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Can shale oil fuel Australia?

Earlier this week, Linc Energy released two reports estimating the amount of oil in the Arckaringa Basin near Coober Pedy in South Australia. Independent reports from Gustavson Associates and DeGolyer…

The land under Coober Pedy is home to vast reserves of shale oil. Perhaps not $20 trillion worth though. edenink/Flickr.

Earlier this week, Linc Energy released two reports estimating the amount of oil in the Arckaringa Basin near Coober Pedy in South Australia. Independent reports from Gustavson Associates and DeGolyer and MacNaughton put the untapped basin, located in South Australia at between 233 billion and 103 billion barrels of oil equivalent respectively.

Petroleum resources are classified into booked reserves - proven, probable and possible - or resources which may be contingent or prospective. The estimates released by Linc Energy were classified by the consultants as unrisked prospective resources - the lowest category of certainty - because of their “lack of commerciality or sufficient drilling”. Consequently, their potential value may not be as high as $20 trillion as suggested by some media outlets.

Linc Energy holds a 100% interest in licenses covering about 65,000 square kilometres in the Arckaringa. This is an area considerably larger than the Netherlands or Switzerland. Linc thinks the geology is similar to the Bakken and Eagle Ford areas of the United States, which has seen a flood of new investment in recent years, including from BHP Billiton.

The next task for Linc Energy is to find a joint venture partner with the cash and experience in the shale industry to fund exploration. Appraisals can be drawn up once those estimations are made into something real. They have appointed Barclays Bank to advise on strategic options, including the introduction of an experienced shale operator.

Given that the Australian shale sector is in its absolute infancy, Linc Energy is likely to be looking for an international player.

The find has resulted in much enthusiasm in South Australia. State Mineral Resources Development Minister Tom Koutsantonis has stated that “shale gas and shale oil will be a key part to securing Australia’s energy security now and into the future.” In fact, it has been suggested that the Arckaringa find may be enough to turn Australia into a self sufficient fuel producer.

The Arckaringa shale oil find is large by world standards. Only five countries have proven oil reserves that stand at over 103 billion barrels. Moreover, if these reserves become “proven” and producible at commercial rates, they may revitalise Australia’s ailing oil production. Oil in Australia has dropped from its peak of 819,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2000 to 484,000 bpd in 2011 – the lowest level since 1983. This is against a backdrop of the all-time high oil consumption of 1 million bpd in 2011. Australia now imports over half of its oil.

Australia has only 3.9 billion barrels (or 0.2% of world total) of proven oil reserves that will last just over 20 years at current production rates. Indeed, if early predictions prove to be correct, this discovery has the potential to cement Australia’s position as one of the world’s most important energy producers.

Central Australia has plenty of untapped unconventional oil and gas resources previously considered too expensive to exploit. With the shale revolution in the United States and high oil and gas prices, such resources are fast becoming commercially viable.

It is too early to foretell the future production from the Arckaringa Basin. There are numerous steps before oil production can start. For example, a 300-kilometre pipeline to Port Bonython, or a spur to link the Arckaringa Basin to the existing Moomba-Port Bonython pipeline, will need to be built before any oil could reach the market. Crude oil storage and export capacity at Port Bonython will also have to be increased significantly to accommodate extra crude.

There is likely to be bipartisan support for shale oil production in South Australia. However the potential for carbon-intensive shale production in South Australia is likely to draw ire from vocal environmental activists and the Greens. The anti-mining activism in the cases of Olympic Dam uranium mine expansion in SA and coal seam gas mining in Queensland serve as important precedents and are likely to cause significant delays to the project.

Moreover, the future commercial viability of the project will largely depend on the global oil prices. If oil prices drop to below the level at which the Arckaringa Basin is exploitable this may make the project unviable. In the LNG market, long-term contracts with the buyers are modus operandi. They commit the buyer of LNG to purchase LNG at a largely pre-determined price for at least a couple of decades, thus offering safe returns to the investors.

However, the oil market does not operate on such long-term contract bases. The returns on massive investments in projects such as Arckaringa largely depend on the future direction of oil prices.

Finally, while it has been suggested that the Arckaringa discovery has the potential to turn Australia from an oil importer to an oil exporter, this requires further qualification. In order for Australia to become a net-oil exporter, production from the Arckaringa would need to exceed 500,000 barrels per day, which is more than Australia’s total current oil production, and a very ambitious target.

With three refinery closures over the past decade, Australia’s refining capacity is down to 537,000 barrels per day, and future closures have been anticipated. As a result, it is unclear where in Australia the Arckaringa crude would be refined. It is very likely that, similar to new natural gas projects in Queensland, WA and NT, much of the crude would be exported to Asia.

Join the conversation

57 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Perhaps enthusiasts should wait a while to evaluate the success of fracking in a deep part of Cooper Basin to the west. Besides fracking that requires a lot of water and repeat drilling Linc seem to be talking about underground gasification. In theory that will bring products to the the surface which can be chemically transformed onsite (FT process) to fuels. I don't think this is economic anywhere in the world even with a $92 per barrel oil price.

    The fact that Arckaringa Basin adjoins the underdeveloped Olympic Dam resource is a bit like the way Germany is swapping nuclear power for coal. It's a backwards step on the path to lower carbon

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  2. Mike Hansen

    Mr.

    Other than the following sentence "However the potential for carbon-intensive shale production in South Australia is likely to draw ire from vocal environmental activists and the Greens." it is as if climate change is not happening.

    Vlado - not just the Greens and environmentalists. Also the IEA and the World Bank.

    http://climatechange.worldbank.org/content/climate-change-report-warns-dramatically-warmer-world-century
    https://theconversation.edu.au/international-energy-agency-warns-weve-nearly-lost-our-chance-to-limit-warming-4255

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Brilliant comment, This Author is continually doing the public at large a dis-service by reporting on oil and relating it to energy independance and the economy - its sooo backwards, its 20th century thinking in the 21st century

      Your comment was a brilliant example of why thinking this way and spreading these types of Memes through society is reckless, short sighted, ignorant, I really dont have enough words to describe how self defeating all this hype about finding more oil is and how destructive and ignorant it is

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    2. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Mr Shand

      You take a principled stand against the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuel reserves.

      Does your principled stand extend to you declining to choose to burn JetA1 fuel on your next flight overseas.

      After all, if fossil fuels are 'sooo backwards', why do you keep burning them for your own pleasure.

      Gerard Dean

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    3. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Back to the fray, Mr Hansen, back to the fray.

      Fact: The temperature has fallen for 16 years and carbon dioxide has risen.

      Gerard Dean

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    4. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard, over the last sixteen years the temperatures have fluctuated somewhat, but it is inappropriate to claim they have fallen. The issue is that there has been no statistically significant change in global average atmospheric temperatures, either up or down, over that period.

      Claiming they have fallen opens you up to legitimate criticism.

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    5. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Mr Harper

      I accept your point. The temperature has fluctuated somewhat.

      Thank you

      Gerard Dean

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    6. Sean Reynolds

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Has it?

      What about the scientically measured claims that:

      "The list of warmest years on record is dominated by years from this millennium; each of the last 12 years (2001–2012) features as one of the 14 warmest on record. Although the NCDC temperature record begins in 1880, less certain reconstructions of earlier temperatures suggest these years may be the warmest for several centuries to millennia."

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrumental_temperature_record

      Anyone interested in oil…

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    7. Sean Reynolds

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Another tidbit that's just surfaced:

      "Since temperatures began to soar a couple of decades ago, Greenland and Antarctica have been shedding ice fast. Between 1992 and 2011, they lost around 2,700 billion and 1,350 billion tonnes of ice, respectively — enough to raise sea levels by about 0.6 millimetres per year3. Scientists think that by 2100, the global sea level may have risen by 0.5–1.2 metres above current levels.

      "Although ice loss is currently greatest in Greenland, that could change…

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    8. Robert Fanney

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      What are you talking about?

      2010 was the hottest year on record. Before that 2005 was the hottest year on record. Cooling? Nonsense!

      Australia just experienced the hottest summer ever recorded.

      You have got to be joking.

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  3. Graham Palmer

    Retired

    Before we all get caught up in the euphoria of this 'trillion dollar' find let's understand that while it gives energy providers time to switch from coal to gas, the science of global warming has not been revoked. If we are not to exceed the 2+ degrees of global warming that is considered the limit before dangerous consequences kick in, the reality is that most of these discoveries will have to remain in the ground.
    The Eagle Ford discovery in the United States, which according to the US Department of Energy contains the equivalent of about 7.3 billion barrels of oil is the subject of this reality check http://zoltansustainableecon.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/eagle-ford-unconventional-fantasy and I would suggest that the find in the Cooper Basin would be no different.

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    1. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Graham Palmer

      Let's also not forget that the 2° limit is a political compromise, not a scientific boundary beyond which Bad Things will happen. Given the instability we are seeing with about .8° since the start of the industrial revolution, 2° sounds like a place we don't want to go.

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  4. Michael Lardelli

    logged in via Facebook

    Here is the comment that I posted yesterday after the Advertiser article describing this:

    "Before everyone thinks its going to be Christmas forever in Australia due to these discoveries a little perspective is needed. After all, what is critical from an economic point of view is not how large the resource is but how fast oil can be produced from it. Just as being a billionaire is no fun if you are only allowed to spend $1000 per day, having billions of barrels of shale oil "reserves" is not much…

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to South Park

      Thank goodness the Marines will be coming to save us from the Insects of Mass Destruction!

      Think I'll head for the streets, flag in hand...

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  5. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Linc's preferred technology appears to UCG to GTL
    http://www.lincenergy.com/photo_gallery.php?photoGalleryMenuId=6
    rather than fracking. They have used this technology at Chinchilla Qld but I suspect it was not economic, ie it would lose money on every litre of fuel.

    If SA goes down this route it would make a mockery of their green credentials, for example the aim to host half of Australia's installed wind power. The good thing about this announcement is that it highlights our increasing dependence on oil imports. If gas were to become a major transport fuel (as CNG) I think we would soon find it was too expensive to burn in power stations and for backup to erratic windpower. Time to start thinking long term.

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Newlands

      Do you know what happened to the planned Solar plant in Chinchilla? there was a heap of hype and then it was cancelled

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    2. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to John Newlands

      Wasn't that one of the projects Candestroy Newman pulled the plug on, the day he took office?

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  6. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Great, we can live in luxery as we watch the world burn

    Is this Oil a great economy booster or just a whole bunch of CO2 that we shouldnt be releasing? but as always money will trump all and we will be burning this stuff in no time, and the PM will be over the moon, as will the state leader and the business men and women and the mum and dads

    pretty much the only people who wont be overjoyed at this are the real environmentalists and the ext generation of kids who watch us masturbate over discovering that we can create more pollution!!

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    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Keep it nice Mr Shand, keep it nice.

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  7. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    "The find has resulted in much enthusiasm in South Australia."

    Yairs, well, it would, wouldn't it?

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  8. Paul Cm

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    I was hoping you'd right an explainer on this Vlado, another excellent article. A couple questions:

    1. Why does the LNG market - like you say - operate with long term predetermined prices, as opposed to the volatile oil market?
    2. I would imagine transport costs would be lower to distributors in Australia, any idea how much?

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  9. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Environmentalist

    Alternatively, we could place our R&D dollars into sustainable forms of energy and conserve remaining fossil fuels.

    Just sayin'

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  10. Wade Macdonald

    Technician

    On top of this big oil discovery in the Cooper basin, South Australian waters and the adjacent Commonwealth EEZ are also being explored across extensive areas under the seabed.

    While governments maintain this is for securing our future etc....the current marine park systems of sanctuary zones allow underneath 'deviation' mining but ban mum and dad recreational fishers under the activities and uses checklist?

    If MPA's were about biodiversity not fishing, why pick on the small guy while an 800 pound gorilla sits in the corner exploring and waiting for its next discovery?

    Not trying to deny the impact of fishing overall here but oil exploration and super trawlers are catagories far apart environmentally from a few offshore recreational trailerboat fishermen.

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    1. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      No doubt Dianna but, as you are an environmentalist, do environmentalists care about the unfairness in cause and effect rationalism created from their advocacy for such policies?

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    2. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Do environmentalists care enough about the earth to stop burning JetA1 fuel on their next holiday overseas.

      That is the question.

      Gerard Dean

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  11. duncan mills

    Social Ecologist

    Brilliant !! but mindless !!

    Are we to lead the world into mindless destruction of our environment heedless of the consequences??

    Even if we can, we must not.

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    1. Joe Gartner

      Tilter

      In reply to duncan mills

      Must not?
      I'm far from being a global warming denier but the unpalatable reality is that we will never completely escape a fossil economy, or if we do the transition will involve years of reliance on fuel.
      Does it not make sense to exploit domestic sources of fossil fuel until we can make the transition to renewables?
      Te prospect of a long term supply of jet fuels, military fuels etc has strategic significance for Australia. By long term I mean the next century and beyond. Once Australia transitions to fossil-fuel free sources of domestic energy there will still be a requirement for fossil fuels for manufacturing, defence, jet fuel.... Seems sensible to me.

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    2. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Joe, as Hamlet said "There's the rub". If the scientists are right, we have to go, rapidly, as nearly carbon-emissions free as it is possible to go, to keep the climate within acceptable bounds. Although air travel and powerful defence are desirable, they will be irrelevant if we let the planet warm too much. Defence only matters when there is a civilisation to defend.

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    3. John Davidson

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Joe: You don't have to choose between clean transport. vs air travel and defence. Elsewhere in this conversation I have pointed out that that electro fuels made from nothing more than clean power.water air could completely replace the need for fossil fuels in transport and a wide range of manufacturing processes. Some of these fuels could be used without any need for changes to engines or distribution systems.
      Defence forces would be attracted to a fuel that doesn't depend on long supply lines leading back to countries that might prefer to support you enemies.

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    4. Joe Gartner

      Tilter

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      The point is that for the foreseeable future we will be using petroleum based products for energy and for manufacturing. As renewables become more prevalent for domestic energy the reliance on very dirty sources such as coal will diminish.
      As alternate engine technologies increase in range most domestic personal and public transport vehicles will doubtlessly use non-fossil fuel sources.
      Long range strategic military vehicles will probably still need diesel or some other variant, but this is a…

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    5. Sean Reynolds

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      There is a difference between *petrochemicals* and *fossil* fuels, in that it is possible to make petrochemicals in the present by the use of GM algae or synthesis in the manner described by JRD.

      We should be putting our scientific efforts into genetically modifyng 'oilgae' species such as Botryococcus braunii — which produce the same percentage of fractions of oil as conventional crude oil, leading scientists to believe that this species or a similar ancestor produced most or all of the world's…

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    6. Joe Gartner

      Tilter

      In reply to Sean Reynolds

      Fair point. If GM algae can reproduce the quantity and quality of petrochemicals required to service our strategic transport and manufacturing needs then I don't have any reservations in accepting this at all.

      My main point of contention is that we can suddenly cease using petrochemicals at any time soon. I totally accept that reliance on fossil fuels is bringing us to a parlous environmental state. i don't accept that we can wean ourselves completely, nor that complete cessation of fossil fuel…

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    7. Sean Reynolds

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      We are assuming in all of this that there is a fairly conclusive link between GHG levels and actual global warming — that heightened atmospheric levels of CO2, CH4 and various other gases produced by humanity's efforts will increase global temperatures, possibly precipitously, causing significant ocean level rises, dangerous climate change and so on. CO2 levels are already much higher than the inter-glacial period 130,000 years ago when it was 8 deg C warmer and the oceans were 6-8 m higher than…

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    8. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Joe, you said "Civilisation can never move away from petrochemicals". That's the irony: continued use of fossil fuels threatens civilisation. A rise of 4°C to 6°C may be incompatible with organised human society. It's as simple as that.

      Given that scenario, what is the likely human reaction? Greed! To hell with saving the planet for our descendants: we want everything for ourselves. We will be happy to burn, baby, burn to prop up our high technology, high profit Western way of life for as long as the oil can flow, or until nature kicks us off the evolutionary throne by tipping the climate against us. Homo Stupidus stupidus.

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    9. Joe Gartner

      Tilter

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      I agree that the dependence on fossil fuels is lamentable. But lamenting doesn't change anything. The best that we can hope to achieve, in my opinion, is a switch to renewables for domestic energy (ie electricity, public transport,private motor vehicles etc) with continued, limited use of fossil fuels for manufacturing purposes and for higher grade fuels. That is, unless the algae sourced petrochemicals mentioned by Sean Reynolds come to fruition as a viable source.
      This will, at best (and hopefully…

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  12. Suzy Gneist

    Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

    Sure, someone could make some money, but considering the EIEO ration of unconventionals, plus the environmental cost, doesn't it make more sense to leave it in the ground and invest longterm in clean alternatives?

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    1. Suzy Gneist

      Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Ratio, not ration

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  13. Graham Palmer

    Retired

    The tremendous hype that accompanies these massive shale discoveries appears to be more about drilling for dollars in the capital markets than drilling for natural resources.
    Let’s wait and see if this find really does have economically recoverable reserves at today’s prices and going forward.
    And even if it does it is not a simple addition to current reserves. These will in the main replace reserves which are coming to the end of their economic lives around the world.

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  14. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    If we choose we could completely replace fossil fuels with electrofuels produced from nothing more than clean electricity, water and carbon dioxide. (The carbon dioxide could come from the air or more carbon dioxide rich sources. Clean electrofuels could be produced right now using proven technologies. For example, we can make clean electro hydrogen by from the electrolysis of water. We can use clean hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce electro methanol using part of the process used to produce…

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    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to John Davidson

      Mr Davidson,

      I am afraid that you haven't cottoned on to that old saying in physics, ' You can't get something for nothing"

      Clean electrofuels can only be made with an external energy source. That source can be renewable in the form of hydro or wind electricity or fossil fuel or nuclear energy.

      The biggest problem is physics again. Every time you change the energy state eg hydro electrical to electrolysis, you lose a % to the process. The same if you used fossil fuels. Creating enough so called 'clean electrofuels' to power our cars, trucks, motorcycles, tractors, trains and planes would be monstrously expensive and wasteful.

      Take care

      Gerard Dean

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    2. John Davidson

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Clean electricity, water and air are not nothing Gerald. All the stages in the process I described have been/are being used commercially so we are not waiting for some miraculous breakthrough.
      You are quite right. It is a lot more efficient to use electricity in a more direct manner than via the electrofuel route. Problem is that you can't use electricity very directly for things like long distance air and sea transport. You could use bio-fuels but the amount of bio-fuel you can produce without…

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    3. John Davidson

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Chris,

      The link is similar to the sort of thing I was talking about. There are processes that are (or were) commercially available to do all the steps in the flow sheet.
      Using a dehumidifier to obtain the water seems a bit extreme. In the short term it would make more sense to get the CO2 from CO2 rich gas sreams rahter than the air.
      This links discusses alternatives for scrubbing CO2 out of gas streams. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_scrubber

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    4. Sean Reynolds

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Davidson

      maybe the solution is oilgae? carbon neutral 'green' oil - biological factories stitching long chain hydrocarbons together with the inputs of CO2, water and sunlight. They thrive in polluted and brackish water, and produce 10 x the amount of fuel per unit weight than other plant-based biofuel sources.

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    5. John Davidson

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Sean Reynolds

      You might be right about oilgae Sean. However, my impression is that oilgae have a long way to go before you call it "commercially available technology." Then there is the question of what sort of land and how much? I have no idea to what extent if any electrofuels will be part of our energy mix. I mention them in conversations like these because they use commercially available technology and could produce as much as needed without having much effect on food production or the environment.
      If you Google electrofuels you will get on to many links that talk about using electricity as the source of energy for producing bio-fuels from microbes that don't require photo synthesis. This means far more compact factories than those depending on photo synthesis.

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    6. Sean Reynolds

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Davidson

      All good points, John — biosynthesis or electrosynthesis of fuels, which might win out in terms of convenience and cost-effectiveness? Unless the oilgae use some amazing evolved internal catalyst reactions which are hard to replicate — which is possible — the chemical synthesis process is a lot tidier. Energy in should be comparable also, you would think. Electrical energy could come from renewable sources, solar thermal, wind, etc, and possibly an isolated nuclear plant as a last option. (Thorium?)

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  15. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

    "However the potential for carbon-intensive shale production in South Australia is likely to draw ire from vocal environmental activists and the Greens."

    And anyone who reads any climate science. You don't need to be an environmental activist or Greens voter to realise that every announcement of more fossil hydrocarbons that we're planning to dig up and burn is seriously bad news for every future generation we can imagine.

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    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Young Byron,

      I trust that you are relaxed after your recent JetA1 fuel sponsored flight.

      The good thing about the news on the South Australian fuel find is that I don't have to worry about the future of my 7 litre V8 Holden anymore.

      2013 looks like being a good year for us true believers in fossil fuels.

      Gerard Dean

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  16. Chris Harper

    Engineer

    Given the number and size of shale energy discoveries elsewhere in the world I for a long time I have thought it unlikely that sizeable discoveries wouldn't be found in Australia.

    At the upper end of the estimates this would make Australian unconventional reserves roughly the size of Saudi Arabias conventional reserves. Now that is a lot of oil, although recovery is just a tad more complex....

    The United States has about 20 billion barrels in proven conventional reserves, although estimated…

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  17. Peter Sommerville

    Scientist & Technologist

    The answer is of corse it can. The question is at what cost?

    I await with interest.

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  18. Barney Foran

    Adjunct Research Fellow, Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University

    My 'Powerful Choices' study
    http://lwa.gov.au/files/products/innovation/pn30178/pn30178.pdf (page 243) found the obvious, increased fuel security from using shale oil but at a CO2 cost of an extra 3-8 billion tonnes of CO2, over a 40 year period. Thus the "environmentally concerned" comments here are spot on.
    An intriguing possibility is to use the Shell Mahogany approach (electrical heaters underground)http://www.spe.org/jpt/print/archives/2012/01/10OilShales.pdf
    If South Australia's excellent wind resources (vastly expanded of course) supplied the electricity, then shale oil would have the same CO2 impact as conventional oil today...far too much of course. For a carbon neutral fuel we need to transition to bio-methanol thermochemically converted from wood crops grown on 40-60 million hectares of currently cleared farmland (page 201, same report)

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