Unconventional Oils

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As supplies of conventional crude oil plateau, new breeds of petroleum resources are increasingly being tapped to fuel global demand.
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As supplies of conventional crude oil plateau, new breeds of petroleum resources are increasingly being tapped to fuel global demand. Tom Carver interviews Deborah Gordon about the environmental impact of these unconventional oils and the future oil market.

CARVER: What is meant by unconventional oil?

GORDON: What’s interesting is that the feedstock for oil is becoming everything between coal and gas. So you’re going to have some petroleum feedstocks that go into oil but that look more like coal. And then there are some that are still liquid, and some that actually are going to be more gas-like. That is what is changing: oil is becoming everything between coal and gas.

We’ve lived the twentieth century—the first part of our oil mobility future—with crude oil that mostly came from the Middle East, and prior to that from the United States, and it pretty much looked like one thing. It was a certain range of liquid fuel. These unconventional oils are changing not only from conventional oil, but from each other. So each and every one of them is different from oil as we know it today, and from each other.

CARVER: Are these unconventional oils all equally carbon intensive?

No. This is a great way to differentiate them. When you hear the word “heavy,” or when you hear that it is a “heavy oil,” or a “heavy hydrocarbon,” that means more carbon. Heavy oils have more carbon, which is the waste that makes carbon dioxide, and they have less hydrogen, which is fuel. Light oils get the most money on the market. They have more hydrogen fuel and less carbon.

So the heavier the oil—for example the bitumen in Canada is extra heavy—the more carbon. Whereas the shale oils from the United States—from, say North Dakota—are going to be more like conventional oil, which are not light and not heavy; they are a certain medium. 

CARVER: How big of a proportion of total oil are unconventional oils going to be?

GORDON: Everything about the change in the nature of oil is going to be moderated through the market place. So when the price of oil is high, we are going to look for alternatives. And that’s what we’ve been going through the last few years where the price of oil was over $100 a barrel up to almost $150 a barrel a few years ago. That started to turn things on, and then everything started to change at that price.

Now the price of oil is in the high $80s, and so things will dampen out. So, in terms of these unconventionals, their future has to do with the price of oil. That will determine it. The higher the price of conventional oil, the more alternatives we’ll get, and the more unconventional oils will turn on. The lower the price, the fewer unconventionals will turn on. But we do know that conventional oil has peaked. Oil in and of its own accord will not go away.

CARVER: How much impact are these oils going to have on the environment?

GORDON: What we really need to learn to do is deal with all different types of oils. We haven’t done that for the last hundred years. We’ve learned to deal with a system of one type of crude oil, and we’ve managed our system. We’ve set up rules around crude oil. They’re not carbon rules, but they’re still rules. We have a lot of environmental regulations around oil.

The thing is that now oil is changing in so many different ways, and we don’t have a gauge or rules for dealing with that. So what we want to do is figure out which of these new oils has the highest carbon and keep those in the ground the longest, and then use the new oils that are more gas-like, or more conventional-like. We might use unconventional means of taking them out of the ground, but they’re more like oil. We should use those. So we need new rules to differentiate what we take out of the ground, and what we keep in the ground.  

End of document

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Comments (1)

  • RomneytheRobot
    What does this even mean: "That is what is changing: oil is becoming everything between coal and gas." Some serious Washington smooth-speak going on here. You are talking yet saying nothing.
    Reply to this post

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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/06/14/unconventional-oils/bucp

In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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