Laying pipe and drilling shale [in U.S.] – by Clifford D. May (National Post – December 13, 2011)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

My country, America, is in economic distress. The crisis threatens our national security because a nation that is weak economically cannot be strong in other ways. If only we had an untapped source of wealth, a nest egg we could crack and use to grow the economy, create jobs, raise Americans’ standard of living while providing the resources needed to defend the nation from its enemies.

Oh wait: We do.

Much of it is under our feet, in the ground, in deposits of shale – sedimentary rock rich in both oil and natural gas. Large shale fields have been found in South Dakota, Montana, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and elsewhere in both the U.S. and Canada.

Until recently, this energy was expensive to access. Now, however, revolutionary new technologies have changed the cost equation. In particular, there is hydraulic fracturing: pressurized water is used to free the oil and natural gas. One drawback: The water has to be carefully disposed of because it may pick up heavy metals and other toxic byproducts. But even more recently, another variation of fracking has been developed: Instead of water, propane gel is pumped into the shale to release the trapped oil and natural gas. Underground and under pressure, the gel turns into vapor and returns to the surface where it is easily collected for recycling.

One caution: Shale oil is not the same as oil shale. The former can be accessed by fracking. The latter – which contains a much lower percentage of organic matter more densely encased in rock – cannot. So while shale oil already is commercially viable, the technologies to derive fuels from more plentiful oil shale remain prohibitively expensive.

Could better technologies be right around the corner? Sure – if policy makers and legislators are wise enough to encourage the scientific innovators, entrepreneurs and investors who, together, can conquer this subterranean frontier. Let me be clear: Elected and appointed officials should not attempt to pick winners. Government’s role should be to regulate responsibly while cutting red tape, ending needless bureaucratic delays and accepting rather than reflexively dismissing competent studies that find no basis for serious environmental harm.

For the rest of this article, please go to the National Post website: