Academic journal article The Technology Teacher

Energy Perspectives: Another Look at Fossil Fuels: It Is Very Possible That the Nation's Reliance on Fossil Fuels to Power an Expanding Economy Will Actually Increase over at Least the Next Two Decades, Even with Aggressive Development and Deployment of New Renewable and Nuclear Technologies

Academic journal article The Technology Teacher

Energy Perspectives: Another Look at Fossil Fuels: It Is Very Possible That the Nation's Reliance on Fossil Fuels to Power an Expanding Economy Will Actually Increase over at Least the Next Two Decades, Even with Aggressive Development and Deployment of New Renewable and Nuclear Technologies

Article excerpt


We use energy for so many human endeavors it is nearly impossible to list them all. In broad categories, oil is a major source of energy for transportation, manufacturing, construction, and agriculture, as well as a feed stock for manufacturing plastics, fabrics, fertilizers, and other synthetic materials. Oil or, more accurately, petroleum is a convenient form of energy. It is easy to buy, trade and sell, transport and store. But more importantly it is a concentrated and flexible energy source that can yield a range of refined products such as fuels, lubricating products, solvents, and even asphalt and tar for road construction.

However, as we read and see in the news that oil prices are increasing as the worldwide demand increases, there are effects of global events on prices and supplies. This brings us to the question, "Will we ever run out of oil?" The answer is generally assumed to be no, as it will become increasingly more expensive in the absence of lower-priced alternatives. You may ask, "When will we reach a peak in the production of oil as we know it today?" This depends on the rate of growth in demand and the development and introduction of new energy technologies, hybrid engines, and alternative energy resources. Are there alternatives to bridge that gap between oil as we know it today and future energy resources that may replace oil as a major energy resource?

Alternative Energy Resources

There is much talk in the world about alternative energy resources. Some of these resources include solar, geothermal, tidal, biomass, wind, and hydroelectric and do not depend on burning fossil fuels or atomic reactions. Frequently these forms of energy are called "alternative" energy resources because they do not contribute large quantities of usable forms of energy demanded by industrialized societies. Other energy resources include nuclear and coal. Today there are over 400 nuclear power reactors in operation in 31 countries around the world. We may ask, "What is our vision for energy resources for the future while facing increasing demands, declining sources, global warming, and world greenhouse emissions?"

There is much concern about world energy supplies and, correspondingly, the stability of global energy supplies and markets. With the increasing price of oil there has been an increased interest in the extraction of oil from shale rock formations and tar sands. Several countries, including the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Russia, and South Africa, have large deposits. It is estimated that there are the equivalent of more than two trillion barrels of oil locked up in shale in the United States (U.S. Department of Energy, 1).

Review of Current Energy Resources--Petroleum, Coal, and Natural Gas


Petroleum as it is directly removed from the ground or a well is called crude oil. The properties and characteristics of crude oil vary substantially depending on where it is obtained and the geological formations from which it is obtained. It may range in color from a very light brown to a thick almost tar-like black color and even some hues of red and green. Some crude oils are highly flammable right out of the ground, while other crude oils must be refined before they will readily burn.

While oil is one of the most attractive energy resources, it carries several disadvantages. Since oil is burned in one form or another, the resulting emissions are a major concern. Several of the major pollutants associated with oil are sulfur and nitrogen compounds and carbon dioxide. These and other materials are associated with greenhouse effects and environmental degradation. Government regulations have done much to reduce the environmental impact of fossil fuel use but have not eliminated the problems in their entirety. Petroleum continues to be the preferred energy source for transportation, industrial, and consumer use. It is expensive as compared to previous periods in time but still economically attractive for our energy needs. As the cost of living has increased, the cost of petroleum has increased proportionally.


Coal supplies a major portion of the energy needed to generate electricity that is consumed in the west. The U.S. has abundant resources of coal in the eastern Appalachian Mountains and in western states. Coal is a fossil fuel extracted from the ground by underground mining or open-pit mining that is called strip mining (Figure 1). Coal is a readily-combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock that is composed of carbon along with other elements, including sulfur. It is formed from vegetation that has been consolidated between other rock strata and altered by the combined effects of pressure and heat over millions of years to form coal seams. Coal is often thought of as the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution. Even today, coal remains a very important fuel resource and is the largest single energy source used to generate electricity worldwide. Fifty-six percent of the electricity generated in the United States is fueled by the burning of coal (Energy Materials Division, American Association of Petroleum Geologists).


Natural Gas

Natural gas is a major energy source for residential, commercial, and industrial uses and products. Natural gas may be used as a fuel for electric power plants, for heating and cooling residential and commercial buildings, as well as the manufacturing of fertilizer, paints, glass, steel, plastics, and other chemical products.

Natural gas, as it is used by consumers, is much different from the natural gas that is brought from underground up to the wellhead. Although the processing of natural gas is in many respects less complicated than the processing and refining of crude oil, it is equally necessary before its use by end users.

The natural gas used by consumers is composed almost entirely of methane. However, natural gas found at the wellhead, although still composed primarily of methane, is by no means as pure. Raw natural gas may come from three types of wells. These are oil wells, gas wells, and condensate wells. Natural gas that comes from oil wells is typically termed, "associated gas." This gas can exist separately from oil in the formation (free gas) or dissolved in the crude oil (dissolved gas). Natural gas from gas and condensate wells, in which there is little or no crude oil, is termed 'non-associated gas.' Gas wells typically produce raw natural gas by itself, while condensate wells produce free natural gas along with a semi-liquid hydrocarbon condensate.

Whatever the source of the natural gas, once separated from crude oil (if present) it commonly exists in mixtures with other hydrocarbons--principally ethane, propane, butane, and pentanes. In addition, raw natural gas contains water vapor, hydrogen sulfide ([H.sub.2]S), carbon dioxide, helium, nitrogen, and other compounds. These elements and materials are extracted and used for other purposes.

Natural gas processing consists of separating all of the various hydrocarbons and fluids from the pure natural gas to produce what is known as "pipeline quality" dry natural gas. Major transportation pipelines usually impose restrictions on the makeup of the natural gas that is allowed into the pipeline. Before the natural gas can be transported to distribution terminals and consumers, it must be purified. While the ethane, propane, butane, and pentanes must be removed from natural gas, this does not mean that they are all "waste products," as they are used for other purposes.

Natural gas is considered a "clean" energy source, as it does not produce the broad range of harmful emissions that coal and oil do. It is because of these very properties that the demand for natural gas has increased substantially over the last several years. The price of natural gas has followed the increasing price of petroleum in general. Factors that affect the price of natural gas include weak production, falling imports of natural gas, high oil prices, and low inventories. Additionally, weather conditions have a significant impact on prices worldwide.

As we look closer, fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas currently provide more than 85% of all the energy consumed in the United States, nearly two-thirds of our electricity, and virtually all of our transportation fuels.

Additionally, it is very possible that the nation's reliance on fossil fuels to power an expanding economy will actually increase over at least the next two decades, even with aggressive development and deployment of new renewable and nuclear technologies (U.S. Department of Energy).

Bridging the Gap with Shale and Tar Sands

A special kind of rock formation known as oil shale has the potential to provide substantial amounts of oil and combustible gas. Most definitions of oil shale either state or imply that there is the potential for the profitable extraction of oil and combustible materials. Oil shale is actually a sedimentary formation that contains relatively large amounts of organic matter called kerogen. Oil shale ranges in color from a fine black to dark brown, as shown in Figure 2, and occurs in many parts of the world. Shale differs from coal in that deposits range from small occurrences that are of little economic value to those of enormous sizes that cover thousands of square miles and may contain billions of barrels of potentially recoverable shale oil. It is estimated that the world resources of oil shale approach 2.6 trillion barrels of oil. It should be realized that crude oil is cheaper to produce than oil derived from oil shale. However, with the continuing decline of petroleum supplies and rising prices of petroleum-based products, oil shale becomes economically attractive (Energy Materials Division, American Association of Petroleum Geologists).


The use of oil shale dates back to ancient times. It can be used as a fuel much the same as coal. The modern use of oil shale dates back to Scotland in the 1850s. Dr. James Young developed and patented a process for producing lighting oil, lubricating oil, and wax by cracking the oil into its constituent parts. Oil from oil shale was produced in the Edinburgh region from 1857 to 1962, when production operations ceased because of the importation of low-cost Middle Eastern oil. (Shale Information Center).

There are two methods typically used to produce shale oil. One is strip mining followed by surface retorting, and the other is in-situ processing. In strip mining, large quantities of earth and ore are removed, relocated, and processed. Retorting is a process where the mined ore is heated to a high temperature to drive off gases and liquid products, Figure 3. The second method is called in-situ retorting, where holes or shafts are drilled into the shale deposits and heated in place. The current mining practices appear to meet the requirements for commercially developing oil shale. The technical viability of surface retorting technology has been demonstrated. However, it is important to realize that large-scale testing will be required to develop data for first-of-a-kind commercial plants. The mining and production processes for producing oil from shale are complex and expensive. The price of crude oil must remain in the high ranges for shale oil to be economically viable; and shale oil is unlikely to be profitable unless real crude oil prices are at least $70-$95 per barrel over the operating life of a plant.


The in-situ retorting--heating oil shale in place and extracting it from the ground--process has been successfully conducted by the Shell Oil Company in a small-scale field test based on slow underground heating using electric power. While larger-scale tests are needed, Shell anticipates that this in-situ method will be competitive at crude-oil prices in the mid-$20s per barrel. It should also be noted that in-situ retorting is less invasive when compared with surface mining, and it is the most environmentally attractive process. However, there are subsurface impacts, such as soil and water contamination, that will weigh in on the decision process.

A design base for a full-scale commercial surface retorting plant or an in-situ operation is at least six years away according to studies by the RAND Corporation. Assuming the private sector decides to invest in oil shale development and production, they expect that an oil shale industry capable of producing more than a million barrels per day is at least 20 years off. (Rand Corporation).

Environmental Issues and Concerns

Oil shales are typically obtained from open-pit mines or strip-mining processes. These mining processes are not environmentally friendly without considerable planning. The prerefining processes produce ash and waste rock that must be disposed of. The energy requirements for blasting, transporting, crushing, heating the shale material, and then adding hydrogen, together with the safe disposal of huge quantities of waste material, are large and demanding. Additionally, large quantities of water are necessary to complete the refining process. These procedures and requirements create inefficiencies in the production process. The cost of environmental restoration means that oil shale exploitation will only be economically viable when oil prices are high and will remain stable. (World Energy Council)

There are issues that have worldwide implications and impacts. Each of the issues must be addressed, and reasonable resolutions made, for shale oil production to be successful. Should we define "successful" as the production of a synthetic oil product that supplements and/or reduces the demand for imported crude oil efficiently and economically, with minimal environmental degradation and net energy gain, and meets the needs of consumers? Key issues and policy concerns must be determined and resolved before we begin to see large-scale oil shale production facilities.

Several of these factors are:

* Land use and ecological issues.

* Airborne emissions and air-quality impacts of surface-mining processes.

* Water-quality issues--factors that affect water demands for production, and run-off issues--in-situ processing impacts on ground water.

* General environmental concerns--restoration of mine sites.

* Social and economic impacts because of increased demand for workers, stimulating population growth.

Tar Sands

Unlike the oil shale of the midwestern United States, the tar sands of Canada offer a much different view of energy resources. Geologists estimate that Alberta, Canada sits on top of the largest petroleum deposit outside of the Arabian Peninsula! It is estimated that there are 300 billion barrels of recoverable oil locked up in the tar sands, Figure 4. Additionally, there could be another trillion barrels that could be accessible through advanced recovery techniques.


However, the tar-sand petroleum is not like the light, fluid crude oil commonly associated with oil from the Middle East, but rather it is thick plastic "goo" that is clay-like and mixed with sand, Figure 5. This presents some unique problems in extracting oil from the tar sands as well as mining it. However, the price of producing a barrel of oil from tar sand is significantly lower than that of shale production methods, but still more expensive than the pumped oil from the Middle East. Shell Oil Company and Chevron Texaco jointly operate Athabasca Oil Sands Project in Alberta. This plant produces about 155,000 barrels a day. The largest producer in "heavy oil" is Syncrude, which is a joint venture among eight U.S. and Canadian companies that have been producing oil from sand since 1978. In 2005, the company shipped 77 million barrels of its trademarked product, Syncrude Sweet Blend. This is enough crude oil to produce 1.5 billion gallons of gasoline! (Koener 2004)



The demand for energy resources in the United States and globally is increasing. As developing countries expand their reach and desires for products, goods, and services that parallel the industrialized nations, we can readily see that the demand for energy will increase and place heavy demands on finite resources such as fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are attractive because of their cost, convenience, and concentration of energy. The major fossil fuels are petroleum (oil), natural gas, and coal. These three energy resources meet the major needs of transportation (petroleum), heating and industrial applications (natural gas), and the large-scale production of electricity (coal).

As we see the demand for quality energy resources increase across the globe, we also see an increase in the price of such resources. The limited energy resources encourage and provide the incentive to look to alternative or substitute energy resources. We generally define alternative resources as energy that does not depend on burning fossil fuels or atomic reactions--such as solar, geothermal, tidal, biomass, wind, and hydroelectric. Shale oil and tar sands offer the potential to supplement existing petroleum resources. As with most mining and extraction processes, there are a number of economic, social, environmental, and technical issues that parallel the production and consumption of energy. While we have addressed traditional fossil fuel energy resources and the prospect of using shale and tar sands to expand and supplement traditional fossil fuels, we have not addressed issues that relate to the development of energy resources that are less stressful and harmful to the environment.

Assessment Activity

The energy assessment activity is a critical-thinking and problem-solving activity that will require students to assess the positive and negative aspects of the economic, political, social, cultural, environmental, and ethical impacts on the introduction or use of a particular energy resource. For example, the exploration for new petroleum reserves may be intended to meet the national or global consumer demands for more oil but may do little to use those resources efficiently or economically or develop other resources. At the same time, we may look at political solutions where limits are placed on production and availability and result in undesirable consequences that cause economic growth to stagnate or decline. Here your assessment focus should be directed toward the research and development of shale oil or tar sands as a fossil-fuel resource. Divide the class into teams that will research and brainstorm impacts in each of the assessment categories. At the conclusion of the activity, each of the teams will present its findings and assessment to the class.

About The Futures Wheel

A Futures Wheel (Glenn, 1994) is a tool that can be used to represent complex issues and relationships in a highly visual manner. The futures wheel is developed around a central theme, such as the introduction of a new energy resource or energy conversion technology, and used with brainstorming strategies as a technique to identify current issues and predict future outcomes. When using a futures wheel to assess the impact of technology, a panel or group of experts gather to examine the social, cultural, political, economic, environmental, and ethical impact areas. Within each of these impact areas, the six positive and negative dimensions are addressed in an analytical manner. An example of a futures wheel is shown in Figure 6. The futures wheel is a useful tool in analyzing the broad impacts of technology, as it has a broad focus and is useful as an input to a policy-making decision process.



Glenn, J. C. The Futures Wheel, AC/UNC Millennium Project, (Retrieved February 15, 2006).

Koerner, B. I. (Retrieved February 15, 2006).

U.S. Department of Energy, 2. (Retrieved February 28, 2006).

Rand Corporation. research briefs/RB9143/index1.html (Retrieved February 28, 2006).

World Energy Council. (Retrieved February 15, 2006).

Processing Natural Gas. (Retrieved February 15, 2006).

Energy Materials Division, American Association of Petroleum Geologists. (Retrieved February 15, 2006).

U.S. Department of Energy, 1.

Shale Information Center.

Walter F. Deal, III, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached via e-mail at

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