08 June 2010

The End of the Oil Industry

I would like to make a wild and radical prediction. You may think it's off the wall or alarmist or whatever, but I am going to do it anyway.

I predict that the current BP disaster in the Gulf of the Mexico is the beginning of the end for the oil industry. I told you it was off beat, so let me qualify it a bit...

Firstly I think its only the beginning of the end and I think that the beast we know and love will take a long time to die. And when I say a long time, I am talking 20+ years. This is a conservative industry and nothing happens fast. It's also so deeply woven in to the very fabric of our society that it will take a long time to unravel. However I maintain that in 50 years time, when we look back and see the BP event as the tipping point that started the demise.

What we in Britain or Norway think is largely irrelevant. It's what happens in the US that really effects World strategy and our colonial cousins are in a bit of a bind. For 100 years they have been wed to cheap fuel, many of the cities in the south and west were actually designed for the car, huge freeways and drive-thru everything from banks to liquor stores. The car is king. In Houston I-10 is 18 lanes wide and a 5 litre Ford Explorer is a small SUV. Away from the car, in the houses and offices the Air Con is racked up to the max so that you need a jumper indoors even when it is 40 degrees outside. But all is not well in paradise.

There is a lot of oil in America, or at least there was. Most of it has been squandered. A myriad of small operators have taken the easy pickings and buggered up the rest. What has been extracted was sold off so ridiculously cheaply that its all gone. But the country is thirsty and they currently have two options. Go further and further offshore, into the ultra deep water or get it from the Middle East.

The oil industry has risen to the offshore challenge. It takes a bit of effort to imagine steering a 6 inch wide steel pipe 6 km into the earth when the pressure is around 3000 psi. Just think about 3000 psi, that is 100 times the pressure in your cat tyre. Just think about 6 km of drill pipe turning and being steered to hit a target that may be as little as 20 m thick. Take a stack of drinking straws, stick them all together in a long line and then try and poke it through the key hole on the other side of the room, with your eyes shut. So yes the industry has done amazing things but when short term savings to generate more shareholder profit are put ahead of safety and the government monumentally fails in its duty to regulate. Then accidents will happen. So you ban drilling in the ultra deep water. Now where is the oil going to come from?

Well you can go the Middle East and you either buy it off a bunch of radical nutcases who still stone women to death and in doing so fund the very terrorists who hate you, but that's not really very bright. Another alternative, rather than buying it, is to invade a few countries in the region and embark on a ridiculously unwinnable war. This morally bankrupt approach is even less likely to succeed and to add insult to injury, the locals will kill more of the poor white sons of middle America than the terrorists ever did. But it will be OK because Dick Cheney will make money whatever.

So where else do you go? Well you can drill in the arctic, but if you think the current disaster is bad, you ain't seen nothing. In the warm waters of the Gulf the bugs and microbes will eat all the oil, so that in a couple of years it will all be gone - in the cold waters of the arctic any spill will be there for thousands of years! Bad idea, don't go there what ever the pig in lipstick says.

So back onshore, Canada is pretty much made of tar sands, but that is also a disaster. The mid west is made of shale full of gas, which with a zillion wells and an increase in gas infrastructure could actually be a short term solution, but its not a practical long term answer. No more than monstrous windmills all over the landscape or tidal barrages destroying coastal habitates.

So you need to cut back and you need to find an alternative source of energy. I boldly predict that America is about to face up to its fate and realise that Hummers and 5 liter Chevies and Fords are not actually necessary and when gas gets to 10 bucks a gallon (as it is in Europe) they will quickly disappear. I think that using what is there more wisely is a good starting point, but its not the final answer.

My final bold prediction is "biofuels". Not the scandalous use of corn to make ethanol for cars when it should be feeding people, that's just madness. No I am talking about algal biofuels. Algae that need energy water and CO2 to produce diesel that you can put straight into a car. Huge tracks of the US is covered with desert with lots of sun, the sun equals energy and its free. Even the land is useless - cover Nevada and nobody will even notice. Elsewhere Iceland is full of geothermal energy, which when it is not spewing ash across Europe could also be used as an energy input. And the beauty of algal biodiesal is that the infra structure already exists, to move it around, distribute it and even use it. I don't even need to buy a new car.

So I think that is the future and I think the events in the Gulf will make America sit up and realise that in a choice between funding a bunch of barbaric nomads or crapping in their own back yard, there is actually a third choice. That third choice will mark the end of the oil industry as we know it.

1 comment:

Liam Herringshaw said...

Interesting piece, John, and I think you're probably right. North Americans are slowly beginning to recognize that oil ain't the future.

I went to a talk by an ExxonMobil chap recently who said that the Newfoundland government should be investing all their offshore profits in wind power, and make themselves energy self-sufficient. I was rather startled, but quite impressed.

As for covering Nevada in algae, sounds good to me. Vegas already has some pretty primitive lifeforms.