Friday, December 16, 2011

Die-Off or Abundance?

The ownership of the largest deposits of oil, notably in the former U.S.S.R., e.g. Siberia and Kazakhstan and the Caspian region generally, in addition to the fields in the Middle East, will likely determine the future balance of world power. "The New World Order" as it is sometimes referred to. It is interesting that it is scientists from the former U.S.S.R. who throng among the ranks of "Hubbert detractors" - those who do not believe in an imminent "peak oil" scenario. There appears to be a conflict of opinion, and probably of interest too, between Western and Soviet oil experts, which revolves around different viewpoints as to the origin of petroleum. The western belief is, as we were all taught at school, that petroleum is a result of "cooking" plant and animal remains over millennia, and proof of its origin thus is taken to be the presence of the same type of organic molecules (porphyrins etc.) as are found in living plants and animals, i.e. the biotic theory.

Soviet thinking, which goes back at least as far as the great Russian chemist Medeleyev (who devised the Periodic Table of the chemical Elements), is that petroleum is formed in the deep earth by geochemical processes - Mendeleyev thought by the action of water on iron carbides. This is called the abiotic theory.

The explanation for the presence of porphyrins etc. is that they are simply dissolved from higher strata by petroleum moving upward from the depths, and acting as an organic solvent. The essential difference between these schools of thinking is that, if the Russians are right, oil can be considered a limitless resource, while the western view readily accords with an imminent peak oil; i.e. a finite supply of oil. The Russians, however, are sufficiently convinced after more than 50 years of intensive research that their theory is correct and they have made enormous investments in developing "deep drilling" techniques (8 km and more down) with which to reach the petroleum deposits formed deep underground. Of course, while there are differences of opinion about how much oil there is, even conventional oil depending on whether a 90% probability (P90) or 50% probability (P50) scenario is used, and there may well be large amounts of either biotically or abiotically derived oil beyond what has been estimated, if that oil cannot be recovered at a sufficient rate to meet demand for it, then a supply-demand gap for crude oil is inevitable. The event of Peak Oil will rapidly and substantively enlarge that gap.

Either the Russians will secure their position more strongly in the new world order, or affordable oil will run out - for everybody. This is particularly alarming in the context of world population. In 1900, there were less than 2 billion people on the planet (up from about 1 billion in 1800); now the figure has just passed 7 billion, and the exponential curve in population growth that these numbers can be plotted upon is an exact parallel with the curve for oil production. Without the vast quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and fuels to run farm machinery, all of them being made from crude oil and natural gas, we could not grow enough food to feed the rising population, nor even the current number, nor far less than that. Some predict that a "die off" will follow peak oil production, and that the world population will fall from 7 billion to perhaps as few as 500 million (the death of almost 5 billion people, or about 92% of the number now alive).

An analogy can be drawn with the growth of bacteria, which, so long as there is sufficient food available, follows a "sigmoid curve". There is an initial growth in population which multiplies rapidly (the rising upper of the sigmoid), and then levels off abruptly when the food supply becomes restricted relative to the new, far larger population. Then they begin to eat each other instead, and the number of bacteria remaining alive plummets.

Placed in human terms, it is hardly a comforting comparison.


Trim said...


Having been in the alt fuel industry all my life, I find the idea of abiotic oil extremely interesting. Unfortunately, it seems that scientists are divided on the concept rather than realizing that both biotic and abiotic oil are highly likely to exist...together. Simply ask NASA what they have found on Titan.

What are your thoughts?


S/V Trim

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

My own opinion, for what its worth, is that there are probably many different sources of hydrocarbons. Certainly they can be produced by the action of water on metal carbides or by cooking methane, and so such processes could occur within the Earth.

Western geologists think that petroleum originates from cooking algae and zooplankton that has crawled into porous rock millions of years ago, and why shouldn't there be both sources?

The observation from Titan is fascinating because it shows that hydrocarbons can originate on a body with no organic life.

So, there may well be vast and untapped reserves of oil within the Earth, but whether than can avert the peak-oil problem depends on how quickly it can be extracted. It's a rate of recovery/conversion problem that will need an enormous new global infrastructure to tap into it significantly.

I am a fan of algal fuels - in principle anyway - and at a talk I gave yesterday I was asked what it would cost to implement a serious production of algal fuel on a scale comparable with petroleum. My answer was, how much do you think it would cost to get the world petroleum industry up from scratch now? Hundreds of billions!

But the rider to that is that if we relocalise so we are using far less fuel, then the problem is somewhat scaled down. That noted, to do this means in global terms "ruining the economy", but I think it's days are numbered anyway, as there are insufficient resources - or they cannot be recovered fast enough - to underpin continued growth.