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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