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Ken Doerr

Oceans at MIT goes to MIT Technology Review’s EmTech 2013 to discern the ocean’s role in the future of the global energy supply.

By Genevieve Wanucha

This week was EmTech, MIT Technology Review’s annual conference on emerging technologies. One of the presentations, ‘Emerging Technologies in Energy: Powering a World of 9 Billion,’ featured back-to-back talks by MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, who spoke of the urgent need to de-carbonize our energy supply to limit climate change, and Shell Oil executive Dirk Smit, whose job it is to locate ever more oil and gas in the Earth’s interior.

This event comes after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report estimating that humans can emit no more than one trillion tons of carbon in order to stay below 2 °C of global warming, yet we will reach that mark just 27 years from now at our current rates of fossil fuel combustion.

“We are out of time,” Emanuel said to EmTech’s audience of CEO’s, senior-level business and policy leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and venture investors. He emphasized that in order to escape the risks of more floods and droughts, sea level rise, national security threats, and disrupted ocean ecosystems, humans need to reduce emissions now. The goal may be possible, he said, with some combination of methods including using alternatives such as nuclear, solar, and wind; carbon capture; adaptation, and perhaps, even geoengineering (See: The Future of Solar Geoengineering: A Debate Far from Settled). He came out in favor of developing carbon capture technology, which would suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and factory emissions and bury it deep underground.

Such was the seemingly ironic opening act for Dirk Smit, geophysicist and vice president of exploration technology at Royal Dutch Shell, who promised to have made clear, by the end of his talk, why the oil and gas industry can help decrease emissions, even as it drills more oil to meet the growing global demand for energy.

Shell Oil, a founding member of MIT’s Energy Initiative, designed, built, and now operates the world’s deepest offshore oil and gas production platform. At the same time, the company is searching for oil and gas far, far deeper underwater as old oil discovery sites wane. To locate hidden oil reserves, they need to see and map the ocean’s subterranean landscape. “In our quest to produce hydrocarbons,” said Smit, “our industry has developed techniques to image the ocean subsurface with fairly high precision.” Shell uses this information to optimize production and to decide where to drill wells. They are now developing million channel seismic imaging methods to achieve high definition pictures of geological strata. Onshore, the devices can be used to scout out sites for hydraulic fracturing resource extraction.

In collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and robotic design companies, Shell is working to build and deploy thousands of ultra-deep water sensors. They envision the routine application of networks of robotic centers on the seafloor, as well as on land. First, they must engineer sensors that can handle massive amounts of data for several weeks on end without recharging, and work in hostile environments.

Smit’s message was that his company’s technology gathers vast amounts of information about deep subsurface geology, and they are ready and willing to use this power to address the challenges in developing carbon sequestration methods. For example, to safely pump loads of carbon under the ocean’s porous sediments or under Earth’s onshore surface, engineers first need a method to assess whether or not the carbon dioxide will stay underground in a given location. “We are building it,” said Smit. He noted that such technology could also uncover new sources of ground water.

Shell has experience on its side, both in finding geologically promising sequestration sites and in injecting massive amounts of carbon underground. By 2015, they plan to launch the large-scale carbon capture project Quest, which promises to capture 35 percent of the emissions from their hydrocarbon processing site in Alberta, Canada and permanently store the carbon in a deep saline aquifer, or porous salt-water-saturated rock formations.

“Now that’s a provocative idea,” said EmTech host Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review, taking to the stage to thank Smit. “The fossil fuel industry as the husbander of the Earth’s resources.”

From Oceans at MIT’s perspective, this EmTech 2013 event painted an intimidating vision of the future ocean: a site of both extraction and storage. With the newest advances in seismic imaging and robotics, it’s only a matter of time before the seafloor becomes peppered with ultra-deep water oil fields. But its promise as the watery grave of our carbon emissions is still just talk.