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Guest Post: Fossil Fuels – A New Normal

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

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By Deborah Gordon

Unconventional oil and gas plays are becoming the new normal. At current market prices technically recoverable oil reserves are transformed—58 percent of today’s oils require unconventional extraction techniques or have entirely different physical and chemical characteristics than yesterday’s crude oil. Looking to the future, at a minimum, the oil in place globally could amount to 24 trillion barrels, three-quarters of which is unconventional. At current consumption levels, that’s enough oil to last 500 years.

Natural gas is also caught up in this resource reversal. The so-called shale gale brought on by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is overfilling American stocks. A decade ago there were 27 liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals in the planning stages and U.S. LNG imports were forecast to rise from 5 percent to 39 percent by 2010. Today there are 15 permit applications before the U.S. government to convert LNG import terminals to export LNG to Europe and Asia.

In addition to shale gas, there is growing awareness that massive quantities of methane hydrates are buried in hundreds of confirmed deposits in permafrost zones and marine sediments on the seabed. Some estimate that reserves of natural gas trapped in this frozen water the consistency of sherbet could contain up to 15 times the amount of gas as the world’s shale deposits and supplies could be twice as large as all other fossil fuels combined. The U.S. has been doing research in this area since the 1980s and Japan is currently leading the charge.

Beyond the prospect of unfettered energy markets driving breakthrough technologies that unlock bounties of oil and gas which will need to be managed, there is a more shocking situation to contemplate.

It’s conventional wisdom that coal, oil, and gas are derived biologically from microbes fermenting ancient fossil life forms. Historically it has required millennia for fossils to turn into fuel feedstocks. But technology is being developed to accelerate time by rapidly transforming organic matter—undercooked kerogen in sedimentary rocks—into oil.

In addition to this non-renewable, prehistoric cache of fossil fuels, the Earth may actually be producing natural gas. In other words, we may actually be living on a natural gas machine. The meteorites that crashed, forming our planet, contained carbon along with simple hydrocarbons like methane. The heat in the Earth’s core is thought to liberate this primitive methane trapped in rocks. This outgassing may explain why there are lakes of liquid methane on Saturn’s moon. There is a theory that oil as well may be regenerating by chemical reaction. Ultra-deep supplies that may not have been created by biochemical processes are thought to serve as evidence.

The Earth may be like a sponge, filled with hydrocarbons that were formed together with the other substances of the deep Earth about four billion years ago. The theory goes, what we mistakenly call “fossil fuels” are a virtually unlimited resource from Earth’s deep interior.

If the current unconventional oil and gas boom tells us anything, it’s that there still remains a lot to be discovered about the fundamentals of hydrocarbon resources. Serious knowledge deficiencies also exist when it comes to the societal impacts of extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels. These gaps in knowledge must be closed in order to find a way to balance the enormous economic value that oil and gas promise with the equally massive threats they could pose to the world’s already-at-risk climate and local environments.

Fossil fuels must be thought about in a whole new way. That will involve uncovering unknowns and investigating the technological, climate, economic, geopolitical, and policy uncertainties surrounding the twenty-first century of oil and gas. It will require new rules for new fuels. Now is the time to structure the role oil and gas supplies will play in the world’s collective energy future. Filling information gaps, developing robust energy policies, and ultimately pricing carbon will be critical.

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: Photo of oil derrick in east Texas by roy.luck and used under this Creative Commons License.

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 10:47 am 07/15/2013

    Wow, peddling the quack science of abiogenic oil…now I see why this article is so misleading and myopic. If we start accessing a substantial portion of these unconventional fossil fuels, it is GAME OVER for the climate. This would be on top of blowing the tops off of thousands of mountains to get at coal, or polluting the groundwater we depend on to survive through fracking, or even seeing oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster over and over again…just because the entrenched interests of fossil fuel companies twists our political process and cuts down cleaner alternatives. To preserve a recognizable climate, about 70% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground.

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  2. 2. sault 10:58 am 07/15/2013

    Yeah, had to look for the link for a little bit, but thinking that the Earth has a chewy center of fossil fuels that will never run out is ridiculous:

    ” Geochemical evidence strongly argues that crude oil is of sedimentary (biogenic) origin, but the origins of natural gas are more complex and the proportion that may be derived from mantle (that is, abiogenic) sources is unknown. Using a geometric mean of 3×10[sup 6] for the molar CH[sub 4]/[sup 3]He ratio in uncontaminated, mantle-derived fluids from spreading ridges, mantle plumes and summit fumaroles of arc volcanoes, the median abiogenic methane content of commercial gases is estimated to be less than 200 ppm by volume (range=0 to 12,000 ppm). While admittedly a rough estimate, this calculation suggests that little confidence should be placed in the resource potential of abiogenic natural gas.”

    And Deborah Gordon mentions NOTHING about Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) that will be one of the ultimate limits to fossil fuel extraction. Unconventional fossil fuels like Tar Sands and oil shale take more energy to produce a barrel of crude than conventional oil drilling. As resources get consumed, we have to work harder and harder to get less and less energy in return. It’s kind of like looking for change in your couch cushions. If you’ve built up a huge pile of money in your couch, its initially very easy to dig out a couple bucks. But as you deplete your change “reservoir”, you have to spend more and more time and effort (i.e. energy) to find the same amount of change you used to. And while you may have pulled up a bunch of quarters in the past, you’re increasingly forced to scrounge up dimes, nickles and even pennies since you already spent most of the easy-to-grab quarters.

    If our species is becoming increasingly desperate to stay addicted to fossil fuels, then this is our fate. Going out and getting a job that pays us a continual income would be like changing over to renewable energy. There would be a lot less uncertainty in energy prices and energy availability for future generations. For the fossil fuel barons hoping to get even richer off the coming supply and price disruptions of fossil fuels (or even just making money off of climate disaster recovery), clean energy represents a threat to future revenues. No wonder they pay for puff pieces like this and spread a bunch of utter falsehoods about renewable energy through their propaganda apparatus.

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  3. 3. Louise Stonington 12:41 pm 07/15/2013

    This post repeats the message of the fossil fuel industry, that climate science is uncertain and therefore we should not take action now to reduce its use. This public misinformation campaign is described in memos of meetings of the petroleum industry from the mid 1990s, and recently by Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in a CNN interview. Hiring scientists, journalists and advertisers, they have been successful in helping the fossil fuel industry maintain its 85% share of the US energy market, 95% for transportation.
    It is not just people concerned about clean air, water, land and a stable climate who find this campaign contrary to American interests. A Tea Party spokeperson recently referred to the ‘huge utility monopoly’ that needs to be required to allow businesses to provide consumers with more options, particularly clean energy, for a better economic future.
    This article states that ‘ultimately pricing carbon will be critical.’ No, carbon pricing should be done now. Fossil fuels have profited for 100 years from government subsidies; our taxes built the highways and government installations that depend on fossil fuels, and we pay trillions for military protection of foreign sources and shipping lanes.
    Now solar power is cheaper in the US Southwest, and in remote areas and islands like Hawaii. Wind has been cheaper than coal fired electricity and even gas powered electricity for some time, if the costs are spread out over 20 years, but the government favoritism for fossil fuels remains. We have available and affordable alternatives to the increasingly expensive fossil fuels, but they are struggling to compete against the price manipulation that huge corporations can use to kill competition.
    Congress should pass a national tax on oil coal and natural gas collected at the wellhead, mine or port of entry and revenues returned to households, with a border tariff to protect against foreign imports. This would allow the profitable growth of US manufacturing industries of clean energy and energy efficiency technology. We would have higher employment, more exports, more profits and stronger national defense.
    The author here misleads us in saying that there are deficiencies in knowledge about the societal impacts of using oil, coal and natural gas, the three fossil fuels. She further misleads in implying that using natural gas or oil for 500 would be a good thing. Scientific evidence is strong that continuing to use fossil fuels will result in temperature rises worldwide that will increase droughts, fires, floods, sea level rise, acid oceans, destruction of infrastructure and displacement of massive populations.
    The National Academies of Science, NASA, the World Bank, the American Meteorological Society, International Food Policy Research Institute, and the US military have all issued reports on the devastating damages of global warming and the high level of risk of those damages getting worse.

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  4. 4. Quantumburrito 1:13 pm 07/15/2013

    Nice post. It’s always heartening to know that technology and exploration can unearth more energy sources than what seems feasible at any given moment. Another point worth noting is that large-scale use of natural gas through fracking has actually reduced GHG emissions by about 8% in the last five years or so.

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  5. 5. Sisko 1:14 pm 07/15/2013

    An actual reasonable article by SA-refreshing!

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  6. 6. jerryd 4:19 pm 07/15/2013

    What a pile of bull.

    Please show your data on the economically recoverable reserves? No one even the most optimistic oil people ever claimed that much. She completely ignores the costs of recovery.

    The fact that so much has to be unconventional itself shows we are running out as does the price rise where even at $100/bbl prices we can’t produce anymore.

    Nor does she mention all these new tight wells burn out in 5 yrs to 10% output meaning you have to redrill all the wells every 7-8 yrs just to keep output level. And the first ones are already run dry. Feds had to reduce US reserves of NG by 40% because of that detail. They had planned on getting tight oil, NG for 5x’s as long.

    Microbes create oil? It’s mostly plant HC’s that under 1,000′s of feet of earth pressure, temps and metals like iron catalyze into other HC’s like oil.

    Whether something is worth drilling for is what counts and that point comes up about $10/gal where many, many other energy sources become cheaper.

    How did SA ever let this article get published as it degrades their rep and obviously an oil industry plant.

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  7. 7. Carlyle 5:42 pm 07/15/2013

    Deborah, the AGW crowd detest the fact that Peak Oil has gone the way of the Dodo. Do not be discouraged. Mirth is the appropriate response :)

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  8. 8. MultiWoman 10:31 pm 07/15/2013

    sault, Louise Stonington, jerryd,

    I thought you folk were interested in facts. Why have you not followed the many links embedded in the article? Are they the wrong sort of facts, or what?? If your opinions are correct you should be able to respond to each warrant and show why it is false. Why can’t you do that? Is it too inconvenient, or too difficult?

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  9. 9. sault 1:17 am 07/16/2013


    This article presented a bunch a falsehoods with a few semi-serious analyses sprinkled in to make it seem legitimate. Bringing out the downright ridiculous claim of abiogenic oil, even though it’s been the laughingstock of geologists for decades shows a blatant disregard for the facts. Ignoring EROEI also shows that the author isn’t interested in comprehensively addressing energy issues. Quickly glossing over pollution and climate change associated with fossil fuels confirms it all.

    And let me close with a question to you. Did you not follow the link I provided to the peer-reviewed scientific paper that basically invalidated most of the author’s argument? You would see who is actually “interested in facts” and who has gotten to closely embedded into the fossil fuel money grab to see anything else.

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  10. 10. Carlyle 5:05 am 07/16/2013

    Invalidated the boom in new energy resources did they. Tell me, what happened to peak oil that you & your cronies were spruiking just a few short years ago? Lets look at that ‘Fact’ first.

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  11. 11. MultiWoman 6:17 am 07/16/2013


    Still no response to the warrants for the author’s argument, eh? Oh well, if you’re not up to the task, perhps one of your peers will be able to carry the load.

    We shall see.

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  12. 12. sault 10:59 am 07/16/2013

    The author’s argument was partially concerning this silly nonsense about abiogenic oil. I debunked it with a peer-reviewed paper. And all the other unconventional fossil fuel resources could make our climate unrecognizeable if they are exploited. In reality, YOU’RE just not up to the task of actually debating the facts and prefer to snipe with ad hominems instead.

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  13. 13. Carlyle 5:11 pm 07/16/2013

    Well, abiogenic oil has not been totally disproven though substantial proof in the theory is lacking However ‘It has been recently discovered that thermophilic bacteria, in the sea bottom and in cooling magma, produce methane and hydrocarbon gases,[4][5] but studies indicate they are not produced in commercially significant quantities (i.e. in extracted hydrocarbon gases, the median abiogenic hydrocarbon content is 0.02%, or 1 part in 5,000)’.
    Who knows what other mechanisms are at work.
    Now, tell us about the Peak Oil scare. The main gist of the article is to demolish the claim that we are about to run out of liquid fuel & had to switch to wind & solar charged batteries for transport. Bio fuel is another AGW favourite gone sour.

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  14. 14. MultiWoman 6:13 pm 07/16/2013


    Hey – no problem if you cannot keep up with someone who has actually studied the subject. Just don’t try to suggest that you can, OK?

    Better luck next time.

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  15. 15. abolitionist 6:17 pm 07/16/2013

    MultiWoman @14

    You didn’t really expect him to, did you? The article is packed with supporting references. He’s lucky that he was able to discount one of her points, let alone all the others! LOL!

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  16. 16. FrenchToaster 8:34 pm 07/16/2013


    Why are you wasting your time with a true believer? You have to know that he’ll just ignore evidence that contradicts his Faith.

    The fact that the U.S. GHG production is lower now than it was in the past due to the new norm will not shake his Faith. Nothing will.

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  17. 17. sault 11:18 am 07/17/2013


    Are you just Deborah, posing as an anonymous poster here at SciAm, and did I hurt your feelings or something? Sorry, but peddling this claptrap about abiogenic oil and suggesting that we can plan our energy strategy around it is just plain ridiculous. It’s almost like saying that we’ll power the future on unicorn horns or something. And when the author doesn’t even discuss the diminishing returns and glosses over the increasing environmental disasters that unconventional fossil fuels will cause, I know she (you?) isn’t looking at the bigger picture.

    And saying things like, “…at a minimum, the oil in place globally could amount to 24 trillion barrels…” is a logical fallacy. If it COULD amount to 24 Trillion barrels, then how in the world is this a MINIMUM? It’s wishful thinking like this that the fossil fuel companies want everybody to practice so they can take their profits before anybody gets scared.

    Finally, without some way to capture the CO2 released during the extraction and use of these unconventional fuels, we will have a dire climate problem on our hands for many generations to come. And carbon capture is a joke, anyway. Just to sequester 10% of CURRENT CO2 emissions (unconventional fuels could possibly DOUBLE them…), we would have to pump as much liquid CO2 INTO the ground as the world’s oil industry pumps crude oil OUT OF the ground. If you think this is anywhere NEAR economically viable and able to scale tp cover the emissions from these dirty fuels, you are delusional.

    In short, you have FAILED to address any of my points. Deborah Gordon’s article is riddled with inaccuracies and logical errors while failing to give the reader any sort of comprehensive picture of the issues under discussion. It reads more like a PR booklet from Exxon or some other major polluter in how one-sided and myopic it is.

    Look, your utter failure to address ANY of my points means you don’t really have an argument to make and can only offer personal attacks against me. Thats fine, but it shows how untenable the “unlimited fossil fuel” position really is. Thanks for helping me argue my point.

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  18. 18. FrenchToaster 9:59 pm 07/17/2013


    sault has proved me right! Totally delusional – he thinks it is his blog! Thanks sault. Good man!

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  19. 19. MultiWoman 10:48 pm 07/17/2013


    I didn’t expect to get sault to acknowledge that anyone who has an opinion different from his could be correct. Once people have a sufficiently large emotional commitment to a cause there is little that rational discourse can do. I prefer to expose people like him for everyone to see.

    What I do is show everyone else reading these pages that True Believers are a danger to civilized society. Your observation about his fantasy that others ought to respond to him, rather than him responding to the subject material (which in this case is quite extensive) is another example of his tenuous grasp on reality – if the discussion is not about what he thinks is important, ref here his post (11:18 am 07/17/2013), “your utter failure to address ANY of my points means you don’t really have an argument to make” it doesn’t count as argument, just like many other cult followers.

    I think of it as a public service.

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  20. 20. Carlyle 12:31 am 07/19/2013


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