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People’s Power

For those of us concerned about increasing CO2 values in the atmosphere (yes, we are about to crash 410 ppm), the recent decision of the Trump administration to back out of the Paris accord is disheartening. But it is worth looking at what has been going on for awhile to see that there is progress, much of which owes less to government action than to the power of the marketplace.

Let’s start with a recent milestone: 10% of electricity produced in the US in March was from wind + solar energy. That’s produced, not capacity.  Now wind in particular is seasonal, so we’ll drop back down from that high, but compare that to the high from 2007, ten years ago, when it was only 1%.


U.S. Energy Administration, June 2017 “Today in Energy”

This is excluding other non-CO2 sources of electrical power, such as nuclear energy, hydropower, and geothermal.  Of the 97.4 quadrillion BTUs (or peta-BTUS, or PBTUs; equal to 2850 GWh) of primary energy consumed in 2016 (so not just electricity), 18.5 (or just a hair under 20%) came from all carbon-neutral sources of energy.

Going a decade back on primary energy consumed reveals some interesting changes–and lack of change.  Total energy consumption was actually higher at 99.4 PBTUs, but carbon neutral was only 14.9 PBTUs (nearly all nuclear, biomass and hydroelectric, in decreasing order). One of the great accomplishments that goes unnoticed is that GDP in the US in constant 2009 dollars went from $14.5 trillion in Q1 2006 to $16.9 trillion in Q1 2017: a 17% increase while energy consumption overall dropped by 2%. That is huge, because if energy tracked GDP, the increase in renewables would have not even filled in the hole in increased consumption of energy. U.S. energy consumption has been flat or gently declining since 2000.


May 2017 Monthly Energy Review, US Energy Information Administration

Of course you might say that the low-hanging fruit is picked, and there is reason to think that.  Hydropower isn’t going anywhere forward in a big way, and decreased flow in important hydropower rivers like the Colorado bodes ill for the future. Nuclear remains stalled, and the impending retirement of a number of plants suggests the share of power from this source will decline. But there are optimistic trends, too.

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The Great Colorado Oil Blowup

Well, it was the well. In Firestone, Colorado, a house exploded because a cut gas line that should have been abandoned but was still connected leaked gas into the soil five feet from the house.  The odorless gas seeped into the basement of the house and was ignited. This determination is almost certain to ignite another, thankfully figurative, firestorm.

Leaving aside the inevitable lawsuits over that explosion, what does this mean and what should it mean for oil and gas development?

Let’s start with the easy part: what it should mean. Oil companies need to be responsible for the safety of their facilities (that includes being legally liable). New construction near existing oil and gas facilities needs to be aware of oil and gas infrastructure, including these flow lines. Government should enforce inspections of existing oil and gas infrastructure and assure the proper sealing and plugging of wells and flow lines being abandoned. Ideally, government should sponsor means of detecting unusual levels of hydrocarbons leaking at well sites and employ them as a means of recognizing trouble spots (CIRES and NOAA have been working on such tools).

Frankly, if GG lived near a well, he’d be trying to find out about the feeder lines and the history of the well. And quite possibly monitoring gas levels in the basement.

The good news is that the state has ordered oil and gas companies to pressure-test all lines within 1000′ of occupied buildings and to make sure abandoned lines are properly marked and capped. It is unlikely that industry will protest.

Unfortunately, that probably won’t be enough to prevent some future tragedy unless something else changes.

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Precise Opposition

GG has previously been frustrated with the combination of imprecise speech of anti-fracking groups as well as the double speak of industry. The reason you might want to be precise might be well illustrated by a recent home explosion in Colorado.

The exploding house killed two men working on a hot water heater in the basement; usually when you hear these things, it turns out there is a gas leak or something like that in play. The startling news has been the move by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to shut down 3000 wells they are operating while the wells are checked out (that is more than 5% of the active wells in the state). The exploded house was 170 feet from a 1993 well reactivated this past January. Although a new well can not be drilled there, houses can be built that close to existing wells (these houses are only a couple years old).

Oil companies are loathe to shut down operations (see opposition to claims of induced earthquakes, for instance). Shutting down this number of wells even as investigators are saying that they still don’t know what happened strongly suggests something may have gone wrong. Given that the oil company feels that shutting down wells is likely to reduce a risk, they are presumably not thinking that any gas leaked up around a bad casing job in the well but instead are concerned there might be leaks in the underground lines connecting wells to pipelines or storage facilities.

And here’s the thing.  This is not a modern, horizontally-drilled heavily fracked well. This is one of those older-style vertical wells. So when anti-fracking groups say they don’t want to stop oil and gas development but do want to stop fracking (as was the case in Longmont, Colorado a couple years back), this is the kind of well they think is OK. So once again a reminder: fracking is very rarely a cause of problems, but all the other stuff with oil and gas development is the real problem people are complaining about.

The irony might well be that if Anadarko’s infrastructure was the cause of the blast, there is likely to be enough of an outcry to allow far more stringent rules on any new oil and gas development–even though a blast caused by a leak of a subdivision gas supply line would probably not shut down the use of natural gas in houses. So “anti-fracking” groups might get their wish not because of fracking problems per se but because houses were built in the vicinity of active oil and gas operations.

(Equally ironic is the request from the Boulder County Board of Supervisors for companies to shut down all their vertical wells in the county–apparently unaware that it is the near-surface infrastructure that could be the problem, which can exist at both directional and vertical well pads).

It should be interesting to see what happens. Almost certainly it points to a need to check up on the older oil and gas infrastructure in the state. Whether it changes the politics of new oil and gas operations remains to be seen.

Capture and Release?

Petroleum has been one of the most peculiar “minerals” (in a legal sense) owing to its existence as a fluid; only groundwater faces similarly bizarre legal contortions. (If you want all the details, read Finders, Keepers by Terence Daintith.) The development of laws that were forward looking for conventional oil and gas development are now causing heartburn in unconventional development.

Recall that originally, you could drill straight down and hit an oil pool and oil might come out all on its own. The oil that came up could be coming from neighboring lands. Courts decided, using (of all things) the common law pertaining to capture of wild animals, to decide that this was OK.  If you “captured” that wild oil, it was yours to keep; hence, this is called the rule (or law) of capture.  This was utterly different than the decisions reached on other mineral rights that didn’t move around.

The result of the rule of capture was an insane style of production.  Each landowner wanted to get the most oil, and they wanted to preserve the oil under their land.  So they would drill as close to the land’s boundaries as possible and go as fast as possible in the hopes of extracting resources from neighboring lands and preventing loss of their own reserves. The result overall was a decrease in the total production from many oil fields as reservoir pressures decreased rapidly while at the same time maximizing surface damage.  The pictures of forests of derricks at, say Spindletop in Texas or Signal Hill in Southern California arose from this.


The rules were largely left to states, many of which started to introduce unitization laws that tried to remove the incentive to extract everything in the craziest manner possible. Colorado, for instance, has such a law. The basic idea is that if a field starts to be produced, all the mineral rights holders will gain from the extraction in some proportion. For this to work, some rights holders can’t stop the proceedings: if one mineral rights holder’s objections would prevent drilling and production, then all the other rights holders would be losing their mineral rights to some degree. So there is some measure usually applied.  Here in Colorado, all it takes is one rights holder to say they want to produce to trigger the unitization process, thus leading this to also be called “forced pooling”–you might not have wanted your oil and gas to be extracted, but you are forced into the pool so that others can get theirs.

Unhappily, this makes no sense with the latest unconventional resources.

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Conflicting Futures

Just where are we headed as a civilization? Energy is the cornerstone of our world today, so just where we get energy will dictate an awful lot of how we live, who is rich, who is poor, where and why we go to war, etc.  Two competing views are out there and worth some contemplation.

The first (thanks, Philip Johnson, for pointing this out) is based on Exxon/Mobil’s outlook for the year 2040. In it, there is little movement from the modern energy mix:


There are a couple of things to note.  First, Exxon/Mobil is, at present, the target of several investigations into deceptive practices resembling those used by the tobacco industry to deny the connection between smoking and cancer. So they are not looking like an oracle of future change pure as the driven snow.  Second, and arguably more pertinent here, industries are not apt to look to the future and see their demise, especially a company like Exxon/Mobil, that has only downweighted the value of some of their known resources under stockholder pressure. So seeing a future powered by oil and gas like the company presently produces is, in a sense, a bit of self-confirmation (and, potentially, could reflect confirmation bias).

But before we walk away thinking this is unrealistic or hopelessly biased, keep in mind something Exxon/Mobil is likely really good at: knowing how much oil and gas might be out there.  That they think this is how the energy mix will look–and that is with the total amount of energy increasing quite a bit–should tell you that this is a possible future. Hoping for Peak Oil to save the world isn’t going to happen. Arguably, this is the future if nothing particularly transformative happens.

That something transformative will happen is the basis for the other view of the future, one advocated by Mark Jacobson at Stanford.

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Oklahoma Dreamin’

Back in September, Oklahoma had a M5.6.  Some of you might recall the difference in opinion between USGS scientist Dan McNamara, who expected continued seismicity, and Oklahoma Geological Survey director Jeremy Boak, who said “I’d be surprised if we had another 5.0 this year.”

Well, Director Boak hopefully was in the vicinity to be surprised in person by the M5.0 today that damaged buildings in Cushing, OK, site of the largest oil storage facility in the country (which at least apparently escaped any damage). Yeah, once more wishful thinking trumped by actual scientific examination….increasingly it seems the branch McNamara has climbed out on is the real stout one while the hopes of the Oklahoma injection operators rest on thin reeds.

At least nobody has died, but when you are evacuating a senior housing facility in the night and cancelling school, you know you are playing with fire.

And hey, we aren’t even done with 2016 yet.

A breath of light air

Geoscience has benefited from being an economically useful pursuit for a very long time. Some of the justification for Strata Smith’s mapping of England was to be able to predict where coal deposits could be found.  In the U.S., state surveys were initially to locate mineral resources.  Many western educational enterprises started as mining schools, helping to locate and exploit precious metals.  In the twentieth century, there was a shift into energy, with the oil and gas industry supporting institutions educating its employees. As a result, geologists have had access to rich databases of their own literature far longer than most other sciences. Conversely, extractive industries have benefited from the insights of academic pursuits like plate tectonics as the relationship of resources to other earth phenomena made searching for resources less erratic. Although earth science has provided many other instructive insights, it was the search for resources that largely allowed geology to be pursued at a grand scale.  As the desire to reduce carbon emissions has grown and as hard rock mining has dialed in to a pretty well-known set of deposits, it seemed that the practical side of the field was withering.  Academic appointments in fields like mining geology have been fading for years, and petroleum geology has looked more and more like petroleum engineering the last 20 years or so.

So it was kind of a blast from the past when researchers at Durham and Oxford announced that they think they know how to find deposits of helium. This drew attention from the BBC and Ars Technica as helium reserves have been plummeting, in no small part because of some short-sighted actions from the U.S. Congress. Helium for most of us is kind of a balloon filling gas, but the increased use of liquid helium in various activities (most notably in MRI scanners) has made it of far greater value than something to be allowed to float into the sky and vanish.

Up to now, helium has pretty much been an accidental discovery associated with oil and gas exploration.  The new work more or less argues that economic deposits are things we can anticipate in some areas, making the prospect of searching for helium a plausible one.  The basic logic of this work is in some ways tangled up with academic interest in helium for other, very different reasons.  So it might be worth a moment to contemplate helium.

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