Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
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Page added on March 7, 2013
We were supposed to be close to running out of oil right now, but we have more than ever. But is that actually more dangerous than having none of it?
At times, the idea of “peak oil” has been almost interchangeable with climate change. Campaigners for action on global warming have often relied on a practical argument that fossil fuels are running out anyway. However, there’s increasing evidence that the second case doesn’t back the first. Oil is continuing to flow, even if the evidence for a changing climate is as strong as ever.
Those who pooh-pooh peak oil point out that the end has been predicted almost since the beginning. Back in the 1970s, for example, President Carter said oil production would peak by 1985. And yet a series of technological fixes (steaming, pumping, lubricating, fracking), and bold explorations (Africa, the Arctic) have allowed the black stuff to keep coming.
As this recent article by Vince Beiser makes clear, there continues to be plenty of oil left, and plenty of places to keep looking. Brazil. Russia. Mexico. North America, to name a few. Not to mention, Mozambique, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, and several others.
Brazil’s oil industry, in particular, is booming:
The northern end of Rio, far from the famous beaches of Copacabana, is all factories and shipyards, thrumming with men and machines servicing the oil industry. Drilling platforms in for repairs hulk along the shoreline. A little ways inland is a sprawling airport-sized building that, with its curvilinear lines, tubular corridors, and off-white palette, looks like a cross between a Dubai shopping mall and a set from Logan’s Run. This is the new $700 million headquarters of CENPES, the research arm of [national oil company] Petrobras. The center officially opened in 2010, but still isn’t quite finished on this day last summer. The top floor, open on all sides to allow in breezes and a view of the bay, is meant for relaxed meetings and thinking, but it still lacks furniture. Once complete, the complex will house more than 100 labs and some 4,000 employees.
Brazil has operated shallow offshore wells since the 1970s. But it was only in 2006 that exploratory drills first hit the massive “presalt” reservoirs—so named because they lie underneath a thick band of salt left behind by an evaporated prehistoric ocean.
Petrobras found the hydrocarbons beneath the presalt thanks to a series of breakthroughs in seismic sensing. That process involves sending ships out to sea towing miles-long sensor-equipped cables and air guns that blast out sound pulses. Those pulses reverberate through the seabed and bounce back to the cables’ sensors, providing images of the various layers of rock down below. For years this technique yielded only a two-dimensional picture. But in the 1990s, geophysicists figured out how to send the outbound signals from different angles at the same time and reassemble the results into a three-dimensional picture. In the subsequent decades computer power and software got good enough to understand all that data.
The real question isn’t whether we’ll have enough of the stuff, but whether the atmosphere can handle it. Even the oil and gas industry admits as much. Beiser quotes David Eyton, BP’s head of research and technology:
There’s enough oil and gas out there to last us right through to the end of the next century, without much doubt… [The real problem is] we are running out of the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere.
That oil exists isn’t an argument for more exploration, especially in vulnerable places like the Arctic. But it ought to be part of the discussion. Argue for climate change, by all means. But, be wary of using a case for scarcity to do so.