As a young geologist, I had many Saturday morning coffees with my in-laws in a small town east of Red Deer, Alta. A faint skim of oil would glisten on top of the Nescafé. Alberta’s rocks are rich in petroleum, and it naturally permeates certain aquifers and water wells. It’s a natural part of our environment.
There are also numerous surface oil seeps in western Newfoundland flowing directly into the ocean, drainage systems and any poorly located water wells. If it were manmade, the Fort McMurray oil sands would be regarded as one of the great environmental disasters of all time.
Petroleum is part of who we are, the materials we use, the energy we consume, the origins of much employment and economic wealth. Until some competitive alternative is developed, petroleum will continue to be a major source of our energy.
Recent technological advancements have ensured that reliable sources of petroleum will continue to be available outside of the traditional Mideast and Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries areas. The ability to drill and fracture stimulate horizontal wells ensures a long-term predictable global supply of natural gas and oil from so called “shale reservoirs.” The implications are enormous.
First, there is a shift away from burning coal and oil for certain purposes to more environmentally friendly natural gas with its less-harmful emissions.
Second, these shale resources have deferred the dilemma of “peak oil” — a scenario where the planet’s ability to produce oil is tapped out. In other words, the production rate cannot be increased and inevitable decline will occur over decades. As a result, shrinking supply combined with increasing demand from emerging economies would have meant drastic price increases for oil. Given the serious weakness in Western economies, a sharp oil price shock would have been extremely painful. Shale resources are alleviating that by significantly increasing the supply of oil and natural gas. Most analysts say that doesn’t mean petroleum prices won’t increase globally; it just means they won’t increase as much. Also, more natural gas will be consumed versus oil and coal. That’s good news for the world economy, consumers and the environment.
The drilling and fracking technology to develop shale resources is well established in North America and is being exported to other regions of the world. Like all technology, it must be used properly. When done so, it poses very little threat to shallow aquifers. We should ensure appropriate regulations are in place and embrace this technology where it can enhance the prospects for petroleum production here.
We currently enjoy the benefits of responsible resource development, let’s continue to do so.