Burn, Baby, Burn

You can’t “Drill, Baby, Drill” without a few complications and one of the biggest is the low cost of natural gas. We are swimming in the stuff and it’s not always worth it—economically—to collect it and transport it from the wellhead to wherever it needs to go. Consequently we burn a lot of it off. Seems nuts, right? This is a high-quality, relatively clean fuel source and we waste it to the tune of 288 billion cubic feet annually. Is that a lot? The US consumes about 27 trillion cubic feet in a year so the amount that’s leaked, vented, and flared (burned off) represents about one percent. Of that 288 billion about 129 billion cubic feet or roughly 45% comes from North Dakota alone.


On the global scale the natural gas waste is about 5 trillion cubic feet meaning the US is responsible for about 5%-6% of that total. That number is growing, again mostly because of North Dakota. I’m not picking on the Peace Garden/Flickertail/Rough Rider State. We all burn oil. And when you drill for oil you often get gas. And in places where there is an infrastructure to get the gas you get the gas. Where there isn’t you vent it or burn it off. Turns out that methane is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide so burning it may be the better choice. Regardless, it’s a terrible waste. Here’s part of the reason why (from geology.com):

nat gas price

It costs money to move the stuff. Natural gas (which is mostly methane) is not very dense. It can’t be moved through a pipeline unless it is compressed. It can’t be shipped unless it is liquefied. It’s also quite combustible. This is why gasoline and diesel remain such valuable transportation fuels: they are relatively dense and thus relatively easy to move from one place to another. And they are a lot less combustible, especially diesel. Gases mix with air and ignite easier and burn faster than liquids. Automotive gasoline (petrol) is more volatile than diesel (it fumes easier and makes vapors more readily) and thus is more dangerous to store and carry. This is why we transport crude oil (denser and less volatile than its refined by-products) long distances and refine it closer to the markets. Natural gas also has to be processed—have moisture and impurities removed and any other useful hydrocarbons separated. These things not only cost money but require particular engineering solutions.

Even so, a big rich country like ours ought to not waste a valuable energy resource. In Saudi Arabia they’ve invested billions in schemes to recover the natural gas associated with their oil fields. What they can do, we can do. The difference of course is that their stuff is all nationalized and there is little separation between oil executives and energy ministers. In the States we like the “free market” to make its own rules and we tend to scream and holler about government involvement. Unless of course the government cleans the air, protects the water, and stabilizes prices!

North Dakota, particularly with the emergence of the Bakken shale as a major supplier of crude and now natural gas, has a flaring problem. The infrastructure is not there to take advantage of this abundant fossil fuel. Texas, for example, has a more well-developed gas recovery system in place and does not have the flaring waste issues we see in the north. Naturally there is a tug-of-war going on between the developers and the regulators and at some point the market and the populace and the governments involved will figure something out. Just how much we’ll burn off in the meantime remains to be seen.


Black Magic, continued

Geologic time is another kind of magic. Who can conceive of those extraordinary spans of time? It takes a little over three years to equal 100 million seconds in our everyday existence. Three years worth of seconds is hard to grasp. Now think of those seconds as years. Can you imagine 100 million years? Maybe not, but that’s what the geologists ask of us. When they talk about the Rocky Mountains they tell us that they started growing 70 or 80 million years ago, an event they call the Laramide orogeny. This was after a time when present-day Wyoming was at the bottom of a gigantic inland sea. This mountain-building time lasted perhaps 25 million years. Again, those numbers! The Rockies formed then were high mountains and plateaus interspersed with broad, low-lying basins. Erosion stripped much of it away, and glaciation—very recent—carved the landscape we see today. The marine deposits of the ancient seaway created much of the oil and natural gas that lie under Wyoming. Once the mountains grew, the sea retreated and the basins became inland lakes fed by rivers. The climate was sub-tropical, and many of the basins were vast swamps surrounded by forests of ferns and deciduous trees. Over time these swamps were successively inundated and then buried by sediments. Enormous peat bogs formed, some the size of small states. Bury a peat bog deep enough and long enough and you get coal. Wyoming was the beneficiary of a remarkable sequence of geologic events that created its modern mineral wealth.

wyo geol
From the USGS: http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/p1625a/Chapters/GS.pdf

Coal, like oil, is amazing stuff. It fired the Industrial Revolution. Once it fueled all of our trains until diesel engines took over. These days it is mostly used to make electricity. According to the Energy Information Administration coal is the source of 39% of our electrical needs. But coal comes at a cost, like all fossil fuels. Coal has to be burned to make heat, the heat needed to make steam and turn a turbine. When you burn something you create waste. Coal makes a solid waste called CCR or Coal Combustion Residue. Some of it is fine material, or ash. There’s also boiler slag and the sulfur-laden materials collected from flue gas scrubbers. It’s a lot of stuff, over 100 million tons per year. Some of it can be used by the cement industry or gathered with gypsum to make things like wallboard. The rest has to be disposed of like all solid waste in landfills. Coal burning creates not only greenhouse gases but persistent air pollutants like nitrogen oxides. Not all the sulfur by-products can be scrubbed from the waste gases and those enter the atmosphere as well.

So what are we to do with this abundant and accessible resource? Obviously we are going to burn it but just as obviously we have to find ways to do it better. To those in the industry new technologies and methods can create “clean coal” which has a nice politically acceptable sound-bite ring to it. Environmentalists say such a phrase is oxymoronic, that coal cannot ever be “clean.” It’s a lot like gasoline. We know that our cars pollute but we keep driving because the costs are dispersed. That is, the impacts on the environment and on our health are spread out over the entire nation and sprinkled amongst us here and there. And we’ve seen the success of the Clean Air Act in places like Los Angeles where the air is cleaner because of the regulations and better automobile engines. It’s not like your neighbor collapses in an asthma attack when you start your car. If he did we might notice the effects of burning fossil fuels.

All extraction industries alter the landscape. That’s another cost. Mostly these things happen far from population centers so we don’t notice. And we live in an advanced country with some government oversight and opportunities for citizens to redress grievances or at least express their concerns. You can imagine the impact of fuel and mineral extraction in places where the ruling classes are insulated from the people and from the consequences of their rapaciousness.

Capitalism depends on growth. If your business isn’t growing you are failing. If we aren’t producing and consuming new products our economy tanks. If we don’t get the returns on our investments we can’t make new investments and the economy tanks some more. All of our politicians talk about growth. It’s a sacred tenet of the American way of life. We must continue to get bigger and better. We know there are limits to growth but we don’t want to hear about them. We just want to keep going. Some day, perhaps, we won’t be able to grow any more and we’ll have to figure out a new way to live. For now though we’ll keep the tanks full and keep cruising. Maybe we’ll see something on the journey that will open us up to new possibilities.

Black Magic

In the early days of electrification there were stories of old-timers who would not stand near outlets for fear of the electricity leaking out and on to them. It is called “current” and it is said to “flow” so it is not surprising they would feel as they did. Many descriptions of electricity concepts involve analogies with water systems—battery voltage as a kind of “pressure” for example, much like a municipal storage tank on a tower. These analogies always fall apart because electricity is not at all like water and to grasp what it is requires an effort of imagination much like wrapping your mind around geologic time. Oh, the electricians will tell you they get it, and the electrical engineers will throw differential equations at you, but that is not what I would call “understanding” electricity. Perhaps a few hundred dozen people in the world can communicate in QED, Quantum Electrodynamics, the contemporary theory that covers electromagnetic phenomena. The rest of us can’t or won’t do the math. I’m happy to think of it as magic. It’s a magic we mortals can manipulate, quite skillfully in fact, but a magic nonetheless.

What’s most magical to me about electricity is how swiftly it overtook our lives. James Clerk Maxwell published his eponymous equations in the 1860s and within twenty-five years Nikola Tesla was demonstrating AC induction motors. Within 100 years the developed world was electrified. Perhaps a billion to a billion and a half people in the world today live without electric power but for those of us reading blogs on Facebook life without electricity is unimaginable. Everything we do depends on plugging in. Safe and reliable electrical energy makes our modern world and our modern way of life possible. Did I mention affordable? Electricity in the U.S. is cheap, absurdly cheap. Right now I pay about 15¢ to the folks at Pacific Power for a kilowatt-hour. That means I can burn ten 100-watt light bulbs for ten hours for a buck-and-half. Or I can run my 300-watt computer continuously for a week, that’s 24/7, for about eight bucks.

I’m astonished and amazed by this. Abundant energy at a very low cost is available to me all the time wherever I go. I need not think about it. But I do think about it, it’s my curse. I think about everything. Here’s what I think: we should all know where our good life comes from. We should know what it takes to live the way we do. And what it takes is an elaborate system of resource extraction, power generation, and electricity distribution. Here’s a map from PacifiCorp, the parent company of our local utility:

power grid

Out in Wyoming in the southwestern corner you might be able to discern a dump truck icon which marks a coal-fired generating station. In this case it is the Jim Bridger Plant in Point of Rocks. Wyoming supplies more coal than any other state, meeting about 40% of the nation’s demand. In the Green River Basin there’s an underground mine—The Bridger—that produces about four million short tons of coal annually. That’s pretty small as the big surface mines in other parts of the state can crank out ten to twenty times that. But it’s enough for PacifiCorp to generate two Gigawatts of electricity, of which half goes to Pacific Power customers in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. Pacific Power’s total capacity is about eleven Gigawatts so the coal plant represents less than ten percent of their energy portfolio. It’s about the same as hydroelectric which is also roughly one Gigawatt. By comparison PacifiCorp’s Top of the World wind farm (the largest of two dozen such facilities) in Wyoming puts out about 200 Megawatts or 0.2 Gigawatts.

Coal is messy, dirty stuff. Like oil. It’s also abundant. The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal and Wyoming is the Ghawar Field. With carbon emissions and climate change the hot topics these days coal has lost its allure. But the resource isn’t going anywhere. And it is still the largest source of energy for electric power generation in the world and will remain a valuable part of the mix for the foreseeable future. We may stop demanding coal, but we won’t stop demanding electricity. I’ll take a look at the black stuff in my next post.

Athabasca and EROEI

EROEI is not a Star Wars character but rather an acronym for Energy Return On Energy Invested (also written as EROI). It takes energy as well as capital to exploit a resource. Ideally the resource is valuable enough that the investment of dollars needed to get it is worth it. But what of the energy requirements? How much gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and electricity does it take to get a barrel of oil? And at what point does the energy invested become too much? After the oil peak in the 1970s we have come to rely more and more on improved extraction technologies (e.g., “fracking”) and lower-grade resources like shale and the oil sands. This so-called “tight” oil is increasingly the target of our insatiable lust for the black gold. Think about picking fruit from a tree. You get the low-hanging stuff first, then need a ladder, a bucket truck, or the heart of a daredevil to get the rest. That’s where we are with oil.

In Alberta they mine about two tons of sand to get a barrel of oil. That’s for the easy stuff that’s close to the surface and where they can use open-pit mining techniques. Electric shovels scoop up about 100 tons in one pass and fill giant trucks that can haul about 400 tons to the processing facility. Here’s what the equipment looks like (from the Caterpillar website):

truck and shovel

According to calculations made by J. David Hughes of the Post Carbon Institute (in Drill, Baby, Drill) the EROEI for tar sands oil is about 5-to-1. That’s because the bitumen has to be upgraded—separated from the rock it sits in and and diluted to reduce its viscosity so it will flow in a pipeline. Just digging the stuff up is a 12-to-1 venture, the additional processing to obtain the “synthetic” crude that can be shipped to refineries is where the real cost comes in. Note that I have not looked at economic or ecologic costs, just energy requirements. Here’s a picture of part of the process, a “coker tower” (from the Suncor website), where petroleum coke is extracted and used as fuel:


So is 5-to-1 a good deal? According to EROI of different fuels and the implications for society by Hall, et. al. the average global EROEI for “conventional” fossil fuels is about 20-to1. So the numbers tell us what we knew intuitively, that the new sources of oil are not as energy efficient as the old ones. This is the thing—our demand is increasing. More and more people in the world want the good life and that good life is energy intensive. Our planet holds, still, enormous resources of fossil fuels. Due to their energy density and transportability these fuels will not be replaced any time soon. But the easy pickings are already picked clean. The stuff we go after now is harder to get and much more expensive. In fact, low oil prices make the exploitation of these resources increasingly difficult. When oil was $100/barrel it made sense to chase after them. When the price of crude drops the economics are hard to justify. Consumers and voters like cheap gas, but that’s short-term thinking. Only when the price of oil is high will North American tight oil, whether from Alberta, North Dakota, or Utah, be worth it.

Junkies know about supply and demand. Addiction is demand writ large. Supply is always a problem and cost becomes irrelevant at a certain point. If you gotta have it you gotta have it. That’s us. We gotta have it. How much are we willing to pay?

Athabasca, Black Gold, and You

A barrel of crude oil is 42 US gallons. About half of that barrel is refined into automotive fuel or what we call “gasoline” in the States and other English speakers call “petrol.” Note that this does not include diesel fuel. Last year Americans burned about 375 million gallons of gasoline per day, or a little more than one gallon per citizen per day. There are about 320 million citizens, and 375÷320 is 1.17, but we’ll round off to “one” for convenience. Still, that’s a staggering number. I can go anywhere from 32 to 40 miles on one gallon of petrol in my Honda and about half that distance in my VW camper.

What’s this got to do with Canada? Just that we import more oil from the Land of the Maple Leaf than from anywhere else. About half of Canada’s total production comes from the Alberta oil sands, some two million barrels of crude per day, and they ship about three million barrels per day to their southern neighbors. That’s right—about three of every four barrels of oil produced in Canada come to the United States. We import about nine million barrels per day total so Canada accounts for a third of our imports. The recent domestic production boom here in the States is pretty close to that, The Energy Information Administration says we are closing in on ten million barrels produced daily, the highest total in thirty years.

So when you burn gas in your car you can assume that half of it is American, half of it is foreign, and of that foreign half a third is Canadian, with half of that from the Athabasca. So, yeah, you are burning the oil sands whether you like it or not.

Like I said before I’ve no intention of getting on a soapbox. You can politicize this stuff all you want, I won’t. I want to know what it takes to live the life I do, the life we all live. We First-World Western Industrial Society People, that is. What we don’t grow, we mine. And oil is one of the things we mine. We dig big holes in the ground, yank the stuff out, and process the shit out of it. That’s something. That’s a hell of an undertaking and I want to appreciate it fully.

I like to spend my time outdoors and I love trees and mountains and birds and rocks and streams and all that stuff. And I burn a hell of a lot of gas getting to places that give me that. Not to mention I live in a rural area far from seaports and factories so everything has to be trucked over an extensive highway infrastructure and supported by a gigantic electric power grid.

I’ll leave you with a satellite photo of a portion of the Athabasca oil sands development (from NASA Earth Observatory World of Change)):

athabasca drom space