British Petroleum made a new oil discovery while breaking the world record for deepest well. New technology has allowed currently unreachable parts of the ocean depths to be tapped.
Already a lot of my conservative friends are pointing out that this proves “New Oil” will always be available and thus the world will never run out (we’ve had this argument before). So here’s some basics I picked up in college geology to put oil in perspective and hopefully open a few eyes.
The problem is that it takes very specific circumstances for oil to be created and trapped where it can wait to be discovered by us.
Issue 1 – Time
It takes time to create oil; coal, it’s called a “Fossil Fuel” for a reason. Oil is basically prehistoric algae, trapped under sediments, and heated to become oil or natural gas (plant and animal material generally turns to coal). Most oil is generally understood to have been algae that was buried between 200 and 400 million years ago. The problem is 2/3 the earth’s surface is 300 million years old or younger, most is less than 100 million years old.
The ocean floor is a constantly shifting mass of dense rock that comes up in the ocean rifts, and spreads across the ocean before plunging back under the continents. Average time spent crossing is about 150 million years. So even if algae is quickly deposited in the center of the ocean, buried under sediment (see next problem), and heated at the right temperature, it’s barely becoming oil when it’s plunged back under the continental shelves.
So oil will only exist in places where geology is relatively slow and the rocks are old; like on continents, continental shelves, or pockets of the ocean that aren’t actively being sucked under the continents (like the gulf of Mexico). Most of the ocean floor doesn’t have a possibility of oil even if we could reach it.
The algae needs to be trapped in an anaerobic environment so that decomposition won’t occur; then buried under sediment until the pressure and heat can convert it to oil. This doesn’t always happen; in fact if our current natural world is any guide, it’s kind of rare. Not to mention that when it does happen it still takes time for enough sediment to pile on top till the algae is deep enough the pressure and heat can convert it. So again, even though it takes about 10 million years to naturally convert, the time to be buried, heated, and converted takes 200-400 million years.
Issue 2 – Escaping the ground on it’s own.
Once the algae becomes oil it has another problem, if the rock above is porous the oil will seep up to the surface. Remember oil is lighter than water and rock, as water seeps down cracks in the ground it displaces oil and forces it to the surface. Once up it is broken down in a natural reaction by heat and organisms at the surface.
In southern Utah as a kid I remember coming across crack in the rock that had tar squeezing out from in between. This is deep in nationally protected areas, miles away from any roads. At first I wondered why people sealed a crack in the desert with tar, then I realized it must be natural tar, now I know it’s natural petroleum products seeping to the surface and breaking down in the heat.
So for oil to survive it needs to be trapped into a reservoir capped with non-porous rock until somebody drills through the rock and it can squirt up the well.
Issue 3- Oil quality
Sounds funny but not all petroleum is created equal. Saudi Crude Oil is of such a high quality it’s almost already refined and ready for use. Other forms of petroleum can be so poor that at room temperature it solidifies to a waxy texture or in a state that additional energy needs to be added to extract it from the Kerogen and get a small amount of crude oil with a large amount of waste product. And all oil may be mixed with a contaminant like sand they need to be separated from before refinement. So even if you find a deposit of oil shale or oil sands that have oil in them, the cost of extraction is often prohibitively expensive. Back in the 1980 oil companies actually abandoned oil production through oil shale because it wasn’t economically feasible. The fact they’re returning to the oil shale now gives an idea how desperate they are for new oil sources.
This is all very relevant because the energy cost to create 1 Killowatt hour of electricity through renewable methods like solar energy is eight times that of producing the same amount with oil. Currently most people consider that to be excessively high but oil extraction from oil shale or oil sands can be 10-30 times more expensive than regular oil extraction from wells. So when compared to oil from oil shale, The total price per kilowatt including manufacturing and production, solar power production will actually become the economical alternative.
And all of this of course also ignores the ecological factors that the machinery excavating oil shale burns about the same amount diesel that they get from oil they extract, a 3 to 1 ratio of water and additional chemicals to oil is needed for each barrel of crude produced, and a lot of chemical waste is produced during extraction.
Issue 4 – Finding places that haven’t already been found
Knowing what we know above you can predict where oil will be; certain conditions can be met so by looking at the geology of an area you can tell if it’s old enough to have oil, if it’s been heated enough to convert fossils to oil, and if the rock is too porous to keep the oil from escaping.
Seems easy enough but you have to remember that you’re competing with the world’s massive oil companies and their billions upon billions of dollars in resources who have spent the last 100 years scouring the earth to find potential oil reserves. The report that oil is at peak production now and will begin to run out around 2070 has been verified by Chevron, Exxon and other oil companies themselves. They’re not just guessing or making estimates, they know because they’ve been mapping and test drilling every continent on Earth for the next big find and they know that they’re running out of places to look. BP didn’t spend millions to drill a well in the Gulf of Mexico because they wanted a challenge; they did it because it’s one of the few untapped places left that has a possibility for finding oil.
Oil really is in decline. When the worlds oil conglomerates start freaking out that we’re running out of oil you know there is trouble. When you see oil companies like BP and Exxon begin diverting massive amounts of their revenue to renewable forms of energy production don’t fool yourself that they’re doing it to make everybody feel warm and fuzzy about saving the earth. They’re doing it to save themselves. It’s their job to know where oil is and if they can see it’s running out the only smart thing to do is to diversify into what energy production methods they think will take its place.
And even though the earth will always have a pocket of oil here or a reserve of waxy bitumen petroleum there, if it’s not economically feasible to extract and convert it it might as well be useless sludge. As demand rises, and resources fall the crossing point where oil is a feasible source of energy will be passed and all the currently “expensive” forms of renewable energy production will become the “cheap” forms of energy production.
The writing is on the wall and the people who will be best prepared for the changeover will be those who get in on the ground floor now.