Oil

First there was “peak-oil”, the basic idea behind peak-oil is that production peaks at the point where about half the resources are consumed and then production declines and prices sky rocket. No doubt there will be a time when oil production peaks but quite possibly for reasons different than half of the worlds reserves being used up.

Oil production forecasting is difficult for a variety of reasons. For starters the Hubbert curve is based upon fitting data to a curve without understanding the underlying mechanisms. Sometimes this works but sometimes it fails miserably.

A second problem that makes oil forecasting difficult is that oil is a broad term that applies to a wide range of mixtures of hydrocarbons that are generally liquid at room temperature. Further adding to the complexity is the fact that it is possible to “crack” heavier hydrocarbons and make them into lighter molecules, and it is possible to combine short molecules into longer molecules to turn natural gas into liquid fuels. Doing either involves added expense.

Naturally oil which contains high quantities of molecules that have a high market value without the need for cracking or combining are tapped first since they are the most economic to get to market. These oils, light sweet crude, constitute only about 1/3rd of the worlds reserves.

In 2006, both non-OPEC production and OPEC production increased last year over 2005, and at faster rate increase than 2004-2005. A factor in this increased production was higher crude prices during much of last year. This is an important point, on average about 1/3rd of the oil in the ground has been economically extractable. A higher percentage can be extracted at higher oil prices.

For example, it costs around $7/barrel to pump a barrel of oil out of the ground in Saudia Arabia, about $14/barrel in California, $15 a barrel to extract oil from tar sands in Alberta Canada or from oil shale in Colorado.

Canada has become the United States largest oil supplier with oil from Alberta tar sands where there are some 300 billion barrels of recoverable oil. In the US there some 2.6 trillion barrels of oil locked up in oil shale in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. California has approximately 70 billion barrels of heavy crude.

Russia’s production of deep abiotic oil that doesn’t exist according to most western geologists continues to climb. They claim people supporting this theory are just making it up but can’t explain how Russia’s production from deep wells that have drilled past any sedimentary deposits and through granite capstone keeps increasing.

Then there are the White Tiger and Black Lion fields of Vietnam. Both of these involve drilling into granite basement rock and there where oil shouldn’t exist, it does. Wallace G. Dow, refutes the claim of abiotic genesis for this oil claiming that the granite has been uplifted and overlies a sandstone formation that is the source of the oil. This is one of those things that I guess is yet to play out but I believe the abiotic oil theory is credible, even if it doesn’t apply to these particular fields.

The reason I believe the abiotic theory is credible is two fold. First, the raw materials, hydrogen and carbon, of which hydrocarbons are comprised, is extremely plentiful on earth. The oceans are huge reservoirs of hydrogen and oxygen, two parts hydrogen to every one part oxygen. You see carbon everywhere, every life form that exists, coal, oil, natural gas, carbonate rocks, in the form of methane hydrates on the ocean floor, carbon is abundant.

There is a simple reason that carbon is abundant in the universe. After hydrogen fusion, stars fuse helium into carbon. Stars as massive as the sun only do this in the core, and so these elements remain behind as part of a white dwarf at the end of the stars evolution. Stars more massive than about eight suns will go on to fuse carbon in the core into heavier elements but there will be a carbon shell that will be blown off when the star eventually goes super-nova. Carbon is the 4th most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen.

Generally speaking, light elements like these are considered volatiles, and planets that are either heavier or farther from the sun do a better job of retaining their volatiles and not losing them into space.

Thus mercury, which is both light and close to the sun has no atmosphere or water and would be expected not to have much carbon or other light elements as well. The reason is that heat accelerates these atoms to escape velocity and they are lost in space. The heavier an element, the tighter a planets gravitational force holds onto it. Thus hydrogen is lost most easily, then helium, and so on.

Now if we look at our nearest planetary neighbor, Venus, we see a planet that has close to Earth’s mass and radius. Venus’s mass is 4.87 x 1024 kilograms, Earth’s mass is 5.98 x 1024 kilograms. Venus’s equatorial radius is 6051.8 km, Earth’s equatorial radius is 6378.14 km.
Earth’s larger radius means that at the surface you’re standing a tad farther from the center of gravity and so the gravity on Venus’s surface is about 90% of earths. If you weighed 200 lbs on Earth, you’d weigh 180 lbs on Venus.

So Venus, is both much hotter and it only has about 90% of Earth’s gravity and yet, Venus had enough carbon to make an atmosphere of CO2 100 times thicker than Earth’s. Venus also lacks plate tectonics, so it’s quite possible even more is trapped inside the planet. Earth’s atmosphere is approximately 385 parts per million CO2 which means Venus’s atmosphere has approximately, 260,000 times as much CO2 as Earth’s.

That should give you an idea of just how much carbon is likely to be present on Earth, a whole bunch!

Laboratory experiments have been done where carbonate rocks, water, and iron oxides, all of which are present in the mantle, are heated to 1000C under high pressure and what emerges is a mix of hydrocarbons approximating that which is generally found in deep deposits.

Now, I do have a certain prejudice in preferring theories that can be demonstrated in the laboratory, but one of the things opponents of abiotic oil genesis point to is that the oxygen and carbon budgets at the Earth’s surface have remained approximately constant through millenia.

I believe there is actually a reason for this, and that is that there is a natural recycling of carbon through the plate tectonic system. Hydrocarbons that do make it to the Earth’s surface are eventually oxidized, one way or another. The CO2 is then taken up in part by plants on the surface, where they do decay and some are turned into biotic sources of hydrocarbons, but much more is taken up by algae in the Earth’s oceans. That which is taken up by algae is mostly eaten up by other single celled animals which are mostly eaten by larger multi-cellular creatures which use the carbon and calcium to make, among other things, bone or skeletal structures. These animals eventually die and their skeletons settle to the ocean floor and over time form a thick later of carbonate deposits.

As the sea floor spreads from the mid-ocean rifts and eventually subducts under a continental plate, it carries with it carbonate rocks as well as water, back into the mantle, where the process can repeat itself under great pressures and temperatures creating new hydrocarbons.

So given all of these things, I believe a good portion of the Earth’s carbon, and there is a huge amount of carbon, is tied up in hydrocarbons in the Earth’s mantle, eventually a portion of it escapes through cracks in the bedrock and occasionally pools under certain formations where it can be extracted.

Now, I should add that this isn’t to imply that all oil is abiotic in nature, some carbon does get recycled through biota on land, but that is a small percentage.

Because we’ve largely looked for the biotic oil, that’s what we’ve largely found. The Russians have looked for abiotic oil, and they’ve found it in large quantities.

Even if this is all incorrect, I don’t believe that it is, but even if it were, production figures still show we haven’t reached a peak yet, at least not in 2006, and 2006 oil demand was did not increase as much as predicted, and so after a price peak crude prices fell somewhat.

So the next thing the oil companies tell us is that there is a shortage of refinery capacity in the United States. I posted recently about a Department of Energy report that showed world-wide refinery capacity utilization was 90-95%, while here in the United States in February of 2007, it was less than 83%.

Now the oil companies tell us the refinery capacity is inadequate because refineries are down for maintenance. This is beginning to sound a lot like Enron.

Now we’re seeing a world stock market collapse which is based upon the fear that the world economy will slow, and that of coarse has a lot to do with the US economy, which is in the dumpers because we’ve got a huge trade deficit because of all the oil we import and a huge national deficit because of wars we fight.

The world economy has to grow in order to allow impoverished people to achieve a better standard of living. This is important in terms of a sustainable world economy because in countries where people have a good standard of living, the birth rate is low, population growth is negative, excepting immigration from regions of the world where the standard of living is not good.

Bringing all of the worlds impoverished peoples to an acceptable standard of living is the key towards global population stability and by extension sustainability. Otherwise world population will increase until we hit a resource wall and then collapse as many people starve.

In the long run we need to get off of burning hydrocarbons as a substantial portion of our energy budget because we can’t breath the atmosphere on Venus, and it would have a disastrous effect on global climate.

That said I believe we’d be seeing dramatic climate change now in the absence of our CO2 emissions because we are still coming out of an ice age.

This graph, which is part of a EPA report on climate change, (unfortunately, the graph has been removed from the location I linked to, Nanook 12/16/2012) shows us that although we’ve created a carbon dioxide peak much higher than other interglacial periods, the temperature during this peak is not as great as it has been in previous periods even though the carbon dioxide levels are much higher.

This isn’t to say that carbon dioxide plays no role in global warming, but given previous peaks and carbon dioxide levels it doesn’t appear to be a huge role at current levels compared to temperatures that would be expected to occur as we come out of the last ice age.

So I feel at best it’s increasing the rate that something would have happened at naturally but that we’d be seeing global warming eventually regardless and thus from my perspective, the world economy and poverty really deserve a higher priority.

 

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