Technology helps gas, oil drilling make giant strides against renewable energy
NEW YORK — Technology created an energy revolution during the past decade — just not the one we expected.
By now, cars were supposed to be running on fuel made from plant waste or algae — or powered by hydrogen or cheap batteries that burned nothing at all. Electricity would be generated with solar panels and wind turbines. When the sun didn't shine or the wind didn't blow, power would flow out of batteries the size of tractor-trailers.
Fossil fuels? They were going to be expensive and scarce, relics of an earlier, dirtier age.
But in the race to conquer energy technology, Old Energy is winning.
Oil companies big and small have used technology to find a bounty of oil and natural gas so large that worries about running out have melted away. New imaging technologies let drillers find oil and gas trapped miles underground and undersea. Oil rigs “walk” from one drill site to the next. And engineers in Houston use remote-controlled equipment to drill for gas in Pennsylvania.
The result is an abundance that has put the United States on track to become the world's largest producer of oil and gas in a few years. And the gushers aren't limited to Texas, North Dakota and the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Overseas, enormous reserves have been found in East and West Africa, Australia, South America and the Mediterranean.
“Suddenly, out of nowhere, the world seems to be awash in hydrocarbons,” says Michael Greenstone, an environmental economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The consequences are enormous. A feared energy crisis has turned into a boom. These additional fossil fuels may pose a more acute threat to the earth's climate. And for renewable energy sources, the sunny forecast of last decade has turned overcast.
Technological advances drove a revolution no one in the energy industry expected. One that is just beginning.
The new century brought deep concerns the world's oil reserves were increasingly concentrated in the Middle East — and beginning to run out. Energy prices rose to record highs. Climate scientists showed that reliance on fossil fuels was causing troubling changes to the environment.
“The general belief was that the end of the oil era was at hand,” said Daniel Yergin, an energy historian and author of “The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.”
As a result, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and politicians were pouring money into new companies developing alternative forms of energy that promised to supply the world's needs without polluting.
But while the national focus was on alternatives, the oil and gas industry was innovating, too. New technology allowed drillers to do two crucial things: find more places where oil and gas is hidden, and bring it to the surface economically.
Large oil companies such as Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP turned up huge discoveries offshore in ultra-deep water with the help of faster computers and better sensors that allowed them to see once-hidden oil deposits.
Onshore, small drillers learned how to pull oil and gas out of previously inaccessible underground rock formations.
Renewable technologies have had their successes. Solar now generates six times as much electricity in the United States than it did a decade ago, and wind produces 18 times more. Most major automakers offer some type of electric vehicle.
But the outlook for wind, batteries and biofuels is as dim as it's been in a decade. Global greenhouse gas agreements have fizzled. Dazzling discoveries have been made in laboratories, and some of these may yet develop into transformative products, but alternative energy technologies haven't become cheaper or more useful than fossil fuels.
It's certainly possible the world will change direction again in the next five years. After all, experts didn't see the oil and gas boom coming five years ago.
There are hundreds of companies, including fossil fuel giants, working on renewable-energy projects. And despite growing supplies of oil, prices remain high because developing nations are consuming more.
“Now we go into the next phase of technology,” said Mark Papa, the CEO of EOG Resources, an oil and gas company. “How are we going to get the rest of it out of the ground?”