The energy forecasts being touted for the year ahead sound a little like throwbacks to another era, when supplies were plentiful and prices cheap.
Prices are no longer cheap, but to hear the nation's energy experts tell it there will be no shortage in 1978 of any of the fuels we burn to make energy. There will be no shortage of natural gas like the nation suffered last winter. There is a worldwide surplus of oil, meaning there will be no increase in the price of oil and the pump price of gasoline. There is no shortage of electricity. There is no energy crisis, right?
Wrong. The year ahead may be a year of respite from the crisis, but the crisis persists. The severe winter of a year ago aggravated what a year ago was a shortage of natural gas. The shortage of gas forced so many consumers to propane and oil they triggered shortages of those two fuels. Even electricity was scarce, the result of winter demand for electric heat.
The gas shortage last year was partly the result of poor planning. Pipelines began the winter with their storage tanks less than full, so that when the winter crunch came they were not prepared for it. The pipelines learned a hard lesson. This year, storage tanks were full when winter came. Result: No crunch.
Production of natural gas in the United States last year, according to the Institute of Gas Technology, was an estimated 19.8 trillion cubic feet. That's almost 1 trillion cubic feet more than was forecast for dwindling domestic gas reserves. One reason is that rising natural gas prices sent more explorers out looking for gas. More than 40,000 wells were drilled last year in the search for oil and gas, the most drilled in the United States since 1964.
Other things happened to relieve the pressure on shrinking gas supplies. The lessons of last winter included one to industrial users shut off from their gas during last year's shortage. Fullly 85 per cent of the factories whose gas was "interrupted" a year ago have made the switch to oil.
Many of those not making the switch are buying synthetic gas made out of naphtha. Five years ago, no "syngas" plants existed in the United States. Today, there are 13 with four more being built. The produding plants turned out 382 billion cubic feet of "syngas" last year.
More important than any switches from gas to oil were the switches that turned on the Alaskan oil pipeline and the North Sea oil fields in 1977. North Sea oil has begun to flood the European market-and together with rising Alaskan production has created a worldwide surplus that Deputy Energy Secretary John F. O'Leary estimates at between 4.5 to 5 million barrels a day.
"Most people feel that surplus will last at least through the coming year," O'Leary said recently. "The only way the surplus will be sopped up in the next two years is if the economies of Japan and Germany surge beyond expectations. As things stand now, the surplus won't begin to exhaust itself before 1980.
The United States has managed to maintain oil production near the 9 million barrel-a-day level, mostly because the Alaskan fields were brought in last year, but also because U. S. oil companies are pumping more oil than ever out of fields once felt to be drying out.
Just about 25 per cent of the oil pumped from America's 36,000 fields came last year from what oilmen call "secondary recovery" techniques. This involves the injection of water under pressure down into a field whose oil no longer flows to the surface, either because the field has lost its own pressure or because the oil left in the field is tightly bound to the field's sand and rock.
Flooding the dwindling water helps to push the oil back toward the surface, supplying enough of its own pressure to force it upward. Fields that were only yielding 20 per cent of their oil are now producing twice as much by water flooding.
The newest techniques are called "tertiry recovery" methods and, where succesful, are unlocking another 20 per cent of the oil bound up in a field's rock. One method is by steam injection, where the steam heats the oil and thins it down enough for it to flow.Still another is by injection of compressed carbon dioxide gas, which swells the oil with bubbles and pulls it away from the limestone and dolomite rocks to which it's become attached.
Chevron Oil Co. has a huge carbon dioxide project underway to recover oil locked up in fields in West Texas. Shell Oil Co. is considering laying a 500-mile-long pipeline to carry carbon dioxide from southwest Colorado to its West Texas for tertiary oil recovery.
The most promising method of tertiary oil recovery involves the use of common laundry detergents, pumped down with water under pressure into dried-out fields where they strip the oil from rock the same way detergents remove dirt from clothes.
Marathon Oil is doing this in eastern Illinois, Continental Oil is contemplating it near Casper, Wyo., and at least seven other major oil companies are in the early stages of similar projects. The detergent method is still in its infancy and costs as much as $1,300 to recover 100 barrels of oil. Less than 3 per cent of the oil produced in the United States last year came from "tertiary recovery" method like this one.
"I can remember when we first started this getting hung up on the rock with the detergent," says William Stewart of Conoco in Houston. "We still haven't learned how to do it econimically, but we long ago solved the problem of getting stuck to the rock. We're getting there."
At the scale's other end are new methods of using ethanol and methanol instead of gasoline in automobile engines. There's nothing new about the nation itself. Brazil blended ethanol with gasoline 40 years ago, Sweden put it in the pumps with gasoline before World War II, and the Germans ran part of their war machinery on methonal in the dying days of World War II.
The trouble with methonol and ethanol is they absorb moisture, making engines that run on them hard to start in cold weather and even harder to start on hot, humid days.
But engineers have begun to redesign engines to take care of these problems. Trucks operated by Nebraska's State Highway Department are now running on gasoline blended with 10 per cent ethanol.
Not everything on the energy front is as bright. Demand for oil in the United States approaches 19 million barrels a day, despite the fact that the wasteful ways of the past have begun to disappear. There could be an electricity shortage next year or the year after, at least in part because of the disenchantment with nuclear power. The companies that build nuclear plants have no more than two orders for them on their books.
One reason there could be a shortage of electricity is that half the homes being build in the United States today are electric homes, partly because oil heat is considered unclean and partly because gas heat is so hard to come by. Nuclear and coal-fired electricity lower costs, but electric companies keep turning to high-cost oil to keep spinning their turbines.
Incredibly, oil-fired electricity is the most expensive energy in use today, more expensive even than synthetic gas. The day came last winter when electric bills were higher than mortgage payments for some homeowners.