Celebrating the Next 100 Years of AAPG
By Brian Ervin, Explorer Managing Editor
Wallace E. Pratt. Charles Taylor. Sidney Powers. Michel T. Halbouty. Norman H. Foster.
Our Members aspire to their stature by keeping their names and legacies ever present through our annual awards and lectures, holding them up as examples of what can be achieved through the profession of petroleum geology.
They’re not exactly household names outside of the oil and gas industry, but to initiates within AAPG, they are legends.
As such, they and others like them are the pillars upon which the modern age is supported. Our entire global civilization of the past century – from the fuel that makes worldwide travel and commerce convenient and possible, as well as the plastics and other materials that have given rise to the computer age and the Internet – all of this and much, much more has been entirely dependent upon the work and innovation of petroleum geologists like those who comprise the Membership of AAPG.
The quality of human life has been improved immeasurably over the past 100 years through technological advances that have only been possible because of petroleum geology.
And by all credible accounts, this will continue to be the case well into the next 100 years and beyond.
So, who will the Pratts and Halboutys of the next century be – those who will be responsible for the age of tomorrow? And what will the innovations and developments be that will power the human race into the next century?
In 2017, AAPG’s centennial year, the EXPLORER will consider these questions in a new monthly suite of editorial features, not to look back at the century, but to look ahead at the next 100 years of AAPG, as well as the science and industry of petroleum geology.
The accompanying article is the first installment of our monthly “The Next 100 Years” section, which will explore how AAPG and its Members will shape the next century of human history by advancing the science of petroleum geology. We’ll speak to present-day experts for their insights into what the future holds for the industry and the Association. We’ll also include coverage of some of the technologies and services within the industry and their expected evolution in the decades to come.
If you want to talk about the future of energy into the next century, you have to talk to Scott Tinker.
Tinker might have the best overview of energy on the planet.
He serves as director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas-Austin and as a professor in the university’s Department of Geological Sciences.
He is the state geologist of Texas.
He lectures and consults on energy matters worldwide.
He’s a member of numerous energy-related private, public, academic and government boards and councils.
A past president of AAPG, Tinker was the 2016 recipient of the Association’s Michel T. Halbouty Outstanding Leadership Award, along with a litany of other awards and honors. He also has led the Association of American State Geologists, the Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies and the American Geosciences Institute.
Tinker is particularly renowned for having founded the Switch Energy Project.
That project produced the award-winning, 98-minute, 2012 energy documentary “Switch,” directed by Harry Lynch, which has been seen by more than 10 million people.
For the few who haven’t seen it, “Switch” chronicles Tinker’s travels around the world to investigate energy sources of all types, including the Big Two – crude oil for transportation and coal for electricity – that provide a majority of the world’s energy today.
In the end, “Switch” projects that in about 50 years, the share of world energy produced from oil and coal will be equaled and then surpassed by the total energy from natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar and other renewables.
That switchover would mark a notable change in the world’s energy supply.
That was the prediction five years ago.
What is the outlook now?
So far, Tinker said, the world is following the path of energy usage envisioned in the documentary.
“That general energy mix is pretty close to on track,” he said.
“Coal has remained higher in the mix than I thought it would. People on the street might not believe it if you told them, but coal keeps going up worldwide in the global mix,” Tinker noted.
In the “Switch” scenario, crude oil and coal should continue to provide a significant share of the world’s energy. That share is expected to fall below the 50-percent mark later this century.
Factors of the ‘Switch’
“It’s hard to imagine a world that doesn’t have transportation fueled by gasoline, diesel and jet fuel,” Tinker said.
Those liquid fuels are so efficient and so dense that replacing them will be a tremendous challenge. Alternatives are slowly emerging, but have challenges of their own. For instance, a battery in an electric car is three times the size of a gas tank and you can’t travel nearly as far, Tinker observed. And that battery still needs to be charged. The electricity fuel mix varies regionally, but still has a lot of coal in it.
What could make a difference are changes in behavior. One example would be the movement toward electronic/virtual meetings and communications instead of physical travel. Telecommuting for work is increasing.
Also, Uber’s reach is spreading, so millennials today no longer feel they have to own a car.
Those kinds of social changes will have an impact, Tinker believes.
“I think it has the potential, finally, to reduce some of the transport using liquids that we do today,” he said.
Continuous versus Intermittent
Continuous energy supply will be the world’s first choice into the foreseeable future, Tinker said.
This is in contrast to what he calls “intermittent” energy – renewable sources like solar and wind – because they do not generate power under all conditions.
Intermittent energy has a role to play, especially in remote areas where distribution is difficult, but requires some combination of baseload backup generation or large scale, affordable, reliable storage, which is not easy to accomplish.
Thus, the world’s primary electricity supply “will be dense, always-on energy, contrary to the popular preference for intermittent energy,” he said. “We’re talking about methane, hydrogen and uranium and thorium-nuclear.”
Some of Tinker’s energy outlook varies from the mainstream.
He thinks nuclear energy will have a more meaningful role in the global future supply picture and predicted that China will surpass the United States in the number of operating nuclear reactors by the middle of this century. And India is likely to follow China.
Coal is a remarkable fuel – available, affordable and reliable. It is lifting China and other developing nations from poverty.
But, it has environmental challenges. Capture and sequestration of CO2 emissions would make coal more atmospherically viable, but that is expensive, and the volumes are substantial. At the end of the coal section in “Switch,” Tinker commented, “We probably could make coal clean. But we probably can’t afford to.”
His bottom-line message: The world of the future will need energy that is affordable, available, reliable and sustainable. But no form of energy is perfect and the availability and use of resources – from fossil to nuclear to renewable – vary by region.
Oil and Gas into the Future
Tinker has nothing but optimism for the oil and gas industry’s ability to continue producing energy and power to meet the world’s needs.
“Shale has had a gut-check, but that’s all it is. It’s a massive global resource,” he noted.
He predicted that new technologies, like the technology that made the shale revolution possible, will greatly increase the industry’s ability to tap into and recover hydrocarbon resources. And these same technologies will also reduce the environmental impact.
“I think we can go from 10 percent to 20 percent to maybe 50-percent recovery in the best parts of the shale basins using various yet-to-be-developed technologies,” he said.
Over the course of 100 years, unexpected breakthroughs in energy sourcing could yet happen, Tinker agreed. A workable form of nuclear fusion, for instance, might provide a completely new source of power for society.
But it would take the world a considerable amount of time to absorb that type of breakthrough, he said. If 100 new coal plants are built now, they wouldn’t be torn down just because a new form of power appeared, Tinker noted.
“If nuclear fusion were to prove possible, safe and scalable tomorrow, it would take decades for that to be deployed globally,” he said.
Tinker does expect an advance in the world’s understanding of its own energy needs, uses and potential efficiencies.
“So in 100 years out, I see a very different world. The biggest difference will be our ability to understand the data and the digits,” he said.
The future should give us a better grasp of not only how we use energy, but how we can and should use it more efficiently.
“In that world, that’s juxtaposed against population growth and industrialization, I can see actual energy use declining,” Tinker said.
“With wide efforts on all fronts, there will be an educated populace and we won’t have nearly 3 billion people living in energy poverty,” he added.
The “Switch” education project and documentary are still reaching people around the globe, Tinker noted.
“‘Switch’ continues to roll. Everywhere I go in the world, people tell me their professors are showing it and they’re talking about it in class,” he said.
Combating Energy Poverty
What has Tinker’s attention now are all those people and nations living in energy poverty.
Tinker wants to engage future leaders to help solve global energy poverty and has launched the Switch Energy Corps, which employs graduate students as “energy missionaries.”
“The way we’re going about that is to look at places in the world that have no electricity, initially in Latin America and then moving into Asia and Africa,” he said.
Experiencing severe poverty and doing something positive to solve the problem is much more powerful than the “protest and criticize” movements made popular on some college campuses.
“Students are lining up!” he said.
Want to know how all that will play out over the next 100 years?
Wait 100 years and see.
Tinker holds no illusions about the difficulty of predicting a century ahead.
“My great-grandchildren will have belly laughs about how wrong we were,” he said. “But hopefully they will know we were giving it our absolute – and honest – best.”