How Perception of Fossil Fuel Futures Have Evolved | Watts Up With That?

An Engineer’s Perspective

By Ronald Voisin,

A couple decades ago an international team of volcanologists arranged for the tag-on launch of a first generation orbiting gravimeter in order to study volcanism (the legitimate auspicious being pure scientific endeavor). While that intended function was successful, a much more important capability unexpectantly came to pass. Subsequent generations of these devices showed exactly where and to what extent natural gas, oil and coal were located as they have revealed progressively higher resolution images of Earth’s deep interior. Several more generations of these devices are possible and this explains the recent substantial increases in estimated recoverable oil and gas and coal for that matter. Meanwhile, fracking and horizontal drilling have enormously reduced the costs and surface-area-impact of fossil fuel recovery.

In the 1920’s we believed, quite honestly, that there were only 5, maybe 10 more years of recoverable oil. The simplistic plan was to make hay while the Sun shined…the economy was rocking.

And in spite of continuing significant increases in consumption, in the 1930’s we still believed that there were 5, maybe 10 more years of recoverable oil.

This same thinking continued to be true in the 1940’s. But with a regular stream of new oil finds occurring, there was the suggestion that maybe oil recovery innovation could keep the Sun shining on this growing oil consuming activity for some time to come.

In the ‘50’s and ‘60’s we upped our estimate and thought that in spite of ever growing demand we have 10, maybe 20 more years of recoverable oil.

In the ‘70’s, even though we got scared by the Middle East oil crisis, we still thought 10, maybe 20 more years.

In the ‘80’s, ‘90’s and half way through the 2000’s we still thought precariously 10, maybe only 20 more years. And this thinking prevailed year after year even as an inundation of Peak-Oil concerns came from every direction in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s.

But in around 2008 something remarkable happened. A fantastically improved 3rd generation orbiting gravimeter gave a much more clear view. So now here we are in the 2010’s and we now believe, and for good reason, that there is a century, likely two centuries, and possibly 5 centuries of economically recoverable fossil fuels. That realization changes things quite a bit.

And guess what else, it turns out that North America has more oil and more natural gas and more coal than anywhere else in the World. Who’ed ‘a thunk-it?

You might wonder why 1) you’re hearing this from me and 2) why you aren’t hearing about the great extent of the this discovery in general? Well, regarding the 1st question…since 2006 I’ve been intensely interested in volcanism as a climate driver. In ‘06, ‘07 and ‘08 I was digesting all the late-breaking news regarding volcanism (also digested Amazon’s two top-rated Earth Science text books cover to cover).

The volcanologists were ecstatic with the results of the 1st generation Hewlett-Packard built device. They wanted to study magma plumes responsible for the Hawaiian Island Chain, the Aleutian Island Chain and Mediterranean Italy. And even though gravitationally, magma is somewhat poorly differentiated from the general mantle, since they knew exactly where they wanted to look, they generally were able to find what they were looking for.

As they examined these 1st generation gravimetric mapping results, an astute observer happened to notice that an unexplained image anomaly in the American Appellations looks somewhat similar to seismically derived images of the coal fields of Appellatia.

For obvious reason the serendipity of this find was exciting. Unexpectantly, a new technology’s look into Earth’s volcanic interior also reveals fossil fuel pockets. And with a 1st Gen orbiting gravimeter under their belt, HP promised that they could readily develop a 2nd Gen device with 10X better sensitivity than the one currently in orbit.

However, the serendipity of the 1st Gen device observations sparked far greater interest. Much more well-funded thinking went into future devices. I don’t know specifically, but I suspect the 3rd Gen device up there now has 1000X the resolution of the 1st Gen device.

The volcanologists wrote prolifically about the early results. And in these same papers, they would sometimes comment on the unexpected but now obvious: coal, oil and natural gas in particular are highly differentiated gravitationally from the general mantle and so easily spotted with this new imaging technology. However, by 2011 or so, no further mention of fossil fuels was being made by the volcanologists even though the gravimetric understanding of volcanos continued to greatly expand.

Regarding the 2nd question…the USA was not just lifting-the-kilt on North American fossil fuels. We came to understand the global distribution of them. We came to know who had what, just what fossil fuel reserves existed in the Middle East, Russia, China, as well as with Friendlies, such as Europe, Australia, Canada, and Mexico. This information has enormous geopolitical significance…possibly the greatest geopolitical significance of any human discovery ever. Papers dealing specifically with gravimetric identification of fossil fuels were Google disappeared. Additionally, huge fossil fuel reserves runs counter to the AGW meme. So of course it is suppressed for both strategic (geopolitical) and stupid (AGW) reasons.

Meanwhile, enhanced levels of atmospheric CO2 continue to stimulate the prolific expansion of all life on Earth…enhancing biodiversity everywhere we might choose to look. If you care to challenge this notion, Google “greening Earth”, and do some quality reading.

Humanity will never run out of fossil fuels. Going forward, distributed compact nuclear will likely be both safer and more economical such that we nonetheless eventually leave fossil fuels largely behind.

Ronald Voisin
Taylor, MI

About the Author

Ronald D Voisin is a retired engineer. He spent 27 years in the Semiconductor Lithography Equipment industry mostly in California’s Silicon Valley. Since retiring in 2007, he has made a hobby of studying climate change. Ron received a BSEE degree from the Univ. of Michigan – Ann Arbor in 1978 and has held various management positions at both established semiconductor equipment companies and start-ups he helped initiate. Ron has authored/co-authored 31 patent applications, 27 of which have issued.