Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Geo Biz

I remember being quite struck, taking economic Geology, when the prof started out the first lecture by pointing out that of the ten top corporations in the US (I presume ranked by revenue), nine were geologic in nature- either energy or minerals. I just checked in Wikipedia- and with the proviso that the page says it may need updating, that number is now seven of the top ten. Walmart, Toyota and Samsung are not (directly) involved in geological resources- though of course, the products they sell do depend on extractive industries- but the remainder are described as "oil and gas" industries. Amusingly, Samsung is described as "conglomerate," but I don't think that is intended in the geological sense.

The point is, geology is big business. There's a lot of money to be made there. (Incidentally, "economic geology," as it was called at the time, is focused on the geology, genesis, and clues to metallic ore deposits, not on the role of geology in economics.) Though I took the three-term intro sequence in economics, it was voluntary. I wasn't surprised that it wasn't a requirement for the degree, but I felt then, and still do, that it should be. There have been several stories over the last few days that have brought this connection between geology and economics back to my attention.

Last Sunday I posted an image of an enormous excavator- thanks to Lost Geologist, I now know that it is located in Germany, near Cologne. In this Flash Earth link, you can see the three enormous excavations west and northwest of that city. (Followup: Holy Cow! Zooming on, you can see the excavators in that pit, too!) Lost Geologist says, "The Garzweiler open pit, one of the largest man-made holes in terms of surface area, is located about 35 km WNW of Cologne, Germany." Again popping over to WikiP, I find they're mining lignite, and the pit has a surface area of 48 square km- about 18.5 sq. mi.

It is the nature of geological resources to occur in enormous amounts, thus requiring enormous infrastructure and capitol investment to get at, extract and process them. Another case in point showed up at Dark Roasted Blend on Monday: The Ultimate Moving: Troll-A Gas Platform. DRB has quite a number of photos of moving the platform, and some interesting information. This monster is incomprehensibly huge, but the following image shows its size compared to the Eiffel tower- keep in mind that much of the structure is underwater.
Currently the largest of these is the Petronius platform, "A compliant piled tower design, it is 609.9 meters (2,001 ft) high, and was arguably the tallest free-standing structure in the world, until surpassed by the Burj Khalifa in 2008..." At a cost of about half a billion dollars, you can begin to get a sense of the investments needed to do geology.

Somewhat closer to home, and much smaller in economic scale, there's a story in today's Oregon Live about Esco:
Esco managers don't mind that each tooth, or point, may wear out in two or three days. In fact, they like it that way.

That's because Portland-based Esco specializes in "wear parts," ground-engaging tools whose lifetimes are limited, much like expendable cartridges that drive printer makers' profits. The 97-year-old heavy-equipment manufacturer could be considered an anachronism in its hometown, known for green industries.
While the corporate offices may be in Portland, the foundry that is the focus of much of the story is near Edmonton, Alberta, and manufactures wear-intensive parts for the Athabasca tar sands operations. One passage I found particularly interesting shows it's not always best to design these points for maximum durability:
For Shell, Esco makes screens for huge cylinders known as rotary breakers that spin continuously like cement mixers, sifting tar sand for processing into crude. Opening a rotary breaker every few months to change parts can cost $2 million, including downtime expenses measured in thousands of dollars a minute. Therefore Shell asks Esco to harden one part and soften another, so everything wears out at once.
Again, the costs of geological extraction are far beyond what most people realize- it's not just wealth in the ground that you can dig up with a garden shovel.

The news regarding geological resources, economics and international relations that I have been most watchful for over the last few weeks is about rare earth elements (REE's)- it hasn't been front page stuff, and I don't know if it's made it into the teevee news, but it should have been up front and center in both. China currently controls the vast bulk of the planet's REE production, and apparently is willing to use those materials as an adjunct to their foreign policy positions. They, of course, claim other reasons, though I'm skeptical. I did a post on this topic 14 months ago, so this problem is not exactly new. I have been hoping to do a meatier post on this, but I keep getting caught up in other shiny things, so I'll just point out some recent pieces that I found especially useful and illuminating. Today's NYT has a very good article (in the business section!) talking about the importance of REE's, the problems created by China's recent (apparent) export embargo, and the environmental dangers that go with their production. As I commented in that older post, I know very little about the geology of REE deposits, but Ole Nielsen at OleLog helped somewhat on Thursday in his discussion of the geology and mineralogy of a particular prospect in Greenland. I say "somewhat" because I have the impression there are a wide variety of deposit types, and this is just one. He also has a list of pertinent links if you're curious to read more on the topic. Another article/editorial from The Idaho Statesman indicates there are some prospects in that state as well.

So even though people rarely think or speak of geology and economics in the same sentence, they are truly inextricable. Both in terms of what it costs to find, extract, and process a resource, and in terms of the revenues and profits derived from such operations, geology is an enormous, even dominant, discipline of importance in today's world.

1 comment:

Ron Schott said...

Timely, indeed! I need to incorporate that fact about the top ten companies into my Intro Geology lectures at some point.