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|So, the EIA say that the world has 10 years of shale oil resources which are technically recoverable. Woo hoo. We’ll pass over the question of why the American Department of Energy are guiding global energy policy, and why this glowing pronouncement looks just like the mass propaganda exercise for shale gas assessments that kicked off a few years ago, and move swiftly on to the numbers.
|No, actually, not straight on to the numbers. It shouldn’t take a genius to work out the public relations strategy for promoting increasingly dirtier fossil fuels. First, they got us accustomed to the idea of shale gas, and claimed without much evidence, that it was as “clean” as Natural Gas, and far, far cleaner than coal. Data that challenges this myth continues to be collected. Meanwhile, now we are habituated to accepting without reason the risks of subsurface and ground water reservoir destruction by hydraulic fracturing, we should be pliable enough to accept the next step up – oil shale oil fracking. And then the sales team can move on to warm us up to cruddier unconventionals, like bitumen exhumed from tar sands, and mining unstable sub-sea clathrates.
Why do the oil and gas companies of the world and their trusted allies in the government energy departments so desperately want us to believe in the saving power of shale oil and gas ? Why is it necessary for them to pursue such an environmentally threatening course of product development ? Can it be that the leaders of the developed world and their industry experts recognise, but don’t want to admit to, Peak Oil, and its twin wraith, Peak Natural Gas, that will shadow it by about 10 to 15 years ?
A little local context – UK oil production is falling like a stone – over the whole North Sea area. Various efforts have been made to stimulate new investment in exploration and discovery. The overall plan for the UK Continental Shelf has included opening up prospects via licence to smaller players in the hope of getting them to bet the farm, and if they come up trumps, permitted the larger oil and gas companies to snaffle up the small fry.
But really, the flow of Brent crude oil is getting more expensive to guarantee. And it’s not just the North Sea – the inverse pyramid of the global oil futures market is teeteringly wobbly, even though Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) are now included in petroleum oil production figures. Cue panic stations at the Coalition (Oilition) Government offices – frantic rustling of review papers ahoy.
To help them believe it’s not all over, riding into view from the stables of Propaganda Central, come the Six Horsemen of Unconventional Fossil Fuels : Tar Sands, Shale Gas, Shale Oil (Oil Shale Oil), Underground Coal Gasification, Coalbed Methane and Methane Hydrates.
Shiny, happy projections of technically recoverable unconventional (night)mares are always lumped together, like we are able to suddenly open up the ground and it starts pouring out hydrocarbon goodies at industrial scale volumes. But no. All fossil fuel development is gradual – especially at the start of going after a particular resource. In the past, sometimes things started gushing or venting, but those days are gone. And any kind of natural pump out of the lithosphere is entirely absent for unconventional fossil fuels – it all takes energy and equipment to extract.
And so we can expect trickles, not floods. So, will this prevent field depletion in any region ? No. It’s not going to put off Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas – it literally cannot be mined fast enough. Even if there are 10 years of current oil production volumes that can be exploited via mining oil shale, it will come in dribs and drabs, maybe over the course of 50 to 100 years. It might prolong the Peak Oil plateau by a year or so – that’s barely a ripple. Unconventional gas might be more useful, but even this cannot delay the inevitable. For example, despite the USA shale gas “miracle”, as the country continues to pour resources and effort into industrialising public lands, American Peak Natural Gas is still likely to be only 5 years, or possibly scraping 10 years, behind Global Peak Natural Gas which will bite at approximately 2030 or 2035-ish. I suspect this is why EIA charts of future gas production never go out beyond 2045 or so :-
Ask a mathematician to model growth in unconventional fossil fuels compared to the anticipated and actual decline in “traditional” fossil fuels, and ask if unconventionals will compensate. They will not.
The practice for oil and gas companies is to try to maintain shareholder confidence by making sure they have a minimum of 10 years of what is known as Reserves-to-Production ratio or R/P. By showing they have at least a decade of discovered resources, they can sell their business as a viable investment. Announcing that the world has 10 years of shale oil it can exploit sounds like a healthy R/P, but in actual fact, there is no way this can be recovered in that time window. The very way that this story has been packaged suggests that we are being encouraged to believe that the fossil fuel industry are a healthy economic sector. Yet it is so facile to debunk that perspective.
People, it’s time to divest your portfolios of oil and gas concerns. If they have to start selling us the wonders of bitumen and kerogen, the closing curtain cannot be far away from dropping.
They think it’s not all over, but it so clearly must be.