It is always interesting to watch what happens when the media latches onto a given issue and then, as the reality on the ground evolves — sometimes radically — the media fails to catch up to, or even monitor, the changes. This means the public is stuck with an outdated version of conventional wisdom which, even if it were true in the first place, is no longer so.
With oil prices falling by more than two-thirds last year before a slight rebound, the “peak oil” frenzy seems to have abated for now. Even its proponents must admit that high oil prices were driven in large part by a huge spike in demand (which has now fallen) and not just scarcity (whether real or sinisterly implied by those who hold oil reserves).
But even though the hysteria has died down, new technologies march on, quietly changing the rules of the debate (if, that is, there still were a debate).
Despite the engineering advances of the past century, nearly two-thirds of crude still gets left in the ground. So oil companies are raising the ante, investing billions of dollars in cutting-edge technology to increase the amount of crude they can tap. The potential rewards are huge: Raising the average recovery rate world-wide to 50 percent from 35 percent would boost the world’s recoverable oil by about 1.2 trillion barrels — equal to the whole of today’s proven reserves, the International Energy Agency says.
Such recovery measures aren’t pie-in-the-sky, either. Chazan’s article brims with specific examples; for instance:
One method of improving oil recovery could become a vital weapon against global warming: Some companies are pumping carbon dioxide into reservoirs to flush more oil out of the ground. The technique could become increasingly attractive as the world seeks to reduce greenhouse gases. Why not put the carbon dioxide to work, the thinking goes, rather than simply storing it in disused oil reservoirs, as is also done currently.
BP is also experimenting with microbes that reduce the viscosity of heavy oil and help trapped oil move more freely. Another new technology: LoSal, a flooding technique that uses water with reduced salinity, unlike the salt water many oil companies use. BP has discovered that less salinity in the water can improve recovery rates.
This isn’t to say that oil is inexhaustible, nor that energy companies shouldn’t be pursuing more diverse and cleaner energy solutions. But they are. Consider two other articles in the Journal’s special section: this one on tidal and wave power and this one on ultra-high-voltage power lines, which can move electricity further and with less line loss than regular power lines.
So many contemporary debates about energy are lame because the issue is a) heavily politicized; and b) fraught with too many adjectives and not enough numbers. That’s the very wise claim of a British physicist named David J.C. MacKay, whose new book Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air is a must-read for cutting through both the jargon and the pap. For instance:
People who want to promote renewables over nuclear, for example, say “offshore wind power could power all U.K. homes”; then they say “new nuclear power stations will do little to tackle climate change” because 10 new nuclear stations would “reduce emissions only by about 4 percent.” This argument is misleading because the playing field is switched half-way through, from the “number of homes powered” to “reduction of emissions.” The truth is that the amount of electrical power generated by the wonderful windmills that “could power all U.K. homes” is exactly the same as the amount that would be generated by the 10 nuclear power stations! “Powering all U.K. homes” accounts for just 4 percent of U.K. emissions.
So here’s a cheerful prayer for the future: let all our future energy debates be infused a bit more with the precision of MacKay and Chazan and a bit less with the effluvia of politicians and screaming headlines.