Friday, November 26, 2010

A Lot of Life Left in Fossil Fuels: Economist Mark Jaccard

Mark Jaccard is professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He thinks that the planet's massive reserves of coal can be used cleanly and responsibly for a long, long time.
Today we burn coal. But we could gasify it instead, using decades-old technology deployed in South Africa, a legacy of apartheid-era restrictions on crude oil imports. Rather than making gasoline, however, we could add extra steam to produce a hydrogen-rich gas, and then scrub it with a solvent to extract its carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas we do not want to enter the atmosphere.

The resulting hydrogen could be burned to produce electricity, or piped to industrial plants, buildings and vehicles for use in fuel cells. Sulphur, mercury and other coal residuals could be captured and converted into useful products. The carbon dioxide could be injected into old oil and gas reservoirs, enhancing their output by 30 per cent, or into deep saline aquifers for permanent storage.

...we are not about to run out of fossil fuels. While doomsayers decry the peaking production of ‘conventional’ crude oil, experienced energy experts calmly assess the technical and economic potential of substitutes. They note that when the price of crude oil is above $35 (£20) per barrel - and today it is $60 [Editor: As of November 2010, at $80 plus] - alternatives such as oil sands from Canada, natural gas from Qatar, coal from South Africa and biomass from Brazilian sugar cane can profitably produce oil products such as gasoline and diesel. Even with growing consumption, fossil fuels could last hundreds of years, given the global resources of coal and unconventional natural gas deep in the earth and frozen below the oceans. This evidence contradicts the claims of doomsayers that every spike in oil prices portends imminent resource exhaustion. _Spiked

As long as the price of oil is above $70 a barrel, a host of unconventional hydrocarbons will be affordable and attractive.

Venezuela's huge resources of heavy oils, for example, would be instantly and relatively cheaply accessible if you built some heavy-duty nuclear reactors nearby. The abundant heat and power from nuclear reactors are a perfect match to the challenge of breaking down and using heavy oils, oil sands, oil shales, and other stubbornly resistant hydrocarbons.

Heavy oils, oil shales, oil sands, and other unconventional hydrocarbons are present in abundant quantities the world over. We haven't begun to look for them because they have always been too expensive to develop and use. Soon, that will no longer be the case.

Of course, nuclear energy can also be used to make hydrocarbons from CO2 and H2O, or to facilitate the creation of fuels, chemicals, and plastics from biomass. The advantage of biomass over hydrocarbon deposits, is that biomass can be grown virtually anywhere on the surface of land or sea.

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