Drilling Down Into Obama's Energy Promises

During his State of the Union address, President Obama tossed a couple of sops to popular opinion, promising to support: A) nuclear power, and B) offshore drilling. James Hudnall did a brilliant job of dismantling Obama’s atomic promises, pointing out that even if the President happened to be uncharacteristically sincere in this case, no new nuclear plant will be built in a dog’s lifetime, even if the pooch happens to one of those little yip-dogs that seem to live forever. Based on what we have seen of his administration so far, the same is true of Obama’s newfound commitment to offshore drilling.

Suspending reality for a moment, let’s assume that burning fossil fuels will indeed result in catastrophic climate change. According to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, “we can’t drill our way out” of this supposed problem.

Actually, we can.

natural gas terminal

Burning natural gas is a much less intensive carbon intensive way of generating energy than burning any other fossil fuel. There are a couple of reasons for this. When you burn coal, just about all of the energy generated comes from turning carbon into carbon dioxide (a chemical reaction that releases heat). When you burn natural gas, the energy comes from two reactions: one that turns carbon into carbon dioxide, and another that turns hydrogen in water. Thus, from the start, natural gas generates less greenhouse gases for the same amount of energy produced.

It gets even better if you burn natural gas in a “combined cycle” power plant. In a typical, coal-fired plant, the energy released is captured in the form of heat and eventually turned into electricity. In a combined cycle plant, you capture the energy released from natural gas in two ways. First, you get the power produced by the expansion of the gas as it heats up. This is a lot like the way your car’s engine works: the gas expands and pushes a piston. In a combined cycle plant, the gas expands and spins a turbine, just like in a jet engine.

But, having done its job by spinning the turbine, the gas is still hot (just like the exhaust on your car). So, why not take that heat, make steam and use that steam to generate even more power? It’s like getting a two for one energy bang for your already discounted fossil fuel buck. You get great energy efficiency and a fractional carbon foot print, what’s not to like?

The only downside is that this sort of strategy would be a boon to the world’s leading manufacturer of gas turbines: GE. The way that GE has cleverly, and profitably, both encouraged and benefitted from global warming hysteria is, in this correspondent’s view, truly despicable, but they’ve hedged their bets brilliantly. The best I can offer is this: buy your gas turbines from Siemens.

Making this theoretical formula work would require a reliable, cheap – and therefore abundant – supply of natural gas. If available, the US could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in a time frame much less than twenty or thirty years, and do so much more cheaply and reliably than relying on windmills (which depend on the whims of weather) or the expensive inefficiency of solar power. The question then becomes: is it possible to establish reliable, abundant sources of natural gas? The answer is yes, IF this administration was actually committed to cutting through the mountains of bureaucratic red tape that prevents us from doing so.


The technology is available. We can drill far deeper than we ever could before, to tap vast new sources of energy. We can find those sources of energy much quicker and more reliably than we ever could before. Most importantly for the environmentally-inclined, we can extract those resources while hardly disturbing ma nature a whit. For example, by utilizing directional drilling and other cutting edge technologies, Brazil has brought new petroleum fields into production with a minimum of oil-rig footprints. That South American nation has, in the course of a few years, transformed itself from a net oil importer to a net exporter.

Can the US do the same, when it comes to natural gas – and why not crude oil too while we’re at it? Absolutely. The majority of the oil and natural we use are already are produced in North America, in spite of all the regulatory restrictions and the offshore drilling ban. Why not grab some more? Why not secure more reliable, affordable sources of energy in this hemisphere? To coin a phrase: “yes we can.” (Seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before…)

But, despite Obama’s qualified acceptance of offshore drilling during this year’s State of the Union address, the President’s administration hasn’t walked the walk that the President has recently talked. Actually doing offshore drilling, rather than opining it might be a good idea, would require a chief executive willing to plow through the bureaucratic obstacles that stand in the way of accomplishing anything in a timely fashion, obstacles which have been erected at the behest of the environmental-advocacy industry (a big business if there ever was one). This doesn’t seem at all likely to happen.


Case in point: drilling rights off of the coast of Virginia. As the new Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell, noted in his response to the President’s State of the Union address:

“Here in Virginia, we have the opportunity to be the first state on the East Coast to explore for and produce oil and natural gas offshore.

But this Administration’s policies are delaying offshore production, hindering nuclear energy expansion, and seeking to impose job-killing cap and trade energy taxes.”

No matter what the President says, the real message of his administration appears to be sadly predictable: “So sorry old chap, we’d absolutely love to increase domestic energy production and decrease our carbon footprint at an affordable cost, but we have this bloody process to deal with it. Damned shame and all that…”