IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Oil alternatives explored

Gas lines may remind you of the early 1970s, but higher prices are leading entrepreneurs and companies to look back to the 19th century and forward to the 22nd in the search for fuel.

Gas lines may remind you of the early 1970s, but higher prices are leading entrepreneurs and companies to look back to the 19th century and forward to the 22nd in the search for fuel.

The oil fields of Pennsylvania and Kentucky, active for decades, are once again on the radar screens of savvy investors and drillers. The Cincinnati Business Courier reports that a local entrepreneur has seen the partnerships he's selling in Kentucky oil wells go like they're running on high octane. "I hate to call it selling," Jim Simpson told the Business Courier, "because all I have to do is tell people about it and they take it away from me."

Production in Kentucky peaked in the 1950s, but with oil prices on the rise, interest in the area is expected to drive a 13-year high in new drilling permits.

It's a similar story in western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Business Times reports. Even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hammered Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas production, Pennsylvania -- the birthplace of oil extraction -- was experiencing a 20 percent surge in drilling permits for the second year. "We're seeing much more activity now, but there is not enough men or equipment to satisfy demand," said Jim McElwain, president of S.W. Jack Drilling in Indiana, Pa.

It's not just the old fields experiencing new attention. It's also some old debates, like offshore drilling.

Drilling offshore is only allowed off the Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Alaska coasts. But some experts estimate that there are 76 billion barrels of oil and 406 trillion cubic feet of natural gas underneath the Outer Continental shelf that runs along East and West coasts.

Tapping that potential reserve could cut the need for foreign oil and diversify domestic sources, proponents of drilling say. And they add that the shock of Hurricane Katrina ought to make those who have opposed such drilling more receptive.

"In a lot of ways, the hurricane really exposes our vulnerability," says Keith McCoy, vice president of resources and environmental policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. "It's opened some eyes."

But environmentalists, as well as business interest like tourism and fishing, say drilling offshore in areas that depend on the ocean for livelihoods is no answer at all.

WWe can reduce the effect of future disruptions by reducing our dependence on oil, not putting up more rigs and drilling our special places," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "The fact is, we cannot drill our way to oil independence."

Consumers and politicians stunned by recent price increases may be inclined to agree.

Toyota, with its popular hybrids, was one of few automakers to report strong sales in the latest quarter.

And companies from Albany to Albuquerque with a stake in the alternative energy game are reporting renewed interest following the hurricanes and price hikes.

"It's generating a lot of questions and we're trying to see if there's a way we can get a boost from it in the immediate short term," Roger Saillant, CEO of fuel-cell maker Plug Power Inc., told the Albany Business Review. "It's just symptomatic of getting close to the end of oil dependency. It's no longer in the distant future. It's getting closer and closer."

Some politicians outside of Washington, D.C., also seem aware of that possibility.

In Washington state, the Puget Sound Business Journal reports, legislators are considering direct funding for a biodiesel refining operation in Eastern Washington. They hope the initiative could make Washington a leader in a new industry -- growing fuel instead of drilling for it.