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Forget Your Silver Bullet

US Task Force finds unconventional fuels from tar sands to shale oil will make little contribution to future energy needs.

By Bill Moore

The United States' Task Force on Strategic Unconventional Fuels (www.unconventionalfuels.org) has made public its findings and recommendations on the future role to be played by five non-petroleum energy sources found in America: shale oil, heavy crude, tar sands, coal-to-liquids and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) using captured carbon dioxide.

In three volumes, the Task Force, made up of the U.S. Secretaries of Energy, Interior and Defense, along with the governors of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Kentucky and Mississippi, takes a comprehensive look at the potential contribution these, heretofore under-utilized resources can make in supplementing the nation's declining petroleum production. They conclude that even under the most aggressive development scenario, these resources could produce about 7.6 million barrels a day of synthetic liquid fuel by 2035. Ander current, business-as-usual, conditions -- and assuming a whole host of issues from socioeconomic to technical can be resolved -- unconventional fuels might add 2.3 mbld by 2035, about one-tenth of what America currently consumes.

While there are no known proponents of "peak oil" to be found among the senior task force members, nonetheless, Volume One of "America's Strategic Unconventional Fuels" reads as if it might have been produced by the Association of the Study of Peak Oil. There are references to M. King Hubbert and energy return on energy invested (EROI).

The accompanying charts prove equally sobering. The graph (reproduced below) showing oil discoveries from 1930 and projected out to 2029 resembles geologist Hubbert's prescient peak. And a companion graph showing the contributions made by the various unconventional energy sources under three different utilization scenarios shows America continuing to be largely dependent on imported oil with energy conservation and efficiency making greater contributions then unconventional fuels put together.

The Task Force sees the rationale for encouraging the development of tar sands, shale oil, heavy crude, coal-to-liquid and EOR using captured CO2 being driven by declining conventional oil production in America and the uncertain availability of imports, which raises concerns for national security and economic development. They see increasing global competition with China and India, with the former already signing deals that will siphon off oil out of Venezuela and synthetic crude out of Canada, two important sources to the United States. Unless America can supplement and/or reduce its demand through conservation, oil imports are likely to make up 65% of the nation's consumption by 2030.

Troubling from a national security perspective is the heavy reliance of the U.S. military on petroleum, consuming in 2006 some 312,000 barrels of oil a day (Mbl/d) , 218 mbl/d in aviation fuel, 48 mbl/d in marine fuels, 35 mbl/d in ground fuels and 12 mbl/d in heating oils. Increased fuel usage and rising prices has caused the the Defense Department to spend $13 billion in FY 2006, up from the $3.9 billion in 2002. The U.S. Air Force has begun to address the issue by certifying the use of blends of synthetic fuels with conventional petroleum jet fuels (JP-8). The first aircraft to be certified to operate on a 50/50 blend is the venerable, but aging B-52. The Air Force plans to have its entire fleet certified by 2011. The Army and Navy have similar programs in place.

While the Task Force acknowledges that America has vast reserves of fossil fuels, and coal is the 800 pound the gorilla in the room, it also appreciates that there are critical constrains on how much of of these energy sources can be converted to liquid fuel. These include:

Also highlighted in the study is the acknowledgment that the ultimate amount of energy that can be recovered is not governed by price, but by how much energy it takes to find, recover and refine. Quoting M.King Hubbert, Volume One states:

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