Diane Francis, Financial Post Published: Saturday, March 27, 2010
Producing natural gas from shale is going to replace cap and trade as the new green issue in U.S. politics.
Gas is dramatically cleaner than other fossil fuels and so much has been tapped in deep-shale formations in North America that it may eventually black out gasoline, nuclear and coal plants.
Shale gas is the game-changer and has suddenly become possible due to a disruptive technology — expensive, horizontal drilling, then fraccing or atomizing the shale at depths of one mile or more.
There has been much noise by independent oil companies touting their finds, and skepticism. But no longer because the world’s major oil companies are buying them up quickly.
This is why it’s a game-changer. The majors buying shale gas also control most of the U.S. gasoline stations, which means they can bring about the gasification of transportation fuels and power generation.
The idea of using compressed natural gas instead of gasoline was the brainchild of Calgary’s Jim Gray of Canadian Hunter in the 1980s. It’s inexpensive to retrofit a car to use gas and easier on engines.
But the idea went nowhere because gasoline chains weren’t interested and governments weren’t concerned about the environment or about the cost of oil imports.
Shale gas supporters include ExxonMobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC and ConocoPhillips and those three are the biggest gasoline station marketers in the United States.
The deal to watch is ExxonMobil’s US$41-billion purchase of XTO Energy Inc., due to close in June. The backroom politics are ferocious over shale gas and pits Big Oil against two unlikely bedfellows, environmentalists and the coal lobby. Both have been making a fuss over alleged negative impacts on water supplies as a result of the production of shale oil deposits near population centres in New York and Pennsylvania states.
But most shale gas is in remote areas and deeper levels where water isn’t an issue. And Canada has as much shale gas as the United States.
Here are recent developments:
1. Besides ExxonMobil’s big bet, Royal Dutch Shell and China’s biggest oil company are spending billions of dollars buying shale and coal seam companies in Australia with a view toward converting it into LNG and shipping to China.
2. EnCana Corp. just inked its deal, worth up to $1.2-billion, with Korea Gas Corp. to ship LNG to Korea from British Columbia.
3. EnCana just announced it will double gas production over five years despite sagging prices, zeroing in on shale gas.
4. Imperial Oil Ltd. and its Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline partners announced last week a postponement of the project for five more years. That gas, and Alaska’s, may never be shipped in North America but will more likely be bought by Asians then converted into LNG for shipment home.