What Does the ‘Age of Unconventional Energy’ Mean?

March 21, 2013

Citing huge economic advantages to the U.S., ExxonMobil (IW 500/1) Chemical President Steve Pryor laid out his vision for the “new age of unconventional energy.” You might wonder if unconventional refers to windmills or solar panels or fusion reactors. But the green Pryor was referencing was the economic boom coming from shale oil and gas.

That’s not to say that Pryor didn’t make a pitch for sustainability in his speech to the IHS World Petrochemical Conference. He defined sustainability as starting with reducing the environmental impact of the firm’s operations, providing value-added products such as advanced polymers to customers that help them reduce their environmental impact and doing all this in a way that “delivers attractive returns to shareholders while benefitting society.”

As an example, Pryor cited ExxonMobil’s plans to develop a multi-billion dollar steam cracker and polyethylene expansion at its Baytown, Texas, site. He said the expanded facilities would add 3,800 jobs in the Houston area and boost the regional economy by $870 million a year. And the expansion would use state-of-the-art environmental controls to maintain site emissions within current permitted levels.

This expansion is being driven by the changing energy landscape in the United States. The U.S. has increased its proven reserves of natural gas by 50% since 2005 and now has close to a century’s worth of supply, Pryor told the HIS conference. The growing production of unconventional oil has halved U.S. oil and liquid fuel imports, he pointed out. As a result, “ExxonMobil sees real prospects for North America transitioning to a net energy exporter by 2025.”

These new domestic sources of energy are helping drive the U.S.’s weak economic recovery. By the end of the decade, Pryor said, “unconventional oil and gas is projected to support 3 million U.S. jobs and increase real GDP by 2 to 3%.”

Pryor took the opportunity to reject calls for restrictions on U.S. natural gas exports. “These proposals to block LNG investments, justified by artificial price caps, represent a selective and harmful departure from free-market and free-trade principles,” he said.

Curbing exports would be an “affront” to U.S. trading partners, Pryor said. “(H)ow can the U.S. secure sanctions against China for restricting exports of rare-earth minerals, without inviting sanctions on the U.S. for restricting natural gas exports?”

Pryor argued that exporting natural gas would not raise prices significantly in the U.S. because “LNG exports would stimulate increased production from the country’s vast resource base.”

In closing, Pryor made a strong pitch for free markets, saying they “unleash human ingenuity” and result in “greater efficiency, a stronger economy and better environmental protection.”

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