Blog

My Trip to Midland, Texas

Wednesday, October 6, 2010, 10:41 AM
I had the opportunity to tour a petroleum and gas services company while on a recent speaking trip to Midland Texas.  Imagine a sprawling facility with three gigantic steel buildings, arc welders sparking inside, 70 workers crawling all over complicated devices made of metal and pipes, and a few dozen acres of components in varying states of readiness surrounding the facilities waiting to be re-called to service.  The main devices being created there treat natural gas between the time it leaves the ground and enters a pipeline. For the uninitiated, like me, it’s quite an amazing feat of chemical and physical engineering to build something that can remove, water, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from several million cubic feet of natural gas per day.  The pipes are enormous, the electric motors even larger, and the thickness of metal towers and flanges are best measured in inches. What I saw was an amazing display of the elements of TIME, SCALE, and COST that are the realities that lie behind our energy infrastructure.  Energy, lots and lots of embodied energy, to shape, weld, move and assemble the mini-treatment plants.  For most people, these things would be a mysterious package of pipes and towers sitting out in the middle of a field looking like miniature refinery of some sort parked there by a vanished race of little people. But to the trained eye, these are marvelously complex pieces of engineering operating at pressures and temperatures that are far out of the boundaries of normal daily experience for most people. These devices present just one form of the “energy required to get energy” that is featured in the /Crash Course/ [1] chapter on Peak Oil [2].  While conversant with the concept, I gained a more visceral appreciation for what is really involved.  We also saw the gigantic rigs sprouted across the landscape and representing the front end of the investment, the drilling of the wells.  Huge and complicated, these devices can be moved from site to site, but they also leave a few thousand feet of high-grade metal pipe inserted into the ground, and, as you might expect, consume an enormous amount of energy during the drilling process itself.   Then there are the miles and miles of pipeline that must be laid to collect all the gas. At every step of the process, I saw an immense amount of energy embodied in the processes themselves and in the steel used.  But I also saw the complexity.  Valves and control units, fans, motors, compressors, engines, cooling units, heating units, and many things I could not name were all hooked up, wired together, and each needing to function individually so everything could function collectively.  If anything breaks, the system stops working. Especially as we chase the remaining oil and gas, I learned, we are actually chasing deposits that have been known about for decades but left there because the hydrocarbons were too few or too sour to capture much interest at a time when larger, sweeter deposits were easily available.  And what about the so-called shale gas plays that are being billed as “new discoveries?”  They have been known about for decades, just not pursued until now.  Because the gas in them is not the best quality, more of these specialized, on-site treatment plants are required. Often the gas coming out of the well is used to power the energy-hungry processes (compression, heating, etc.) required to treat the gas to an acceptable grade to be allowed into a pipeline network.  There are standards for the water, carbon dioxide, and sulfides found in the gas (to varying degrees depending on the well), which must not be breached.  The gas used at the well-head is a very direct use of "energy required to get energy."  The indirect energy is embodied in all the equipment above and below ground. For some oil and gas plays, the calculus of treating the gas is not favorable, and so the gas is simply ‘flared off” (burned) at the well head, as that is the most economical way to dispose of it.  I saw many such flares on my trip, and, while strangely alluring, they also represented a sad use of energy.  Once burned, never regained. I wish I could take everyone who believes in the scanty scientific evidence lying behind the abiotic oil ‘theory’ to the oil museum in Midland.  First of all, everyone should go simply because it is a remarkably well-run museum.  Top notch.  The Louvre of oil.  But believers in the abiotic theory should spend some time looking at one of the massive geological drilling maps on the wall there, which reveal the exact layers of the Permian basin sediments containing oil and gas.  Stacked in perfectly flat layers, like a gigantic book with pages made of rock, the sediment bands are dated to within the nearest thousand years.  Some are permeable and contain oil and gas; some are impenetrable and form the necessary cap layers that trapped the hydrocarbons. I would be very interested to hear the abiotic explanation for how a layer could contain oil and gas, but have an impermeable layer both above and below it.  How did the abiotic oil get sandwiched there in those thin layers of permeable rock if it could not migrate from below?  Should we assume that certain types of sandstone create oil abiotically?  Further, the chemical composition of the oil (and the fossils in the sediments) exactly matches the critters known to be living in the oceans that covered the area at the time.  Another big mystery there; how did the oil, if abiotically formed, manage to infiltrate the precise layers where all these critters died, and why does the oil assume the correct biological markers and elemental traces?  Or why did the abiotic oil prefer to accumulate in the places where ancient seafloor conditions were just so, such that the fossil, geological, chemical and physical sciences all confirm the biological origin of the hydrocarbons now being exploited? I suppose I have an unfair advantage here, having spent time as a younger man crawling over the shale layers above and below coal seams, searching for plant and animal fossils.  As the layers slowly changed from shale into coal (presumably as the ancient conditions permitted one to form instead of the other), it was completely and undeniably obvious to anyone and everyone that coal has biological origins.  Where are the abiotic coal advocates?  They don’t exist, because the visual evidence in the form of fossil layers is too overwhelming to ignore.  It’s just too easy to see; layers and layers of increasingly dense fossil ferns and cycads gently merging with the coal seams. One becomes the other and then back again. But because oil is underground and one must use scientific evidence instead of direct experience with one's eyes, not everyone is convinced.  Science powerfully triangulates on the biological origin of oil, with multiple branches of inquiry all pointing to the same place. Back to the main part of this story.  It takes energy to produce energy; that much is obvious.  What came into sharper focus for me was the degree to which it takes a well-functioning and complex economy to build, move, service, and maintain the equipment necessary to produce energy.  If even one critical part, out of hundreds if not thousands, is missing, no energy production can proceed.  Everything must be in place.  Nothing can be missing. Which means that what we should be most concerned about going forward is assuring that our economic and societal complexity are maintained. In a perfect world, we would immediately dedicate a sizable portion of our current energy stream towards improving energy technologies, both in terms of production from renewable sources and towards improving the efficiency of existing technology. Those were a few of the take-aways from my trip to Midland TX.  My hosts were genuine and wonderful, and I very much enjoyed meeting the people there. This week I am at the ASPO conference, and I will be providing regular ‘information scout’ updates on my findings to my enrolled members.  In particular, I am quite excited to gather the latest on the idea of Peak Coal from one of the leading experts on the subject, hearing more about recent progress on EROEI work being done in Charlie Hall’s lab by Dave Murphy, and seeing the latest oil production data presented by some of the world’s leading experts. [1] http://www.peakprosperity.com/crashcourse/chapter-17a-peak-oil [2] http://www.peakprosperity.com/crashcourse/chapter-17a-peak-oil
Endorsed Financial Adviser Endorsed Financial Adviser

Looking for a financial adviser who sees the world through a similar lens as we do? Free consultation available.

Learn More »
Read Our New Book "Prosper!"Read Our New Book

Prosper! is a "how to" guide for living well no matter what the future brings.

Learn More »

 

Related content

13 Comments

Poet's picture
Poet
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 21 2009
Posts: 1891
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas

I find especially convincing and eloquently written, the part refuting those abiotic apostles. And I use the term "apostles," because faith is required to believe in an abiotic origin for oil despite all the geological, chemical, and biological evidence to the contrary.

Poet

james_knight_chaucer's picture
james_knight_chaucer
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 21 2009
Posts: 160
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas

I think that 'flaring' off this 'unfavourable' gas is criminally wasteful. Why can't they use this to work the well-head machinery, or collect it in cylinders. I am sure someone could be found who wanted it.

machinehead's picture
machinehead
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 18 2008
Posts: 1077
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas

Where are the abiotic coal advocates?

As Wall Street skeptics are fond of saying ... 'Where are the customers' yachts?'

Yow ... I could use a shot of abiotic vodka about now. Wink

ashvinp's picture
ashvinp
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 20 2010
Posts: 412
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas

Great report on the trip.

Quote:

Which means that what we should be most concerned about going forward is assuring that our economic and societal complexity are maintained.

In a perfect world, we would immediately dedicate a sizable portion of our current energy stream towards improving energy technologies, both in terms of production from renewable sources and towards improving the efficiency of existing technology.

I'm not so sure about this part though. I used to feel that re-directing current energy towards renewable sources is priority #1 and the goal should be to maintain our current levels of complexity, so we can prevent the suffering that would result from a collapse in complexity. But when does it end? Will we always be held hostage to this high level of complexity? Even in a society based on renewable energy sources, a small event can propagate through the system and cause massive disruption (for example a remote cyber attack that disrupts some of the computerized processes that we absolutely rely on for clean water, electricity, etc.).

And will a few developed countries continue to dominate the distribution of energy? High levels of complexity in a system, and increasing complexity, seems to be correlated with constant competition between parts of the system for energy, resources and wealth. Renewable energy may establish a "cleaner" global economy, but it may not be a decentralized system where all parts share in the wealth produced. I guess my feeling is that we should devote significant resources to developing alternative energy sources and increasing energy efficiency, but we should also voluntarily reduce complexity so that there is more stability and a more equalized distribution of the energy and wealth. Of course, at this point (and guessing how our leaders will continue to act in the future) that is the absolute best we can hope for and is probably still a very unlikely outcome.

Stan Robertson's picture
Stan Robertson
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 7 2008
Posts: 651
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas
james_knight_chaucer wrote:

I think that 'flaring' off this 'unfavourable' gas is criminally wasteful. Why can't they use this to work the well-head machinery, or collect it in cylinders. I am sure someone could be found who wanted it.

Wasteful, yes - criminal ? Sort this one out: Oil and gas production from the multiple wells in many fields is very uneven. For example, wells structurally high on a formation may produce considerably more gas than lower ones. The ownership of minerals is very fragmented. If your high gas cut well were forced to be shut in, your share of the oil might be drained by someone else's well long before a pipeline to your well can even be laid. Then if the sale of the gas won't pay the costs of cleaning it up and compressing it, who should pay for conserving it? These are not easy decisions in a society that values individual property rights.

The problem of wasted gas is much greater in places, such as the middle east, where the costs of liquifying it and transporting it to distant markets is much greater. The quantity wasted in the U.S. is very, very small in comparison even though we are among the world's largest oil producers. Most oil producing states have rules for field operations that tend to maximize recovery of oil and gas within the limits of currently economically viable technologies. There are also rules that protect fresh water bearing formations and surface features. The regulations are available for all to see on state corporation commission internet sites.

jhart5's picture
jhart5
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 25 2009
Posts: 89
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas

RE;

For some oil and gas plays, the calculus of treating the gas is not favorable, and so the gas is simply ‘flared off” (burned) at the well head, as that is the most economical way to dispose of it.  I saw many such flares on my trip, and, while strangely alluring, they also represented a sad use of energy.  Once burned, never regained.

Cyclone Power Inc. has designed and developed a Rankin [WHE] Waste Heat Engine with generator that would convert among other things, the flue gas from refineries into mechanical energy or electrical power that could be utilized on site or returned to the grid.

See: http://www.cyclonepower.com/whe.html

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 7 2007
Posts: 5568
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas
jhart5 wrote:

RE;

For some oil and gas plays, the calculus of treating the gas is not favorable, and so the gas is simply ‘flared off” (burned) at the well head, as that is the most economical way to dispose of it.  I saw many such flares on my trip, and, while strangely alluring, they also represented a sad use of energy.  Once burned, never regained.

Cyclone Power Inc. has designed and developed a Rankin [WHE] Waste Heat Engine with generator that would convert among other things, the flue gas from refineries into mechanical energy or electrical power that could be utilized on site or returned to the grid.

See: http://www.cyclonepower.com/whe.html

That's a great thing for some applications.  However many wells are nowhere near any utilities of any sort so, again, it may simply not be economical to run a line from the well head to the nearest pole in order to capture the electrical power that could be generated from the waste gas.  Perhaps the gas could be compressed and brought to a central location?  I have no idea if this makes sense either, just wondering.

Matt Holbert's picture
Matt Holbert
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 3 2008
Posts: 95
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas

This column reminded me of traveling to Midland/Odessa in the early 80's as a property tax representative for Texaco. I was amazed at the number of mobile homes in the area. In a world with dwindling resources, we probably won't be building what was/is essentially disposable housing. At least I hope we won't.

idoctor's picture
idoctor
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 4 2008
Posts: 1731
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas

Speaking of formations some might enjoy these youtubes......hope the US can find a cavern like this filled with yet an undiscoverd form of new crystal energy....afraid that does not exist LOL.

VeganDB12's picture
VeganDB12
Status: Platinum Member (Online)
Joined: Jul 18 2008
Posts: 731
crystal caves

Crystal
Caves-way cool!

 

xraymike79's picture
xraymike79
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 24 2008
Posts: 2040
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas

Chris Martenson wrote:

Which means that what we should be most concerned about going forward is assuring that our economic and societal complexity are maintained.

I'm taken aback that you, of all people, would state such a thing. With the net energy cliff approaching, attempting to maintain industrial civilization's current complexity is a foolish, futile effort. It's simply not a realistic or wise goal to strive for given the current depletion rate of the earth's natural resources. Creating a more decentralized and simpler system of food production as well as energy system (through renewables) will create a more resilient America, not maintaining the current system. This means simplification and diversification.

ccpetersmd's picture
ccpetersmd
Status: Martenson Brigade Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 12 2008
Posts: 799
Re: My Trip to Midland, Texas

I agree with xraymike; this statement seems a bit off-kilter from much else you have written. Otherwise, a most excellent update; thanks!

Poet's picture
Poet
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 21 2009
Posts: 1891
Re: crystal caves
VeganD wrote:

Crystal
Caves-way cool!

Looks like those Mexicans found Superman's Fortress of Solitude...

Poet

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Login or Register to post comments