Immunize yourself against future hype
We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
— Carl Sagan
It almost goes without saying that a genius for technology is a large part of human nature. Everyday life offers the proof. We have automobiles, the internet, gene splicing, cell phones—you name it! When ExxonMobil tells us that oil production shows no sign of a peak because miraculous new technologies will step in to save the day, most people have no trouble believing it.
Moreover, new technologies — such as multidimensional mapping tools and advanced drilling techniques — have improved our ability to recover oil from previously discovered fields. Because of such technology gains, estimates of how much recoverable oil remains have consistently increased over time. Oil production and production capacity have increased, too. So there is a lot of oil yet to be tapped. And we are getting better — technically and environmentally — at tapping it everyday.
Does ExxonMobil's argument hold water? Answering that question requires examining the pace and nature of technological change both inside and outside the oil & gas industry.
Bob Seidensticker's book Future Hype — The Myths of Technology Change examines misconceptions about technological change. A veteran of the computer business, Seidensticker first investigated the nature of technological change during an eight year stint at Microsoft. The book hardly touches on energy at all, but the myths Seidensticker dissects help us deconstruct ExxonMobil's appeal to technological progress as the solution to the peak oil problem. Fossil fuels are only mentioned on pages 69-70, where Seidensticker facetiously asks a pertinent question—"this is the 21st century and we're still dependent on fossil fuels?" The answer, as we all know, is an emphatic Yes.
Seidensticker's Myth #1 is that technological change always advances at an exponential rate in all areas of life. People feel the dizzying effects of rapid change all the time. Computers, cable TV, home video, compact discs, the internet, the X-Box, digital cameras, cell phones, mp3 players, GPS, TIVO, laptops, iphones, You Tube—it all happens so fast! Children bewilder their parents. The pace of change seems to grow by leaps and bounds. On closer examination, however, the rate of technology change ebbs and flows.
The exponential model as a universal explanation for and predictor of technology change is at best an approximation and at worst a delusion. We can support it only by selecting just the right examples and ignoring the rest. Technology does not always continuously improve. For example, commercial airplane speeds increased steadily but halted when airlines realized that expensive supersonic travel didn't make business sense. Highway speed limits increased steadily but also hit a ceiling. Record building heights increased rapidly during the first third of the twentieth century but have increased only moderately since then. Use of nuclear power has peaked, and manned space exploration halted after we reached the moon.
Different areas of technology advance at different rates and come to the fore at different times. Cathedral building emerged during the 1200s while other technologies languished. Printing created dramatic change in the late 1400s. It surged again in the early 1800s as mechanized presses provided cheap books and magazines. Steam power and mills [and engines] had their heyday [in the early 19th century]; later, it was electricity and electrical devices [and power in the late 19th and early 20th century]. There are dozens of examples of a technology surging forward and then maturing and fading back into the commonplace.
Think about the important technologies in your life. Your car? Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot successfully demonstrated the first self-propelled steam wagon in 1769. Jumping ahead, the Benz Patent Motorwagen, the first car with an internal combustion engine, was first produced in 1885 (photo, left). That fuel-injected Honda you drive doesn't have a carburetor, and it is far advanced over Ford's Model-T, but it still has an internal combustion engine. Since the early part of the 20th century, improvements in automobile technology have followed a roughly linear, not exponential pace, achieving incremental gains over time. The greater [most important] change was often in the past, as Seidensticker states it.
Myth #2 is that technology is inevitable. Artificial intelligence (AI) provides a good example,1 and there are many others. Future smart computers were supposed to look a lot like the HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the 1980's, the hype was expert systems and machines that could learn. These easily achievable goals would soon be superseded by computers like HAL that could be mistaken for human (i.e. pass the Turing Test). Almost none of this happened. There have been some advances using neural nets and other software techniques that allow rudimentary learning. Sets of rules can be implemented so that computers can appear to be inflexible "experts" in a narrow subject area. Artificial intelligence has been largely a failure, the promise unfulfilled. HAL is just a character in a science fiction movie. America's manned space program peaked with the Apollo program in 1960s and 1970s. There will be no Jupiter mission to investigate the Monolith or for any other reason.
How does energy technology fare? First, the distinction between energy and technology must be clear. The sources of energy are the Sun, nuclear fission and fossil fuels—these store long-buried sunshine. In this context, technology provides a means to tap those sources for human use. Fossil fuels provide most of this energy by far. Seidensticker offers his personal view.
The primary thought that comes to mind2 with the energy industry is what a great counterexample it is to the idea (a myth, in my book) that technology changes exponentially. Oil and coal are very old energy sources, and the technology around them plus that for electricity (generators, motors, transmission, lighting, etc.) is quite old....
Now, of course, I’m not saying that there is no technology change in the energy industry. Huge oil rigs, underground exploration, coal gasification, oil sands – these areas and more have been changing quite a bit. But fuel cells, solar cells, batteries, and windmills are pretty old technologies.
The last huge advance was nuclear power, and that’s kept a low profile for the past few decades. I’m sure that a new burst of enthusiasm for nuclear would show some exciting new technologies – inherently fail-safe reactors, reactors that burned fuel much more completely instead of removing only a fraction and calling the rest “waste,” and so on.
Focusing on oil recovery, ExxonMobil assures us that the size of the recoverable resource is always increasing—over and above the 81.21 million barrels we consume daily in 2007—because they improve the extraction technology every day. Despite the constant efforts of the oil & gas industry, the world produced 81.55 each day in August, 2006, so production is actually going down. Disregarding the recent data trend, ExxonMobil's message seems clear enough: the pace of technological innovation that allows the recovery of more stranded oil is very rapid, if not exponential, and inevitable. Success is guaranteed, so the peak of world oil production is pushed ever further into the future every day.
Exaggerated Oil Recovery (ASPO-USA, July 19, 2007) points out that most mainstream enhanced recovery (EOR) technologies were invented and first applied many years, or even decades, ago. The Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) will hold a "frontiers of technology" conference called 70% Recovery — A Dream or Reality: From Smart Water to Microbes in Croatia this coming September.
Globally the average oil recovery factor (RF) is around 32%. This means that at abandonment, two thirds of the oil originally in place is not produced. In view of world energy needs, it is highly desirable to increase significantly the recovery factor. This can only be achieved by step changes in our approach to extracting oil from the subsurface. Our mission is to develop the ability to treat all types of reservoir, (clastic, carbonate, fractured etc.) to increase economic recovery.
This Forum focuses on novel and upcoming techniques for extracting and producing hydrocarbons from both mature and newly developed fields. Emphasis is given to techniques for improving sweep (micro/macro) efficiency [EOR] rather than technologies for designing, drilling, and completing wells. We examine radically new technologies that need to be developed, novel processes that are on the verge of field application, as well as existing techniques for enhancing recovery. Our objective is to identify potential constraints and set the scene for the development of new methods for enhancing economic recovery of oil fields. [emphasis added]
Step changes. Radical technologies that need to be developed. On the verge. Technological progress in enhanced oil recovery shows only slow, hard-earned incremental improvements, and there is nothing inevitable about it.
The upcoming SPE conference does not cover technological improvements in "designing, drilling, and completing wells", but there has been steady, linear progress in these areas over the last 3 decades. Drilling in ever-deeper water has allowed exploitation of previously unreachable oil. Today, much of world's new oil comes from offshore. Directional drilling techniques have steadily improved in recent years. World Oil Magazine, an excellent source for tracking oil & gas industry technology, cites the need for further progress in extended reach, multilateral and ultra-deep drilling to enhance well productivity, smart well completions, and subsea production systems (December, 2006). Seismic data acquisition technologies for discovering new oil and improving reservoir characterization have also progressed. Coupled with drilling or other improvements, better geological visualizations allow more oil to be produced.
Taking EOR and drilling advances together, technological progress in the oil & gas industry has shown moderately linear growth in past decades as measured by exploration and production success. Consumption of oil, however, has grown exponentially since 1983 while technological progress in oil discovery and recovery has not. A misconception arises in the public mind which is spread by ExxonMobil and Daniel Yergin, among others. They insinuate (or assert) that as demand increases exponentially, and supply strains to keep up, it is inevitable that the pace of technological change will accelerate to meet the challenge as needed (graph left). This might be termed the Necessity is Always the Mother of Invention fallacy, whereby it is assumed that the necessity of increasing the oil supply will automatically stimulate the technology required to do so (leaving aside investment, geopolitics, etc). In so far as the lagging oil supply is becoming a drag on economic growth, the world's need for advances in oil recovery technology is now.
ExxonMobil's claim requires a breakthrough to occur in oil extraction technology. This concept is inherently difficult to define, and it's nature will depend on the subject to which it applies. We know one when we see it, however. In the oil & gas industry, a good working definition might go like this: a breakthrough in stranded oil recovery technology would yield reliable yearly increases in recovery factors (rates) in all the world's oil fields regardless of geology, location, etc. If the average global rate is now 32%, the SPE notes above, then this entirely hypothetical exponential leap in oil extraction would permit recovery to increase by some percentage—0.01%, 0.3%, 1%—each year. Such a breakthrough would provide ample new supplies to meet growing demand. Depletion of the world's oil endowment, called the original oil-in-place, would be accelerated, but the peak oil problem would be pushed far enough into the future to ensure that our descendants will have to deal with it, not us. And by then, surely, technology will have progressed far enough to solve humanity's energy problems, right?
A breakthrough in oil & gas industry technology is not inevitable. Indeed, it is not very likely. Painstaking linear growth in technological advances permit more oil to be recovered each year, but Seidensticker's myths apply to the oil & gas industry just as they apply to most human endeavors. New oil discoveries will not bail us out. ExxonMobil's faith-based argument makes assumptions that Future Hype convincingly refutes. Inevitable exponential technological change is an illusion fostered by an apparently never-ending series of high-tech toys. Most of the important breakthroughs happened long ago. Necessity is not always the Mother of Invention. Time is running out for us now. The world can't afford to wait for a miracle that hasn't happened yet and probably never will.
Contact the author at [the original posting on the ASPO-USA site].
1. The author used to work in artificial intelligence. After the hyperbole of the 1980's, and the manifest failures of AI to fulfill anything close to the inflated claims that were made, he soon had to change his software career path. Some people made money for a while, though.
2. I exchanged e-mails with the author in February, 2007. Seidensticker kindly allowed me to reprint his remarks.