Frequently Asked Questions
How did you get interested, and involved, in the energy industry, and specifically natural gas?
I have always been a very curious person and eager learner, with a life-long fascination for the sciences. When you couple that with my being the third generation of my family to join the energy business, my curiosity drove me to learn all I could about the vast and sometimes even mysterious concept of what exactly is energy. I also have studied the history of energy, and how each energy source transitions as civilization advances. Early in my career it became clear to me that natural gas was a better, cleaner, more efficient fuel and its increased use as a principal fuel would make the world a better place. To me, natural gas just made more sense for civilization, and although I knew I could make more money in the oil business, I decided that I would try to make a difference and organized my company, The GHK Companies, toward the exploration for and development of natural gas.
You have been in the natural gas industry for the vast majority of your life - studying it and building a business around it. Was there a singular event or an impetus that prompted you to write “The Grand Energy Transition,” and then to participate in the documentary?
What exactly do you mean by The Grand Energy Transition?
The Grand Energy Transition (GET) is a one-time transition (within the advance of civilization) from dirty, unsustainable solid energy sources of the past, through a historically brief liquid transition to clean, sustainable gaseous energy sources of the future. This transition is a powerful, natural cycle with great momentum because it is driven by the cumulative result of all human activities – the hundreds of billions of energy choices made by the world’s seven billion people each and every day as each of us pursue the advance of civilization. I say this because we must recognize that the production and consumption of all goods and services require the use of energy, thus, energy choices. So, in order to enhance economic productivity, we must also enhance the productivity and quality of the energy we use. Think about it for a minute, and, you will see that the use/expenditure of energy is even more fundamental in the economic system than money. For instance, one can barter oil for weapons and no money changes hands, but, energy is indeed spent.
The GET began about 100 years ago, when liquids (a transitional state of matter) began to replace solids, such as wood and coal, as a source of energy. In America, we are currently past mid-stage in the GET, with both solid and liquid energy sources declining as a percentage of consumption, and energy gases rising rapidly. Because of China’s rush to coal, globally, The Grand Energy Transition still shows solids slightly rising, but with China now embracing more and more natural gas, wind and solar and gases being the world’s fastest growing energy, the upward trend of solids will soon reverse globally. Natural gas, along with its sister energy sources, wind and solar, will be the bridge to sustainable life and growth on earth. With global cooperation to accelerate the GET, we could get there in the next 100 years. Maybe what is most important about The Grand Energy Transition theory is that it shows that the advance of civilization clearly points the energy way forward, away from unsustainable solids and liquids (basically coal and oil, but also nuclear, hydro and biofuels) and toward energy gases. The GET shows us that solid and liquid energy sources are not the way forward and that gaseous sources will be the most likely winners. So, if we pay attention to the GET, we could quit wasting billions of dollars, and the time of some of our best minds on liquid and solid energy losers and concentrate our resources on the gaseous winners.
How does natural gas fit into this transition and what will its use do for America?
First of all, beginning now and for decades into the future, the development of natural gas will be a major force in reenergizing America’s economic growth. Although it is only in its early stages, natural gas is already adding tens of thousands of new jobs and kindling a new industrial renaissance. In addition to the direct jobs and economic impact of the natural gas industry, steel mills are being reopened and expanded, new chemical plants are being built, tens of thousands of cars, trucks and buses are being converted to CNG, new filling stations are being built – the opportunities are limitless. And, unlike all other components of our monthly energy bills, the natural gas component is the only one that is going down. Overall, the reduction of natural gas prices over the past several years, coupled with natural gas driven new industrial growth, is the equivalent of over $100 billion of annual economic stimulus.
You’ve advocated for the conversion of America’s vehicle fleet to natural gas. What would be the benefits of that?
The benefits are very large and multiple. Right now, the hundreds of billions of dollars we pay foreign oil producers weakens our economic growth, puts our national security at risk while strengthening many of our enemies, and equals more than half our trade deficit, thereby weakening the U.S. dollar. By converting just half our vehicle fleet to natural gas, we would free ourselves from the economic vice grip of foreign oil producers. Such a conversion would, over the next few decades, pump trillions of U.S. dollars into the growth of our own economy. And clean natural gas use at that scale would lower CO2 emissions and clean away much of the daily smog in our cities.
Where do biofuels fit into The Grand Energy Transition?
Biofuels are mostly made from solids that are converted to liquids, so the GET shows they are not the way forward. Biofuels have no place in humanity’s long-term future principally because there are inherent problems in their creation and use. These issues are so intractable they make it impossible for biofuels to play a meaningful role in either our short- or long- term energy future. For instance, biofuels generally compete – with food, and we’ve already seen evidence that a heavy reliance on ethanol can drive up food prices, particularly corn and its hundreds of every day products. Since most automobiles, buses and trucks in use today have tanks that hold liquids instead of tanks that hold natural gas, many have pursued what they see as an opportunity to fill those tanks with liquid biofuels. The answer is to convert the tanks to natural gas, because the same engines we use today run beautifully on natural gas and, because natural gas is so much cleaner, the engines run three times as long. It is time we eliminated all biofuel subsidies and mandates.
Does your vision of The Grand Energy Transition include nuclear power?
First, nuclear is a solid, and the GET shows clearly that solids are not the future; and, if nuclear waste is not contained, then nuclear is the dirtiest, most damaging of all fuels. There’s no doubt that the near-disaster at Three Mile Island in the 1970s, the great disaster at Chernobyl in the 1980s, and now, the disaster at Fukushima, Japan has changed how the world’s population feels about the viability of nuclear power. This reality, combined with concern about nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, casts great doubt over the viability of nuclear fission as a long-term solution. I make this distinction between solid fission and gaseous nuclear fusion because fission is derived from solids, principally uranium, with its deadly toxic wastes, while fusion is fueled by hydrogen gases that have no waste. Because nuclear fusion is basically the “sun in a box,” I suspect some decades into the future we will finally perfect it. Stepping up research on nuclear fusion makes a great deal of sense within the context of the GET.
Is natural gas a fossil fuel or not?
First of all, I have to say that “fossil fuel” is a terrible term. It’s become a catch-all phrase for the principal three, each very different, carbon fuels: solid coal, liquid oil and natural gas. However, not all fossil fuels are created equal. Coal and oil are heavy in carbon, and combined produce about 80 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions from energy use. Natural gas is “carbon light”, only one carbon and four hydrogen atoms. Natural gas is the only clean, affordable domestic fuel that is scalable and can displace the use of coal and oil in a meaningful way over the next century and lower carbon emissions and other pollution on the way. To use “fossil fuels” as an umbrella term covering coal, oil and natural gas is to mix together two fuels – coal and oil – which are the problem, and natural gas is our near-term solution.
To answer your question, the jury is still out on how much of the natural gas we produce is “fossil” and how much is not. Many, if not most, of the planets and their moons in our solar system have lots of natural gas, and that’s not fossil, so it is quite possible the earth also has lots of non-fossil natural gas. Depending on the process of its origin within earth, natural gas may even be a renewable.
What is the physical difference between natural gas and oil?
Oil is a smelly, dirty high-carbon liquid, and natural gas is a carbon-light, clean, virtually invisible gas that is lighter than air. Natural gas cannot be seen or smelled. The flame on your stove is fueled by natural gas, but if natural gas leaks from your stove, what you smell is a chemical odor that has been added for safety. If natural gas escapes, it doesn’t “spill” because it is lighter than air and floats up into the atmosphere. Because of this characteristic, natural gas found in the earth naturally seeks its way to the surface and that is why the entire earth leaks natural gas. And like all gases, natural gas is compressible; liquid oil is not. These two factors combined mean that a much larger percentage of natural gas can be recovered from a reservoir than a similar find of oil.
If natural gas is so abundant and so relatively easy to extract, why is oil such a dominant fuel?
One reason is that no one in the past ever believed in natural gas abundance. However, the overarching reason is that when Henry Ford invested the Model T and the automobile industry took off, the in-hand technology used liquids. Seventy percent of the world’s oil is used in transportation, so the oil and transportation industries grew up together and are so entwined today one might even call them one industry. Over the last 100 years, the oil and transportation industries have invested vast sums in plant and equipment, and they are deeply vested in our economic and political system. Oil has built a global transportation, distribution and refining system and the world’s automobile companies have tooled-up for and built factories to produce cars and trucks that were designed to run on liquid. But now, natural gas technology is proven and in-hand, and it is time to break the old multi-generational barriers and move away from oil and gasoline to natural gas vehicles. Today, there are about 12-13 million natural gas vehicles in the world, and that number is growing fast.
So natural gas is still a bit of a newcomer to the energy party?
That’s right, natural gas should be thought of as a politically and economically disruptive newcomer. Coal has been mined and used in vast quantities for more than 200 years, and most of the “easy” coal is long gone. Oil has been produced for over 100 years, and most all of the cheap oil has been discovered and produced. Today, the world’s consumers use so much oil – almost 90 million barrels per day – that it may not be logistically possible to use significantly more. Natural gas, on the other hand, only got its start after WWII and has yet to even hit its stride. Only a small portion has been found or used. That’s where The Grand Energy Transition comes in. The U.S., in particular, has vast stores of untapped natural gas – as President Obama stated in his January 2012 State of the Union Address – enough for nearly 100 years. So, natural gas is the obvious choice to replace our costly, carbon-heavy, dirty fuel sources, and to complement alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal.
In his book “The Quest,” Daniel Yergin refers to conservation as the “fifth fuel.” Do you think that conservation activity can be meaningful enough to deserve that stature?
In the short term, conservation can do great things. Conservation technology is very important now because coal and oil have been so relatively inexpensive that until recently we haven’t really focused very much on efficiency, and that means there are large gains to be found in additional conservation in the short term. However, over the longer term, modern civilization will continue to be built upon the consumption of vast quantities of energy, and we can’t run the global economy on “conservation.”
Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
When someone chooses to study geology, as I did, he effectively declares himself to be an environmentalist – one who has love and respect for the earth. I wrote The Grand Energy Transition because I believe it is humanity’s God-given right to achieve sustainable life and growth on Earth. My book, and now the documentary of the same name, tells my theory of how civilization can finally achieve that destiny. So, let’s all “Jet the GET!”