Thursday, December 03, 2009

Scraping the Bottom on Oil?

New Scientist presents a thoughtful article entitled "Extreme Oil: Scraping the bottom of Earth's Barrel". It is worth reading and thinking about. According to the article, there are about 9 trillion barrels of unconventional oil equivalent residing in oil sands, shale oil, heavy oils, coal to liquids, and gas to liquids. That is about 9 times the amount of oil consumed to date by humans.

According to the International Energy Agency, peak oil will occur around the year 2030. Supposedly, that projection takes into account an increasing utilisation of unconventional oil resources over the next two decades.

Peak oil means many different things to different people. To some, it represents the end of the world. To others, it means that humans have used up half the world's supply of fossil fuels. An increasingly common understanding of peak oil considers it to be the point after which rising energy extraction costs begin to inexorably and irreversibly drive up the cost of energy utilisation.

Humans consume about 85 million barrels of oil per day, or over 30 billion barrels of oil yearly. To consume 9 trillion barrels of oil equivalent at that rate would take 300 years.

Clearly it will take a number of decades to gear up unconventional oil production to meet current world demand. But that is completely unnecessary. Humans will never fully substitute unconventional oil for conventional oil, since conventional oil resources are not even close to being depleted. Rather, it is a question of cost and substitution.

Capital investment in new technologies must be planned years, or decades, in advance. Several prospective energy technologies have the potential to displace significant fractions of current fossil fuel consumption within the next few decades. Microbial biofuel production is a particularly promising approach. Better nuclear fission could power the world's fleet of ground vehicles. Solar energy could contribute significantly -- given better energy storage and load leveling. Enhanced geothermal, nuclear fusion, and orbital solar satellites may be a bit further off in time, but all could power the world.

But it is the 9 trillion barrels plus of unconventional oil equivalent that will cushion the transition from the oil economy to the sustainable energies economy. If advanced nations reject these resources out of a quasi-religious carbon hysteria, the price to be paid by the world's poor will be immense.

Now would be a good time to wake up. The alternative will be quite bloody, I assure you.



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