By Risto Isomaki
The U.S. oil geologist Marion King Hubbert predicted, already in 1956, that the global production of oil will reach its all-time high roughly when we have used one half of the world’s oil reserves. This is because geologists tend to find the biggest fields first, and because oil wells become tired during the production phase. The more that is taken out, the more difficult it gets to bring the remaining oil to the surface.
The world’s production of crude oil may have peaked in July 2008, at 74,666 barrels per day. In other words we may already have passed the feared Peak Oil, without almost anybody noticing the event. This is because the production of natural gas is still increasing, and growing amounts of gas have been converted to various oil-replacing products.
Things will only get serious when we hit the global peak in combined oil and gas production. After this the supply of hydrocarbons can no longer satisfy the demand, and the prices will skyrocket.
This could cause a series of severe depressions and intermittent, short recoveries. Food production will also suffer. Eighty percent of our food is now produced by nitrogen fertilizers, the prices of which depend on the price of natural gas.
Governments and companies have recently become very aware of the problem, and large sums of money are being invested in various alternative solutions.
One option is to expand the accessible natural gas reserves with a technology known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. In fracking tens of millions of liters of chemically treated water is pumped at high pressure into deep formations of relatively impermeable sedimentary rock known as shale. The fluid cracks the shale rock or expands existing cracks, and frees hydrocarbons so that they can flow toward a well.
Another option is a method known as underground coal gasification, or UCG. In UCG deep coal seams are converted to syngas, a mixture of methane, hydrogen and carbon monoxide, by the injection of oxidants into the deep ground.
The concept was originally proposed by Dmitri Mendelejev, the famous Russian scientist who is best remembered as the father of the periodic table of elements. The first major projects were carried out in Uzbekistan in the 1930s when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Many governments have recently become interested in reviving the idea.
It is easy to understand why they are so excited. There are only limited amounts of coal relatively close to the Earth’s surface, but the reserves deeper in the crust are enormous. For example, the bottom of the Norwegian Sea has been estimated to contain 3,000 billion tons of coal. The deep coal deposits cannot be mined economically with conventional means, but they could be converted to syngas by UCG.
The negative side is that fracking and UCG could together form a recipe for an ultimate ecological nightmare. They would multiply the recoverable fossil fuel resources and enable us to produce many times more carbon dioxide than would otherwise have been possible. This would have disastrous consequences for the climate, because carbon dioxide is a strong greenhouse gas. Moreover, one third of the carbon dioxide we produce currently dissolves into the ocean as carbonic acid. A growing number of scientists say that the acidification of the oceans could, in the long run, be an even more serious problem than global warming.
Another danger is that part of the methane produced by fracking or UCG would almost inevitably escape the collecting systems and seep into the atmosphere. When both direct and indirect impacts are taken into account, one molecule of methane heats our planet 33 times more than a molecule of carbon dioxide, during the next one hundred years.
According to a study in the U.S. Cornell University, even now up to eight percent of natural gas escapes into the atmosphere during the production phase or during transportation and end use. It is reasonable to assume that UCG and fracking would produce still higher losses than the present methods.
But how do we replace natural gas and oil, if UCG and fracking are too dangerous for our climate and for the oceans?
A third often mentioned option is to use shale oil and tar sand as raw materials for oil-substituting products, but this also produces very large carbon dioxide emissions.
Electric cars could, at least in theory, replace cars using gasoline and diesel oil. But they are still spreading very slowly and it may be impossible to design electrical freight ships or jet planes.
This leaves us with only two realistic solutions. Part of the problem can and must be solved with energy-saving measures and by improved energy efficiency, but it seems that we also need to increase our production of biofuels.
Biofuels have their own problems. They often require heavy doses of nitrogen fertilizer. This produces nitrous oxide, which is a strong greenhouse gas. Large-scale conversion of forested areas and tropical peat lands to biofuel plantations would have catastrophic consequences both for biodiversity and for the climate.
However, biofuels can also be produced in ecologically and socially sustainable ways. We have millions of hectares of seriously eroded fields and grazing lands that have lost most of their organic carbon and fertility. Such lands could be distributed to landless families and converted to multi-storey home gardens producing food and timber – as well as raw materials for biofuels. This might be an excellent way to solve the problems related to peak oil and peak gas in a way that also provides a decent livelihood for hundreds of millions of rural families.
Risto Isomaki is an environmental activist and award-winning Finnish writer whose novels have been translated into several languages.