Sunday, August 03, 2008

The End of Peak Oil? Not Yet.

Friend Tom over at The Bench has discovered that Peak Oil may be nonsense, courtesy of Saturn's moon Titan.

The origin of his post is the NASA report on the presence of hydrocarbons on Saturn's moon Titan. The presence of ethane was long expected, and the Cassini mission confirmed it. The scientists did not propose that Titan's enviroment could result in the creation of oil, only that hydrocarbons exist in abundance, and the totality of hydrocarbons exceeds the oil and gas endowment on the Earth. If you really want to make your eyes cross and head explode (unless your hobby is planetary science) you can read all about it here. There is a link to the full 192M article if you are so inclined.

In addition, Tom quotes Dr. J.F. Kenney, of the Gas Resources Corporation, and understandably so. Dr. Kenney contends that oil can be produced by other than biological processes and Titan may be another piece of evidence for that theory. In 2004 Dr. Kenney produced methane in a lab. Methane is a hydrocarbon but it isn't oil. The bitumen in Canada, and the kerogen in Wyoming are hydrocarbons, but they are not oil. You have to do some work to synthesize oil out of them. In any case, one could conclude that perhaps we are missing an opportunity to look elsewhere for evidence of oil deposits. Or are we?

Dave Cohen, covered this topic at The Oil Drum back in 2005. Richard Heinberg wrote about it in 2004. Heinberg takes to task Thomas Gold, an abiotic oil proponent, who wrote on this matter in 1998, The Deep Hot Biosphere. Heinberg points out some real problems with the theory.

A new study by the US Department of Energy and Lawrence Livermore Lab suggests that there may be huge methane deposits in Earth's mantle, 60 to 120 miles deep. (2) But today oil companies are capable of drilling only as deep as six miles, and this in sedimentary rock; in igneous and metamorphic rock, drill bits have so far penetrated only two miles. (3) In any attempt to drill to a depth remotely approaching the mantle, well casings would be thoroughly crushed and melted by the pressures and temperatures encountered along the way. Moreover, the DOE study attributes the methane deposits it hypothesizes to an origin different from the one Gold described.

More to the point, Gold also claimed the existence of liquid hydrocarbons - oil - at great depths. But there is a problem with this: the temperatures at depths below about 15,000 feet are high enough (above 275 degrees F) to break hydrocarbon bonds. What remains after these molecular bonds are severed is methane, whose molecule contains only a single carbon atom. For petroleum geologists this is not just a matter of theory, but of repeated and sometimes costly experience: they speak of an oil "window" that exists from roughly 7,500 feet to 15,000 feet, within which temperatures are appropriate for oil formation; look far outside the window, and you will most likely come up with a dry hole or, at best, natural gas only. The rare exceptions serve to prove the rule: they are invariably associated with strata that are rapidly (in geological terms) migrating upward or downward. (4)

Heinberg quotes the evidence in favor and the evidence against, and there is no doubt where he stands in any case. Deep oil drilling is at the edge of our technological capability and no one has yet built a drill bit that can survive the conditions described in the article.

Is Peak Oil nonsense? No, not yet. Planetary science is valuable on many levels, but we must take care not to assume that the conditions existing elsewhere are evidence of conditions existing on today's world. The presence of methane in great quantities on Titan may serve as evidence of the steps our world took to arrive at its current state. Or it may be evidence of the conditions that lead to divergent paths in the solar system. Regardless, it does not follow that Titan's reality is evidence that we are sitting on pools of black gold awaiting the arrival of a drill bit.

The bumpy plateau remains in place for the foreseeable future.


The North Coast said...

We can't blame our frightened leaders or population for seizing upon a rather discredited theory that nonetheless still has some life in it, in their efforts to deny the fact of our dwindling resources and the additional difficulty of tapping those that remain. Despite the fact that most evidence argues strongly against it, the abiotic theory still has a lot of life in it, because we so badly want it to be true.

Just 6 short years ago, oil was cheap and there appeared to be few supply problems, except to the technicians and geologists who could see where we were headed given the declining rate of discovery.

It's unfortunate that the entire subject has been so politicized. I suppose that's unavoidable. And since there's still room for debate as to whether we are on the downside of the peak or not, we can only do what any prudent person would do.

Let's just say you are planning your retirement, and have reason to think, though you are not yet sure, that you will have a retirement income of $100K a year. Now, this is a big surprise, and you're not sure of it yet, but there stands a really good chance of your coming into that big inheritance that is such a pleasant surprise, because you had before planned on a retirement income of $24K, based on your known resources.

So, what is wiser? To plan on $100K, even though it is by no means locked in, and you may still end up with only $24K? Or to plan on $24K, and let anything more be a great surprise?

As matters stand at the moment, Western society, and increasingly the rest of the world, is planning on receiving yet another huge inheritance after having squandered the grandest inheritance anyone could want in less than 100 years, and we already have plans to squander that, and more quickly than we did our previous gifts. A 40 year supply of oil, based on current rates of consumption, means that we will start to feel the effects very soon as it dwindles further. And if consumption should rise another 2% a year, what then? How much faster will it deplete given steady population growth and rapid development of third-world countries?

T. Mannis said...

Great post, and great comment from North Coast. Ah, if only we could get a pipeline from Titan to Galveston. The debate over biotic v abiotic oil is a fascinating one, still open for consideration. There are many respected scientists who believe it is abiotic. But, assuming they are correct, the rate at which the planet produces oil remains unknown. Ain't science grand? Regardless of the origins of petroleum, we must make the best use of it - as much as we can - NOW, to quickly carry us into the next phase and out of the Petroleum Age.