Sunday, April 29, 2012

Water World

We live on the Blue Marble Planet - an Earth that is more than 70% covered by water, both salt and fresh. What isn’t covered by water frequently is covered by clouds - just another form of water.
I have a question about water use in the US for a science project. Do you do water science?
– (no name given)

Water figures everywhere, throughout all our lives. With the burgeoning human population, however, potable water is becoming an ever more precious commodity across this planet - and less than half the human population has access to it.  People eat, drink, poop, and sleep - so how do you separate the middle two?

The US Geological Survey has an entire Discipline devoted to water science. There are a number of sub-headings under water science including surface water, groundwater, floods and droughts, and water quality (water pollution - separating the drink from the poop). Several people in my office, for instance, have the word “Hydrologist” below the names on their wall-plaques. Hydrology is one of the major sub-fields of Geoscience, along with geochemistry, geophysics, geology, mineralogy, etc... but in truth, good water science - modern water science - crosses all those boundaries.

Things like surface water, floods, and droughts are pretty obvious: you can “touch” and “see” these without instrumentation, and most people have some personal experience with each. If you don’t know what’s about to come down your river, you can’t prepare for the flood when it DOES come. That’s part of what surface water science is about: recording, tracking – even predicting. Water quality/pollution studies require laboratory testing, sometimes involving chemistry, sometimes involving electronic equipment. Sometimes it involves biological testing, too. But your nose can tell you some of it: Eewww! Don’t drink that.

Ground water, on the other hand, is hard to put your finger on - figuratively and literally. To do this, you must drill a LOT of holes, and ultimately, you must delve into the geophysics domain. Electrical geophysical methods are routinely used to search for changes in underground conductivity. Well logs – instruments lowered down boreholes - measure it vertically, but in just one place. Airborne electromagnetic systems measure it as they fly over – I recently published a US Geological Survey Professional Paper showing how you can do that (to see the water in 3D, discussed in a later chapter). The greater the conductivity, the more water is present; this assumes that the water has a relatively uniform amount of dissolved solids in it. This will tell you where the water is, but not where it is going. That takes extra work, including measuring, pumping, and modeling.

Traditional hydrology involves working with a whole series of wells, measuring the water table and its variations, and conducting pump tests to see how sustainable a given well might be. Testing a well is designed to see if it really “plugs into” a larger zone of at least moderate porosity filled with water – or not.

Yes, there is a lot of water science out there, and yes, we do a lot of it. We’ll drill more into this in the next chapter, but for now this has been a quick summary of water science.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cyanobacteria, Dust, Running out of Water... and the Stars

The first non-native American see to the Grand Canyon was an Army Lieutenant named John Ives. He dismissed the canyon and the Colorado River as worthless in his 1958 report. To give him some credit, he came from the Eastern US, where he was more used to trees and green vegetation. Apparently he couldn't look past the dry desert to see the larger vision that John Wesley Powell registered just 12 years later. Powell went on to become the first Director of the US Geological Survey.

The Colorado River once emptied to the Sea of Cortez. It does not do so today - and will almost certainly never reach the sea again. It currently provides water to 25 million people - about 24.9 million people than it did in Powell's day - and irrigates 2.5 million acres of farmland. The desert crust in all directions around its most obvious and iconic part in northern Arizona is made up of cyanobacteria and lichen. This crust in the past served to anchor the desert floor from the winds... but is dying due to increasing global temperatures and growing land-use. The native grasses that share the desert floor have proven to be very intolerant of climate warming, and are also dying - and being replaced by invasive grasses.

The dying off of the native desert bio-surface is apparently related to alteration of water and nitrogen cycles from the steadily rising temperatures. This has an interesting dual consequence. First, the invasive grasses are more susceptible to drought - and thus become a fire hazard, raising LOTS of black soot into the atmosphere. Second, the loss of the protective cyanobacteria and lichen means an increase in dust. Who would even notice this? Well, scientists have - and have recorded a net increase in dust AND soot blown up into the atmosphere.

This may not seem significant, but dust and soot fall on snow, which then absorbs more heat, leading to an earlier snow melt... up to 50 days earlier in some regions. The net result is that more water stored in the snowpack is now lost to soil water loss - and evapo-transpiration because plants now germinate earlier.

Where is this going? The net reduction of water available due to the dustier conditions is calculated to be about 5%. That seems like something I could deal with by watering my yard one time less per month, right? But in fact it doesn't work that simply: that water loss is 1.5 times the annual allotment to Los Angeles, and TWICE the annual allotment to Las Vegas. As the old saying goes, a dollar here and a dollar there eventually adds up to real money.

This tells me that I might not want to make a long-term investment in property in the southwestern U.S., nor in southern California. Already in southern California an iterative cycle of drought, followed by wildfires, followed by floods is well underway. My son no longer wants to hike the San Gabriel mountains near his home in Tujunga, California - the mountains are black today. They burned up several years ago in a massive fire started by a meth-lab, which came within meters of taking out the Mount Wilson Observatory.

Everything is connected. If we discount these interconnections, we do so at our peril.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Oil: Then Why is the Price Skyrocketing?

The previous chapters have talked about oil availability from a geological and engineering perspective.

First, the good news: potentially risky new technology, including deep ocean drilling, reservoir conditioning, and fracking have all opened a new door on the future availability of oil. In July 2008, the price of natural gas in Louisiana was close to $14 per MMBtu. There is now such a glut in gas supplies in the United States that it has driven the price down below $2 per MMBtu. Companies are running out of places to stash the excess gas.

Steep oil prices from several years ago have had two predictable - but very different - effects:

  1. These prices brought to our public awareness in an unmistakable way that carelessness (a single small person driving a giant SUV from home to the grocery store and back) had a very real consequence.
  2. These prices motivated energy companies to pour financial resources (which you and I ultimately pay for) into greater technology development and greater exploration. Already more hydrocarbons are coming on line, and the United States appears to have a rare, if very small, energy surplus in 2012. 

Q: ...Then why is the price of oil skyrocketing?
Mark M.

Now, the bad news: that prices keep climbing and will probably keep ON climbing. The reason oil prices keep climbing really have more to do with some ugly aspects of both uncontrollable demographics and controllable economics - specifically, commodity futures regulation.

The first driver is demographic: it includes countries with huge populations - China and India come to mind - who have rapidly expanding economies as they surge forward to live life like Europeans, Japanese, and Americans do. That means having many more cars, and dramatically increased power to grow their industrial base. Cars require oil - but so do chemical companies, growing navies, and a host of other things. To try to cut oil-import costs, China is bringing online one new coal-fired power plant every week.

There are unintended but inevitable consequences, of course. Burning coal has carbon footprint consequences, along with carbon black soot aerosols and sulfur dioxide. When sulfur dioxide gas touches the mucous membranes of your nose and lungs, it converts quickly to sulfuric acid. The black soot particles generally remain in your lungs - I'm sure you've heard of Black Lung disease. The pollution consequences in Beijing are already worse than they have ever been in southern California before anti-pollution controls kicked in. Air pollution in Beijing is already as bad as famous Bangkok, and getting worse.  Breathing my car-exhaust is safer.

Ultimately supply-and-demand says that when demand grows, supply must grow at least as fast or prices will rise. China, with a population of 1.35 billion people, has an economy expanding at a rate above 8% annually. Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that it will be very difficult for production to more than momentarily meet the consequent demand with such a huge growth rate driving it.

Bottom line: the price of oil will rise as countries compete for what will always be a limited resource.

The second driver is economic - or more correctly, the a dark side of unregulated economies.

Some basic facts:

  1. The average production cost today for a barrel of oil in 2012 is $11.
  2. The price this morning for a barrel of oil was $103 and change.
  3. Today, total world oil production is about 85 million barrels/day
  4. But speculators in the oil futures market routinely trade more than a billion barrels a day

Wait. WHAT? That makes no rational sense at all. 

Indeed. What this all means is that speculators are exchanging more than ten times as many "paper barrels" of oil than are actually being produced. Some companies - airlines, for instance - use these futures to lock up their cost for oil for a long period of time - they may pay extra to "hedge" their bets, in an effort to avoid huge price swings that could potentially bankrupt them. That could be considered a legitimate hedge: there is a rational, comprehensible reason for it.

But make no mistake: whether paying for oil futures or for a barrel being pumped from Ras Tanura terminal, the price is the same... so a bidding war will drive the price up - both "paper" oil and "wet" oil at the same time. Let's say I need oil desperately because my airline must keep operating to keep everyone in it employed. Well, you don't say! That desperation is going to cost you.

Only now instead of legitimate cost-hedging, it has become a case of the tail wagging the dog. A dog (you and I) is being wagged by a tail (the speculator) that is ten times bigger - and is wagging just as hard as it can.

But speculation means you can win - or you could lose. Right? It certainly means someone is making a bet on something... but people don't make a business of losing bets... or it isn't a business. You can always win your bets if the deck is stacked in your favor. What if, say, you bought some oil futures at $96/barrel, and then arranged (for a percentage of course) for someone in the news media to create rumors that Israel was about to strike Iran's nuclear facilities... which would then close the Straits of Hormuz... which 35% of the world's oil must transit.

This isn't hard to do - you only need to spread a threatening rumor about the uranium concentration facility in Natanz, Iran, going up to 20% pure U-235. The leaders of Likud in Jerusalem will ever-so-predictably react, and make dire threats of an imminent strike. Legitimate users get spooked, because this could mean life or death to an airline, and they jump in. The price of oil 30 days out just jumped in the same news cycle to $108/barrel. You've just made millions of dollars - overnight - without having to do any work. Well, you may have had to lift a hand to make a phone call or two.

It's just that easy. Has it actually happened this way? What do YOU think?

You have to admire these guys. Greed is so predictable.

Some history is in order here. Congress created the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) in 1974 as an independent agency, with the mandate to regulate commodity futures and option markets in the United States. The agency's mandate has been renewed and expanded several times since then, most recently by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. In 1974, the majority of futures trading took place in the agricultural sector. The CFTC was created to control the wild swings in futures in corn and pork bellies.

Now the ugly part. In 1991, a company named Goldman Sachs (does this set off alarm bells yet?) argued with the CFTC that big Wall Street dealers making big bets should be treated a legitimate hedgers - and were granted exemption from the normal regulatory limits on their trading. That happened near the end of 12 years of a Republican president in the White House. The CFTC commissioners were mostly Republican appointees by then. Note the timing.

By 2008, just eight investment banks accounted for 32% of the oil futures market. Only 30 percent of oil futures traders are actual oil industry participants - legitimate hedgers.

As Joseph P. Kennedy II, writing in the New York Times put it (11 April 2012): "These middlemen add little value and lots of cost as they bid up the price of oil in pursuit of financial gain. They should be banned from the world's commodity exchanges, which could drive down the price of oil by as much as 40 percent, and the price of gasoline by as much as $1 a gallon." 

We all remember the 2008 financial crash - where ordinary folks started losing their jobs and homes, and people on Wall Street - the poster child of greed being Goldman Sachs - paid themselves obscene, multi-billion-dollar bonuses.

Where do you suppose the money for those bonuses came from? Reach around behind you and check your hip pocket.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Hubbert Curve - Cheating on It

Here are some interesting numbers that will predicate the rest of this discussion:

Total World Oil Consumption (2010): 32 Billion Barrels/year

Estimated World Total Hydrocarbon Reserves (excluding coal):
World Oil Reserves: 2.6 trillion Barrels
World Gas Reserves: 15,400 TCF (2.567 Trillion Barrels of Oil Equivalent)
World Natural Gas Liquids324 Billion Barrels.
World Heavy Oil and Tar Sand Reserves: 1.2 Trillion Barrels
World Oil Shale Reserves: 2.8 - 3.3 trillion barrels

For reference:
US's proven oil reserves: 19.1 Billion Barrels. That's not much, is it?
Venezuela's proven oil reserves: 211 Billion Barrels. That's more...
Venezuela's Orinoco Heavy Oil Belt: 513 Billion Barrels... the sludgy stuff that requires steam-and-fire-flooding.

There are several superficial conclusions that one might draw from these numbers. If you knew nothing else about it, at current consumption of world reserves of oil, the world can keep on truckin' for 81 years before it's all gone. If we could convert all our cars and trucks to natural gas, we could keep on truckin' for another 80 years. Add in heavy crude and tar-sands and you get another 38 years of motive power. If you frack the entire world's oil shale - maybe another 100 years.

Well, we don't have to worry about running out of oil then, right?


In the previous chapter I used the expression "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" - twice. Most adults understand that if someone says that something is "free" - well, then, they are listening to a liar. Or at least someone who is not an adult.

Remember the Macondo 242 Well/Deepwater Horizon debacle of the Spring and Summer of 2010? "Just" 11 men died, and nearly five million barrels of oil made its way into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this stuff was natural gas and other aromatics and was dissolved away. Some if it was burned off the surface. Some of it ruined the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida coastlines. Some of it biodegraded... but at least 38% of it drifted off into the Gulf Loop Current. And no one really knows where it went.

There is a huge oil platform in the North Sea east of Scotland, named the Ensign. One of its wells drilled down to about 5,400 meters depth into a "high temperature-high pressure" gas reservoir. We are talking about pressures over 1,000 times atmospheric pressure, and temperatures in the 200+ degrees Centigrade range (a bake-bread temperature in your oven). There was a shallower, less productive horizon that they were not particularly interested in, at around 4,000 meters depth - so they cased it off and cemented the casing in place.

"Cement and Forget" is an interesting expression, but in this case there is apparently some active tectonic movement going on. That's "long" for ACTIVE FAULT. Workers on this platform a few weeks ago heard the gas-warning siren, and remembering the Macondo disaster, they started evacuating within minutes. As I write this, no one has died - and they have discovered that the gas is coming up through the annulus of the well, not from some crack on the seafloor. This means that the casing and cement job have failed. If there is a spark, there will be an explosion. How big? A small leak into your house could blow your house to matchsticks. THIS leak is tens of thousands of times greater - maybe hundreds of thousands of times. More methane, more atmospheric oxygen by orders of magnitude. Some people have called this sort of an explosion the "Poor Man's Atom Bomb" (the US military has even developed a fuel-air or "Thermobaric" bomb like this). In other words, we're talking about a huge explosion.  How do you deal with a gas-leak failure 4,000 meters below you in deep hot rock? You guessed it: with a lot of money. And very, very gingerly.

And that won't stop the gas, by the way.


By that I mean ALL of it is fraught with problems. You know the rule: if it SOUNDS too good to be true, than it probably ISN'T true. There may be 800 Billion Barrels of oil tied up in oil shale in the United states - but you'd have to tear down a quarter of the Rocky Mountains and large chunks of Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee to get at it. "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" in this case means that there is a HUGE amount of energy required to get at and process this oily rock. I won't even begin to get into the environmental problems this will start. Denver is already a pretty dry place, getting most of its water from the west side of the Rockies. Imagine losing most of that. The amount of earth-moving alone will not be cheap... in fact the real cost may be equivalent to what is gained - so it becomes a net "bust." That's the up-front way of saying that there may be oil there, but it may not be economic.

What about the Athabascan Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada? Estimates suggest that there may be about 170 Billion Barrels of recoverable oil there - but you'll have to strip mine about a quarter of that prairie province to get at it. All the tailings will become giant piles of toxic waste, polluting rivers and groundwater in the region forever afterwards. Canadian companies have already proven that this vast resource, at least, is economic... but there is an open question about whether the real long-term costs have been factored in - yet. We're talking about polluted water, cancer, huge dust-bowl conditions down the line. That will translate into real money eventually.

In both these cases - oil shale and tar sands - an incredible amount of water is needed to process the deposits. There goes all the water in that region that humans might need for agriculture... and drinking. The Oil Sands also have startlingly high amounts of nickel and vanadium in that dark sludge, which are toxic at the levels that would be released, so they have to be captured and sequestered. Yet more money.

Do you wonder, looking at the numbers at the beginning of the chapter above, why we are still importing massive amounts of Middle Eastern oil? We do so for the simple reason that it costs less and we only have to deal with the carbon footprint after-effects. Well, we also have to care about the Middle East - did I forget to mention that?

In his book "The Race For What's Left", author Michael Klare says "I'm less concerned about the absolute disappearance of fossil fuels than about the environmental consequences of pursuing what's left." His one-liner:
There will be oil, but it'll be expensive, dirty, and dangerous. 

The Environmental Protection Agency published a report not long ago, a report describing all the alternative energy possibilities that we may have for the future. These include nuclear power (does anyone remember the names "Chernobyl" or "Fukushima Dai-Ichi"?). There is also hydro and wind power, but these tend to be feast-or-famine things that either don't produce the power when you need it - or they produce so much that the wind turbines have to be tethered to keep from damaging the electric grid. The one item that the report listed as the cheapest alternative? Conservation. It's the only alternative energy source without a terrible and costly side effect.

Think about it: if your car's mileage doubles, that's the same as cutting the price of gas in half.

I'm not advocating ONLY conservation, and I also don't believe we can switch off Middle Eastern oil overnight. However, we must go into this with our eyes open or we will pay a dear price. ALL the EDGE sources of hydrocarbons come at multiplicative costs in terms of power just to even get it in the first place. You've also probably noticed that down-range environmental costs are not something that the companies providing these energy sources worry a lot about. Heck, THEY don't live there.

If something goes wrong with these sources, it tends to go very badly wrong, and Macondo is just the freshest example... but won't be the last. The energy companies employ brilliant engineers. By drilling in ultra-deep environments in the Gulf, and by fracking and chasing unconventional sources of fossil fuels on land, there has been a net change in the past few years. For the first time since the 1950's the United States is actually - realistically - looking at the possibility of becoming energy independent, at least for awhile. But we will have to drill and frack like chickens for it.

So... that means the price of oil will go down, right?  It would if only the United States occupied this planet.  But India and China have well over a billion citizens each, and each country's economy is advancing at 3% - 8% per year. That translates into a huge - and permanently growing - demand for fossil fuels. The people we used to see pictures of riding bicycles - now want instead to drive cars and get chubby like the Americans. Increasing demand requires equally ever-increasing resources for the price to stay low. If the resources can't keep up, or the oil comes from an EDGE source, then the cost will climb and climb. The price of oil this morning when I got to work was "down" to $103/barrel.

The idea of energy security is fine - but it doesn't have much meaning in a global economy.

No, we are not running out of oil. It just seems like it.


Monday, April 2, 2012

The Hubbert Curve - Stretching it Out the Oil

As gas prices creep up to and past $4/gallon in the United States (it's happened before, it will happen again) we start seeing a lot of questions about the oil supply, with questions about why the price is going up. There is not room enough to adequately describe the several processes that control the price of gas, but there are some relatively straight-forward principles involved.

Is the world running out of oil?
Mark M.

The answer is yes and no. I thought you'd like that.

Yes, the world is running out of "sweet" crude - the easy-to-get stuff, the "low-hanging fruit" of the hydrocarbon world.

No, there is plenty of oil still left out there - surprisingly huge amounts, in fact - but it's the hard-to-get stuff.  It is more difficult to get (and therefore more expensive) and a lot more dangerous to get (and therefore more expensive) to extract... but there is a LOT out there.  The April 9, 2012 issue of Time Magazine gives a good summary of why there is lots of new oil coming online, but gas prices will still inevitably go up. However, even this article is not complete. Unfortunately, you also need a subscription to even link to it.

Sigh. These journalists - always feeling like they need to feed their families! The GALL.

In 1956, a US Geological Survey geologist named M. King Hubbert published a paper describing the life history of an oil play. From discovery to full exploitation, the production of a given oil field slowly ramps up, reaches a peak... and then declines in a roughly symmetric curve as you draw most of the good stuff out. If you put together a production curve for all the major fields in the United States, it makes sense that they would all, in aggregate, behave in a similar fashion: US production would ramp up, reach a peak, and then peter out. Hubbert was the first to reason this out, and his prediction in the late 1950's has held remarkably well ever since then: it's called the Hubbert Curve:

This curve has proven remarkably accurate - certainly in shape. It was consistently optimistic, in fact, as US production seems to have always lagged behind the Hubbert prediction. 

At this point it is tempting to either get depressed - or buy stocks in alternative energy sources. However, there were several things that this famous curve didn't factor in, and those things include basic supply-and-demand laws - basic economics - and the incredible ingenuity of the human species. It doesn't take a lot of smart guys, either, if there is money driving the train. Ah, Capitalism. If you have 7 billion people, it just takes a few with the vision and the determination to Find a Way. In most cases (the notable exception being Wall Street in the 'Oughts), everyone benefits. 

For this chapter, I will only discuss a thing called enhancing production - stretching that Hubbert curve out. I worked as a young man for Getty Oil Company in Bakersfield, California. Getty (formerly Tidewater Oil Company) had been sitting on vast stretches of the Kern Field since it had first been exploited in the First World War era. By the time I went to work for them, the area called Oildale was an ecological ruin: the ground everywhere was reddish brown, and there was sparse vegetation. Early wells in the '20's and '30's would "blow out" as the drill reached the producing horizon (which was quite shallow, ranging from just 500 - 900 feet) - the field was found by following natural seeps decades before geophysical technology was developed. The Roustabouts - the guys who worked the wooden derricks at the time - would rush to build a dam to save at least some of the Black Gold. The Kern field by that time was well past the maximum production point - the overlying ground pressure that had squeezed out the low-viscosity stuff, and no longer squeezed anything. Even pumps were producing ever-dwindling results, sometimes down to a barrel or two a day. Since the pumps ran on diesel fuel, it quickly became uneconomic to keep these running, and large parts of the field had already been shut down by the time I arrived.

But several brilliant geologists did some core-drilling, initially to see if there were places where they could put better pumps. They were astounded to learn that the "nearly dead" Kern Field had produced only about 15% of its entire contents since 1915!  The stuff that remained in the ground - and showed up in those cores as sandy tar - was too viscous to work its way out. It was too "gooey" for the straining pumps to move efficiently.  Today we call this Heavy Crude. Some equally brilliant engineers figured out that if you could heat the stuff, the viscosity would drop, and it would flow much more easily. 

Two problems with this: 
  1. ya have to somehow heat it up, and then 
  2. ya somehow have to keep it warm or it will clog your pipes. 

There were initially three ways to move the heavy crude sludge to the surface: water floodsteam flood and fire flood

With water flood (assuming there was SOME viscosity left in the producing horizon's oil) is a push-pull operation. You simply do just that: you flood a chosen well with water, and drive the oil out to other wells that would be pumping furiously to help pull the oil. This has been used in a failing field over near Taft, California.

With steam flood, the engineers built huge steam generators in several locations around the Kern Field. These things were monstrous: they looked like huge silver cans on their sides - and the size of a bus. The engineers would heat water to 500 degrees F, and pump it at 500 psi down the production pipes for 5 days. They would then let it "stew and cook" for two days, then would un-cap those same production pipes and let them blow off steam for several days. THEN they would start the pumps going again. For a long time the once-abandoned production wells would easily produce 50 - 300 barrels a day. 

With fire flood, you would drill a circle of wells around a central well. In the central well, you would ignite a fire at the producing horizon - then push air down into this well at phenomenal rates, up to 900 cubit feet per minute. The heat and the pressure would "loosen up" the Heavy Crude around that starter well, and drive it towards the surrounding periphery. One immediate problem: the producing horizon was never quite uniform, which meant that the fire reached one ring-well before the others. To keep this from blowing out explosively, the engineers put thermocouples down each of the peripheral wells; when one got too hot, they would shut down and cap that well. 

I've seen drill core from these Kern Field wells before and after a fire flood passed through them: beforehand the cores looked like cylinders of black, sandy tar. Afterwards, the cores looked like solid white beach sand!


I said that there was a separate problem with the hot stuff, and my first introduction was impressive. An engineer at a fire flood operation gave us a tour of the field. First, he opened a spigot on a pipe and out burbled a tan-colored (and smelly) goop into a bucket. We watched it for a moment, and he led us away to see the huge fans used to drive the air down the central well to keep the combustion going. After an hour or two, he steered us back to the bucket. He asked me to lift it. With difficulty I did. "Turn it over," he said. Gingerly, using gloves because it was still quite hot, I turned it over. 

And nothing poured out. That tan goop had turned solid well before it had dropped back to room temperature.

So what do you do about this? It turns out that about the only thing you can do - besides adding some very expensive chemicals - is to make a slurry of this stuff. Mix it with sweet crude from a nearby field into a solid-liquid slurry, and it would move down the pipeline to a refinery without clogging that pipeline. A slurry is like that sweet Japanese drink with liquid surrounding little balls of semi-solid tapioca. You can easily get it through the straw - but not if the tapioca settles on the bottom!

As you might expect, "cracking" this heavy-crude-light-crude slurry was a lot more complicated than cracking the sweet crude into diesel and gasoline. So... this oil was technically accessible, but more expensive to turn into gasoline.

There just aint no such thing as a free lunch. 


There is a newer, more controversial technology that I've already written about, called Fracking. This is another way to get certain "tight" rock formations - rocks like dark, carbon-rich shale formed in an ancient swamp - to surrender some of that carbon. The problem with "tight" rock is that it has very low porosity, so the oil, while abundant, cannot move around or escape it. Think of trying to squeeze water out of a towel... then think of trying to squeeze water out of a piece of leather.  It just won't get out...

Unless you shatter it. And that ain't no free lunch, either.

The next part of this explanation will address yet another example of human ingenuity: It's titled "The Hubbert Curve - Cheating on It."