Geologist: fossil fuels likely to remain dominant energy source for US

04/20/11 Matthew Cimitile
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Despite last year’s BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, global energy demand will continue to make fossil fuels the essential energy source for the coming decades. That’s the conclusion of a geologist who spoke last week at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science.

Nearly 19 million barrels of oil is consumed in the United States each day. According to the Institute of Energy Research, this staggering number meets 37 percent of the nation’s energy demand. Peter Rose is former energy branch chief for the U.S. Geological Survey. During his talk at the annual Eminent Scholar Lecture series, Rose said that due to rising energy demand oil will continue to be the dominant energy source.

“However you think about it, fossil fuels are going to be the major source of our energy for the next 30-40 years, anyway you cut it, it comes out that way. The energy information agency predicts that oil production will be increasing in the future. Never to the level that it peaked at in 1970 at 3.2 billion barrels a year, but back to 2 ½ and moving to the direction of 50 percent share of total crude oil that the U.S. uses.”

The energy information agency also predicted that natural gas production will increase by 40 percent due to new extraction processes like hydraulic fracturing. Rose said that giant strides in such technological innovation has led to producing oil from large reserves in deep water, the Arctic, and natural gas from deposits like shale. However, he went on to say that the need to drill in such environments is because easily accessible fossil fuels are being depleted.

“What is going on here is what we can refer to as exploiting the resource triangle. When we start off with any resource, we identify those traps, those accumulations, those deposits that are large or easily found and cheap to mine and very rich. And as the use and demand for the resource grows and grows we work down to lower grade deposits. This is what is happening with natural gas and now happening to oil.”

The increased use of advanced technology to access harder to reach fossil fuels will mean higher energy prices. Rose said drilling and processing lower grade deposits could mean $6-per-gallon gasoline, but it may reduce wasteful energy usage.

“Let me let you have a kind of sobering statistic. I will be 76 in July, about 60 percent maybe more of all the oil that will ever be produced in the world, has been produced in my lifetime. Whenever we really waste energy, waste fuel, what are our kids going to say.”

Questions remain over how much oil is in onshore and offshore areas across the globe. A recent article in the journal Science reported that despite near tripling of oil prices, non-OPEC oil production that accounts for 60 percent of world output has remained stable sine 2004 and experts predict it will stay that way for another decade before declining. Advocates for renewable energy cite these statistics along with environmental impacts associated with the fossil fuel industry as reasons to quickly move away from fossil fuels and instead invest heavily in renewables like solar, wind and biofuels. But Rose said these alternatives have their own problems.

“Suppose we said what we want to do is increase solar and wind and biomass to the point where each of them is 20 percent of our total energy use. So let’s look at what would happen. In terms of the land use that is required for solar it would take about as much as the state of Missouri. How about wind? Well we can take most of the American west, that much area for wind turbines. How about biomass? Everything east of the Mississippi, including Florida. There is a scale problem here.”

Rose concluded with a call for a balanced, national energy policy that relies on fossil fuels, increased use of nuclear and renewables and policies that would improve energy conservation, such as increasing gas taxes.

“We need high stable energy prices to allow these things to happen. You are not going want to hear this but if gasoline goes to $8 a gallon, that is great, because it will make people start to improve on how they use their energy. Conservation is the single, quickest, cheapest way to reduce U.S. energy consumption. I think what we ought to do is gradually increase federal taxes on gasoline and dedicate that money to alternative energy development.”

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