A few weeks ago I attended a public lecture at the University of Waterloo titled “Where did all the oil come from?” by Professor Maurice B. Dusseault and Stephen G. Evans, Faculty Members of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science. I do not want to go into details, but although the explanation for the formation of oil was excellent, the lecture was a kind of disappointing as regards to the critical discussion of new technologies for the extraction of oil. To make the long story short, the point of the speakers was that the technologies developed during the past 10 years have changed the landscape of energy in the world. The speakers presented a promising and bright future for Canada exploiting tar sands and other unconventional petroleum deposits and made some (bad) jokes about Peak Oil “catastrophists”.
Very often people – even Professors! – tend to confuse technology with energy. However, they’re not the same thing. Technology is “the application of practical sciences to industry or commerce” according to the Collins Dictionary; whereas energy is the capacity of a system or subject to do work. To put it in simple terms, energy is what moves technology – not the other way around. It would not be far-fetched to think that the amazing development of technology achieved in the last century has been driven by the access to enormous amounts of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels (OK, and maybe due to a little bit of science too). But we’re so used to seeing new high-tech developments, and our faith in the progress of humanity is so strong, that we tend to think that technology can solve all our problems.
It can’t, actually.
The brand new technologies developed in the last 10 years for the extraction of oil can help to extract energy but they don’t produce energy by themselves. Therefore, there’s still the same amount of oil in the world, the only difference is that we can extract a little more of it. More importantly, the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) of the unconventional oil extracted with these techniques is much lower than EROEI of conventional crude oil extracted with standard techniques, which ultimately means that the net energy obtained is also lower and, therefore, much more expensive. That’s why tar sands can’t be profitably exploited unless the cost per barrel of oil is high.
Here in Transition KW we DO know the difference between technology and energy. And we also know that technology is probably not going to save the day, because we’re facing a problem of scarcity of resources. Thankfully, we don’t have a scarcity of intelligence and creativity. That’s why we work on making our community and ourselves more resilient against fossil fuels decline.
Edited by Sylvie