A Brief Conversation with Henry Carey of Philadelphia
|This hard work will always be done by one kind of man; not by scheming speculators, nor by soldiers, nor professors, nor readers of Tennyson; but by man of endurance – deep-chested, long-winded, tough, slow and sure, and timely.|
|— Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Man with the Hoe," September 29, 1858|
Since its first publication in 1985, SPE Journal continues to play a critical role in connecting researchers with diverse backgrounds through the fascinating area of reservoir physics and fluids production. The April 2013 issue, with its carefully screened articles, is a glowing testimonial: efficient solutions for high-performance simulation of reservoir dynamics; flooding operations using advanced water chemistry, nanotechnology; new multiphysics of hydrate gas production and the production performance predictions; application of atomistic modeling and molecular simulation into carbon dioxide phase behavior; and enhanced oil recovery…
Having looked over the 17-paper list while I prepare to write my first executive summary as SPEJExecutive Editor, I am beginning to think of the rapid evolution science and engineering of oil and gas production has experienced since the first issue. Clearly, not only the number and kinds of tools we use for fundamental research has changed dramatically, but also the interest in resources. What is the dominant factor that has been driving this resource-research duality change? This Spring Break morning at home in College Station, I have the luxury to ask some of these questions. I also wonder how different SPEJ will look 10 years from now.
I am gazing into the woods from my office window, remembering the notes I recently read on the glorious days of the American farmer in 1830s when he increased the wheat yield five-fold thanks to tile drainage introduced and advocated by an influx of European migrants. Emerson refers to his success with the following words in Society and Solitude: "See what the farmer accomplishes by a cart load of tiles [!]" By drainage he went down to subsoil he did not know, and found that there was a Concord under the old town of Concord, yielding the best crops. It turned out that Massachusetts has a basement story that is more valuable, and that promises to pay a better rent, than the entire superstructure.
At the time, the tiles also generated an interesting line of discussion among the élite, some of whom announced the arrival of a better era with more bread. The dogma that men breed too fast for the powers of soil, and the concept of diminishing returns, had seemed to be obsolete. Earlier concerns of political economists Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, who stated that population would outstrip the yield capacity of cropland, were distant. The notion that the plight of every new generation is worse than that of the foregoing--because the first comer takes up the best lands and the next the second best, inevitably driving each succeeding generation to poorer conditions--turned out to be another empty proposition. Henry Carey, the famed political economist from Philadelphia, spoke out with an uncharacteristic modesty: "Not so, Mr. Malthus, but just the opposite of so is the fact [:]" the last lands are the best lands. The generations are strong enough to open the lowlands, where the wash of mountains has accumulated the best soil that yields a hundred-fold the former crops.
Cultivating these lands in the best manner, however, requires science and great numbers (a large population) with a certain moral quality. The discussion in Society and Solitude is regrettably short of explicit definitions of this required morality. Perhaps this can be somewhat tied to Emerson’s ideal farmer, the man of endurance. In addition, these words cannot explain convincingly how global population at the time had managed to grow to the level (roughly one billion people) that the earth could barely sustain if humans were using only local resources such as wood, peat, and crops as energy sources. Neither are they likely to explain how the accumulation of the last billion humans, adding up to a fifth billion, took only a dozen years, with the population reaching that mark by the end of the twentieth century.
Indeed, scientific endeavor and technical achievements such as tile drainage were constantly present, and ethics has arguably always been at the center of our communities. However, there was something else, an earlier discovery approximately 900 years ago, that led to Carey's unconscious optimism. Humankind had discovered a new source of fuel other than wood: fossil fuel. First in the form of coal, the new fuel had reduced the reliance on forestland, enabling the farmer to convert it into cropland as he became less dependent on trees for heating during the dark and cold winter days. In The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Thom Hartmann referred to this discovery below the surface of the earth as "a critical moment in human history."
Until the early nineteenth century, coal had primarily been the fuel supporting human growth beyond the levels that earth could sustain by simply making more croplands available. Later, during the twentieth century, and on a much larger scale, oil and natural gas have been discovered abundantly and used widely--this time within a much closer proximity to advancements in medicine, science, and technology--at a head-spinning rate, driving a machine- and chemistry-based agriculture along with a hydrocarbon-based economy. Availability of fuel in the form of coal, oil and, rather more recently, natural gas has led to a dense population that is now heavily dependent on it in nearly every aspect.
Much like the capacity of the land to yield crop, however, commonly we consider that the earth has a certain (and often seen as limited) amount of fossil fuels. Consequently, there has been a nightmare bred in the mass media echoing the words of Malthus and Ricardo, predicting how much fuel we have left and when the fuel runs out. These often note that we have already discovered the easily accessible and vast pools of oil and gas and thus it is going to become much harder for succeeding generations to discover new fields of "ancient sunlight." At the same time, it has been argued that it is going to be tougher, or more costly, to extract from the remaining fields.
Recent reports show that the world’s fossil fuel resource base still remains sufficient to support growing levels of production. For a decade or so, we have been projecting remaining oil reserves of 50 years. Today, despite the current growth in consumption above the last 10-year average, the same expectation is still valid: We have enough oil for the next 50 years! In addition, we still have a proven natural gas reserves good for another 60 years, and coal reserves for the next 130 years.
However, these reports also mention a tight balance of supply and demand, putting issues such as energy security and trade at the forefront of international politics. We have been pushing exploration and production into harder and deeper environments. Is it possible that we have just reached a catastrophic ratio of man to fuel usage? Is it the case that we have already discovered Concords underneath the town of Concord?
As I prepare to finalize the Executive Summary, I imagine behind the woods the shadow of Carey appearing and slowly approaching my window. He stops and slightly leans towards the glass. He turns his head, rays of sunlight streaming down his face. With a smile, he whispers "Not so." The basement story, which is more valuable than the entire superstructure, dawns on me as a concept symbolizing the fruits of an infinitely-awarding nature that we are allowed to access within the current bounds of our potential. The potential is the science, and also the great numbers with a certain morality--the idea that we may not have to worry, because we came from the land, and the farmer is the ancestor of us all.