huge, complex molecules such as coal – and everything in between. The usable energy we receive comes from the hydrogen molecules; the carbon serves only to hold them together, and essentially is waste. From strictly a fuel standpoint, the more hydrogen atoms to carbon atoms a molecule has, the better. The simplest hydrocarbon molecule is natural gas. Four hydrogen atoms held together by one carbon atom. This is, by far, the cleanest hydrocarbon molecule possible.

Natural gas has been commercially available for years, and currently produces about 24 percent of the electricity in the United States. This is going to change. In the last decade, techniques have been developed to produce gas from huge shale plays in the United States and throughout the world. As drillers, we always have known that there was gas in the shale, but the formations were too thin and tight to make an economical well. With the advent of rotary, steerable drilling assemblies, leading to horizontal drilling and hydrofracturing, we have opened up petroleum reserves unseen since Spindletop.

Right now, we burn about 7 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas to produce electricity. It is estimated that replacing all the coal-fired power plants in the United States with gas would require an additional 14 tcf. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates total U.S. gas reserves at 2,543 tcf. If all the coal-fired power plants were replaced, this is a 70-year supply. This includes the 23 tcf used to heat our homes and power industry. Additionally, theoretically it is possible to replace all current gasoline consumption with about 17 tcf of gas per year. If this were done, we still would have a 50-year supply of clean energy.

This is a game-changer. It means that we no longer would have buy petroleum from people who are so glad to see us, they just explode with joy. Keeping our dollars here at home not only would pay Americans to work, but put less dollars in the hands of people who bid on the same barrel of oil that we do, using our money. This may not lower the price, but it will stabilize it and strengthen the dollar, further stabilizing the price.

One of the best things about natural gas is its effect on greenhouse gas. It is the lowest-emitting form of petroleum we have. The EIA estimates that we could reduce our carbon footprint by more than 25 percent by converting to natural gas. When this fact was revealed, environmentalists were ecstatic. The Future Energy Coalition wrote that it is, “a bridge to a 21st century energy economy.” In 2009, Robert Kennedy, head of the Waterkeeper Alliance, wrote in the Financial Times, that, “In the short term, natural gas is an obvious bridge fuel to the ‘new’ energy economy.”

Since then, all the independent thinkers in the environmental movement have decided (en mass) that natural gas is a threat to their unworkable pet projects, such as wind and solar. The EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook for 2011 calculated the levelized costs for production, operating, maintenance, fuel and transmission for building plants that could switch on by 2016. Electricity produced by natural gas is projected to cost $66 per megawatt-hour (Mwh). If you include carbon sequestration, the price only rises to $89 per Mwh. This sequestration makes it as clean as the magic fairy dust and moonbeams the tree huggers would have us use. If you look at the choices: Nuclear power, $104 Mwh; offshore wind, $243 Mwh; and solar thermal, $312 Mwh; gas looks pretty good. The only renewable source that comes close is onshore wind power at $97 Mwh, but this does not include storage, since the wind doesn’t blow all the time, except in Congress.

The only cheaper source of electricity is hydro-electric power, but this is a pretty well-saturated (no pun intended) market. Most of the good dam sites already have been built, and the remainder are protected in the interest of some obscure fish.

Since their unworkable boondoggles were threatened, the Flat Earth Society gnashed their teeth  and flailed about for a way to stop progress. They think they have found it in hydrofracturing, a 60-year-old, safe, proven technology only recently “discovered” by these people who think transportation of commerce should be conducted by bicycle. They cite the detection of natural gas near well sites as proof that fracking caused the problem. They are oblivious to the fact that, historically, natural gas has been found by carefully sniffing at the surface for seeps that belie its presence below. The gas naturally seeps because it’s there, not because of fracking. Just as millions of barrels of oil naturally seep into the Gulf of Mexico, even before BP got there.

The obvious conclusion, to me, at least, is to carefully calculate the cost/benefit ratio of our various choices. The world runs on energy, and will until we can develop the magic-fairy dust of dreams. Until then, we must rely on what we have available. The ingenuity of humans only is exceeded by the lemming-like herd instincts of the ignorant. No industry is completely benign or safe. It is our job to educate the public, while being the best stewards possible of the environment.