Posted: May 01, 2011
For oil and gas entrepreneur Alex Cranberg, the path to sustainable energy leads to a hole in the groundBy Mike Cote
Framed photos taken with U.S. presidents, stacks of trade magazines, native artwork collected from international travel. The memorabilia that adorns the walls and shelves in a small conference room in Alex Cranberg's Denver headquarters for Aspect Energy is typical of a successful executive.
Except for that box of Rice Krispies. And that chicken mask.
Like any mementos someone chooses to personalize their workspace, there are stories attached to them. The touch of Snap! Crackle! Pop! - a prop from a TV commercial Cranberg appeared in when he was a teenager - and the chicken headgear - which we'll get to in a moment - offer a glimpse into a life of a man whose interests, experience and outlook strip away whatever stereotype you might have of a jet-setting oil and gas entrepreneur. (Watch a video interview with Cranberg.)
It's easy to come to such clichéd conclusions if you haven't met someone like Cranberg, who explores the Earth to search for the stuff that remains trapped inside it. In an age where renewable energy has become gospel in the battle to stop climate change - or at least reduce our dependency on foreign oil if you're not sold on the science - businessmen who advocate for fossil fuels have been castigated in the "new energy" age as backward thinkers, profiteers who stand in the way of a revolution.
So it's eye-opening to sit across from a soft-spoken guy with a quirky sense of humor - he likes to collect photos of bad signs on his smart phone (such as the giant billboard that begs support for "pubic education") and attends bodybuilding expos where pumped-up men and women tout the latest fitness products that just must attract some investment money from him.
The lifelong energy explorer likens the search for oil and gas to a treasure hunt, is passionate about reforming education and enjoys playing the cello.
It's the chicken mask, however, that exemplifies Cranberg's primary passion. He dons that headgear for fun at conferences about "peak oil," the contention that our transition to alternative sources is inevitable because soon we simply won't have any oil left in the ground.
Cranberg doesn't see that happening any time soon.
"I've always protested the idea of peak oil," Cranberg said in April during an interview we videotaped for ColoradoBiz TV. "When the peak oil conferences show up I sometimes go with like-minded college students in chicken costumes and hand out a letter that details the various ways in which there is a tremendous abundance of petroleum resources."
It merely requires faith in technology and human ingenuity, he said.
"Most people don't realize that not only is there a lot of oil left - most of which is still in the ground and awaits developing technologies to improve its recovery - but the peak oil people are only focusing on one very specific subset of the petroleum molecules, hydrocarbon molecules, and theirs are the easier to get, conveniently sized oil molecules."
The spectrum of hydrocarbons includes coal, tar, oil and gas, all of which together make up a resource we've only begun to tap, Cranberg said.
"You can take gas molecules and in a manufacturing process make them larger, make them equal to diesel-size molecules. Or you can take long tar molecules and chop them up into lots of little diesel molecules or you can take coal molecules and reform them into other shapes, and all of the sudden they are oil molecules," he said.
"So if you think about hydrocarbons and their abundance, then you open your mind up to the possibility, to the reality, that there are many orders of magnitude and more hydrocarbon molecules than those that the peak oil people are talking about."
Natural gas revolution
Cranberg has similar views about natural gas, which was touted as a "bridge fuel" by former Gov. Bill Ritter as he led the charge to prompt Xcel Energy to replace some of its aging coal plants with those that burn natural gas. Aspect Energy is active in natural gas exploration primarily in the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana and has been involved in shale projects that Cranberg said "have revolutionized the natural gas business in the United States."
The 56-year-old Texas native spends much of his air time in one of his two private planes to shuttle back and forth between Denver and Austin, where he now resides, in part so he can be closer to his aging parents and to serve on the Board of Regents for the University of Texas. But much of his work is overseas, such as in Hungary, where his company can command higher prices for natural gas than it can in the United States.
"It's a tremendous comment on this notion of abundance ... that we essentially have found half a dozen of the largest gas fields in the world in the last few years at shallow depths that were right underneath our noses the whole time," he said. "Where all we had to do was apply some technology and develop some expertise that allowed us to take some gas that was trapped in rocks that we thought was permanently trapped and suddenly liberate it to become the largest natural gas producer in the world.
"We're very excited to be (in Hungary) because that U.S. spirit of creativity and entrepreneurial ambition and capacity to find gas can be applied in various different parts of the world," he said. "And Central Europe really needs the investment of American companies because otherwise they are held hostage to Russian natural gas imports."
Tisha Conoly Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, sees recent technological innovations, such as horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing, as having ramifications both nationally and internationally. On the national front, it will help increase domestic production and increase energy security. Internationally, it can help developing nations emerge from poverty. An estimated 1.4 billion to 1.6 billion people in the world don't have electricity.
"These technological innovations really have the potential to transform energy consumption patterns but also to transform poverty because energy is really a cornerstone of bringing people out of poverty," she said.
Cranberg's work in Hungary is in line with his world view that what he does for living is more than just generate profits from oil and gas extraction. For Hungary, the discovery of natural resources on its own turf helps preserve its independence as a nation.
"We're very excited not only because it is profitable to be finding and producing gas at $12 to $15 a million BTU (British thermal units), compared to $3½ or $4 here in the United States, but because we're serving a bigger purpose in helping maintain these countries' sovereignty," he said.
Such moral imperatives drive Cranberg's approach to renewable energy, which he says he values - Aspect Energy has made investments in wind technology - as long as those sources can be successful in the marketplace. And he doesn't completely dismiss the notion that fossil fuels, like their renewable counterparts, have enjoyed subsidies - such as the protection of U.S. oil interests in the Middle East. But he says there's no contest when you measure the return on investment between renewable sources and fossil fuels.
"I'm quite sure we'll require our nation's military to protect our security in all kinds of ways no matter what kind of energy policy we have," he said. "I think certainly, though, the argument that we're handing a lot of money essentially to bad guys in some other parts of the world like (Iranian president Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad or (Venezuelan president Hugo) Chavez is a very valid one. But it's an argument for more domestic production and more exploration and production in friendly countries, not less."
Cranberg's company recently began drilling for oil in Iraq; it's just beginning to assess the results of a well in Kurdistan. He offers up his smart phone to show an image of himself posing for a photo in Iraq: a businessman in a suit standing next to three men holding rifles.
"We're one of the handful of American companies that is willing to take the political and economic risks to go into a region and invest our money to look for and find an oil field," he said. "I feel that not only will it be profitable and commercial for us, but we're a key piece of allowing the largest ethnic group in the world without its own autonomous region or country to finally meet its proper, positive destiny.
In measuring the value of alternative forms of energy, Cranberg uses the terminology that has been at the heart of that movement: whether they are sustainable. And some of them, to his mind, are not.
"They are not sustainable because they are not commercial. And we throw a lot of money at things," he said. "That money represents resources, represents human capital resources, represents money, represents metal and materials and all the things that go into producing a solar cell or into producing a wind turbine. That's all scarce resource. If we're using more of that to produce the same kilowatt hour, I think that's wasteful."
Cranberg defines sustainable energy as that which can be generated most efficiently. "Sustainable energy is that which utilizes the fewest of our own resources to produce so we can have additional resources to spend on education and on health and vacations and other things that we value," he said.
The jet set
The image of an executive with his own jet is enough to raise the ire of the working class stiff, corporate critic or outraged environmentalist who sees it as nothing but excess. Just ask those guys from General Motors who flew from Detroit to those congressional hearings or Al Gore every time he treks across the country to collect a paycheck at a speaking gig.
Cranberg is a principal investor in XJet, a business established at Centennial Airport four years ago that caters to jet owners by offering them private concierge services and discounted aviation fuel through a membership structure.
"I was astounded to find how much a low competition environment influenced fuel prices. It sort of made me mad that there was such a high margin. We went into looking for ways to be able to offer fuel at a lower cost. We ended up funding our own FBO (fixed based operator) and private jet center."
For Cranberg, owning aircraft allows him the freedom to travel where and when he needs to do it. He uses Warren Buffett as an example of a businessman who views having a private jet in the same light: to get things done.
"I've been very interested in private aviation ever since I found I could afford an airplane and the freedom that comes attached with that," he said.
Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.