According to T Boone Pickens, the celebrated octogenarian US petroleum billionaire, ‘the hydrocarbon era’ will finish around the end of the century.*

With his background, he may be thinking of only fluid HCs. Younger seers at Parsons Brinckerhoff, the US-based international engineering consultants recently absorbed by Balfour Beatty, say that the still-senior HC, coal, is good for at least another 130 years (the CO2 climate-changing gods willing), although it is already fuelling 40% of the world’s electricity generation and faces ever greater demand from China and elsewhere. The consultants are helping their clients to carry on with what they call ‘this affordable fuel’ by, for instance, integrating mining and generation. They have of course been abreast of emission problems for some time, as well as of potential countermeasures such as CO2 sequestration, energy conservation, renewable energy sourcing and automobile electrification.**

Veteran Boone Pickens’ relative pessimism about HC longevity may raise eyebrows also because he is aware of unconventional oil and gas sources such as shale. But he knows equally about the would-be usurpers, renewables, and about the history of Houston, Texas, as petroleum territory. Apparently Houston now aspires to achievement in the world of renewables, and, sharing the city’s wisdom, he welcomes them as successors rather than usurpers. So, if I read correctly between the lines, goes the rather touching story.

Unconventional HC sources have been in the news again recently. I say ‘again’ because they have become popular topics whenever the finitude of fossil resources has come up. The snag is that the unconventionals are difficult and expensive to tap. The best-known of them – shale sands and sandstones – are often found in punishing environments and do not gush crude fluid in the (sometimes disastrous) way of petroleum finds. So-called tar or oil sands are impregnated with heavy oil. Oil or gas shales are sedimentary rocks containing an organic solid, kerogen, which yields HC gases and liquids when heated to 300-400ºC. The crude minerals have to be processed to produce fuels.

Extraction and refining methods have been studied and tried for many years without looking commercially promising except during energy crises, as recently. Boone Pickens has reportedly expressed astonishment at US progress with shale gas extraction, which has advanced sufficiently to lift estimates of future onshore US gas supply from thirty to more than a hundred years. Partly for this reason the balance of bargaining power seems, at least temporarily, to have shifted from net gas exporting countries to net importers.

Hopes for oil sands exploitation are meanwhile being vigorously voiced but as vigorously disputed. One UK environmentalist protest group supports its objections with words attributed to Jim Hansen, a NASA climatologist. He is said to regard oil sands as “one of our planet’s greatest threats”, possibly bringing “climate disasters over the course of a century”.

Unfortunately earthlings cannot indefinitely continue to rely on fossil fuels, whether conventional or unconventional, even if – for whatever reason(s) – the danger of anthropogenic CO2 proves to have been a chimera. That the further future will involve resort to renewable energy sources does seem to be a good bet. Choice between them must depend on geopolitical factors and, in well-endowed countries such as the UK, allows combinations from a range including wind, tidal, oceanic wave, biomass and solar energies.

In the words of Dr Alan Whitehead, chairman of a cross-party UK parliamentary group that represents politics and industry and promotes renewable energy, the UK’s energy mix will be ‘rich in renewables’. He foresees the replacement, in a decade or so, of parts of the country’s electrical generating capacity. This will call for smarter grid technology to deal with the various types of input. His group presented the last British government (a little before it fell a few weeks ago) with a report to help ‘make some sense of the challenges and sequencing that await us as the renewables revolution gathers pace’.***

Dr Whitehead and others are warning our industry with varying degrees of passion but they are all, in cool principle, right. We must smarten ourselves up.