I have a theory. But I don’t have access to the data to confirm or deny it. The data is in the hands of the oil and gas companies, and private oil industry data concerns, who charge a lot of money for access to the data. Some data might become public soon, as the International Energy Agency, the IEA, have made a commitment to opening up their databases, but I don’t know when this will be.
The data I would need to assess my theory regards the chemical composition of Natural Gas from a range of fields and wells, and its evolution over time. Although some data about chemical quality exists in the public domain, such as crude assays for various petroleum oils, and is published in various places, such as Eni’s annual review, and a handful of academic research papers regarding prospects for gas in some regions or countries, there is little to go on for a global view from gas analyses.
The European Union has announced a plan to “get off” Russian fossil fuel dependency (addiction), but I would contend that they would need to do it anyway, regardless of the incentive to “cancel” Russian oil and gas in sanction over Russia’s unspeakable acts of terror and aggression in their invasion of Ukraine. My view is that the rationale for an early exit from Russian fossil fuel supplies is all to do with the chemistry.
Gas fields and oil basins deplete, that we all know. The easy, good stuff gets emptied out first, and then the clever engineers are commissioned to suck out the last remaining dregs. So-called “sweet spots”, where easy, good stuff has accumulated over the ages, are quickly pumped dry, and investors and management push for the assets to be sweated, but it’s a game of diminishing returns.
If you look for a mention of problem contaminants, such as sulfur compounds and heavy metals, the publicly, freely-available literature is quite thin on the ground – even general discussion of the global overview – in other words, it is noticeable by its absence.
Natural Gas with high levels of inherent carbon dioxide has started to merit explicit mention, because of climate change mitigation efforts, but even there, there is not much in terms of basins, fields and wells by numbers and locations, and over timespans.
There was quite a lot of discussion about the procedure of reinjection of acid and sour gases, starting in the early 1990s or so, pumping unwanted molecules from contaminated or sub-standard Natural Gas back underground, after separation at or close to the well head. This was partly to answer climate change concerns, but also to enhance further oil and gas recovery from emptying wells. This has been known mostly by the term EOR – enhanced oil recovery. Bad gas was being pumped, then filtered, and the bad fraction was being pumped back down to build up pressure to get more gas and oil out.
There has also been a lot of very public discussion of the project to mitigate gas venting and gas flaring, as a potentially easy win against environmental damage – including climate change burden. Unburned Natural Gas has been routinely vented to the atmosphere from locations where gas was not the principal product from wells, or where it has been costly to install gas capture equipment. Unburned Natural Gas vented to air leeches methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, two of which are climate change-sparking greenhouse gases, and the other, a local toxin to all forms of life. But flaring unwanted Natural Gas is only marginally less dangerous, as it still emits carbon dioxide to air, as well as sulfur dioxide, and potentially some nitrogen oxides (and sometimes, still, some hydrogen sulfide) : and sulfur dioxide interferes with local temperatures through localised greenhouse cooling; sulfur dioxide is also a local environmental pollutant; and both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, in addition to the carbon dioxide, lead to acidification of air, water and soils. Obviously, it would be better to capture any currently unwanted Natural Gas, and make use of it in the economy, processing it somewhere in a way that can reduce the environmental disbenefits that would have come from venting or flaring it in the field.
However, discussion about venting and flaring of Natural Gas and the attempts to stem it centre on the potency of emissions of fossil methane as a short-term greenhouse gas, and there is little discussion of the emissions of fossil carbon dioxide and fossil sulfur compounds that are part of that unwanted Natural Gas.
Trying to drill down into the geography and localised basin- and field-specific gas composition is near-nigh impossible without insider access to data, or some kind of large budget for data. Public reports, such as the financial and annual reports of companies, focus on levels of Natural Gas production, but not the amounts of rejected molecules from the production yield – the molecules of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen and so on that don’t make it into the final gas product. Keeping up production is discussed in terms of sales revenue and investment in exploration and production, but not in terms of the economic costs of bad chemistry.
Over time, oil and gas production companies must explore for new reserves that they can bring to production – often within their already-tapped resource base – because old fields empty, until well production starts slowing down, and become uneconomic to continue pumping. But running down the reserves, and having to find new locations within basins and fields to drill new wells is not the only issue. Oil and gas are not monolithic : resources vary in terms of accessibility, temperature, pressure, geology, but also chemistry – even within fields; and over time and operating conditions – which can even be seasonal.
Contaminants can be concentrated in one particular area, or at one particular pre-historic geological stratum or layer : the formation of the sediments. Not only that, but over time, oil and gas wells can sour, that is, production can experience increasing levels of hydrogen sulfide and other sulfur compounds. They can also show increasing production levels of inert non-combustible or acid-producing chemical species, mainly carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
As drilling goes deeper, the more likely inert, sour and acid gases are to occur, as the deposits will have had more time to mature, and reach temperatures where gas generation from organic matter is more likely than oil generation : the “gas window” depends on such things as temperature, pressure and time. And more gas can signal more non-useful molecules.
The deeper you go, the higher the risk of your Natural Gas being contaminated with hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen; as the deposits have cooked for too long. The presence of significant levels of sulfur compounds is credited to rock-oil and rock-gas chemical interactions known as TSR – thermochemical sulfate reduction – between hydrocarbons and sulfate-bearing rocks.
In addition, drilling a well can lead to BSR – bacterial sulfate reduction – where bacterial life starts to work on sulfate present in any water as the hydrocarbons are raised from the depths and depressurise and cool.
The closer to the source rocks drilling goes, the black shales, high in organic matter, from which all hydrocarbon oils and gases originate, the higher the risk of pumping up heavy metals where there are metal sulfides clustered.
Although wells can sour over time, especially if acid gas is reinjected to dispose of it, fields can even be highly acid or sour right from the get-go. For decades, some sour and acid resources were listed as proven reserves, but were considered too uneconomic to mine. But during the last decade or so, increasing numbers of sour gas projects have commenced.
The engineering can be incredible, but the chemistry is still wrong. With new international treaties, sulfur cannot be retained in fuels, so where does it end up ? Rejected sulfur atoms largely end up in abandoned pyramids of yellow granules, or on the sulfur market, and a lot is used to make sulfuric acid, a key industrial chemical, used for such things as the production of fertilisers, explosives, and petrochemicals. But after the sulfuric acid is used, where does the sulfur end up ? As sulfate in water, that drains to the sea ? And what about the granulated sulfur from the mega sour gas projects ? Some of that is used as soil treatment, as a fertiliser, either directly, or as part of ammonium sulfate. But after it is used, what happens to the sulfur ? Does it become sulfate in water, that courses to the ocean ? And what happens to it there ? How much is fossil sulfur going to contribute to ocean anoxia through BSR generation of hydrogen sulfide ?
Sulfur atoms don’t just disappear. It will take many millenia for the mined fossil sulfur to be incorporated back into sedimentary sulfides or rocks. As increasingly sour oils and gases are increasingly used, the question of the perturbation of the global sulfur cycle (as well as the global sulfur market) becomes relevant.
At what point will the balance tip, and high sulfur deposits of fossil fuels become untenable ?
In addition to management of the fossil sulfur mined during the exploitation of chemically-challenged Natural Gas, there are other important considerations about emissions.
Satellite monitoring of “trace” greenhouse and environmentally-damaging gases, such as sulfur dioxide and methane, is constantly evolving to support international calls for emissions reduction and control. For example, analyses of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry have pinpointed three geographical areas of concern for the locations of “ultra-emitters” : the United States, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan. A lot of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry could be stemmed, but the question needs to be asked : is it worth opening up new gas fields, with all the infrastructure and risks of increased methane and other emissions ? And if the major explanation for methane emissions in gas drilling are connected to end-of-life fields, what incentives could be offered to cap those emissions, given the lack of an economic case, at so late a stage in the exploitation of assets ?
And so, to Russia.
A great variety of commentators have been working hard to put forward their theories about why Russia chose to launch a violent, cruel and destructive military assault on Ukraine in early 2022. Some suppose that Russia is looking to build out its empire, occupying lands for grain production and transportation routes, gaining control over peoples for slave labour, removing the irritant of social or political threat. Arguments about the ownership of territory, rightfully or wrongfully. Historically revisionist or revanchist philosophies are identified in the output from Russian voices and political narrative. However, there does not appear to be a truly justifying rationale for a war arising from these pseudo-historical caricatures. Even if the territory of Ukraine could be deemed, by some internal Russian legal process, to belong to some concocted Greater Russian Federation, it would require a lot of magical thinking to believe it would gain traction in the wider sphere.
Some see Russia’s actions as vindictive or retaliatory, but to assert this with any validity would require explaining what has really changed to justify the recent major escalation in one-sided aggression from Russia, action that has lasted for some time, principally since 2014.
What can really be driving Russia’s murderous marauding, the bombing of civilian districts, wanton infrastructure destruction, people snatching, torture basements and all forms of intimate, personal aggression and attack ?
I decided to do some reading, and I went back to 2004/2005 to do so, and then realised I should have gone back further, to the time of Vladimir Putin’s “ascension” to the Presidency of the Russian Federation.
Putin appears to have control issues, and seems to want to impress his will on absolutely any person and any organisation he comes across, up to and including whole countries. The means are various, and the medium also. There is continual “hybrid” warfare; and the evidence suggests that Russia has interfered with foreign democracy, for example, by playing the joker in the memetic transfer of ideologies and “fake news” through social media; used blackmail in “diplomacy”; used strong-arm tactics in trade and investment; and locked international energy companies into corrupting, compromising deals.
By far the most injurious behaviour, however, has been the outright military assaults he has ordered to be launched on lands and people groups, both inside and around the outside of Russia. I will leave the details to expert military historians and human rights organisations, but the pattern of the annihilation visited on many areas of Ukraine since early in 2022 is not new. There appears to be no dialogue possible to restrain Putin’s sadistic army of Zombies (Z) and Vampires (V).
But just what made this happen ? What was really behind Putin’s decision to launch an invasion on Ukraine ? It wasn’t to de-Nazify. That’s just weak and quite bizarre propaganda, that cannot hold together. He knows there are far fewer ultra-right wing cultists in Ukraine than in Moscow. The “war” wasn’t to protect Russian speakers. Many people in Ukraine speak several languages, and none of them have been safe from the rampaging hordes of Russian “orcs”. The invasion wasn’t to defend the Putin-styled Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, as people there don’t feel defended from anything nasty the Russians seem to visit on everybody they invade, or the military responses of the Ukrainian forces, something the Russians could have anticipated. If Russia really cared about the people in the Donbas, they wouldn’t have brought troops there. The warfare isn’t benefitting or supporting any pro-Russian factions or Russian-speakers in Ukraine, and the only thing that looks like Nazis are the Russian Nasties.
It has come into focus for me from my reading that there seem to be three major, real, potential or probable reasons for Russia seeking to have overt, administrative, and if necessary, military control of the southern, littoral part of Ukraine; and my reading suggests that this is an outworking of the maritime policy of the Russian Federation going back at least 20 years.
I intend to give a list of my resources for reading later on, but for now, let’s begin with a Tweet thread from Dmitri Alperovitch, which really resonated for me :-
He makes the point that with Russian forces control the coastal area of Ukraine, and its ports and seafaring routes, they will have a stranglehold on the economy of Ukraine. If the Russians deny grain and other agricultural exports, or deny the proceeds from export sales, then the Ukrainian economy will be seriously damaged. In addition, the continual bombing and mining of agricultural lands means that crops are already at risk this year in Ukraine, which will add to these woes. There is already some discussion about the effects on the importers of Ukrainian grain in particular, as it has been a “bread basket of the world”.
It is easy to see from maps of the fighting that controlling the coastal ports must have been a major part of the reason for the Russian invasion, but the triggering of conflict is surely not just about control of the trade routes in and out of Ukraine, as a means to squeeze the country into submission.
It’s clear from my reading so far that Russia has an historical and significant ambition to control more of the maritime routes in that region. Russia clearly didn’t like the awkwardness of having to share the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. They’d rather just run all of it, apparently. Russia appears to regard rulership of the “warm seas” to the south of Federation lands as vital to their aims. There are mentions of improving the waterway routes from the Caspian, through the Black Sea, out to the Mediterranean, to permit military vessels to exert control in the region, and to enable Russian trade. The Russians built a contested bridge to Crimea, but they may end up building vast new canals as well. Are you listening yet, Turkey ?
This is grandiose enough, but this is still not the end of Russia’s aims in taking over the coast of Ukraine, it could transpire.
What floats on top of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, the Mediterranean Sea and the Caspian Sea is important enough, but what lies beneath is far more important, I am beginning to find in my reading.
There has been a couple of decades or so of development of newly-discovered oil and gas resources around the Caspian Sea. Russia even acted quite collaboratively initially with the other countries bordering co-littorally. Although it hasn’t been very happy since in some parts of the region. Due to Russian military carpet-bombing and martial illegalities, in some cases.
But despite oil- and gas-aplenty, for example, in the Kashagan, fossil fuel deposits there are really rather sour, that is, loaded with sulfur compounds; particularly hydrogen sulfide, which is corrosive, explosive and needs to be removed before the fossil fuels can be utilised. That, coupled with the anoxic and difficult conditions of the undersea mining, mean that Russia has looked elsewhere to build up new proved resources, as they have become necessary.
There was much talk of Russia going to drill in the Arctic; but even with melting ice from global warming, conditions north of the Arctic Circle are tough, and the offshore prospects are likely to be costly. Yes, they might end up trying to keep their rights to trade LNG from the far North, but the “cold seas” make for harsh economic conditions.
After years of stagnating Natural Gas production in Russia, more gas fields have been opened up in the Yamal Peninsula, but they only have a half life of approximately ten to fifteen years, perhaps. And judging by other gas fields, some parts of them could be extremely contaminated with sulfur compounds, which would lead to extra costs in cleaning the products up for sale and piping out for export.
And then came the Mediterranean and Black Sea seismic surveys and gas prospecting. What was found ? Sweet, sweet gas. Little in the way of sulfur contamination, and continental sea conditions, as opposed to stormy oceans. There are many countries that border both bodies of water that have been rapidly developing Natural Gas projects, eager to jump right in and tap as much as they can from fields, presumably before other countries tap into the same fields from another entry point.
There is some evidence that the primary goal for Russia in invading Crimea in 2014 was to secure control of Ukraine’s Natural Gas production projects in the Black Sea. Ukraine had been at the mercy of Russia’s energy “policy” for decades (which seems to consist mostly of what looks like : threat, supply cuts, blackmail, extortion, compromise, false accusation, unjustifiable price hikes), and now it was about to start developing a new sizeable domestic resource, and could conceivably become energy-independent. It could have been too much for Vladimir Putin to bear, thinking that Ukraine could become the masters and mistresses of their own energy destiny. He wanted the sales of that Natural Gas for himself, and deny Ukraine control over their own economy. Hence what has been described as the “theft” of energy company, oil and gas rigs, other utility holdings and the EEZ maritime exclusive exploitation zone out at sea. Oh Chornomornaftogaz !
If Russia establish control of the whole of Southern Ukraine, recognised or no, they will almost inevitably be seeking to exploit as much of the Black Sea Natural Gas as they can. It will be cleaner than Caspian gas, cheaper than Arctic gas, and easier to export as ship-laden LNG.
So, I ask again, why did Russia invade Ukraine ? To take advantage of ten to fifteen years of sweet, cheap Black Sea Natural Gas ? Is that really what this is actually about ?
The European Union has declared that they will wind down their use of Natural Gas, and develop Renewable Gas instead over the next decade. There will be a divorce from Russian gas, because of this policy, and as a reaction to the invasion of Ukraine.
I would argue however, that this policy is needed not just because of climate change, and not simply as a reaction to unjustifiable horrors of aggression. The future of gas sourced from Russia is either sour or stolen, and so the European Union has no choice but to wean itself away.
To support my theory, I would need to have access to gas composition analysis by the major oil and gas companies of Russia, and the countries surrounding the Caspian, Black Sea, Sea of Azov and Mediterranean Sea, and the companies working on oil and gas projects onshore and offshore in the region.
I have made a few enquiries, but nothing has emerged as yet.