Title: Energy Minerals and the EMD
Author: Laura L. Wray
Publication: The Outcrop, January 2001, p. 1, 8-9
“Maybe I should have said ‘no’ to the request to run for Rocky Mountain Counselor to the Energy Mineral Division (EMD) of AAPG,” I thought to myself on the plane to Dallas for my first meeting in that position (an inevitable outcome since I ran unopposed). My fears were those of most new volunteers: Will I be expected to contribute more time than I can budget? Will I find professional and personal fulfillment in participating in this position? Will I enjoy my colleagues while confined to a conference room for two full half-days of meetings? The answers seem to be yes, yes and yes!
Unless you are associated with EMD, you may have very little interest in the procedural and budgetary matters discussed at this meeting. But all geologists should have a fundamental level of curiosity about energy and mineral commodities, as we agonize routinely about the lack of a balanced U.S. energy policy. The Rocky Mountain region hosts most of these energy sources in some form or another. Regardless of your geologic discipline, the history, economics, extraction, and technologic advancement of energy and mineral commodities can be intriguing.
So what is new in the commodities overseen by the EMD?
Western coal production continues to increase as production of less-clean-burning coals in the East declines. Coal remains the fuel of choice for electrical generation, although a growing number of coal-fired plants in the East are now co-firing natural gas in order to decrease emissions of greenhouse gasses. Skyrocketing electrical demands in the U.S. require ever-increasing imports of coal from South America that compete, on a price basis, with domestic coal. Exported metallurgical coal is suffering from the availability of cheaper Australian coal. In response to the growing environmental concerns, research in coal geology has shifted from resource studies to emission-related concerns addressed through trace element and carbon sequestration research. The technological implementation of these studies is proving complex.
Coalbed Methane (CBM)
It’s no surprise to anyone in the Rocky Mountain region that CBM development is mushrooming. National CBM reserves have increased 3-fold since 1989! The bulk of U.S. CBM production is from western coals. But what is so intriguing from a geologic standpoint is how varied the depositional, compositional, and structural settings are for CBM production. Increased gas prices have stoked exploration efforts.
Gas hydrates (fuel gas complexed with water molecules) can store vast quantities of methane; current estimates of the amount of carbon bound in gas hydrates are almost twice that found in all known fossil fuels on Earth. Though gas hydrates are abundant worldwide, particularly in Arctic regions and in marine sediments, there is much to learn about how they form, evolve, interact with surrounding sediments, and affect environmental conditions when extracted.
Geothermal energy in the form of heat brought to the surface by steam or hot water from the Earth’s interior is a rapidly growing energy resource. Two types of geothermal resources currently are under development: hydrothermal fluids and earth energy. The former is derived from reservoirs of hot water or steam that are tapped through drilling or tapping natural vents. The latter refers to heat that is trapped in soils and rocks at shallow depths that are utilized directly for ground source heat pumps. Current production of geothermal energy ranks third behind hydroelectricity and biomass, and ahead of solar and wind. The vast potential of geothermal energy is staggering, possibly exceeding 50,000 times the energy generated from all the petroleum resources in the world.
Given the economic and energy boom that the U.S. is currently experiencing, the renewal of domestic oil shale research becomes more likely. The U.S. Department of Energy is funding a cooperative study with Estonia of the economic production of Estonian oil shale using environmentally sound methods of mining and processing. In the Piceance Basin of northwest Colorado, plans to demolish two large concrete head frames at the Federal Oil Shale Lease Tract C-b have been suspended, pending recent interest by a company in reopening that facility.
Who can doubt that remote sensing and related fields such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are exploding in scientific arenas, and even creeping steadily into our recreational lives? Tremendous technological advances in remote sensing acquisition, processing, and display capabilities have been underutilized by many industries because of low commodity prices. However, the potential applications of remote sensing and related geospatial studies foreshadow a renewed interest in these fields.
Uranium and Associated Minerals
Almost 20% of U.S. electricity is generated from 104 nuclear power plants fueled by uranium. Uranium is produced both in the U.S. and in foreign countries. However, the spot-market price of uranium oxide is so far below production costs that only three U.S. mines are in operation. Low-grade deposits of uranium exist in New Mexico and in the remainder of the Colorado Plateau, but will not be recovered until price and demand increase substantially. Neither the U.S. government nor universities have budgeted for geologic research related to uranium.
EMD members are monitoring developments in energy minerals such as uranium and geothermal, are participating in leading-edge research, and are publishing their results. ENID also is committed to keeping its members apprised of new or renewed energy projects. Several important CBM publications will be published within the next several years with EMD oversight. EMD members interested in gas hydrates are chairing technical sessions, presenting talks and posters, and promoting gas hydrate research and development. EMD members also have proposed strengthening a program in remote sensing that would be overseen by the newly named Geospatial Information Committee.
One key to dissemination of pertinent energy mineral information is for an organization to have a robust website. To that end, EMD has committed funds to hire a professional website designer to create a site that can enhance the geologic community’s understanding of energy minerals research and development. Check out the Energy Minerals Division link from the AAPG website in the near future and see what’s there!