Monday, February 19, 2007

Will melting Arctic Ice mean More Oil and Gas Exploration?

Almost one quarter of the World's remaining oil and gas reserves are in the Arctic. Getting to them, and carrying the booty away from their frigid locations has typically posed numerous problems; however, the nature of the Arctic is changing. Drilling in the far North involves coping with extremely low temperatures, unpredictable ice-floes, some of the roughest seas on Earth, and the logistical challenges of transporting oil and gas from far-flung locations, often offshore at that, hence compounding the scale of the task. As the Arctic continues to warm, there will be less ice, especially during the summer months, when shipping-routes once rendered impassable, might become clear for significant durations of the year. New drilling sites might also become accessible. Although there is much speculation and uncertainty, those nations with land above the Arctic Circle, are in a scrum to secure rights to the lands of the Arctic, and to the shipping lanes through it.
It is difficult to find a single figure for how much oil and gas there is remaining that can be extracted from the Earth, and indeed exactly how near we are to exhausting this supply. Probably it will never be exhausted entirely, but as its production grows ever tighter the economics of the World will become strained. Geologists and economists give different answers, and those employed by oil companies seem to tend towards more optimistic values. The issue is sometimes further obfuscated by lumping all sources of oil together as though they were a single resource, which is highly misleading, as not all oil is so easy to obtain as we are used to from conventional oil wells. A useful quotient is the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested), and if that falls below about 3, then the source may not be worth extracting. The value is now around 8 for the fields in the Middle East, whereas it was nearer 100 in the early days of oil exploration - "the "Gushers" that we now only see on worn film-footage. Probably the tar-sands and oil-shales in various parts of the world will be very hard won in terms of the amount of oil they can yield, but desperation will drive actions to this end, as the Middle East oil supplies become compromised either through geology or politics, including war. Such enthusiasm over the prospect of drilling in the Arctic may also reflect desperation, and a firm denial that the oil-wealthy world we have accepted as a status quo will change entirely, and soon. In my analyses here, I have assumed the best consensus figure I can find of one trillion barrels, or one thousand billion barrels of oil, which is enough for about 30 years if it can all be extracted, and that is highly debatable. I estimate that supplies will become seriously comprimised within ten years.
It is of course ironic, if the effect of global warming (which consensus of scientists says is due to human activities and their emission of CO2) is to melt-away the Arctic ice, so permitting further oil and gas to be had, and consequently more CO2 to end up in the sky, causing yet more warming. However, if we do not get at that extra quarter, we may be down to at best a supply of just over 20 years from other sources. I suspect that nowhere will be sacred and drilling will be done in nature reserves, and everywhere and anywhere there is oil or gas, no matter what the human risk or environmental costs of doing so.
Drilling in the Arctic, if it happens, will be at best a short-term measure, and will actually mean that at most another 30 p.p.m. of CO2 is added to the atmospheric load - not a big deal - certainly not compared to the eventuality of running out of oil which it can at best stave-off for a bare few more years.

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