By Jasson Urbach, TES Contributor
Humans today, almost everywhere on earth, enjoy lives and livelihoods better than those of their parents and grandparents thanks to fossil fuels. Aside from the car you drive or the bus you may ride to work, look around and see the thousands of everyday items we take for granted that are made possible thanks to oil. Of course, oil also pollutes, but thanks to new technology and innovation, the fossil fuels industry is ensuring that we enjoy a modern lifestyle while protecting the environment today, and for generations to come.
The popular image of the oil industry is of one that is dirty and polluting. In fact, the other forms of energy oil displaced, such as wood, whale oil, and even dung, all made their own unique, and often worse, environmental impact. If you want to express your gratitude for the fact that whale populations are rising, thank the fossil fuels industry.
To be sure, pollution is a reality of the hydrocarbon industry, from its extractive phase, through refining, transportation, and consumption. However, as an energy source, oil’s calorific performance is unrivaled. You get more energy per unit of oil than you do from almost any other energy source, and although there have been advances with other sources, such as wind and solar, they are simply not a patch on oil. The economic and social benefits from such an energy dense resource, therefore, outweigh the potential and actual costs.
Some advantages can be found with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking as a method does not contaminate the atmosphere, since the method is based on injecting water at high pressures with additives to open very small cracks in very low permeable lithologies such as shale. There is, of course, the possibility that fracking could contaminate the aquifers, but this was addressed in the early years of its development and by now it’s an issue that it is being dealt with appropriately.
Fracking has advantages as the oil extracted is less dense than traditionally drilled oils. Both the extraction and refining of drilled heavy oils potentially involve greater atmospheric contamination than the lighter, fracked oil. Therefore, in the final outcome, fracking for light oils in impermeable rocks such as shale is much cleaner than conventional heavy oil and oil sands (extra-heavy oil) production.
In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico explosion and subsequent spill of Deepwater Horizon in 2011, the spotlight was turned on industry. Now the care taken to avoid similar mistakes is unprecedented. Even older spills that have been slowly contaminating for decades have been mapped and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is on the case.
With technologically advanced tools such as satellite imagery, oil spill detection is now possible with spectrometry analysis for surface detection as well as Ground Penetration Radars (GPR) for underground spills. Recent spills out in the ocean are detected in real time thanks to the regular analysis of satellite imagery. On land, electric and GPR measurements are the standard techniques for mapping and detecting spills.
That said, we should always be striving to reduce costs and improve efficiencies. One valuable example, for instance, developed by geophysicist engineer Erick S. Kusnir-Levy, was presented at a recent symposium of the Environmental and Engineering Geophysical Society.
The method developed by Kusnir-Levy, allows scientists to detect and map the contamination of hydrocarbons from a shallow underground spill in complex areas, such as those crisscrossed with networks of pipes and tanks in and around refineries. His method uses GPR in a common source point (a special type of configuration using GPS). The field tests carried out by Kusnir-Levy indicate this innovative method is more efficient than the traditional seismic refraction technique and those that use the GPR method in other configurations.
Naturally a system that allows for more accurate detection of any spillage helps to define the strategy to clean it up and mitigate any negative contamination. Not only will this be beneficial for the environment, but it will add to the refinery’s bottom line.
Kusnir-Levy’s proposed new method is very promising, from both an economic and environmental point of view. An indispensable combination for an innovative development is to be able to make the leap from experimentation to incorporation to market practices – leading society on a path of achieving a socially and environmentally responsible future.
In general, in this age of technological advancement and the pursuit of science by so many professionals, pollution is being tackled without compromising economic growth. Fossil fuels are still allowing us to lead better, healthier lives, and these technologies are going to help us all enjoy a cleaner and better future.
Jasson Urbach is director of the Free Market Foundation in South Africa.