Understanding Modern Energy 3 – The Exponential use and depletion of Fossil Fuels

I have been teaching about energy for many years.  In all that time I have heard a great many people who expound on fossil fuels (FFs) that really have no idea of what is really happening concerning the use and depletion of this energy source.  Since we have been using them for over 200 years there seems to be an assumption that there must be an inexhaustible amount of them, even if the idea that they are finite is recognized.  In the last blog post I mentioned the ‘exponential function (EF).’  I have this description of EF from another blog I write: “The EF is also known as the power of doubling.  It can be applied to everything that grows or diminishes.  A very simplified formula that can be applied to calculate EF is 70/Growth Rate (GR) = Doubling Time (DT).  The number 70 is simply a round-up of the exponential doubling function 100ln2 (69.3).  If you know the GR or the DT then you can find a real number for growth.  For example, if you wanted to find the doubling time for the human population with a GR of 1% then 70/1 = 70 years.  So if the global population of people in 2000 was 7 billion, then at 1% GR the population would be 14 billion in 2070.  Without going into any more detail, simply realize that when you have a resource of say 100% of mineral Z and you have used half of the mineral (50%) then you are just one more DT from depleting that resource – 50% à 100% in one DT.  At 25% you are two DTs from depleting the resource.  If you found an extra 100% more mineral Z extra than you had before, then you are still only one more extra DT from depletion, since 100% à 200% in one DT.  The math is really simple.  Small numbers grow slowly to bigger numbers, then big numbers get monstrously bigger quickly.

Even if you ignore the pollution and waste problems, I have heard politicians and fossil fuel industry representatives exclaim that the data from ‘experts’ in the FF industries say we have enough FFs for hundreds of years.  For instance, headlines will claim that “at current rate of usage we have enough coal for a 1000 years.”  It is designed to mislead people.  Yet, as the Colorado University Physicist Al Bartlett used to say, “The headline is sort-of true but only under two very specific conditions that never exist.” Once we parse apart the headline, the assumptions for this to be true are that:

  1. All the known resource can be extracted. These resources are not like a glass of water where a full glass can be easily poured out.  Getting to the FFs is straight forward at first but becomes harder as the resource is removed.  As a very broad generalization only about 50% of the resource is recoverable (between 30-70% depending on many factors of extraction technology) and the economic reality is that as the resource becomes harder to extract, the rising cost of extraction becomes economically prohibitive to unfeasible.  For coal, the easily accessible coal seams start to become harder to mine.  For oil and natural gas, the large pockets are long gone and new invasive techniques are needed to get to the dregs at the bottom of the barrel, so to speak (more in next blog post about extraction itself)
  2. The headline says at ‘current rates of usage’ – this is crucial to understand because it talks about a linear rate of usage not exponential. That is, we use only as much next year as we did last year. And, the statement in the headline assumes that for the next 1000 years we will never increase usage per year but it is exponential not linear user that is currently happening.   What are the possibilities that we will immediately stop using energy exponentially.  One of the reasons we are using FFs exponentially is that while 15-20% of the industrialized countries have been using FFs for nearly 200 years, because of globalization the rest of the world is now coming on-board quickly with developing technology based on FF use, and only a few isolated places going straight to the renewable energy options.   Curiously, China was building a regular coal fired power plant at the rate of a 1000 MW coal fired electrical plant per week.  But China has now become highly invested in solar and wind as the reality of FFs hits home to them with extensive pollution problems, and limiting FF supplies that they now have to import at large cost.

If you go to the U.S. government’s own sites that give the FF supply status, and then apply the exponential function, the reality of FF supplies in the U.S. becomes alarming and surprising.  Peak of a resource is when the maximum rate of resource extraction is experienced.  After peak, the amount available then declines even as the demand increases.

  • Coal: At the current exponential rate of usage there is about 50 years worth of coal that can be recovered – this includes known and expected unknown resources, but recovery is going to be very costly from this point onwards. It has to be heavily subsidized by the government for it to make sense to continue extraction.  And as for the boondoggle called clean coal, it’s like saying clean dirt or clean mud.  What people who say this mean is that it is somehow possible to capture the carbon and pipe it under ground in old empty FF sites and old salt mines, etc.  That’s great as long as the deposition sites never leak and you have enough money to throw at the emissions capture system.
  • Oil: In 2008, a politician was busy telling us how we had billions of barrels of Oil in Alaska that would address our country’s needs. I asked my students to do find out what the known and expected unknown resources of Oil were in the USA.  They correctly came back and said there were about 50 billion barrels of oil total, but the country was using just less than 8 billion barrels a year at current exponential usage.   Even with efficiencies of oil usage the sad comment is that the USA has about 8 years worth of its own oil resources.  The ‘peak’ of oil in the USA was about 1974 and since then we have been busy draining the last major recoverable oil reserves in the country.  Even with off-shore exploration the best finds tend to be about 500 million recoverable barrels per site.  ANWR in Alaska, possibly the largest untapped oil research in the USA, which is part of the total 50 billion, has only 11 billion barrels – enough for about 1.4 years of oil if we had to rely just on that U.S. oil reserve.   Even from industry experts, the world is currently at peak oil now.  The largest oil fields in the world (Middle East) will no longer release data of the estimates of recoverable oil – a comment in itself as they strategize their economies for the future oil shocks.  All oil fields in the world are in decline with the exception of some of the Russian oil fields and the East Bagdad oil field in Iraq.
  • Natural Gas: The peak of NG with regular technology in this country was about the early 1970s. As large NG resources started to decline, a new technique, previously uneconomical to use, was set up – Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking).  This allowed the energy companies to reach into widespread shale deposits where the confined gas pockets were highly variable pockets in size although some shales also contained small amounts of shale oil as well (its actually Kerogen that needs processing into oil).  The technology for fracking has existed since the 1940s but was never economically feasible until the price of NG started going up as supplies started to become limiting in the early 1990s.  Rather than just a vertical drill hole to a large pocket of resource, fracking allows drillers to drill down from one hole and then go horizontally in multiple directions deep underground.  The horizontal drill holes are then hydraulically treated to crack the ground rock deep down where the smaller gas deposits can be collected and piped to the surface.  OK, that’s a very simple explanation.  The reality is a bit more troublesome.  (More discussion in the next post.)

What is key here is that extraction of gas and oil via fracking is that recovering these resources means we are plumbing the bottom of the barrel of what was once there.  Coal is already uneconomical to extract.  In October 2018, yet another major coal mining site declared bankruptcy.  And out of the 20 major oil fields in the world, 18 are already well past peak and rapidly depleting.   As far as human societies go these FFs are all fast approaching the end of their useful life.  Yes, there are supplies for now but even as we continue to use them in the developed world, they are becoming exponentially depleted as more and more people in the developing countries that were not using them before start to increase their use of them.  Only last week (October 12, 2018), the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its monthly report that the world has hit “new twin peaks for global oil demand and supply” at 100 million barrels a day.  An optimistic report by the IEA based on industry reports of known oil resources is that the world has about 500 billion barrels of oil total.  A quick calculation based on world total with the latest daily oil use shows us less than 14 years of oil supplies at current rates.  And we keep acting as this is not a problem.

More about extraction in the next blog post.

Understanding Modern Energy 2 – The wonder and dreadfulness of Fossil Fuels – A reality check.

The fossil fuels (FFs) – Coal, Oil, and Thermogenic Natural Gas (tNG – also called Methane) – are all fossils in the sense that they are made of compressed remnant anaerobically (without oxygen) decayed material from ancient organisms 100–500 million years in environments that existed at the bottom of the ocean, in deep lakes, and in swamp sediments.  All were converted to a substance call Kerogen and depending on the conditions in which they formed deep underground became the FFs we extract from the ground.  That’s the basics.  A key feature to think about is that these FFs were mostly photosynthetic organisms, i.e. they grew by extracting carbon dioxide from the air as do modern plants to form high energy sugars and other compounds used to build the plant’s structure.  The high energy chemical bonds were maintained and concentrated over the time they were transformed into Kerogen.  As a transportable energy source they had much more energy per equivalent mass than say wood.  Since ancient times, wood burning had been a major source of energy for humankind.  As populations grew so the forests shrank rapidly, since trees need many years to grow and mature and forest management was not thought about until the mid-1800s with extensive forest depletion in Europe.  About that time large exposed surface layers of coal had been discovered and coal became the natural fuel to use for the growing technology of the industrial revolution.  While swamp gas and tNG had been known about for centuries, commercial gas wells started in the 1820 and it was mainly used for lighting streets.  It wasn’t until safe gas lines could be built that it was finally piped into homes for heating and cooking in the early 1900s.

The FFs have been around for nearly 200 years so now everyone takes them for granted and as always having been there.   What we often forget is the pollution that occurs with FFs.  Until the 1970s the intense primary pollution has always been a problem and the reason for many respiratory deaths and lung problems over the many decades since their introduction.  Yes, they are a highly convenient form of energy, but the drawbacks were obvious with the frequent, intense, and dangerous smogs.  The black sooty pollution also coated everything in a black grime and acidic deposition (rain/snow) that also ate away at stone buildings.  And in case we think extracting FFs is benign, the mining and extraction jobs in these industries are some of the most dangerous in the world.  Accidental explosions and fires from extracting FFs are a common hazard as are the transportation and processing of these sources.

The other consequences of burning the FFs are that when we extract and release the energy, the carbon dioxide and other chemicals that had been stored underground for millions of years is released back into the atmosphere.  The thing most people seem to forget is that this trapped carbon dioxide is now added back to the atmosphere approaching levels that once existed in an ancient past.  Ancient periods (e.g. the Carboniferous period), in which the bulk of the Carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere during the creation of the FFs, had an atmosphere in which the planet was like a hot swamp all over (including the poles during the summers) where lots of surface swamp Natural Gas was also being produced.  (Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide.  The greenhouse effect is a normal process of how the planet stays warm anytime.)  Scientific evidence shows that the planet at the time of the Carboniferous period may have been 10-15oF hotter than it is today.  To be fair, some of that heat was also a result of an ‘equatorial circumventing thermohaline ocean current’ rather the ‘polar thermohaline circulation’ we have today.’  Another consequence of a warmer planet and denser vegetation is the increased movement of water (Water Cycle – evaporation, condensation, and evapotranspiration) into the atmosphere with increased clouds and atmospheric water vapor, which also increases the heat trapping ability of the atmosphere.  Yet, to ignore the consequences of how much heat trapping ability that carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor have is to ignore the scientific realities of atmospheric change outside anything natural happening.

In a nutshell, we are fast creating atmospheric conditions that resemble the carboniferous era but fortunately without the circumventing equatorial current’s additional effects of pre-35 million years ago.  (About that time, continental drift caused North and South America to meet up and Africa to connect with Europe and Asia Minor forcing the thermohaline current to move south under Cape Horn, South Africa and then north towards Greenland thus incrementally cooling the planet as the ocean waters cooled nearer the polar regions.)   Thank heavens for small mercies.  If we continually burn all the FFs the released gasses, that have been stored for hundreds of millions of years, may eventually give us a 10-12oF raise in temperature.  The planet will readily adapt – it always has, but can human society adapt to a radically different world in which mass energy will be need to survive but most of the FF energy sources have been used.  Ah, I hear some say, won’t we have renewable energy options – yes, but……

Just in case we forget, by only focusing on the heat trapping ability of atmospheric chemicals, the immediate problem of FFs pollution is also growing exponentially with the increased extracting of FFs over the last several decades.  Despite the 1970s clear air act, we are still increasingly bathed daily in Acid Deposition, Photochemical Smog, Ground Zone, Nitrous Oxides, Peroxyacyl Nitrates (PANs), and a host of other toxic and irritant pollution resulting from burning of FFs.  Health problems and deaths from FF pollution is on the increase globally.  As I said in the first blog post, what is bad about carbon?  What is good about pollution?

Now if you were to only listen to politicians and the FF energy sector bosses you might think that we had endless supplies of FFs.  The reality is that there is only a finite amount of organic organisms that were made in to the FFs.  All the easy to find FFs have long been discovered and already extracted.  (I have heard some non-scientists insist that these FFs are an ongoing process today, if not much slower process, but besides the pollution and heat trapping atmospheric gasses we have only to wait a few tens of millions of years for them to be ready to tap.)  No, another big problem that most people seem to be ignoring is the speed at which we are using these FFs, and it is exponentially growing usage.  To explain exponential usage, imagine you were stranded in the desert and had 10 gallons of water to drink.  If you rationed yourself to one pint a day the water would last 80 days.  If, however, there were two of you, the water would only last 40 days.  If four of you, 20 days.  If eight of you, 10 days.   You get the obvious idea; The more of you there are, the faster the water will be used.   That is happening with the FFs because the rest of the world is also consuming FFs as fast as we have been in the westernized world for the last two hundred years.  All the data from the energy companies, governmental sources, wherever, all show signs of serious depletion of FFs.  We are running out of large sources of FFs.  And the timeframe is a couple of decades, not a century or more.  So the FFs were wonderful in helping us to create our modernized world, but dreadful with the massive pollution consequences and exponential usage fast reaching depletion in the near future.