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Archive for July, 2010

“China is still going to run circles around us. Policymaking by the political process is no match for a command economy. To cite just a few examples: The U.S. has committed a total of $13 billion to rail development, while China is already building a $556 billion high speed rail system that will link all of their major cities in five years. The U.S. has no energy plan, while China is embarking on a $740 billion comprehensive energy plan to see them into the future, with vigorous support for renewables. China is on track to do more about its future emissions than the U.S., even while it has just surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest consumer of energy.

“It’s time to rethink our strategy. We would do well to follow China’s model. Instead of taking a political approach, circling the wagons around the eco-warrior camp and battling the fossil fuel industry, we should be developing a serious energy plan based on science, encompassing all forms of energy, to unite all parties in an unreserved commitment to the great task of energy transition. Because oil depletion is relentless, time is running out, competition for fuels is only increasing, and we’re the most vulnerable player at the table” [1]

I mentioned in my last post that we’re going to need an energy policy—courtesy of our federal government. That is not to say that business and industry has no role. Quite the opposite: once the policy and strategies are in place, business and industry will be the vital cogs in carrying out those plans. We will have no choice but to let loose the capabilities of the market to do all it can to effect change. This is definitely not an either-or situation.

But at the risk of stating the very obvious, with no national policy to guide us, we’re going to have 500 businesses and industries charging off in 500 different directions, each with their own notions and agendas. Pretty certain that that approach won’t work. Let’s be clear that this is going to be two-pronged approach (three if you count the fact that citizens everywhere will have a role to play and a responsibility to fulfill; we/they cannot be sitting on the sidelines waiting for others “out there” to do what’s necessary).

And if we are going to have a national policy, we’re going to have to have an activist government that speaks with one voice. That is going to take some doing! I’ve been following politics for more than three decades, and I have never seen it this polarized, nor have I seen so much nonsense masquerading as truth passed among us. That will have to change.

What this all means is that the strategy of “no” and denial no longer has a role to play in the dialogue. We’re getting too close to the point where changes are going to be imposed, and while we may very well still have 10, 15, 25 years of crude oil available to us, we also need 10, 15, 25, or more years to effect a transition away from fossil fuels into an economy and infrastructure dependent on something other than crude oil and fossil fuels. Even the most wildly optimistic among us recognize what a potential long shot we now face.

And if this is all seemingly impossible to implement, the bonus is that we’re going to be doing all of this with a steadily declining supply of fossil fuels available— not just to implement the transitions and all that that entails, but also to use for our every day personal and business needs and wants. And just to make this all even more interesting, let’s not forget that billions more around the world will be looking to do the same. (An aside of considerable note: the United States is no longer the world’s leading energy consumer. China is now the world leader. We cannot afford to ignore the ramifications.)

The math doesn’t work at these levels.

Panic is an option, but as with denial and just saying no, it’s not especially beneficial, assuming we’re interested in any semblance of a prosperous future.

The great thing about our nation is the wealth of opportunities it affords all of us, even in the midst of the twin challenges of Peak Oil and global warming (and let’s not forget the Great Recession). But with the choices afforded us comes responsibility for dealing with what those pursuits will bring. If we continue to choose to do nothing, or deny, or pretend, or just simply remain ignorant of the evidence and truth about Peak Oil and the problems of a warming planet (damn those facts!), the consequences will also be our responsibility.

Anyone who thinks that those strategies are the best choices right now should plan some time for careful and serious reflection.

What we may need most of all is courage. Courage from our leaders (in both parties) to first admit to the truth and then convey those facts to us honestly. The time to deny or “refudiate” for sheer political or electoral gain has passed. We cannot afford politics as usual. Leadership is needed to not just tell us the facts we don’t want to hear. Leadership then requires setting aside idealistic differences and recognizing instead that party affiliation and a philosophy about the role or non-role of government has no place in the dialogues we need to engage in. These challenges are bigger than that.

We also need courage from the media to report the facts and the truth and to call out once and for all those who disseminate disingenuous information and outright lies for political or self-serving gain. The levels of outright meanness and an utter disregard for anything remotely resembling integrity must be loosed from public discourse once and for all. Right-wing messengers will suffer the effects of Peak Oil and global warming every bit as much as the most ardent tree-hugging liberal.

The narrow-minded philosophy about limited government and the occasionally insane rantings about socialism and conspiracies and a president born on Mars and what-have-you need to be left in the dark. They confuse and lead astray those most in need of the honest expression of facts. We cannot afford those strategies any longer. That time has come and gone, so those who choose to continue to engage in these mindless games for reasons they probably cannot clearly articulate either must find common ground with the truth. We’ll have enough fear to contend with as it is. Let’s not add fuel to those fires with political lunacy that enflames but does not inform or educate—or help.

Most of all, and what may ultimately be the most difficult part (and at the same time serves as the singular tipping point that determines our long-term successes, or failure): we need to summon our own courage. We need to understand that we are at a defining moment in the course of our progress as a nation and yes, at the risk of over-drama, our civilization. We need to buck up and recognize that each and every one of us is going to experience disruptions in the years to come. The fact that these disruptions aren’t likely to be felt any time “soon” is irrelevant at this point. We need to start thinking beyond next Wednesday.

No one is running out of oil tomorrow or next week or next month or even five years from now. Earth is not reaching the boiling point any time soon, either. But the evolution of those problems and the consequences arising from their steady march will grow more impactful every day. Soon enough there will come a point of no turning back: we will have either begun the process of undertaking the massive changes needed to carry on without fossil fuels while staving off inescapable damage of an ever-warming planet, or we can stand by helplessly and watch our children and grandchildren suffer the ravages of our ignorance and neglect.

Sacrifice will also be required of all of us. No one wants that. That’s a given. However, we’re not going to have much of a choice. So the sooner our leaders, at our behest, begin to set aside the nonsense they toss across the aisles and engage in meaningful dialogue about the future of our economy, our nation, and the world at large, the better our chances of finding our way to lives of meaning and success and yes, prosperity—different though the definitions may be.

We’re in the first inning of a very, very different game now. The rules have changed, and how we “play” must change as well. Understanding must come soon.

{Note to my readers: A death in the family last week took me out of town and thus curtailed my posting activity, and now a family vacation with members from out of state makes it likely that this will be my only post of this week. Thanks for your patience; I’ll be back by the middle of next week.}

Sources:

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-nelder/beyond-carbon-legislation_b_657495.html – Beyond Carbon Legislation: Energy Transition by Chris Nelder; July 26, 2010

I’ll follow-up my last post by starting with two truths that (I hope) seem beyond rational dispute:

* “If the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico tells us anything, it is that we need a new national energy policy—a comprehensive plan for escaping our dangerous reliance on fossil fuels and creating a new energy system based on climate-safe alternatives. Without such a plan, the response to the disaster will be a hodgepodge of regulatory reforms and toughened environmental safeguards but not a fundamental shift in behavior. Because our current energy path leads toward greater reliance on fuels acquired from environmentally and politically hazardous locations, no amount of enhanced oversight or stiffened regulations can avert future disasters like that unfolding in the gulf. Only a dramatic change in course—governed by an entirely new policy framework—can reduce the risk of catastrophe and set the nation on a wise energy trajectory.” [1]

* “[I]nfrastructure is really about the quality of life we want for ourselves, our families and our communities. It affects our lives each day.
“It’s the roads and bridges we drive on, the schools we learn in, the trains we ride on, the water we drink. It’s the energy grid that powers our TVs and refrigerators and the dams and levees that protect us. Like the skeleton in our bodies, it is the framework that every other important thing is built on.
“Without a strong and vibrant infrastructure, our nation will fall behind our competitors in productivity — and lose the high quality of life Americans have enjoyed for decades.” [2]

Michael T. Klare’s excellent discussion about the need for a new energy policy dovetails nicely with those of us concerned that we’re soon going to be faced with the problems and challenges of Peak Oil (oil production and supply no longer being unable to match oil demand). We’re going to have to figure out how to make do with something else. Unfortunately, for all the talk of alternative energy, something else doesn’t exist yet … at least not in sufficient quantities or adequate scale to even come close to enabling us to make effortless and consequence-free transitions away from fossil-fuel-based economic growth and industrial production. That’s a decades-long project under the best of circumstances.

Governor Ed Rendell has been an ardent and tireless advocate of infrastructure spending, and he is absolutely correct in his assessment about the importance of adequate and capable infrastructure. (The fact that this op-ed piece was co-written with Senator James Inhofe—the very same right-wing Senator Inhofe who has indicated that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”—is more than a bit surprising, but give credit where credit is due. Let’s hope that the good Senator understands that this requires that government play a key role. The money and planning for infrastructure investment is not going to come from the marketplace.)

The problem is clear but hardly a simple one: How do we match the need for a new energy policy that will enable us to continue to grow our economy and expand opportunities for all with the fact that we have no infrastructure in place to support that growth with anything other than fossil fuels as the engine? Spending countless tens of billions of dollars on roadway improvement or bridge repair or sewer renovations (while using lots of fossil fuels in the process) are perfectly appropriate expenditures if we are looking to boost demand, create jobs, and solidify the foundations that enable us to grow and prosper.

But those specific kinds of expenditures may very well lead us on roads to nowhere. We cannot—we must not—expect that in the coming decades we will have the same lifestyles or enjoy the same products and services; the same suburban environments; the same industries; the same modes of transportation, and the same lots of other things for one simple reason: we are not going to have the quantities, affordability, and availability of fossil fuels that would continue to make those things possible as they presently exist.

Something else is needed.

I despair for our future only because I am concerned that we might not appreciate the collective national will or understanding needed to truly grasp and accept what is at stake. The disingenuous and occasionally misleading commentary that passes for facts, the pettiness, the idiotic ideas proffered by some, and the complete relinquishment of intellectual curiosity by far too many to the loudest, most narrow-minded and uninformed rantings of “leaders” and celebrities makes me question whether or not we will ever do anything more than advance in thousands of self-serving, incrementally small steps that will ultimately be of no benefit to any of us.

I worry that we lack the boldness of vision to recognize what we have to do and the opportunities we’re being presented with. I worry about what we stand to lose, and I wonder too often if we truly understand what we all need to do to at least try and provide ourselves with the best chances for prosperity in the years to come. Doing more of the same simply is not going to be an option for much longer.

We need to think beyond the next election cycle, and I am not convinced yet that enough of us are willing to do so. Our (and not always inappropriate or incorrect) selfish concerns for getting what we need—consequences-be-damned—stands solidly in the way of formulating and then implementing the plans we’re going to have to take in order to effectively move away from our dependence on fossil fuels and provide new foundations for future prosperity. (And let’s not forget that we will almost certainly find ourselves defining “prosperity” differently than we ever have. “Growth” is likely to take on a different hue as well.)

We lack courage. Or perhaps more accurately, we don’t know that we have the courage we need, and so we shy away from taking the big and bold steps that will be the only way to preserve some semblance of the lifestyles and industries and economic prosperity we believe is our birthright. And we will have to display that courage in the face of billions of others who want what we’ve had, as we’ve had it. There’s no way to satisfy all those demands and expectations if we continue on our present course.

Pretend otherwise or deny all you want if that is your inclination, but the facts about oil production are facts. The world has been using more oil than it’s been finding for forty years. There are no economics double-speak or market-based rationales that can spin that away. No one is hiding vast quantities of readily available and inexpensive oil anywhere. Before too long, and certainly well before we have put into place any solutions on national or international scales even remotely adequate to deal with the problems of Peak Oil, we’re going to be dealing with the reality of Peak Oil and its impact on almost everything we do.

So what do we do? What got us here will not get us there.

The truth, painful as it is, is that there are no perfect solutions and no guarantees about the ones we ultimately employ. We are in an era of great uncertainty, and we are going to have to each summon the courage to move beyond our comfort zones and understand that our expectations and desires to have life return to the heady and prosperous days of the recent past (however poorly created that prosperity may have been) are sure to meet with great disappointment. Things are going to be different; not necessarily bad, but surely different.

An added challenge will be trying to get several hundred million people here and many billions more elsewhere—billions who have witnessed the American dream from afar for decades and now want a piece of that for themselves—to understand this as well. Dashing their hopes and dreams before they can be reached is no easy or pleasant task. They will not acquiesce quietly. (And ask any billion of these people what we all need to do and we’re likely to come up with somewhere around 825 million different responses.)

We have our work cut out for ourselves.

We have opportunities, but no guarantees. So do we continue to make the perfect the enemy of the good? Do we wait for some fanciful perfect idea to solve the problems of declining oil production? Are we just days away from magic technology coming to the rescue? Are our geologists and oil explorers suddenly about to realize that they forgot to look at a huge chunk of this planet for oil? Do we play on misguided and narrow-minded fears perpetuated by some for reasons and benefits unclear at least to me, and regardless of the long term costs to others? Can we continue to afford to ignore the facts (and costs) surrounding the production of unconventional oil and the likelihood that this can solve our problems? Are we ready to move on from (or forget) the Gulf of Mexico tragedy and keep our fingers and toes crossed that that won’t happen again?

Do we continue to think in a nation of several hundred million people facing all the challenges we currently face and the ones we will confront in the near future, that we can all go it alone without the essential assistance of government? Do we really think that the unfettered “market” is the answer? Have we forgotten that much already? The financial collapse in 2008 and its preceding causes are not that far removed from us.

The costs to effect a meaningful transition are probably as close to incomprehensible as can be imagined right now. Trillions is a good bet. I’m not unmindful of the opposition to more government spending. Unfortunately, the arguments of some on the Right are less than truthful at best, but I respect the philosophy behind it, even if I completely disagree. I’m a firm believer that we need more stimulus money, and deficits (at least for now) be damned. Not a perfect solution by any stretch; but on balance I think this is the “better” option. (For an excellent and to- the-point discussion about public spending v. deficit reduction, see this.)

We are all in this together: advocates, deniers, and the vast in-between who don’t have enough information or concern to know which way to turn. And as much as it may chafe some who are disposed by knee-jerk reaction to condemn the possibilities of government for the good (and to be fair, not always without reason), any hopes of digging ourselves out of this economic mess and dealing with the looming challenges of Peak Oil on our own are a waste of time. Solutions are going to have to come from all quarters, and many can only find voice and implementation at the hands of our government and national policies and strategies.

In the end, I think the only question that’s going to matter is: what other choice do we have? Plans and changes on the scale and scope necessary can only be effectively produced at the national level. Five thousand individual plans won’t work, and anything less than a comprehensive plan to overhaul our fossil fuel-based energy and industrial infrastructures is destined to come up short. The transition required can only take years, if not decades. We simply cannot wait until every last denier is convinced by the facts before we start. We have to develop and implement new strategies for energy production and economic growth while there is still sufficient fossil fuel capacity to assist us. To try and effect the changes leading to a different infrastructure and different economy no longer supported by fossil fuel will itself require massive amounts of declining oil supplies. Waiting is only going to make the efforts that much more difficult, if that’s even possible to imagine.

So do we decide once and for all that in this environment—with so many hundreds of millions soon to be competing for a shrinking supply of essential fossil fuels, with millions now suffering from this great economic upheaval we’re mired in, and with looming energy challenges left and right—we had better start thinking a lot more long term than the November elections and boneheaded short term “solutions” or ideas that play to fears and ignorance more than to long term benefit?

This is not a fun topic to cover. Every time a Peak Oil advocate writes or speaks about the challenges we face, a delicate balance must be struck between providing useful, positive information, and an inclination to run screaming into the night. Fear is rarely an effective motivator, but if we do not come to understand the breadth and depth of Peak Oil’s impact on all our activities, we’ll be left with a lot of fear and panic we could have avoided by summoning our best collective efforts to start addressing the problems now … before they overwhelm us.

That’s a choice … and opportunity.

Sources:

[1] http://www.thenation.com/article/37529/clean-green-safe-and-smart; Clean, Green, Safe and Smart – Michael T. Klare | July 15, 2010

[2] http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0710/39894.html; Expand investment in infrastructure By: Gov. Ed Rendell and Sen. Jim Inhofe, July 19, 2010

We are so woefully ill-prepared….

“[S]ix in ten surveyed by Pew believe that the economic situation will be better soon and that the recession is only temporary. This alone vividly illustrates how poorly the true state of the global economic situation is understood and the size of the shock that most of us are in for.
“Nearly everyone will admit that continuing oil shortages and that high (above $100 a barrel) oil prices would be devastating to the prospects for economic recovery and that persisting very high (say above $200 a barrel) oil prices would send the U.S. and many other economies into a deep, long-lasting depression. The problem is that few are willing to consider seriously the accumulating evidence that increasing oil prices and eventually oil shortages within the next few years are as inevitable as the sunrise. Most of us have no thoughts about the issue other than the current price of a gallon of gas. Among those who appreciate that the world’s petroleum resources are finite, few understand the proximity of the crisis.” [1]

Michael Lind, whose recent article on transportation I criticized in a prior post, has written a new piece arguing for public investment in our nation’s infrastructure (highways, water and sewer systems, power/electric grid, etc.). His is only one of many recent articles (including several of my own, beginning with this one) on the importance of infrastructure spending and revitalization. (See this also.) As I usually do with Mr. Lind’s opinions—recent post aside—I agree with his premise, but with caveats:

“If neither foreign private demand nor foreign public demand can compensate for the loss of American private domestic demand, then the only possible source of increased demand for American goods and services that remains is public domestic demand. American government at all levels may need to provide much of the missing demand for American businesses and labor, for the decade or longer that is needed for private sector deleveraging in the aftermath of America’s asset bubble.
“To avoid competing with private enterprise, the government should produce public goods that increase overall productivity and that the private sector has no incentive to provide, in good times or bad, such as infrastructure and social services like policing, health care, education and care for the young and old. In addition to mobilizing idle resources and labor directly, both infrastructure and public service spending could help business in general by boosting the purchasing power of Americans who are now unemployed.”

There are enough studies showing the many benefits of infrastructure spending, so regardless of what type of infrastructure expenditures are eventually made, they will serve to create jobs, enhance demand, and provide a boost to our economy.

The mindless objections to government spending in this day and age, while serving short term political interests (and even that is dubious) can only harm us long term. We cannot continue to do what we’ve always done … we’ll just get more of what we’ve gotten so far. That won’t cut it anymore. What has gotten us here won’t work in the years to come in the face of declining fossil fuel availability, and there is almost nothing on the books to suggest that we have any plans in place to deal with the disruptions declining oil supplies will create. That’s a big problem all by itself.

Another problem that has been expressed is that in the aftermath of this Great Recession, and with the onset of Peak Oil, we may very well never enjoy again the type of growth we’ve come to expect. As Kurt Cobb noted nearly five years ago:

“The hardest sell to any audience is that there is a chance for us to chart a course to sustainability, but that it will take a lot of work at every level: individual, household, municipal, state, federal and even international. And, by the way, when we get there all of us will have considerably less material wealth than we do today.” [2]

Our sense of entitlement is about to be shaken in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. Subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in how we live our daily lives and how our economy functions will become apparent, mostly (at least initially) to our dismay. Things are going to change, and not usually for the better—at least not right away (and I’m trying hard to be as optimistic as I can). Ducking responsibility, hoping otherwise, or just avoiding the issue entirely are not our best options.

A related issue that deserves serious consideration as well is that with the decline in oil production and decreasing availability looming, we’re going to need different strategies and a different vision for what “growth” will mean. That is going to require a different infrastructure. Relying on the fossil fuel-derived one won’t serve us when we have to depend on and use something other than fossil fuels to power and support our economy and industry.

Any infrastructure spending going forward must be targeted more carefully and clearly to help us move to industry and growth beyond and without fossil fuels. Repairing or even just maintaining what we have may turn out to be a monumentally foolish way of time, effort, and money. I quite frankly do not know if we are capable of creating and implementing plans on a large enough scale to do all that needs to be done because the infrastructure we now have in place, however poorly it may be functioning right now (see my February 24 post linked above), is not going to be the one that serves our needs in the largely fossil fuel-free world we’re going to find ourselves in a few short years down the road.

The sheer scope of what we will have to undertake in the face of declining oil supplies is—if we really try to wrap our minds around it—as close to incomprehensible as we can get. As I noted in a prior post on infrastructure (here):  “We have designed our lifestyles, our economic and industrial development, and our communities around cheap, easily-produced oil. Our everyday world is premised on that continuing supply (together with natural gas) to produce and transport food, to fuel our transportation, build and heat or cool our buildings, purify our water, treat our waste, and build, well, just about everything we use.”

Without a new infrastructure in place, one designed to operate and serve as the foundation of … well, pretty much everything, and one designed also to operate on some alternative energies we are not even close to implementing on anything even remotely approaching the scale needed, efforts to transition away from fossil fuels are only prolonging the inevitable, and likely making things much, much worse. The loud “thud” we’ll all be hearing is going to be our comfy and cozy ways of life. Most of us have no clue….

We’ve spent decades and countless sums creating an infrastructure to support and enable our growth and successes primarily because we’ve had access to inexpensive and plentiful oil, and that’s not going to be an option for us before too long. Needed change will only be measured in years of planning and effort.

We won’t be waking up one Monday morning and realize that we’ve run out of oil. That is not the issue. The issue is that we’re not going to have enough to do all that we are accustomed to and all that we need to do in our daily lives. Something is going to have to give, and so far, we have no idea what that might be or how to even think about dealing with the challenges.

There are no quick fixes, and certainly no easy fixes. We’re going to have less oil available to help us effect the needed changes, so we’re hamstrung to begin with (unless we make most of it available for infrastructure and very little for everything else, which is not likely to go over well with … everyone). We only have a relatively narrow window of time to adapt to begin with.

As I previously noted: “There are countless opportunities awaiting us, and countless problems looming if we don’t start thinking about how to deal with less oil.”

Peak Oil is not measured in weeks or even months, but infrastructure re-creation is likewise not so measured. We are talking years, and we are going to have to try and do all of this with much less fossil fuel available. Despite our expected inclination to want to try and do all of this all at once, we are also going to have to consider the impact on climate and the environment as we transition to whatever new forms of infrastructure will be needed.

And echoing one of the key themes I’ve been emphasizing throughout, Sharon Astyk, in a terrific post, observed:

“The simple fact is that we are taking precisely the wrong course as we de-emphasize self sacrifice – and everything we do to reinforce the idea that people will have essentially the same lifestyle that they have reinforces their inevitable sense of betrayal when that proves not to be the case. We are, in fact, seeing that sense of betrayal in working class and lower income families joining tea parties to express their sense that they have lost a basic access to a decent way of life.
“What could work – with great difficulty – is for us to enlist our fellows in a great project of courage and self-sacrifice – engage those people who feel least a part of this society. People climb mountains, run marathons, march off to be killed at war, and engage in all sorts of grand, painful and difficult challenges because doing so expresses their sense of honor, their courage, their patriotism, their love for others. As long as we fear to call upon one another to sacrifice, as long as we sell the narrative that an essentially similar life is possible, as long as we deny the costs, we will give up the greatest tool we have – the passionate energy of those who are doing what must be done for a better future. There is no certainty that such a course would be successful, of course, but it could hardly be less successful than our current strategies.” [3]

In that same post, Ms. Astyk also raised one other point that I expect many will not appreciate hearing, but is one we’re all going to have to accept:

“All solutions must work on a world scale. China and India will not accept a lower standard of living than we have, and will not reduce their coal burning and car usage if we demand that we all keep our cars and run our a/c any time we get warm. Neither will Russia. No narrative that includes the underlying idea that we’re going to keep using more energy than most other people can possible address climate change – period.”

We are at the dawn of an era of incredible opportunity if we choose and act wisely, and as a community, but we must first accept the realization that we are facing some serious challenges in the near future. We’re responsible for what we’ve created, just as we are responsible for resolving the problems our successes (and excesses) have brought us. We may indeed never again enjoy the levels of growth, prosperity, and successes that have defined our past. But this is not to say that we can’t craft new measures of success and prosperity going forward.

“The great transition of the 21st century will entail enormous adjustments on the part of every individual, family, and community, and if we are to make those adjustments successfully, we will need to plan rationally. Implications and strategies will have to be explored in nearly every area of human interest—agriculture, transportation, global ware and peace, public health, resource management, and on and on.” [4]

The choice is ours.

Sources:

[1] http://www.energybulletin.net/node/53441: The peak oil crisis: A mid-year review; Published Jul 14 2010 by Falls Church News-Press, Jul 14 2010 by Tom Whipple

[2] http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2006/11/attitude-adjustment-facing-our.html: Attitude adjustment: Facing our ecological predicament; November 12, 2006

[3] http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2010/07/our_tails_get_in_the_way_the_p.php: Our tails get in the way: The problems and principles of energy descent – 07/13/2010 – Casaubon’s Book

[4] Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines by Richard Heinberg (pp. 22-23) – New Society Publishers

In a recent post (here), I discussed the unfortunate practice by Peak Oil dissenters of cherry-picking facts to suit their skewed perspectives on the reality of oil production, conveniently neglecting to provide readers with the relevant background information needed to properly understand the issue at hand. An equally discouraging exercise is their use of vague, impressive-sounding but ultimately meaningless words and phrases to try and bolster their side of the argument. Perhaps they count on apathy or ignorance on the part of their readers, but regardless of the rationale, it does little to help. (Why do they insist on doing this? The Boston Globe published an interesting piece on Sunday that may provide answers.)

A recent and particularly egregious example can be found here. Feel free to read this glowing exhortation about the bazillion years of oil we have at our beck and call via oil shale. The author of that snarky piece excels at long division, but note the complete failure to mention even a single fact as to what is actually required to produce the oil shale this writer so ardently touted. Why let the truth get in the way of nonsense? (Hard to be kind to this narrow-minded wing-nuttery, so this is the best I can do.)

Just for the heck of it, take a peek at these prior posts (here and here) offering information about what is involved in mining oil shale and how utterly ineffectual efforts have been for most of the past few decades.

Facts are indeed an annoying intrusion into the puzzling reality of some.

This past weekend I came across yet another article where the full range of information was conveniently omitted. When you write a piece like this offering up at best fuzzy details and are hoping/praying/counting on your readership being uninformed and thus reliant on whatever details you do or do not provide, I can only assume there is some benefit to be derived. Engaging in open and honest debate, however, would not appear to be on that list. If all the facts aren’t on the table, then what does that suggest about the argument being made?

“Resources in the ground are clearly abundant. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Vice President Greg Stringham, pointing to the 175 billion barrels recoverable from the Canadian oil sands, says, ‘It won’t be a lack of resources that causes a shift away from oil. There’s lots of oil.’ The United States Geological Survey recently updated their estimates for recoverable oil from Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt to 513 billion bbl. Compare this to BP’s estimate of some 1200 billion bbl of global conventional oil reserves. Some shale formations, such as the US’s Bakken and Eagle Ford, contain substantial amounts of oil and natural gas liquids too, a form of unconventional oil which has emerged from nowhere in the past few years.

“Traditional onshore light crude, though often inaccessible to the international oil companies, remains plentiful too.”

(My bold italics were added for emphasis)

I’ve already acknowledged, as have many other Peak Oil advocates, that there are indeed hundreds of billions of barrels of oil in the ground. We’re not running out of oil. Those are not facts in dispute, unless you are arguing whose estimates are correct. But as is frustratingly obvious yet again, this Oil Council article fails to make mention of a single fact about the difficulties, costs, environmental degradation, time factors, or energy expenditures incurred in producing these resources. Uninformed readers are left with the impression that a shovel and sturdy straw are pretty much all that’s needed to extract this “plentiful”, “clearly abundant” oil from underground. (How many barrels are in a “plentiful”?)

Hello?!

The simple truth is that there is a big difference between what’s in the ground and what’s feasible or even possible to get out of the ground (or in deep water). So just tossing out large numbers or unquantifiable phrases like “substantial amounts” without a corresponding explanation that these tidbits don’t necessarily mean that we can actually extract or produce them is misleading. I always find it very difficult to understand the purpose or intent of such efforts, and remain dismayed that the fear of engaging in honest debate trumps the importance and necessity of having that honest discussion, regardless of outcome. Aren’t we all better served when we can deal with full truths rather half-ones, painful though it may be? What is gained otherwise?

If facts are wrong—mine included—then they’re wrong, and we are all better off knowing that and moving forward with better information. I wish it could be that simple….

“Kuwait and Abu Dhabi recently updated ambitious plans for production gains.”

And…? They can “update” their “ambitious plans” until pigs fly, but what does any of that prove? That’s a solution?

Likewise, cornucopian arguments proffered by this article about the “technical potential” of Iraq’s oil fields are pointless! What’s involved in realizing this “technical potential”? How many years? How much money? What are the complex political factors to be addressed? What other resources will be needed? How much energy will have to be invested in order to extract all this potential? When all is said and done, how much production can realistically be expected?

(An aside: Andrew McKillop, writing on Sunday about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, noted (here) that BP’s Macondo field, thought to contain somewhere in the vicinity of 300 million barrels of oil—three or four days’ worth, by the way—could realistically have been expected to extract no more than 50 million barrels, and over 15 years or more. These are the types of facts we need to be dealing with and explaining to others instead of pretending that all will be well because we still have “lots” of oil left.)

And touting the 21 billion barrels of oil Iran has produced in the past dozen years sounds terrific up until the moment you realize that’s about 7 months’ worth of supply. Probably want to hold off rushing out the door to buy that soon-to-be-extinct Hummer you’ve always dreamed of….

“Kazakhstan’s long-delayed Kashagan field will finally come onstream around 2013 and yield more than 1 million bbl per day.”

Pulling out my trusty calculator, I conclude that 1 million barrels per day times 365 days in a year means that the Kashagan field will yield about 365 million barrels per year, or … Gasp! almost five day’s worth of oil! Hallelujah! Our prayers have at last been answered! Wow, that was close! I thought we all might actually have to start giving up things and changing lifestyles, but oh, no! Just a handful of these producing oil fields could get us enough oil to last until … uh, uh, a few weeks.

These resources and finds are surely better than a stick in the eye, but really? This is what’s being touted as the answer to Peak Oil’s discouraging message and worrisome impact? Oil production is on the decline, and these feverish efforts to paint a rosy picture help no one prepare for and plan the changes societies will need to implement. Whatever transitions away from fossil fuels we can collectively fashion will carry their own hardships. Let’s not make it worse by avoidance.

I understand that no one really wants to have to deal with the problems and challenges of declining oil production. Sure as hell I don’t! There is nothing even remotely enjoyable to contemplate about the onset of Peak Oil and its impact on my own pleasant, suburban multi-car, two-home lifestyle. Millions and millions of others who understand the implications and consequences will be/are just as dismayed for their own reasons—selfish or otherwise.

Making do with less is not anyone’s idea of progress or pursuit of the great American Dream. I understand the instinct to avoid, deny, or just pretend otherwise. The problem is that those strategies are not only not going to work, they will ultimately make things worse for all of us. They may serve some weirdly narcissistic, narrow-minded short term interests, but we are all in this together—deniers, too. Their magical thinking won’t prevent Peak Oil from impacting their lifestyles and businesses. Unless you have managed to carve out a lifestyle entirely independent of fossil fuels, either by avoiding personal use of it or avoiding goods and services that require it, Peak Oil is going to affect you, and perhaps quite dramatically.

Let’s not wait until we’re all in full-fledged panic mode over what is happening when supply can no longer match demand. It’s not that far away … and much too soon for us to avoid all the nasty consequences Peak Oil is going to impose on us. Disingenuous “information” is thus not at all helpful unless perpetuating a lack of understanding and awareness are the objectives.

If this deliberate obfuscation of facts and the true import of Peak Oil’s impact is the best that the deniers can offer, doesn’t it contain at least a seed of suggestion that perhaps we all ought to be thinking a bit more seriously about what needs to be done? We’re years behind as it is. As painful as it will be to confront the possibilities of having to make do with less for many years to come, having some say in how we collectively prepare for and deal with the impact of declining oil production seems a better long-term option.

Relying on these half-baked missives of optimism is an exercise in foolishness none of us can afford

Last month, I came across a interesting article showing the production breakdown of a barrel (approximately 45 gallons) of oil.

I found it a bit surprising that only 4 gallons, or approximately 11 %, from every barrel of oil is typically produced as aviation fuel.

As Dave Jackson noted in another recent article:

“A-1 jet fuel, a high grade, moisture free kerosene, competes directly with the production of diesel. A refiner has a certain amount of leeway when extracting fuels from each barrel of crude oil. By and large, however, a choice must be made between kerosene or diesel.”

Jackson then asked pretty much the same question I have: What happens when there isn’t enough crude oil to satisfy the full demands of freight transportation and the airline industry? Can’t satisfy them both once oil production begins its continual decline, so what happens? As it stands now and if my math is correct, airlines use somewhere in the neighborhood of two billion barrels of oil each year. That cannot continue in the face of Peak Oil.

What decisions are the various transportation industries—freight and aviation in particular—going to be faced with when the worldwide supply of oil cannot ever match demand again? Who decides which of those two will have priority? It’s unlikely that only one industry will have all of its demand met, so that means both industries will suffer reductions in what is available to them. Then what?

As other writers have duly noted, once Peak Oil’s impact is being felt immediately and daily by the transportation industry, the foods and goods and services we’ve grown accustomed to having on hand 24/7/365 … won’t be. We’re going to have to start making do without some of those products and services we like to enjoy or use whenever the mood strikes, and if we’re being deprived, somewhere along the supply and distribution chain there will be employment and production cutbacks. We all now know what happens when people start losing their jobs and industries stop making or supplying goods and services.

A broader question as it affects aviation: what happens to air travel in general? Once Peak Oil is in full swing, we clearly cannot assume that that same eleven percent of each barrel of oil will still be devoted to producing aviation fuel. What then?

One obvious outcome is that the then more restricted air travel will become more expensive. I’m no economics whiz, but when supply decreases and demand remains steady, prices increase. So get ready for more expensive air travel as well as higher crude oil prices. For many, that means no more air travel. Then what? I’m fairly confident that airlines aren’t going to survive if their increasing costs for fuel lead to fewer passengers (who are obliged to pay much higher fares), and on and on the dominoes tumble.

When the price of a barrel of oil shot up to nearly $150.00 two short years ago, Brad Plumer—in a terrific New Republic article well worth reading—noted that nearly 25 airlines bit the dust just in 2008, almost four times the average. Should we expect anything different the next go-‘round?

On a more personal note, what will families do? As the parent of two daughters currently in college, I recognize first-hand the concerns any parent has when their graduating children decide to take jobs far from home. The emotional pull of wanting the best for your child while nonetheless wanting them close by has a powerful influence on our well-being. What happens if my daughter accepts a job in Portland, Oregon and in the not-too-distant future, the several dozen reasonably priced daily flights currently available out of Boston’s Logan Airport are reduced to just a handful, and the acceptable $550 flight through Dallas suddenly become a $1700 flight with multiple connecting stops en route, and an 8 hour trip is suddenly a two day adventure?

I am well aware that my daughter’s employment and location choices won’t depend one iota on what dear-old-Dad would prefer, but if my daughter does make the choice to live in a locale that is now an airplane ride away and a few years down the road I no longer have that as a feasible option to see her, dear-old-Dad is not going to be a happy camper. (I will let my daughter speak for herself on this subject!)

What happens to business meetings, to governmental business, to international negotiations, to sports travel, to family visits, and a host of other lifestyle and industry needs when we have less aviation fuel competing for our business and personal demands? What happens then?

Who decides which of the limited and now much more expensive flights have priority? Are your business meetings in Chicago more important than the Boston Red Sox seven-game road trip, or a fact-finding mission by several U.S. Congressional leaders, or seeing your parents? We cannot possibly hope to sustain the same level of air service when aviation fuel has doubled or tripled in price, and when perhaps only 4% or 5% of each barrel of a smaller supply of oil is now produced as aviation fuel because somewhere along the line, someone will have decreed that that is the most we can expect from each barrel because of countless other priorities.

To its great credit, Britain recently turned down construction of a 3rd runway at Heathrow Airport in favor of committing that same amount of funding to high speed rail, as noted here. Perhaps more insightful than most, the decision-makers likely recognized the pointlessness of committing billions to a service that will likely exist in a greatly-diminished capacity a few short years from now.

As Brad Plumer also noted in his 2008 essay:

“Small towns will be especially vulnerable to losing scheduled air service. That’s already happened to nearly 30 U.S. cities in the past year, from Wilmington, Delaware (population 72,000) to Boulder City, Nevada (14,000). Hagerstown, Maryland, lost all commercial air service recently, rendering its new $61.8 million, 7,000-foot runway useless.”

It won’t end there. What are the ripple effects to communities and regions when airports shut down, or flights are offered on a greatly restricted or reduced basis? What of the people accustomed to relying on those services? What happens then?

Technology is not close to finding adequate alternatives sufficient to meet current and projected demand increases, so what happens? And biofuels, for all their promise, are not close to being deemed an appropriate substitute.

So we can either start making plans, considering alternative forms of transportation, making a greater commitment to seeking alternative sources of energy, or try to come up with last-minute solutions to deal with the problems Peak Oil is going to force upon us.

Hint: That strategy is not likely to work

Last week I had occasion to visit with my father at my parents’ property in the lovely Berkshire Mountains region of New England. They live elsewhere in western Massachusetts, but have owned this 30 acre parcel in a very rural community since I was very young. It’s not especially well-developed … there is no running water and thus no usable bathroom (unless trees and bushes count), but it is a peaceful and lovely plot of nature I’ve always enjoyed. For Dad, it’s heaven here on Earth; Mom, not so much, but she deals with it.

As I was making the 135-mile pilgrimage from my home outside of Boston and across the state, contemplating once or twice how much gas my SUV was sucking down and wondering more how families will arrange to visit when the price of gasoline—or its unavailability—make these kind of treks prohibitive, I found myself thinking more and more about all the people who live in the small, out-of-the-way towns at the opposite end of Massachusetts.

What are they going to do?

After I exited the highways just north of Springfield (the largest city in western Massachusetts) and began traveling the sparsely populated back roads and on through occasional farmland—dotted only very rarely by anything that resembled a commercial establishment and miles and miles from any malls or shopping centers of note—I kept wondering: how difficult must it be for them now to just get around and run the types of errands that you and I do rather effortlessly?

What are they going to do?

How are these people going to make do tending to their most basic of everyday needs when gas prices are off the charts, when ownership of autos is prohibitively expensive, and when basic transportation becomes an issue of monumental complexity because we no longer have the readily available supplies of gasoline we’ve been accustomed to for decades? How can we expect public transit to help people when they live miles from anything even resembling a sizeable city?

How will they deal with the loss of the modern, daily conveniences those of us in and near big cities routinely take for granted, conveniences which they even now surely labor to enjoy? From my home in a quaint Boston suburb, I can walk to my bank, my dry cleaners, my wife’s office, the grocery store, several convenience stores and restaurants, the pharmacy, the post office, and scores of different retail establishments. At the bottom of the very steep hill we live on I can grab a bus which takes me to the subway which takes me to the Amtrak station or the MBTA commuter rail system or Logan Airport, and from there, the world.

And these rural townspeople far removed from city life: What are they going to do? Most, living in these hilly towns with neighbors often several acres away at the very least, cannot walk to … anywhere. There is no close-by there, there. Getting there requires a car, even for the simplest of errands (biking up and down some of those hilly stretches is a job best left to Lance Armstrong). I can get a gallon of milk 200 yards from my home. People in these rural communities can get that same gallon of milk three or four or eight miles away right now.

I don’t know if bus service of any kind runs out there (doubtful), but if it does, I’m sure it’s a once a day event for most. “Big city” Springfield is 40 + miles away from my parents’ property; not-quite-so-big-Pittsfield is about 15, tucked in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. While Pittsfield will never be mistaken for a big city, it certainly has most of the modern amenities anyone would need: malls, banks, restaurants, retail establishment, car dealerships, and all the rest. Still … can’t get there from rural here without a car.

Median income is about $45,000 in the town where my parents own their land; population is about 1000. Not a big demand in places like that for malls, stand-alone retail stores, convenience stores, grocery stores, or public transit. Hell, it shares its post office with another town! They do have a fire department and police force, but no one will mistake the size of those forces with what we’re accustomed to in cities or towns of 20,000 or 50,000 or 300,000.

I may be mistaken, but I sense that these people are much more what we recognize as salt-of-the-earth folks: hard-working, straightforward citizens content with many of life’s simpler pleasures (obviously, and to their everlasting credit), living most likely from paycheck to paycheck. I doubt many of them are wealthy progeny of big industry titans, or live on these outskirts thanks to endless piles of family money. They are thus likely to feel a fair amount of pain and stress when fuel prices increase and travel becomes more difficult every day. They are going to suffer more than their fair share.

How do they plan and execute their frequent trips to the market, or to stores to purchase family necessities, or get medical care, or entertain and visit with family members and friends, when they live so far from … well, everything? Right now I imagine it’s a bit of a convoluted process to try and get all of those things done. Surely some careful planning is required, whereas for me, I can just hop in the car any old time and complete my local errands in fifteen minutes. “Local” has a different meaning in the rural Berkshire communities.

What are they going to do?

It’s not just the inhabitants of these pleasant and placid towns that will suffer. What happens when we simply do not have enough oil and gas to meet our own demands—however sourced—and we have to endure restrictions of one kind or another that are much too painful to consider right now? How will those residents—so far removed from our easily accessible every day creature comforts and amenities in big cities as it is—manage when they simply can’t get anywhere?

What are they going to do?

Peak Oil is not just about big city residents suddenly being forced to rely on public transportation more than they care to. Peak Oil is about lots of people in lots of places who are not going to have the resources and conveniences and comforts they need as and when they need them.

What are we all going to do?

Continuing with my recent theme of getting readers to recognize more “I didn’t think of that” moments as they relate to Peak Oil (while avoiding any kind of structured or overly-detailed approach that might discourage readers from continuing on), today I’d like to discuss the ubiquitous laptop/personal computer.

These almost-mandatory-for-our-lifestyles products are in no small measure made out polycarbonates and synthetic plastics—petrochemicals … oil. Microchips and housings and keyboards and many of the assorted other elementary components essential to the manufacturing of one of our greatest inventions do not exist without fossil fuels.

How many hours a day do you use this marvel of ingenuity and vision and technology? How many different uses and applications do you employ in the normal course of your day without thinking even once about your computer’s ready availability and its relative affordability? Turning on our computers at home and/or at work has become as commonplace and as taken for granted as brushing our teeth.

Can you imagine what your work and personal life would be like without the computer you rely upon to simplify work and daily living a hundred different ways?

So when we soon enough begin the inevitable decline of oil production owing to geology, geopolitical events, economic factors, natural depletion rates, business investment decisions (take your pick)—while we’re simultaneously confronted with increasing demand from other parts of the world for an ever-decreasing supply—who loses out?

When we no longer have at the ready all of the oil each and every one of us needs to satisfy all the demands and preferences and expectations of industry as well as our own lifestyles, what are we prepared to sacrifice? What if you now had to share one computer with your entire family or with the co-workers in your office or department? Are you prepared for that kind of possibility?

What production limitations is Dell or IBM or Apple going to impose when they no longer have the needed quantity of petrochemical-based components they need to manufacture their products in amounts sufficient to match demand—let alone the fossil fuels needed to run the machinery that builds and delivers their products?

Who in the distribution chain is either going to be left out entirely or forced to make all kinds of accommodations to a decreased supply of fossil fuels they need to manufacture and transport their own pieces of the puzzle? When the quantity of component parts is curtailed because we simply no longer have enough oil to satisfy the industrial food chain and thus personal and business demands for all kinds of computers can no longer be met, how are we to decide which components, suppliers, transportation modes, manufacturers, marketers, stores, and consumers have priority in the supply and acquisition of computers?

Is the investment department of your financial services firm more deserving of a couple of computers than the business you run, or the emergency room of your local hospital? Multiply that scenario by the countless legitimate needs of your family members and friends and acquaintances and local and national and international businesses, and then imagine what happens when someone has decreed that the computer industry and the entire supply and distribution chain it relies upon will from now have to make do with 15% or 25% or 40% less of everything needed to meet demand because oil producers worldwide simply cannot meet demand any longer.

What happens then?

How is this all supposed to work itself out of we don’t start taking steps to recognize the limitations and challenges we’re going to face and begin doing something about it now?

Do we really want to wait until we are forced to try and implement last-minute plans and endure drastic changes? Keep in mind that I’m just presenting a casual overview of personal computers. Multiply the disruptions by the countless products we all use every day….

How are we going to even produce all of these items when we don’t have enough fossil fuels to meet the production and transportation and marketing and delivery processes? How many people lose their jobs along the entire distribution and production chain when Apple and Dell and all the others simply cannot manufacture enough laptops to meet demand because their suppliers can’t meet their own quotas?

Which businesses along the chain of computer manufacture and distribution have to revise their business practices because they no longer have a sufficient number of computers to match and meet the needs of their employees? Which departments get shortchanged? How do you undo the benefits of computer technology required to manufacture and distribute those very products—benefits we completely take for granted now?

How much re-configuration and re-invention of the entire computer manufacturing and distribution process will be needed to meet demand if suppliers and manufacturers and all the other necessary parties have to figure out how to make do with either less energy resources or alternative energy sources that simply do not match the efficiency and productivity of fossil fuels?

What kind of substitutions might then be available to these computer manufacturers? What cost increases would be associated with alternative components? What kind of restructuring would be needed up and down the supply and distribution chains? How quickly can this entire chain of revised production and distribution fall into place?

The reality is that in the not-too-distant—as oil supplies continue their decline and manufacturers everywhere and in all industries are obliged to re-configure the work they produce and the products they supply—we will have nowhere near the alternative sources of energy in place to effect seamless transitions for manufacturing and delivering computers.

What happens then?