An Inconvenient talk

SUBHEAD: Dave Hughes’s guide to the end of the fossil fuel age.
By Chris Turner on 26 May 2009 in The Walrus Image above: Dave Hughes photographed by Wilkosz + Way. [IB Editor's note: Dave Hughes worked for the Geological Survey of Canada, mapping the nation’s coal reserves. This is the closing of a long article concerning a talk with Dave on our energy future that is available through the link above.] The realities of the finite nature of non-renewable energy resources are now becoming evident. Peak oil in many producing countries. Peak North American natural gas. A tenfold increase in uranium prices since 2000. Imports of coal into the US after centuries of self-sufficiency. Despite the hype, renewable energy technologies are extremely unlikely to be able to fill the supply gap from hydrocarbons and non-renewable energy. A sustainable future lies in radically reducing and rethinking energy consumption. A paradigm shift in the way we look at energy. Forecasts of future energy consumption based on extrapolations of growth from the past — which ignore the physical limits of non-renewable resources, and the technological and physical constraints on their rate of conversion to supply — mask the crucial issues facing us and lead to complacency. Which will make the final transition much worse. Climate change is in the minds of the public and the rhetoric of the politicians. The energy sustainability dilemma is much less understood, although it’s highly likely to have more immediate and severe impacts on our current lifestyle than climate change. Which we will likely have to live with for centuries, because of the feedback loops that are already activated. Fortunately, many but not all solutions proposed for climate change also address energy sustainability. The number one priority is energy conservation and much greater efficiency. And there are many opportunities for doing this. Followed by technologies and lifestyle changes to reduce the dependence on non-renewable fuel sources. A sustainable energy future is not out of reach but will be hugely challenging. We have to be thinking on a ten- to twenty-year or longer time frame. To develop the infrastructure for alternatives as well as technologies and incentives to reduce consumption. You know The Talk is true the way you know a weather report is true — reliable sources, clearly labelled charts, mathematics — but at the same time it can’t be true, can’t be, because if it’s accurate how can the mood in the room remain so workaday? How can you just rise and pour another cup of coffee and listen to someone say, Thanks, Dave, you’ve really given us a lot to think about, for the hundred and fifty-fifth time? If you want to find evidence to the contrary, the soothing hum of business as usual, it is, of course, everywhere. Take for example a study by Daniel Yergin’s highly regarded Cambridge Energy Research Associates, for example, published in November 2006. CERA asserts not only will there be no oil production peak before 2030, but the global oil supply after that will map an “undulating plateau,” and the very idea of a peak is merely “a dramatic but highly questionable image.” Or here’s John McCarthy of Canada’s own National Energy Board, on the occasion of the publication of Canada’s Energy Future in late 2007. “Canadians will have ample energy supplies,” he states baldly, “until 2030.” So much of this, though, hinges on a lack of context. The information is fragmented, the conclusions striking at odd angles. It begs you not to consider it for too long. Much of it relies on the basic economist’s assumption that rising prices will inevitably inspire the discovery of more supplies or the substitution of another fuel source, which is infallible truth only within the cozy confines of a self-contained economic model that assumes the earth can provide limitless bounty. So much remains unsaid, so few implications fully examined. You find a couple of news stories from 2006, both reporting on an announcement by the Canadian Gas Potential Committee that Canada has “at least another quarter century” of natural gas reserves. “It means we have a future,” a spokesperson explains. "The downside is that it’s going to be expensive to get at". The Calgary Herald — Dave’s erstwhile hometown paper, is a city heated almost exclusively by natural gas — and notes this all with a kind of glib reassurance. The National Post, a division of the same corporation, begins its story like this: “It’s going to get about 100 times harder to find and develop conventional sources of natural gas in Canada’s most fruitful basin.” If, within the lifespan of the next furnace you buy, it’s going to be 100 times harder to obtain natural gas, what might that mean for the price you’ll have to pay? Even correcting for the hyperbole that news of fossil fuel scarcity so often inspires, this suggests a vast chasm of unexplored problems. You read up on coal. You’ve got a vague notion the planet’s overflowing with the stuff, thousands of years’ worth. After all, the underlying assumption of “clean coal” technology research, which your provincial and federal governments are backing with ten-digit sums, is that coal supplies are essentially limitless, that only the greenhouse gas emissions they produce cloud our path to a bright, coal-powered future. Then you find a 2008 story in New Scientist called “The Great Coal Hole.” Officially reported reserves, it notes, are down more than 170 billion tonnes worldwide in the past two decades, and the global reserves-to-production ratio — the number of years the world could consume proven coal reserves at current rates of production — has declined from 277 in 2000 to 144 in 2006. This is not because the world burned up a 133-year supply in six years, but because, as Germany’s Energy Watch Group puts it, “so-called proven reserves were anything but proven.” A Caltech engineer named David Rutledge, meanwhile, applied the same methods used in peak oil prediction to the coal question, and he discovered a paucity of supply so great that he now argues it will be impossible to create the worst-case scenarios in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports, because there are simply not enough economically viable coal reserves left on earth to cloud the atmosphere with more than 460 parts per million of carbon dioxide. And what was it Dave said about this energy sustainability dilemma? That it would have more immediate and severe impacts on our current lifestyle than climate change? Wherever you look, the logical progression is a rocky road that leads back to The Talk. You ask Dave, finally, what his colleagues think of The Talk, and soon your phone’s ringing too late on Sunday evenings and too early on weekday mornings. Each time, another fossil fuel geologist, keen to chat. You speak with Jack Century, a passionate gent with fifty-seven years’ experience in the discovery of new oil and gas sources, all but the first seven spent in Alberta’s oil patch. He’s been interested in peak oil since the late ’80s, and he was in the audience at the University of Calgary’s business school for Talk No. 1. When you ask him why there’s so little attention being paid to the idea that the global hydrocarbon economy is brushing up against its ultimate limit, Century tells you, basically, that the problem is there are too many economists and politicians in the conversation and not enough geologists. “Geology is the most fundamental science for understanding the earth as a natural system,” he says. “People simply don’t get geology. It takes some experience, and even geologists who are practicing today, a lot of ‘em don’t have that experience, to understand that we’re talking about oil that is cheap and conventional and flows like in the Middle East. No doubt we’re running out of that stuff all over the world. There is no technology fix for that — period. None.” You spend a day criss-crossing downtown Calgary to drink coffee and eat fast food with geologists who don’t want you to mention their names or the names of their employers. One of them, the exploration manager for a major oil and gas company, shows up at an Arby’s booth with a sheaf of papers in his hand. There’s a news clipping in which the IEA’s executive director predicts a significant oil supply crunch starting in 2010, and a chart listing production at the world’s ten largest oil fields (the top seven of which are past peak). The exploration manager cites a recent IEA figure placing the current depletion rate of global oil production at 6.7 percent per annum. He does the math for you, converting that number to a daily rate of decline, expressed in terms of how many average conventional oil–tapping Alberta wells it equals. “It’s 400 oil wells,” he tells you, “that every single day are becoming extinct, in essence. That’s what we’re trying to do, replace that many oil wells every single day. On stream, producing, every single day, day in, day out, right? And it’s really, really tough. I’m just telling you. People say, ‘Well, there’s lots of other places in the world they haven’t explored.’ I challenge them to say where those might be. Because you know what? Oil companies, and any other company, for that matter, have the resources to explore worldwide.” He marvels at the future demand he reads about in the studies — the IEA, for example, calling for 130 million barrels a day by 2030, up from about 85 or 86 million today. In such scenarios, the depleted mammoth wells in places like Saudi Arabia are expected to be replaced by new conventional sources like the crude deposits off the shore of Brazil (which, as the exploration manager notes, sometimes require drilling to a depth of 20,000 feet in water nearly a mile deep, at a cost of a hundred million bucks per borehole), and unconventional sources like the Alberta bitumen he’s made a career of finding. “We can barely keep ourselves flat,” he says, “let alone grow it.” This is, remember, an exploration manager in Alberta’s oil patch talking. The Arby’s wrappers, slick with petrochemical waxes and dotted with crumbs of petrochemically produced beef and wheat and who knows how many corn by-products, sit empty on the table between you like artifacts, and still he wants to keep talking. He characterizes Alberta’s heavy bitumen, and the natural gas extracted from shale by blasting the rock with fracturing fluids at astronomically intense pressures, as “the stuff at the bottom of the bucket.” He calls the $150-a-barrel price shock of last summer “just a prelude.” The recent plummet in prices, he notes, is not only a short-term blip — a sign of a profoundly unhealthy economy — but also a compound threat to future oil supplies, because even the unconventional sources needed to barely meet demand make no economic sense right now, and the companies that build the billion-dollar platforms required to drill for Brazilian oil, for example, can’t get financing. “Treading water” — this is how he describes the activity in Alberta’s oil patch today. What stays with you, though, is something he said earlier on. “People take it for granted,” he told you, “that they can go to the gas station and fill it up. I don’t think in two or three years that’s something you’ll be able to take for granted. I really don’t.” So again: an exploration manager for a major oil and gas company is telling you, anonymously, as one concerned citizen to another, that he doesn’t think there’s enough of any of it left. After he finally leaves you to return to his routine business of urgently searching for more, you wander the gas-heated, coal-lit shopping malls at the bases of the office towers at the epicentre of Canada’s gilded oil capital. Eventually, you return to your own car and turn the key, and the engine roars to life. Familiar as it all seems, you can’t help feeling like the world as you’ve always known it has been bumped way off kilter. Nearly upside down in some fundamental way. The temptation to set it back to a more recognizable alignment is enormous. Surely there’s some way. This can’t be so. The urge to extend the fossil-fuelled status quo a good while longer — long enough, indeed, to resemble indefinitely — is so strong that it forms the backbone of your country’s long-term energy plan. It goes like this: expand the extraction of marginal gas deposits and unconventional oil at breakneck speed, count on a virtually limitless supply of coal, and spend billions of dollars on the technological wizardry of carbon capture and storage (CCS). It helps to repeat the statistical fact that Canada’s remaining oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia’s, and to ignore the geological differences between the two. And to quote IEA growth forecasts from 2004, and neglect a policy rewrite in light of the organization’s recent, dramatic revision. The various road maps posted at NRCan’s website do all of this and more, the full picture accessed after clicking through a welcome page whose message betrays no uncertainty whatsoever: “Canada relies on a mix of secure and reliable energy sources such as oil, natural gas, hydro-electricity, uranium for nuclear power generation, and coal.” You find the logical end of the "can’t be so argument" in a January 2008 report from the ecoEnergy Carbon Capture and Storage Task Force, a joint body serving the Alberta and federal governments. The report is entitled Canada’s Fossil Energy Future, and its underlying assumption is an essentially endless supply of fossil fuels, problematic only for the greenhouse gases they might emit. It calls CCS “essential” and places its recommended goal — the annual injection and storage, by 2050, of 600 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions from bitumen upgraders and coal and gas plants — “on par” with the construction of the national railway. Never mind that the world’s first and until recently only commercial CCS project, currently in operation on the Sleipner T gas platform in the North Sea, is a $400-million project that sequesters roughly two-tenths of one percent of Canada’s goal. It is considered economically viable only because it operates in Norwegian waters and is thus subject to the steepest carbon tax on the planet. Under that regime, it basically breaks even. In the thirteen years since it began operation, its designers have seen fit to build one more such facility. Four-tenths of one percent. The five members of Canada’s CCS task force are two engineers, a physicist, an economist, and an accountant. Four of them are executives at conventional energy companies. There are no geologists. So in a sense, it comes down to whom you trust. Energy executives whose stock options and bonus packages depend on a healthy fossil fuel sector, and energy officials whose seniority relies on a boat that never rocks too much, are telling you the market will find a way, and technology will make it sufficiently efficient. The geologist Jack Century, an independent consultant nowadays who’s spent half a century in Alberta’s oil patch, says this: “We have a gigantic, heavy-oil tar sands deposit that will never be developed to the extent [the Alberta government is] talking about — never.” And a retired coal geologist with a cozy retirement spot on bucolic Cortes Island and no remaining vested interest you can discern has embarked upon a second career as a fossil fuel Cassandra, because he’s always understood the miraculous nature of hydrocarbons, and he just can’t make the government’s numbers add up. You witness the full extent of Dave Hughes’s respect for hydrocarbons — oil, especially — on the drive home from Talk No. 155. It’s an intimate sort of respect, a geologist’s thing, born of a deep scientific knowledge of the wondrous process it takes to turn sunlight that struck the earth hundreds of millions of years ago into the readily available gas that’s propelling you south toward Calgary at 120 kilometres an hour. As he drives, Dave indulges in a little academic exercise. He’s comfortable with numbers, quick with calculations. A barrel of oil, he tells you, contains about six gigajoules of energy. That’s six billion joules. Put your average healthy Albertan on a treadmill and wire it to a generator, and in an hour the guy could produce about 100 watts of energy. That’s 360,000 joules. Pay the guy the provincial minimum wage, give him breaks and weekends and statutory holidays off, and it would take 8.6 years for him to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (boe, the standard unit of measure in hydrocarbon circles). And you’d owe him $138,363 in wages. That, Dave tells you, is what a barrel of oil is worth. He drives on through twilight, the flat, empty spaces on either side of Highway 2 periodically lit by the torchlike flares of natural gas wells. You’re nearing the outskirts of Calgary now, the northbound lanes dense with rush-hour traffic, a steady stream of headlights backlighting him as he talks. He has a tall forehead crowned by a thick, short mop of hair, and in this light his profile looks like something carved from stone on the bluffs of Easter Island. Dave describes himself as fundamentally “an optimist,” so he’s been ruminating on the solutions to the monumental problem he so convincingly describes: “Do we pull out the stops and basically maintain an unsustainable system, keeping the average Joe’s view of the world intact for a few more years? Or do we recognize where we have to go at this point in time, and start making the investments to transit to something that will be sustainable over the long haul?” This is Dave’s dilemma, and all of ours, and it hangs there between you in the truck’s cab, an open question. You turn away from him, from the sharp white glare of commuter traffic, and focus on the road ahead of you. For now, at least, you’ve got enough fuel to make it home.

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