Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Tech Gains Outpace Peak Oil

By Simon Grose

Technological breakthroughs are setting the scene for the fossil fuel era to last longer and stronger.

Some of my best friends are peak oilsters. I was of their mind for quite a while, but for about the last decade I have annoyed them by becoming condescending whenever they warned that the end of petrol was nigh on nigh.

Three mainstays of my uncool view: the inexorable march of extraction technologies ever deeper into the oceans, huge deposits of oil shale and oil sands around the world, and the atavistic demand humans display for fuel to power their cars and trucks.

This demand could only grow as people in poorer countries get richer, making deeper wells and expensive shale oil commercially viable. Despite concerns over local environmental damage and global warming, governments would find ways to accede to their citizens’ desires.

How wrong I was, not to mention my friends. A whole new underworld of bountiful fossil fuel is opening up. Why?

More advances in technology. But not an inexorable march – this was a leap. Fracking of hydrocarbon-rich geological structures has changed the landscape.

The most dramatic change is in the US. Not so long ago peak oilsters were foretelling an end to life as American gas guzzlers knew it as sources of oil were exhausted. Now we hear forecasts that the US will be a net exporter of gas and oil by the end of this decade.

This is just the beginning of a global revolution in fossil-fuel extraction made possible by new technology. Many countries are having a frack, driven by national desires for energy security.

China has granted 16 exploration licenses for onshore shale gas, and set an ambitious target from this new source of 6.5 billion cubic metres by 2015. In March, Saudi Arabia estimated its reserves of what is currently called “unconventional gas” at more than double known reserves extractable by conventional means.

In Australia, despite the fervid opposition to coal seam gas extraction in Queensland and NSW, many wells have been installed, supply contracts have been signed, processing plants and specialised ships are being built, and the first exports are scheduled for late next year. Big energy companies are taking stakes in the outback where early frackers have struck success.

Japan has taken a further leap, extracting methane from methane hydrate deposits below its eastern seabed. Huge methane hydrate deposits are known to exist in many offshore sites, including the Lord Howe Rise off our east coast.

Last year Japan used fossil fuels for 90% of its electricity generation, up from 70% when its nuclear power stations were still operating. If they can commercially harvest methane hydrate, that proportion could continue long into the future.

The fossil fuel peak is climbing higher into the clouds, dragging even more greenhouse emissions in its wake.

Sorry, friends.