DURAND Bernard, Petroleum, natural gas and coal, Nature, formation mechanisms, future prospects in the energy transition. EDP Sciences, 2018
(198 pages, XX€)
The text below is the foreword to a book written by Bernard Durand, a geologist who spent a large fraction of his career in academic positions: Head of the Geology-Geochemistry section at Institut Français du Pétrole, and Dean of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Géologie, an institution that has trained a significant fraction of the French oil geologists.
Bernard has developped an interest in the “limits” of our present energy system (depletion for oil, climate change), and we have met for this reason. He kindly asked me to write a foreword for his last book, and I am happy to reproduce it here, hoping that it will trigger an irresistible desire to buy his book!
We love fossil fuels. We really do. Otherwise, would we spend between 300 and 700 billion dollars each year to find new oil and gas fields, and enhance the capacity to extract what they contain? Would we protest loudly each time the government considers to raise taxes on gasoline or domestic fuel oil? Would countries have sent armies to conquer or protect coal mines, then oilfields, a number of times in the course of recent history? Would Hitler have invaded Russia if it were not for the Caucasian oil fields, and would Japan have bombed Pearl Harbor if it were not to get rid of the US marine and secure a naval route to the Indonesian oil fields?
Actually, we love fossil fuels so much that it is acceptable to say that we are addicted to them. We can plea to have good reasons to do so, though: their use gave us all the pleasures we could dream of. Through fossil fuels, we have acquired the freedom to move fast, on the ground, on the sea or in the air. We got heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. We got electricity (70% of the world production comes from coal, gas and oil), which in turn gave us all the domestic comfort, and the plants that manufacture all that we can find in a store.
Fossil fuels also tremendously increased our food production, through the N-fertilizers made from gas, and the agricultural machinery running on oil. Do you know that when you eat a kilogram of beef, you kind of eat a kilogram of fossil fuels, that were used to grow the cereals eaten by the cattle?
They gave us organic chemistry then plastics, steel and cement, and thus all the buildings that have appeared in the 20th century, but also clothes (all synthetic fibers are oil and gas derivatives), shoes, windows and toys, coffee machines and carpets, beds and fridges, TV screens and chairs, skis and shampoo, forks and planes, coffee cups and dishwashers, and of course smartphones and modern communications.
They have also made possible to install everywhere water distribution systems and sewage, that, together with the increase of food security, have played a major role – far greater than curative medicine – in tripling our life expectancy between 1800 and 2000.
Actually, fossil fuels gave us everything we see in the modern world. Suppress them, and we loose computers thus money, transportation thus food – and all the other goods – in the cities, and the productivity of work, that is actually merely empowering each of us with machinery that multiplies our mechanical power by hundreds or thousands.
The list is not finished: because they allowed a tremendous increase in the productivity of work, fossil fuels also gave us long studies, vacations and retirement, they enabled to put 80% of the population in cities (because we do not need so many people in the fields, where they have been replaced by tractors, pesticides and fertilizers), and they have allowed globalization – because of boats, trucks and planes – and modern financial markets (that require computers and electricity).
And all this, nature has given it to us for free. What, fossil fuels would be free? Indeed they are. Just as no one has ever paid a single cent for wind to exist, no one has ever paid a single cent for oil – or gas, or coal – to exist. This precious resource has been formed by Mother Nature without the help of any human, with remnants of ancient life, in the course of hundreds millions of years. Actually, when the process of oil formation began, there were not that many humans around to give a helping hand!
The price of oil, today, is only money paid by some humans to other humans: those that have worked to extract it from the environment, those that have been lucky enough to sit on the oilfield, and all those that transport it or trade it. But not a single cent ever went to Nature, that manufactured it.
And it is precisely because it is so much easier to extract energy from the environment – and store it, and transport it, and use it whenever you want – when it is coal, oil or gas than when it is wood, wind or the run of water that humanity has moved from a 100% renewable civilization to the present state. It made energy much more available, both in the physical and in the economic sense.
We have not become addicted to fossil fuels just because we are total idiots. We have done so because these energies can be used whenever we want and not just when the sun shines or the wind blows, or just where there are forest and mountains (for water mills then hydroelectricity). They have enabled to use energy elsewhere than where it is harnessed. Wood can be stored but not easily moved around, and try to store running water or wind!
So, if these fuels have made easy for all, what is the point of bothering about the future? Every coin has two faces, and these energies have alas two disadvantages: they are subject to depletion, and they cause climate change. Depletion is easy to understand for a non renewable resource. It’s the application of “you cannot eat your cake and have it”. Once you have extracted and burnt a resource that takes several ten million to several hundred million years to renew, you have less.
Actually mathematics allow to demonstrate that when you draw from a stock that has been given once and for all, all you can get is a yearly production that starts at zero (which has been the case in the remote past), will eventually fall to zero, and go through an absolute maximum in between, named the peak. This is not limited to oil or gas, though: it is valid for any metal ore, or phosphates, or potash. The only question, so to say, is when the peak occurs (and should we trigger it for environmental reasons, or wait for it to happen for other reasons?), at what level, and with what consequences. The oil production of the North Sea peaked in 2000, and the world production of conventional oil (everything except tar sands and shale oil) peaked in 2006, so this is no virtual process!
And once you have burnt a fossil fuel, mostly made of carbon because it’s ancient life, you have created carbon dioxide, because combustion is a particular form of oxidation. And, because any oxide is a stable molecule, carbon dioxide cannot be removed fast from the atmosphere, and accumulates in the air, trapping more infrared close to the ground and causing global warming. This process has been identified almost two centuries ago by Joseph Fourier, it’s solid science!
What is also solid science is that, when it went from the last ice age to today, the planet warmed by only 5 degrees (Celsius). So a global warming of a couple degrees in a century is likely to trigger war everywhere, because our sedentary species will be unable to adapt to such a rapid and massive change in the conditions that have prevailed for millennia, and framed the civilizations everywhere.
So what is at the heart of our modern world is actually at the root of a Faustian pact: with oil and its friends, we can have the land of plenty today, but once we are totally dependent on it, at some point we will have less, and on top of that we’ll pay a high price in terms of global environmental issues.
Bernard Durand has not the ambition to suggest an easy way out in this situation. But he has one, for sure!
From the beginning of this foreword, I have used the words oil, gas, coal, and “fossil fuels” without defining them. Easy, you will think? Well… Did you know that part of what is counted with oil comes from gas fields, and vice versa? That nobody knows exactly how much oil we can extract from the ground, because there is no centralized information on the topic?
That oil production is counted in barrels, which is a unit of volume, and not in kWh or joules, so that nobody knows exactly what is the energy content of what is extracted? That the proven reserves of the Middle East countries were worth 360 billion barrels in 1980, and 810 at end 2016, with 280 billion barrels extracted – or “produced” – in between, and no major discoveries in that time interval?
So, before trying to answer the question “how can we do with less”, because we will have to do so one day, Bernard just wants to enable the reader to understand what we are talking about: What are fossil fuels exactly, and what are they made of? How were they formed in the Earth crust? How do oil and gas companies know that there are hydrocarbons under the ground somewhere? Is there a common way to define reserves, production, and consumption, or everyone has his own way to provide a figure? When the issue is crucial, how do we know what we know, or why can’t we know what we would like to know?
My dear reader friend, do not imagine a single second that you can avoid to go through the pain of learning, because the mighty people “know all this, and take it into account when framing their decisions”. I have discussed with 5 or 6 governments in France since 2003, and dozens of members of parliament in my country. Trust me: when it comes to technical topics – and energy is a lot of technique – they know nothing more than the ordinary citizen.
So Bernard has actually a tremendous ambition: he is still dreaming that, if he has enough readers, it might enhance the knowledge of enough voters and enough decision makers to change a little something to the future. My dear reader friend, I hope you will enjoy understanding better what are those fossil fuels that have made possible all your present living conditions, and I wish the best success to Bernard and to this book.