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Guest Post: Navigating the New World of Oils

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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By Deborah Gordon

After a half-century pursuit of oil independence, the U.S. may have struck it rich again. Only this time it’s not the same black gold. And, if anything, oil will make the country more globally interdependent than ever before.

The expansion of U.S. oil resources is not just growing the total available capacity; it is also significantly diversifying sources of that oil capacity. The assumptions associated with the relatively homogenous oils of the past can no longer be taken for granted. Some of these new oils originate from resources that are not oil at all, instead resembling gas or coal. This will spur paradigm shifts throughout the oil value chain, especially for climate change.

In the 2012 World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency predicts that the United States, with its massive oil and gas reserves, is positioned to redraw the global energy map. As such, America could overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world’s largest global oil producer within five years.

This is an amazing reversal of fortune for the world’s largest oil consumer. But America’s rags to riches story is more complicated than it appears. Although for the first time in a long time, the lament is not about shortages and peak oil. Instead, seemingly limitless oil (and gas) at home is being celebrated. In a world chalked full of resource restrictions, this is an enviable position—one that is too important to squander or use toward destructive ends. There are serious risks that need to be managed, however. As such, America has important decisions to make.

While President Obama’s vision of ensuring security of supply is through an “all-of-the-above” approach to tapping diverse sources of energy, when it comes to different oils, all-of-the-above could be an expensive lose-lose proposition. Given the fundamental differences between new liquid hydrocarbons—technologically, economically, geographically, and environmentally—it will become increasingly important to parse out the differing climate impacts between oils and choose wisely. Subsidizing, taxing, or regulating oils as if they are a single commodity does not provide a long-term vision. America needs an oil policy that prioritizes which oils to develop and which to leave in the ground.

Economically, the oils that remain in the ground are a resource savings plan that may, or may not, be spent in the future. Environmentally, the carbon that remains locked in the ground is nature’s carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) plan—far cheaper and less precarious than any such man-made CCS scheme currently under consideration.

New oil supplies could be utilized to feed ever-increasing appetites, especially abroad, as the U.S. moves to export petroleum products, and perhaps even unrefined oil itself. A new policy playbook is needed for oil in an era that has suddenly been transformed—after what has been a previously steady evolution since the tipping point of the 1901 Spindletop gusher in Texas. U.S. policymakers have a steep learning curve before them with the vastly expanded oil menu—Canadian bitumen oil sands, Arctic oils, Bakken and Eagle Ford shale oils, Gulf ultra-deep oils, Brazilian pre-salt oils, and Rocky Mountain kerogen oil shales. Taking proper account of what is known—and probing what is not—about these disparate oils and their implications will require new policies to guide their use.

The most effective way to decide which oils to produce, which to leave in the ground, as well as what petroleum products to avoid burning and how to continue to cut oil demands would be to adopt a system of carbon pricing.

Every oil resource has its own carbon potential. Generally, the heavier the oil, the higher its carbon content, the more laborious its extraction, the greater its energy and other resource input requirements, and the greater the share of high-carbon marketable products. Given their inherent properties, some oils are just easier to manage than others. The good news provided by new oil opportunities therefore comes with a responsibility to ensure sound decisionmaking is adopted now to protect for the future.

Amid persistent droughts through the nation’s entire midsection from the Dakotas to Texas, Hurricane Sandy was yet another wake up call. Global temperatures are already on the rise and unlocking massive further stores of carbon contained in new unconventional oils is a risk that cannot afford to be taken.

A full bore oil strategy to develop any and all resource plays may seem like the easy way out—but to pursue this course would be economically and environmentally unsustainable. Rather than lock-in a plethora of oil infrastructure and drive up carbon concentrations use of different oils needs to be prioritized to plan for tomorrow. Oil markets are shaping up for a chess game of opportunistic moves in which the most important thing to have is options. With so many dynamic changes playing out on a global scale, now is the time to devise the oil end game.

Deborah Gordon is a nonresident senior associate in the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on oil, climate, energy, and transportation issues in the United States, China, and globally.

Photo Credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Photo info: Rock containing bitumen that is later refined to oil on display besides an oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta on October 22, 2009. Greenpeace are calling for an end to oil sands mining in the region due to their greenhouse gas emissions and have recently staged sit-ins which briefly halted production at several mines. At an estimated 175 billion barrels, Alberta’s oil sands are the second largest oil reserve in the world behind Saudi Arabia, but they were neglected for years, except by local companies, because of high extraction costs. Since 2000, skyrocketing crude oil prices and improved extraction methods have made exploitation more economical, and have lured several multinational oil companies to mine the sands.


Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sault 3:26 pm 01/15/2013

    Deborah,

    You bring up a good point. Some portion of North America’s, and the World’s, fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground if we want to keep our climate from getting REALLY unstable. It’s really a question of how much and which oil sources will be winners or losers.

    A price on carbon would be a simple way to help separate the “wheat from the chaff” as far as unconventional oil is concerned. If, for instance, oil shale can be extracted economically, using lots of water, electricity and natural gas probably, then a price on carbon will correct for the biggest market failure in our energy sector, namely the fact that the costs of dealing with climate change are offloaded onto society while those profiting are not held liable. Specifically for “fracking”, repealing the specific exemptions from the Clean Air Act and the Clean Drinking Water Act this extraction technique enjoys would go a long way towards making the energy market more fair for everyone. A fairer market will help keep less efficient and dirty oils in the ground while the extraction processes that DO make sense will be able to move forward.

    BTW, a $25 a ton carbon tax will add around $0.22 to a gallon of gasoline and do a lot to keep us from the worst case slimate change scenarios.

    Link to this

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