AFTER OIL: Research key to energy woes

Sugar Land firm fosters technology

By MARK MURPHY

Oct. 26, 2008, 1:36AM

High energy prices and geopolitical issues are causing Americans to take another look at producing more of our energy supplies right here at home. Concerns about climate-change mitigation are also taking center stage in national policy debates. A prime beneficiary of this renewed focus is domestic natural gas.

The U.S. has abundant natural gas resources — some estimates are that at current rates of consumption, we have almost 100 years of supply. Much of this domestic resource is "unconventional" and includes shale, tight sands and coalbed methane gas. In fact, the Energy Information Administration with the U.S. Department of Energy indicates that in a short period of time, almost half of all U.S. domestic natural gas production will be from unconventional resources. These energy supplies are however technically challenged and require new technologies to affordably supply American energy consumers.

This is where Sugar Land comes in. It is home to a small not-for-profit research management organization the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America or "RPSEA."

RPSEA is committed to helping the U.S. meet its energy needs through the development of new technologies. RPSEA supports research in, among other things, the development of unconventional gas resources.

RPSEA has 140 members from across the country representing the entire energy supply research value chain — from 26 research universities, to six national laboratories, to small and large producers, to environmental organizations and advocacy groups, to venture capital firms. These members and a thousand other energy experts have established research priorities that support a research portfolio to enable the development of domestic natural gas supplies through new technologies. In addition, research to ensure that new supplies will be found and produced in environmentally sound ways is a fundamental program component, reflected in all aspects of the work RPSEA supports.

RPSEA, as the primary steward of this $500 million federal research program, plays another key role in the nation's energy future. By providing critical research funds to U.S. universities, RPSEA is supporting the nation's intellectual infrastructure. It provides funding for innovative, cutting-edge energy research by graduate students in Texas, in my home state of New Mexico and across the country. In fact, 23 out of 41 of RPSEA's project selections for research have gone to universities, including the University of Houston, Rice, Texas A&M and the University of Texas. Nine other research awards from RPSEA have gone to national laboratories, state geological surveys or non-profit research institutions, creating a unique research pipeline to move new technologies through the value chain and into the market place.

Any great idea comes with detractors. The uninformed have called this valuable program a "giveaway to big oil." This knee-jerk characterization is disproved by the statistics. Eighty percent of RPSEA's research awards are going to universities, not for profits, national labs or state geologic surveys and others are small technology development firms. In fact, none of RPSEA's prime research funding recipients is from "big oil.

It's incumbent on energy and policy leaders however to educate the skeptics about the need for affordable, domestic energy supplies and the ways and means to ensure that we have them. From the RPSEA perspective the calculus is simple: more research means more supply. More supply means lower prices for consumers, not higher profits for big oil.

In view of the unenlightened, ideological or uneducated perspective of sometimes powerful critics, the support from key members of Congress for this research effort has been especially courageous. Congressman Nick Lampson, who represents Sugar Land, the city that RPSEA calls home, has taken a leadership role in supporting the program in the House of Representatives and has prevailed on the Speaker of the House time and again to support the program.

Other members of the Texas congressional delegation, Ralph Hall a Republican and the author of the legislation that created the program and Chet Edwards, another Democrat, have also been instrumental in both the development and implementation of this critical research program.

Natural gas is all the rage right now. But many of us in industry, academia and in the halls of Congress knew all along that natural gas was a critical source of domestic energy and a key component for climate risk mitigation; we just need research and new technologies to find and produce it. We should applaud the researchers as well as our policy makers for their foresight and support. Leadership is critical to success; RPSEA, Sugar Land, Lampson, Hall, Edwards and others are working to ensure the nation's energy future. Let's give them a hand.

Murphy is chairman of the board of the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, based in Sugar Land.

Danette Mozisek
Author: Danette Mozisek
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