In Confab : Paul Elsner

Dr Paul Elsner of Birkbeck College at the University of London gave up some of his valuable time for me today at his little bijou garret-style office in Bloomsbury in Central London, with an excellent, redeeming view of the British Telecom Tower. Leader of the Energy and Climate Change module on Birkbeck’s Climate Change Management programme, he offered me tea and topical information on Renewable Energy, and some advice on discipline in authorship.

He unpacked the recent whirlwind of optimism surrounding the exploitation of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, and how Climate Change policy is perhaps taking a step back. He said that we have to accept that this is the way the world is at the moment.

I indicated that I don’t have much confidence in the “Shale Bubble”. I consider it mostly as a public relations exercise – and that there are special conditions in the United States of America where all this propaganda comes from. I said that there are several factors that mean the progress with low carbon fuels continues to be essential, and that Renewable Gas is likely to be key.

1. First of all, the major energy companies, the oil and gas companies, are not in a healthy financial state to make huge investment. For example, BP has just had the legal ruling that there will be no limit to the amount of compensation claims they will have to face over the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Royal Dutch Shell meanwhile has just had a serious quarterly profit warning – and if that is mostly due to constrained sales (“Peak Oil Demand”) because of economic collapse, that doesn’t help them with the kind of aggressive “discovery” they need to continue with to keep up their Reserves to Production ratio (the amount of proven resources they have on their books). These are not the only problems being faced in the industry. This problem with future anticipated capitalisation means that Big Oil and Gas cannot possibly look at major transitions into Renewable Electricity, so it would be pointless to ask, or try to construct a Carbon Market to force it to happen.

2. Secondly, despite claims of large reserves of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, ripe for the exploitation of, even major bodies are not anticipating that Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas will be delayed by many years by the “Shale Gale”. The reservoir characteristics of unconventional fossil fuel fields do not mature in the same way as conventional ones. This means that depletion scenarios for fossil fuels are still as relevant to consider as the decades prior to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

3. Thirdly, the reservoir characteristics of conventional fossil fuel fields yet to exploit, especially in terms of chemical composition, are drifting towards increasingly “sour” conditions – with sigificant levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide in them. The sulphur must be removed for a variety of reasons, but the carbon dioxide remains an issue. The answer until recently from policy people would have been Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. Carbon dioxide should be washed from acid Natural Gas and sequestered under the ocean in salt caverns that previously held fossil hydrocarbons. It was hoped that Carbon Markets and other forms of carbon pricing would have assisted with the payment for CCS. However, recently there has been reduced confidence that this will be significant.

Renewable Gas is an answer to all three of these issues. It can easily be pursued by the big players in the current energy provision system, with far less investment than wholesale change would demand. It can address concerns of gas resource depletion at a global scale, the onset of which could occur within 20 to 25 years. And it can be deployed to bring poor conventional fossil fuels into consideration for exploitation in the current time – answering regional gas resource depletion.

Outside, daffodils were blooming in Tavistock Square. In January, yes. The “freaky” weather continues…

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