The Realities of Unconventional Oils in America
By EV World
Besides the impact that oil -- both domestic and imported -- has on a nation's economy and its national security, the use of gasoline and diesel fuel have a significant affect on climate, argued James T. Bartis in his 25-minute presentation to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil USA during the 2006 conference in Boston last Fall. Dr. Bartis is a senior policy analyst for The Rand Corporation.
His comments about conventional oil were meant to frame the discussion on the role of "unconventional oils" in replacing what is becoming an increasingly expensive -- irrespective of the current drop in crude oil prices -- and scarce resource in many parts of the world. It is high prices and tight supplies that are providing the needed economic incentives to nurture the development of the bitumen sands (also called tar or oil sands) in Canada's Province of Alberta, as well as experiments in producing synthetic fuels from the oil shales of the Green River Basin in the corner of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. He also briefly addressed coal-to-liquid technology, which is based on German-developed processes that once fueled the Nazi war machine.
Focusing his talk on American "unconventional oils", Bartis quickly dismissed U.S. tar sands as being totally unlike Canada's vast resources in both quality and quantity, noting that The Rand Corporation has found no serious, professional analysis of these sands that considers them at all economically exploitable.
That leaves the oil shale deposits of the Intermountain West and coal as the only viable unconventional oil options available within the United States, and neither of these turn out to be all that promising at the end of the day.
He first discusses three bio-based fuels: bio-alcohols that include ethanol and bio-butanol, biodiesel and biofuels derived through gasification.
The chief problems with the bio-alchohol fuels is that they are produced from food crops. More importantly from his perspective is the question of oil-displacement. The Rand Corporation calculates that currently every one barrel of ethanol or biodiesel produced in America displaces just half a barrel of imported oil into the country. He also sees serious impacts on agriculture itself and the fact that we simply haven't enough available acreage to produce sufficient biofuels to satisfy our current rate of petroleum consumption
In short, the contribution of biofuels is in his words and under present conditions "insignificant". Because of that, he believes much more research needs to be devoted to addressing this shortcoming.
Biomass gasification is another possible means of producing renewable fuels through the process that creates carbon and hydrogen gas from the incomplete combustion of biomass like crop residue and forestry waste. The resulting gases can then be run through the Fischer-Tropsch process to create very clean synthetic motor fuels. Combined with carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, the process could be a net extractor of CO2 from the atmosphere.
However, the entire process is very energy intensive and "doesn't make sense at the small plant size", which then poses a Catch 22 dilemma. Because of the bulk of the biomass, it can't be cost-effectively moved long distances, which then dictates that the plant must be either regionally or community-based and therefore uneconomically small. The only possible way out is dual-feed plants that utilize both coal and biomass, but Bartis cautioned that the necessary technology doesn't currently exist to make that happen.
"So what's left?" Dr. Bartis asks. To find learn in more detail why he sees problems with our other unconventional oil options, listen to his complete presentation by using one of the two MP3 players at the top of the page. You may also download the MP3 file to your computer hard drive for transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device. ASPO USA has also made his presentation slides available at the following URL: http://www.aspo-usa.com/fall2006/presentations/pdf/Bartis_J_Boston_2006.pdf.
EV World expresses its appreciation to ASPO USA and the event organizers for permitting us to record the proceedings and make them available to our readers and listeners.