Simple Proposition to keep Bridges Unburned: Thoughts on a Responsible Energy Transition

April 19, 2023
Sustainability is wonderful, but grid resiliency, dependability and affordability are paramount to customers. That will never change no matter how decarbonized we get or how high the temperature rises.

I live in a Red State—a very Red State.

All of Oklahoma’s state elected officials are Republican. It’s not even close.

And it’s a state with a very proud, and important, oil and gas industry. Legends like Frank Phillips, Erie Halliburton, Robert S. Kerr, John and Larry Nichols, and George Kaiser are historical, benefactory icons in the Sooner State. Their work in building jobs and contributing to the artistic, educational and infrastructure welfare of Oklahoma are laudatory. No that term is lame. Their contributions are fantastic and world changing.

I say all of this to give my oil industry bona fides. Drilling and production benefited the financial welfare of family members. It built museums and performance centers. Yes, it caused some environmental issues, but it also lifted a state up from humble origins.

At the same time, I believe diversity is an incredibly valuable tool to any society. Whether it’s politics or industry, forging competition and choices is always better for the resident-consumer. We also vote with our decisions, from buying a certain kind of car to choices at the ballot box.

I have voted both GOP and Democrat many times, but to me it’s foolish to have one party dominating a culture thoroughly, just as having one resource or company doing all the work breeds lack of efficiency and attention to detail. I cannot speak for my bosses at Endeavor Business Media, but in speaking for myself as senior editor of EnergyTech.com I’d always strive to be honest as possible about the coming energy transition.

I am still a big believer in all of the above—that includes solar and wind, but also natural gas and nuclear and carbon capture. There are Many Paths to NetZero in the offing right now, and let’s explore them all until we find out what works best together and alone.

EnergyTech recently ran an op-ed from two energy academics from Northern Arizona University and UCLA. Despite their West Coast bona fides, these two energy experts struck a positive for natural gas infrastructure in California. Sustainability is wonderful, but grid resiliency, dependability and affordability are paramount to customers. That will never change no matter how decarbonized we get or how high the temperature rises. Household budgets are the ultimate voter, as I wrote moments ago.

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As a longtime energy journalist, I more than once saw the phrase “peak oil” thrown around; that’s the almost humorous term that has been used and predicted for more than 100 years to tell us that we’re producting the most oil we’re ever going to produce and it’s all downhill from here.

Those predictions have been wrong every time. Some day those oil-negative Nostradamas wanna-be’s may prove right, probably will be by 2262, my 300th birthday. Yet up to now drilling technology always evolves and seems to find a new way to get more out of deeper. Conventional vertical wells deplete, so Mr. Mitchell and others come up with hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling to move the industry forward.

It will likely be that way with renewables also. In fact, a recent report from Wood MacKenzie calculates that global wind energy installed capacity will top 1 terawatt (or one million MW) this year and could double to 2 TW in only eight years. Solar, although smaller in total capacity, is growing at an even faster rate.

Now, no one skeptical about that is wrong in saying that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, but digital transformation, forecasting, AI and whatever else has yet to be invented could most certainly get us to a point of pure, renewable Net Zero. I can’t see it from here, but wags and pundits from century past couldn’t see oil and gas production lasting past 1970, and the world has produced billions upon billions of barrels since then.

Let’s look at the current numbers. The world’s “total proved” oil reserves rose last year to more than 1.75 trillion barrels, according to our sister publication Oil and Gas Journal's annual assessment. That’s 1,757,000,000,000—exponentially beyond anything John Rockefeller could have dreamt in the days of Standard Oil. The world currently consumes more than 33 billion barrels of oil annually, and that will definitely rise in near-term future years because of economic and development growth in emerging and rising economies such as India and China.

Just using those figures, and ignoring future oil and gas development clearly on the rise, one could calculate we have a minimum of close to 50 years of proved reserves to fuel our world’s energy use by fossil fuels. This is if, by some fate, the well hits nothing but dry from here on out.  Forget, of course, that billions and maybe trillions more barrels are possibly down there.

So I’m not suggesting that is a good thing which should inspire us to drive Ford F-350s to our next-door neighbor’s house and burn the proverbial oil lamp 24/7. Waste is for dummies. Climate change is for real. Highly corroborated evidence shows us the globe is warming, the seas are rising and weather is getting more drastic, all of that happening concurrently with the industrial age.

Heating things to industrial-scale levels logically must have an impact on warming the world and perhaps causing these many deviations in historical weather patterns. Sure, as my conservative friends would say, maybe all of this is just a normal blip in the age-old cycles of weather patterns. Maybe.

So let’s look at it differently, then. For one thing, we’ll need some fossil fuels such as natural gas as both a bridge fuel and a resiliency partner. It’s way too early to just burn the bridge we have until we’re certain the other bridge is both safe and dependable. Imagine social discord if an external event causes outages that last days or week or even just consistently. Imagine voter anger if bills rise 500 percent for years on end. Then the energy transition is suddenly done for the foreseeable future.  

OK, now, I’d like to turn the tables on my oil and gas loving friends. Let’s consider the current and future states of energy availability and wonder how we can make it better and longer lasting? Why can’t renewable energy, battery storage and nuclear both help decarbonize the energy sector, transportation and industry, while also giving us more time to learn their interactions while we tamp down fossil use?

Take that 50 years of proved oil and gas reserves: What a gift in terms of knowing it’s there in case something unknown happens and we need it. History is full of unintended consequences and corners unseen so far. Just roll with me a bit.

But scaling up our renewable energy use, and making sure it’s ample to meet needs, can we perhaps stretch that 50 years out to 100 years? If we indeed have more than 100 years of oil and gas down in the dark sub-surface of our amazing plant, maybe the energy transition can buy another 250 years. What an insurance policy, whether we like it or not (and who honestly enjoys insurance premiums but it comes in pretty handy, bub, when the creeks rise or the fire rages).

Yeah, I know. All of the true believers have left me now. I don’t want to be a pariah to those who dream of a cleaner, decarbonized world. I’m with you and I believe, too.

But logic and history and geographic data, and some understanding of global, competitive human nature, tells me we’ll be using them all for as long as I live and beyond.

Why can’t they all work together for good? Why can’t sustainability and common sense and resiliency share a household? Now that would be truly diverse, truly purple and maybe even truly uniting.If we're all willing to compromise a little on the way to a better, more secure energy transition.

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(Rod Walton, senior editor for EnergyTech, is a 15-year veteran of covering the energy industry both as a newspaper and trade journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]).

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