Oil is like a swing: What goes up, comes down…and eventually heads back up again. But after years of high crude prices, everyone is asking: how low will oil go? As oil fortunes continue to play out in the global marketplace, however, little attention is being paid to how assorted oils produced under changing economic circumstances affect climate change.
Whether oil’s price tag is high or low, neither ensures climate protection. When oil sells at triple digits, the types and ways resources that come out of the ground expands. Recent bullish economic oil conditions have led to innovations—fracking, massive investments in oil sands infrastructure, forays into ultra-deep drilling, and renewed interest in the remote Arctic. Each of these breakthroughs has different climate impacts. Moreover, high-priced oil also dampens petroleum demand and makes oil alternatives more viable on the margin.
With oil prices sinking lower by the day, the supply and demand cards are being reshuffled. In the short-term, a bear market selectively turns off certain pricier oil investments—but not necessarily those highest in associated climate impacts. Lower oil prices also reboot oil demand, leading to higher overall production and consumption. Depending on which oils turn on, climate impacts will shift again.
There are four categories of crudes that pose the biggest climate gamble. Unfortunately the market doesn’t necessarily and consistently factor in the environmental damage individual crudes cause. This poses a major market failure that translates into long-term investment risks.
All oil fields have some amount of natural gas associated with them. The more gas geologically mixed in with the oil, the more challenging and costly the job to separate these commodities and safely manage them. Despite the economic value in capturing and selling associated gas, many oil plays are not equipped to separate and transport gas. Producing gassy oil without special gas-handling infrastructure leaves producers with only one option—burning the gas as a waste byproduct. This practice is known as flaring. Oils that require significant flaring can result in upwards of 75 percent larger greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint than comparable oils that do not flare. Interestingly, Norway produces some of the world’s lowest GHG oils because, in an environmentally-enlightened and economically-beneficial move, it was made illegal to flare associated gas in the 1970s.
All oils are comprised mainly of carbon and hydrogen. The more carbon they contain, the “heavier” these oils are because carbon weighs twelve-times more than hydrogen. The heavier the oil, the more energy it takes to lift out of the ground—and the more heat, steam, and hydrogen required to transform into gasoline, diesel, and other high-value petroleum products. The heaviest oils have GHG footprints that can be nearly twice as large as lighter oils. In addition to greater production and processing requirements, the extra burden heavy oils place on the climate is borne by their higher share of carbon-rich bottom-of-the-barrel products like petroleum coke and bunker fuel that are often priced to sell.
Geologically, oil and water are often layered atop one another underground. While natural barriers exist, unwanted water can get entrained in oil reservoirs. Water is heavy—350 pounds to the barrel. Oils that contain a lot of water take a lot of energy to bring to the surface. If an oil field has a water-oil ratio of 10 to one, that adds nearly two tons of water for every barrel of oil produced. And some oils, especially those in California’s San Joaquin Valley have 25, 50 or more barrels of water mixed into each barrel of oil. And all of this produced water must be re-injected below ground. Oils with high water-oil ratios can have a GHG footprint that is as much as 50 percent higher than unencumbered oils.
Some oils are more difficult to access than others. It takes a lot of energy to reach extremely deep oils like Russia’s Sakhalin field drilled nearly eight miles down. Other oils are located in areas that sequester GHGs in large volumes like permafrost, boreal peat bogs, or rainforests. Unearthing oils here can release large volumes of climate-forcing gases. Not enough is yet known about the full climate impacts of extreme oils. But their GHG footprint can be anywhere from 50 percent bigger than those oils that are more easily accessed and located in less fragile environments.
So the bottom line is: know your oils. Spigots may turn on and off and on again in the years ahead. Whether you’re an investor, policymaker, environmentalist or concerned consumer, it will be critical to factor in the odds of different oils being produced before wagering your bet in the oil-climate casino.