Everybody wants you: Why gas is so important and how you can drive down gas prices


What’s transparent, powerful, and something that we use in our everyday lives? Nope, it’s not the government, (though some people may think they control it). No, it’s not the Internet, although we’ll see in the coming years how the government changes that.

I’m talking about gasoline. Gasoline is a transparent liquid containing mainly hydrogen and carbon, and, when burning, produces mainly carbon dioxide and water. Americans use it every day to get to and from work and home, and to run all the errands of our daily lives.

Gasoline was one of the byproducts sloughed off at the beginning of the oil industry; back in the early days, kerosene was king. During the 19th century, kerosene replaced whale oil as the preferred fuel for lights, but as the automobile became popular and the internal combustion engine became common, gasoline became the preferred product of crude oil.  In the end, gasoline beat out hydrogen, coal, and ethanol as THE fuel source for the automobile.

Today America uses over 360 million gallons of gasoline a day. That means on average we each use more than a gallon of gasoline every day.

Why is gasoline the fuel of choice? The quick and useless answer is because it’s what we have. A lot of other fuels (hydrogen, coal, natural gas, ethanol, wood, etc) were tried, but gasoline proved to be easy to use, relatively easy to create, and energy rich. A gallon of gasoline contains about 132 megajoules (MJ) or 13 kilowatt hours. Ethanol is about 121 MJ/gallon.

What about coal?  Coal isn’t measured in gallons because it’s a solid, but 1 pound of coal contains 16 MJ (where a pound of gasoline is 22 MJ). So we use gasoline because it’s useful.

As we all watch the price of gasoline creep up and up, we all start to worry about it. When I first started driving, gasoline was less than a dollar a gallon. These days we see it jump past $4. Gasoline, which comes from crude oil, is a limited commodity. There is only so much on the market (84 million barrels of crude oil a day). Out of each barrel (42 gallons) of crude oil, 19 gallons of gasoline is made.

Out of each gallon of gasoline, about 11 percent of the cost goes straight to state and federal taxes. Eighteen percent goes into refining the crude oil into gasoline. The lion’s share (62 percent) goes into the cost of getting the crude oil.

Saying all that, the price of gasoline is still important. In fact, a lot of our fellow citizens thought it was one of the major issues in the election, even though the President has little power over the cost.

What can we do to drive the price down? There are many corporations trying to find alternative ways to make gasoline. We know coal can be converted to gasoline. In fact, we know a couple of processes that work. Why are we not using them? As with most things like this, the answer is in the economics. If you have the plant in place, it’s a very expensive process. If you don’t have a plant in place, it takes years to build one.  Hydrocarbons, like gasoline, can be created by feeding algae plastics, but that’s a bleeding edge technology and not near production yet. We might even be able to pull hydrocarbons from the air, like a good magician. British scientists have come up with a way to take carbon out of the carbon dioxide in the air, combine it with hydrogen, and BAM! make gasoline. But all that’s in the future.

What can we do to lower the price today? Simple: Buy less of it. Because there is a larger supply of gasoline available, the price will go down to reflect the change in the supply and the demand. Plan out your errands ahead of time so you can do them all at the same time and in an efficient driving manner. Use your legs and the nice weather (while we have it) and walk places instead of driving. Are there grocery stores in your neighborhood? Or a bookstore? Walk around and find out. Find out more ways to use less gasoline at ECC.hmns.org.

Michael Phelps and solar power – what’s the connection?

¿Cómo se gana Oro?
Creative Commons License photo credit: M@rcopako

What do Michael Phelps and solar power have in common? (And no – the answer isn’t that solar was the secret behind that high-tech suit he raced to 8 gold medals.) Check out the latest post on the Oil & Gas Investor‘s fascinating Oil Rules blog for the answer from our very own Claire.

If you’re not already reading Oil Rules, check it out - bloggess Lindsay Goodier brings you the latest oil industry news (and let’s face it – who doesn’t need to be up to speed on energy?) in a witty and engaging way – tackling John McCain copying the FrenchParis Hilton’s energy policy – and everything in between.

And in case you missed it – here’s a link to Oil Rules’ tour through the Wiess Energy Hall with Claire. Wondering why gas is $4 a gallon? We can’t promise your wallet will be wincing any less, but a visit to this hall is sure to clear things up – and hopefully inspire some ideas about alternatives for the future.

VIDEO: Explore The Wiess Energy Hall

Energy is a topic that relates to every one of us – and with the recent spike in the price of oil, it’s something we’re all following closely. I can’t think of a better place to learn quickly and easily about the oil and gas industry than the Weiss Energy Hall, here at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The Oil & Gas Investor agreed – and now, you can see us featured on their Web site. In her article, Meredith Cantrell does a great job of getting the point across that the Wiess Energy Hall is a great resource for all ages and for people from all walks of life.  I was excited when I heard that such a financial icon was coming to check us out.  If I were an investor, I would want to know all I could about the industries that I was investing in.  

While they were here, Meredith interviewed me and compiled a short video. The film also shows the large variety of displays in the hall.

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Explore Energy! Meredith Cantrell speaks with Claire Scoggin, Director of the Wiess Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, for a piece in the Oil & Gas Investor online. They have kindly agreed to let us share it here. Videography by Lindsay Goodier.

The day this was filmed, we also met Lindsay Goodier, the Online Editor for Oil and Gas Investor, who has a blog called Oil Rules which I thoroughly enjoy reading. She is always on top of what is developing in the oil and gas industry and has fun talking about it. Check it out!

Shall All Hail the Shale? (Shertain Shources Shay Yesh!)

With no end to record-high energy prices in sight, those in the business of supplying our country with fuel are looking with increased enthusiasm to a variety of “unconventional” sources for oil and natural gas. Once deemed too expensive to produce economically, these reservoirs of nonstandard hydrocarbon energy are moving closer to center stage and taking a role in the transition to more renewable resources.  Leading the way among these sources in the U.S. are the natural gas shales, which occur beneath the surface of large swaths of the country.

One of the busiest of these “shale plays” today is the Barnett Shale right here in Texas, a vast layer of sedimentary rock that stretches from Dallas to Fort Worth, beneath 21 counties. The shale originated during the Mississippian Period, about 325 to 350 million years ago. It is now buried beneath layers of sedimentary rock at depths from about 5,000 to 9,000 feet, with a thickness varying from about 50 feet to 1,000 feet. When a geological survey in the early 20th century found rich, organic black shale rock in an outcrop near the Barnett Stream, geologists named it the Barnett Shale. The Barnett Stream was named for John W. Barnett, a late 19th century settler.

The Barnett Shale has huge amounts of natural gas locked up inside it—as much as 250 trillion cubic feet. That amount could fill a cube almost 12 miles on each edge, enough to provide all the natural gas needed in the U.S. for ten years.

Azerbaijan OIlfields
Creative Commons License photo credit: indigoprime

Why are we just now getting this natural gas out?
In regular natural gas wells, once a driller reaches the gas reservoir, the gas flows naturally to the well through tiny pathways in the porous and permeable reservoir rock. The gas in the Barnett Shale is locked in tinier pores with no pathways to let it flow. If you just drill a well to it, the gas won’t budge.

Up until the last few decades, there was no economical way to get the gas out of the shale. Recently, we have solved that problem with new technology. 3D seismic imaging has made it possible to get accurate pictures of the underground layers so engineers can better plan well pathways to avoid obstacles like faults and water zones. Horizontal drilling lets us avoid sensitive areas on the surface like parks or schools, and put more of the well into the shale by going sideways rather than straight down.  Finally, better hydraulic fracture methods allow us to inject high-pressure water into the rock to make millions of tiny cracks in the shale so the gas flows to the well. These procedures have made the Barnett Shale a very popular place for drilling.

The success of the Barnett Shale has renewed interest in other major shale formations in North America that were previously too tricky to drill and produce, including the Haynesville Shale on the Texas borders with Arkansas and Louisiana, the Marcellus and New Albany Shales in the Northeast, and numerous others. Some projections indicate that the Marcellus Shale may end up being more than twice the size of the Barnett. And then there are the Canadian gas shales, which have been estimated as high as one quadrillion cubic feet, a hundred times Canada’s current existing reserves. In comparison, the major Alaskan reservoirs of Prudhoe Bay and Point Thomson contain combined estimated total reserves of 35 trillion cubic feet.

Chelmsford Gas Works
Creative Commons License photo credit: sludgegulper

Of course, everyone knows that statistics can always be manipulated to suit the purposes of the statistics spewer, and the real numbers of petroleum reserves are a constant source of agitated discussion by legions of petro-pundits, and no one can be too sure of exactly how much gas might be out there, but we do know—however you measure it—that there are significant amounts of recoverable gas locked up in shale, and if we use those reserves wisely, in combination with other unconventional fossil fuels and the right mix of renewable resources, we just might come out smelling like a rose—or possibly, due to the sulfur compounds called mercaptans added to consumer-ready natural gas to give it a detectable odor, like a rotten egg.