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.


13 Responses to “The Magic of the Words “Technically Recoverable””

  1. karenon 14 Apr 2008 at 11:42 am

    How do you stay so positive when the world is behaving like such idiots? Americans are lulled into a false sense of “life is good” because it has been good in the past and we can’t see we aren’t standing on the ground. We must have over optimism bread into us as innately as opposing thumbs.

  2. Lisa Zon 14 Apr 2008 at 12:25 pm

    I went to the local mall yesterday, just to see if the wheels of commerce are still turning, as sort of a “sociology experiment”. I rarely go to the mall, but I do when I need to. Yesterday I bought nothing, didn’t need to.

    But there were masses of people there! It is Minnesota, we do have inches of fresh snow on the ground, and the sun was shining. People were apparently bored so decided, like me, to wander the malls, spend some money, etc. I was really shocked how busy our entire retail area was. It felt like walking in a hologram, after all I read of the “true” financial picture.

    I think people are overly optimistic. It seems life is going on around me, while I and my family prepare for doomsday. Hah!

    Two things I noticed besides all the people shopping: the sink water in the bathrooms was icy cold whereas in the past it has always been quite warm; and there were some repairs in the public areas that hadn’t been done lately. Minor things, but since the company that owns the mall has put boatloads of money into updating, renovating, etc. in the last few years, these seemed like signs of the times. And probably not just about “going green” to save energy.

  3. Anion 14 Apr 2008 at 1:59 pm

    yup- when I teach my students about fossil fuels and alternative energy I have to spend some time explaining why hydrogen, corn ethanol etc isn’t the holy grail after all and why the “Jack ‘ find was not going to rescue us from PO, etc- think I’ll put a question about the oil shale “find” on their final exam- see if they’ve learned anything about how to think and question what they read and hear……

    You know, they do get kind of depressed and angry for a bit when I bust those bubbles surrounding the energy sources that are going to “save us”. Of course I suggest that they do the research themselves and not just believe me either- but it is scary how little the public questions what they hear and want to believe. I wish we could have an honest conversation about what is really happening in terms of energy, and the climate- guess I’ll be waiting a long time before a political heavyweight will take that one on- not good for business I guess….might tip us into the recession we’re “not having”…….

  4. ceridwenon 14 Apr 2008 at 4:16 pm


    Having recently found your blog - I’m wondering if you have covered the subject of land for biofuel v. land for growing food. That is - that land is being diverted from growing food into growing biofuel - as I understand it this being basically to put fuel in peoples petrol tanks in the developed countries at the expense of food going in the stomachs of people elsewhere. Hence - food riots are coming about indirectly because Peak Oil is right here, right now.

    I think this is a subject that urgently needs discussion everywhere - as I am guessing the majority of car owners are going to need a LOT of convincing that other peoples right to food comes before their “right” to fuel in their cars.

  5. Rogeron 14 Apr 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Since we in the US have been paying massive bucks to store excess corn, cheese, well, most stuff, this really isn’t a particularly valid point. Ye, people are starving, yes, food prices are zoomong up there, and yes, burning food for fuel is a stupid waste, but as Greenpa# says it aint a matter of how much but how mean.(Paraphrasing here).In other words, there is PLENTY of food, but it isn’t going anywhere if there isn’t profit in it.

  6. Alanon 15 Apr 2008 at 1:08 am

    It is notable (although almost never noted by “journalists”) that press releases about the amount of “technically recoverable” oil in some difficult form or remote location never refer to the cost of the “recovered” oil. We can be certain that if the projected cost of this oil were lower than the current price of oil, then this fact would be trumpeted. Since it’s not mentioned, we can be quite sure that the cost will be higher — probably much higher.

    A similar case is that of the “oil shale” underlying wide swaths of the Intermountain West. In the mid to late 1970s, when oil was $25 a barrel, then oil from oil shale could be recovered, they said, when oil reached $30 a barrel. When oil reached $30, then they said shale oil would be economically feasible when oil reached $35 or $40. Then the Feds dropped the subsidies which were paying for the pilot projects and the bottom dropped out of oil prices. The whole “oil shale industry” faded away in a year or two.

    A cynic remarked that “Oil shale is energy source of the future and it always will be.”

  7. Elizabethon 15 Apr 2008 at 4:57 am

    Hmmm…not sure we have the food in stores that Roger thinks we might. What I have heard is the recent flooding in the midwest (arkansas, missouri) have wiped out that wheat crop and much (if not all) of the remaining wheat crop has been sold overseas…

    GM food is not edible — or if it is it does not taste good and who know what it does to humans if it is in fact destroying the bees…

    Shale oil — has always been there — it has always (always is since I have been in high school or college) been available at some price — probably not at $3.50 a gallon regular, but I don’t know at what price.

    We have 200 plus years of coal supply — yes it burns much cleaner now thanks to scrubbers and other technology and we have the knowledge to convert it to gasoline, too.

    I am amazed that I cannot find solar panels, etc. for my home that would be a perfect candidate for solar power in TN. Still working on this one…

    Hydrogen — what am I missing on this one — we have the technology, Honda, GM, others have the vehicles…what is wrong with hydrogen?

    Ethanol — the US is doing it all wrong. Using corn to covert to ethanol requires a huge amount of oil based energy. What Brazil has done so successfully is use cane to convert to ethanol. All the US has done is paid more to greedy corporate farmers, damaged severely the bees and reduced the amount of food for those of us in the US and the world.

    Personally…we should stop growing corn for fuel and use our food for trading for fuel while we quickly become self - sufficient — if not for my sake then for my kids…

    I am very scared for my kids and what the future holds for them…

  8. Sharonon 15 Apr 2008 at 7:21 am

    Lots of things to address here - Roger, it is true that we had grain reserves before - but not 30% of the annual crop - the projected amount of the US grain crops to be used in ethanol. So yes, it is ethanol driving the price of food up at the root. There are certainly other factors - climate change, export limits, etc… but biofuels are the thing that has pushed a low level concern into crisis mode. You might look at Stuart Staniford’s essay “Fermenting the Food Supply” over at

    Elizabeth - Actually, coal reserves may well be as dramatically overstated as oil - two major reports on coal came out last fall that suggested the US was already past its coal peak and that world supply might peak in the 2020s, actually.

    Hydrogen is just a way of storing energy - it isn’t energy itself. So creating hydrogen requires some kind of energy - most of it fossil fueled at the moment - it doesn’t actually save us any energy.

    The Brazilian ethanol model is fascinating, but also comes with some fairly high costs in both food security and rainforest destruction. Moreover, most of the US can’t grow sugarcane at all - only the very southern portion - and even then, we would be using land used to grow food for fuel. It adds up.


  9. Idaho Locavoreon 15 Apr 2008 at 9:33 am

    Here is something I found while looking around for wheat info this morning.

    World Wheat Supply and Demand Situation, US Wheat Associates, April 2008

    Good news is, looks like they are projecting a 14% increase in supply from this year’s US wheat crop. Bad news is, that doesn’t cover projected losses from Canada, Australia and Argentina this year. It also doesn’t cover projected increases in worldwide demand for the year. Stocks are expected to decline by 13 million metric tons this year, probably because of this discrepancy.

    Looks to me like it’s a good idea to keep the whole wheat and flour buckets as full as possible throughout this year.

  10. Greenpaon 15 Apr 2008 at 10:14 am

    Sharon- I HATE to be glum… (roars of laughter all around) - but about “peak coal” - your numbers and info are fine; but you left out a whole continent. Antarctica. There IS coal there, that I know. Certainly copper- gold, silver- all of it “technically recoverable”, and with melting, easier. There are a lot of parts that are free of ice, actually. The current “hands off” treaty comes up for review in 2011. Will things be worse by then? Yup. Will all the nations agree to keep hands off? Nope. Is this a huge can of worms? Yup. Another one; just what we needed.

  11. ceridwenon 15 Apr 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I’ve been thinking further today re biofuels. I dont know how much the American media is reporting the way things are on this front. Here - in Britain - our quality media is making it quite clear that there is a stark choice between land for biofuel growing and land for food growing. There is NOT enough land in the world for both.

    So I’m now going to start “banging the drum” for petrol rationing. “Our greed is their need” is the slogan that comes to mind here - in that, when someone uses any biofuel in their cartank what they are doing is depriving someone else somewhere else in the world of food to go in their stomach. The choice is simple our fuel for cars OR their food in their stomachs. Put like that petrol rationing is the only game in town.

    I think a ration of 50 miles worth of fuel per household per week sounds like a fair start for an urban household (ie city or town dweller) and proportionately more for people living further away from urban centres and without good access to public transport. Its time ideas like “going for a ride” in cars or getting in cars to take a trip that would take 30 minutes or less to walk were consigned to the history books. Its selfish to use cars unless genuinely necessary. A basic 50 miles worth of use per household per week sounds like a good starting point to me.
    The rationing is necessary because many people are too selfish to do the right thing on their own bat.

    Now - how do we push for this against the vested interests of the car manufacturers and the more selfish members of our own Western societies?

  12. ceridwenon 15 Apr 2008 at 3:33 pm

    PS; re car fuel rationing - I have just seen a very topical post on this on our Transition Towns website:

    see the 15 April post on this.

  13. Greenpaon 15 Apr 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Ceridwen- good for you. I’ve thought for quite some time that rationing is going to be inevitable. It’ll be painful getting there- but it’s really the only equitable possibility. Infuriating that people had to start dying (they are) before the topic could be raised. More will die before it gets instituted. Yes, it’s time to bang that drum.

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