Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
There’s a discussion over at Judith Curry’s excellent blog, about peak oil. I find the whole madness surrounding peak oil to be one more example of our human love for warnings of future disaster. Few people want to hear that tomorrow will be OK, that things will work out. Instead, most folks want to hear some terrible story about what tomorrow holds, whether it’s peak oil or climate meltdown or the coming ice age. Go figure.
One part of the discussion of peak oil that has always bothered me is the division of oil into “conventional oil” and “unconventional oil”. Here’s why I think that division makes no sense with regards to peak oil.
I’ve lived through much of the whole peak oil deal, which near as I can tell has turned into a half-century-long goat roping contest. During the earlier years, people were shouting that the oil would run out, that the top would be very soon now, we’d hit the peak and by gosh, at that point things would turn ugly. Of course, that still hasn’t happened, so the peak oilers were left with the question pondered by failed doomcasters throughout history, viz:
How the heck do I explain the cratering of my position and still maintain some shred of my reputation?
For the peak oil folks, salvation came in the form of “unconventional oil”. Now, we’re assured, oil is still running out, so they were right all along … You see, they say, King Hubbert was right, we’re running out of conventional oil, but as it runs out it is being seamlessly replaced by “unconventional oil”, so we still have oil even though we’re running out of oil. Got it?
The strange part is, when you open a barrel of unconventional oil to see what conventions were broken in its creation, you find it is indistinguishable from conventional oil.
What is unconventional oil? Well, we could start by considering the conventions regarding oil. For literally billions of years the convention was that oil was found in small pools and seeps like you see in Figure 1. Indeed, the discovery of oil in Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, the site of the first US oil well, came about because oil had been seeping out there for untold centuries, and had been known and utilized by the Early Asian Immigrants in the area before the later arrival of the melanin-deficient crowd.
So conventional oil, by ancient hallowed convention handed down through the millennia, is found in tar pits and oil seeps on the surface. Which means that people being so rash as to drill for oil, by definition, would be pumping up “unconventional oil” … but of course, life is not that simple.
As a result, “conventional oil” is not from the conventional method of dipping it up in a bucket from a seep, but by the decidedly unconventional and at that time unheard of method of drilling a hole in the earth to get it to come out …
Things went along just fine like that for years. Then “secondary recovery” methods started to come into use. These were a variety of physical and chemical methods used to squeeze more oil out of existing fields, including fracturing the rock to allow the oil to come out more easily.
Now, about this time, the whole “peak oil” story started to go south, because no matter how much peak oilers howled there was more oil discovered every year. Every year the proved reserves just kept growing. And that process has continued to this very day, with more proved reserves than ever. How were the peak oilers to explain it? Hey, “unconventional oil” to the rescue!
For example, thinner oils were “conventional”, but thicker, more tarry deposits, despite having been utilized by humans for centuries, were “unconventional” oil, so they weren’t counted regarding the peak.
The real laugher, however, the place where you can see the gears stripping, involves the “conventions” about fracturing the rocks to allow more oil to come out, what we call “fracking”. The fracturing technology was developed about forty years ago, and has been used ever since, mostly for secondary recovery. And for all those decades the oil coming from the fractured rocks has been “conventional oil”. But now people have learned to drill wells horizontally and fracture them … and now suddenly after forty years of fracturing the rock, which gave “conventional oil” when it was done from vertical wells, fracking now only delivers “unconventional oil” simply because the drill hole goes horizontally instead of vertically … does this make any sense to anyone?
The classification of oil from fracking as “unconventional oil” shows clearly the ludicrous nature of the dividing line when we are discussing peak oil. Regarding the putative peak, why is oil from a horizontal well “unconventional” and oil from a vertical well “conventional”? It is all gotten by technology, and none of it is any more “unconventional” than the drilling of the first oil well, a most unconventional act …
Calling oil from horizontal wells “unconventional” is crucial for the peak oil folks, however, because if the oil from fracking were classified as conventional oil, the “peak oil” claims and the “peak gas” claims would sink of their own weight …
Look, folks, the ugly truth is that the world is awash with fossil fuels. To start with, The largest single concentration of fossil energy on the planet is the Powder River coal formation in the Northern US. The world has several hundred years worth of coal. The Canadians have huge amounts of oil … of course it too is called “unconventional” oil, because it alone is enough to blow the “peak oil” claims out of the water. Plus now we have the “tight oil”, oil in the rocks that is, of course, unconventional.
Then we have the discovery of the shale gas resources all around the planet. Even Israel finally has some domestic energy resources. How unconventional is that? Australia just announced a huge find. China has massive gas resources. A preliminary assessment says including shale gas we have enough gas for the next couple of hundred years.
And finally, we have the wild card, the methane hydrates, the “ice that burns”. Estimates of the amount of these are all over the map, but all of them share one feature—they are very, very large, on the order of quadrillions of cubic feet. This is rivals the size of the global natural gas resource …
Finally, most of these forms of fossil fuels occur in combination and can be converted into one another. Coal, for example, can be converted to a liquid fuel, or to a gas.
Now, because there never was anyone hollering about “peak coal”, there’s no such thing as “unconventional coal”, despite huge changes in mining technology. Coal mining has changed as much or more than drilling for oil … so why isn’t there “unconventional coal”?
But in that case, since all of the coal on the planet seems to be “conventional” coal, if we convert coal to oil, are we making “conventional oil” or “unconventional oil”? Presumably it would matter whether we converted coal to oil horizontally or vertically …
In summary, once you get past the nonsense of “conventional” and “unconventional”, there’s enough coal and gas for a couple hundred years, and enough oil for a hundred years, just with what we know about now, and that’s not even counting methane hydrates. Which is why I pay no more attention to the peak oil alarmists than I do to the climate alarmists. One group claims we have too much oil and we’re gonna burn it all, the other group claims we’ll soon have too little oil to burn, and I treat those two impostors just the same.
Was the division between “conventional” and “unconventional” oil devised to cover up the failure of the peak oilers? No way. The distinction is useful in a variety of ways for analyzing the world of oil sources. I think that the concept was simply appropriated by the peak oilers because it was very useful to them, since it totally obscured the failure of their peak oil predictions. To me, oil is oil is oil, and if you claim the world will run out of oil, you can’t later say that you have redefined things, and that the oil that proves your prediction wrong is some other special kind of oil that doesn’t count as oil but walks like oil and quacks like oil …
… Oh, yeah, the weather report. Late night again, two AM. The wind has changed and is blowing from the southwest, landcasting the fog and the smells of the ocean. The characteristic sea smells of iodine and dimethyl sulfide in the fog draw my thoughts back, back to the many mornings I spent getting out of bed here on the hill at 4 am and going down to the harbor, rigging the boat and setting out in the dark to have the commercial fishing gear in the water for the dawn salmon bite. Sliding out of Bodega harbor in the half-light with my gorgeous ex-fiancee and my good friend, once again motoring between the rock jetties at the harbor entrance, going out to discuss matters of life and death with the ocean. I love the ocean because it doesn’t give a damn about a man’s position and his power and his pretenses. Knowledge and experience mean nothing to the ocean. After a life at sea, if I put one foot wrong, I get just as wet as the landlubber falling off the dock … I take pleasure in that ultimate equality and justice of the ocean. I know that even if it is a California ocean it would kill me without first asking me to share my feelings, so leaving the safety of the harbor is always sobering moment …
… sneaking out between Bodega Rock and Bodega Head itself, the little shallow passage the fishermen call “between the rock and the hard place”, where once my heart almost stopped with fear, or at least it started with fear, but other emotions got involved. The channel there is shallow, the sport fishing boat “Mary Jane” was capsized in 1986 with the loss of nine souls by a sneaker wave, “full fathom five thy fishermen lie, of their bones are coral made” …
So when I heard a wave break right behind our little fishing boat one afternoon as we were coming in between the rock and the hard place, my first thought was that we were about to join the folks from the Mary Jane.
We spun around, and aaaah, dear heavens, it wasn’t a breaking wave at all, although a wave was breaking, instead it was my old friend Missus Fishbreath breaking the surface just behind the boat, and breaking my heart with the slow-moving stillness of her majestic beauty, a great gray whale dancing her way three thousand miles from the tropics to Alaska. As we turned and gaped, we were looking her right in the eye, and then she rolled our way and opened her blowhole so close to the boat we could almost look down it, it was as big as a dinner plate, we were close, close enough to count the barnacles clinging to her hull, she was the very picture of natural wildness and glorious beauty and unimaginable power, my heart leapt to see it … and she blew out a great cloud of gagging mist, a noxious enveloping adherent miasma reeking of the million vanished piscatorial souls of her most recent month’s meals, a clogging, thick effluvium that enveloped the boat and then drifted away to leeward as the lovely lady disappeared beneath the waves …
… leaving me in the strangest condition imaginable, with the boat wandering off course, my jaw hanging down to my umbilicus, a pulse rate well into the triple digits, adrenalin-shocked, awed beyond words, smelling like the dumpster behind a cheap fish restaurant, blasted by the natural beauty I had just witnessed, and uncertain whether I was going to vomit or not, but tending toward the former.
I’m not jonesing to visit that particular emotional place again, once was enough for any man. And on a cold night like tonight, I’m glad I’m not rolling out at four am. I fished the Bering Sea as well, and these days I’m just as happy to see the bergy bits and watch the Bering ice on the “Deadliest Catch” TV show from the safety of my couch … but ah, dear friends, mostly I’ve just moved my ocean madness to warmer waters, and I wouldn’t have missed it for rubies and pearls …
Sports and gallantries, the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers,
The exuberant voices of music,
Have charm for children but lack nobility; it is bitter earnestness
That makes beauty; the mind
Knows, grown adult.
A sudden fog-drift muffled the ocean,
A throbbing of engines moved in it,
At length, a stone’s throw out, between the rocks and the vapor,
One by one moved shadows
Out of the mystery, shadows, fishing-boats, trailing each other
Following the cliff for guidance,
Holding a difficult path between the peril of the sea-fog
And the foam on the shore granite.
One by one, trailing their leader, six crept by me,
Out of the vapor and into it,
The throb of their engines subdued by the fog, patient and
Coasting all round the peninsula
Back to the buoys in Monterey harbor. A flight of pelicans
Is nothing lovelier to look at;
The flight of the planets is nothing nobler; all the arts lose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their business among the equally
Earnest elements of nature.
Robinson Jeffers saw it … when you read those lists of famous last words, nobody ever says “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”. Don’t mail the envelope in, push the envelope, the journey will end long before any of us wish it to. Live your most impossiblessed dreams, my friends, because any other kind is just a dream. Chance the widdershins steps of the tarantella, lift the ancient curses and look under them for old coins and lost loves and dust bunnies with a vest and a gold pocketwatch, opt for an immediate increase in the uncertainty levels, stay away from the world of adrenalin deficit spending, hold your dearest warm under your heart while you dare the icy seas of life, for the night is assuredly coming …
My very best wishes to all, I’m off to sleep.