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Shell Oil president discusses new fuels, energy security

Deborah Halber, MIT News Office
Shell Oil isn’t just about oil anymore. The multinational company has invested $1 billion in wind over the last decade, owns companies working on solar and hydrogen technologies and will soon announce the acquisition of an entity that uses municipal waste to produce biofuel.

“With these, we could go a very long way toward meeting energy security requirements,” according to John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Company. But conservation has to take hold “in our hearts, minds and behavior of who we are as a people. We have to teach our young people that energy is a precious commodity. We’re doing a disservice to young people, because instead of teaching about energy, we’re allowing ignorance to reign.”

Hofmeister spoke on “Energy Security … What Does It Take?” at the fall 2006 Hoyt C. Hottel Lecture in Chemical Engineering held at MIT on Nov. 3.

…Unlike others in the petroleum industry, Shell believes that global warming is a real issue, he said.

…Meanwhile, “I do believe energy security is at a point of national crisis,” Hofmeister said, although Shell does not “subscribe to the theory” (based on work by geophysicist Marion King Hubbert) that world oil production will peak in 10-15 years.

More than 112 billion barrels of oil and gas–“more oil and gas than to be had in the entire Middle East”–can be tapped from federal lands on the outer continental shelf, offshore Alaska and from the Gulf of Mexico, he said. And while finding future oil in other places will be more technically difficult, technology will change the game. “Technology will help us not have to face this issue which peak oil suggests,” Hofmeister said.

Even so, untapped reservoirs will not be enough to meet America’s future needs, so Shell is pursuing unconventional sources in Canada.
(8 Nov 2006)
One of the most convincing arguments for peak oil is how petroleum executives echo the conclusions of Hubbert’s Theory, for example, that oil deposits will be more difficult to find and exploit. Or that conventional oil supplies will not be enough to satisfy demand — Hubbert’s main point — and that the industry will have to pursue unconventional oil such as tar sands. -BA

How Chevron spins black gold

Saheli S.R. Datta, Business 2.0 Magazine via CNN Money
As Big Oil celebrates a huge victory in California, Chevron’s chief technologist talks to Business 2.0 about the end of oil, new energy sources, and the $4 billion tax voters shot down.
Every oil company likes to claim it’s really in the energy business. But at Chevron, chief technology officer Don Paul is seriously thinking about the day the petroleum wells run dry. The first way we’ll cope, he says, is by extracting usable fuel out of tar sands, oil shale, and coal.

But fossil fuels are certainly not the future. Paul, who trained as a geophysicist at MIT and got his start at Chevron as a researcher three decades ago, has seen multiple waves of technology transform his business. First, computers revolutionized exploration and drilling. Now, Paul argues, nanotech-fueled chemistry is about to put his company into what he calls the molecule business, where it won’t refine gasoline anymore – it’ll synthesize better, cleaner fuels from scratch.

Of course, any combustion fuel, no matter how cleanly created, still produces climate-changing carbon dioxide when it burns. Paul argues that being headquartered in eco-friendly California has put Chevron at the cutting edge of clean refining technology, and that the company’s own R&D efforts have a better shot at getting new energy sources to market, thanks to its distribution infrastructure. Surprisingly, [California] voters agreed Tuesday, shooting down a proposed $4 billion oil tax.

Business 2.0 sat down recently with Paul to hear how Chevron plans to fuel the future.

Q: Are we running out of oil?

And if so, can technology really solve the problem? What I call unconventional fuels are going to be an integral part of meeting our energy demands over the next 20 or 30 years. That includes everything from the tar sands of Athabasca in Canada to biofuels to hydrogen.

…But what’s really striking is the advancement in the technology of molecular transformation. Remember back in the Middle Ages, you had kings who employed alchemists to turn lead into gold? That’s a useful metaphor for what you can do today, with molecular science becoming so advanced. You hear about things every day on the biological side – genetic engineering, wondrous pharmaceutical development. In the energy business, we’re in range of the same thing: the ability to take any kind of feedstock and synthesize the fuels you want.

That kind of alchemy is still ahead of us, but I don’t see any impediments to getting there. So when people ask me whether we’re going to run out of oil, I say, “Well, frankly, the real question you should ask is whether we’re ever going to run out of fuel, and the answer is no.” I find that pretty exciting.
(9 Nov 2006)
The predictions of Chevron’s Don Paul seem congruent with Peak Oil. Although he doesn’t mention the peaking of conventional oil, he emphasizes unconventional sources and entirely new sources of energy. These expensive technologies are not necessary if there is an abundant supply of accessible conventional oil. -BA

Energy Tribune Speaks with Guy Caruso

Energy Tribune
Since 2002, Guy Caruso has been head of the Energy Information Administration, the arm of the Department of Energy that tracks energy data. Caruso has over 30 years of experience in the energy sector and has held a number of positions within the Department of Energy. , during a meeting of the U.S. Association of Energy Economics.

…ET: How do you explain the recent price declines in the oil market?

GC: I think it reflects the success of the industry in meeting what early this summer was thought to be a difficult supply situation. We had the issue of converting from MTBE to ethanol as the main additive for oxygenate. Second, we had the Tier 2 sulfur regulations. Third, we had uncertainty about whether we would have enough refining capacity given the decline in capacity due to Katrina. In retrospect, all of those things worked out. The industry met the challenges through a combination of adjustments [and] logistical work-arounds, plus the usual slug of imports that always responds to arbitrage opportunities. Supply clearly overwhelmed demand. This has been a market that has been led by the gasoline price demand, rather than crude. The fact that wholesale prices started declining and declined more steeply than crude is the key indicator.

…ET: Given the amount of investment in new production, is it possible we could have an oil price crash where prices could fall to $30 or $40?

GC: We don’t think so. And the main reason we don’t is that spare capacity, as we sit here in September of ’06, remains quite low – 1.5 to 2 million barrels a day, depending on whose numbers you believe. On an historical basis, when spare productive capacity is two million barrels a day or lower, it tends to mean a relatively tight crude market.

…ET: Given the fall in prices, do you expect the peak-oil debate to subside for a while?

GC: The peak-oil debate, the attention to it, does have some legitimacy. You asked about Jack. I think that has certainly given some ammunition to those who disagree with the peak-oil theory.
(9 Nov 2006)
Emphasis added.