Turn on the box or radio and, just now, you will find it hard to escape reportage on the environment, especially last month’s UN conference on climate change in New York. This event is basically the precursor to the Copenhagen summit at the end of the year and already the heavyweights are sparring, with both China and India stealing a march on the gas-guzzling US.
We are warned that annual emissions of greenhouse gases are likely to reach a level of 50 gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent regardless of whatever swift actions are taken to halt the increase.
It is said that, if we are to limit the rise in global average temperature to 2C, annual emissions have to be cut to no more than 20 gigatonnes by 2050.
Ouch! That means that the average human will be limited to generating not more than two tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. Compare that with 24 tonnes for your ordinary US citizen versus half that for a typical Euro-citizen.
But how do we pull that one off given our massive dependence on petroleum? About 90% of what is dug out of the ground is used as an energy source for transportation and for generation of heat and electricity, and the balance as feedstocks in the chemical industry.
Petroleum is regarded as a prime culprit in the global greenhouse debacle.
A few numbers. Transportation accounted for 26% of total world energy use in 2004. Projections, barring a major shift, see ongoing growth in use by about 2% per year. Research indicates that biofuels could rise to 3% of total transport fuel by 2030, but could be higher depending on global measures implemented to reduce levels of CO and other emissions associated with climate change.
The petrochemicals sector continues to grow, with new analysis by the International Energy Agency pointing to especially robust growth in polymers.
Polymer production represents both the largest and the fastest-growing segment of the chemical and petrochemical industry. While growth has levelled off in some industrialised countries, polymer production in China and some other emerging economies has continued to grow rapidly despite the impact of recession.
Furthermore, fossil fuels are used in the sector both for energy production and as feedstocks for the production of organic chemicals and a number of inorganic chemicals, including ammonia.
Of course, developed countries of the world have a standard of living to which less developed nations aspire. And the greed-driven American way is the benchmark.
Much of the higher standard of living enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic is due to the products of the chemical industry and the science of chemistry. Synthetic fibres, protective packaging materials, lightweight automotive parts, synthetic rubbers, tyres, plastic medical devices, paints and coating, adhesives, refrigerants, improved yield of agricultural products, and so froth. Many we regard as “essentials”.
In 2006, the chemical and petrochemical sectors’ demand for energy and feedstocks accounted for about 10% of worldwide final energy demand, equivalent to 35 exajoules (EJ) a year.
It is the largest energy-consuming part of industry, accounting for about 30% of the total industrial final energy demand.
The bulk of the sector’s total feedstock and process energy requirements comes from oil and gas-derived products.
While there is a need to replace petroleum by alternative and sustainable sources, it is widely acknowledged that this will be extremely difficult and that the oil&gas industry will likely remain hugely important for many decades to come, notwithstanding mounting concerns regarding climate change.
Reinforcing that strategic relevance is natural gas. Because of its low carbon-to-hydrogen ratio, natural gas is a fuel well suited environmentally for power generation. It is a fuel gaining in global value and importance, and that can minimise the environmental impact associated with combustion of hydrocarbons.
Despite the advance of renewables, the fact is that much of the growing demand for power generation will be met by high-efficiency combined-cycle natural gas plants. Global demand for natural gas is expected to grow even faster than oil, with an estimated doubling by the year 2030, primarily for power generation. That seems unstoppable.
It means that the continued production of increasingly scarce oil&gas will remain hugely important over that period. That, in turn, means that, besides getting smarter at finding and producing resources, the upstream sector needs to pursue, vigorously, every viable mitigation measure in order to reduce its global carbon and other perceived harmful emissions footprint.
The industry will potentially also play a huge role in carbon sequestration as one of a growing array of potential solutions, notwithstanding the use of CO as a means of enhancing production from depleted reservoirs, so helping to fulfil the industry’s own drive towards greater sustainability.
A significant and growing proportion of oil&gas is derived from offshore provinces such as the North Sea, US Gulf of Mexico and, increasingly, new sectors such as deepwater/ultra-deepwater Brazil and West Africa, where huge new plays are emerging.
Seeking and producing such resources is expensive and the industry is constantly looking for ways of reducing costs while also improving the efficiency of exploration and exploitation. Much of the associated expertise is concentrated in relatively few major centres around the world, notably Aberdeen, Stavanger and Houston.
Increasingly, and especially in Aberdeen, these centres are beginning to play a significant role in transferring such skills to new-generation solutions such as offshore wind, tidal and wave energy.
Perhaps then, one of the ironies is that the very petroleum industry that is so vilified may also be one of the most important keys to our hoped-for greener, more sustainable future.