Monday, January 28, 2008

Shell Boss Gives Oil 7 Years.

The CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, Jeroen van der Veer, stated in an e.mail to his staff last week: "Shell estimates that after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will no longer keep up with demand." Now this has put the odd cat among the proverbial prey, coming from such a major as Shell, but it concurs with the most optimistic reckoning by Norway's Statoil company analysts who predicted that the peak in world oil production would happen during the period 2010 - 2015. That the rising demand for oil will outstrip its supply, in the face of a geologically culpable decline in output, according to the Hubbert Peak theory, is no surprise, and indeed the editor of the Petroleum Review, Chris Skrebowski, recently predicted that the global production peak will come in 2011 - 2012. If anything, we should feel reassured by Mr van der Veer's message.

The rest of the e.mail addresses other issues and timescales regarding future energy provision. It advances the proposition: "by 2100, the world's energy system will be radically different from today's." That, no one in his right mind can really contradict, but then we are promised: "Renewable energy like solar, wind, hydroelectricity and biofuels will make up a large share of the energy mix, and nuclear energy too will have a place." If, by 2100, much of the Earth's oil and gas are gone or basically unextractable on their present scale, the whole fabric of civilization will change and we will need alternatives to fill the huge and gaping energy-hole that their dearth will leave behind. However, it is really anyone's guess exactly how much of each might be provided, and I doubt that a match in magnitude is possible. Therefore, the energy-mix of 2100 will be characterised mostly by its smaller overall quantity, and the lack of available transportation by then.

The fall in transportation will inevitably result in less energy being required to run the 2100 world, since we will be dependent on local production and economies (villages), and far less so on global business if carriage of goods from cheaper points of production (the developing or "Southern" nations) to the West is greatly restricted by a lack of fuel to put into ships and planes to bring them all over in. However, even if we concede that by 2100 the world will have sorted itself out and there may even be fusion power and hydrogen fuelled transport to hold par with current levels, nonetheless Mr van der Veer stresses that: "Indeed, the distant future looks bright, but getting there will be an adventure." Now that is euphemistically put, I must say.

Shell is of the opinion that the world will take one of two routes: "Scramble" or "Blueprints". Scramble is a kind of "chocks-away" heroic race through a mountainous desert, which like an off-road rally promises excitement and fierce competition, but many will crash along the way. In literal terms, this is the kind of ongoing vista where all nations go to any lengths to grab whatever oil and gas (and uranium?) is left in the ground for themselves, in a "pull-up-the-ladder" strategy (to coin another quaint English saying). Blueprints is a more designed ride on a road that is still under construction (I like the analogy with the putative renewables-based energy infrastructure here). The consequences, as Mr van der Veer says, are: "Whether we arrive safely at our destination depends on the discipline of the drivers and the ingenuity of all those involved in the construction effort. Technical innovation provides for excitement."

Technical innovation can also provide for smokescreens and red-herrings, e.g. a putative hydrogen economy that exceeds the world resource of recoverable platinum to make enough PEM fuel-cells run it, but which with sufficient "outreach" activities and glamorous publicity lulls the public into a false sense of security that it's O.K. Don't worry about it. We have alternatives. It might just take a few years to get them up and running.

We are in trouble. There is nothing that can match the volume (84 million barrels a day or 30 billion barrels a year) of oil we get through, certainly not within 7 years, as Mr van der Veer implies, or more urgently according to other analysts, beyond which supplies will fall by 2 - 3% every year until in a couple of decades most of the world can forget about relying on oil. When OPEC artificially cut its production of oil by 5% in the early 1970's, the price of oil increased fourfold (400%), and that was simply a matter of politics, i.e. they could easily open up the valves again, and when they did, cheap oil came back onto the markets thus negating incentives to find alternatives to oil. Now the problem is set in the structure of the earth and the limited resource of oil it contains. Falling oil supplies will impact unprecedentedly on the world economy, by restricting both available transportation-fuel and the raw hydrocarbon feedstocks on which most of our industries depend, including those of food production.

If we re-enter the small village, stepping back from the global village, I doubt there will be enough surplus energy from whatever oil, gas, nuclear, coal etc. remain, to later transform the world to the 2100 energy utopia that Shell envisages, whether or not most of us have already crashed along the way there.

Related Reading.
[1] "Shell chief fears oil shortage in seven years." By Carl Mortishead, World Business Editor, The Times.
[2] E.mail from Jeroen van der Veer to All Shell Employees:


Peter Melia said...

As I understand it, we sit upon enormous quantities of coal, enough, so I have read, to last for 400 years. From your sources, can you confirm or correct this (date) figure?
Whatever the number, I guess we DO have a lot of coal.
Couldn't this be the way to go after oil?
How about clean coal fired power stations and massive elctrification?
Transmission losses are a huge problem with electricity, so perhaps we should be considering small local clean coal fired plants, to reduce transmission losses.
So how about this a a future power structure.
Coal for base electrical power.
Nuclear for some areas where coal might be energy negative (transport problems etc)
Geothermal power (would still need electrical power for pumps & compressors)
Solar power (the back-up for when the wind stops or the sun doesn't shine will still be coal & nuclear).
All of the above presupposes that we can combust coal in a clean way, not because of global warming, but because of the need to avoid massive pollution.

energybalance said...

Hi Peter.

As I understand it, we sit on about 1.5 billion tonnes of coal in known mine holdings, but it has been estimated there are 190 billion tonnes overall, under mainland UK and its share of the North Sea. However, not all of that is easy to get at and would entail digging a whole new network of mines etc. This is why coal-gasification begins to look attractive, since it would not be necessary to actually mine coal but "burn" it underground and pump off the syngas which can be converted into synthetic fuel using the Fischer-Tropsch process. The latter technology is tried and tested and kept the Germans in fuel (along with other coal to liquids processes)during WWII.

Coal gasification was explored in Derbyshire in the 1950's but the National Coal Board considered it uneconomic and abandoned the project, carrying-on making town gas for heating instead. When North Sea gas arrived that took care of the gas problem until recently when the reserves began to dwindle.

If we could access one way or another all that coal, then we would have enough for hundreds of years, even if we were to turn a lot of it into synthetic fuel. The way to go there would be to use combined-cycle plants which both make electricity and fuel. We would need to build about 30 1 GW type such installations to produce about 50% of the UK's fuel plus most of its electricity.

One problem is that coal to liquids is dirty in terms of overall CO2 emissions if you cost-in the emissions from the process itself and burning the stuff in vehicles. Carbon capture from power stations is regarded as feasible (although the UK government is not yet convinced it will ever become a sensible technology) but from vehicles it is not really practical.

I like your energy scenario and I'm sure we will have an ultimate "mix" as you suggest. Probably we will need all we can get and from wherever we can get it!

As I see it, the biggest problem is keeping transportation going, especially as we are very limited in the time left (before oil starts to run dangerously short) to implement alternatives. Therefore society will relocalise to some extent. Then as you suggest, local production (using coal, yes, why not?) of electricity and also with CHP units, would help to hold such communities in a stable fashion.

In principle solar can provide a lot of electricity, but it needs thin-film cells and they are not yet at the commercial stage. otherwise, the resource demand to make them is unrealistic.

Finally, I have read that the national grid loses about 10% of the power it distributes, and that if everyone used low-energy light bulbs, we could close-down 3 1GW power stations.

I agree with you that coal looks to be an important future energy resource and we should focus there. I know that some of the old pits in South wales and Yorkshire are being reopened and I expect to see more. We use about 80 million tonnes of coal per year in the UK, but 60 million tones of that are imported, mainly from Germany and Eastern Europe.

Hope that helps.