Outliving The Oil Era
The surprising news from Dr. Scott W. Tinker, director of The University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology, is that there is no such thing as "U.S. energy independence," for at least several decades. The good news is that "energy security" is very much within our capabilities and perhaps a better vision.
"The nations of the world are simply too interdependent for there to be any wisdom in pushing the idea of energy independence," Tinker declares. " As the world flattens and globalizes further, we actually become more interdependent. But energy security is a completely different thing and it is viable."
What Security Requires
In Tinker's scenario, all nations rely upon each other to varying degrees in such arenas as commodities, economies, financial markets, food, human resources — and energy. Even as we speak of energy independence in the USA, we are importing about a third of all our energy, and that figure is rising. The notion that we can free ourselves of Middle Eastern influence by eliminating our need for oil is thus naive; the best we can do is slowly continue to move away from oil to other forms of energy over a few decades. The idea, then, isn't to abruptly wean ourselves from oil, but to use it and other fossil fuels as a bridge that can carry us to alternative energy sources in the future. This means using oil and electricity and a hybrid of the two to fuel our cars, for example, as well as liquefied coal and biofuels (algae-farming is a growing area of research in Texas). Oil remains part of our "energy portfolio" because a diverse portfolio in energy is as necessary as in stocks and bonds or real estate, and for the same reason: it keeps us from over-relying on any one energy source that's vulnerable to collapse under strain.
Besides, we are already moving away from oil, and from fossil fuels in general, as the market follows its natural course. Thanks to rising world population and rapidly escalating industrialization in China and India especially, we may be using more barrels of oil than ever around the globe, but that oil provides a smaller percentage of our total energy consumption than ever before. The latter figure has been dropping since it peaked in 1979. Meanwhile, natural gas (methane), another fossil fuel but a cleaner and more efficient one, is providing a steadily-increasing percentage of our total usage; that number will continue to grow as we find ways to transport methane to places where it's needed, via increased liquefied natural gas export and receiving terminals. Nuclear, hydro and geothermal energy are also part of the portfolio, as are wind, tides and solar power, biofuels like algae and switchgrass, even liquefied coal.
What else is required for energy security? Tinker cites the need for vigorous trade; we'll have to deal for the uranium necessary to create nuclear energy, for example. There must be open dialogue, between developed and developing nations especially, though not necessarily exclusively; Western Europe currently gets about 70 percent of its energy from Russia, making the region as dependent on Russia as the U.S. is on the Middle East, and with equally little give-and-take in the equation. Tinker also regards balanced talent pools as a major component; many more engineers and scientists are being trained today in China and India than in the United States and Latin America. And most importantly, we must find ways to enhance energy efficiency, and improve electricity storage and transmission. We currently lose huge amounts of our electricity in the generation and transmission process. "This is a grand challenge!" he states.
Time and Energy
"I'm an optimist," Tinker grins as he notes that scientists have been watching the slow, inevitable decline of the oil era for many years; he sees this less as a disaster in the making than as an opportunity. "I think we can do all of this. But it'll take planning, preparation and compromise." As director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, the oldest research unit at UT Austin, it's his passion to find the common ground between academia, government and industry for just that purpose. He brings multiple perspectives to the job, having been born into the oil industry; his father was a geologist for Shell Oil, and Tinker himself worked in the industry for 17 years, the last 11 in research. He left to join UT in 2000, after research labs dried up throughout the oil industry. He's also the state geologist, frequently testifying before and providing research to the state and federal Legislature about the scientific aspects of what he dubs "the delicate dance between energy, the environment and the economy. We take our fundamental understanding of the earth and its resources and get it to the people who are going to commercialize it, or make policy out of it sensibly," he explains. He sits on boards and councils in government and industry as well as in academia "to help find the compromises that have to be made" in order to democratically shepherd in new policies. And he spends much of his time speaking to the public, be it in the form of trade organizations, a civic or UT alumni group in Houston, a class of first-graders in Austin or university students in Norway. In addition to all his other hats, Tinker holds the Allday Endowed Chair of Subsurface Geology at UT's Jackson School of Geosciences, is director of the Advanced Energy Consortium, and currently serves as president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which has some 33,000 members in 116 countries.
The kinds of steady, measured changes he's seeking will require considerable investment, because as new energy sources are created and old ones take on greater roles, infrastructure must also be created; after all, what's the point of having compressed natural gas to fuel our cars if the American landscape is still dotted with conventional gasoline stations? But the costs are even higher if we don't spend the money that would make the United States the catalyst for global change. "If we do not lead with a steady and well-considered approach, the world will either continue to use fossil fuels almost exclusively," Tinker wrote Barack Obama shortly after the new president was elected, "or make abrupt unilateral leaps into an alternative future, either of which would have unintended and severe consequences." Not on his watch, he might have added.
Why Not Carbon Sequestration?
One of the biggest problems with fossil fuels is that whether they’re being used to run cars and airplanes or various kinds of plants and refineries, they create and send huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO₂) into the air. And whatever its virtues—we can’t breathe without it, for one—CO₂ is also a greenhouse gas that holds heat and enhances global warming. Given that fossil fuels will be crucial to our energy portfolio for several more decades while we transition to newer and less polluting forms, something must be done to eliminate the damaging consequences of all that carbon. Scott Tinker and the Gulf Coast Carbon Center team at the Bureau of Economic Geology propose gathering it and injecting it into the earth, a process called carbon sequestration. Maybe it could just as easily be stored, say, at the bottom of the ocean, but we don’t really know what collateral damage that might cause to deep sea life and/or the risks associated with ocean bottom currents. But as Tinker points out, we already know what the effect of pumping CO₂ into the earth would be because we’re already doing so today, in order to enhance oil recovery. So why not store the carbon down there permanently? For a fee that would boost Texas revenues, CO₂ could be pumped into sandstone and limestone formations beneath state-owned land; such formations are riddled with microscopic holes that are already saturated with salt water and on occasion with oil and natural gas (contrary to popular image, oil doesn’t gather in pools below the earth’s surface, but fills these tiny holes). Conveniently, there’s not much life down there to harm. “There are limited risks that can be quantified and mitigated,” Tinker concedes, “but the carbon has to go somewhere and we already know the result of sending it up into the atmosphere. So let’s put it back into the rocks and store it long-term.” The cost of electricity will go up as we remove carbon, regardless of the ultimate fuel source, but in the long run the economy wins because of the added revenues and new industry; energy wins because we’re able to continue using fossil fuels as a vital bridge; and the environment wins because greenhouse gases are reduced from atmospheric release. “True win-wins are pretty rare,” he adds, “so when we find one, we need to pursue it!”