Future of oil

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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By 2052, the second century of the modern oil age will be drawing to a close.

In the 200 years since the discovery of distillation of crude oil into kerosene, the production and consumption of crude oil and natural gas have irrevocably transformed the lives of virtually every living being on Earth. Despite widespread concerns about the environmental, political and economic consequences of reliance on petroleum as our primary energy source, the convenience and versatility of the fuel feeds an insatiable appetite that is not easily replaced by alternatives.

Superficially, the third century of the oil age will not be remarkably different from the preceding half-century. Beneath this familiar veneer, however, the adaptability of petroleum will be evident in our choice of fuel and the way we go about securing it. The demand for transportation fuels will grow by another 50 per cent by 2050, and the two billion vehicles in the global fleet will insist on the same combination of high energy density, scalability and accessible distribution that today’s gasoline and diesel fuels offer.

Although distributed solar power systems and the next generation of storage batteries will begin to transform local transportation using electrical power trains, long-distance road travel – either in personal vehicles or, more significantly, by long-haul truckers – will continue to require liquid fuels. Food and goods will still need to move over the road.

The power and range requirements of long-haul trucks far exceed any contemplated electrical power train design, and trucking companies are loath to accept the risk of abandoning a proven combination of fueling infrastructure and engine design. Similarly, the lure of the open road will continue to capture the imagination of the traveling public who demand vehicle range, power-hungry conveniences, and trailer hauling capabilities that are well outside of the limitations of personal electric vehicles.

The major change is that, by 2050, a significant proportion of these over-the-road liquid fuel needs will be met by compressed and liquefied natural gas (CNG and LNG), displacing today’s gasoline and diesel fuels. CNG, in particular, carries three significant advantages.

First, natural gas supplies are abundant and address energy security concerns.

Second, the carbon dioxide emissions from CNG combustion are approximately 25 per cent less than gasoline.

Finally, CNG is a proven transportation fuel that is readily adaptable to current engine designs.

In short, although the outward appearance of transportation will not be radically different, the fuel will have significantly lower emissions and come from different sources than the crude oil suppliers of today.

Crude oil will remain a critical feedstock for a variety of transportation fuels and petrochemicals, but reducing its profile in the light passenger vehicle and over-the-road transport sectors will result in a fundamental shift in the global petroleum value chain. Increased broad demand, and the corresponding rise in price, will transform natural gas from a regional product to a global fungible commodity.

Depletion of conventional supplies of gas will drive exploration and development toward technologically challenging sources including shale gas, ultra-deepwater reservoirs, and the immense gas hydrate resources of the continental margins.

Managing the human and environmental safety associated with these activities will be a defining challenge of the latter half of this century.

Burns A. Cheadle is an Earth Sciences professor in the Faculty of Science.