The Energy Alternatives: Extreme Petroleum — Parts 7 thru 10

by S. Tom Bond on December 21, 2012

The Energy Alternatives: Extreme Petroleum III

By S. Thomas Bond, Lewis County, WV


We will consider hypothetical possibilities here, then shale drilling and finally have some concluding remarks about the overall long-range situation with regard to petroleum.

First, methane clathrates which are also called methane hydrates. Vast amounts of clathrates exist, they are both a hazard of global warming and a possible source of methane (natural gas). There are several of these “cage compounds.” They aren’t really compounds in the sense that all atoms are bound together by chemical bonds, but rather are “cages” of water molecules surrounding methane, which acts as a template. They form at low temperatures, just above freezing, and under pressure. The most common one has 4 methane molecules trapped in 23 water molecules.

They are found in nature in Arctic soil, on the sea bed and in sediments below. They are also in fresh water ponds, lakes and streams. A great worry is that warming of the Arctic could decompose a large amount of the clathrates in the environment there, and speed up the process of global warming, since methane is about 20-25 times as bad about retaining the reflected heat from the sun as carbon dioxide.

Potentially, they could be harvested by recovery from say, the sea bed. A Japanese firm is working on a technology to do that.


Making ethanol for fuel from corn is ridiculous. The EROEI is in the vicinity of 1:1, since removal of water from the ferment is energy intensive. Ethanol causes difficulty and rapid aging with engines, particularly in a marine environment. It has less energy content than petroleum, so it is little more than a diluent. It could better be used as food.

Using sugar cane and fermenting it to ethanol is somewhat better, with significantly higher EROEI. But again, it is competing with food; and with a growing population, that is probably the better use. Both corn and cane require fertilizer for good yield, so they compete with food in that way, too.

Burning fire wood is a natural where it is available. It is relatively cheap, it involves little input fuel except for transportation, but much hard labor. Getting the wood really dry, and use of advanced stoves improves the heat produced and reduces the pollution. EROEI is about 30:1, on the average.


Most of the readers of this article will be familiar with natural gas from shale drilling. They know that it is investment driven; that is, the big money is made from selling investments and financing, while actual production is the poor cousin.

This results in a huge advertising effort, endless lobbying and influencing of political candidates to get favorable legislation along with a minimum of enforcement. It involves aggressive legal action against opponents, rigid company and industry organization with frequent changes of party line. Subcontractors love the generous cash flow. Ultimately the program results in tough treatment of every one they come in contact with, including labor, landowners and neighbors.

The reader knows about the shale gas economic bubble, which has attracted investment from all over the world. There are big deals, frequent changes in estimates of available gas, and low recovery of the resource — leaving 90% in the ground. He/she knows about the rapid decline of shale gas wells, where most production is in two years with the end of economic utility in seven or eight years.

This means constant drilling is necessary to maintain production. The reader knows about technological problems with the method, such things as spoiling aquifers, surface pollution, air pollution and how these are ignored by regulatory agencies, but are visible to scientists. And everyone knows about the 200 or more organizations trying to get reasonable regulation or a moratorium.

So there isn’t much the author can say that is new. Perhaps you don’t know the reported ERORI is about 30:1. But, again, maybe that is a calculation by the industry that neglects such things as road repairs, personal trips by workers and supervisors (more than a good job at home), laying pipelines and a lifetime of checking them, compressor stations and who knows what else that distinguishes the industry.


The point of this article is to point out the risks and investments and costs needed to get what could be called “the hard stuff,” a name for what’s around when the “easy stuff” is gone; sometimes it is said the “the low-hanging fruit” is collected easily.

The time has come to invest more thought in what we are doing. Basically, the extraction tracks described above are enabled by the dispersed nature of big business. Tradition, along with previous investment in materials and skills guide doing the same things again and again. These tracks involve continuation of the past, not change suitable for the future.

It is time to be working on technology for the future. It is time to get money to those who are thinking about something different. Of course there will be mistakes in the near term by choosing an innovative path. But an innovative path is the only way out of the woods.

It is absolutely clear where we are going, taking bigger and bigger risks and destroying more and more of the earth’s surface so it does not produce environmental benefits that we have taken for granted in the past. We are on a straight and wide path to disaster.

The problem is how to get this across to the general public when the short term profit comes from a head long plunge to doom.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

S. Thomas Bond January 4, 2013 at 9:53 am

January 4, 2013. “Note added in proof,” as they say in scientific papers. On New Years day one of Shell’s drilling rigs ran aground in the coast of Kodiak Island, Alaska carrying 150,000 gallons of petroleum.


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