European Scientist had the pleasure of interviewing Bernard Durand, former Director of the Geology-Geochemistry Division of the French Institute of Petroleum and New Energies, then of the Ecole nationale supérieure de géologie.
ES: In your new book “Petroleum, natural gas and coal (nature, formation mechanisms, future prospect in the energy transition)”, you state that fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) are the most overlooked topics in the energy transition debates. What are the reasons for this?
BD: As we saw during the 2013 National Debate on Energy Transition (DNTE), and again during the Public Debate on Multi-Year Energy Programming (MYEP) which took place this Spring, the discussions on energy in France, but probably also elsewhere in Europe, are rapidly becoming essentially a clash between supporters of so-called renewable – wind and solar – electricity, and supporters of nuclear electricity. To the point that the French and their representatives have constantly come to confuse energy and electricity, which is just one type of energy among several. This is mainly due to the debate that has been going on for years over nuclear electricity. But this heated debate diverts the French from the fact that 80% of primary energy (that produced from natural sources) globally comes from fossil fuels (in France, it is only about 50%, because of the importance of nuclear power). The central question that should be discussed is actually the future availability of these fuels, and this is one of the aims of this book. To date, this issue has never been the subject of a real public debate, perhaps because of its “explosive” nature.
ES: Prices at the pump are constantly rising. What is your explanation for this?
BD: Pump prices are largely the result of the application of very high government taxes on “petroleum products”, i.e. products from the refining of crude oil, and in particular on fuels. Recently, new so-called “climate-energy” taxes have been added, and are planned to increase slowly over time. A part of these new taxes is intended to finance the development of renewable, wind and solar power, which is hypocritical because they do not contribute to reducing our CO2 emissions, and consequently improving the climate. There is also the increase in taxes on diesel to catch up with those on gasoline. That said, the market price of refined products, which depends primarily on the market price of crude oil, is used as the basis to apply these taxes, and so fluctuations in pump prices are mainly as a result of fluctuations in the price of crude oil.
This price is set by stock exchange arbitrations that penalise short-term imbalances in supply and demand. These can be caused by many issues: conflict in the major producing countries, economic difficulties in consumer countries, interventionism in producing countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, which can, at the whim of state policy, reduce its production, but also increase it (it is now practically the only producer still able to do this). In fact, the price fluctuates much more than world production, and short-term prices, as we can see, are impossible to predict, given the many factors involved. On the other hand, in the long term, the availability of oil will play an increasingly important role over the coming years and it is this availability that must be examined. This book explains that there is a high probability that this availability will start to peak, or actually decrease, within five to ten years, while there is also a high probability that world consumption will increase in the meantime, particularly due to emerging countries embracing the automotive culture. As a result, unless we can rapidly substitute another energy source for oil’s biggest usage, which is transport – which we don’t currently have an obvious answer to – we must expect a gradual increase in the average price, with significant fluctuations.
ES: In your opinion, the energy transition is inevitable but will involve problems on an existential level for our industrial society. What do you mean by that?
BD: This book demonstrates clearly: A substantial decrease in the world availability of fossil fuels on a global scale is very likely, well before the middle of this century, and, as a result of population growth, it will be even greater per global capita. Because of their importance in the functioning of industrial societies, the latter will have to “wean themselves” from being societies “addicted to” fossil fuels, to societies that have learned to do without them, and no one can predict whether they will be able to adapt in their current form. So it really is an existential question.
ES: In the first part you detail the nature and variety of fossil fuels. Why is it important to you that everyone understands this subject?
BD: There is very little education in this field, and this causes a riot of mixed metaphors and unfortunate confusion, especially in the media. To fully understand the difficult transformations to come and discuss them in a meaningful way, it is better to have a much more precise idea of what we are talking about.
ES: In the second part you estimate the remaining reserves and evaluate the consequences. Do you think we should sound the alarm?
BD among the messages I want to convey, is that it is not so much existing or as yet undiscovered reserves that need to be discussed, but more particularly the future development of the possible rate of production. This possible rate is a key limiting factor in our ability to achieve economic growth from one year to the next. To draw a comparison: the possible speed of a car depends not on the volume of its tank at a precise moment, but on the size of its carburettor. It is also this rate that will determine the speed and size of the efforts required to carry out a successful energy transition, which is, you will recall, the transition from societies living off fossil fuels to societies that have learned to do without them.
That said, however, evaluating the remaining reserves is essential for the assessment of production rates over the long term. Now, and this is a second message I would like to convey, the “official” values that appear in the media and probably also in government departments seem to me to be very overvalued, as I explain in this book. So yes, I am sounding the alarm.
“Petroleum, natural gas and coal: nature, formation mechanisms, future prospect in the energy transition”, by Bernard Durand (Preface by Jean-Marc Jancovici), has just been published by EDP Sciences.