Thursday, June 18, 2009

Arctic Oil - How Much is There?

As projected efforts to grab what is left of the world's bestowal of oil range to further extremes, and into the Arctic - the Antarctic remaining so far sacrosanct - the question arises of how much oil can really be recovered from the Arctic? One might view such schemes to drill in the most inhospitable places on Earth as an act of desperation, since it will not be an easy task to recover oil from them, and the price of oil so recovered will inevitably reflect this difficulty. Almost 6% of the earth's surface (that's 30 million km^2) lies above the Arctic circle, and it is one of the most extreme environments on the planet. It is mostly locked in ice, without existing pipelines or other means for transportation of oil and gas.

That said, since it is rumoured that there may be one quarter of the remaining hydrocarbons on Earth there, it is an irresistible proposition. One possible bestowal of global warming/climate change is that formerly closed shipping-lanes such as the fabled North West passage are now passable, for significant portions of the year and so it might be possible to sail oil tankers up into the Arctic to carry oil to the rest of the world. It is a short-term benefit however, since we are now on the forty-year slide-down the back-end of Hubbert's peak, and now would be the time to implement in earnest alternatives, which as far as is possible are independent of oil, while we still have fuel in hand to do so. Otherwise it will simply be too late to avert the kind of catastrophic out-plays of a world so utterly dependent on oil when it runs out of oil - cheap oil at any rate, which is the only kind that can be recovered at anywhere near the 30 billion barrel budget that humankind relies on each year.

I am coming to the conclusion that we are witnessing the end of capitalism. This particular economic scene depends on perpetual growth and all evidence is that we are close to the peak of production, not just of oil and natural gas, but metals or various kinds, especially those used in the electronics industry. With insufficient resources to underpin it, as is now becoming evident, growth is impossible. Imagine a world without computers in ten years, or cell phones, Sat-nav devices and the whole caboodle of modern living, including 600 million cars on the roads.

Most of the resources above the Arctic circle lie on continental shelves, underwater, since some 40 billion barrels of oil and 1136 trillion cubic feet of natural gas along with 8 billion barrels worth of natural gas liquids have been developed onshore there. Most of this is in the Western Siberian basin and the North Slope of Alaska. Under the conditions prevailing, oil is not a runny liquid but a thick almost tar-like substance with problems of getting it moving, requiring inputs of energy in terms of steam to heat pipes and other components of the extractive system.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has undertaken a study in collaboration with geologists from Canada, Denmark, Greenland, Norway and Russia, whose report "Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas in the Arctic", was published last week. Since much of the area in naturally unexplored, the group had to resort to some method of approximation to get a figure for this. They divided the region into 69 separate components with at least 3 km depth of sedimentary rock which is the kind often known as "oil source rock" which is where oil is most likely to be found.

Only resources of at least 50 million barrels of oil or 300 billion cubic feet of gas (which is energetically equivalent to 50 million barrels of oil) were included and so it can be deduced that there is at least 69 x 50 million barrels = 3.5 billion barrels equivalent (and probably quite a bit more than this, which is the lower limit). However, since it is known that fields containing 50 million barrels of oil or its equivalent of gas contain 95% of all known oil and gas resources by volume, it is clear that the amount that can be recovered from Arctic fields is fairly limited, and probably not more than a few months worth of the world's total consumption.

The report also gives its conclusions as being "without reference to costs of exploration and development." Hence while there may be some money to be had from Arctic oil, it does not get us out of the oil-hole.

Related Reading.
"How Much Oil is Under the Arctic?", by Chris Nelder.

No comments: