Conserving key to energy independence concludes geologist David Hughes
By Andrew Nikiforuk via The Tyee
Governments and financial analysts who think unconventional fossil fuels such as bitumen, shale gas and shale oil can usher in an era of prosperity and energy plenty are dangerously deluded, concludes a groundbreaking report by one of Canada’s top energy analysts.
In a meticulous 181 page study for the Post Carbon Institute, geologist David Hughes concludes that the U.S. “is highly unlikely to achieve energy independence unless energy consumption declines substantially.”
Exuberant projections by the media and energy pundits that claim that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling “can provide endless growth heralding a new era of ‘energy independence,’ in which the U.S. will become a substantial net exporter of energy, are entirely unwarranted based on the fundamentals,” adds Hughes in a companion article for the science journal Nature.
Moreover it is unlikely that difficult and challenging hydrocarbons such as shale oil can even replace the rate of depletion for conventional light oil and natural gas.
Since 1990, says Hughes, the number of operating wells in the U.S. has increased by 90 per cent while the average productivity of those wells has declined by 38 per cent.
The latest panaceas championed by industry and media talking heads are too expensive and will deplete too rapidly to provide either energy security or independence for the United States, concludes the 62-year-old geologist who worked for Natural Resources Canada for 32 years as a coal and gas specialist.
To Hughes shale gas and shale oil represent a temporary bubble in production that will soon burst due to rapid depletion rates that have only recently been tallied.
Taken together shale gas and shale oil wells “will require about 8,600 wells per year at a cost of over $48 billion to offset declines.”
“The idea that the United States might be exporting 12 per cent of its natural gas from shale is just a pipe dream,” Hughes, a resident of Cortes Island in British Columbia, told The Tyee.
‘Tough’ energy’s tough downsides
Unconventional fossil fuels all share a host of cruel and limiting traits says Hughes. They offer dramatically fewer energy returns; they consume extreme and endless flows of capital; they provide difficult or volatile rates of supply overtime and have “large environmental impacts in their extraction.”
Most important, bitumen, shale oil and shale gas, by definition, are much lower quality hydrocarbons and therefore can’t fund business as usual. They simply do not provide the same energy returns or the same amount of work as conventional hydrocarbons due to the energy needed to extract or upgrade them, says Hughes.
At the turn of the century it took just one barrel of oil to find and produce 100 more. Now the returns are down to 20. The mining portion of the tar sands offers returns of five to one while the steam plant operations barely manage returns of three to one, says Hughes. “And that’s an extremely conservative estimate.”
“Moving to progressively lower quality energy resources diverts more and more resources to the act of acquisition as opposed to doing useful work.”
A society that progressively spends more and more capital on acquiring energy that does less and less work will either exhaust the global economy or cannibalize national ones as consumers redirect larger portions of their household budgets to energy costs, says Hughes.
“To view them (unconventional hydrocarbons) as ‘game changers’ capable of indefinitely increasing supply of low cost energy which has underpinned the economic growth of the past century is a mistake.”
The exploitation of shale oil and gas (and Hughes reviewed the data for 60,000 wells for the report) may have temporarily reversed declines in conventional resources but they show dramatic limitations often excluded from the mainstream press.
Drilling into a mirage