Intelligent Energy

The cost of blunting peak oil

Posting in Energy

The production of petroleum isn't exactly in decline, according to one report. We're just paying a huge financial and environmental premium to extract it from new and harder to reach places.

The notion of "peak oil" says that the world's rate of oil production will hit a permanent decline, if it hasn't already. It's one compelling reason why we're supposed to pursue alternative fuel sources, especially for transportation, where oil rules.

But as the latest Time Magazine notes (subscription may be necessary, although you get a few free trial issues), we're so addicted to the stuff that we are paying a huge premium both financially and environmentally to extract it from harder to reach places often using unconventional drilling techniques.

Petrobras' presalt oil requires drilling through 2 km of water, 1 km of post-salt rock, and 2 km of salt before getting to a 2-km thick layer of pre-salt rock. That's 3 miles to the top of the oil containing layer, which is about 1.25 miles thick.

By tapping new sources, we would add to dwindling global reserves, and delay peak oil. As you can see below in figures from the Time story, our quest for "extreme oil" could add considerably to the oil at our disposal, especially when you add them to what the CIA World Factbook says are the two largest proven national reserves - Saudi Arabia's 262 billion barrels, and Venezuela's 211 billion barrels (some rankings put Canada at number two). The "extreme" search includes:

-Tight Oil. Oil extracted from shale in states including North Dakota, Montana and Texas using the same controversial "fracking" techniques that are allegedly polluting drinking water and triggering earthquakes in the shale gas business. Global reserves estimated at 300 billion barrels.

-Oil Sands, aka Tar Sands. Oil extracted from sticky bitumen, itself extracted from the plains of Alberta, Canada, often from open-pit mines that leave toxic tailings. Oil sand production itself requires a lot of carbon-emitting energy to provide industrial heat - as SmartPlanet has noted, small "modular" nuclear reactors could help reduce the carbon footprint. Global reserves estimated at 169 billion "recoverable" barrels.

-Arctic Offshore Oil. What some people would call an environmental downward spiral. As fossil-fuel based global warming melts Arctic ice, it becomes easier for oil companies to drill in the Arctic region, providing more fossil fuels for consumers and industry to burn and emit more CO2 to feed more global warming. Any oil spill - think iceberg meeting tanker - would be much harder to clean up than the Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Global reserves estimated at 90 billion barrels.

-Presalt Deepwater Oil. As the Donovan song says, "way down below the ocean." Presalt oil requires drilling through nearly 2 miles of water and "post-salt" rock and then through over a mile of salt, off the coast of Brazil, where state oil company Petrobras thinks it has a bonanza. The project goes deeper than the Horizon. "A blowout would be incredibly difficult to control," Time notes. Reserves estimated at 50 billion to 100 billion barrels.

-Oil Shale. This is different from "tight oil" and "oil sands", and thus far has been too costly to implement. Shale contains a solid bituminous material called kerogen, which companies would mine and then heat in order to separate the oil from the rock.  In the U.S. oil shale occurs in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, and from Michigan and Ohio south to Tennessee. Global reserves estimated at 800 billion barrels (which is 3 times Saudi Arabia's proven 262 billion barrels).

All new sources would continue to feed our addiction to polluting and CO2-spewing oil.

A Petrobras presalt rig off the coast of Brazil.

And they're not cheap. According to Time, "the new supplies are for the most part more expensive than traditional oil from places like the Middle East, sometimes significantly so."  In ascending order, it ranks the per barrel cost of production at $45 to $65 for presalt deepwater; $50 for tight oil; $50 to $75 for oil sands, and at over $100 for both arctic offshore and oil shale.

In a dire financial scenario for consumers, the high price that oil companies now get for gasoline (about $8.65 a gallon at my local "petrol" station here in Britain - you have it easy in America!) helps support the high cost of extracting extreme oil.

Of course, ever since Western Pennsylvanians burned wooden oil derricks to keep warm when the world's first wells ran dry in the 1860s, oil has been characterized by boom and bust. Will the price of oil ever collapse again? Big oil has an incentive to keep it high to fund its Arctic explorations and the like.

The high consumer prices also help fund development of renewables for some oil companies (several are investing in solar, among other areas). Like lunch, there's no such thing as a free switch to renewables - we all have to pay for it somehow or another.

Demand is also doing its part to keep prices high. The West isn't exactly kicking its oil habit, and China is buying way more of it than it ever did. Then there's the old standby excuse: Middle East tensions. (For more on oil price trends, see the links below to SmartPlanet "Energy Futurist" columns).

Greed, as usual, factors in as well. Sometimes I wonder if Big Oil sees the writing on the wall - sees us stumbling to what could eventually be a non-oil future as we turn to alternatives - and is gouging us as much as possible while supply and demand lasts!

Images: Uncle Sam the addict, from Snowlepard via Flickr. Diagram and rig from Petrobras.

Reducing the environmental impact of oil sands and Arctic oil, on SmartPlanet:

Some oil and peak oil lessons from SmartPlanet's Energy Futurist Chris Nelder:

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure