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Dave Hughes’s guide to the end of the fossil fuel age

May 22, 2010

From The Walrus

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Here’s the upshot: if you plan to drive a car or heat a house or light a room in 2030, The Talk is telling you your options will be limited, to say the least. Even if you’re convinced climate change is UN-sponsored hysteria or every last puff of greenhouse gas will soon be buried forever a mile underground or ducks look their best choking on tar sands tailings, Dave Hughes is saying your way of life is over. Not because of the clouds of smoke, you understand, but because we’re running out of what makes them.

In the aftermath of Talk No. 147, you intercepted Dave as he did his unassuming geologist’s shuffle across the reception hall. You breathed Big Rock Trad into his tired eyes as you tried to assess which of the synaptic eruptions going off in your brain was worth blurting out. You kept it as nonchalant as you could manage. If I understand you correctly, Dave, you’re saying we’re a decade or two from the onset of the terminal collapse of the global energy economy, and there’s not enough of anything left, and no way to dig and drill fast enough for what is left. Never mind climate change — we’ll plum run out of hydrocarbons long before we can burn enough of the stuff to seal our doom. Have I, uh, have I got that right?

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What strikes you right away, this second time around, is how the data seems even more flooring. Ninety percent of all the oil humanity has ever burned has turned to ash and greenhouse gases since 1959 — half since 1986. Ninety percent of all the natural gas ever burned set aflame since 1964. Half of humanity’s cumulative coal tally up in smoke since 1972. “When I was born, back in 1950” — this is Dave, summarizing in his flat, slightly clipped deadpan — “the world had 95 percent of ultimate recoverable hydrocarbons remaining. Today we’ve consumed about 40 percent of ultimate recoverable hydrocarbons. If we keep consuming them as fast as we can produce them, 80 percent will be gone by 2050. And that’s a huge concern for future generations.” This presumes, of course, that what remains after we reach 50 percent — the global hydrocarbon peak — can even continue to be extracted at speeds and volumes that make any kind of economic sense.

The huge concern, in other words, isn’t the total but the difficulty of recovering those remaining hydrocarbons beyond the halfway mark. You notice, too, the way the keywords on that subject start to stick. Energy return on energy invested, which geologists refer to interchangeably as EROEI or EROI. Canada’s exploration treadmill. Reserves-to-production ratios.

You pick one at random, fixate on it. The historical EROEI for conventional oil is 100:1. This refers to the kind of crude that gushes up in the opening credits of The Beverly Hillbillies, the kind that first flowed out of the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia when it was tapped in 1948. Invest a barrel’s worth of energy drilling and refining in a spot like Ghawar, then and forever the largest single crude oil deposit on the planet, and you used to get 100 barrels of energy-dense, easily transported fuel in return. These days, conventional EROEI for such places is closer to 25:1.

From The Walrus

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