Phil Rae & Leonard Kalfayan
with Michael J. Economides
2010, ET Publishing, Houston, Texas
Hardcover, 313 pages, $34.99
The link between energy use and national wealth, the consequences of our shrinking domestic oil refining capacity, new approaches to power generation using hydrocarbons, the reality of global dependence on hydrocarbons for decades to come, and the boom in new extraction methods and identified sources of natural gas (which has a lower carbon to hydrogen ratio than coal or oil) are all covered in this excellent primer on the energy industry today.
The Energy Imperative joins Sunroom Desk’s Glendale Bookshelf, as its co-author Leonard Kalfayan grew up in this area, graduated from Crescenta Valley High School and Occidental College, then got a Master’s in Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. He now works in Houston, is the inventor of several patents, and is recognized globally in the petroleum industry on expertise in enhancing production from oil, gas, and geothermal wells.
Those used to hearing “big oil” disparaged will be impressed by the history and technical accomplishments of the energy sector presented in this book. They might also be unpleasantly surprised that 80% of world oil reserves are owned exclusively by state-owned national oil companies, leaving the former “Super Majors” to focus attention on growth in extreme locations or through acquisitions.
At a level any educated reader can understand, the book explains the organic properties of oil, coal, and gas; where deposits of each are around the world; the methods used to extract, transport and refine them; the political dynamics of energy resource ownership; and the current infeasibility of replacing hydrocarbons with alternative/renewable energy sources on a large scale. One of the many impressive color charts is in the section on transport, covering the evolution of supertankers, and featuring the length of the tanker Knock Nevis compared to skyscrapers:
All fuels are not equal, maintain the authors. Coal is most abundant, with supplies “capable of meeting electricity needs for more than 250 years.” Fossil fuels have enormous versatility and can be processed for interchangeable use, but the lack of overlap uses reflects practical factors and suggests that finding alternative energy sources for power generation would currently save little oil.
Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) are used by a growing number of transportation fleets and industries. The book describes their advantages and disadvantages over crude oil, and explains how they are prepared and transported. A discussion of LNG:
By refrigerating the gas to minus 160° C (about minus 256° F) and pressurizing it very slightly, methane, the principal constituent of natural gas, is transformed into a liquid. It can then be loaded onto an LNG tanker and transported anywhere in the world.
The largest LNG tankers currently have capacities of about 250,000 cubic meters (about 1.6 million barrels) of LNG, equivalent to about 150 million cubic meters (about 5 billion cubic feet) of gaseous product. So, while this is a fairly efficient way to move large volumes of what might otherwise be ‘stranded gas’ (gas that may be uneconomic to produce or too remote to justify a pipeline), it is still much more costly than shipping crude oil. It costs money to refrigerate the gas in the first place and to keep the LNG cold during shipment. The LNG tanks themselves must be made of special alloys to resist the cold temperatures and must be well insulated to minimize losses. Furthermore, LNG has a lower energy density than crude oil so an LNG tanker contains only two thirds the energy of an oil tanker of similar capacity.
Well drilling, technology, and transportation mechanisms for the resources are the subject of an entire chapter. Well stimulation methods such as hydraulic and acid fracturing are Kalfayan’s particular area of expertise. From Chapter 4:
Fracturing is gaining particular attention today because of its widespread and critical application in achieving economic production from gas shales. Gas shales are alumino-silicate rocks containing clay minerals and particles of quartz (silica), feldspar, calcite (calcium carbonate), dolomite(calcium-magnesium carbonate), and other minerals. Shales that hold natural gas (or more rarely, oil) are very low in permeability, but they are rigid and brittle and thus amenable to hydraulic fracturing and subsequent retention of open fractures after stimulation. They are also prolific natural gas producers…This makes shale gas fracturing one of the most exciting niches of pressure pumping services and represents the most recent boom industry within the oil services sector.
The authors provide a condensed history of oil refining and a cogent list of current challenges, including declining U.S. capacity and the tremendous challenge of assuring ROI and finding qualified people to run facilities. With respect to gas refining, the authors list its many component products, describe the process with illustrations, and conclude:
The most favorable aspect of natural gas processing relative to oil refining is that the adverse effects of oil refining are largely non-existent in natural gas processing. Gas processing is of lesser complexity than oil refining. Gas processing facilities are also of substantially lower cost than new refineries, more environmentally ‘benign,’ and expansion of capacity and capability (including in the US) is thus more realistic, worldwide.
The chapter on Power Generation discusses how coal and natural gas are used by power plants, and the technical and physical challenges of wind, solar, and geothermal alternatives. The authors suggest that energy could be saved and efficiency improved by using High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) lines carrying electricity from new power plants located right next to coal mines.
Further chapters discuss alternative fuels, pollution and the environment, and climate change, emphasizing throughout the realities of energy needs and the costs of imposing arbitrary restrictions on the energy sector.
Energy Future, the last chapter, discusses energy in a carbon constrained world. The authors call “alarmist” “astonishingly naive” and “transparently biased” the US National Academies of Science and Engineering 2009 report America’s Energy Future. Among their criticisms:
…even though [carbon capture and storage] would substantially increase the cost of electricity, it is portrayed in the Report as a panacea, and is recommended as one of the two technologies to test immediately by 2020 (the other being evolutionary nuclear power). of course, carbon capture is not the only component of CCS. Sequestration, which the AEF does not even tackle, is a far more cumbersome issue. And yet CCS is a presumption for the AEF report to allow continued use of fossil fuels from which 85% of primary energy is derived. Regarding nuclear technologies, the spent fuel issue is not discussed until the end of the Report.
…While the study charge list states ‘key environmental (including CO2 mitigation) impacts’ the Report focuses almost singularly on CO2, while downplaying other environmental issues, e.g., the effects of new technologies on water resources.
…It is a fatal flaw of this report that future technologies for fossil fuels are deliberately left out.
The better alternative, in the authors’ view, is capitalizing on new technologies that will increase the proportion of natural gas among hydrocarbon energy sources. An ultimate recovery estimate of 30,000 trillion cubic feet means a 300-year supply of natural gas, and increasing its use relative to other hydrocarbons means less oil dependency and less particulate pollution and carbon emissions.
The Energy Imperative concludes by celebrating the successful deployment of new technology for gaining access to tremendous reserves of shale gas. Anyone who wants to understand the global energy sector will find this book a great resource, and will gain an appreciation for the pioneering science and technology the industry has developed.