Sandia LabNews

BP Chief Scientist: The end (of oil) is not near

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The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stones and the Petroleum Age isn’t likely to end for lack of petroleum. That was the message of Steve Koonin, chief scientist for BP, plc, speaking to a nearly full house at Sandia’s Steve Schiff Auditorium in December. “We are not running out of oil any time soon,” he said.

His talk, the final one in a series of distinguished lecturers for 2005 presented by the Geosciences and Environment Center, was carried live on streaming video to another 1,100 Sandians.

Koonin, who earned his doctorate at MIT and served as provost at Caltech until moving to BP in 2004, alluded jokingly to an earlier talk at Sandia/California’s Combustion Research Facility (Lab News, Dec. 9, page 3.) At that talk, Paul Roberts, author of The End of Oil, gave his perspective on the future. Although Roberts’ message that a new revolution in energy is beginning seems opposite of Koonin’s, in fact the two speakers agreed on much of what lies ahead.

Signing on with one of the largest multinational energy companies in the world, Koonin was assigned the job of mapping a long-range technology strategy for BP (formerly British Petroleum). He took about a year to look at mounds of data, establish limiting factors that impact technology development, and predict the energy mix of the future. He identified population growth, supply security and challenges, and environmental constraints as the key factors affecting technology.

A physicist by training, Koonin cites a number of reasons for expecting petroleum’s continued dominance of the energy market, including substantial petroleum reserves and the “energy density” of petroleum.

Hydrocarbon dominance

Added to 41 years of known oil reserves and 67 years of gas reserves are other petroleum fuel forms extending the reach of the oil era. An additional 200 years of coal reserves allow for even more far-reaching possibilities. Incremental price increases will allow industry to convert heavy oils, biofuels, and gas-to-liquid products to extend the hydrocarbon dominance.

“If we choose to do it, we can double vehicle efficiency with technologies like homogeneous charged compression ignition and diesel. Fifty percent of new cars in Europe are diesel,” he said. “If you include enhanced oil recovery, super deep reserves, tar sands, and oil shale you can extend the petroleum use curve….It depends on what you call oil.”

On the subject of petroleum’s high energy density, Koonin told the audience, “An amazing number for me is that with your average fill-up of gasoline, you’re wielding about 15 megawatts of power. That’s a tremendous number, carrying that kind of power in a small space.”

Koonin focused much of his talk on the environmental consequences of his predictions for the future energy mix. While local pollution “is a solvable problem,” his view of global warming was less positive. There’s a growing body of anecdotal and scientific evidence that “it’s getting warmer,” he said. “There’s a plausible connection of increases of CO2 with these temperature increases.” Although there are complicating factors, there is a strengthening scientific case, he said. “It’s over 50 percent but not 90 percent right now.”

Tough problem to fix

“My own bottom line, and BP’s as well, is that it is extraordinarily unwise to be putting this much CO2 into the atmosphere and that the world should do something about it.” Limited absorption rates for CO2 in the environment, the fact that global warming is less visible than other hazards, and the mismatch of CO2 scales between human activity and life-cycle times in the environment all make it a tough problem to fix, Koonin said.

Growing energy demands also mean that, “We would need to halve the current value of emissions to stabilize the CO2 levels because we are doubling energy use over the same time. He suggested a CO2 rate of 550 per million (twice the pre-industrial level) is workable. It would take about 45 years to stabilize the concentration. “CO2 emissions and concentrations are going to rise unless the world does something dramatically different.”

Koonin noted several transport technologies, including hybridization of vehicles, and light-weighting of vehicles, hydrogen, and biofuels as options for the future. But transport is only about 20 percent of emissions, he noted. For stationary energy sources, he suggested that solar, hydrogen, nuclear, and wind offer potential.

For fighting global warming, Koonin said his personal choices would be carbon sequestration efforts and nuclear power. “BP is practicing carbon sequestration at the Salah gas field in southern Algeria,” he said. Engineers are re-injecting CO2 into the ground and monitoring to see what happens to it, where it will migrate, and “will it stay down there?” He estimates costs may be 30-40 percent higher than venting CO2 to the atmosphere.

Nuclear energy growth will be fixed and probably growing fractionally, he said. “Nuclear and carbon sequestration are necessary to stabilize the climate. For CO2 there are two technologies necessary to have a meaningful impact on emissions: Nuclear and carbon sequestration. Without those two I don’t think the world has a prayer.”

Here are some selected observations from Steve Koonin’s lecture:

  • Automobiles increased in energy efficiency by 23 percent from 1990 to 2000. This was overshadowed by weight and performance increases that shaved 18 percent off efficiency during the same period, resulting in only a 4.6 percent net improvement. “For the US, significantly reducing transportation energy efficiency is a question of political will, not technology.”
  • Currently, half the world’s population lives in urban areas. In the next 25 years, that will reach 80 percent. Along with urbanization comes higher Gross Domestic Product and energy demands, both in terms of stationary power plants and transportation fuels. “Right now there are 2.5 billion people at the bottom of the energy curve who want to move up to levels of the industrialized world. Energy use is inextricably linked to economic growth.”
  • The three largest markets — North America, Europe, and Asia — consume 80 percent of the world’s oil and hold 15 percent of the reserves. The co-location of coal reserves with demand centers in these markets is likely to lead to a near-term resurgence in coal use.
  • There will be nine billion people on the planet by 2050, with the most growth in Africa and Asia. As people shift from walking and public transit to privately owned vehicles, transportation energy and other power demands will drive overall demand up by 60 percent over the next 25 years.
  • Battling global warming will be difficult because there will be inevitable distractions, such as economic disruptions, high costs, and short-term cooling. The developing world is growing at the rate of 2.8 percent in terms of CO2 production, while the industrial nations are growing about 1.2 percent. Reduction in the industrial world won’t counteract developing world increases. “We have to cut emissions by a factor of two while energy demand doubles and this has to be done over the next 25 years,” he said.
  • Since the first US discoveries of oil in 1850, a trillion barrels have been produced. Another trillion will be needed between now and 2030. With other sources of oil, such as deep reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, “the curve extends out for four trillion barrels.”