Tag Archives: oil

In the Red Sea, an oil tanker rots — it could create the largest spill in human history

The Red Sea is at risk of becoming an oil-drenched waste, according to a new paper. It draws attention to the need of removing an abandoned, decaying tanker from the sea that holds approximately one million barrels of oil.

Image via Pixabay.

The ship, named quite ironically the “FSO Safer”, was employed as a floating storage and offloading unit (FSO) for several years before being abandoned due to the Yemeni Civil War. Now it’s essentially a floating, derelict oil container. Although no longer in use, it still carries around one million barrels of oil, which is four times as much as spilled from the Exxon Valdez in the infamous 1989 spill. Removing the tanker before its current seepage can turn into a full-fledged oil spill is critical for the health of local marine ecosystems and the communities they support.

The study follows on the coattails of an announcement on November 24th that the Yemeni Houthis will allow a United Nations (UN) team to board, inspect, and repair the vessel in the near future.

Biggest oil can

“The time is now to prevent a potential devastation to the region’s waters and the livelihoods and health of millions of people living in half a dozen countries along the Red Sea’s coast,” says Karine Kleinhaus, MD, MPH, an Associate Professor of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University and lead author of the paper.

“If a spill from the Safer is allowed to occur, the oil would spread via ocean currents to devastate a global ocean resource, as the coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba are projected to be among the last reef ecosystems in the world to survive the coming decades.”

The paper calls for the removal of oil currently held inside the Safer before a spill occurs. It outlines a policy brief required to do so, and has been authored by an international team of researchers.

The Safer started its life as the Esso Japan in 1976 and was converted to an unpropelled storage vessel in 1987, acquired by the Yemeni government in 1988, and anchored off the coast of Yemen. Rechristened as the Safer, it was used as temporary storage for oil extracted in the area awaiting export. In 2015, when Houthi forces took control of its surrounding coastline, they also in effect took ownership of the vessel. Due to a lack of proper maintenance, the Safer’s structure suffered extensive wear and tear over the following years.

Storage ships typically use inert gas chambers to prevent combustion of oil or oil vapors on board, and the Safer was no exception. However, its advanced level of deterioration means that some of its gas chambers have likely vented by now, posing an explosive risk. The aging metal plates could also give way, leading to a massive spill. The Safer still holds an estimated US$80 million worth of oil onboard, some 1.14 million barrels. Its value has thwarted any hope that the Houthi forces and Yemeni government would reach an understanding on how to proceed with the ship (as both parties claim rights over the ship and its cargo).

Leaks first started being reported around the Safer in 2019 through Al Jazeera, although subsequent satellite imagery found no signs of oil spills. Still, the risk is very real. The Houtis granted permission for a UN team to board and inspect the vessel in the near future, as announced by The New York Times on November 24th of this year.

The Red Sea is a unique environment, so I’m very happy that they did. Coral reefs in the sea are particularly at risk from any spills, and they’re different from reefs anywhere else. Corals in the Red Sea have adapted to survive in higher temperatures than anywhere else. Researchers have pinned much hope that these organisms can be used to seed reefs throughout the world that are currently dying due to global warming (such as the Great Barrier Reef, for example). Communities in all countries bordering the sea also rely heavily on its wildlife for food and income, and the Red Sea is a hotbed of biodiversity. A spill here would cause immense damage to nature and people.

The current paper used computer simulations to estimate the impact of a spill from Safer. The projections show that it would spread massively during winter due to local current patterns, and less in summer. On simulations with longer run times, the oil would spread farther away from the ship, suggesting that the issue could grow out of hand quickly if allowed. Especially as it’s winter right now.

According to the authors, seawater breached the Safer reaching its engine compartment in May 2020, and there have been reports of associated leaks.

“Emergent action must be taken by the UN and its International Maritime Organization to address the threat of the Safer, despite political tensions, as a spill will have disastrous environmental and humanitarian consequences, especially if it occurs during winter,” the paper notes.

“With millions of barrels of oil a day passing through the Red Sea, a regional strategy must be drafted for leak prevention and containment that is specific to the Red Sea’s unique ecosystems, unusual water currents, and political landscape.”

The paper, titled “A Closing Window of Opportunity to Save a Unique Marine Ecosystem,” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Have we passed peak oil demand? The world might never use as much oil again, experts say

The oil industry’s hopes for a resurgent demand are quickly fading away after reports from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and OPEC warned the market’s outlook is more fragile than expected. The upsurge in the number of coronavirus cases and weakened market sentiments are putting the industry in a difficult spot.

Credit Flickr JoiseShowwa

The EIA cut its forecast for 2020 oil demand growth to 91.7 million barrels per day, claiming there’s a “treacherous” path ahead. This represents a contraction of 8.4 million bpd year-on-year, more than the 8.1 million bpd contraction predicted in the agency’s August report. To make matters worse for the industry, oil prices have dropped around 40% since the start of the year.

“We expect the recovery in oil demand to decelerate markedly in the second half of 2020, with most of the easy gains already achieved,” the IEA said in its report. “The economic slowdown will take months to reverse completely, while certain sectors such as aviation are unlikely to return to their pre-pandemic levels of consumption even next year.”

The IEA said “renewed weakness” in India reflected a cause for concern. However, China, which emerged from lockdown sooner than other countries, continued to recover “strongly.” The global health crisis has coincided with an unparalleled energy demand shock this year, with the IEA previously warning the fall in oil demand growth this year could be the largest in history.

The report comes shortly after OPEC, which groups 13 oil-producing countries, cut its forecast for oil demand growth in 2020, citing a weaker recovery in India and Asian countries. The group revised its outlook to an average of 90.2 million barrels per day, which is a 40.000-bpd reduction from the previous month’s estimate and of 9.5 million bpd year-on-year.

“Risks remain elevated and skewed to the downside, particularly in relation to the development of Covid-19 infection cases and potential vaccines,” the group said in the report. “Furthermore, the speed of recovery in economic activities and oil demand growth potential in Other Asian countries, including India, remains uncertain,” it added.

From the industry’s perspective, the decline seen so far this year is destabilizing and very significant. Producers around the world are rethinking their production plans, pausing new projects and shutting down drilling rigs. In the US producers have gone bankrupt, while Saudi Arabia, has been pushing OPEC to cut its output and drag prices up out of the doldrums.

The disruptions come as investors, regulators and energy giants anticipate big changes in oil demand in the next few years, as the world takes action to limit the consequences of climate change. BP and Shell have already pledged to reshape their business to focus on zero-carbon energy sources. Total even acknowledged that the shift from fossil fuels will cause its oil investments to become stranded assets.

BP recently published its annual energy outlook and set up three scenarios for the future of oil demand. In two of them, the world takes action on climate change and the current drop in oil demand becomes the pivot point leading to a low-emissions future. In the third path, with the world continuing with business as usual, oil demand would increase slightly but peak within a decade.

Pregnant women living near oil and gas wells are 40% more likely to birth low-weight babies

Pregnant women have a higher risk of having low birth weight babies if they live close to active oil and gas wells, especially in rural areas, according to a new study in California. The findings add to previous studies that had already warned over the impacts of living near fossil fuel extraction sites.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The study, which is one of the largest of its kind, looked at the medical records of nearly three million births by moms living within 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) of at least one oil or gas well between 2006 and 2015. The researchers targeted births in both rural and urban areas, as well as pregnant women living near both active and inactive oil and gas sites.

According to the findings, pregnant women who lived in rural areas within 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) of the highest producing wells were 40% more likely to birth underweight babies and 20% more likely to have babies who were small for their gestational age, compared to people living farther away from wells or near inactive wells only.

Even among term births, babies were 1.3 ounces (36 grams) smaller, on average, than those of their counterparts. Newborns are considered to have low birth weight when their weight is less than 5lb and 8oz (2.4 kilos). Having a low weight can cause a wide array of short-term development issues.

“Being born of low birth weight or small for gestational age can affect the development of newborns and increase their risk of health problems in early childhood and even into adulthood,” said in a statement Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior author of the paper.

Morello-Frosch and her team also found a link between living in close proximity to oil and gas wells and small babies born in urban areas. Nevertheless, it was much less significant than in rural communities – something they explain by differences in air quality, maternal occupation, and housing conditions.

Growing risks

The findings add to a growing body of evidence linking proximity to oil and gas wells to a variety of adverse birth outcomes such as premature birth, heart defects, and low birth weight. Oil and gas production has been on the rise in the US in recent years due to the expansion of non-conventional techniques like fracking.

Fracking is a method of extracting oil and gas trapped in shale and other rock formations. It involves pumping large amounts of water down a well at high pressure, along with sand and chemicals that make up a tiny fraction of the volume. The technique transformed the US energy landscape, although California hasn’t seen as much changes as other states.

In California, where the study was carried out, oil production has declined over the past three decades. Last year, Governor Gavin Newson issued stricter rules for companies to obtain fracking permits. There are now 282 fracking permits waiting for review in the state.

“This study is the first to characterize the implications for perinatal health of active oil and gas production in the state, and I think the results can inform decision-making in regulatory enforcement and permitting activities,” Morello-Frosch said. “Results from health studies such as ours support recent efforts to increase buffers between active well activities and where people live, go to school and play.”

The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives

Oil prices could drop to $10 amid coronavirus outbreak

If it continues much longer, the coronavirus outbreak could send oil prices as low as $10 and the world could run out of storage for it as part of a market reaction to the outbreak, analysts estimate.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Global oil prices fell to lows of $25 a barrel last week, recovering slightly since then. The drop was in line with a general decline in the value of commodities as the coronavirus expanded. Oil-producing nations failed to agree on a strategy to boost prices, which made the plunge even stronger.

China decided to shut down most of its refineries as part of the coronavirus lockdown, a path followed by other countries later. Since then, oil storage levels across the world’s storage facilities have climbed to about three-quarters full on average.

Analysts expect the storage facilities to continue to be filled out in the coming weeks and months, as demand for oil and natural gas is very low due to the expansion of the virus and its effect on the economy. Canada, for example, is just days away from running out of the storage of its oil production, according to the energy consultancy Rystad Energy. The rest of the world could face a similar situation in just a few months.

“Compounding the situation is the near-certainty of a steep reduction in crude-by-rail exports this year,” Thomas Liles, an analyst at Rystad, told The Guardian, “As well as deferral of spring maintenance at several key oil sands mining projects.”

The lack of storage room will lead to the global oil industry to look for alternative places to store the extra crude. One option will be offshore oil tankers, but for it to be economic oil prices would have to fall more to about $10, according to analysts’ estimations.

Barclays estimates global available onshore crude storage capacity at about 1.5 billion barrels, which could be exceeded in less than ten months. This is mainly because oil producers have been slow in cutting production despite the lower demand due to the coronavirus outbreak, they claimed.

Crude production could even increase soon, as an agreement between oil-producing countries to hold back production will come to an end. This would mean Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the largest producers, will start competing with each other to get a larger share of the market.

This oil price war could raise global oil production by more than 2.5m barrels of oil a day, which would outpace demand for crude by 6m barrels of oil a day, according to Rystad — which estimates the world has about 7.2bn barrels of crude and products in storage.

Saudi oil company Aramco prepares for $1.5 trillion IPO

Following a long delay, Saudi Arabia has authorized the sale of the state-owned oil company Aramco. It will be the biggest stock market flotation in history and the market debut could value Saudi Aramco at $1.5 trillion, significantly below initial expectations of up to $2 trillion.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Nevertheless, Aramco’s initial public offering will be the biggest in history, raising $40bn-$45 billion, surpassing the record $25 billion raised by China’s tech firm Alibaba in 2015. The precise details of the offer won’t be released until November 9th.

Only a small portion of shares will be released on to the Riyadh market, likely to be in the range of 1% to 3% of the total stock, according to estimations. The size and scale of Aramco are likely to require the financial liquidity only available on the globe’s biggest exchanges, such as Wall Street or London.

Apple is now the world’s most valuable company, surpassing Microsoft last Friday. Apple’s stock has surged in recent weeks as numerous analysts have predicted better-than-expected iPhone 11 sales. Many firms had anticipated that people would skip out on Apple’s latest phone lineup to wait for iPhones released in 2020.

Yasir al-Rumayyan, the chairman of Saudi Aramco, said: “Today marks a significant milestone in the history of the company and important progress towards delivering Saudi Vision 2030, the kingdom’s blueprint for sustained economic diversification and growth.”

The company is responsible for 13% of the world’s oil, and this year it revealed half-year profits of $46.9 billion – more than the next six biggest oil companies combined. Saudi Arabia is expected to use the listing to leverage its vast fossil fuel reserves to help modernize its economy and gain international acceptance.

The sale of the state-owned company is controversial among environmentalists and campaigners pushing to keep fossil fuels from being burned. A recent report showed Aramco has been responsible for 4.38% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965 and named it as the biggest corporate polluter in the world.

Green groups say the company’s IPO undermines global efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Aramco counters with data that a spokesperson said showed that it had the smallest carbon footprint of any of the oil majors per unit of output.

The company “lifts” 11.6m barrels of oil every day and has reserves of 227 million barrels. It costs just $2.80 for the company to lift each barrel of oil, compared with the $62 price per barrel on world markets, resulting in vast profits. It said its operating cash flow in 2018 was $121 billion and it would pay out dividend’s worth $75 billion this year.

The Saudi government said it would forego its share of dividends in the event of an oil price collapse, effectively creating a company that guarantees dividends of $75 billion a year. The documents also reveal that the drone attack on Aramco’s facilities in September cost it $28 million, a sum that is so insignificant to the company’s scale that it was not material to the accounts.

What are the healthiest oils to cook with? An explainer

The shelf of the cooking-oil section of supermarkets has recently become a crowded spot, with an abundance of options to choose from. But this means it can be tricky to know which is the healthiest one, starting from the healthful olive oil to the more controversial palm and grapeseed oils.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

To help select some of the healthiest, here’s a rundown of the most used ones across the world. Some oils have been well studied for their health benefits, while others have too little research from which to draw firm conclusions about their effects on heart health.

Since there are so many cooking oils across the world, it would be impossible to look at all of them, so we will only look at some of the most popular ones, seeing which are healthy and which not.

Olive oil

Used for cooking but also for soaps and fuel, olive oil is a vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the Olive tree, a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean Basin. It is regarded as a healthful dietary oil because of its high content of monounsaturated fat and polyphenols.

Buying the right kind of olive oil is very important. Extra virgin olive oil retains some of the antioxidants and bioactive compounds from olives. For this reason, it’s considered healthier than the more refined variety of olive oil. Even so, there is a lot of fraud on the olive oil market.

About 14% of the oil is saturated fat, whereas 11% is polyunsaturated, such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.  But the predominant fatty acid in olive oil is a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, making up 73% of the total oil content. Studies suggest that oleic acid reduces inflammation and may even have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer.

Apart from its beneficial fatty acids, it contains modest amounts of vitamins E and K. But olive oil is also loaded with powerful antioxidants. These antioxidants are biologically active and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases. They also fight inflammation and help protect blood cholesterol from oxidation — two benefits that may lower your risk of heart disease.

Extra-virgin olive oil can reduce inflammation, which may be one of the main reasons for its health benefits. The main anti-inflammatory effects are mediated by the antioxidants. Key among them is oleocanthal, which has been shown to work similarly to ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug. Olive oil has also been found to be slightly better for the liver, in a recent study.

Sunflower oil 

Sunflower oil is a non-volatile oil that can be easily extracted from sunflowers. Although most people are already familiar with sunflowers, they don’t immediately think of sunflowers as sources of extremely healthy vegetable oil that can replace some of the less healthy cooking oils available on the market.

Sunflower oil is rich in vitamin E, vitamin K, phytosterols, and monosaturated fatty acids. One of the primary reasons for its growing popularity is its impressive fatty acid content, which includes palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, lecithin, carotenoids, selenium, and linoleic acid. The combination of fatty acids in the body is extremely important to maintain various elements of human health.

At the same time, some of those fatty acids, as well as vitamin E and other organic compounds, act as antioxidants in sunflower oil, which means that they can positively affect a huge range of conditions that people regularly suffer from. It also has more polyunsaturated fats than any other commonly used vegetable oil.

Three common grades of sunflower oil are available, and each varies in its nutritional content. High-oleic oil is from sunflowers bred to have a high concentration of oleic acid in their seeds. Mid-oleic is the oil that’s used for stir-frying and in salad dressings, while linoleic is formed by more polyunsaturated omega-6 fats but is lacking in healthy omega-3s.

Coconut oil

Unlike other plant-based oils, coconut oil is primarily saturated fat. Not everyone agrees that such a concentrated source of saturated fat is a no-go for health, but some experts, including the American Heart Association, argue that replacing foods that are high in saturated fat with healthier options can lower blood cholesterol levels and improve lipid profiles.

Made from the fruit of the coconut palm tree, coconut oil has been promoted as a better alternative to butter. Nevertheless, there’s little scientific evidence of that. It is a white solid at room temperature with a consistency resembling that of butter or shortening rather than liquid oil.

Interestingly, however, a study comparing the use of coconut oil vs sunflower oil found no difference in the lipid-related cardiovascular risk factors between the two oils.

Palm oil

Palm oil comes from the fleshy fruit of oil palms. The main source of palm oil is the Elaeis guineensis tree, which is native to West and Southwest Africa. Its use in this region dates back more than 5,000 years. In recent years, oil palm growth has expanded to Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Palm oil is one of the least expensive and most popular oils worldwide, accounting for one-third of global plant oil production. It is an excellent source of tocotrienols, a form of vitamin E with strong antioxidant properties that may support brain health. It also has been linked to protection against heart disease, but with mixed results so far. Furthermore, although it is high in saturated fats, a Harvard study found that “Palm oil has been scientifically shown to protect the heart and blood vessels from plaques and ischemic injuries” and that “Palm oil consumed as a dietary fat as a part of a healthy balanced diet does not have incremental risk for cardiovascular disease.” 

However, while palm oil doesn’t really deserve all the negative reputation it gets (here’s why), it shouldn’t really be your first choice against other vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature. Furthermore, because it is so cheap and robust, palm oil is used extensively in many processed foods, which should absolutely be avoided. The “healthy balanced diet” part in the above-mentioned study is a crucial aspect.

Furthermore, there are also several ethical issues regarding palm oil production’s effects on the environment, wildlife and communities. The increase in production due to the growing demand has led to the destruction of tropical forests and peatland in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. A recent study has also likened the palm oil industry lobby to that of the alcohol and tobacco industry due to its negative impact

Grapeseed oil

Grapeseed oil comes from the pressed seeds of grapes, making it a by-product of wine manufacturing. The health claims around it are based on its supposedly high amounts of nutrients, antioxidants, and polyunsaturated fats.

It’s very high in polyunsaturated fats, mainly omega-6. Scientists have speculated that a high intake of omega-6 fats, relative to omega-3s, may increase inflammation in the body. It also contains a significant amount of Vitamin E. However, calorie for calorie, it is not an impressive source of Vitamin E.

Very few studies have investigated the effects of grapeseed oil on human health. It is usually advertised as a good choice for high-heat cooking like frying. However, this may be bad advice, as grapeseed oil is also high in polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fats tend to react with oxygen at high heat, forming harmful compounds.

Canola oil

Canola oil is derived from rapeseed, a flowering plant, and contains a good amount of monounsaturated fats and a decent amount of polyunsaturated fats. Of all vegetable oils, canola oil tends to have the least amount of saturated fats. It has a high smoke point, which means it can be helpful for high-heat cooking.

That being said, in the United States, canola oil tends to be highly processed, which means fewer nutrients overall. “Cold-pressed” or unprocessed canola oil is available, but it can be difficult to find. It is a versatile and practical cooking oil that’s not very expensive and can be used in a variety of ways.

Avocado oil

More expensive than other oils and harder to find, avocado oil has a mild flavor similar to avocado, and the oil can withstand high cooking temperatures, making it suitable for sautéing, grilling, roasting or using in salad dressings.

It is rich in monounsaturated fat and it has one of the highest levels of monounsaturated fat among cooking oils, second only to olive oil. Like olive oil, avocado oil is also low in polyunsaturated fats. Compared with other vegetable oils, avocado oil has a higher saturated fat content (20 percent), but this percentage is much smaller than the percentage of saturated fat in butter.

So, which should I use?

Sadly, this is not a straight forward answer. Each of the cooking oils has different characteristics, which will help decide which one to buy based on what and how you are cooking.

Overall, it is safe to say that olive and sunflower oil have science-proven benefits and perform somewhat better healthwise than most alternatives — but both have shortcomings. That can also apply to canola oil, but only the unprocessed one. Meanwhile, doubts remain regarding grapeseed, avocado and palm oils, with further research needed.

It’s important to note that the cooking method can also drastically influence the behavior of oils. Olive oil seems to be best-suited for uncooked foods (such as salads), closely followed by sunflower oil. Oils with high smoke points may be more stable than those with low smoke points, and one study found that again olive oil is possibly one of the most stable ones. However, olive oil does lose some of its edge when cooked at high temperatures.

At any rate, cooking oil should only be consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy and balanced diet, low in processed foods. Avoid deep frying whenever possible. Bon appétit!


Major oil corporations spent $1 billion on climate lobbying against Paris Agreement-related regulations

In the past decade, the world’s most powerful oil and gas corporations have significantly changed their rhetoric surrounding climate change. Most now recognize that climate change is occurring due to human activity, with their business operations obviously playing a huge role. Some, like Shell and ExxonMobil, have even gone as far as proposing lawmakers to introduce a carbon tax in order to tackle climate change.

“We see carbon pricing as an essential policy tool to tackle climate change and pave the way for a smooth energy transition,” a Shell spokesman said in a statement in 2018.

“Shell has long supported a strong and stable government-led carbon pricing framework,” the spokesman said. “It’s our view Government-led carbon pricing mechanisms are the lowest cost way to develop low carbon technologies for a low carbon economy.”

This positioning, however, sounds more and more like a front that hides a “business as usual” approach. According to a recent report by British think tank InfluenceMap, five major oil corporations have funneled more than $1 billion into climate-related branding and lobbying that support measures directly counter to the Paris Agreement. In light of these findings, any climate-friendly statements from behalf of oil spokesmen are simply ridiculous.

Oil majors are projecting themselves as key players in the energy transition while lobbying to delay, weaken, or oppose meaningful climate policy,” Edward Collins, author of the new report, said in a statement. “They advocate gradual implementation of market-based and technological climate solutions, but the latest [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report makes clear that urgent policy action and limitations on fossil fuel use are needed to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Shameful double-standards

Here’s what Total’s CEO Patrick Pouyanne had to say during a speech at a 2015 gas and electricity summit in Paris:

“Sometimes in all these discussions you have the impression that all fossil fuels are the bad guys. But the bad guys are part of the solution.”

“Whatever people think, we still need fossil fuels. We need to make advocacy for gas. We need to explain to our policy makers that gas has to be encouraged,” Pouyanne said.

“Policy makers are not convinced in many countries that gas is part of the solution for climate change, we in the industry need to speak up.”

“Our shared ambition is for a 2°C future,” the statement reads. “It is a challenge for the whole of society. We are committed to playing our part. Over the coming years we will collectively strengthen our actions and investments to contribute to reducing the GHG intensity of the global energy mix. Our companies will collaborate in a number of areas, with the aim of going beyond the sum of our individual efforts.”

InfluenceMap used the latest disclosures and corporate messaging to come up with its total estimate for climate lobbying and branding. The authors of the report write that ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total spend $115 million a year lobbying against climate regulations — even those that they publicly support. What’s more, the amount of money oil companies are spending on lobbying has increased in the past two years.

Some of this money is responsible for obstructing climate-related news. ZME Science reported in 2016 how Exxon and Shell spent $114 million in 2015 to manipulate lawmakers and public discourse on climate change. Increasingly, social media seems to play an ever more important role in pushing big oil’s agenda — opposing legislation to tackle global warming. In the run-up to the US midterm elections, InfluenceMap reports that global oil giants spent $2m on targeted Facebook and Instagram ads which promoted the benefits of fossil fuels.

InfluenceMap’s research confirms a widely held suspicion that Big Oil’s glossy sustainability reports and shiny climate statements are all rhetoric and no action,” said Catherine Howarth, Chief Executive of ShareAction, a UK charity focused on responsible investment, in a statement. “These companies have mastered the art of corporate doublespeak — by boasting about their climate credentials while quietly using their lobbying firepower to sabotage the implementation of sensible climate policy and pouring millions into groups that engage in dirty lobbying on their behalf.”

By all accounts, their lobbying is working. Big oil is often given a seat during important policy meetings and even high-level discussions like those organized by the Conference of the Parties (COP), where world leaders hammer out deals that set how much emissions they should cut.

Meanwhile, major oil companies save face by investing a tiny fraction of their portfolios and revenues into renewable energy and then making a huge deal out of it.

This spending accompanies the expansion of the companies’ operations with combined annual sales of over $1 [trillion] and profits of $55 [billion in] 2018, the vast majority of which is oil and gas related,” InfluenceMap wrote. “Combined capital investment will increase to $115 [billion] in 2019 but only about 3 percent of this will go to low carbon investments, according to company disclosures.”

Now, more than ever before, it’s important to call out the lies, greenwashing, and manipulations of oil lobbyists and the politicians who are in their pockets. Share this article with a friend.


Eating bad PUFAs may put you at risk of developing asthma — but fish contains the good PUFAs

A new study from the James Cook University suggests fish might be the best prevention against asthma.


Image via Pixabay.

One innovative new study finds evidence that a diet rich in fish can help prevent asthma. Led by Professor Andreas Lopata from JCU’s Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM), the study involved 642 people who work in a fish processing factory in a small village in South Africa.

Fishy breathing

 “Asthma incidence has nearly doubled in the past 30 years and about half of asthma patients do not get any benefit from the drugs available to treat it. So there’s a growing interest in non-drug treatment options,” Lopata says.

Around 334 million people worldwide have asthma, and about a quarter of a million people die from it every year. In Australia, one in nine have asthma (about 2.7 million), and among Indigenous Australians, this rate is almost twice as high. Professor Lopata says one hypothesis researchers are considering right now is that the rise of asthma may be tied to modern dietary changes.

“There is an increasing consumption of what is known as the n-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA) found in vegetable oils and a decline in consumption of n-3 PUFA, which is mainly found in marine oils. Crudely, there has been a global move from fresh fish to fast food,” he said.

The village in question has been chosen for the study as its population records high fish consumption and low socioeconomic status. Overall, this makes it likely that marine oils from fish and other seafood would be the main source of n-3 for the people living in the area rather than supplements.

Certain types of n-3 PUFAs, specifically those obtained from marine oils, were “significantly associated” with a lower risk of developing asthma or asthma-like symptoms, the team reports. Consumption of these compounds lowered the chance of an individual developing asthma or asthma-like symptoms by 62%, while high consumption of n-6 PUFAs — from vegetable oils — increased risk by up to 67%.

“Even if you factor in contaminants such as mercury found in some fish populations, the benefits of fish and seafood intake far more outweighs the potential risks,” said Professor Lopata.

The findings are encouraging, he adds, but very early. Further research is needed to see which specific types of n-3 PUFAs are beneficial against asthma and how to best optimize their role. At the same time, we should also look into whether we can limit the negative effects of n-6, he adds.

The paper “Relationship between Serum Omega-3 Fatty Acid and Asthma Endpoints” has been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Test tube oils.

Nanoparticle treatment developed to scrub water clean of oil pollution

New research from the Rice University may hold the key to scrubbing water clean of oily pollutants.

Test tube oils.

The team developed nanoparticles that draw in the bulk of the oil and are then attracted to the magnet, as demonstrated here.
Image credits Jeff Fitlow / Rice University.

Water and oil don’t mix; except when they do. While the two fluids tend to separate readily, they’re able to mix just well enough to bind together. We call the resulting mixture an ’emulsion’. Not very dangerous in your kitchen — mayonnaise, for example, is an emulsion — but the phenomenon can cause problems in production water from oil wells. ‘Produced water’ comes from oil wells along with crude.

Looking for a way to scrub water clean in such cases, researchers from the Rice University have developed a nanoparticle-based solution that can remove 99% of the emulsified oil left over from oil wells.

The solution relies on magnetic nanoparticles that can attract oil droplets suspended in production water. The approach can scrub even those drops of oils that existing processes simply can’t remove.

Crude mixtures

Produced water is often laced with surfactants and other chemical compounds. These compounds are pumped into a crude oil reservoir to reduce the crude’s viscosity and help with extraction.

Now, believe it or not, you have some surfactants (surface acting substances) in your house; at least a bottle or a block of the stuff. You call it ‘soap‘. Soap helps you get clean by forcing water and fats (such as oils) to mix. One end of the soap molecule is hydrophilic (it ‘likes’ water) while the other end is hydrophobic (it ‘fears’ water). The hydrophilic end sports a water-soluble molecule that binds to water molecules, while the other end boasts a molecule that’s soluble in fats. Once each end has tied to the compounds of their affection, the soap molecule acts as a chain linking fat to water.

Sodium Stearate.

The chemical structure of sodium stearate, the main ingredient in soaps. The O-Na bond forms the hydrophilic ‘head’, while the tail represents the hydrophobic area.
Image credits Smokefoot / Wikimedia.

In an oil well, surfactants force the crude to form stable emulsions with water. Because this emulsion is less viscous than the crude alone, it’s more easily pumped by derricks up to the surface. Most of the crude can be separated and then extracted from such emulsions. A fraction of about 5% is never or almost never recovered, and remains tied to the water.

“Injected chemicals and natural surfactants in crude oil can oftentimes chemically stabilize the oil-water interface, leading to small droplets of oil in water which are challenging to break up,” said Sibani Lisa Biswal, paper co-author and an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering.

The paper combines Biswal’s expertise with magnetic nanoparticles with lead author Qing Wang’s experience with amines. The amines’ role is to guide the nanoparticles to oil droplets — amines carry a positive charge and oil is negatively-charged, so they attract. Magnets are then used to draw all the nanoparticles out of the solution.

They tested the nanoparticles in emulsions produced in the lab using either model oil or crude oil. In both cases, the team dropped their compound into the emulsions, shook them by hand or machine, and had oil-nanoparticle bonds form within minutes. Some of the oil floated to the top by this stage. The test tubes were then placed atop a magnet which drew the rest to the bottom — leaving clean water in between.

The research is remarkable as nanoparticles tend to aggregate (clump together) in high-salinity environments — such as those found in reservoir fluids — but the ones developed by the team remain stable in produced water. Furthermore, these nanoparticles can be treated with a solvent to recover the oil; they can be re-used after cleaning. So far, the team proved that the nanoparticles can go through six charge-discharge cycles while remaining effective. However, they suspect that the compound can remain effective for many more cycles.

Biswal’s team is now designing a flow-through reactor to scrub large quantities of produced water and automatically recycle the nanoparticles.

Household oil pollution is a huge issue nowadays, one that the team’s efforts may help address. Oil scrubbing may help protect the waterways for communities that can’t or don’t treat wastewater, or create an extra precaution for communities that do.

Bahrain announces new, massive 80-billion-barrels shale oil reservoir

Bahrain has struck gold — black gold, that is. The insular Arabic country has just announced the discovery of its biggest oil field since 1932. The new shale oil finding dramatically outscales the country’s entire reserves.

Bahrain’s skyline. Image credits: Wadiia / Wikipedia.

Bahrain was one of the first Arabic countries to exploit oil in 1932, and it was also one of the first to run out of it. Unlike its neighbors, Bahrain boasts a much smaller oil production, being the smallest oil production the Arabian Gulf — but this reservoir might change things.

The reservoir lies off the country’s west coast, in the Khaleej al-Bahrain basin. Bahrain’s oil minister and energy executives detailed the find at a press conference, saying that the oil, along with deep natural gas, can be exploited within five years. The ministers announced a separate discovery of gas reserves below Bahrain’s main gas reservoir, which can greatly support the country’s growing demand for fossil fuels.

“Initial analysis demonstrates the find is at substantial levels, capable of supporting the long-term extraction of tight oil [light crude] and deep gas,” said Bahrain’s minister of oil, Shaikh Mohamed bin Khalifa al-Khalifa.

So you can get a sense of scale for how big this 80-billion-gallon reservoir really is, in 2016, Texas geophysicists reported discovering the biggest shale reservoir in the US, and that was 20 billion gallons. However, the US still has, by far, the greatest hydrocarbon shale potential in the world. A 2016 estimate found that the total world resources of oil shale is equivalent to a yield of 6.05 trillion barrels of shale oil, with the US accounting for more than 80% of that.

However, shale oil isn’t that simple. The economic feasibility of shale oil extraction is highly dependent on the price of conventional oil. In other words, shale oil is expensive and can only make sense when the price of oil is high. Furthermore, shale reservoirs are notoriously difficult to recover. They’re deep, they typically require horizontal as well as vertical drilling, and generally, recovery rates are well below 50%. In addition, the environmental impact of shale oil mining is dramatic. It generates more emissions than conventional drilling, generates significant amounts of waste, requires extensive land and water use, and has been linked to earthquakes and contamination. So while, for Bahrain, this reservoir can be a massive economic boom, shale gas is definitely not the gateway to a sustainable future.

Bahrain has an open economy, and one of the highest ranking currency units in the world. Petroleum and natural gas are the only significant natural resources in Bahrain, but the country has greatly diversified its economy in the past decade, investing heavily in the banking and tourism sectors.

Slicks East China Sea.

Oil slicks continue to grow in the East China Sea after tanker sank in the area

Satellites watching over the remains of Iranian tanker Sanchi, which sank days ago with all hands on deck off the coast of China, are revealing a dangerous legacy: several large slicks that stretch for miles in the East China Sea.

Slicks East China Sea.

Aerial photography taken Monday shows slicks on the surface of the East China Sea. The spill continues to grow.
Image via Xinhua.

Earlier this month, Panama-registered tanker Sanchi collided with the freighter CF Crystal off the coast of China. The ships caught fire and, powered by the almost 150,000 tons of crude aboard the Sanchi, this inferno raged for over a week before the tanker finally sank.

All of the ship’s crew — 30 Iranians and 2 Bangladeshis — are presumed dead at this point, although only three bodies have been recovered so far. Chinese officials say they are preparing to examine the vessel, now 115 meters (377 feet) below the surface, and the surrounding waters using a robot submarine.

However, some of the tragic collision’s effects are better seen from afar. Information from China’s State Oceanic Administration says that two oil slicks have been observed in satellite imagery, spreading over a combined 109 square kilometers (42 square miles). The slicks are made-up of natural gas condensate, a light, highly flammable hydrocarbon.

Some effects of the deadly collision have already proven easy to observe from afar. However, citing China’s State Oceanic Administration, Reuters reports that satellite imagery has revealed two slicks of a combined 42 square miles. The slicks contain natural gas condensate, described by the wire service as “an ultra-light, highly flammable crude oil.”

The scale of the Sanchi’s tanks could make this the worst tanker spill since 1991. Chinese authorities are thus scrambling to mitigate the environmental toll of the spill as much as possible. Among other measures, they hope divers will be able to pump out much of the condensate before they have a chance to leak onto the seabed. However, both they and Japanese officials say that the situation is currently under control.

“It is difficult to give an immediate assessment of what kind of environmental impact the oil leak may leave at this point. It depends on how much fuel the ship still had inside,” a spokesman for Japan’s coast guard told AFP on Tuesday.

“We believe the situation is reasonably under control for now.”

Fossilized bird.

Researchers discover astonishingly intact, 48-million-year-old bird fats in fossilized gland

A new discovery at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Messel Pit in Germany is making waves through the paleontological community. An international team of researchers has unearthed a 48-million-year bird preening gland, complete with the fatty substances it secreted. To date, these are the oldest lipids ever recovered from a vertebrate.

Fossilized bird.

The fossil bird specimen. The uropygial gland is highlighted in white.
Image credits Shane O’Reilly et al., Proceedings B, 2017.

Birds devote a lot of time to preening rituals, to ensure their plumage is just right. It’s a good investment, as their feathers keep them warm, allow them to fly, and make up most of an individual’s outside appearance. Birds’ uropygial glands, located at the lower end of their backs, are a cornerstone of preening. They secrete an oily mix that the birds use to grease their feathers, keeping them smooth and water-proof.

What the uropygial gland doesn’t do very well, however, is popping up in fossils. Soft tissues (like muscle, glands, and other organs) rarely fossilize since they decompose quickly — from a few days or weeks topside to a few years or decades following burial. Our only examples of what fur or feathers looked like millions of years ago come from a handful of fossils, and even then we’re talking about bits and pieces of material.

Oldest oil

This is why this fossilized gland, discovered by an international team of researchers led by Dr. Gerald Mayr, head of the Ornithology Section at the Senckenberg Research Institute, is something of a scientific sensation. At 48 million years old, it’s not only exceedingly rare — it’s also the oldest known occurrence of uropygial glands or preen oils to date.

Uropygial gland.

Uropygial gland, detail.
Image credits Shane O’Reilly et al., Proceedings B, 2017.

“The discovery is one of the most astonishing examples of soft part preservation in animals. It is extremely rare for something like this to be preserved for such a long time,” says Dr Mayr.

Chemical analysis showed that the lipids recovered from the fossilized gland have “kept their original chemical composition, at least in part,” according to Mayr. The long hydrocarbon compounds contained in the preening fats are clearly distinguishable from the oil shales around the fossil, he explains, which helped the team prove that the fossil was indeed a preserved uropygial gland. This hypothesis was suggested by its position relative to the fossil bird skeleton but required further evidence. The oils are also a testament to how incredibly well preserved this fossil is.

This is very surprising — especially since we didn’t really know how the fats survived for so long. It could be that the oxygen-starved environment caused them to harden into waxes, which are harder to decompose. It’s also possible that one property of preening oils in birds today — namely, their content of antibacterial compounds — could have played a role in preventing decomposition.

“The 40-million-year-old lipids demonstrate the potential extent of preservation possible under favorable conditions — not just bones and hairs and feathers, as previously assumed,” Mayr concludes.

“If we find more of these lipids, we will be able to better reconstruct the lifestyle of these animals. For example, it would be interesting to find out whether feathered dinosaurs, as the ancestors of birds, already possessed uropygial glands and preened their plumages,” adds co-author Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol.

The paper “Preservation of uropygial gland lipids in a 48-million-year-old bird” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

What is petroleum, and where does it come from?

If you’re reading something related to fossil fuels here on ZME Science, chances are it somehow ties into the issue of pollution or global warming. Both are really important topics of discussion, especially right now as people all over the world band together to fix the very real, very dangerous consequences our fossil-fuel-centric economies are having on the climate.

Oil barrels.

Image credits Flickr / Olle Svensson.

But it’s undeniable that fossil fuels allowed our societies to dramatically change in a very short span of time. Using them, people could bring much more energy to bear in shaping our environment than previously possible. Energy means tractors pull plows instead of oxen, cars instead of carriages, steel mills instead of blacksmiths, iPhones instead of carrier pigeons. More available energy makes everybody richer, better fed, and longer-living than ever before.

We’re now at a point where we can/should opt out of fossil fuels and into other, cleaner and more efficient sources of energy; but we’re not going to talk about that right now. Today we’re going to take a look at what fossil fuels are to understand why they had such an effect on society. And we’ll be starting with the one we’re probably most familiar with in our day-to-day life.

What is petroleum

Petroleum (from the old Greek petra, meaning stone and oleum meaning oil), also known as crude oil, is a fluid mix of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons, inorganic chemical elements, and physical impurities. It usually comes laced with a hearty serving of bacteria to boot. While romantic images or old-timey movies about daring derrickmen show all crude oil to be pitch-black, it’s not uncommon to see dark brown oil or for it to take yellow, red, even green hues based on its chemical composition.

Green petroleum from McClintock Well 1, the oldest oil well still in production.
Image credits Drake Well Museum.

Oil composition actually varies so widely that one of the most used crude oil classification standards is by production area (e.g. Oman-Tapis oil, West Texas Intermediate oil, so on). Two other important classifications systems rely on density (light/heavy oil) or sulfur content (sweet/sour).

Crude oil is one of the most important hydrocarbons today, and it literally keeps our industries running both as an energy source and a critical raw material. It forms deep underground, and (generally) only rarely makes an appearance topside without our help. Its choice of neighborhood, chemical composition, and the fact that crude oil has a bit of a body odor issue, all come down to:

How it forms

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”The short of it:” footer=””]

    1. Deposition: a large quantity of organic matter winds up in a (geologically-speaking) confined area.
    2. Burial: this matter gets buried under sediment, and subsequently ‘sinks’ lower into the crust.
    3. Diagenesis: subjected to extreme pressure and high temperatures, this matter gets cooked into kerogen — a wax-like substance which is basically baby-crude-oil.
    4. Catagenesis / Cracking: if the right window of pressure and heat is maintained on the kerogen, it will be further cooked into fluid hydrocarbons (oil and gas).
    5. Reservoir formation: these new hydrocarbons, being fluid and less dense, are pumped up by the weight of rocks pressing down on them — until they hit a rock they can’t pass through and form a deposit.


Steps 1&2 — Deposition and Burial

Like all other fossil fuels, crude oil is formed from things which used to be alive a long time ago. In theory, any dead plant or animal can turn into petroleum over millions of years but it’s mostly algae, plankton, and zooplankton which formed the crude oil we use today. What those three have in common (and lends them well to oil-formation) is that they’re aquatic. Living in the ocean helps a lot with points 1. and 2.: on the one hand, marine environments are teeming with nutrients and usually support a lot of biomass. On the other hand, there’s more sediment in watery environments than on dry land (think of how much new soil the Nile deposits every time it floods).

Mississippi Delta Sediment Plume.

Or the Mississippi, even when it’s not flooding.
Image credits NASA Earth Observatory.

Making crude oil is kinda similar to making wine in that you need to let it sit but not breathe, or it will spoil — so both of these factors are critical for its formation. The process needs a lot of fresh (well, fresh-ish) organic matter. Since there are so many critters living in oceans, these environments can deliver the huge quantities of biomass needed (things die and sink to the bottom faster than bacteria can decompose them). Oceans can also muster the sediments required to cover biomass before it rots away in less-abundant areas. So overall, virtually all of the most important oil deposits formed on the bottom of ancient oceans and seas (which may be dry land today).

While there’s nothing explicitly prohibiting dry land environments from forming oil, the odds are stacked very highly against them. The main problem is that sediment mobility is severely limited on land compared to the ocean, so there’s nothing to insulate dead biomass from oxygen. For crude oil to form on land, you generally need a fast movement of sediments — think massive floods, landslides, mudflows, that sort of thing — or watery, muddy areas such as lakes and marshes. Plant resin can also kerogenize. However, deposits formed on dry land generally tend to form coal (from harder-to-decompose wood,) and their share in the global crude oil reserve is likely modest.

Step 3 — Diagenesis

As new sediments fall to the ocean’s floor over millions of years, their weight pushes down on our intrepid biomass deposit formed in steps 1&2. We’re talking pretty big pressures here — imagine holding a column of rock, gravel, sand a few kilometers/miles high on your shoulders, topped by an even higher column of water — which compress that matter hard enough for it to heat up. Under such conditions, the chemical bonds in the biomass start to break down and re-form into new, more heat-and-pressure-stable compounds.

Chlorophyll V-porphyrin.

Vanadium porphyrin in petroleum (left) and chlorophyll a (right).
Image via Wikimedia.

Long-chain biopolymers (such as those in proteins or carbohydrates) are the first ones to break down. The resulting bits then go on to mix with sediments to form rocks rich in organic carbon or shed water and simple hydrocarbon molecules (such as methanol), and condense into new polymers. As time passes, certain elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulphur tend to be weeded out of the mix, and the polymers tend towards aromatization (they form rings). These are denser (same material in a smaller space,) so they can better withstand the pressure. Then, the rings stack onto each other in sheets, increasing density even more.

This early stage of transformation results in a waxy substance known as kerogen, and a tar-like material known as bitumen.

Step 4 — Catagenesis / Cracking

A structure rich in kerogen and bitumen is known as a ‘source rock’ because this is where the oil will come from. As it keeps sinking lower into the crust, the kerogen in our source rock gets subjected to even more pressure, but that’s OK because it’s so dense that it can take it. However, it also gets hotter, and that’s what will finally turn it into petroleum.

Crude oils.

Light and medium crude oils from the Caucasus, the Middle East, Arabia, and France.
Image credits Wikimedia / Glasbruch2007.

What we perceive as heat is a motion of particles — the hotter something is, the more its atoms will bounce around and into each other. Heat is, if you zoom in close enough, kinetic energy. So when you pump heat into the nicely-stacked sheets of polymers in our kerogen, you make their atoms want to move around.  Eventually, if you pump enough heat into them, the structures become too energetic to remain stable and break apart into progressively smaller bits — heat “cracks” them open.

Ambiental pressure and temperature during the cracking process determine what the kerogen does: if temperatures are too low, nothing cracks. If temperatures are too high, oil gets shredded into short polymers and you get natural gas. The sweet-spot, or “oil window” for geologists, is somewhere between 50-150°C (122-302°F) depending on things like pressure and how rapidly the rock is warmed up.

Step 5 — Reservoir formation

At this point, the oil and gas are both liquid and mixed together, like an unopened can of soda. Being fluid and much less dense than the rocks around them, this hydrocarbon cocktail resulted from cracking will try to work its way upwards above to the surface.

Surface oil seep Slovakia.

Natural petroleum spring in Slovakia.
Image credits Wikimedia / Branork.

There are rocks all around it, however, so the oil can’t form lakes or rivers per say but has to travel through the pores and cracks of surrounding rocks in its merry way to the surface. Some rocks, such as sandstone or limestone, are especially porous and lend themselves well to transporting crude oil.

What usually happens, however, is that oil gets trapped under a layer of rock it can’t pass through, and will wait there until a drill head comes a-knocking.

To sum it up

So, to go from a dinosaur (more likely from a bunch of plankton) all the way to petroleum, you need a lot of time and quite a fortunate series of events: first, you need a lot of stuff to die in just the right spot and get buried under sediment in a hurry. This stack of biomass needs to get squished and baked into a source rock full of juicy bitumen and kerogen and then heated up — but not too much — to form oil. All of this needs to take place under a porous and permeable (meaning the pores are connected to each other so they can act like tiny pipelines) rock for the oil to travel through and accumulate in. And everything has to be covered with a cap rock (a seal), or some other mechanism has to be in place to prevent this oil from spilling up to the surface.

The good and bad about petroleum

So you know how plants like to hang around and photosynthesize and all that? Well, think of burning fossil fuels as reverse photosynthesis and you’re not far off from the mark. That’s what makes fossil fuels both awesome and awful at the same time, and here’s why:

A burning oil well in the Rumaila oilfields, Kuwait.

It’s because this thing burns with a blaze.
Kuwaiti firefighters fight to secure a burning oil well in the Rumaila oilfields, set ablaze by Iraqi military forces, 2003.
Image credits United States Marine Corps.

Photosynthesis requires a lot of energy: since oxygen loves binding to stuff and carbon is pretty into being bound, too, it takes a lot of oomph to pull them apart. What plants do is use solar energy to break CO2, munch on the carbon atom, and throw out the oxygen. This creates an energy imbalance since that oxygen really wants to get back with his old spark, the carbon atom — so plant matter, in effect, acts like a battery for carbon and the energy used in photosynthesis.

Any decent-sized petroleum deposit is formed from immense quantities of biomass, totaling millions possibly even trillions hours’ worth of photosynthesis, and the sum energy imbalance generated through them. When we burn oil, we re-combine carbon with oxygen and take that energy back.

The good news is that you extract the lion’s share of that initial energy (stored over the plants’ entire lifetimes) in a few moments — so fossil fuels are a very dense source of energy, an order of magnitude more powerful than what firewood or muscle can generate. The bad news is that you also release all those carbon atoms (stored over the plants’ entire lifetimes) in a few moments — so fossil fuels are a very dense source of greenhouse gasses.

Apart from use as fuel, petroleum is a cornerstone in industry. The pharmaceutical, chemical, and material industries, in particular, rely heavily on crude oil as the main source of a wide range of organic compounds. So even if we decouple our energy sector from oil, we’re sure to see it around for a long time to come.

First images of the Amazonian reef released by Greenpeace

The first images of the 600 mile-long reef discovered at the mouth of the Amazon in 2016 have been released to show us what’s at risk — oil companies have their sights set at the area for drilling.

Image credits Greenpeace.

Nobody expected a reef to be there, but it was. In 2016, scientists stumbled upon an almost 1000 km-long reef nestled at the mouth of the Amazon. Right now, they’re brimming with excitement at the thought of exploring the reef, which they believe hides unknown species. But oil companies are planning to drill in the area, which would spell doom for the reef.

The first images of the 65 meter (220 feet) deep reef were captured from a submarine launched by the Greenpeace ship Esperanza. Campaigners say drilling must be prevented to protect the reef.

Stretching from French Guiana to Brazil’s Maranhão state, the reef was nothing short of a surprise — mainly because it shouldn’t be there. Major rivers’ mouths usually cut gaps in reefs like a blowtorch through butter. Corals like clear, sunny waters to live in, and rivers supply only muddy, sediment-rich water. Those at the mouth of the Amazon are some of the muddiest in the world. And still, the reef spans the area and is already known to house to more than 60 species of sponges, 73 species of fish, spiny lobsters and stars.

Image credits Greenpeace.

“This reef system is important for many reasons, including the fact that it has unique characteristics regarding use and availability of light,” said Nils Asp, a researcher at the Federal University of Pará in Belém, Brazil, on board the Esperanza.

“It has a huge potential for new species, and it is also important for the economic well-being of fishing communities along the Amazonian coastal zone.”

Total, BP, and Petrobras have gotten their hands on oil exploration blocks in the area before the reef was discovered. There is a lot of fear that exploitation could destroy the reef should these companies obtain authorization to drill from the Brazilian government. The team that discovered the reef in April wrote:

“These [exploration] blocks will soon be producing oil in close proximity to the reefs, but the environmental baseline compiled by the companies and the Brazilian government is still incipient and largely based on sparse museum specimens. Such large-scale industrial activities present a major environmental challenge.”

Greenpeace Brazil said that roughly 95 wells have already been drilled in the region and none found viable gas or oil deposits. But the Brazilian government believes some 14bn barrels of oil are contained just under the surface, a very tempting prize.

Now, the ball is in the government’s court — let’s hope they make a good play.

US and Canada ban offshore drilling in the Arctic

US president Barack Obama and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau have designated the bulk of U.S. and Canada owned waters in the Arctic Ocean as indefinitely off limits for Arctic drilling.

“Today, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau are proud to launch actions ensuring a strong, sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem, with low-impact shipping, science based management of marine resources, and free from the future risks of offshore oil and gas activity,” the statement read.

Russian-operated drilling in the Arctic. Image credits: Krichevsky.

The move adds a finishing touch to Obama’s environmental legacy, one which president-elect Donald Trump has sworn to undo. However, environmental groups hope that this decision will be hard to overcome by future presidents. The move is expected to raise the income of local people.

“This decision will help protect existing lucrative coastal tourism and fishing businesses from offshore drilling, which promises smaller, short-lived returns and threatens coastal livelihoods,” said Jacqueline Savitz, a senior vice-president at the advocacy group, Oceana.

However, oil industry officials have protested the move, arguing that it undermines America’s position as an energy leader.

“Instead of building on our nation’s position as a global energy leader, today’s unilateral mandate could put America back on a path of energy dependence for decades to come,” said Dan Naatz of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.


Oil & gas lobby shouldn’t have a full seat at the climate table

The world’s leaders are deciding the future of our planet’s climate, but should oil companies be given a full seat at the decision table?

The wolves, dining with the sheep

Credit: Pixabay

As humanity is struggling to build a sustainable future for our planet, reducing our emissions is absolutely crucial — and when it comes to reducing emissions, the elephant in the room is fossil fuels. In 2013, a study reported that just 60 companies are responsible for 60% of all man-made global warming emissions, with big names like Exxon, Chevron, and BP leading the way. Today, the situation is similar, with a few big companies being responsible for a disproportionately large percentage of global emissions — but wait, there’s more. The world’s big oil is also investing heavily into blocking climate laws. In 2016, Exxon, Shell, and three trade associations spent US$114 million in 2015 alone to manipulate lawmakers and public discourse on climate change, according to a report by British NGO Influence Map. At least a few companies knew that global warming was incoming decades ago, and not only did they not do anything, but they invested into denying climate change. The coal industry, which is currently in much more distress than oil&gas, is also investing heavily towards the same goal. So why then are oil companies key players at the UN climate summit in Marrakech?

According to The Guardian, representatives of companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell will not only have unquestioned access to most high-level discussions in Marrakech, but they will also be called upon to give advice and hold council with country representatives. The same goes for coal giants like Peabody Energy, BHP Billiton, and Rio Tinto. A new infographic by Corporate Accountability International reveals the true extent of the fossil fuel industry’s access to, and influence over, the talks. So what exactly is the sense of having private discussions between country leaders and the companies whose products they are trying to move away from?

“What interests—beyond slowing progress—does a corporation like Exxon Mobil or Shell have in these talks?” said Tamar Lawrence-Samuel of Corporate Accountability International. “The answer is ‘none.’ Before we can ensure the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement, we must first make sure that Big Oil and those representing its interests are not at the table.”

Image credits: Alternat

Image credits: Alternet

This is the first major summit after the Paris agreement was reached. Last year in Paris, world leaders agreed to reduce emissions, though the targets themselves are often brought into question. The Paris pact calls for an unprecedented support from the private sector, and yet it provides no protections against corporations or trade groups that might seek to steer negotiations toward their (or their members’) commercial interests. So how can this be reasonable, and how can we expect fossil fuel companies to not try to steer discussions in their favor? How could we expect any company to not follow its own interest?

A conflict of interest?

Among others, the Venezuelan delegation has spoken very strongly about this, arguing that this is a big conflict of interests which shouldn’t be allowed.

“The convention and the Paris agreement is an instrument between states. And the inclusion of non-state actors must go through a revision of conflict of interest. This is a standard request, a legal request and a moral request. It is unacceptable for our delegation that the concept of conflict of interest was not even considered as the fundamental basis for the ethical integrity and the effective implementation of the Paris agreement … It is a concern for the majority of the world represented here at this conference and the discussions in the contact room. We are astonished that this issue was completely overturned in the conclusions.”

It’s a strong point to be made — and yet, the US, the EU, and Australia have all been very vocal against limiting the access of oil companies to discussions. Australia especially framed the discussion as developing countries trying to make the process “less open”. They also argued that the concept of “conflict of interest” is too hard to define.

“There is no clear understanding of what a conflict of interest is and it means different things to different people.”

So where does that leave us? Not anywhere clear, really. The Paris Agreement was signed, it was ratified, and it has entered into force. But without an enforcing mechanism, it’s really hard to say whether participating parties, be they countries or companies, will hold up to their part of the deal. Even if they do, the math doesn’t really add up and we’re likely on course for a bigger-than-2C increase in global temperatures — and that’s a big ‘if’. The enthusiasm from Paris has waned, and the movement’s inertia seems to be bogging down.

In Marrakech, there is a lot of talk about action — but that’s still just a lot of talk. The world is racing to stop climate change caused in great part by oil and gas emissions, while still listening to the lobby of companies responsible for said emissions. Exxon’s profits, like those of most oil companies, are plummeting, but they still have a strong word to say and the lobby is as strong as ever.

Countries representing some 70% of the world’s population are asking for a special legal framework for the Paris agreement to make it less vulnerable in the face of vested interests. But that seems like an off chance right now. So ironically, even though this ‘business as usual’ is what we’re trying to change, things are as they’ve been before and they show little signs of change. Unfortunately, we can’t know just how much of an impact this lobby really has.


New method developed to create biocrude oil from wastewater

A newly-developed process could create fuel from our waste. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have created a method to turn ordinary sewage and other organic waste into biocrude oil.

Biocrude oil produced with hydrothermal liquefaction.
Image credits WE&RF.

It may sound like fiction, it does sound yucky, but one day, wastewater treatment plants may be powering your car. The Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers have developed a novel process, which they call hydrothermal liquefaction, that mimics the geological conditions involved in creating crude oil. Using high pressures and temperatures, they only need a few minutes and the stuff we flush down our toilets to create a liquid that takes millions of years to form in nature.

I’m talking, of course, about crude oil. With wastewater treatment plants across the U.S. treating some 34 billion gallons of sewage every day, the PNNL estimates they could produce some 30 million barrels of crude a year — so each person could churn out two or three gallons of biocrude each year.

This material is very similar to the oil we pump out of the ground, with a little more water and oxygen mixed in. It can be refined through the installations we already have to produce gasoline, diesel, even jet fuel.

Crude nr. 2

Any organic mater, in theory, can be used to produce biofuel. Sewage, however, has long been considered as a poor ingredient for the task because it contains too much water.  But PNNL’s doesn’t require for it to be dried — the step which historically has made wastewater-to-fuel conversion too energy intensive to be economically viable. Through HTL, organic matter is pressurized to 3,000 pounds per square inch (about 100 times the pressure in a car tire), then fed into a reactor system which cooks it to 660 degrees Fahrenheit (350 Celsius). These extreme conditions break the matter down to its simple chemical compounds — the cells in the material rip apart, forming biocrude and an aqueous-liquid phase.

“There is plenty of carbon in municipal waste water sludge and interestingly, there are also fats,” said Corinne Drennan, who is responsible for bioenergy technologies research at PNNL.

“The fats or lipids appear to facilitate the conversion of other materials in the wastewater such as toilet paper, keep the sludge moving through the reactor, and produce a very high quality biocrude that, when refined, yields fuels such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuels.”

Not only that, but the method could provide governments with a method to save significant costs by eliminating the need for sewage processing, transport, and disposal. It’s also very simple to implement, as Drennan says.

“The best thing about this process is how simple it is. The reactor is literally a hot, pressurized tube. We’ve really accelerated hydrothermal conversion technology over the last six years to create a continuous, and scalable process which allows the use of wet wastes like sewage sludge.”

HTL may also be used to make fuel from other types of wet organic feedstock, such as agricultural waste. In addition to the biocrude, the liquid phase can be treated to create other fuels and chemical products. A small amount of solid material is also generated, which contains important nutrients. For example, early efforts have demonstrated the ability to recover phosphorus, which can replace phosphorus ore used in fertilizer production.

PNNL has licensed the technology to Utah-based Genifuel Corporation, which is now working with Metro Vancouver, a partnership of 23 local authorities in British Columbia, Canada, to build a demonstration plant.




British energy expert: ‘oil companies have 10 years to change strategy or die’

With the price of crude under $45 and increasing public expectations to tackle climate change, the future of oil companies looks bleak. One energy expert from the U.K. made headlines with his bold comments. He says oil companies have only 10 years to adapt and make a shift away from fossil fuels — their primary business, after all — otherwise these will collapse. The market will not be forgiving.


Credit: Pixabay

This bombshell was dropped by Paul Stephens, a fellow at Chatham House thinktank, in a paper that investigates the future of major international oil companies (IOCs) like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total.

“The prognosis for the IOCs was already grim before governments became serious about climate change and the oil price collapsed,” Stephens wrote.

“The IOCs have been able to survive over the last quarter of a century, but signs that their business model is faltering have recently begun to show. As well as poor financial performances, the symptoms include growing shareholder disillusion with a business model rooted in assumptions of ever-growing oil demand, oil scarcity and the need to increase bookable reserves, all of which increasingly lack validity.”

That some of the strongest and wealthiest companies in the world might die in such a short while might sound ludicrous, but it’s really not that far fetched. In the wake of Exxon’s current investigation by NY’s attorney general for “lying about climate change”, many shareholders who own stock in oil are now calling for more transparency.


Credit: International Oil Companies: The Death of the Old Business Model, Chatham House.

Oil companies list oil reserves as assets, but these could very well become stranded, literally buried in the ground, if governments call for a carbon tax and cut subsidies. Right now, fossil fuels are subsidized by $14.5 billion a day, but it’s foreseeable this winning streak might soon be over. Shareholders have another reason to be worried: ever-dwindling returns. In this respect, the graph below is telling.


To survive, Stephens argues that the IOCs need a make a drastic shift in strategy. Some tips include:


  • Squeezing costs in the hope oil prices will revive
  • More mega-mergers
  • Playing vultures with remnants of the US shale gas revolution
  • Reshuffling their portfolios
  • Diversification
  • Becoming a purely OECD operation
  • Rebuilding in-house technology

Source: International Oil Companies: The Death of the Old Business Model, Chatham House.

Source: International Oil Companies: The Death of the Old Business Model, Chatham House.

However, even if all of the above are satisfied the IOCs are still in trouble. Historically, crude prices have spiked and plummeted in cycles but “the old cycle of lower prices followed by higher prices is no longer applicable”.

“Inevitably, this means that they must shrink into the remaining areas of operation, functionally and geographically, where they can earn an acceptable return. This would require a major change in the corporate culture of the IOCs. It remains to be seen whether their senior management could handle such a fundamental shift. If they can, the IOCs will be able to slip into a gentle decline but ultimately survive on a much smaller scale,” Stephens says.


Researchers find hundreds of methane leaks at well pads in nation-wide thermal imaging study

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Oil and Gas program has released a new nation-wide report of the most common sites of methane leaks at oil and gas pads. Surprisingly, most of the leaks were traced back to faulty piping, vents or doors on gas tanks in newer, not older, wells.

Shale gas drilling rig near Alvarado, Texas.
Image credits David R. Tribble.

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It’s also extremely flammable and can be fatal following prolonged exposure. Most comes from industry, including but not limited to oil and gas – as methane is found in almost all hydrocarbon deposits and forms the bulk of naturally occurring gas reserves, monitoring wells for methane leaks is hugely important.

In order to get a nation-wide view of this issue, a team from the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oil and Gas program partnered with Gas Leaks Inc., a company that specializes in using infrared imagery to inspect well pads for leaks. They performed a helicopter survey of over 8,000 pads in seven regions of the United States. The researchers surveyed important drilling areas such as North Dakota’s Bakken Shale and the Marcellus Shale in Southwestern Pennsylvania to “better characterize the prevalence of ‘super emitters,'” the largest sources of pollution in the methane industry, according to one of the researchers’ post blog.

Their results show that in 500 polluted sites, roughly 90 percent of leaks can be traced to the vent, hatches or doors on gas tanks. These leaks aren’t indicative of wear on the installations, as emissions were predominantly seen at newer wells. The paper considers this a clear indication that the current systems installed to control leaks aren’t working. More effective measures, such as vapor recovery towers — under-pressure chambers used to draw natural gases that might otherwise leak into the atmosphere — are required at these pads to avoid further contamination.

Thermal image of a methane leak, California.
Image via livescience


“Since this study found a higher frequency of detected emissions at sites within the first few months of production, controlling tank emissions as soon as a site enters production could reduce overall emissions,” the study reads.

The US Energy and Information Administration lists Pennsylvania as the second largest producer of natural gas in the country.

“The best companies understand the business case for reducing methane leaks, as what doesn’t leak into the atmosphere can be used for energy production,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf and his administration outlined a plan for reducing methane emissions in the state in January which relied heavily on the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Following the publication of this study the DEP announced on Tuesday that it was restarting an initiative to make inspections more consistent, but offered few other details.

The full paper, titled “Aerial surveys of elevated hydrocarbon emissions from oil and gas production sites,” has been published online in the journal Environmental Science and Technology and can be read here.



Tiny bubbles of oil and gas rise from mile-deep vents on the seafloor. When they burst at the surface, the oil spreads into patches of rainbow sheen the size of dinner plates.Photo: AJIT SUBRAMANIAM /COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Oddly enough, phytoplankton thrive above natural oil seeps

Marine biologists study microbes in the waters above natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico stumbled upon something unexpected. They found phytoplankton, tiny organisms that comprise the bottom of the marine food chain, thrive in waters with low concentration oil. In some cases, the population is double that a couple miles off the oil seep sites.

Tiny bubbles of oil and gas rise from mile-deep vents on the seafloor. When they burst at the surface, the oil spreads into patches of rainbow sheen the size of dinner plates.Photo: AJIT SUBRAMANIAM /COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Tiny bubbles of oil and gas rise from mile-deep vents on the seafloor. When they burst at the surface, the oil spreads into patches of rainbow sheen the size of dinner plates.Photo: AJIT SUBRAMANIAM /COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

Previously, researchers subjected  phytoplankton to various oil concentrations in the lab to test their sensitivity. Depending on the concentration, some cells collapsed while others survived. The researchers from the  Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf (ECOGIG) consortium are the first to show, however, that in some instances oil can actually help phytoplankton thrive.

It’s not yet clear how this happens, but most certainly it’s not the oil alone. Instead, it’s a combination of oil, bacteria and plankton. Somehow, the waters are more nutrient rich around these oil seeps, so the plankton can grow unchecked.

The team were tasked with investigating the interaction of oil seeps with marine life after the Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster in 2010 spewed oil across 11,200 square kilometers. Armed with a better understanding of these processes, researchers can design better preemptive measures and action plans in case of a new spill.

Natural oil seeps are far more benign, though. Hydrocarbons leak out of the ground through fractures and sediments in the bottom of the ocean, similarly to how freshwater springs leak water to the surface. The seeps cover an area between 1 to 100 square km and only last for a couple of days. The concentration is far lower than water contaminated from an oil spill, but it’s still very noticeable. You can smell it.

Lead author Nigel D’Souza, then a postdoctoral researcher at Lamont, and colleagues used a ship in the Gulf of Mexico monitoring chlorophyll fluorescence. Phytoplankton use photosynthesis (about half of all oxygen on the planet is made by these tiny critters), and as a byproduct they emit this energy called chlorophyll fluorescence. So, by monitoring this energy you can get a rough idea of how large the phytoplankton population is. Each time the ship recorded above an oil seep, researchers saw a spike. Water samples and satellite imagery confirmed that the phytoplankton thrives in the oily water.

“This is the beginning of evidence that some microbes in the Gulf may be preconditioned to survive with oil, at least at lower concentrations,” said Ajit Subramaniam, an oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and coauthor of the study. “In this case, we clearly see these phytoplankton are not negatively affected at low concentrations of oil, and there is an accompanying process that helps them thrive. This does not mean that exposure to oil at all concentrations for prolonged lengths of time is good for phytoplankton.”

Journal Reference: Elevated surface chlorophyll associated with natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico.