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The Age of Sustainability - Issue #16 A more important reason to phase out fossil fuels. We’re running out.

The Age of Sustainability - Issue #16 A more important reason to phase out fossil fuels. We’re running out.
By Denis Pombriant • Issue #16 • View online

The world seems to be handling the climate issue as if there were multiple alternative explanations to choose among. One side claims that pollution from burning fossil fuels is a runaway train heading toward climate disaster, the other argues that everything is more or less fine and the real challenge is just finding new oil deposits. A third cohort tries to split the difference suggesting we need to manage emissions and switch to cleaner fuels like natural gas or nuclear energy. You can argue the point about nukes and storing spent fuel rods but that’s not where this is going.
But there is a ticking time bomb that belies all these positions. The objective reality is that the earth is running out of fossil fuels and has been for some time. Various government bodies like the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), and the EU’s International Energy Agency (IEA) had surfaced the idea of running out of petroleum as early as 2013. 
That year, BP, plc, the energy giant published its authoritative Energy Outlook and which it quoted in its annual report. The report noted that the supply of petroleum left in the earth’s crust amounted to about 53 years’ worth of crude. Historically, we’ve always managed to find more oil and proven reserves have typically been more than enough to support the global economy. But with so many land- and marine-based oil basins tapping out, finding more has become nearly impossible.
From the 1980s to 2003 we used petroleum at a rate four times greater than discovery and that year may prove to have historic consequences. Since 2003 we’ve found exactly zero new oil reserves anywhere on the planet.
What about hydraulic fracking you might reasonably ask? The oil loosened from tight rock formations by fracking was already known about — it was part of larger deposits that could not be recovered economically until recently. Even now, that oil is expensive to produce, and it is available in limited quantities so don’t look for cheap gas any time soon. 
Since the 1950’s petroleum geologists have been warning about Peak Oil which happens when overall oil production begins to decline. Various techniques like pumping sea water into an oil field to help maintain pressure as well as fracking simply delay the inevitable. The US hit its peak in about 1970 more or less on schedule according to the geologists and began a long decline. The planet didn’t go into a tailspin though because there was abundant oil in the Middle East and Africa and the North Sea’s bounty had yet to come online. The fracking boom brought the nation back to its heyday, producing about 12 million barrels per day at one point, but that was temporary. Today production has peaked, again, and is trending down.
Something very interesting happened with the 2020 edition of the BP report. It said that peak oil had materialized out of the Covid-19 pandemic — as a peak in demand. News organizations like Bloomberg in December 2020, dolefully reported that demand for petroleum products might never rise above 2019’s levels thus forming the peak. 
Peak demand is certainly one way to look at it but peak demand shouldn’t make news unless one is cheerleading for the petrochemical industry. In the pandemic people learned to work from home and to drive and fly less cratering demand for fuels and making some cities like Los Angeles breathable again. The belief is that many of those habits will not be easily reversed because technology has made life for the remote worker easy. Besides, if demand is down, shareholders and pension funds might take a haircut but organic demand growth would eventually take up the slack. So a demand peak seems to be a meh, moment.
To put it directly, this is all very new and more than passing strange. Since it was first discussed in the 1950’s Peak Oil always referred to a supply peak. If you are cynical, you might think the oil industry is trying to pull a fast one and it may be, but this reorientation of the facts may have a silver lining for the climate crowd. 
The implication of a demand rather than a supply peak is significant because it gives the petroleum producers air cover for leaving the industry over time without causing a panic. Imagine if all 60 readers of this newsletter suddenly began screaming about the dire consequences of a supply peak. Hmmm.
But with a secular demand peak, producers can admit their battle is lost while organizing their retreat to rationalize their infrastructure investments and credibly wind down and write off their operations while managing the price of their assets. Anybody want to purchase a few used oil tankers? Drilling equipment? Deep sea platforms?
So, it’s a brilliant move for oil producers but it is also an interesting segue for the environmental movement. Peak demand opens the door to more active discussions about all sorts of replacement solutions and infers that energy producers will be able to gradually move assets from one energy production scheme to another. Perhaps the most significant early opportunity is for repurposing drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology to developing geothermal energy production.
Small scale geothermal electricity production is already a small component of the energy mix with publicly traded companies like Calpine producing 750 megawatts in Sonoma County, for instance. There’s also a thriving geothermal movement on every content (okay, not Antarctica). Major oil (uh, energy) companies like BP and Chevron are now investing in geothermal. The geothermal production seen so far harvests heat from subterranean hot springs but there is a greater opportunity to harvest more energy by drilling deeper, to levels where natural gas would be found in different rock formations.
At those depths there is little water and energy prospectors have to supply their own. By drilling two wells some distance apart and fracturing the rock a couple of miles below the surface producers can pump water down one well and extract superheated steam from the other. The steam would then be piped into a conventional steam generator to produce power. 
In 2006, scientists and engineers led by a group at MIT and the Department of Energy estimated that there were thousands of times more energy in the form of heat under the intermountain Rocky Mountain states than we need. Much of it is ready to be tapped under Native American reservations. After centuries of abuse, including relocation to some of the least hospitable parts of the continent, the Southwest could suddenly become the new Saudi Arabia and its inhabitants supremely rich. The irony is delicious.
So, when people ask how I can remain calm in the face of a climate crisis, I try to explain geothermal energy production. The real challenge is removing about 3 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans. That’s not impossible either but you won’t do it with anything that looks like a conventional solution.
Why oil giants like Chevron and BP are investing in geothermal energy
Did you enjoy this issue?
Denis Pombriant

Starting with root causes a full discussion of what's ailing climate and what we can and are doing to fix it. There is so much news about solutions every day that this will give hope to even the most cynical.

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Denis@BeagleResearch.com