Cold-cracking may stimulate E&P and refinery sectors thanks to expected new carbon regulations


New major oil finds are rarer today than they were just two decades ago. Add the fact that a new Greenfield refinery hasn’t been built in the U.S.since 1976, and you can imagine demand for finished products such as gasoline, heating oil and jetfuel are high, even at times during a recession. So while refiners struggle to modernize new plants, E&P companies have benefited from the wide-spread adoption of fracking oil and gas wells in recent years despite the technique being around for decades. Sure fracking of oil and gas wells has tremendously helped improve the supply of domestic energy resources which have been offsetting dependence on foreign oil, but ultimately at what cost to our environment? That’s the real elephant in the room that will likely result in the regulation of fracking and legislation aimed at lowering greenhouse emissions. Therefore, despite it not being a very popular initiative, we believe cap-and-trade legislation is needed in order for the meet 2020 carbon goals. Considering the EIA said this past June, “Of the total amount of U.S. greenhouse gases emitted in 2010, about 87% were energy-related and 91% of those energy-related gases were carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels”, this has us examining whether cold-cracking’s time may finally be now.

Breaking down heavy oil, largely ignored by oil companies due to the complexity to reach it and bring upstream, is truly game-changing. I hate to use the word “disruptive” because we feel like that word is used too frequently these days. However, cold-cracking (the use of high energy electron beams, not radioactive materials) through Electrically Enhanced Oil Recovery (EEOR) has several advantages over steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) based technologies which really can be disruptive in the E&P space. Why? For one thing, cold-cracking does not produce greenhouse gases such as methane caused by fracking. Also, cold-cracking through EEOR doesn’t require any water supply. Think about that: Advancing oil recovery without the use of abundant water means millions of gallons of water can be saved, a reality lost on those who are pro-fracking. Let’s not forget while SAGD requires much energy to pump it down the well and pump it back up, that favored steam process is actually limited by the inability to be successful below 2,000 feet. However, EEOR has no depth limitation. We find the lack of depth limitation from cold-fracking an oil well very intriguing since half of the 68 million barrels of heavy oil in the country are sub 2,500 feet. This may be why in 2005, through Section 1406 of the Energy Policy Act (EPACT) the Department of Energy (DOE) more closely began studying the application of radiation to petroleum at a standard temperature and pressure to refine petroleum products ultimately with a higher economic yield from each barrel of oil, a theory being poked around unsuccessfully since the 1950’s.

So while E&P companies can surely gain from cold-cracking through increased penetration of older, deeper heavy oil wells, we believe the benefits of cold-cracking can also be seen in the refinery sector. Why? Bottom of the barrel refinery recovery technology, namely microwave/ultrasound centric, has been challenged due the lack of effectively breaking down molecular bonds of oil. Using electron beams could change that since cold-cracking is being tested to lighten oil in order to make it easier to refine into high margin products. This means cold-cracking could help older infrastructure refineries enhance throughput as well as capacity at a far cheaper rate than adding new cat crackers to a Brownfield refinery. Also, cold-cracking would greatly allow for reduced greenhouse gases since cracking oil could be conducted at close to room temperature. This is an important factor to consider since the EPA may finally show its merit and impose restrictions on carbon emissions from refineries in an effort to keep the U.S. on track to meet its 2020 carbon goals. According to a 2010 Scientific American article, “Collectively the nation’s roughly 500 fossil fuel-fired power plants and 150 oil refineries emit some 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases per year—nearly 40 percent of total U.S. emissions.” That statement is supported by the EPA whose website reads, “Fossil fuel-fired power plants are responsible for 67 percent of the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions, 23 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, and 40 percent of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.”

With legislation to regulate fracking and curb carbon emissions from refiners & power plants seemingly imminent during the first half of President Obama’s second term, E&P companies and refiners will have no choice but to embrace new technologies in order to increase throughput efficiency while also lowering carbon footprints environmentalists increasingly are criticizing. To us, that makes cold-fracking a hot topic whose time may finally have come.



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John Licata’s insight on some of the emerging issues for energy supply brought an additional dimension to our panel discussion on the future of energy.
Dr. Jonathan Cobb, World Nuclear Association