Category “Hydrocarbons”

So What’s The Deal With Unconventional Fuels?

If you’re in any way involved in renewables, it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore unconventional fuels – oil sands, heavy oil, oil shale, shale oil, coal-to-liquids and gas-to-liquids. It’s becoming evident that a new fault line is opening up between renewables on the one hand, and these high-tech hydrocarbon technologies on the other. Because both require long-term investment and high up-front capital outlays, governments and energy investors alike are increasingly having to make a choice. Because their fate is entwined with that of renewables, I’ve decided to write up a naively short summary of the main unconventional fuels – much of this is based on Kjell Aleklett’s recent and recommended book. Although it’s easy to criticise these technologies on environmental grounds, an equally important question here is, ‘how many millions of barrels of oil a day (Mb/d) can these sources provide?’. Humans currently use about 82 Mb/d, and Kjell’s group argue that global production of conventional oil is dropping by about 4 Mb/d every year. If Kjell’s group is right, then unconventionals will at the very least have to replace that by expanding output by an equivalent amount. If they can’t do that, then the case can be made that remaining liquid hydrocarbon reserves should be used very carefully and strategically to prepare for a low-oil future (by investment in renewables deployment and research, for example), rather than be squandered on consumption goods.

Oil Sands

Also called tar sands. The vast majority of it is mined in Canada’s Alberta province, through old-fashioned strip-mining, as well as cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) and a fancier technique called steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Both the IEA and Kjell’s group reckon strip-mining and in-situ methods can provide around 3.5 – 5 Mb/d by 2030.

Heavy Oil

Most of this stuff comes from Venezuela’s gigantic Orinoco Belt. Both the IEA and Kjell’s group reckon it’ll account for around 1.5 – 2 Mb/d by 2030.

Oil Shale

A ‘shale’ is a very generic rock type. ‘Oil shale’ is the name given to shale that contains kerogen, which is a catch-all phrase for insoluble hydrocarbon material (astrobiologists find kerogen in meteorites, for example). Unlike oil, kerogen is typically waxy, and needs to be processed into synthetic oil before anyone can truly go around calling it an ‘oil’. Most of it is currently mined in Estonia. The IEA reckons oil shales will contribute up to around 0.3 Mb/d by 2030.

Shale Oil

Shale oil (and shale gas) is what everyone is referring to when they talk about ‘hydraulic fracking’. It’s probably fair to say that this is the most controversial unconventional. The IEA published an estimate of 1 Mb/d by 2035, but opinions differ. Many reckon that shale oil and -gas are the future. Others think it’s a bubble.

Coal-to-Liquids (CTL)

Just what is says. 5.5 Mb/d by 2030, reckon the folks at the US-based National Petroleum Council. Kjell’s group reckon this is way of the mark though, and with the IEA, they put the 2030 forecast closer to 1 Mb/d.

Gas-to-Liquids (GTL)

Just what is says. 0.7 Mb/d by 2030 reckon the IEA, an estimate that Kjell’s group view as hugely optimistic.

Deepwater Oil

It’s probably worth saying a bit about Kjell’s estimates for future deepwater (> 500m depth) oil production as well, as this represents an important flux:

  • Gulf of Mexico: 0.8 Mb/d by 2020
  • Brasil: 3 Mb/d by 2020
  • Angola: 1.64 Mb/d by 2020
  • Nigeria: 1.40 Mb/d by 2020

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Out, damned plastic! Out, I say!



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Mull on This

Source: David J. C. MacKay

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Jevon on Finite Coal

“But the new applications of coal are of an unlimited character. In the command of force, molecular and mechanical, we have the key to all the infinite varieties of change in place or kind of which nature is capable. No chemical or mechanical operation, perhaps, is quite impossible to us, and invention consists in discovering those which are useful and commercially practicable… For once it would seem as if in fuel, as the source of universal power, we had found an unlimited means of multiplying our command over nature. But alas no! The coal is itself limited in quantity; not absolutely, as regards us, but so that each year we gain our supplies with some increase of difficulty.” – Jevons, W.S. (1865), ‘The Coal Question: An Inquiry concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal‐Mines’, § 9, §§ 15.

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Volatile Meghreb Gas for the EU

Source: Laherrere, Jean (2007) in Mearns, Euan (2010), ‘North African gas supplies to the European gas market’, The Oil Drum.

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The Idiots Guide to the Future of Stuff

The Earth is suspended in a bottom-less Ocean of Oil.  That’s a good thing, since as a result oil will never run out.  People who tell you things like “oil reserves are the result of millions of years of organic matter sequestration” are liars and braggarts, and you should stop hanging out with them.

[1] Oil dominates global energy demand

[2] … most of which is used in the manufacturing sector …

[3] … to make this kind of stuff:

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Ready Or Not

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Let Flow the Force


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Oil & Blood




Iraqi hydrocarbon reserves | U.S. military bases on Iraqi soil

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Remergent Sino-Russian Bloc


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