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There Will Be Fuel

The august New York Times on Wednesday, 17 November had a special section on Energy. The lead article by one Clifford Krauss (unidentified in the article) asserts that there will be ample fuel for all purposes for the forseeable future, albeit with some minor problems. As authority he quotes William M. Colton, vice president for global planning for Exxon-Mobil and Robert N. Ryan, Jr., vice president for global exploration for Chevron, as though they had no axe to grind and are completely impartial. No chance that they are self-serving.

In fact there have been a number of new discoveries of oil deposits, particularly in the deep offshore waters of Brazil and Africa, and the oil sands of Western Canada have been exploited such that now more oil is imported into the U.S. from Canada than from Saudi Arabia. Although the EROI on new deposits creeps closer and closer to 1, “experts” behave as though there are no significant obstacles to having all the fossil fuel we might desire. This is fraught with so many issues, ethical, moral, practical, ecological, and technological, that I almost don’t know where to begin.

Here’s one. While it is true that Canadian oil sands have been producing significant amounts of oil after decades of assuming it would be too expensive, it isn’t nearly as rosy as usually presented. The truth is, no oil is produced directly from the oil sands. What is produced is bitumen, a material that is so thick it is virtually a solid. This bitumen must be processed into a synthetic oil, usually by a process of hydrogenation. OK. Where does the hydrogen come from? Most often it comes from steam reforming of hydrocarbons. That is, the hydrogen necessary for converting bitumen into synthetic light sweet crude comes from other oil or equivalent. No free lunch.

The bitumen itself comes from the Athabasca deposit, which is the largest of three deposits situated primarily in the Canadian province of Alberta. Taken together, the three deposits are said to contain more oil equivalent than the rest of the world combined. While this may or may not be true, the cost to recover most of it is presently economically infinite. The small (relatively) area where recovery is feasible and where all of the present activity is located comprises about ten percent of the Athabasca deposit, and less than five percent of the whole. This is the only area where the bitumen lies relatively close to the surface, and can be extracted using open pit methods. Open pit operations have the added feature of making the countryside ugly, and contaminated by the chemicals and such used.

It is safe to assume that it will be a while before it becomes economically feasible to work the remainder of the Alberta deposits. In my opinion, that’s a good thing, too. If you were to believe the Wikipedia entry for oil sands, you might be forgiven for thinking that everything is just rosy. You would search in vain for any serious consideration of the environmental impact even of the present limited open pit operations, to say nothing of the potential effects if the entire deposits were to be exploited. In the Wikipedia discussion we learn that almost nothing is actually known of the ecological consequences of such an eventuality.

Most of the writing about future energy supplies focuses on how much there will be. If a way might be found to supply all the energy desired then it will be utilized, no questions asked. The bulk of the population thinks it has a God-given right to all the energy it can get (libertarians all) and an abiding fear of not having it. It is perplexing to me how so many cannot imagine what life was like before the appearance of the latest gizmo, gadget, thingumbob, or other mindless “stuff.” Thus the Times article makes only passing reference to the consequences of continuing burning of fossil fuels, and “misunderestimates” (as GWB might say) the energy usage plans of rising powers such as India or China. Thus estimates are that there will be 3 or 4 billion cars on the road by 2050, but only a 30 percent increase in energy demand. This makes no sense whatsoever.

Contemporary society is directed by corporate shills or pitch-men toward instant gratification of puerile and trivial desires. This facilitates profit, a docile population, and neglect of ecological consequence. Unless and until we move as a society toward deliberately using less energy the “civilization” will inexorably degrade, eventually irreversibly.

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