Hi folks! Guess what – it’s lunchtime! Om nom nom. Whether you’re sitting at your desk stalking food trucks for the best falafel in the city, just coming back from grabbing your usual sandwich down the block, or just gave up and had a cupcake for lunch (like me!), we thought we’d offer you something a bit crunchier for today.
With all of the talk about America’s energy future, and Republican candidates running around saying truly asinine things about how we should drill wherever, whenever, to extract any type of energy that we can, there’s a lot of flapping about how America can best use our own natural resources. Rick Santorum seems to think that his party’s approach to this (anyone else remember the infamous,“Drill, baby, drill!”) makes them the pro “science” party – something that I pondered heavily this morning while on the bus to work wondering when “scientists” in his universe started running around willy-nilly without considering the consequences of their actions. But no matter, I’m off topic.
Kara asked me the other day if I could put on my geology hat for a while and come up with a post on oil shale. I obliged here, mostly because I really like my geology hat, and I don’t get to wear it very much anymore.
As I started to dig into this, though, I realized that Maria von Trapp was right: the beginning is a very good place to start. Therefore, before I get into the specifics of oil shale, we’re going to talk about unconventional oil as a whole.
So, what does the phrase “unconventional oil” mean?
My favorite wellspring of knowledge, Wikipedia, has this tidy summary of ‘unconventional oil’
“Unconventional oil is petroleum produced or extracted using techniques other than the conventional (oil well) method. Oil industries and governments across the globe are investing in unconventional oil sources due to the increasing scarcity of conventional oil reserves. Although the depletion of such reserves is evident, unconventional oil production is a less efficient process and has greater environmental impacts than that of conventional oil production.”
Unconventional oils are a non-renewable form of energy. Types of unconventional oil include: oil shale, tar sands or oil sands, extra-heavy crude oil, synthetic crude, and “gas-to-liquid” byproducts of the refinement of natural gas.
With these types of products, you can’t just use a normal oil well to pump them out of a reservoir the way that you would with conventional crude. You can’t even use the same processes that extract natural gas. Typically, extraction involves a mining-like process, often requiring an enormous input of heat and/or water. Furthermore, once extracted, the refinement process for unconventional oils is significantly more complex and energy intensive than conventional sources.
When we talk about energy, typically a “life cycle analysis” includes the total cost for the extraction process, refining into a usable form, and transporting that to a location where it can be accessed. In future post(s), I’ll hone in on the specifics of each type of unconventional oil and talk about what this would look like. As a preview, though, I’ll give you a hint: it’s not a pretty picture.
Why are we suddenly so interested in these types of oil?
There’s only one reason: because we’re running out of the other stuff.
Oil companies are developing technologies that would allow them to transition to extraction, refinement, and production of unconventional oils – and lobbying for expanded access to these resources – in order to continue their businesses. Within the U.S., large areas of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are those which are being eyed for increased production of unconventional oils.
The main argument they use is that this energy could be plentiful (so is wind and solar, but hey, nobody asked about that I guess) and that it would be sourced from either domestic locations or friendly neighbors (Canada).
So why wouldn’t we do it?
First, I’m going to come back to the theme of: renewable, renewable, and renewable. You want to extract unconventional oils? That’s nice, but eventually, those resources will have been depleted as well. High predictions suggest that these reserves could last 100+ years, but these are based on the assumption that U.S. demand for energy will decrease (unlikely). Additionally, it’s unlikely that these resources will remain entirely in the U.S., decreasing the time frame in which we will be self-sufficient even more.
So, in a few short decades, we’ll have contaminated surface and ground waters, poisoned our soil, and released millions of pounds of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And, on top of all that, we’ll be right back where we started looking for yet another energy source.
Second, we wouldn’t do it because the environmental impacts compromise other critical resources: land, air, and water. Extraction of unconventional oils is so invasive that it makes hydraulic fracturing or conventional mining look like a cake walk, and puts virtually all of our other resources – streams, rivers, groundwater, soil, other nearby bodies of water, and air, at risk for contamination. Extracting and refining these resources is kind of like combining mining, oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing together in a mélange of chemical contamination that would make anyone cringe if they thought about it too hard. They are also processes that consume enormous amounts of fresh water and energy that might have been used for something else….like, for regular people, maybe?
As a side bar, the above photo (the 2nd one) was re-blogged from re-posted from “I Count For My Earth,” another WordPress enviro blog. (That is less, uhm, quirky than we are.) If you want to see (read?) her take on Tar Sands and watchsome compelling footage, point your browser to http://icountformyearth.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/prepare-to-have-your-mind-blown-by-this-tar-sands-video/.
The final reason why we wouldn’t do it is economics. The extraction of unconventional oil is energy intense, time consuming, and messy. All of those things translate to a very high cost. While widespread production might offset some of this, it is unlikely that anyone will see a drop in their energy cost because of unconventional oil.
If you want to read someone else’s explanation of this, check out this article on Treehugger. Or, if you’d like to read more about oil shale extraction (and watch an upsetting video, which always makes the work day better), you can check out this spot.
What’s the bottom line?
As Arnold said, “I’ll be back.”
The bottom line is to hang on for more to come from SpinachHQ. In future Crunchies, I’ll be getting into the specifics of oil shale, tar sands, and other forms on unconventional oil and how each is extracted and refined. Then we’ll be able to talk a little bit more about the risks and rewards associated with each. But, I thought it was important to lay the groundwork first.
Do you have questions, comments, or thoughts? Feel free to share below, as long as you keep it friendly. And please, don’t make stuff up. As my friend Matt likes to say: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts. Trust me, one of us WILL call you out.