Understanding Unconventional Oil

Highlights from The Carnegie Papers, Understanding Unconventional Oil, by Deborah Gordon.   http://carnegieendowment.org/files/unconventional_oil.pdf

The oil industry is posting substantial profits, reinvesting significant capital, and gaining new capacities to identify, probe, recover, and process oils that were once unknown, inaccessible, unmanageable, or uneconomical.

The 500 largest US companies piled up record profits last year, despite a lackluster economy, and energy giant ExxonMobil ousted Wal-Mart as the biggest revenue maker, Fortune magazine said Monday. The combined earnings of the Fortune 500 corporations rose 16 percent from 2010 to a record high of $825 billion in 2011, the magazine said.

However . . . many new breeds of petroleum fuels are nothing like conventional oil.   Unconventional oils are nature’s own carbon-capture and storage device, so when they are tapped, we risk breaking open this natural carbon-fixing system.   Unconventional oils tend to be heavy, complex, carbon laden, and locked up deep in the earth, tightly trapped between or bound to sand, tar, and rock.

Generally speaking: the heavier the oil, the larger the expected carbon footprint. From extraction through final use, these new oils will require a greater amount of energy to produce than conventional oil. And as output ramps up to meet increasing global demand for high-value petroleum products, unconventional oils will likely deliver a higher volume of heavier hydrocarbons, require more intensive processing and additives, and yield more byproducts that contain large amounts of carbon

The makeup and geography of tomorrow’s oil will be dramatically different from the black gold that gushed forth at Spindletop, Texas, back in 1901. As conventional crude oil supplies have peaked and leveled off globally in recent years, oil has begun to transition.. . .

. . . from ultra-deep oil in the Gulf of Mexico to Maya heavy oil in Mexico to shale rocks saturated with oil over a broad, continuous area, with the fabric of the rock itself trapping the hydrocarbons in place. Non-flowing oils are being produced from non-crude sources in processes that require emergent technologies, as is happening with the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, Venezuela’s Orinoco belt, and eventually the kerogen (an oil precursor) in oil shales in U.S. mountain states, Western Europe, and beyond. 

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