C.T. CARLEY: State should take advantage of natural gas uses

By C.T. Carley

Whatever the future has in store for energy production in Mississippi, it isn’t only from natural gas. Power plants fueled by natural gas account for 48 percent of electricity production in the state, and its share is likely to increase with the retirement of aging coal plants in the years ahead. Today gas is cheap and abundant, supplying almost a quarter of America’s total energy.
But we waste huge amounts of natural gas by burning it to produce electricity. Better uses should be made for the clean-burning fuel, particularly by industries as a feedstock for producing consumer products. Industries such as plastics, iron and steel, metal fabrication, rubber, glass, paper, fertilizer, textiles and food processing all use natural gas and serve as large job centers for Mississippi’s work force. Natural gas should also be used in our nation’s fleet of trucks and buses to reduce or eliminate dependence on overseas oil.
We can free up natural gas for industrial and transportation uses by building nuclear power plants to provide more electricity. Though the cost of building a new plant is high, production costs for nuclear power over a plant’s lifetime are very low. Besides, a nuclear plant generates billions of dollars annually in economic activity, and construction of a large reactor provides thousands of jobs. Building a second reactor at the Grand Gulf nuclear plant would provide real economic benefits.
Mississippi’s efforts to attract industries, such as Nissan and Toyota, are significantly enhanced by the availability of reliable and relatively low-cost electrical power. Nuclear-generated electricity is a logical source of such power.
Though our country is more energy secure now than it has been in many years – U.S. petroleum imports are now down to 46 percent of domestic consumption, from a high of 60 percent in 2005 – America still spends upwards of $700 million a day on oil imports. Nor are we immune to oil shocks. Recently, oil prices rose sharply in response to threats by Iran to close down the Strait of Hormuz, a vital channel in the Persian Gulf through which tankers carrying 15 million barrels of oil pass daily.
Fuel switching would help, but the best way to protect America’s economy from oil-price shocks is to allow greater domestic oil and gas production. The good news is that over the past three years, there has been a dramatic rebound in U.S. oil and gas production after a hiatus of several decades. This has occurred despite the Obama Administration’s nonsensical threat to raise taxes on the oil and gas industry and its moratorium on deepwater drilling in the aftermath of the Macondo blowout.
But the Administration still forbids drilling for oil and gas in untapped areas off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Large parts of the mountainous West are off-limits, as is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. U.S. energy production would be far greater if not for President Obama’s hostility toward the oil and gas industry and a regulatory process that still makes it very difficult to do anything new in energy development.
For something as vital as energy production, there needs to be government policies that can help meet our national security and economic aspirations. And we should not assume that one source alone will be enough to meet our energy needs in the future. It’s time to think about an energy supply system that includes greater use of domestic oil and gas and nuclear power.
C.T. Carley is professor emeritus of engineering at Mississippi State University. Email him at ctcarley@bellsouth.net.