28 September 2005

Energy and the Fossil Fuel Situation: Douglas Woodard

(exerpt) Link Here

It appears that the world's production of conventional oil will peak sometime in the period 2005 to 2015. The peak will probably be flat-topped and about 10 years after the centre of the peak a decline of around 3% per year will be established.

The world natural gas peak is predicted for about 15 years after the oil peak. However, the leading countries for natural gas reserves are Russia and Iran. North America is not well favoured. The North American natural gas peak is probably occurring now. Due to certain characteristics of natural gas wells, the peak will be sharper than for oil.

Reserves of unconventional oil in the form of tar-like bitumen deposits occur in northern Alberta and in Venezuela. Alberta has accessible reserves equal to about 10 years of world oil consumption at current rates, with a further 60 years worth for which accessibility is doubtful to unlikely. Venezuela has about as much again.

One problem with these bitumen deposits is that about 15% (at present) of the gross energy available in the bitumen must be consumed directly to extract and process the material to oil. A much higher capital investment is needed than for conventional oil wells, and this plant requires aditional energy for its construction. Therefore, the "net energy" (please remember this idea) available from "tar sands" deposits is less.

This problem of declining net energy also appears in drilling deeper wells on land and in accessing oil and gas deposits under the sea. Some fossil fuel deposits will be left in the earth, because getting them out would devour so much energy that the effort would be profitless in energy terms alone.

Probably the net energy yield of tar sands will decline in future.

As the tar sands deposits are landlocked, transport from them is expensive and the bitumen is mixed with sand and other materials, processing must take place near the deposits. This means that the air pollution from burning very large amounts of fossil fuels will be concentrated in northern Alberta and northwestern Saskatchewan, which will be especially serious in winter. It is estimated that the extraction of the roughly 300 billion barrels (oil equivalent) which appears to be accessible with current or foreseeable technology will result in the creation of a lake of oily water and sludge the size of Lake Ontario. Thus the exploitation of the tar sands on a very large scale would involve the relegation of much of northeastern Alberta and northwestern Saskatchewan to the status of continental sacrifice areas, to be destroyed for the benefit of the urban lifestyles, and the "car culture" of the more densely inhabited areas of the continent.

Due to the high capital investment needed, labour requirements and environmental factors, industry opinion seems to be that the tar sands will be exploited in a different pattern than conventional oil, much more steadily over a period of 100 years or more.

However, social and political pressures as other sources of fossil fuel decline, may clash with economics and the environment. The energy economics will likely win, but there may be some "collateral damage" in this battle. If the process by which future American leaders learn from reality follows the same pattern as for the current administration, which is to say they learn through high-impact collisions, the outlook for Canadians is not good.

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