Another stroke of luck (and it’s not Irish)

Because of the snow, it’s sort of a slow news day today. So I was looking for something interesting to comment on and found out that the practice of fracking can now retire, as it’s reached the ripe old age of 65. From Energy Tomorrow:

We celebrate the first commercial use of hydraulic fracturing 65 years ago on March 17, 1949, conducted by Halliburton in Stephens County, Okla., and Archer County, Texas. But the roots of the fracking story stretch back to the 1860s. In a 2010 article for the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ Journal of Petroleum Technology (JPT), NSI Technologies’ Carl Montgomery and Michael Smith write that energy pioneers experimented with oil well “shooting” that would “rubblize” oil-bearing rock to increase flows. Various methodologies were used to fracture rock formations over the years until Stanolind Oil, a division of Standard Oil of Indiana, conducted the first experimental “hydrafrac” in 1947 in Kansas. It involved pumping fluid carrying “propping agents” at high pressure into a well to create fractures that could be held open to free oil and natural gas in the rock.

People have freaked out over this technology over the last half-decade since the oil and natural gas industry embraced it to bring new life to old fields as well as other places where energy exploration was previously deemed economically unworthy due to quantities thought not to be worth the trouble. Yet the root technology was decades old; the confluence of evolving technique with the increase in oil prices to a point where fracking could be cost-effective gave the impetus to the industry. Truthfully, when oil was $15 a barrel and being pumped like crazy in the Middle East a couple decades ago, there wasn’t much demand for domestic supplies.

On the other hand, natural gas that ran about $4 per thousand cubic feet in 1981 only costs about $9 per thousand cubic feet now (although seasonal fluctuations are more severe.) Since that’s not far off the increased cost of living from then to now, this technology has enabled the natural gas market to hold serve despite increased demand from electricity generation, which receives a much better rate than the residential figures I cited. Granted, the recent surge began around the time when natural gas for residential use hit its all-time peak of $20.77 per thousand cubic feet in the summer of 2008, but opening up export markets can make additional fields profitable while stabilizing prices.

Now there is an element of truth to the argument naysayers in the manufacturing and chemical industries make about the potential that exporting LNG to other countries would increase prices here, although I doubt they would triple as claimed. But let’s explore once again the alternative scenario, one which I alluded to a couple paragraphs back.

Oil companies were laying people off and shutting down wells when prices were $15 to $20 a barrel because there was no way to run many of the old wells profitably. Some seem to forget that entrepreneurs go into business to make a profit, so they can make a living. Just like Staples is lopping off a couple hundred of its lagging retail performers, these companies idled wells which were losing money. In one respect it was great because gasoline went back under a dollar per gallon (remember that?) but that was a short-lived phenomenon which ended about the time of the first Gulf War – meanwhile, it took several more years for the oil industry to recover. Like it or not, that’s a vital cog of the American economy just like automakers and other manufacturers, who can use the incentive of energy which is reliable and still relatively inexpensive to create jobs.

So the ideal this time would be to maintain a fairly steady and predictable price while expanding the supply and maintaining those wells which are in operation so they stay economically viable. But if it weren’t for fracking, we would be in the situation of having to import a greater and greater share of our energy, a policy which would quickly drive up prices and perhaps exacerbate our national economic slowdown to a recessionary point once again. A modest increase in energy prices would be a small price to pay for the creation of thousands of jobs with private-sector investment – and who knows, maybe the predicted price increase won’t come. But I’ll bet the jobs would.