Column: Hydrocarbons will be around for a long time

Pete Domenici
The Daily Times

Editor's Note: This is a transcript of a speech given by former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., on Thursday during the Domenici Public Policy Conference at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. It was edited for length.

My premise is that hydrocarbons are (1) a blessing, and (2) will be around for a long time.

(1) Why a blessing? Their energy density is larger than any other mobile fuel: more than liquefied natural gas, larger than compressed natural gas, larger than natural gas stored in metal-organic-frameworks, higher than today's batteries, and certainly more dense energy-wise than solar radiation and wind energy.

Thus, for moving transport, where weight and range are critical, hydrocarbons, in particular, gasoline or diesel, has a much higher energy density than any alternative. This includes cars, trucks, airplanes, ships, and almost all other forms of mobile transport.

Yes, there are global warming consequences. One must work towards the highest level of efficiency in each application to minimize the impact of emitted carbon dioxide into the environment. Europe has gone a long way to reduce emissions from automobiles, much more than we have. So it can be done. Roughly speaking, carbon dioxide emissions from transportation are about equal to that from energy generation, in particular electrical energy. There is no reason why both cannot be reduced to the levels required to maintain the Earth's temperature at a constant level.

For example, hydrogen powered fuel cells in cars give ranges of 400 miles between fuelings. Where do I get the hydrogen? From reforming natural gas (refineries already do this, as hydrogen is important to increase the octane rating of gasoline) results in a pure stream of carbon dioxide that does not need to be separated (from say flue gas as one would have for a coal-fired electric power plant). As a consequence, with sequestration done efficiently, one can actually make money.

(2) Enough of the blessings, what about the long time? Times were not all that long ago when people spoke about peak oil, when natural gas was going to cost more than $12.00/million BTU, and when we were going to run out of inexpensive hydrocarbons. Now, thanks to Mr. Mitchell, and Sandia National Laboratory, we know how to produce natural gas and hydrocarbon liquids from shale deposits. The drilling is much cleaner, the sources are everywhere. One of the most prolific sources of shale hydrocarbons is the Marcellus play located along the northern portion of the Adirondack Mountains, with prolific wells in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. But just underneath it is the Utica Play that has more natural gas than the Marcellus Play. It extends from the St. Lawrence lowlands of Quebec to Northern New York to Ohio and West Virginia. It is thought to contain more natural gas than any other reservoir on this planet.

As a consequence of these resources, natural gas is now south of $3.00/million BTU, and the U.S. is rapidly becoming the largest producer of oil (yes, even larger than Saudi Arabia).

By being smart, one can avoid the worst of greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time enjoying the versatility and power of hydrocarbon-powered locomotion. It will be cheap for the foreseeable future, much cheaper than the so-called "green" alternatives. But it will give wind and solar an opportunity to become themselves more efficient and less costly. Competition will work in everyone's favor.

For now, let us enjoy responsibly the wonderful blessing that hydrocarbons provide for our standard of living, and our way of life.