By MATTHEW L. WALD
Sasol’s headquarters in Johannesburg. Sasol is buying into a Canadian shale gas field so it can explore turning natural gas into diesel and other liquids.
WASHINGTON — Diesel and jet fuel are usually made from crude oil. But with oil prices rising even as a glut of natural gas keeps prices for that fuel extraordinarily cheap, a bit of expensive alchemy is suddenly starting to look financially appealing: turning natural gas into liquid fuels.
A South African firm, Sasol, announced Monday that it would spend just over 1 billion Canadian dollars to buy a half-interest in a Canadian shale gas field, so it can explore turning natural gas into diesel and other liquids. Sasol’s proprietary conversion technology was developed decades ago to help the apartheid government of South Africa survive an international oil embargo, and it is a refinement of the ones used by the Germans to make fuel for the Wehrmacht during World War II.
The technology takes “a lot of money and a lot of effort,” said Michael E. Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy Environmental Policy at the University of Texas, Austin. “You wouldn’t do this if you could find easy oil,” he said.
But with the huge spread between oil and gas prices, and predictions of oil topping $100 a barrel next year, the conversion technology could be a “a money-maker for whoever is a first mover in that space.”
Several other companies have intermittently tried to make liquid fuels from natural gas or coal. For example, the energy company Baard has been planning a coal-to-liquids plant in Ohio but has not been able to pull the pieces together, and Peabody Coal has discussed a similar plant.
Sasol figures that the natural gas needed for a gallon of diesel, plus operating costs, comes to about $1.50 a gallon. In comparison, a gallon of diesel made from crude oil now costs more than $2, even before refining, and many forecasts are for the price of oil to go higher.
But there is a hefty cost of building the chemical plant to do the conversion, which might run over $1.5 billion for a new Canadian plant that would handle 40,000 barrels a day.
The calculations also exclude another cost: greenhouse gas emissions, which may be higher for a conversion plant than a typical refinery, depending on how the work is done.
“Everything ugly is in vogue again,” said Josh Mogerman, an energy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been fighting a proposed coal-to-liquids plant in Ohio.
From a financial perspective, the technology is far from ugly. A barrel of oil has historically cost one to two times as much as the equivalent amount of energy from natural gas. But right now, vast supplies of natural gas from shale formations in North America have driven prices down, so oil is triple the price of the gas equivalent.
The new ratio creates “a very attractive economic option,” said Lean Strauss, senior group executive at Sasol.
While the operating costs favor conversion, the cost to build the chemical plant is another matter; gas-to-liquids plants are far more capital-intensive than traditional refineries that make the same products from crude oil.
A plant opened by Sasol in Qatar in 2006, in partnership with the national oil company, Qatar Petroleum, cost $37,000 per barrel of daily capacity, but costs in Canada would be higher, Mr. Strauss said. Sasol produces 160,000 barrels a day of its liquids — diesel, naphtha and propane — in South Africa. It also turns out jet fuel, which is routinely blended into fuel for airliners departing from Johannesburg. In August, Sasol supplied 100 percent of the fuel for a Boeing 737 flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
In the deal announced Monday, Sasol acquired a 50 percent stake in Farrell Creek shale gas assets, in British Columbia. With the other owner, Talisman Energy, it will begin a feasibility study early next year on building a gas-to-liquids plant, and Talisman will have the option to own 50 percent of that.
Sasol is building a similar plant in Nigeria with Chevron, and last month, it completed a feasibility study in Uzbekistan. It also recently submitted a proposal to Shenhau, the Chinese coal company, for a similar plant.
The Sasol process cooks a hydrocarbon, either coal or natural gas, into a fuel gas made of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Using a patented process that involves cobalt catalysts, it converts that gas into a mix of liquids: 80 percent diesel fuel, 15 percent naphtha and 5 percent liquid propane.
But the process is not 100 percent efficient. In fact, the finished product has only about 62 percent as much energy as the raw material did.
In addition to losing energy, the process creates excess carbon dioxide, compared to burning the natural gas or coal directly for energy. But starting with natural gas, said Mr. Strauss, the amount of carbon dioxide released per finished gallon of liquid fuel was comparable to the carbon footprint of a gallon from a traditional refinery.
Environmentalists are not so sure. “It’s unclear right now,” said Simon Mui, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There hasn’t been a large global experience in natural gas to liquids.”
But, he added, “it’s definitely not a greenhouse gas reduction strategy.” And recovery of gas from shale can itself be energy intensive and environmentally challenging, he said.
The Sasol move comes as Canada is increasing its production of oil from oil sands, which is clearly carbon-intensive. Environmentalists in the United States are trying to stop large-scale imports of oil from oil sands.
Mr. Mogerman, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that given the historical market prices for oil and natural gas, only countries with no other choice had pursued the conversion process. “The only ones who’ve done it are people with their backs against the wall, and who had no financial considerations,” he said.
But if oil prices stay high and gas prices remain low because of shale gas, that view could be history.