The technological shift towards exploring and extracting unconventional oils has fostered a complex realignment of geopolitics, climate impacts, and scientific research of world fossil fuel production. Carnegie's Deborah Gordon opened up the day-long symposium at the Carnegie Endowment on the paradigm shifts associated with unconventional oils. In her talk, Gordon discussed the need to confront complexity on the diverse array of 21st century oils and their impacts on climate change. She was joined by Adam Brandt of Stanford University and A. Michael Schaal of Energy Information Administration to discuss the major engineering shifts of the energy industry and the changing chemical characteristics of oil. Steve Mufson of the Washington Post moderated.

  • Product Diversity:  Some of the unconventional oils have such a low viscosity that they need to be mined in situ. While this process is less water and land intensive than hydraulic fracturing, it is substantially more energy intensive, Brandt said. There is inadequate transparency regarding the climate impact of these new oils, with greenhouse gas adders in the full fuel cycle ranging from 10 to 30 percent, Brandt added. 
  • Shale Gas: The new unconventional oils have appeared on the market due to the shale gas revolution which now makes up 40 percent of U.S. dry gas production, said Schaal. With improvements in technology, the United States has seen the biggest increase in crude production since 1951 at 750,000 barrels per day, added Schaal. Improvements in energy efficiency have slowed U.S. energy demand and have slightly lowered Co2 emissions, Schaal said.
  • Global Demand:  In order to move the extra heavy oils, they are mixed with condensates that are later stripped during the refining stage, which has shifted crude oil trade patterns, said Gordon. Regulations have not caught up to shifts in global oil, although the California Fuel Standard is very specific, added Brandt.