Clean Air at the Internet Truck Stop Cafe

Oil prices have fallen lately.
We include this news for the benefit of gas stations, which otherwise wouldn't learn of it for six months.

- William D Tammeus


by David R Baker

Hookup lets drivers turn off engine, go online at night

Each night, truck drivers across the United States pull into parking lots off the Interstate to catch some sleep.  They leave their engines running.  They have to.  It's the only way to power a truck's air conditioning or heater - plus the refrigerator that many long-haul rigs carry - without killing the battery.  Those idling trucks burn fuel, up to 2 billion gallons each year, by one estimate.  They also pump millions of tons of pollutants into the sky while their drivers sleep.

A Knoxville, Tennessee company wants to switch off those engines.  IdleAire Technologies has created a kind of high-tech truck stop that will give drivers air-conditioning, phone service and cable television in their cabs.  Working with San Jose's Cisco Systems, IdleAire will also provide wireless Internet access to truckers and business travellers who need connectivity on the road.  "They won't have to find a coffee shop, an airport or a hotel to have access to the Internet," said David Everhart, IdleAire's senior vice president of strategic relationships.  "They can stop at the nearest Interstate exit and receive service in the parking lot without leaving their car."

For Cisco, the tricked-out truck stops represent another way to encourage the spread of wireless.  The company will supply IdleAire with access points as well as routers, machines that direct Internet traffic.  "This is yet another building block in creating ubiquitous public access," said Steve Nye, senior director of Cisco's broadband unit.  "There are a lot of truck stops in America."  So far, 200 of those stops have agreed to install the IdleAire system.  Four California truck stops - in Bakersfield, Lost Hills (Kern County), Ripon (San Joaquin County) and Santa Nella (Merced County) - are on the list.

The system itself works, in some ways, like a car speaker at a drive-in movie theatre.  Trucks pull into bays that feature long, flexible tubes hanging from the roof.  Each tube ends in a control panel and vents for heated or cooled air.  Drivers pull the apparatus into their window and fasten it there.  A touch-sensitive screen on the control panel will let them set the thermostat, check maps of the area or surf the Internet.  Basic services cost $1.25 per hour for truck owners or fleets that have signed agreements with IdleAire, with fees payable through a credit-card reader above a computer screen.  Truckers or travellers interested only in the wireless Internet access don't have to pull into the bays.  Wireless fees run $1.25 per hour and $3 per day - payable by credit card - or $24.95 a month for prepaid access.

The fees should be cheaper than idling a truck.  Because federal law requires long-haul truckers to take eight hours off for every 10 spent on the road, most drivers will pay about $10 per day with the IdleAire system, Everhart said.  Without it, they spend about $15 to $20 per day on diesel burned while the truck is idling.  That wasted fuel adds up.  One estimate from the South Coast Air Quality Management District in southern California put the total at 840 million to 2 billion gallons of fuel burned by idling trucks across the country each year.  Diesel fumes pose their own problems.  Fine particles within the exhaust can lodge in the lungs, aggravate asthma or bronchitis and cause lung damage, according to the EPA.  IdleAire estimates that the 1.3 million long-haul trucks with sleeper cabins on US roads annually spew about 36.2 million tons of pollution while idling.

Those problems were part of Petro Stopping Centers' decision to try IdleAire.  The chain of travel stations runs the Santa Nella truck stop where IdleAire will install its system this summer, along the busy I-5 corridor.  Petro's 60 truck stops regularly host truckers sleeping through the night in their cabs, said chief operating officer Jim Cardwell.  Truckers often turn their cabs into tiny, mobile hotel rooms, complete with microwave ovens, televisions - even a VCR or DVD player.  Privately held IdleAire pays all the costs of installing its system, so Petro can see whether it catches on with truckers without sinking money into the new equipment.  The company will see how popular the system is in California and at three other locations before committing to a wider installation, Cardwell said.  "It's an effort to do the right thing, to provide a service for truck drivers on the road while doing everything we can to help the environment," he said.

David R Baker is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle; email him at

Source: Monday 16 June 2003

Oil Crash?

The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun.

- Ralph Nader

I think the author of this brochure is a bit of an alarmist; however this should serve as a useful warning.

The Oil Crash and You:

Oil Shortages Soon


This document reveals that within ten years:

bulletOil extraction from wells will be physically unable to meet global demand (the evidence is from the oil industry itself).
bulletAlternative energy sources like nuclear and natural gas will fall far short of compensating for expected shortages of oil.  There is simply not enough time to convert over to them.
bulletMassive disruptions to transportation and the economy are expected around 2010 when the final peak of production of all petroleum liquids (globally) is followed by decline.
Most significant effects:
bulletGradual, permanent cut-off of fuel for transport and for industrial machinery.  Global trade will greatly decline.
bulletAgriculture (food production) depends heavily on fertilizers and chemicals made from oil.
bulletShortages of 500,000 other goods made from oil.
bulletTherefore, reduction of virtually all business and government activity.
Difficulty of adapting: A major part of the problem is that existing equipment is designed only for oil fuels.  For example, the world's 11,000 airliners cannot run on natural gas, nuclear or coal.
By-products of oil: Cost and decreasing availability of 500,000 known uses of oil: Fertilisers (farms/food supply), medicines, plastics, insulation, computers, asphalt, inks & toners, paints, glues, solvents, antiseptics, golf balls, CDs, trash bags, nail polish, detergents, chewing gum and more.
Hidden problem: Not only will the oil supply dwindle, but the shortages and climbing prices will obstruct industry as it attempts to convert society to other forms of energy.
Proof of impending shortages: Much uninformed literature says oil is plentiful and that better extraction will maintain adequate supply for decades.  However, this sheet reveals:
bulletMisleading overstating of oil inventories, by oil companies afraid of losing investor confidence.
bulletA clear, 40-year trend of less and less discovery of oil, and dwindling outputs from the steadily-emptying wells.
Alternative energy sources will not prevent shortages!  Alternative fuels have been studied.  As replacements for oil they are grossly inadequate both in quantity and versatility of use.  There is insufficient time to prevent heavy impacts.

When, and How Bad

Year when global oil supply first fails to meet global demand: About 2009.
Rate of decline of global oil supply: 3% every year from 2009 onward.
Duration of decline: Forever.  Oil takes millions of years to form, in very special geological conditions.
Barrels consumed globally per year: More than 22 billion in 1999 (about 2 billion barrels per month).
Barrels discovered globally per year: About 6 billion. Discovery of oil fluctuates each year, but peaked in the 1960s, and has declined at an average of about 9 billion barrels per year over the past 40 years.  We've mostly just been using up huge old oil fields.
Pre-1973-discovered oil in use today: More than 70% of present global supply.
Ratio of oil consumed to oil discovered each year: Four consumed for every one discovered.

Billion barrels Discovered Extracted Consumed
USA 15yr 1977-91 5 45 92
World 10yr 1982-91 91 221 221

Ratio of oil consumed to oil discovered each year: Four barrels consumed for every barrel discovered.
Proportion of global energy provided by oil in developed countries: 40% (1997).

The "Invest More to Find It" Idea

Yet-to-be located oil, globally: After a century of exploration, the earth's geology and oil resources are generally well known.  When the fields are emptying, money only helps to scrape out the hard-to-reach remainder.  There are 210 billion barrels left to discover and 1000 billion barrels left to extract.  This is indicated by the 40 year decline in discovery of oil.  No amount of money will create oil that simply isn't there.
Number of oil wells already in world/USA: More than 500,000.  In USA, 80% of the wells now produce less than three barrels a day.
Percentage of oil recovered from a typical oil well: 20% to 60%.  It relates primarily to the density of the oil.  You get less from a heavy oil than a light one because it sticks in the reservoir.

"Technology Will Solve It" Idea

Challenge to technology: To compensate for the expected 3% oil decline (at today's 22 billion barrels a year), create and install, by year 2009, permanent supplies of portable energy, equivalent to 660 million barrels of oil a year.  Then as oil keeps declining forever, increase this new energy it until it replaces 40% of the world's energy supply (22 billion barrels a year) OR reduce energy demand equivalently as the global population increases by almost a quarter million people everyday.

The "Better Efficiency" Idea

Increases in efficiency usually fail to reduce consumption (more mpg causes people to travel more or buy two cars, or other goods) unless they are personally determined to reduce their consumption.

What About Nuclear Power?

Nuclear is currently being abandoned globally (International Energy Agency 1999).  Its ability to soften the oil crash is very problematic:

bulletPast accidents.  Risk of more, and terrorism.
bulletMany more reactors would be needed.  Tons of radioactive materials to transport at risk to public.
bulletNuclear waste disposal is still the major, still-unresolved problem, especially breeder reactors producing plutonium, a nuclear weapon/terrorist raw material, half-life contamination is 24,000 years.  All abandoned reactors are radioactive for decades or millennia.
bulletNuclear is not directly suitable for aircraft and vehicles.  Adapting nuclear to make hydrogen or other fuels would be a huge, and energy-expensive project.
bulletNuclear fusion is still not available, after 40 years' research and billions of dollars invested.

Natural Gas

Proportion of global energy provided by gas: 20% of global energy supply (1997).
As a replacement for oil: Gas itself will start running out from 2020 on.  Demand for natural gas in North America is already outstripping supply, especially as power utilities take the remaining gas to generate electricity.  Gas is not suited for existing jet aircraft, ships, vehicles, and equipment for agriculture and other products.  Conversion consumes large amounts of energy as well as money.  Natural gas also does not provide the huge array of chemical by-products that we depend on oil for.


Present use: 2.3% of global energy supply (1997).
As a replacement for oil: Very small compared with 40% provided at present by oil.  Unsuitable for aircraft and the present 722 million existing vehicles.


Current global use: 24% of global energy supply.
As a replacement for oil: Is 50% to 200% heavier than oil per energy unit.  Bulky and dirty.  Would require a expansion of coal mining, leading to land ruin and increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  Hard to fine-control the rate of burn (oil/gas is easy), therefore is used in power stations to make electricity, wasting half of its energy content.  A single coal-fired station can produce a million tonnes of solid waste each year.  Present coal-mining machinery and transportation does not run on coal, but runs on oil-based fuels.  Burning coal in homes pollutes the air with acrid smog containing acid gases and particles.
Large pollution & environmental problems: (Smog, greenhouse gases, and acid rain).
Liquid fuels from coal: Major pollution, very inefficient, and huge amounts of water required.

Solar and Wind

Global solar use: About 0.006% of global energy supply.  Energy varies constantly with weather or day/night.  Not storable or portable energy like oil or natural gas so unsuited for present vehicles and industry.  Batteries bulky, expensive, wear out in 5-10 years.  Photovoltaic solar equipment (US$4/watt) is about 15% efficient, giving about 100 watts of the I kW per square metre exposed to bright sunshine (enough for one light bulb).  A typical solar water panel array can deliver 50% to 85% of a home's hot water though.  Using some of our precious remaining crude oil as fuel for manufacturing solar & wind equipment may be wise.
Global wind power use: 0.07% of 1990 global energy supply.  As with solar, energy varies greatly with weather, and is not portable or storable like oil and gas.  Each wind turbine from Denmark produces an average of698 kW averaged over a year.


Current global use: US (only) 1998 consumption is 0.01% of global energy.
As a replacement for oil: Hydrogen is currently manufactured from methane gas.  It takes more energy to create it than the hydrogen actually provides.  It is therefore an energy "carrier" not a source.  Liquid hydrogen occupies four to eleven times the bulk of equivalent gasoline or diesel.  Existing vehicles and aircraft and existing distribution systems are not suited to it.  Solar hydrogen might be an option in hot countries.

Other Sources of Energy

Options: Shale, tar sand, coalbed methane, ethanol, biomass (from vegetation), etc.
Effectiveness as replacements for oil: Huge investment in research and infrastructure to exploit them, plus large amounts of now-expiring oil supply.  6% of US gas is from non-conventional generation.  The major problem is that they cannot be exploited before the oil shocks cripple attempts to bring them on line, and the rate of extraction is far too slow to meet the huge global energy demand.

How It Will Affect Us

Food Production & Delivery Depends on Oil

Grain production: Food grains now contain between 4 and 10 calories of fossil fuel for every 1 calorie of solar energy.  4% of US energy budget is used to grow food, while 10 to 13% is needed to put it onto our plates.  The worsening oil shortages will make production increasingly expensive.  Putting food production closer to cities will be vital, feeding animals questionable.
Percentage of US grain used to feed cattle: 70%.
Efficiency: The meat feeds 1/5 as many people as the grain could.
Number of cats & dogs in USA: 131 million.
Food given to pets: North American pet food business is $30 billion/yr and growing.
"Future food" being consumed by using gasoline in vehicles: Gasoline consumed "now" will deprive future agriculture of energy for producing food.  Here's how much future food a 30 mpg vehicle is "eating" now:

bulletBread: 1 kg loaf =  6 miles = one slice per 422 yards.  That gasoline = human heavy farm labour for 23 hrs.
bulletBeef: 1 kg = consumed by driving 76.2 miles.  That gasoline = human heavy farm labour 300 hrs.
bulletCanned corn: 1 kg = consumed by driving 5.4 miles.  That gasoline = human heavy farm labour 20 hrs.

Oil for Transportation

Automobiles, globally: 722 million.
Automobiles, USA: 132 million.
Trucks (all types, in USA): 1.5 million.
Buses: (all types, in USA): more than 654.000.
Locomotives: (USA) 26,000.
World aircraft fleet: 11,000 aircraft more than 100 passengers.  All 11,000 designed for oil-based fuel.
World shipping: 85,000 ships in world.
Decked fishing boats in the world: 1.2 million
Globalisation: Will end because of fuel costs & scarcity

Oil for Industry

Construction Industry example: Energy to build an energy-efficient home is equivalent to 6,500 gallons of gasoline.
Number of by-products of oil: Over 500,000 including fertilisers (they are the most vital), medicines, lubricants, plastics (computers, phones, shower curtains, disposables, toys, et cetera), asphalt (roading and roofs), insulation, glues/paints/caulking, rubber tires and boots, carpets, synthetic fabrics/clothing, stockings, insect repellent.

City Drinking Water, Government Services

Number of cities in the world: over 55,000.
Services to consider: Water supply pumping, sewage disposal, garbage disposal, street/park maintenance, hospitals & health systems, police, fire services.  National defense (land, sea, air).  Possibility of wars over remaining oil.

Economy and Employment

International oil import costs: Sharp rises (increasing global competition for dwindling oil available from five Middle-Eastern countries and former Soviet Union).  International tensions.  Military also obstructed by oil shortages.
National debt, inflation: Money goes out of country to oil producers.  Money becomes scarce.  Interest/mortgage rise up.  Government prints more money to pay overseas energy bills.  Money devalues.  Prices rise.
Poverty: Public, and businesses become poorer paying higher energy costs.  Less spending, less sales.  Layoffs.
Welfare payments, taxes: Taxes up.  Pensions for ageing/disabled population reduced or discontinued.

Other Serious Quality-of-Life Aspects

Heating and cooling: In cold regions oil heats buildings (burned as fuel in homes or in oil-fired electric power stations).  In hot areas oil power provides air conditioning.  As natural gas is substituted for oil, the gas price itself will rise.
Smog: Energy price and shortages will increase wood and coal burning in homes, increasing city smog.

Why Public Warning Is So Late

Secrecy to keep price of oil company shares high: Oil companies and oil producing countries depend on shareholder confidence to get loans for exploration.  It has been in their interest to keep quiet about the exhaustion of the world's oil reserves.  False reporting of reserves includes:

(a) There is clear, public evidence that the 7 major oil-extracting countries have for years reported unchanged reserves (even though they were extracting and selling billions of barrels of oil, and reserves should therefore be less each year).
(b) The industry has understated actual discoveries to give the impression of an increasing discovery trend.
(c) In 1988 five countries suddenly claimed they each had almost twice the reserve oil as reported in 1987:

OPEC countries depend on income from exports: OPEC countries need to earn as much oil revenue as possible to support rapidly growing populations where the public health care, education and other services are provided free through oil revenues, not via taxes.  See table of reserves:

What You Can Do

Personal preparations: Reduce energy dependence of family, home, lifestyle.  The less fuels and goods you consume, the less the impacts will be.
Workplace: Same.
Work on it with friends: Workmates, neighbourhood, city, governments.  The ideal use for remaining oil and mineral reserves is into industries that create inexhaustible alternative energy equipment like windmills, solar water heaters, biomass (vegetation that creates fuels), et cetera.
Share your feeling with others:
Try to stay positive and active rather than ignore it or blame people for it.  Where there's life there's hope, especially if we collaborate and are creative.  "It's not that new."  Humans have always faced hardships, and many among us do so constantly now.  Learn from them.
Possible emergency measures to consider:

bulletAlert the entire public so people will accept preparations for the oil shortages, participate in implementing solutions.
bulletRelocate food production nearer to cities .
bulletRelocate workplaces nearer to homes or homes nearer to workplaces.
bulletPrepare for conserving and rationing of dwindling oil/other resources that are created using oil.
bulletPopulation control to prevent children being born into extremely harsh conditions that seem likely, and to conserve soon-scarce resources for those already alive.
bulletRe-Iocalise, to reverse globalisation.
bulletStrengthen the police to deal with likely social chaos and to control distribution of vital supplies.
bulletAlert national leaders to cooperate against this major threat that faces us all.

The USA has the exceptional position of being the largest - and still growing - importer.  US imports deny somebody else access to oil.  For example, starving Africans result.  Tax on gasoline is lower in the USA than in other countries by a large factor, so the US could easily curb some excess - in fact, sooner or later it will have no option.  The worst thing the US can do is press OPEC to increase production, which will simply make the peak higher and the decline steeper.  It just digs itself into a bigger hole, morality apart.

- Colin Campbell in private email June 2000

More Information

Documented evidence: This sheet, and all references and authorities for this information are available for download by temporarily joining the RunningOnEmpty internet forum mentioned below.  In MyGroups page, click the Files section.  It is among the first files.
Web sites: The oil die-off is explained in up-to-date detail at and  Both sites are keyword-searchable, with scientific and oil industry literature about this topic and heavily annotated with authoritative references.
Discussion fora:

bulletImplications, action:

Author: Bruce Thomson, moderator of RunningOnEmpty forum at and helped by members of those groups.

Freely Copy This to Share with Others

Source: Distributed by Robert (64) (25) 301-574

See also:

bulletOil, Intimidation, Rage (in the section on Terrorism - particularly see the information at the bottom of the page) - The four Central Asian republics are key to a region teeming with vast oil and gas reserves, enough to supply America's voracious appetite for oil for the next 30 years, not to mention the oil industry's illimitable appetite for profits.  This was wealth American oil men, like Cheney and William Farish, friend of President George W Bush and US Ambassador to the UK, dream of.  "I cannot think of a time when we have had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian," said Cheney...

Has Global Oil Production Peaked?

A gallon of gasoline contains 125,070 BTU.

by David R Francis

Today's civilisation depends on an abundant and relatively cheap supply of oil.  It fuels most of our vehicles, aircraft, ships, and trains.  It provides the raw material for fertiliser, some clothing fabrics, most plastics, and many chemicals.  Oil heats many of our homes and businesses.  So when experts discuss when oil production will begin to decline, the world pays heed.  The question now making the rounds in energy circles: Has production already peaked?

If it has - or if a peak lies only a few years away - the repercussions would be huge.  It could intensify a scramble by oil importers to tie up existing reserves.  Decline ould lead to scarcity and higher prices, possibly recession, while prompting an urgent push to alternative fuels and conservation.  For at least one analyst, the scenario has already begun to unfold.

"World production is flat now," says Kenneth Deffeyes, a Princeton University geology professor.  But that's a controversial view.  Other pessimists talk about 2010; many analysts see no change until 2035.

Of course, various "experts" have been predicting the end of the oil age for more than 100 years.  And even now, no one really knows how much oil is left in the ground.  Estimates involve guesses of not only future oil finds but future world economic output and oil consumption.  These numbers are typically highly imprecise.

Even calculating current reserves is tricky.  The Royal Dutch/Shell Group, one of the world's largest oil producers, shocked the financial community earlier this month when it announced it had overbooked its proven reserves by 20% - an indication of the fragility of such estimates.  The United States Geological Survey (USGS) puts yearly world consumption of oil today at about 30 billion barrels.  That comes out of known or proven world reserves of 1.1 trillion barrels, according to IHS Energy, an oil and gas information-gathering group in Tetbury, England.  By adding in Canada's oil sands, the Oil and Gas Journal in Houston raises proven reserves to 1.266 trillion.  "It is not an issue in which there are absolute answers," says Robert Tippee, editor of the Houston trade journal.  Much depends on advancing technology and the economics of production, as well as how much oil the ground really holds.  Advocates of a production peak coming soon offer several pieces of evidence:

bulletTotal world oil production reached 68 million barrels per day in 2003, according to a count by the Oil and Gas Journal.  That's not much above the 66.7 million barrels per day in 2001.  Oil reserves estimated at 1.266 trillion are up only a bit from 1.213 trillion a year earlier.
bulletProduction has peaked for more than 50 oil-producing nations, including the US (1970) and Britain (1999).  China, second to the US in the consumption of oil, was a net exporter of oil until 5 years ago.
bulletThe Department of Energy predicts world demand will reach 119 million bpd in 2025, with huge increases in China, India, and other developing nations.
bulletIn 2002, the world used four times as much oil as was newly found.
bulletThe rate of discovery of worldwide oil reserves, after declining for 40 years, has slowed to a trickle.  In 2000, there were 16 large discoveries of oil, 8 in 2001, 3 in 2002, and none last year, notes James Meyer, director of the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre in London.
bulletAll the giant fields, such as those in the Middle East, have already been discovered, some experts say.  These giants are relatively easy to find.  The last major oil field, Cantarell, off Mexico's shore, was discovered in 1976.

"The oil companies are drilling fewer and fewer wells," says Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, a network of scientists, professors, and government experts.  "There are fewer worthwhile prospects to test."  But optimists see another picture.  For example, with scientific advances, oil companies have boosted their drilling success, which means they don't need to drill as many wells.  Last year, nearly 40% of exploration and wildcat projects located oil, gas, or gas condensate, according to IHS Energy.  Besides conventional oil, there are huge amounts in Canadian oil sands, Venezuelan heavy oils, and Rocky Mountain shale.  If oil prices skyrocket, oil in deep offshore fields and in polar regions would become economically feasible to extract.  And there's oil from natural gas, which experts see as lasting longer than conventional oil, outside North America.  The USGS added the oil sands to the world's reserves recently, making Canada the second-largest holder of reserves after Saudi Arabia.  These sands are already being exploited.  But they require the injection of hydrogen to make their tar oil light enough to flow in a pipe.

Meanwhile, estimates of oil reserves keep growing.  For example, world oil reserves now are 5 times as great as at the end of World War II, says Thomas Ahlbrandt, chief of the USGS World Energy Project.  And they grew 15% in the past 5 years - without adding in the Canadian oil sands - mostly by upgrading the proven reserves in existing fields.  The world has used up about 930 billion barrels of oil since the 1800s, and has left some 3 trillion in the ground.  That estimate includes about 732 billion barrels of not-yet-discovered oil and an assumed growth in reserves in already discovered fields, the USGS reckons.  So by now, the world has used up about 23% of its total available petroleum resource, Mr Ahlbrandt calculates.  Most people using USGS numbers figure world oil output will flatten in 2036 - 37, he adds.  But non-OPEC oil output could peak between 2015 and 2020.  "I can see no peak for the next 20 or 30 years," says energy consultant Michael Lynch.  Since Mr Lynch has been a keen critic of such early-peak advocates as Mr Campbell, setting even such a not-so-far-away date is seen as a concession of sorts.

In any case, major oil importers aren't waiting around to find out who's right.  The US, Japan, Europe, and China, are scrambling to tie down petroleum resources in the Caspian Sea region, Russia, West Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Libya.  Japan and China are competing for access to Russia's little-tapped Far East oil resources.  China, which expects a quintupling of its oil needs by 2030, wants a new pipeline to go from Angarsk in Russia to inland Daqing in its northeastern industrial heartland.  Japan proposes the pipeline go rather to Vostochny, on the shore near Vladivostok.  One reason Japan is sending 500 soldiers to Iraq this month is to stabilise Middle Eastern oil, the source of 90% of Japan's oil, Japan's defense minister, Shigeru Ishiba, told the Financial Times last month.

Pundits say the US has been especially interested in the recent election in Georgia to replace President Eduard Shevardnadze because that nation, though not having reserves itself, is the corridor for a $3 billion pipeline through which huge supplies in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan must pass through to reach the West.  A Chinese oil firm last month embarked on its first international venture by buying a 50% stake in a Kazakhstan oil field.  The US has just extended trade preferences to Angola, where oil giants ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil are preparing to spend billions of dollars on deep-water developments.  Other US oil firms, such as ConocoPhillips, Occidental Petroleum, Marathon Oil, and Amerada Hess are looking carefully at their prospects for returning to Libya should the US government lift sanctions on that desert nation.

According to a New York Times report, a step that put Russian oil mogul Mikhail Khodorkovsky in jail was his plan to sell a major stake in his oil company, Yukos, to ExxonMobil.  US oil firms would like to invest more in Russia's oil and gas reserves, if they can negotiate that country's legal and political minefield.

The competition for oil resources not fully under contract is expected to get rougher.  It could be especially crucial for consumers in North America, who on average use up more than their body weight in crude oil each week.  Many experts suspect that oil was one reason, among others, the US invaded Iraq.  America's longstanding concern with its oil supplies is nothing new.  Newly declassified British documents suggest that President Nixon was prepared as a "last resort" to launch airborne troops to seize oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi to end the 1973 - 74 oil embargo on the US by the Arab nations.

Some countries - even some oil firms - have decided to invest in solar and wind energy.  "This reflects the realisation that exploring for large new sources of oil is not a realistic way to go," says Mr Meyer.  Mr Deffeyes says the US should have stepped up its research on alternative energies 15 years ago.  But others don't see a crisis looming just yet.  Certainly nations should be researching better sources of energy, says Mr Lynch.  "But it should not be based on imminent scarcity."

Source: The Christian Science Monitor 29 January 2004


Making Fire from Ice: A New Fuel for the 21st Century

Beneath our seas, reserves of frozen methane hold more energy than all other fossil fuels put together.  But can we get at them without causing environmental meltdown?

At the bottom of the planet's deepest oceans, and beneath the frozen shallows of our coldest seas, there is gold.  Gas hydrate, an ice-like crystalline solid that exists in the oceanic sediment, is a mixture of water and gas - usually methane.  It may become one of the great energy sources of the 21st century, with the power both to enhance our lives, and, if approached without care, to damage our planet irreparably.  Last week, 100 scientists from 20 countries convened in Edinburgh to discuss the best way to progress with gas hydrate research, and it will not be their last meeting.

The key to gas hydrate's great power lies both in its content and its volume.  The highly concentrated levels of methane found in gas hydrate can yield astonishing energy returns - one litre of methane hydrate solid, for instance, would contain 168 litres of methane gas.  But when it comes to the volume of gas hydrate that exists on Earth, opinions are split.  Many scientists believe - and this seems to be the consensus from those gathered at Edinburgh - that gas hydrates have the potential to yield twice as much energy as all the world's fossil fuel reserves.  "That amount," says Professor Bahman Tohidi, head of the gas hydrate unit of Heriot-Watt University's Institute for Petroleum Research, "is too big to ignore.  Even if we were being conservative, and said that there was only the equivalent amount of gas hydrate as the total amount of fossil fuels, that is still an enormous quantity.  But what is also interesting about gas hydrate is where one finds it.  A lot of countries who do not have conventional reservoirs [of oil or gas], do have hydrate reservoirs.  Japan, for instance.  India, too.  It is strategically very important for them to be self-sufficient from an energy viewpoint.  And these methane hydrates, because they are mainly methane gas, are regarded as a low-carbon fuel, like natural gas.  It's clean - not totally clean like hydrogen - but low-carbon."

So far, so rosy.  But this is not, says Professor Tohidi, the entire picture.  Gas hydrate, despite its potential as a low-carbon fuel, could wreak untold damage on the atmosphere.  Due to the very high methane content in its structure, a dissociation of methane hydrate into its constituent parts, methane and water, could lead to staggering levels of the gas being released into the atmosphere.  With this grim caveat in mind, major countries around the world are now in a race to discover how to produce energy from methane hydrate.  But the challenges involved are manifold.  "Hydrate reservoirs are different from conventional reservoirs," says Professor Tohidi.  "In traditional reservoirs, the energies are freed.  Here, the source of energy is solid.  Because hydrates are like ice, they are already in formation.  So, to produce from them, you have to turn hydrates into water and gas: you have to dissociate them."

How is it done?  "One technique is to decrease pressure, another is to increase temperature, and a third is to introduce alcohol, a little like one would do with antifreeze," says Professor Tohidi.  "But the method we are developing involves CO2.  What you do is inject CO2, and produce methane, because CO2 can also form a hydrate.  And CO2 hydrate is more stable, from a thermodynamic viewpoint, than methane hydrate.  So, you can inject CO2, and that CO2 will replace the methane, and release it, so the methane can come out.  You kill two birds with one stone.  You get rid of CO2 and you produce the methane."

The technique sounds simple enough.  But is only the first step in a battle with an energy source that is buried deep in the sea bed.  "Yes, the challenges are great," says Professor Tohidi.  "One major issue arises because these hydrates are basically part of the sediment structure.  And if you dissociate the hydrate, there will be emptiness where there was once hydrate.  These are shallow sediments - hydrate occurs at about 600 metres below the sea bed - so [the sediments] are not consolidated.  So, if you remove some of the substance from them, they might subside.  And, if they subside, the sea bed will collapse.  Then, the gas could escape freely, which could be incredibly harmful.  This is why we are trying to replace one hydrate with another, but, as I said, there are challenges.  The most serious of those challenges is the prevention of a sudden release of methane gas, which could have an immediate, disastrous impact on global warming; the sudden release of methane has been fingered as a culprit in past climate change.  Scientists attempting to extract gas hydrates do not want another catastrophe on their hands."

If one needed an example of the destructive power of gas hydrate, one need look no further than the Bermuda Triangle.  Scientists, including Professor Tohidi, seriously believe that much of the myth surrounding this fatal stretch of water can be explained by the prevalence of dissociating gas hydrate in the sediment, which causes methane to bubble up through the sea.  "If methane is coming through the water," says Professor Tohidi, "the density of water will be reduced.  A ship floats only because of the density of the water beneath it, so if you reduce the density, the ship will sink.  Also, if planes are crashing in this area, that could be explained, too - methane is highly flammable.  Explosions could happen.  Even the problem of the radar going all over the place might be explained by those bubbles of methane coming out.  They might be causing static electricity, and that can change the magnetic field in the area."

The lesson to be gleaned from this odd tale is that methane's lowering of the density of water can have serious implications for oil rigs, too.  And that is just one of the reasons why British businesses - in particular Fugro and BP - are heavily involved in gas hydrate research and exploration right now.  But for all our know-how, Britain has no hydrate reservoirs of its own (or very few - there may be some in waters close to the Faroe Islands).  Professor Tohidi's research unit, one of the world's oldest, was brought into existence because of the dangers gas hydrates were posing to North Sea oil pipelines, where they were forming due to unique pressure and temperature conditions.

"Yes, I would say Britain's role in the future of gas hydrate can be influential," says Professor Tohidi.  "Even without considering the energy potential, Britain has an interest in stopping sub-sea landslides.  And Britain certainly has a role to play in climate change.  But as far as energy is concerned, British scientists and companies can help with production all over the world - and we already have interest from Taiwan and China, the US and Canada."

If the struggle for oil is the "great game" of the early 21st century, that game may now be acquiring a new set of rules.  The world is not far away from the first viable, commercial production of energy from gas hydrates.  Japan, for instance, has set the bar - claiming it will start commercial extraction by 2016.  China, too, has recently invested $100 million in gas hydrate research, starting a new 10-year programme to find and develop the energy source.  The US Geological Survey is currently conducting some of the most advanced work on gas-hydrate production.  And, with the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and Siberia all showing the possibility of viable gas-hydrate reserves, the old sparring partners - the US and Russia - will surely play major roles in the future of gas hydrates.

What no one knows is whether gas hydrates can fulfil their potential.  Will the reservoirs be too dispersed?  Will the production methods prove too costly?  Will monitoring, rather than exploiting hydrates, become the main concern for scientists?  What we do know is that decisions that have the power to shape the energy future of the planet will be taken during the next decade, and to understand them, one could do worse than know a little about the frozen booty at the bottom of the ocean.

Source: 18 October 2006 © Independent (UK)

See also:

bulletOil Chief: "My Fears for Our Planet..." (earlier in this section) - The head of one of the world's biggest oil companies has admitted that the threat of climate change makes him "really very worried for the planet".  In an interview in the Guardian, Ron Oxburgh, chairman of Shell, says we urgently need to capture emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which scientists think contribute to global warming, and store them underground - a technique called carbon sequestration...
bulletThe next three pages (clicking "Next" below will get you there) for articles about peak oil, energy alternatives, the hydrogen economy and what some other countries are doing...

For pages on several other natural disasters - including lightning strikes, tornados, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, global warming and more - as well as some great satellite and tree photos, clicking the "Up" button immediately below takes you to the Index page for this Environment section.

Back Home Up Next