Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Running On Empty? … No Not Ever.

Most of us are familiar with the Peak Oil concept. I am going to over-simplfly it here because it's not what I want to elaborate on.

Essentially, peak oil is a bell curve:

A guy named M. King Hubbert, predicted in 1956 that all the 'easy' oil will soon be used up and as exploration and production becomes more and more difficult, the industry will peak and then decline. 

In an article by Charles C. Mann* (May, 2013 The Atlantic) we learn of another school of thought emanating from of all places the U.S. Geological Survey. Vincent McKelvey was a geologist for this government agency and he agreed with the first half of the Hubbert hypothesis, that the easy oil would eventually disappear. But, by McKelvey's reckoning, we would never run out of fossil fuel. McKelvey and his acolytes believed that:

"Even as companies drain off the easy oil, innovation keeps pushing down the cost of getting the rest. From this vantage, the race between declining oil and advancing technology determines the size of a reserve-not the number of hydrocarbon molecules in the ground. 
This perspective has a corollary: natural resources cannot be used up. If one deposit gets too expensive to drill, social scientists (most of them economists) say, people will either find cheaper deposits or shift to a different energy source altogether, Because the costliest stuff is left in the ground, there will always be petroleum to mine later."

With in the above quote I have 'bolded' cost and expensive. These are the driving forces of the oil industry. Not the availability of the resource nor the effort to extract and refine it. 

Fracking is not new, it has been used as a means to get at oil since the 1940's. What is new is innovations that enhance its effectiveness and efficiencies. It makes the effort worth the cost. I do not dismiss the environmental impact on ground water and subsidence. My point is to support the McKelvey Corollary. In this vein we should probably discuss the energy return on energy invested  (EROEI). Simply put, how much energy is needed to produce energy? This is a very important cost and determines whether certain fossil fuels and alternative energy sources are marketable. For example:

OPEC oil is 12 to 18
     12 to 18 barrels of oil are produced for every barrel of oil used to produce it
Tar Sand
     4 to 7 barrels
Natural Gas Fracking
     6 times better than OPEC oil
    16 times better than Tar Sand

Charles Mann starts off his article with new sources of fossil fuels. We tend to overlook other sources in this category. Mann discusses something called methane hydrate. Japan seems committed to this resource and you can read more about it here

We all know about alternative non-fossil energy sources and their EROEI is not as efficient, but I believe innovation will work here also and eventually although they may cost a bit more, retail buyers will see the greater good and opt for renewables as the prices continue to decrease.


*Arthur of 1491.
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