The Juice

How Does America Keep Finding Vast Stores of Energy?

By completely overhauling the old rules of the business.

An oil well owned an operated by Apache Corporation in the Permian Basin are viewed on February 5, 2015 in Garden City, Texas.
An oil well owned an operated by Apache Corporation in the Permian Basin on Feb. 5, 2015, in Garden City, Texas.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on an energy bonanza. A company discovered a new field with “the equivalent of at least two billion barrels of oil” that “has the promise to become one of the biggest energy finds of the past decade.”

But the discovery wasn’t made by a foreign company in the Amazon, or deep in the waters off the coast off Africa, or in Kazakhstan—or any of the other politically treacherous, high-risk, low-infrastructure places where Big Oil has been prospecting for gigantic new gushers. Instead, the lucky firm was Texas-based Apache Corporation, which struck black gold in Texas’ Permian Basin, one of America’s most prolific and picked-over sources of oil and natural gas for decades. It’s as if vintners discovered millions of acres of previously unknown prime grape-growing territory in the Loire Valley. Or the owners of Vail Mountain suddenly happened upon miles of previously untouched ski slopes.

What has been dubbed the “Alpine High” is just the latest output of an energy equation that works for America and American firms in a way that doesn’t work anywhere else. You start with an embarrassment of natural resources arrayed across an expansive territory, multiply it by new technology and innovation that allows for the efficient mining and harnessing of the resources, add capital, and then raise it to an exponential power through the propensity to scale. The result? While many parts of the world suffer from energy and power scarcity (I just returned from Tanzania, where only about one-quarter of the population has electricity), and while many companies and countries are looking far beyond their borders for the fuel that can satisfy their customers, the U.S. is solving the problem of expensive energy and forging new domestic industries.

Let’s take Apache’s big find first. The oil and natural gas have always been there, locked in the rocks. But it wasn’t until the U.S. developed a new technology (hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) that it became apparent that it could be liberated. That story has been written several times over. But an equally significant story has received less notice. In the last several years, a global glut of natural gas and oil production has developed, thanks to higher U.S. production and the desire of OPEC members to pump more oil in the face of lower prices. But rather than sit on their hands or shut wells, the U.S. fracking industry has evolved and innovated. Fracking has become a cheaper, more refined, and more effective means of getting at fossil fuels. So while the price of both natural gas and oil has fallen sharply in recent years, so too has the break-even point for profitable extraction.

Rather than go into hibernation, Apache was able to raise capital, hoover up several hundred thousand acres in a new region, and start drilling for resources on a profitable basis. In doing so, it has “discovered” an asset that is essentially reinventing an already large company. “This is a giant onion that is going to take us years to unveil and peel back,” Apache Chief Executive John Christmann IV told the Journal. “The industry dogma about this area, all the fundamental premises that most people had about it, were just wrong.”

We see evidence that this same cycle is playing out in other sectors of the energy and power industry. America’s oil and natural gas industries got started in Pennsylvania in the 1860s, then petered out in a few decades. But in the past decade, Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale has been one of the epicenters of the shale gas revolution. Again, the increase of raw production is a well-told story. But the application of technology and infrastructure at scale—the construction of pipelines and multi-billion-dollar terminals that enable export—is creating new industries. Earlier this year I noted that ethane distilled from natural gas in Pennsylvania is being sent to industrial plants in Europe. You can watch the progress of tankers like the Ineos Inspiration and Ineos Ingenuity as they ply the cold waters of the North Atlantic from the Marcus Hook terminal in Pennsylvania to Norway.* In February, a huge terminal in Louisiana constructed at immense expense began shipping natural gas to distant points. By the end of the second quarter, the terminal’s owner, Cheniere Energy, said it had shipped five cargoes of liquefied natural gas. Meanwhile, investments in infrastructure outside the U.S. are encouraging the export gas industry to scale more rapidly. This summer, a tanker that left Cheniere’s Sabine Pass terminal became the first ship to carry natural gas through the expanded Panama Canal.

It’s happening in renewables, too. Wind has always been a force on the Great Plains, and farmers harnessed it for years on a very small scale. But in recent years, wind has been “discovered” as a major supply of fuel for producing electricity. In the middle of the country, there are abundant wind resources. There’s the availability of land—vast, unused acreage that allows the establishment of extensive onshore wind farms. Companies have developed and harnessed the latest technology—i.e. larger and more powerful wind turbines. Capital has been raised to finance scale—the construction of wind turbines and the build-out of transmission lines that can convey wind power to population centers. So instead of building a few small turbines as an adjunct to the power system, developers in Iowa are now planning to construct a 2-gigawatt field that will make wind a major power source.

I’m old enough to have lived through more than one energy crisis. It turns out the answers to them were here all along.

*Correction, Sept. 14, 2016: This article originally referred to the Marcus Hook terminal in Pennsylvania as the Marcellus Hook terminal. (Return.)