Lifelines, Lifetimes, and Timelines:
Hoisting Ourselves Up the Fossil Chain
S. K. Wolff, policy analyst, NPC; ExxonMobil alternative energy program advisor
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm very sorry Lee Raymond couldn't make it today - he's in Washington, discussing a landmark NPC study with the President before he publicly announces the study's conclusions, complete with Presidential approval, later today.
But I am very pleased to be able to give you a sneak preview of that study, which shows that the US and Canada must expand production from the Alberta oil sands by a factor of five within the next five years, and prescribes precisely the sort of government non-interference that will make this a reality.
I'm especially pleased that ExxonMobil will be playing a key role in that policy, by developing a renewable energy source that will actually benefit from our development of conventional fuels, while providing a fall-back position for energy sustainability under any conditions that arise.
I'll get into the details of this program shortly. But first I need to say how wonderful it is to see, on all the faces here today, the childlike exuberance of a great industry in full flower, biting deep into all of life's opportunities, and, like a giddy and well-fed infant, savoring that life to the fullest.
And why not? Our product, after all, has made possible everything we see around us—our whole civilization. We depend on oil for food, and for getting food to our tables. Without oil, at least four billion people would starve—and even those of us left would have a very tough time.
But I'm not here today to pat us all on the back: I'm here to speak of Plan Bs.
Because the dire situation I've just mentioned is in fact possible.
As we know, if climate science is right, there's a growing possibility of global calamities, triggering migration, death, and conflicts on a scale never before seen or imagined. This spiral of trouble would make the oil infrastructure utterly useless, and starving would become the new black.
Now we don't believe this will happen. Statistically, the chances are still far below 50%. But even if they're just 10%, we as responsible corporate citizens must consider what we would do to keep fuel flowing. We owe it to ourselves, to our shareholders, and to the very concept of sustainability.
Now some of our competitors pin their hopes on solar and wind. They have green-looking websites and calculators that show your emissions, and they brag about the millions they're spending on research.
That's all well and fine—but why, then, are they spending more than ever on developing conventional sources like Alberta's oil sands? Because they know as well as we that it would take a massive, active government push to make solar and wind really work—and we all know what that would do to our industry and our whole way of life.
We at Exxon firmly believe that a free market will, if left to its own devices, always find solutions to the dilemmas humanity faces. And in this case, there's a surprisingly simple solution, one that goes hand in hand with current energy policies, and actually depends on our continued development of the oil sands, for example.
To understand how it works, let's take a quick trip back to the past.
Five billion years ago, our sun was born. For the next half-billion years, Earth was an awful wasteland, full of nothing but the dead stuff of nature.
Then one day, matter in its infinite ingenuity discovered a fabulous new way to store energy. It used sunlight and good old-fashioned rock smarts to turn water and dirt into something that could store power long enough to walk around and develop speech. Today, we call it life—but it's just an incredible solar battery, that pushed its way across eons, past the shifting of continents and the burning-out of stars, transforming itself into countless species and leaving them behind,
all the way into the present, and into this conference hall right here today.
Now along its age-old path, this battery we call life kept getting smarter, until the Mesopotamians. Then one day, a resident of ancient Uruk made a crucial discovery: other beings were great at storing energy.
Who first had the idea to use the oil of a recently-living animal to light his or her house? Whoever that Einstein was, he or she single-handedly created the energy industry and thus revolutionized civilization. For the next few thousand years, animals were burned for light and warmth.
Even today, Shetland Islanders lop the heads off puffins and put wicks in the stumps to make candles.
Europe's big innovation in this matter was the discovery of the ultimate energy storehouses—those mighty leviathans of the deep, the whales, which until the late 1800s remained Europe's primary source of illuminant energy. There were various forms of whale oil, used for different things: northern whale-oil, Finback oil, train-oil, southern whale-oil, musket-oil, "ship liquid," spermaceti—all these contained different proportions of various halogenated organic compounds,
and yielded second-order products ranging from tallow to stearin to whale wax, with the highly unsaturated acids used in second-order processes like tetracycline production and foam-quenching... with illumination of course remaining the whale's dominant function.
Then, in the mid-1800s, some folks here in Canada discovered that nature had already done a large part of the work that men were still risking their lives for! At some point along the development of the great solar battery we call life,
maybe an asteroid hit, or maybe the earth's temperature just swang wildly south. Pretty much everything died, and the fields of death, ensepulchered by eons, were compressed into great deep oceans... of oil.
This "petroleum," being so much more abundant than the fluids of the more recently departed, made possible an unprecedented scale of market performance, leading inexorably to the panoply of amazing technologies we see in the exhibit halls here today. With oil's discovery, the battery we call life had finally come into its own.
Again, there are dark mutterings today that climate change linked to oil use could lead to massive population loss, migrations, and conflicts, making pipelines and oil wells useless. Without oil we could no longer grow food, nor transport that food: the earth's carrying capacity would go from 6 billion to as low as 200 million. That would be a great tragedy.
Yet why must we tremble like little children before a monster? Why can't we instead be like the man from Uruk, that Ur-industrialist who discovered a new source of energy for the world?
After all, if we can assure an uninterrupted supply of fuel in even the worst of calamities, there will be plenty of ways the market can address the new situation. What we really need is something as plentiful as petroleum, but much less dependent on infrastructure—or something as useful as whales, but infinitely more abundant.
And therein lies the key. Just as the death of ancient life forms meant oil for us today, so, in a fuelless world, the massive hydrocarbon store flowing out of the biosphere could mean a massive new resource—if we know how to tap in. Why wait millions of years? The energy is there right now. All we need to do is climb back up the fossil chain, and close the circle of life.
We're calling this product Vivoleum. I can't reveal all the details of the production process, but I can say that it basically compresses the work of brute, stupid time into hours rather than eons. Any biomass whatsoever is quickly and cheaply turned into something close enough to gasoline to run my Escalade on it today.
What you see here is an artist's rendition of an advanced, large-scale plant that will process many thousands of barrels per hour. The feedstock is essentially cold-pressed through a series of vortex separators, blowdown evaporators, etc. and then further refined into ethanol, biodiesel, and so on. It will have both digital and traditional controls, and it will be fully offsite remote capable, requiring a minimum of onsite hands to operate.
But not all plants need be large or sophisticated—the basic technology is very simple, and the low pressures and temperatures required will allow small-scale, even mobile refining capacity for remote or isolated strongholds, that will keep them fully functional.
Anywhere biological resources find themselves freed, Vivoleum can grant the at-risk civilization a much-needed income stream—where and when it's most needed. It's so compact that it could even work in outer space!
Here on earth, every Vivoleum plant will be built with environmentality in mind, with living roofs just like this Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan. All downstream waste will be turned into secondary products such as a building material we're calling Vivaboard, and the liquid effluent can all be used as agricultural-grade organic brownwater. These will be the greenest manufacturing centers ever built, signalling love for the earth through their very existence.
Cultural sensitivity will also be paramount. Given the circumstances, historical parallels will need to be considered carefully. But this train of thought needn't derail us.
After all, when the British in Egypt used mummies to fuel their locomotives, they were using a limited resource that could not be replenished, and they were committing a crime against history still keenly felt by Egyptologists. The Vivoleum feedstock, on the other hand, is renewable and unprecious, and responds to the needs of a shrinking market with greater supply, which stimulates the market in turn: the dance of capital appears in full flower.
Indeed, unlike with all other alternative energy sources, no government push will be needed—current policies won't need to change. Vivoleum will never encroach on the market's natural right to continue seeking new pastures. The Alberta oil sands, for example, can continue providing a stimulus to Canada, the U.S., and the whole global market; and in the event climate change does prove unmanageable, Vivoleum will allow the living superstrate of our precious planet to yield an acceptable future.
It is for all these reasons that the National Petroleum Council is pushing forward a fivefold, government-enabled expansion of oil sands production within the next five years, on the one hand, and the full-throttle development of Vivoleum, on the other.
Ladies and gentlemen, now I’m going to introduce someone will who explain Exxon’s real purpose in coming here today—to honor an individual no longer with us. Here is the head of public relations for the Exxon Vivoleum program, also a special adviser to the NPC on Vivoleum: Florian Osenberg.
FLORIAN OSENBERG: Thank you, Shepard. Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, I’m holding in my hand a candle. Right now there are people fanning out through the room handing out candles just like this. I want each of you to take one, and then I want you to pass the flame to your neighbor. I guess you already know something about passing the flame. From what I hear, you had the Olympic torch here in Calgary, and you managed to keep it from going out even with the oil boom here to distract you. Let me tell you a little bit about these candles. First of all, you’ll notice some irregularities, maybe even bits of hair and the like. That’s because they’re all custom-cast and one-of-a-kind. I already see a couple of you holding your noses. This is something we haven’t been able to eliminate yet, but it’ll burn off quickly—impurities tend to float to the head. [Holds up a candle] You might look at your candle and think, What’s the big deal? It’s just a simple candle. Well, you’re right. But that’s just the point. Just like petroleum’s liquid subterranean feedstocks, Vivoleum’s ambulant feedstocks can be rendered into just about anything: paraffin, gasoline, even plastic to make a container—for an energy drink, for example. Anything. But what’s truly amazing about these candles is not that they’re slightly irregular, or even that they’re made from Vivoleum. What I’m personally in awe of, is that the Vivoleum they’re made comes from one point-source, made available by a very generous man. His name was Reggie Watts, a real everyman, an ordinary person who, as ordinary people sometimes do, did something extraordinary. Indeed, more than anyone else I can think of, Reggie gave his all so that our company—and indeed our whole industry—could continue to fuel our fight to the finish. It’s because he played such an important role in this product’s development that we’re honoring him here today. With no further ado, Reggie Watts!
[Video begins. An African-American man with a large Afro is sweeping a loading dock and singing Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.”]
OLDER BUSINESSMAN: I knew Reggie because he was our cleaning man in the Houston head office.
YOUNGER BUSINESSMAN: Reggie was a great worker. He did a great job at our company.
WOMAN AT DESK: Down-to-earth, kindhearted, willing to do anything for anybody.
MAINTENANCE WORKER: He would always be singing, because that’s the type of guy he was, always happy. When Reggie was there, the workplace was alive.
REGGIE WATTS: I worked in Maintenance for awhile, moved up to Maintenance 2. Started doing cleanup, toxic cleanup. People said I was afraid of it, but I wasn’t. I just wasn’t. We had a level three alert. I dunno, I just kind of blew it, I guess. After I heard from the doctor that I was going to die, I felt like I had something to live for.
YOUNGER BUSINESSMAN: It was a very brave choice that Reggie made.
WATTS: I’m gonna die anyways. So, yeah, might as well give it a whirl!
YOUNGER BUSINESSMAN: Reggie was willing to make that sacrifice for the betterment of humanity, so for that we all salute him.
WATTS: I think I would like to be a candle. I think a candle would be fun because there are so many uses for a candle. I think that would be nice, like, if I was a candle on a table when people, when they first met each other. On a date. I think that would be great. I would love that. That’d be a hoot.
[Sings “You Light Up My Life.” The video ends, and the organizers eject the presenters from the stage.]
WOLFF: [Speaking to reporters on the conference room floor] We’re not talking about killing anyone. We’re talking about using them after nature has done the hard work. After all, 150,000 people already die from climate change–related effects every year. That’s only going to go up—maybe way, way up. Will it all go to waste? That would be cruel.