Peak Oil? Nope, not even close

Remember peak oil? We were supposed to run out of oil about now…but instead there has never been more, but what if we actually never ran out of oil like what has been predicted?

What if new?technology and a little-known energy source told us?that fossil fuels may not be as limited as originally thought?

In the 1970s, geologists discovered crystalline natural gas?methane hydrate, in the jargon?beneath the seafloor. Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers on continental margins, methane hydrate exists in immense quantities; by some estimates, it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined. Despite its plenitude, gas hydrate was long subject to petroleum-industry skepticism. These deposits?water molecules laced into frigid cages that trap ?guest molecules? of natural gas?are strikingly unlike conventional energy reserves. Ice you can set on fire! Who could take it seriously? But as petroleum prices soared, undersea-drilling technology improved, and geological surveys accumulated, interest rose around the world. The U.S. Department of Energy has been funding a methane-hydrate research program since 1982.

Nowhere has the interest been more serious than Japan. Unlike Britain and the United States, the Japanese failed to become ?the owners, or at any rate, the controllers? of any significant amount of oil. (Not that Tokyo didn?t try: it bombed Pearl Harbor mainly to prevent the U.S. from blocking its attempted conquest of the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.) Today, Churchill?s nightmare has come true for Japan: it is a military and industrial power almost wholly dependent on foreign energy. It is the world?s third-biggest net importer of crude oil, the second-biggest importer of coal, and the biggest importer of liquefied natural gas. Not once has a Japanese politician expressed happiness at this state of affairs.

Japan?s methane-hydrate program began in 1995. Its scientists quickly focused on the Nankai Trough, about 200?miles southwest of Tokyo, an undersea earthquake zone where two pieces of the Earth?s crust jostle each other. Step by step, year by year, a state-owned enterprise now called the Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) dug test wells, made measurements, and obtained samples of the hydrate deposits: 130-foot layers of sand and silt, loosely held together by methane-rich ice. The work was careful, slow, orderly, painstakingly analytical?the kind of process that seems intended to snuff out excited newspaper headlines. But it progressed with the same remorselessness that in the 1960s and ?70s had transformed offshore oil wells from Waterworld-style exoticisms to mainstays of the world economy.

In January, 18 years after the Japanese program began, the Chikyu left the Port of Shimizu, midway up the main island?s eastern coastline, to begin a ?production? test?an attempt to harvest usefully large volumes of gas, rather than laboratory samples. Many questions remained to be answered, the project director, Koji Yamamoto, told me before the launch. JOGMEC hadn?t figured out the best way to mine hydrate, or how to ship the resultant natural gas to shore. Costs needed to be brought down. ?It will not be ready for 10 years,? Yamamoto said. ?But I believe it will be ready.? What would happen then, he allowed, would be ?interesting.?

Costs originally for hydraulic fracturing made it cost prohibitive but technology changes and improves and now fracking is the savour of the petroleum industry.

Already the petroleum industry has been convulsed by hydraulic fracturing, or ?fracking??a technique for shooting water mixed with sand and chemicals into rock, splitting it open, and releasing previously inaccessible oil, referred to as ?tight oil.? Still more important, fracking releases natural gas, which, when yielded from shale, is known as shale gas. (Petroleum is a grab-bag term for all nonsolid hydrocarbon resources?oil of various types, natural gas, propane, oil precursors, and so on?that companies draw from beneath the Earth?s surface. The stuff that catches fire around stove burners is known by a more precise term, natural gas, referring to methane, a colorless, odorless gas that has the same chemical makeup no matter what the source?ordinary petroleum wells, shale beds, or methane hydrate.) Fracking has been attacked as an environmental menace to underground water supplies, and may eventually be greatly restricted. But it has also unleashed so much petroleum in North America that the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based consortium of energy-consuming nations, predicted in November that by 2035, the United States will become ?all but self-sufficient in net terms.? If the Chikyu researchers are successful, methane hydrate could have similar effects in Japan. And not just in Japan: China, India, Korea, Taiwan, and Norway are looking to unlock these crystal cages, as are Canada and the United States.

Not everyone thinks JOGMEC will succeed. But methane hydrate is being developed in much the same methodical way that shale gas was developed before it, except by a bigger, more international group of researchers. Shale gas, too, was subject to skepticism wide and loud. The egg on naysayers? faces suggests that it would be foolish to ignore the prospects for methane hydrate?and more foolish still not to consider the potential consequences.

The peak oilers are the only ones with egg on their faces. It is astonishing how wrong in some instances.

From the beginning, it was evident that the Kern River field was rich with oil, millions upon millions of barrels. (A barrel, the unit of oil measurement, is 42?gallons; depending on the grade, a ton of oil is six to eight barrels.) Wildcatters poured into the area, throwing up derricks, boring wells, and pulling out what they could. In 1949, after 50 years of drilling, analysts estimated that just 47?million barrels remained in reserves?a rounding error in the oil business. Kern River, it seemed, was nearly played out. Instead, oil companies removed 945?million barrels in the next 40?years. In 1989, analysts again estimated Kern reserves: 697?million barrels. By 2009, Kern had produced more than 1.3?billion additional barrels, and reserves were estimated to be almost 600?million barrels.

And that is just one oil field.

But will we run out of oil?

the industry learned how to burrow farther into the Earth, opening up previously inaccessible deposits. In 1998, an oil rig near the Kern River field drilled thousands of feet deeper than any previous attempt in the area. At 17,657 feet, the well blew out in a classic gusher. Flames shot 300?feet in the air. The blast destroyed the well and everything else on the site. Even after the fire burned out, petroleum flooded from the hole for another six months. Energy firms guessed that the blowout hinted at the presence of big new oil-and-gas deposits. Earlier assessments had missed them because of their great depth. Investors rushed in and began to drill.

To McKelveyan social scientists, such stories demonstrate that oil reserves should not be thought of as physical entities. Rather, they are economic judgments: how much petroleum experts believe can be harvested from given areas at an affordable price. Even as companies drain off the easy oil, innovation keeps pushing down the cost of getting the rest. From this vantage, the race between declining oil and advancing technology determines the size of a reserve?not the number of hydrocarbon molecules in the ground. Companies that scrambled to follow the Kern River gusher found millions of barrels of deep oil, but it was mixed with so much water that they couldn?t stop the wells from flooding. Within a few years, almost all the new rigs ceased operation. The reserve vanished, but the oil remained.

This perspective has a corollary: natural resources cannot be used up. If one deposit gets too expensive to drill, social scientists (most of them economists) say, people will either find cheaper deposits or shift to a different energy source altogether. Because the costliest stuff is left in the ground, there will always be petroleum to mine later. ?When will the world?s supply of oil be exhausted?? asked the MIT economist Morris Adelman, perhaps the most important exponent of this view. ?The best one-word answer: never.? Effectively, energy supplies are infinite.

Right so peak oil is never going to occur. But we also now have methane hydrate.

All have been looking with ever-increasing interest at a still-larger energy source: methane hydrate.

The land sheds organic molecules into the water like a ditchdigger taking a shower. Sewage plants, fertilizer-rich farms, dandruffy swimmers?all make their contribution. Plankton and other minute sea beings flourish where the drift is heaviest, at the continental margins. When these creatures die, as all living things must, their bodies drizzle slowly to the seafloor, creating banks of sediment, marine reliquaries that can be many feet deep. Microorganisms feed upon the remains.

In a process familiar to anyone who has seen bubbles coming to the surface of a pond, the microbes emit methane gas as they eat and grow. This undersea methane bubbles up too, but it quickly encounters the extremely cold water in the pores of the sediment. Under the high pressure of these cold depths, water and methane react to each other: water molecules link into crystalline lattices that trap methane molecules. A cubic foot of these lattices can contain as much as 180 cubic feet of methane gas.

Most methane hydrate, including the deposit Japan is examining in the Nankai Trough, is generated in this way. A few high-quality beds accumulate when regular natural gas, the kind made underground by geologic processes, leaks from the earth into the deep ocean. However methane hydrate is created, though, it looks much like everyday ice or snow. It isn?t: ordinary ice cannot be set on fire. More technically, ice crystals are typically hexagonal, whereas methane-hydrate crystals are clusters of 12- or 14-sided structures that in scientists? diagrams look vaguely like soccer balls. Methane molecules rattle about inside the balls, unable to escape. The crystals don?t dissolve in the sea like ordinary ice, because water pressure and temperature keep them stable at depths below about 1,000 feet. Scientists on the surface refer to them by many names: methane hydrate, of course, but also methane clathrate, gas hydrate, hydromethane, and methane ice.

Estimates of the global supply of methane hydrate range from the equivalent of 100 times more than America?s current annual energy consumption to 3?million times more. A tiny fraction?1?percent or less?is buried in permafrost around the Arctic Circle, mostly in Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. The rest is beneath the waves, a reservoir so huge that some scientists believe sudden releases of undersea methane eons ago set off abrupt, catastrophic changes in climate. Humankind cannot tap into the bulk of these deep, vast deposits by any known means. But even a small proportion of a very big number is a very big number.

Almost limitless energy…

For years, environmentalists have hoped that the imminent exhaustion of oil will, in effect, force us to undergo this virtuous transition; given a choice between no power and solar power, even the most shortsighted person would choose the latter. That hope seems likely to be denied. Cheap, abundant petroleum threw sand in the gears of solar power in the 1980s and stands ready to do it again. Plentiful natural gas, a geopolitical and economic boon, is a climatological shackle. To Vaclav Smil, the University of Manitoba environmental scientist, the notion that we can move so fast is naive, even preposterous. ?Energy transitions are always slow,? he told me by e-mail. Modern energy infrastructures, assembled over decades, cannot be revamped overnight. Worse still, in his view, there is little public appetite for beginning the process, or even appreciating the magnitude of what lies ahead. ?The world has been running into fossil fuels, not away from them.?

Smil is correct?the sort of rapid energy transition we need has never occurred before. At the same time, one should note that no physical law says these transitions must be slow. Societies have changed rapidly, even when it cost a lot of money. Nobody can predict the future, but it is dumbfounding to hear left and right alike bemoaning the ?reality? that society cannot change, particularly at a time when both sides are bemoaning the consequences of convulsive social change. Natural gas, both from fracking and in methane hydrate, gives us a way to cut back on carbon emissions while we work toward a more complete solution. It could be a useful crutch. But only if we have the wit to know that we will soon have to lay it down.

Humans are nothing if not resourceful…which is why the stupidity of carbon taxes and such things are pointless when technology enhancements and mitigation strategies are far cheaper and effective in the long run.


– The Atlantic