The Last Drop: Humankind, post oil and gas

We obviously have our brilliant weekly energy seminars but sometimes we can’t fit everyone into the schedule.  Today was one of those times as we hosted Dr Issam Wadi. He also agreed to write us a blog post on the topic like our regular seminars. In this post, as with the talk, he covers the impact of a post-oil and gas world on over 40 aspects of our life. You can also download the slides from the talk [PDF].

Since its first commercial discoveries in the 19th century, oil has become a dominant player in the humankind development and growth. Today, it is used almost in every aspect of our life. Though, for years, the world started, exploring alternative energy, while trying to find new unconventional sources of oil such as, deep water oil, shale oil and oil sands, recent studies show that even if we are successful in producing additional oil from these new sources, it is not expected to extend the life of ‘’feasibly recovered oil’’ by more than couple of decades.

bookThe decline in the oil production and reserves has started and commenced its downturn. In the past decade or so, many countries started considering new sources of energy, such as, renewable energy, increased the usage of nuclear energy and continued to use coal. Some of the post oil and gas challenges, such as land transportation and generating electricity, can be handled with a reasonable degree of success, using new sources of energy or new means, such as electric cars, renewable energy and nuclear power stations.

However, in certain cases, such as aviation and shipping, the challenges are going to be harder, especially for heavy and long-haul travel. The other major challenge, the world is going to face, is finding suitable replacement of plastics, which are used almost in every aspect of our life.


Oil & Gas today

More than 60 years ago, Geoscientist, M. King Hubbert, came up with his Peak Oil Theory. (According to this theory, the oil production will peak up at one point then ultimately start declining until its full depletion).  According to his model, we started the decline already and only few decades remain until it is fully depleted (Figure 1.0).

Figure 1.0- Peak Oil Model, showing the decline phases
Figure 1.0- Peak Oil Model, showing the decline phases

Population growth is one of the main challenges for humankind, resulting in overusing the planet finite resources and dumping waste, which makes it hard for our environment to handle. The answer today, as concluded by Paul Chefurka, is “sustainability”, which as he describes; a “sustainable population is one that can survive over the long term (thousands to tens of thousands of years), without either running out of resources or damaging its environmental niche (in our case the planet) in the process”.

Post Oil & Gas

I call the time, starting from the early 40’s of the last century to the 40’s of this century, the ‘‘Illusive Golden Century’’.  In this century, oil became an essential commodity in our life, both as an important source of energy, fuel for transportation, and used to produce a large number of daily-used commodities. The entire world enjoyed this energy source, consumed it with little or no wisdom, plus over-relied on it, almost in every daily activity and in every human development plan. Oil reserves and production started their decline, and will accelerate in 2-3 decades, which by all standards, a short period, for humankind to be ready for that destiny, bearing in mind that some of the alternative sources or means, need extensive research, preparation and development. Example of these; electric ships, electric planes, Miniature Nuclear Reactors, Hyperloop technology, improved and reliable battery technology, Hydrogen based planes, new farming methods and many others.

Impact on different sectors

In this section, I discuss the impact of post oil and gas on selected sectors and aspects of our life.

    • Oil and Gas industry
      This industry will shrink big time, since there will be little or no hydrocarbon fuels available to explore, produce or process. The size of the industry will be a small fraction of what it is today. It is expected that many of the major players will either downsize, disappear or transform their model at that time. During the last few decades of the fossil fuel era, this industry will focus on producing gas and liquids from coal, biofuels and shift more towards mining.
    • Power Industry
      A decade ago, renewable energy started to be used as a source of energy at commercial level, however still represents small fraction of the world energy (about 10%), while hydrocarbon based fuels represent about 50% and coal 26%, the world energy, is trending towards renewable energy, versus fossil fuels. The forecast is that renewable energy will trend exponentially to cater for the foreseen exponential decline in fossil fuels, combined with more usage of nuclear energy. Hence, though there will be major shift on this industry, we foresee minor or no impact on humankind, in fact from environment point of view, there will be positive impacts, assuming nuclear energy will be handled properly and safely.
    • Transportation
      Today, most transportation means, use some kind of hydrocarbon fuels, being cars, taxis, buses, ships, trucks etc. Majority of these, use either gasoline or diesel. In the past decade or so, many countries started converting public transportation to a more environment friendly fuels, such as LPG, CNG, Solar, Electric and Hybrid.

The challenges being faced in transport can be summarised as follows:
– Adequate and fast development of electric cars, which even if these prove to be techno-commercially feasible, there will remain the challenge of replacing over one billion cars and vehicles, plus provide the infrastructure to support them. Needless to mention the need to enhance the batteries technology that is essential in all electric cars.
– Cost of using biofuels, compared to conventional fuel, beside the impact of biofuels production on our ecosystem, food, water and land.

Figure 2.0- Show the recursive relationship and impact of producing and using different commodities and sources on the world
Figure 2.0- Show the recursive relationship and impact of producing and using different commodities and sources on the world

While in the case of shipping and aviation, there are still no technically and commercially feasible alternative sources of energy, especially in case of heavy, long haul travel. Biofuels may be used in a limited way, due to its cost and impact on our ecosystem. Furthermore, usage of electric engines and solar power may be justified in limited cases (mostly short-haul travel, small ships and planes)

    • Plastics
      Plastics are used almost in every aspect of our life. They are produced from hydrocarbon fuels, such as gas, naphtha. Plastics are used at home, office, factories, cars, trucks, airplanes, mobiles, TVs, computer, military equipment and other items. Today, it seems like it is impossible to live without plastics. If we want to assess the ‘‘no-plastics’’ impacts, I would rank them as follows:
      – Critical applications which have major impact on our life, health and safety e.g. medical equipment and items, manmade fibres (clothes and textile), food packaging, crops-cover sheets, farming plastic houses, electric cables and wires, electric items, electronic items, computers, mobiles, planes external parts (composites), medical equipment and consumables.
      – Important but not critical, needed for convenience, plus make commercial sense e.g. Interior automotive and cars’ material and decoration items.
      – Nice to have e.g. water and fuel pipes, furniture items.

To reduce the impact of post oil and gas, w.r.t. plastics, the world need to research and develop alternatives plus introduce new cultures and regulations, such as:
– Maximise the storage and recycling of spent plastics and off spec plastics
– Consider usage of alternative material
– For critical applications, consider, in a limited way, biopolymers
– Shift in culture and habits

  • Electronics and Computer Systems
    The electronics and computers industry depends heavily on plastics, in its components and electronic circuits etc… Options worth exploring to survive, is to maximise recycling, use biopolymers in limited cases and extend the hardware and SW life cycle, by modifying applications design concept. Also, explore the usage of other material e.g. ceramics and new computing technologies, such as optical and bio computers.
  • Clothes
    Today, man-made fibres make over 70% of the world fibres, with the food and water constraints, it will be harder to produce more natural fibres, like cotton and wool, to compensate for loss of man-made fibres. Again, recycling, maximising land yields and extending the life cycle of such items need to be explored.

Mitigation plans

Considering the serious impact on the world, there is a need for a ‘’global, collective and collaborative’’ strategy and plan, led by a neutral body, like UN, to put the right priorities of R&D and development, for new solutions, technologies and alternatives. This body shall put and coordinate a detailed plan, after analysing all the impacts, in more details, identify priorities and accordingly prepare a comprehensive R&D plan and budgets, which shall be contributed to, by all countries, each according to its financial capabilities. Figure 3.0 summarises the min phases of the same.

Figure 3.0- Mitigation Plan and Phases
Figure 3.0- Mitigation Plan and Phases

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