Sunday, February 1, 2009

Research, Development and Deployment, the bridge to future energy security

Petroleum Products touch our lives in innumerable ways every day. Whether it be as Gasoline, with which we drive our cars, trucks and other locomotives or as LPG or as indirectly as a raw material to the manufacture of plastic, textiles and other industries, Petroleum has become an indispensable part of our lives. US petroleum consumption sums up to a total of 20.68 million barrels per day where the domestic production is just 5.064 million barrels per day (EIA, Petroleum Basic Statistics (data for 2007 except where noted)). The energy demand is met by the imports from other countries. EIA reports that US will require 19 % more energy by 2030. Major part of this will then also be met by petroleum. Global demand will rise by 50% by that time. Keeping above figures in mind, it is worthwhile to know about some of the latest technological developments and research undergoing in the field of petroleum sector and it will be interesting to speculate how this ever increasing energy demand can be met.

Despite the rapid growth of global demand for petroleum products, the EIA estimates that less than half the world’s total conventional oil reserves will have been exhausted by 2025. These estimates include existing oil reserves and anticipated reserves resulting from new technologies and discoveries, but do not include unconventional resources. One massive potential energy resource is oil shale. No other nation in the world is as rich in oil shale as the U.S. Even though extraction poses some technical challenges; US oil shale reserves contain the energy equivalent of 2 trillion barrels of oil. To put this figure in perspective, the world has used 1 trillion barrels of oil since the first oil well was successfully drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. As such, the United States’ 2 trillion barrels of oil shale is a potentially huge new source of oil, and must be central to any discussion of our continental energy security. New developments in the oil recovery such as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) , with the help of either Chemicals such as Surfactant and Polymer or CO2 and steam, has a potential to provide that extra oil to the US’ domestic production. These are viable only through the support of extensive research in these particular fields.

Research plays an important role in developing new technologies, which can be used to surmount the problems which we are facing today. Carbon emission to the atmosphere poses a real threat to our environment. One of the main reasons for the proposal of an alternate energy, in my opinion, is the harmful effect of the current fuels on our environment. How many of us know about the recent developments in such technologies as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)? This technology, if deployed successfully, will reduce the carbon emission by 80-90%. We are spending a lot of money in search of alternate energy. Transition from today’s energy source to completely a new source cannot be done overnight. Studies done by EIA suggest that we will be depending on fossil fuels at least for the coming 25 to 30 years. So it is more important to tackle problems created by these fuels rather than spending more time and money for an alternate source of energy. I am not against the development of alternate fuels, but the urgent need is to prioritize research and development according to current problems and situations. Of course, we need those nuclear power plants which are much efficient than current coal fired plants, but at the same time we should think more about mitigating problems created by producing power with current technology. Similarly it will be a technological feat to produce oil from those oil shales, where major oil companies are spending a lot of time and money on the extraction of that sealed nectar out of the ground. If ever we succeed in this, and I think we will someday, the USA will be one of the key oil producing countries in the field. We will no longer talk about energy security then.

Another sophisticated technology which is being developed is the Enhanced Oil Recovery. The oil which is recovered today is only a percent of oil actually present down the reservoir. Oil is trapped there due to capillary force. Research shows that we can recover that oil with the help of chemicals such as Alkali, Surfactant and Polymer. There’s tremendous interest amongst the oil companies in this technology and thus extensive research is currently underway at The University of Texas at Austin coupled with some major oil companies. This extra oil will also add to that domestic production which will help to reduce the petroleum imports from outside. This technology actually started its course in early 70’s, but at the height of the gas crisis in early 80’s, when the oil price reached 10$/bbl, most of the oil companies closed their research facilities. Thus research became stagnant for many years and it even became impossible to start those facilities again when the oil price went up. It was a hard blow to the development of some of the research areas. We are still recovering from that. This clearly points towards the importance of research and development and also deployment of new technology to meet the energy demands of the future. All these things would be possible only with the help of energy policies by the Government to actually try and test these new technologies.

Government has the leading role in the development of petroleum industry by its policies towards this sector. American oil and gas leasing has been prohibited on most of the OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) since the 1982. Today, 97 percent of America’s offshore OCS lands are not leased for energy exploration or production. The U.S. is now the only developed nation in the World that restricts access to its offshore energy resources. The Mineral Management Services estimates that the OCS contains 86 billion barrels of oil and 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Since there was no exploration activity in these regions, these figures tend to be very moderate. The new government should study the effect of exploration in these areas. Technological advancement in drilling and production technology will ensure safe recovery without adversely affecting the coastal ecology. The link attached contains statistics and other information about current OCS production.

Thus investment in Research, Development and Deployment coupled with visionary energy policies would lead to our goal of Energy Security. This conscious approach would also establish our leadership in science and technology benefiting the world at large.

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