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Q+A: Susan Wood interviews Dr Scott Tinker

Published: 1:21PM Sunday March 17, 2013 Source: Q+A

SUSAN WOOD

Dr Scott Tinker is a geologist with the University of Texas. He's also made a documentary, Switch, that looks at the global transition between different types of energy - from carbon-based fuels like coal and oil to lower-emission natural gas, wind and biofuels. He was in NZ last week as the guest of the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association. So, Dr Tinker, we're talking about dirty energy powering these developing nations. A massive impact on all of us, is there anything we can do?

DR SCOTT TINKER - Geologist

Yeah, that's a powerful piece of the film, it really is. It sets you back, and you can double that when you add China to India; over a billion people. The challenge is - and it's an important one - climate is such as important topic now, but when you visit Haiti, or when you visit South Africa or other underdeveloped nations that are beginning to develop, it's hard to look at them and say, 'You can't use affordable, available energy to provide the fundamentals of life - food, shelter, housing, education.' So there's definitely a near-term and long-term scale or trade-off that goes on, and I think it's solvable. I think we can do this, but it's going to take thoughtful people, globally, recognising that we all have different roles to play. And we have to contribute to that global betterment, if you will, and each play our different roles.

SUSAN

In NZ, energy, electricity is really expensive. Like twice the price of the US. Do you have any idea why we are paying so much in this country?

SCOTT

(LAUGHS) Well, you have beautiful, clean energy. Renewable energy is more expensive overall than burning coal to make electricity or even, today in the US, burning natural gas, which is a very affordable fuel for heat to boil water, make steam and turn the turbines. So there's a trade-off between that technology and more affordable technology.

SUSAN

Oil - for so many years, we've been told that the oil supply is running out, but it does seem now with these new technologies that in fact this is not the case; that, in fact, we have a lot of oil left.

SCOTT

Estimates are that there are about 6 or 7 trillion barrels of oil still left to be produced, and we've consumed about 1.3 in the world altogether for all of history. So that's a big number. Now it's more expensive, it's in harder to reach areas, and it's got new technology that has to happen. So as that happens, other forms of energy will compete with it on a cost basis and technologically, and you'll see the substitution thing that goes on.

SUSAN

While that's going on, though, we have got a lot of exploration in fossil energy. Oil - we're talking about Taranaki coast, we're talking about Southland. I mean, how concerned should we be around the environment? We've seen the results of those terrible spills.

SCOTT

When they happen, they are environmental disasters. Macondo in the US and Exxon Valdez and others. But you can probably name the few big ones that have happened in the last several decades globally. So with all of the exploration and production that goes on, the risk of a bigger incident is very low. The damage is high. The challenge, I think, NZ faces is one of a tremendous portfolio of options. And the country has to ask itself, 'Do we want to monetise the oil and gas resource and invest the returns into the long-term future - economic and environmental - like Norway is doing - or not?'

SUSAN

Fracking - it's a big subject here and around the world. Just how dangerous is it?

SCOTT

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been in place for over five decades. The surface process with oil and gas exploration, whether they're with hydraulic fracturing or not, they have risk. They always have, and they need to be managed, the regulators need to monitor very closely, and those who don't obey their permits and regulatory allowances need to be not allowed to operate. So the fracking itself is not a dangerous process, but oil and gas activity has always had challenges.

SUSAN

So, in other words, it just needs to be well-regulated and well-monitored, is what you're essentially saying around that.

SCOTT

It absolutely does, and it can be.

SUSAN

Do you think we are roughly on the right track with our power, with our energy?

SCOTT

Boy, I think you are, and I think you're very fortunate. You know, the diversity of choices here is wonderful. I think, in fact, you have an opportunity to be a bit of a prototype for the world. You have all the renewable energies. You certainly have oil and gas and coal, even hydrates in the deep oceans. It would be fascinating to watch NZ evolve that portfolio and let the world see maybe how that mix can transition, and you might have a lot of eyes on as that happened.

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