The United States of Energy Dependence

So, I’ve started reading again. I have spent much of my life reading. Sometimes, it feels like it’s almost like I will never, ever do anything else besides read; because I need to spend so much time reading. Even though I apply strong “meh” (try saying it) filters to the constant outpouring of human knowledge in printed form, batting away vast waterfalls of information that I just don’t have time to process, and that have little significance to my personal set of Important Developments, there is still so much to take in. I try to comprehend what is happening and changing, weigh the essence of new knowledge and data, and try to work from fundamentals out to the broad picture, so that I can keep my General Overview of Things updated.

Sadly, information does not come to me unadulterated by myth, or hopeless and inadequate ambition; in some cases, people absorb and utter things which are quite untrue sewn into the midst of the tapestry of their perfectly rational analysis. Trying to fillet these choking bones out of the good fish of their work can be hard. When I started to read “The Natural Gas Revolution : At the Pivot of the World’s Energy Future”, by Robert L. Kolb, published in 2014 by Pearson, I despaired. At first glance, he appears to have been sucked in, hook, line and sinker, into a narrative that has no basis in geological fact. However, as I continued to read, I realised that his first euphoric presentational premises may have been coloured by the political geography of his intended audience – that he was reflecting back to them what he thought they believed; but that slowly, after quite a few pages, he appeared to begin to sneak truth into his recount.

The dust cover starts with this magical thinking :-

“Thanks to stunning technological advances in natural gas exploration, the United States is about to become a reliable, consistent net exporter of energy. This is an extraordinary, completely unexpected transformation. What’s more, natural gas is about to transform the rest of the world as well – upending economic and political relationships that have lasted for generations.”

1.      Energy Independence

Let’s look first at “net exporter of energy”, with the help of a little data :-

(a)      USA Natural Gas Monthly Supply and Disposition Balance
Data 1973 to August 2017 (billion cubic feet)
Net Imports (billion cubic feet)

This certainly looks healthy enough. The USA both imports and exports Natural Gas and processed Natural Gas, and manufactured gases equivalent to Natural Gas, or chemical components of Natural Gas. It appears from this data, if considered in isolation, that the USA is moving rapidly towards its long-term political and economic goal of energy independence – at least as far as Natural Gas is concerned. However, the situation is not as rosy, or straightforward, as this data, in isolation, could imply.

(b)      USA Natural Gas Imports
Data 1973 to August 2017 (million cubic feet)

This data shows that the great engine of the North American economy relies heavily on a Natural Gas trading relationship between the USA and Canada, and that the USA is in no way independent of this, and in fact, is highly dependent on Canada, and has lately become even more so :-

This is shown graphically by the following chart :-

(c)      USA Import and Export of Natural Gas
Data to March 2017

Whilst Kolb may be warranted in some ways to be positive about Natural Gas energy independence – at least in terms of the whole of North America, and not just the USA – when it comes to other energy, the situation is not nearly so progressive :-

Yes ! Dependence on imports from OPEC has decreased ! But, hang on, now we’ve got dependence on imports from Canada – and a lot of that is nasty, icky tar sands oil. Not really a win.

(d)      USA Imports of Petroleum (and Other Liquids)

FAQs : “How much petroleum does the United States import and export ?” :-
Imports from the World : Data to September 2017
Imports from OPEC : Data to September 2017
Imports from Canada : Data to September 2017

The United States of America cannot claim to be making significant progress towards energy independence in my view, judging on the basis of this data.

2.      No Surprise

Kolb seems to think that the rise in Natural Gas production in the USA is “extraordinary, completely unexpected”. This is really not true, as Presidents of the United States have been urging energy independence for many decades; and the technology of hydraulic fracturing, which is behind the massive increase in onshore Natural Gas production, has been in development for around the same length of time, and there have been top-level policies to support it.

There should also be no surprise that this Golden Age of Unconventional Gas – the “Shale Gale” – might end almost as soon as it started, so Kolb’s projection that recent upticks in Natural Gas production in the United States can cause the “upending economic and political relationships that have lasted for generations” is jumping the gun a little bit hastily. Whilst in the short term, the “Dash for Gas” (Mark II) may offer a little bit of political leverage on the world energy stage, it’s not going to be a permanent or lasting shift. The geology simply can’t support it – the shale gas plays will not last forever.

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