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If the global energy industry innovates, the oil age may not have to end

If the global energy industry innovates, the oil age may not have to end thumbnail

Societal demand to move beyond fossil fuels has become mainstream almost overnight. This leads us to the question: What comes after oil? As someone who hunts for novel energy technologies for a living, I have been in search of the answer.

To mark Earth Day in April, the Earth League, a network of institutions working to respond to the most pressing issues facing humanity , released a statement saying that 75 per cent of known global fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, to avoid the effects of climate change.

Climate scientists have been telling us that to avoid a rise in temperature of more than 2 C, we will need to cut emissions to nearly zero by about mid-century, even as the world’s population grows to nearly 10 billion people.

If we consider this “unburnable carbon” scenario, what is the future for oil?

To answer this question, I think it is worthwhile to consider where we have come from with respect to oil. The choice for using oil in our transportation system was made at a time when climate change was not an issue, and that choice has revolutionized our way of life. We have been living in the golden age of oil and have seen global oil consumption more than triple in the past 50 years. Projections from sources such as the International Energy Agency, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and other sources indicate that global demand will continue to grow, albeit at a slower pace.

With the advent of new technologies in North America, such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, long horizontal wells, 3-D seismic surveys and steam-assisted gravity drainage, the world’s reserves of oil have been extended by several decades. Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States produce a third of all the oil in the world, the equivalent of more than 30 million barrels a day – and these three countries have shown that they are capable of increasing production even more.

Other key countries capable of significantly increasing production include Iran, Iraq, Brazil, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Venezuela and Canada.

There are 43 countries that produce over 100,000 barrels of oil a day and these countries are dependent on the significant taxes and other revenue that oil production generates. The positive economic impact of oil makes it difficult for countries to simply walk away from its production. We face that same reality in Alberta and Canada.

Ten years ago, experts spoke about “peak oil” and the economic consequences when supply would no longer meet demand. Today, we are speaking about “peak demand” – we have reached a point when we have too much supply. There is considerable uncertainty about the future balance between supply and demand for oil use in our transportation systems.

There is no question that the world is transitioning away from fossil fuels. What is not clear, however, is how many more decades we will still be using oil.

To start with, there is no ready-made replacement for it. This is unlike the case of coal, for example, where cheap natural gas can serve as an immediate substitute in North America. Substitutes for oil in vehicles exist – biofuels, natural gas, plug-in-hybrids, battery electric and hybrid electric – but they are not as convenient as gasoline and diesel. It is difficult for alternatives to compete with the high energy content, portability and range provided by oil products and the existing infrastructure that has been designed around these fuels.

That said, there are possibilities for breakthroughs, such as wireless charging, which could allow electric car owners to charge their vehicles as they drive. But this type of technology is still a long way from general use because of the infrastructure required to support it, and we still need the electricity source to be a low- or zero-carbon emitter.

We are also seeing rapid advances in engine and vehicle design that may reduce oil demand. This will be a positive outcome, since about 75 per cent of the emissions attributed to vehicle use come from burning gasoline and diesel when we drive. The other 25 per cent is production-related.

In an ideal world, the energy transition already would be well advanced but, realistically, oil is likely to remain our chief transportation fuel for some time yet. This means we have to take accelerated action to make oil resources more sustainable. In other words, we have to find ways to use less energy and other resources in the production of crude.

Eric Newell, best known for his years spent as CEO of oil sands company Syncrude Canada Ltd. and the current chairman of Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions, is fond of saying: “It is technology and innovation that has got us to where we are, and it is technology and innovation that we need to get us to the next stage.”

Managing oil sands greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be challenging. Currently, GHG emissions of oil-sands-derived crudes, on a life-cycle basis, are similar to other heavy crude from California, Venezuela, Mexico and China.

The near-term target is to have GHG emissions of Alberta oil sands below that of conventional crude. It is possible. Innovation, especially in the short term, can bring about a reduction of some 20- to 30-per-cent in the production and conversion of bitumen to transportation fuels, including:

  • Energy efficiency to reduce costs and energy intensity at the same time,
  • Co-generation (producing combined steam and power), and
  • New recovery technologies, such as use of solvents and electromagnetic heating.

Combined, these advances can make up the gap with conventional crude.

In the medium term, having a greener electricity grid will be a major asset as the world moves to electrification. Some of the processes in oil sands can benefit from switching to non-fossil-fuel-based green electricity.

Alberta has made a strong commitment to energy storage, in order to allow more renewables to come onto the grid. Fuel switching, increased use of renewables (wind and solar) and biofuels are essential components of a renewable strategy. Also, smart metering and energy conservation can help us take action day to day in Alberta.

In the longer term, to reduce oil sands emissions further, industry will need to consider the use of small modular nuclear reactors and/or carbon capture and storage. Today, these technologies have significant cost barriers and societal concerns to overcome.

Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions has a portfolio of a dozen CCS projects that are at different stages of development, and there are a couple that promise to cut costs by at least a third. We now need to advance these technologies to demonstrate this kind of performance in field operations.

At the same time, Albertans are advancing carbon utilization technologies that produce high-value goods from greenhouse gases, including production of chemicals. Conversion of carbon to valued products often requires power input. Such a power source has to be GHG-free – another reason to want a greener grid.

Lastly, we are starting to see academic work on uses for oil that go beyond burning it in vehicles. Can we find major new uses, such as using it to make carbon-fibre products that can be used as advanced materials to replace structural steel, or as carbon-reinforced wood?

There is a long way to go to fully understand the opportunities to turn oil and carbon into value-added products, but we need to quicken our pace.

Just as the Stone Age never ended because we learned to use stones for higher-valued products, the oil age may not have to end if we can find uses for carbon and oil that are of high value and non-emitting.

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67 Comments on "If the global energy industry innovates, the oil age may not have to end"

  1. Kenz300 on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 9:08 am 

    Wind and solar are the future……..

    Solar Beats Gas in Colorado – Renewable Energy World

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/articles/2015/08/solar-beats-gas-in-colorado.html
    Solar and Wind Just Passed Another Big Turning Point
    http://bloom.bg/1WK34MZ

  2. Rodster on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 9:36 am 

    “Climate Change is real….. we will all be impacted by it……”

    And so is Geoengineering aka climate modification and weather warfare !

  3. Boat on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 10:05 am 

    GregT on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 3:17 am
    Ed,
    What exactly do you believe that I have written above, is not factual, and is a matter of opinion? What debate do you believe still exists amongst the scientific community? And in what way do you believe that a point of view changes the scientific data?

    You need to read more. There plenty of climate change deniers around. they trot out their own scientists all the time for their own spin. Most of the Republican party are climate deniers. sometimes I worry about your perspective. Take off the blinders.

  4. Boat on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 10:09 am 

    Rodster,

    LOL at warfare weather. I read Texas was targeted by the government. A state that has a great need of water is now attacked by storms. I am sure the frackers would love a few more attacks.

  5. Rodster on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 10:40 am 

    “Rodster,
    LOL at warfare weather. I read Texas was targeted by the government. A state that has a great need of water is now attacked by storms. I am sure the frackers would love a few more attacks.”

    There’s been uncovered a 1978 government document (750 pages) that goes into detail what the US government along with other governments around the world have been doing both to the weather and climate.

  6. GregT on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 1:14 pm 

    Yes Rodster,

    Geoengineering/weather modification and weather warfare have even been addressed at the UN. The Environmental Modification Convention was signed into agreement in Geneva on October 5 of 1978.

    “The Convention bans weather warfare, which is the use of weather modification techniques for the purposes of inducing damage or destruction. The Convention on Biological Diversity of 2010 would also ban some forms of weather modification or geoengineering.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_Modification_Convention

    Unfortunately this has not stopped some “states” from continuing to do so.

  7. Rodster on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 1:41 pm 

    “Yes Rodster,
    Geoengineering/weather modification and weather warfare have even been addressed at the UN. The Environmental Modification Convention was signed into agreement in Geneva on October 5 of 1978.
    “The Convention bans weather warfare, which is the use of weather modification techniques for the purposes of inducing damage or destruction. The Convention on Biological Diversity of 2010 would also ban some forms of weather modification or geoengineering.”

    Thanks for that additional link. And Geoengineering is just as severe as CO2 Global Warming if not more. Since awakening to Geoengineering I have seen some of the weirdest clouds. I live in SW Florida and it’s pretty common to see silverish/blue skies, SQUARE CLOUDS shaped in a grid pattern as well as smeared clouds.

    Geoengineering has been going on since the 1950’s as a 1966 US Dept of Defense document points out. And the US Govt applauded the successful mission of Operation Popeye in Vietnam back in 1967.

  8. GregT on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 2:04 pm 

    CO2 induced global warming is an entirely different animal Rodster. The science has been well understood since the late 1800s.

  9. GregT on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 3:38 pm 

    “You need to read more. There plenty of climate change deniers around. they trot out their own scientists all the time for their own spin. Most of the Republican party are climate deniers. sometimes I worry about your perspective. Take off the blinders.”

    There have now been over 12,000 peer reviewed scientific papers on climate change and the consensus is overwhelming. 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real, and is human caused. There is no debate. There are plenty of people still in denial, and companies like Exxon continue to pay scientists to spread misinformation and dissent. If there is still any hope, which at this point is highly unlikely, an investigation into Exxon’s involvement is of utmost importance.

  10. GregT on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 3:45 pm 

    I also apologize for being a bit ‘harsh’ last night claman. I have children, and will in all likelihood be a grandfather this year as my daughter was married back in May.

    There have been proposals put forth to the EU and the UN for geo-engineering of the Arctic, to stop the melting of the permafrost and to increase the albedo effect. In no way has this been proven to be effective, and even if it was, we would need to stop adding more greenhouse gasses into the environment at the same time. I think it’s pretty safe to say that we aren’t doing that.

    The IPCC is a government panel. They have watered down the science and have even moved the goalposts. The original agreed upon global mean temperature do not exceed limit was 1 degree C, to give us a 50/50 chance of triggering a runaway greenhouse event. We are currently at ~1.2 degrees C and will continue to climb for several decades even if we completely stop burning all fossil fuels now.

    The only hope that we really have is for the vast majority of people to understand the implications of further CO2 emissions, and to understand how extremely dire our situation already is. This will only come through education and discussion. It is not going to come through the main stream media. This will not stop what is already baked into the cake, unfortunately, and in all likelihood we are too late to stop a runaway event, which appears to have already been triggered.

    So in reality hope is nothing more than futility. People need to get mad. Everyone needs to start doing their part to vastly reduce their own emissions, and we all need to rally together to put an end to modern industrial society and to demand an immediate buildout of alternate energy infrastructure. Food production is also of immediate importance, and isn’t even on most people’s radar.

    Adaptation is key. Move away from areas of large population density, get involved in a small local community, and learn how to grow your own food. Reduce dependance on fossil fuels, and think sustainability. Plan for the best, but expect the worst, because the worst is in all likelihood where we are headed.

  11. onlooker on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 4:03 pm 

    Yes I would add that this group of scientists mostly British calling itself AMEG- Arctic Methane Emergency Group has called for immediate Geo-Engineering to halt the melt of Arctic Sea Ice. Also, Greg unfortunately the scenario of the country side being overrun is much too possible. Basically, one should think as far away from anyone or anything as possible.

  12. Rodster on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 5:37 pm 

    “The IPCC is a government panel. They have watered down the science and have even moved the goalposts. The original agreed upon global mean temperature do not exceed limit was 1 degree C, to give us a 50/50 chance of triggering a runaway greenhouse event. We are currently at ~1.2 degrees C and will continue to climb for several decades even if we completely stop burning all fossil fuels now.”

    That’s my problem with Climate Scientists as well. First it was 1c, now it’s 2c above baseline. Then it was 350 PPM of CO2 now it’s don’t cross over 450 PPM as i’ve read we already hit 450 PPM. It’s like they threaten disaster and when life goes on, they change the number even higher.

    I believe that we are in deep shit with all the fossil fuels we have burned and all the carbon we put in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. But i’ll add that the other elephant in the room is Geoengineering which in it’s own way is equally as bad because those that are behind it are playing God with the weather and climate. My stance has been that all of our current and future environmental nightmares are not solely based on Climate Change and the carbon we have dumped into the atmosphere and Geoengineering is not 100& responsible for it either. They are both a bad and lethal cocktail mix. And if these jokers keep trying to fix one problem with Geoengineering, we may not have a habitable planet in a 100-150 years.

    The other problem with each side of the argument is that they marginalize each other. You have Dane Wigington who thinks Guy McPherson is not approaching the problem correctly and Guy McPherson thinks Dane Wigington is trying to find the flying spaghetti monster.

    Meanwhile we have rising sea levels in low lying areas of South Florida and the Florida Keys.

  13. apneaman on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 6:34 pm 

    2c is an economic target not scientific. The scientific upper limit was always 1c, where were at now. Too bad at least another 1.7 is locked in and that does not include most positive feedbacks. And we ain’t finished.The IPCC policy recommendations has been corrupted from day one. There was never any intention of stopping or slowing down by TPTB. Power does not work that way.

    [Part 1] Exposé | The 2º Death Dance – The 1º Cover-up

    https://thebiggestlieevertold.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/part-1-expose-the-2%C2%BA-death-dance-%E2%80%93-the-1%C2%BA-cover-up/

    Part II – Exposé | The 2º Death Dance – The 1º Cover-up

    https://canadianclimateaction.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/part-ii-expose-the-2%C2%BA-death-dance-%E2%80%93-the-1%C2%BA-cover-up/

  14. makati1 on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 8:24 pm 

    Davy, I read your rant this time. You need to be careful of your blood pressure or you will not get to next year.

    I don’t give a damn what you think about my comments. Your view is typical American ‘one percenter’ thinking. The indoctrination runs deep doesn’t it?

    I know that most here are happier than Americans although they have nothing. That is why I think they will survive what is coming better than any American. Typhoons and floods are part of life here. Not exceptions, like in the US. The deaths from the environment are still less than on the roads of America or the murders in America. They have been happening for millennia and are a part of life here.

    No-one in the Us is living like the 3rd world. No one. Yet. You have no idea what it is like, but, you will, and soon.

    BTW: The last typhoon came over the farm and took down one old tree and bent over a few that are now recovering. The tree will be converted to charcoal by our care taker for his use. The neighbors weathered it ok and are moving on with their life. As am I. I enjoy every day here. That is what life is all about.

  15. Davy on Sun, 1st Nov 2015 8:48 pm 

    Makster, how wonderful, you broke your silence and with such a sweet comment. It is so delightful to get under your skin. You are such a silly old man filled with hate and contempt how can I resist such enjoyment.

  16. makati1 on Mon, 2nd Nov 2015 1:58 am 

    I will drop in an read your rants occasionally. But they never change. Look in the mirror at the narrow-minded, brainwashed American pretending to prepare for the end by having hired help and machines to make it work. Who jets off to some vacation spot with his 1%er family occasionally to ‘relieve the stress’ and ‘relax’.

    I would be more impressed if you had 10 acres and did the work yourself or with the help of your wife and kids. But you are a 1%er, pretending to be a doomer, not the real thing.

  17. Davy on Mon, 2nd Nov 2015 6:32 am 

    Wow, Makster, two comments. I must have really got under your ugly clammy hateful skin. Your words do not bother me but your response gives me much pleasure.

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