HOUSTON - The United States is experiencing a revolution in its energy production, thanks in large part to techniques that make it possible to extract natural gas from vast shale formations deep under the earth's surface. With increasing production, natural gas use is expanding, especially for transportation. There are environmental concerns, however, about how it is extracted.
LEAM Drilling Systems, in Conroe, Texas, runs its trucks on compressed natural gas, or CNG. LEAM Vice President Scott Bradley said cheap natural gas makes the company's 18 CNG trucks a good investment.
“These are F-550s ordered from Ford with a V-10 engine. We have had these trucks for about a year now and they have been performing very well for us,” he said.
The technologies that have made gas cheap enough to fuel trucks were developed here in Texas, principally by George Phydias Mitchell.
“What has happened in this country in the oil and gas business, in particular with the independents and now the majors, is happening all over the world. It is unbelievable,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell's company began experimenting with two technologies - called hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling - in the 1970s. Other drilling companies expanded rapidly after 2002, when Mitchell sold his company and published his methods for all to see.
“I made enough money and I wanted to have a public record of how it happened,” said Mitchell.
The director of the University of Houston's Petroleum Geoscience program, Don Van Nieuwenhuise said Mitchell deserves a lot of credit.
“What George Mitchell did was take these two different technologies, horizontal drilling and fracturing, put them together and he showed the entire industry how they could make money,” said Van Nieuwenhuise.
But Emily Wurth of the environmental group Food and Water Watch said residents near some drilling areas have concerns about fracking, which pumps water and chemicals into rock to force out trapped gas.
“There are a number of issues with the air quality effects of this practice. It releases methane as well as benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals. And methane is a greenhouse gas,” she said.
Advocates say that if regulations are followed, hydraulic fracturing can be done with minimal damage.
“If, say in windmills or electrical cars or whatever it is, we have a breakthrough that is similar to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the oil business, if we have a technological breakthrough like that, we will see the market move toward it and what we need to have happen will happen,” said Van Nieuwenhuise.
Surveys show that most Americans favor renewable energy research. But they also show that Americans like the benefits of expanded natural gas production - jobs and lower fuel costs, even though they remain wary of its environmental risks.