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Burning Picassos for Heat
26 Aug, 2009 11:05 pm
Burning natural gas to extract and process oil from the Canadian tar sands has been likened by one industry insider to burning Picassos for heat. But the bidding at the "Picassos for heat" auction may go even higher as those involved in tar sands and oil shale development push for nuclear power to fuel their projects.
|Guernica - Picasso (1937)|
It is a truism that one ought to match the tool to the task. Energy is a tool, and we try to match the proper type of energy to the task. No one would try to put coal into an automobile gas tank. Even if it would actually burn in the engine, coal is so bulky one would have to pull a large trailer filled with it behind the car--in the manner of an old steam locomotive--to make a long trip without refueling. In our homes we use electricity for most tasks instead of gasoline-powered engines because electricity is so versatile. It can be used to power vastly different appliances. We also prefer electricity because, at least inside our homes, it gives off no fumes.
Perhaps some will remember the all-electric home, an idea out of the 1950s that now finds its place in museums instead of new construction. That's partly because it is wildly inefficient to burn fossil fuels to make electricity and then convert that electricity back to heat. About two-thirds of the energy in fossil fuels is wasted as heat when they are turned into electricity. It is a law of physics that each transformation from one state of energy to another involves loss. We are therefore advised to match carefully each task to the type of energy required.
Yet, this basic lesson in physics and energy efficiency seems lost on those pursuing the extraction of oil from the Canadian tar sands and the oil shale fields of the United States. This is in part because so much of our current infrastructure is dependent on liquid fuels from petroleum. In the United States petroleum accounts for 94 percent of all transportation fuel. That includes cars, motorcycles, trucks, busses, ships and planes. Some 8.1 million homes use heating oil for space heat. Changing these two components of the infrastructure to run on other fuels would be costly and time-consuming.
And yet, this might be worth doing to avoid the folly of using high-quality energy sources to produce lower-quality ones from extremely dirty sources. To see how dirty, one need only take a trip using Google Earth to the section of Alberta where tar sands are being exploited to view the huge wastewater ponds--ponds that can be seen from space--filled with sludge which the industry has yet to figure out how to purify. Extracting and processing tar sands also produces two to three times as much greenhouse gas as extracting and refining of conventional crude oil. Then there is the question of burning huge amounts of natural gas to heat the water used to separate the gooey bitumen from the sand. In addition, hydrogen is stripped from natural gas and used to upgrade the bitumen into something that can be sent to a conventional refinery.
Since natural gas is now in decline in Canada, plans are afoot to build nuclear power plants to provide process energy for tar sands operations and possibly to produce hydrogen through the electrolysis of water. Oil shale developers are faced with the same challenges. They need heat, and for some extraction processes they need hydrogen. Either they will use natural gas which appears to have peaked in North America--the hype about shale gas notwithstanding--or they will use nuclear power.
The question then is this: Why not use these high-quality energy sources to power transportation and heat homes directly? Doing so would produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And, direct use of these energy sources would be far more efficient than using them to transform tar sands and oil shale into useable petroleum products. The response from the oil industry has always been that we'd need a different infrastructure. But the answer to this objection is as follows: Why not build that infrastructure now? Why wait until the oil flow tops out at the tar sands and oil shale fields to do this? Why accept the many risks and uncertainties associated with further development of these unconventional oil sources including the risk that oil shale may never prove to be economically feasible to exploit?
My recommended path would be to electrify transportation as much as possible. Obviously, planes would have to be an exception. Ships might also be an exception; but oceangoing ships could reduce their fuel consumption greatly by adding sails which are increasingly becoming available. Cars, motorcycles, trucks and trains, however, could all be electrified with a few exceptions such as emergency vehicles which must run whether electricity is available or not.
We can generate electricity from many sources including renewables such as wind and solar. And, the future supply crunch which we are likely to experience in oil could be averted. In fact, oil could be saved for critical nonfuel uses such as pharmaceuticals, plastics, fabrics, lubricants and myriad other products upon which our society now depends.
Given the singular versatility of oil as a feedstock for so many types of materials in modern society, it might even be appropriate to add burning oil for fuel to the list of actions that are the equivalent of burning Picassos for heat. That might turn out to be the best art lesson of all.
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Since you don't believe the gas shales are real (they are- its rather hard to deny actual production, even if you only cite biased sources as you have). Canadian gas supplies are NOT in decline and your source is two years out of date. You are welcome to use electricity to power the transportation sector, but it will end up consuming twice as much natural gas as if you powered the transportation sector directly with natural gas, and this is what will happen based on free market economics. Currently natural gas is price-competitive with coal for electric generation.
Oil shales will continue to be extracted using natural gas as long as gas prices are at record lows, and as long as more and more gas shales keep coming on line this situation is likely. Natural gas has always had the problem of finding a market large enough to absorb the supply, as well as justifying the infrastructure costs, and any large consumer of natural gas will have market incentive to continue using it, especially while the economic value of petroleum is so much higher than natural gas.
I meant to say "oil sands."
I think electricity from renewables which I cite and nuclear would be better used to power vehicles directly. Since I don't believe the hype about shale gas, I think it would be unwise to use natural gas as a motor fuel because it will need to be reserved for home heating and for the production of fertilizers.
One cannot deny that shale gas production is increasing. But three questions remain unanswered. When will conventional production begin to fall off a cliff and make it impossible for any new shale gas supplies to make up for loss of conventional supply? Will we find the capital and water fracturing requirements for shale wells overwhelming and limiting? Will we find that the "sweet" spots now being drilled in various shale formations are not widespread?
Shale gas will prove to be just like any other hydrocarbon resource. We are inarguably getting the easiest gas out of the shales now. That means the hard stuff is coming. It will be more costly and it will flow less easily.
If you read the link about the hype in shale gas, you'll see that the economics are quite questionable. Nobody's going to produce gobs of new shale gas at current prices. Yes, they are going to sell what they've already drilled at a loss. They have no choice but to try to recover some of their costs. But I won't be surprised to see many shale gas players bankrupt in the next couple of years.
Remember that only 10 years ago people were telling us that we would have a glut of oil for the indefinite future. There seemed no limit. I think we are in the same place with natural gas today in North America as we were with oil in the world 10 years ago. Lots of hype about endless gluts that proved to be baseless once you look at the actual reserve figures instead of the inflated claims about "resources."
I also agree that, within the framework of our current socioeconomic system, electrification of transport makes good sense (though I don't think it will save industrial civilization).
Tony you're way off in your arguments about 'efficiency' - a regular talking point of fossil fuel apologists, but a huge distortion of reality.