Archive for April 14th, 2008

The Magic of the Words "Technically Recoverable"

Sharon April 14th, 2008

Bakken Schmakken.  So today they emails started coming in.  A lot them were polite queries “But I just heard…does this mean we don’t have to worry anymore.”  A couple were more aggressive “Peak oil – that’s crazy talk” kind of stuff.  Sigh.

It happens every time we “find” or rather reclassify (yup, they knew there was oil in Bakken before this week)  some oil that is to deep or too tied up in big heavy rocks, or too expensive to get at and start estimating how what is “technically recoverable.”  And I don’t blame the people who email me – they just want to have one less thing to panic about.  Who wouldn’t?  And, after all, the *government* is saying this.

Well, I won’t bother fully debunking the value of the Bakken find, since a writer over at The Star already did.  He covers most of the major ground, pointing out,

Assuming all 4.3 billion barrels could be retrieved, it would represent nine months of oil consumption in the United States.

Canada’s oil sands hold about 177 billion barrels, and Saudi Arabia has an estimated 250 billion barrels, if you can believe the numbers.

Now, let’s consider the nature of the Bakken oil. It doesn’t sit in big underground pools where you can just pop in a metal straw and suck it out. This oil is trapped in layers of shale – a sedimentary rock – up to 3,000 metres deep. Getting at it is expensive and difficult, and certainly damaging to the surrounding landscape and environment.

You thought the oil sands were messy and energy-intensive? Bakken is tough oil. You have to drill down and then horizontally through rock, which has to be fractured to release the oil that is tucked away in small pores.

It will cost dearly to go after Bakken oil, just as Chevron will have to pay a bundle if it hopes to extract the 3 to 15 billion barrels it has discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, kilometres under the water at its “Jack” wells.

The technology exists to get it – at least some of it.

We can also have a manned mission to Mars if we truly wanted to pay for it.”

And that is about the size of things – it isn’t that there is no oil there, it is just that the magic words are “technically recoverable” – that is, this is an articulation of what (maybe, estimates are notoriously overblown) can be achieved by science in a purely technical sense, barring all other constraints.  But those constraints – money, energy to invest, time…those matter.  And just as I’m regularly sent emails about the latest high technology solutions – nanosolar, biodiesel from algae, etc…  the reality is that technically possible does not translate directly to “going to be common.”

I’m not claiming it isn’t possible to do a whole remarkable host of things, or that some really cool technologies won’t improve our lives in the next decades.  But I do think is wise is to recognize when you are being hyped, and told not to worry about something that is eminently worth worrying about.