America's heavy reliance on imports of hydrocarbons for fuels and feedstocks long has prompted concern, even fear in some quarters. This dependence has posed significant vulnerabilities for the economy as a whole and the long-term competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing — in effect making them hostage to the availability and cost of foreign supplies. Fortunately, a major change is taking place. Imports are becoming far less of a factor; indeed, the U.S. is poised to enter an era of near self-sufficiency.
January's Chemical Processing provided a glimpse of what's happening on a couple of fronts.
Thomas Kevin Swift and Martha Gilchrist Moore of the American Chemistry Council declare in our cover story "Prospects Brighten for the Chemical Industry" "The availability of gas from shale is possibly the most important domestic energy development of the past 50 years. Following a decade of high and volatile natural gas prices that destroyed industrial demand and led to the closure of many gas-intensive manufacturers, shale gas offers a new era of American competitiveness that will lead to greater investment, industry growth and employment.
"U.S. chemical makers have announced more than 50 projects in the past two years to capitalize on the competitive advantage of abundant supplies of natural gas and NGLs [natural gas liquids]. Such projects include new ethylene crackers as well as units for derivative products (i.e., polyethylene, ethylene oxide, etc.), methanol, ammonia and on-purpose ethylene co-products."
Production of fuels from renewable resources, particularly agricultural wastes, also is advancing in the U.S., as "Biorefinery Beckons," points up. In that article, Jan Koninckx of DuPont Industrial Biosciences describes the efforts that went into a pioneer commercial plant to manufacture ethanol from corn stover. These involved not just developing technology but also ensuring sufficient supplies of the stover. Now under construction in Nevada, Iowa, it will be one of the first and largest biorefineries in the world. Full production at the 30-million-gal/yr facility will require 375,000 dry tons of stover per year.
(Some chemical makers also see renewable resources as a significant potential source of feedstocks, not just fuels, of course. Indeed, more than two-thirds of respondents to a CP online poll characterized their site's interest in using renewable feedstocks as high or very high.)
"Five years ago no one would have been talking about the prospect of U.S. energy independence. But this year , domestic crude oil production should rise by 10%, and within five years the United States is likely to break the record output high reached more than two decades ago, to flirt with the position of top world producer," says Michael Cohen of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Paris, in a recent article.
Fuel production from shale will spur economic growth and reduce oil imports, but constraints ranging from pipeline issues to cost may prevent the U.S. from eliminating all imports, he cautions.
"World Energy Outlook," released last November by the IEA forecasts the U.S. will become a net exporter of natural gas by 2020 and almost will reach self-sufficiency in energy, in net terms, by 2035. The report adds that North America will emerge as a net oil exporter and that by 2035 Asia will take nearly 90% of Middle Eastern oil exports.
However, the emergence of significant amounts of fuel from unconventional sources shouldn't blunt efforts to improve energy efficiency, stresses Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA's executive director.
"North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world, yet the potential also exists for a similarly transformative shift in global energy efficiency," she notes. "This year's 'World Energy Outlook' shows that by 2035, we can achieve energy savings equivalent to nearly a fifth of global demand in 2010. In other words, energy efficiency is just as important as unconstrained energy supply, and increased action on efficiency can serve as a unifying energy policy that brings multiple benefits."
I, for one, certainly don't expect chemical makers to let up on their efforts to improve energy efficiency. Abundant low-cost fuel may alter payback times but not the well-entrenched mindset of squeezing costs out of operations.
Perhaps we're on the verge of a new "golden age" for the U.S. chemical industry.
MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can email him at email@example.com.
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