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Archive for December, 2010

Sigh….

This is my last planned post of 2010, and it was not my intention to discuss more curious examples of the phenomenon of ignoring facts. Like those who deny global warming amid an avalanche of evidence, the stubborn resistance to peak oil remains just as … well, stubborn. (When our military is worried, we should be, too.)

In a recent post, I suggested that calling out the nonsense from those who deny that we will soon confront the effects of declining oil supplies must continue. Those of us who seek only to inform others have an obligation to share what we know: that we have some energy-related issues on the near-horizon that will require a great deal more effort and innovation than we’re prepared for (to put it mildly). To that end, I also posted these two essays (here and here) as example of what we must continue to do, and why.

This is not to say I/we should engage ourselves in endless games of ping-pong with those for whom facts remain just another issue to ignore. Arguing nonsense for reasons that remain entirely unclear to me is a curious phenomenon of our political and energy discourses. The International Energy Agency has now issued its stamp of acknowledgment that we actually passed peak production in oil back in 2006. Given that, one would think that since one of this planet’s most important energy and oil production organizations is now on board, perhaps the deniers might consider devoting their considerable efforts to helping us figure out what comes next instead of engaging in cherry-picking and smokescreening.

Disingenuous arguments seem to serve no legitimate purpose if one assumes that sharing information is designed to … inform! And denying peak oil does not imbue anyone with Peak Oil-impervious safety shields; deniers will be obliged to endure the same consequences as the rest of us.

Robin Mills enjoys some measure of prominence in the peak oil world. A published author (The Myth of the Oil Crisis: Overcoming the Challenges of Depletion, Geopolitics, and Global Warming), and energy economist, Mr. Mills recently posted an article in The National, a major English language publication in the Middle East. In it, Mr. Mills again disputes that we are in a world where oil production has now reached its zenith, and argues instead that peak demand will prove to be more of an energy issue in the years to come.

Taking the same tiresome tack that others have, Mr. Mills makes note of the fact that past forecasts of peak oil have been wrong, and so therefore current predictions (citing Sir Richard Branson’s position, for one) are likewise just more doom-and-gloom foolishness. Curiously however, he cites Shell geologist M. King Hubbard’s 1956 prediction that peak would be reached around the year 2000. For someone making that kind of prediction almost half a century in advance, turns out he was pretty close, so I’m not sure why anyone would still be scoffing at that prediction given what has now been confirmed by the IEA! Mr. Mills fails to note that Dr. Hubbard also predicted U.S. peak production would occur in 1970. Bingo!

Mills then states:

“But the current generation of doomsayers, often not oil professionals, have neither addressed reasons for so many incorrect predictions of apocalypse, nor explained why this time their warnings are any more credible.”

Seriously? I’m pretty much a nobody in the Peak Oil world (definitely not an oil professional, duly acknowledged) yet I’ve managed to come up with a pretty fair amount of information supporting the facts of and about our looming oil crisis—easily obtainable, by the way, (and from quite legitimate sources)—and I’ve got about 80 blog posts behind this one to provide some of that credibility he finds lacking … damned facts screwing things up again! Sprinkled amid my “Daily Review” blogroll on the home page are some other quite serious and credible authorities on the subject, if my work won’t suffice. It’s not a difficult undertaking to find the facts.

For some reason, the “giant” oil finds in recent years off the coast of Brazil appear to be one of the Holy Grails of peak oil denial. Mills cites “5 billion barrels or more of reserves” in the Tupi field, at just $14.00 per barrel (his statement) as evidence of “easy oil”, which at this point is neither here nor there. Most of what’s being explored or produced is by no definition “easy”, so claims about a field that’s easily accessible and inexpensive to produce is not the be all and end all. Oh, and by the way, Tupi lies more than a mile below the ocean surface, and then another 3 miles or so below sand, rocks, and salt deposits. Piece of cake! This is where oil exploration is taking place. Easy? Seriously?

And in a world that uses 30 billion barrels of oil per year, one 5 billion barrel field is …. well, pretty ho-hum. Better than a stick in the eye, but this is supposed to serve as a prime argument for the deniers? Really?

He then adds:

“Meanwhile, new technology and investment-friendly policies in mature oil producers such as Oman and Colombia have reversed apparently terminal decline.”

I guess this is also supposed to throw a cold, wet blanket over the arguments (and facts) favoring Peak Oil, but seriously … Oman and Columbia? It took close to 60 seconds for me to Google the oil production levels of those two countries, and according to our own Energy Information Administration (U.S. Department of Energy), Oman produced just over 800,000 barrels of oil per day last year (approx 300 million barrels in 2009). Columbia managed about 250 million barrels in 2009.

On a planet that uses approximately 80 million barrels of oil per day, Oman and Columbia provided Planet Earth with about a week’s worth of oil. Hallelujah! Our oil problems are over! (As an aside, a day or two after Mr. Mills’s article, this piece indicated that Oman is expected to reach 1 million barrels of oil per day in production by 2015. Good to know that in about 4 years, we’ll add to our annual supply almost enough oil to get us through one late lunch.)

Forgive me, but I can’t find much solace in Oman’s and Columbia’s efforts. This doesn’t help (in a story about enhanced oil recovery efforts in the Middle East):

“[T]he International Energy Agency estimates that oil production from currently exploited sites will decline by  two-thirds by 2030. This means that nearly 50 million barrels of oil production per day will need to be made up for….” [1]

Nor does this:

“…conventional oil reserves are being depleted throughout the world at twice the rate of their replacement, historically slow annual capacity declines from major oil fields are being replaced by rapid declines from significantly smaller new developments, and finally marginal new reserves such as arctic and deep water oil accumulations require inordinate new technology advancements and massive funding in order to be brought on-stream in adequate volumes as affordable costs.” [2]

Not to pick on Mills too much longer, but his article also suggests that “Unconventional oil output, such as that from fractured shale rocks in the US and the sticky bitumen from Canada’s famous oil sands, inches up remorselessly. Frontier exploration has uncovered large fields in Africa and holds promise in new areas, such as Greenland.” Like most others who tout shale and the environmentally destructive tar sands of Canada as yet another grand solution, no mention is made of what is required to extract, refine, and produce these inferior quality fossil fuel substitutes. That information tends to diminish the appeal of unconventional resources. But why let facts get in the way?

How many barrels of oil can we expect from a “holds promise”? Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m not finding a happy place thinking about oil goop inching up “remorselessly.”

Also worth noting that the now infamous WikiLeaks scandal disclosed some comments from government officials about those tar sands:

“[T]he Obama administration is aware of how destructive tar sands oil is — and plans on moving ahead with the pipeline that will pump it across the US regardless.

“The cable makes it clear that both Canada and the United States are aware of the dreadful impact of the Alberta tar sands — roundly dubbed the ‘most destructive project on earth’. Yet, the public statements from both parties differ significantly from the private cables.” [3]

Oops!

And as the final coup de grace to Sir Richard Branson’s concerns about an imminent “oil crunch”, Mills asserts that there are “credible scenarios for significant growth in supply.” Probably ran out of space before he could explain anything about what that means, but “credible scenarios” sure sound good to me! There are also credible scenarios for my finding buried treasure in my back yard, but I’m not at liberty to explain.

Another recent blog post offered this:

“Must be time to update my semi-regular ‘peak oil is stupid’ rant.  So here goes…

“I don’t care when oil (OR COAL) peaks, I care when we run out, which we won’t because, as production declines, prices WILL rise. As prices rise, people WILL figure out alternatives. They might not be happy alternatives. They might not be as productive alternatives. They might not support the same lifestyle to which we are accustomed. But there WILL be alternatives, forced by higher prices–and no other mechanism is that powerful.” [4]

Having read a fair amount on this subject over the past couple of years, I’m all for easy, simple, obvious, quick, inexpensive solutions that will allow me and everyone else to get our financial feet back underneath us and then proceed merrily along without worrying about energy or lifestyles or where I live or how I live or what I drive or what I own or what I use or anything else in my life that is impacted in some manner by oil. (Come to think of it, that would cover just about everything, but let’s not worry about that now.)

This cornucopian view that somehow, magic technology is somehow going to ride to the rescue and supplant the oil-based energy needed for production, delivery, and consumption of goods (i.e., almost everything we use) with some other alternative just because the price of oil has risen too high is an exercise in hope which at my most optimistic I cannot fathom! (In the interests of accuracy and fairness, and since I am entirely unfamiliar with that author, who prefaced his comments by stating that it was time for some “snark”, he may have been yanking his readers’ chains. However, his statement relying on pricing as the trigger to implement a non-existent Plan B for energy supplies is a common argument by those who think that basic market and economic fundamentals are going to save the day.)

In last Monday’s post, I provided a very short list of goods that are in some manner dependent on fossil fuels for their very existence. There are thousands more, and there are almost no aspects of our infrastructure (roads, bridges, train tracks, water and sewer pipes, power lines, etc.) that are not likewise dependent on fossil fuels for their production, delivery, use, or maintenance. We’re talking about years’ or decades’ worth of design and testing and marketing and feasibility studies and modifications and re-design and on and on and on, and for the simple expediency of higher oil prices we’ll just instantly transform everything over to some as-yet-undefined-and-untested-and-even-unknown “alternative”? Seriously? We’re just going to “figure out alternatives” just like that? Might there be a bump or two along the way? I’m thinkin’ that’s gonna be at least a couple weeks o’ work. Ya think?

“[T]he cold, hard, inconvenient truth is that trillions of dollars have been invested in the existing energy infrastructure, which provides consumers with electricity, gasoline, jet fuel, and myriad other commodities. Changing that infrastructure—nearly all of which has been built upon fossil fuels—to a system based on renewable and alternative energy will take decades.” [5]

A fact or two that just might be worth contemplating … if you happen to be one of those people for whom facts matter, that is.

NOTE: With the holidays upon us, this will be my last planned post until the first week of January. Happy holidays to all!

Sources:

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/09/business/global/09iht-m09boil.html; As Days of Easy Oil Fade in Middle East, Firms Turn to Newer Techniques By SARA HAMDAN

[2] http://www.emirates247.com/news/region/saudi-oil-analyst-disputes-high-supply-theory-2010-11-10-1.315931; Saudi oil analyst disputes high supply theory

[3] http://peakoil.com/publicpolicy/wikileaks-reveals-hushed-concern-over-tar-sands-oil-in-us-state-dept/; Wikileaks Reveals Hushed Concern Over Tar Sands Oil in US State Dept.

[4] http://www.env-econ.net/2010/12/peak-coaler-just-doesnt-have-the-same-ring-but-i-bet-it-raises-the-same-vitriol-for-stupid-economist.html ‘Peak Coaler’ just doesn’t have the same ring, but I bet it raises the same vitriol toward stupid economists by Tim Haab

[5]: From the book Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence by Robert Bryce (p.44); publisher: PublicAffairs (Perseus Books Group)

“We are trapped in a very complex civilization that is rapidly losing the sources of energy and numerous other raw materials that built and maintained it….
“If current trends continue, somewhere in the next five years a critical mass of us will realize that new foundations for civilization, and new ways of life must be found and implemented if we are going to survive with a modicum of comfort, economic, and political stability. Until then there will be many false prophets calling for a return to a civilization which is no longer possible.” [1]

A stubborn insistence that we’re just going to ignore the facts about global warming and the arrival of a peak in worldwide oil production—paying no attention to a rather large body of quite convincing evidence in the process—and instead plow ahead with public investments and plans that will in due course prove to be nothing more than monumental wastes of time (and incredibly short-sighted to boot), ought to be revisited.

We cannot afford to continue to design and then implement plans based only on what seems feasible now, or much worse, because it’s what we’ve always done, or it’s what an uninformed electorate would prefer. The first task, as I’ve mentioned in my recent posts, is that we all need to make a commitment to learning more and understanding the facts. In doing so, we need to find and rely upon the resources where the truth is the only option.

Allowing current business and political leaders to decide what will need to be done based on what has been done before is not the solution. There is no clearer indication of that than the continued resistance to spending money and investing in alternative forms of transportation.

“[N]ewly elected Republicans soon to enter gubernatorial offices have promised to shut down their local federally funded intercity rail corridors that they fear will overwhelm them with future operating expenses. Of course, those complaints are patently absurd when put in context of each state’s respective overall transportation budget. Wisconsin, for instance, spends more than a billion dollars on roadway construction annually and would have been asked to contribute a mere $7.5 million to train operations. Is such a small contribution really such a huge price to pay for a transportation alternative?” [2]

A worthwhile question that demands a much better response than what we’re seeing.

To be fair, there’s no question that making these kinds of investment decisions and committing even more funds from a limited supply is under no one’s definition an easy, simple or—at first—an obvious solution. There are indeed many legitimate arguments against such a commitment. I’m firmly in the camp that believes high speed rail is a necessity, but I’m just as clear that we need to think through the strategies more than we have to date. High-speed rail aside, I’m more convinced by the day that a great deal more reliance on public transportation will be mandatory.

A fear of deficits and increased public spending are going to have to give way to a longer term vision for the kind of nation we choose to be and the levels of growth and prosperity we at least hope to attain in a world no longer able to rely on fossil fuels. That vision and the corresponding plans of necessity must include a greater commitment to public transit. The choice to devote our limited transportation capital funds on the more familiar roadwork projects makes perfectly good sense in a vacuum where growth is expected to return to “normal” soon enough. The harsh truth is that it will not because it cannot. There will be new definitions of “normal” in the years to come.

I don’t like it any more than anyone else, but we create only more difficulties for ourselves by denying the facts and delaying our efforts to create an industrial economy that no longer depends on fossil fuels. It’s a monumental undertaking to be sure, and is not one we should expect to complete for at least a couple of decades. But oil supplies have reached their peak and it is soon enough all downhill from there, so we’re confronted with the dual challenge of re-creating the way our economy functions while utilizing declining supplies of oil in the process, and simultaneously trying to keep our heads above water under current conditions, dependent on that exact same declining supply. All the creativity and spin in the world cannot make that math come out in our favor. Change is a-comin’.

The bottom line is that for all the arguments favoring more expenditures on road construction at the expense of public transportation, the same end result would be arrived at with far less effort if we simply burn piles of money on the steps of Capitol Hill. Appreciating the challenges and implications of having now arrived at the peak of oil production does lead to the obvious conclusion (political ideologies in opposition notwithstanding) that we are going to have to move away from an automobile-centric society.

In the years to come, we simply will not have enough oil/gasoline to power the number of automobiles we own in this country under similar or growing levels of usage when we add to that astounding number the many millions more new automobiles that will be added to the roadways of other nations. We could meet that demand, of course. We’d simply have to do away with a great many other necessities and products (see my last post for a brief list) dependent on oil, since there won’t be enough fossil fuels to go around to meet all the demand everywhere all the time for everyone. That’s Peak Oil!

As I’ve taken great pains to emphasize, we’re not running out of oil any time soon. But depletion and an inexorable decline in production which no alternative or unconventional resources can make up for means there’s going to be less available for everyone and everything. Those dominoes will continue to tumble until one day, likely several decades into the future, it will no longer be feasible to continue extracting oil or using. Too much effort and too much expense for too little reward is what we face. Start planning now is the smart choice, because once we’ve solicited all the input available—no easy or quick task in itself—we’re going to have a lot of work ahead of us putting those plans into action, with the myriad modifications and adaptations that will surely be needed.

We’ll need to be smarter about the new choices we make, too. Reliance on (or hope that) the electric vehicle is the answer to the transportation aspect of Peak Oil’s impact is all fine and well in the abstract. But as has been pointed out by others (here and here), if we’re just expecting that fancy new electric Mercedes and BMWs and Ford pick-up trucks and Honda SUVs and Chevy Volts will just simply replace the ones we drive now, we’re in for another rude awakening. An enormous conversion of infrastructure will be required, for one thing. And for another (topics for upcoming posts here), if the strategies we design to cope with fossil fuel depletion do not also include plans for where and how we live, we’re just digging another deep hole for ourselves.

As objectionable as this will be to many, “smart growth” and “sustainable living” practices are going to warrant much greater levels of attention than they have to date. If ideological principles cause one to blanche at the thought of our federal government “dictating” how and where people live by controlling urban sprawl, the message is a simple one: Get used to it. This is not about a desire of the government to impose its will or make choices for others. It will instead be another courageous recognition that great changes will and must take place, and that there must be a national mechanism for guiding the choices and actions of local governments and private industry to address those looming realities.

Given that certain segments of the media (and the political and social groups that align themselves with that media’s particular ideology) seem convinced that President Obama does not believe we’re an “exceptional” nation (the convenient omission of facts and context debunking that meme are neatly summed up here and here), here’s our chance to prove him “wrong.” Let’s do so by leading the charge into the 21st century with a new vision about how prosperous and successful nations adjust to the new realities about energy supply and usage. It will take one hell of a village to make this happen in any event.

Why not us?

Sources:

[1] http://www.fcnp.com/commentary/national/7980-the-peak-oil-crisis-the-future-of-government.html; The Peak Oil Crisis: The Future of Government By Tom Whipple
[2] http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/12/01/growing-conservative-strength-puts-transit-improvements-in-doubt/; Growing Conservative Strength Puts Transit Improvements in Doubt by Yonah Freemark

“We are on the brink of a new energy order. Over the next few decades, our reserves of oil will start to run out and it is imperative that governments in both producing and consuming nations prepare now for that time. We should not cling to crude down to the last drop – we should leave oil before it leaves us. That means new approaches must be found soon….The really important thing is that even though we are not yet running out of oil, we are running out of time.”
– Fatih Birol, Economist – International Energy Agency, 2008

With the IEA having now admitted Peak Oil occurred several years ago, the urgency of addressing the myriad impacts of having reached the summit of oil production is all the more pronounced. As I and others have discussed, it’s going to take many years for us to fully move away from our longstanding reliance on fossil fuels to power our economy and support our lifestyles. Unfortunately, we’re already years behind in preparing and doing.

In recent posts I have raised the issue that in order for us to have some hope of successfully transitioning away from fossil fuels (and despite continuing opposition in some quarters about the need of an active and involved federal government), it is only from strategies as created, directed, supported, and financed by our federal government that this hope can find fulfillment. To be sure, much of what needs to be done will be provided by the private sector—as shaped and guided more specifically by local or regional entities. One or two approaches aren’t the answer! But without a national strategy and framework for deciding on priorities, we’ll be confronted with a hopeless mix of ad hoc attempted solutions from literally thousands of directions. Chaos, anyone?

No less an authority than the esteemed Tom Whipple echoed that theme in a recent post of his [1].

“In short, 200 years of abundant energy have allowed us to build an extremely complex civilization based on dozens of interrelated systems without which we can no longer live – at least not in the style to which we have become accustomed. Food production and distribution, water, sewage, solid waste removal, communications, healthcare, transportation, public safety, education — the list of systems vital-to-life and general wellbeing goes on and on.

“Those who believe that ten years from now we will be able to get along with much reduced government have little appreciation of how modern civilization works or how bad things are going to get as fossil fuel energy fades from our lives….

“Whether one likes it or not, the size and complexity of the coming transition will be so great and unprecedented and there will be so much at stake that only governments will have the authority and power to cope with the multitude of problems that are about to emerge. Be it heresy in some as yet unknowing circles; all this is going to require a massive transfer of resources from private hands to public ones.”

That’s the reality. We can continue to debate it ad nauseum, but in the end, we will have no choice. How quickly can we muster the intelligence and courage and wisdom to understand what is at stake—and how widespread will be the changes—so that we take advantage of the resources we’ll need right now, rather than coming to the same conclusion only after needless ideological battles?

Take a glance at the following list [2]:

Solvents       Diesel fuel       Motor Oil       Bearing Grease       Ink       Floor Wax       Ballpoint Pens        Football Cleats       Upholstery Sweaters       Boats       Insecticides       Bicycle Tires       Sports Car Bodies       Nail Polish       Fishing lures       Dresses       Tires       Golf Bags       Perfumes       Cassettes       Dishwasher parts       Tool Boxes       Shoe Polish       Motorcycle Helmet       Caulking       Petroleum Jelly       Transparent       Tape       CD Player       Faucet Washers       Antiseptics        Clothesline       Curtains       Food Preservatives Basketballs       Soap       Vitamin Capsules       Antihistamines        Purses       Shoes       Dashboards       Cortisone       Deodorant       Footballs       Putty       Dyes       Panty Hose       Refrigerant       Percolators       Life Jackets       Rubbing Alcohol       Linings       Skis       TV Cabinets       Shag Rugs       Electrician’s Tape       Tool Racks       Car Battery Cases       Epoxy       Paint       Mops       Slacks       Insect Repellent       Oil Filters       Umbrellas       Yarn       Fertilizers       Hair Coloring       Roofing       Toilet Seats       Fishing Rods       Lipstick      Denture       Adhesive       Linoleum       Ice Cube Trays       Synthetic Rubber       Speakers      Electric Blankets       Glycerin      Tennis Rackets       Rubber Cement       Fishing Boots       Dice       Nylon Rope       Candles       Trash Bags       House Paint       Water Pipes       Hand Lotion       Roller Skates       Surf Boards       Shampoo       Wheels       Paint Rollers       Shower Curtains       Guitar Strings       Luggage       Aspirin       Safety Glasses       Antifreeze       Football Helmets       Awnings       Eyeglasses       Clothes       Toothbrushes       Ice Chests       Footballs       Combs       CD’s & DVD’s       Paint Brushes       Detergents       Vaporizers       Balloons       Sun Glasses       Tents       Heart Valves       Crayons       Parachutes       Telephones       Enamel       Pillows       Dishes       Cameras       Anesthetics   Artificial Turf       Artificial limbs       Bandages       Dentures       Model Cars       Folding Doors       Hair Curlers       Cold cream       Movie film       Soft Contact lenses       Drinking Cups       Fan Belts       Car Enamel       Shaving Cream       Ammonia       Refrigerators       Golf Balls       Toothpaste       Gasoline

This is just a very small sampling of the thousands and thousands of items made from and/or dependent on oil for their existence. When the true decline of oil sets in (many suggest we’re on a several years long “plateau” of production as the precursor to experiencing actual limitations in availability), which one of these items should first be eliminated?

How do we make the assessment as to which if these products should no longer be produced? Who delivers that message to the designers and producers and shippers and end users? What’s their Plan B?

Or if doing away with product lines entirely is not the strategy, then what percentage of production should be curtailed? What criteria will be employed in making determinations that other products or services or consumers will have priority? Who among us will volunteer to make do without some of these items so as to permit others with the same needs to enjoy them instead? How well is that going to work if we’re all instead flying by the seat of our pants with no guidance whatsoever?

Picking just one item from that list: Who determines which patients will get access to artificial limbs that can no longer be produced in the same quantities and with the same availability nation-wide? Is that product more important than a heart valve? Or might we decide that more people need anthistamines instead, so we’ll curtail production on those medical items even more so as to satisfy that need instead?

Examining what is arguably a less important need (as I had mentioned in the first of a series of posts several months ago), which teams will make do with fewer basketballs or footballs?

When we no longer have nearly enough gas to fuel all of our automobiles (forget for the moment all of those other oil-dependent products we use), who takes the hit? Where do we point fingers for the terrible short-sightededness in failing to invest in public transportation and infrastructure now and how much will that help? All those billions that are being committed to building new roads … how do we get that money back when a much smaller percentage of us are driving? What kind of costs will we all have to absorb and endure in years to come when the existing transportation infrastructure is completely inefficient and useless given that there will be no fossil fuels to speak of, and when even more will have to be done in a much shorter period of time to address even bigger problems in a society where mobility is key?

“Some have suggested that this is acceptable policy, that the Obama Administration was failing to address the needs and desires of the U.S. population in its focus on developing new and better modes of transportation.” [3]

With all due respect, our population at large has demonstrated a less than admirable understanding of some basic political and economic issues in recent months. Everyone’s plate is full now, and there is no shame and no blame for the majority who simply cannot invest the time needed to understand the important issues of the day, burdened as they are just trying to survive each day. But do we really want to rely on the opinions of a populace that at the moment does not have at hand the information it needs to make knowledgeable assessments?

Part of the challenge we now face, as I’ve suggested, is that each of us is going to have to take some time to better understand what’s at stake. Let’s not make the adaptations even more burdensome by imposing them on the unsuspecting and unknowing. We owe it to ourselves to commit to becoming better informed, because we are most definitely all in this together. My liberal philosophy will no more stave off the adverse impact of declining oil production and fossil fuel availability than will one’s Tea Party inclinations. We all need to move beyond that. Idealistic? Certainly! Necessary? Absolutely!

Of course everyone wants more of the same! Who in their right mind would voluntarily undertake or accept the massive changes Peak Oil suggests we’ll have to endure? But those changes are coming … perhaps not in the usual near future that most of us are limited to considering, but the changes will begin long, long before we’re ready for them. We have a choice to begin the occasionally painful process of adaptation and transition now when we can do so with far less pain than will surely be the case in the years to come, or we can sit tight and hope for the best.

That is a choice. It’s not a good one, but it is a choice.

It is not my intent to frighten or disconcert. But this is the reality we now must contend with, and it is a reality that is not going to improve. Demand is increasing, supplies are harder to come by and no longer available at the same quantities in any event, and changes are in the offing. The more we understand exactly how potentially drastic Peak Oil’s impact will be (or at the very least appreciate how widespread will be its effect) the more involved and aware we all become. It is the future. More information and more input is always a good thing.

So are we going to be content to let the marketplace sort all of this out? Do we think that unregulated industries will immediately step to the plate and direct all of this fairly and efficiently on their own? Can we expect that industry leaders will just band together across the nation and put together a coherent plan? Think there might be some enforcement or distribution challenges, for starters? Piecemeal approaches that address some small aspect of need for some short period of time in some limited geographical area for just a few consumers is in the end a monumental waste of limited resources, time, and effort. We’re going to have to be much better, much wiser, and much more focused.

For all the bluster and nonsense about getting the federal government off our backs and out of our tea bags or whatever that nonsense might be, what happens when oil availability declines and these types of decisions have to be made? Are we willing to allow a thousand different voices to make decisions based on their own understandably narrower concerns and hope that everyone is coming to the same conclusions so as to maximize the efficacy of these choices, or can we recognize that a nation speaking with one voice in the face of these daunting challenges is indeed our best hope?

As I’ve repeatedly stated: there are no easy, quick, simple, or inexpensive solutions. So too are there no easy, quick, or simple approaches that lead us to the strategies and solutions we’ll have to rely upon. “Business as usual” or notions that what’s worked before will work now are not options for us. Quite frankly, there is nothing simple or obvious about any of this!

We’re going to have to attempt a lot of different solutions from many sources, but we will ultimately be best served if the efforts and strategies and inputs derive from a vision and from plans and determinations that have as their source an informed national agenda. We need to speak up, and we’ll need our national leaders in and out of government to listen and utilize their skills in ways they all too infrequently demonstrate. They too, must expand their vision and express far more courage and wisdom than they typically show us. The process will take enough time as it is. Let’s not add problems to the mix.

“If we’re to meet the crises ahead with even the smallest hope of something other than total failure, the options that need to be explored cannot be limited to those that the current political and business elites – the people whose decisions by and large got us into this mess, remember – happen to find acceptable. The resources that those elites can bring to bear are important, and need to be directed into anything that can be made acceptable to them – the rebuilding of the US rail system comes to mind as a very good start – but the options that can be made acceptable to today’s elites will only contain a small fraction of the options that need to be put to work.” [4]

All hands on deck.

Sources:

[1] http://www.fcnp.com/commentary/national/7980-the-peak-oil-crisis-the-future-of-government.html; The Peak Oil Crisis: The Future of Government – December 8, 2010
[2]http://peakoil.com/consumption/things-you-didnt-know-were-made-of-oil/; Things You Didn’t Know Were Made of Oil – May 30, 2010
[3] http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2010/12/01/growing-conservative-strength-puts-transit-improvements-in-doubt/; Growing Conservative Strength Puts Transit Improvements in Doubt by Yonah Freemark
[4] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-12-08/futures-further-shores; The future’s further shores by John Michael Greer

A few more thoughts on the heels of Monday’s post.

In a recent article on energy, climate change, and sports, Amanda Little shared an anecdote about an iconic National Football League team.

“The new Dallas Cowboy’s stadium, for instance, is an energy-guzzling Colossus averaging $200,000 in monthly utility bills and consuming about as much power as Santa Monica, California. (A conventional scoreboard, on its own, can devour as much electricity annually as 100 homes.)” [1]

Can we really continue to afford to think that this kind of energy excess can and will continue? Is that level of energy usage of greater priority or importance than powering neighborhoods? The truth we need to come to terms right about now is that absent some magnificent new discovery that comes into play very quickly and successfully, we may find ourselves having to make some painful determinations about energy consumption priorities that will have ripple effects in many aspects of everyday living—commercially and personally.

As has been noted by a number of bloggers and organizations, the International Energy Agency has now stopped dancing around the issue and finally admitted that Peak Oil was reached back in 2006. One of its prominent officials has once again indicated that “the era of cheap oil is over.”

Consider just a few more facts on the ground: exploration (deep water or tar sands, anyone?) and production has become more difficult and certainly more expensive, to say nothing of the resource quality. The primary exporters of oil are experiencing increasing domestic demand, and so naturally they are keeping more oil for their own national use. Hard not to understand that that just means less for everyone else. The majority of large producing oil fields are experiencing an inexorable decline in production. A poor worldwide economic environment has restricted investment in exploration and production, and there quite clearly will not be a ramp-up quickly or inexpensively. China is leading the way in higher demand for oil. On and on it goes….

These and many other frequently-discussed factors are going to have an impact soon if that process hasn’t already started. The situation simply is not going to get better, as disheartening as that may be. We’re all going to have to recognize a different set of rules about fossil fuel availability and consumption.

While alternative energy development is a primary source of hope, David Fridley’s excellent chapter in The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises [2] has pointed out some very important limitations that need to be recognized and appreciated.

Mr. Fridley offers this important consideration:

“Alternative energy sources will need to form the backbone of a future energy system.
“That system, however, will not be a facsimile of the system we have today based on continuous uninterrupted supply growing to meet whatever demand is placed on it. As we move away from the energy bounty provided by fossil fuels, we will become increasingly reliant on tapping the current flow of energy from the sun (wind, solar) and on new energy manufacturing processes that will require ever larger consumption of resources (biofuels, other manufactured liquids, batteries). What kind of society we can build on this foundation is unclear, but it will most likely require us to pay more attention to controls on energy demand to accommodate the limitations of our future energy supply. Moreover, the modern focus on centralized production and distribution may be hard to maintain, since local conditions will become increasingly important in determining the feasibility of alternative energy production.” (p.13)

And a few more “for instances” from this terrific piece that we need to keep in mind about our supposed Alternative Energy Knight In Shining Armor:

“… —alternative energy depends heavily on specially engineered equipment and infrastructure for capture or conversion, essentially making it a high-tech manufacturing process. However, the full supply chain for alternative energy, from raw materials to manufacturing, is still very dependent on fossil-fuel energy for mining, transport, and materials production. Alternative energy faces the challenge of how to supplant a fossil-fuel-based supply chain with one driven by alternative energy forms themselves in order to break their reliance on a fossil-fuel foundation.” (p.3)

“Closely related to the issue of scalability and timing is commercialization, or the question of how far away a proposed alternative energy source stands from being fully commercialized. Often, newspaper reports of a scientific laboratory breakthrough are accompanied by suggestions that such a breakthrough represents a possible “solution” to our energy challenges. In reality, the average time frame between laboratory demonstration of feasibility and full large-scale commercialization is twenty to twenty-five years. Processes need to be perfected and optimized, patents developed, demonstration tests performed, pilot plants built and evaluated, environmental impacts assessed, and engineering, design, siting, financing, economic, and other studies undertaken.” (p.5)

When you add to that mix the fact that alternative energy supplies are currently inconsistent in terms of availability, and are much less efficienct than fossil fuels (i.e., we’ll need even more alternative energy to do what lesser quantities of oil provide)—among other factors Mr. Fridley takes great care to inform us of, we do not have adequate solutions/replacements in place.

There are no magic alternatives out there in Energy Solution Land that we can just drop in to our homes and industries and automobiles overnight and then just carry on without so much a single hiccup of interruption or inconvenience. (For all the good that electric vehicles offer, let’s not forget that we do not have the kind of infrastructure in place that will enable us to power an entire new generation of replacement vehicles—at least not without using considerable amounts of fossil fuel-burning power plants to power them up and keep them powered up.)

While our understandable preference may be to just bull our way forward on a blind assumption that something will come to the rescue, reality suggests otherwise. A broader understanding and awareness is called for—notably among and by our political leaders—but so too must the rest of us begin to recognize what looms on the horizon. Peak Oil does not mean our comfy little worlds are going to collapse next week or even soon (however we prefer to define that), but the reality that we’ve now maxed-out worldwide oil production and will never exceed those levels means we’re on the downside of availability.

Everything that we’ve come to rely upon oil for (in other words, pretty much everything), is going to be impacted. And that means we’re going to be impacted. The more of us who appreciate the challenges, the more intelligent our choices will be to plan for the needed adaptations.

We clearly cannot and must not be confident that a limited few will always act in the best interests of the majority. Congress has done a magnificent job of assuring us of that fact. But relying on our government is a necessity nonetheless.

“The Federal Government has many instruments that it can use to accelerate the creation and implementation of new energy technologies. These include research support, technology development, tax and other financial incentives, procurement, technology demonstration and deployment, regulation, standards development, knowledge dissemination, intellectual property protection, public-private partnerships, Federal-state coordination, support for education, immigration law, and international agreements. These instruments involve the responsibilities of many different Executive Branch agencies and Congressional committees. In the past, many actions taken by different administrations and congressional entities have been at cross-purposes with regard to their effects on energy technologies.” [3]

So while we face the daunting challenge of relying on national leaders to articulate our energy priorities and strategies as Peak Oil’s impact becomes more pronounced (leaders who by and large have demonstrated remarkable unanimity in failing to discuss the truths about what we face, by the way), another daunting truth is that much of what will actually be done to deal with the consumption changes will originate at the state, regional, and local levels. While I believe we must have some national objectives in mind, we cannot disregard the importance of bottom up input and expertise.

Soon enough it is not going to matter what your philosophy about governance is, or if deficit-spending is a greater burden than failure to spend, or if the Right is collectively more insane than the Left. We’re going to have to move above and beyond those ultimately petty ideological concerns and develop and deal with real-life implications of a society that it going to have its industrial design and production and transportation systems—and eventual consumption by end-users—all provided and sustained by something other than unlimited amounts of fossil fuels. It will indeed be a whole different kind of world we’ll live in.

While there are clearly some rather imposing challenges and issues, the question ultimately boils down to this: do we allow the challenges to defeat us, or do we recognize the magnitude of what faces us and rise up to seize the opportunities? We’re in due course going to have no choice but to restructure and revise and refine and re-create the industrial support system that has supplied us with our remarkable levels of prosperity for more than a hundred years, as well as doing the very same thing for the lifestyles we currently enjoy.

We must recognize that this will of course lead to different outcomes (we’ll have no choice in that), but that does not necessarily equate to “bad” outcomes. Life is going to be different, and the sooner we come to terms with that truth the better off we’ll be as we begin the process of adaptation and the creation of new strategies and new systems of production and usage. The most optimistic person on this planet cannot expect this to occur in anything less than many years—many years that will pass with less and less of the energy resources that brought us all to this moment. We do have our work cut out for us.

Are we up to the task?

Sources:

[1] http://blogs.forbes.com/amandalittle/2010/11/15/can-professional-sports-do-more-than-politics-to-save-the-planet/; Can Professional Sports Do More Than Politics to Save the Planet? November 15, 2010
[2] http://www.postcarbon.org/report/127153-energy-nine-challenges-of-alternative-energy; The Post Carbon Reader Series: Energy – Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy By David Fridley, p3-4 [Excerpted from The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises, Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010 – http://www.postcarbon.org/reader)
[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-energy-tech-report.pdf; REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT ON ACCELERATING THE PACE OF CHANGE IN ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES THROUGH AN INTEGRATED FEDERAL ENERGY POLICY by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, November 2010 (p19).

In a recent post (and several others published at about the same time—here and here, for example) I raised the issue of planning for our future in a world where the ready availability of fossil fuels we’ve enjoyed to date is simply no longer there for us. We face a future of great change, one that we can either embrace for its immense opportunities, or fear its great potential for harm and disruption. That’s a choice we own.

It is from this decision that we will determine whether our lives in the years to come (and those of our future generations) are to be defined by success and prosperity as will then be possible, or hardship and regret for failure to seize the opportunity when it was so clearly at hand.

“We will never do the things that are needed unless we know the full extent of our predicament.” – Michael Brownlee [1]

I understand the anxiety that a situation not in our control promotes. Most people like to think of the world they inhabit as being generally “safe”—the political and economic discord of the times notwithstanding. Any message laced with doom and gloom (as both Peak Oil and global warming have the easy potential to be) is more than likely going to be discounted, if not ignored/denied entirely. In our current environment—with so much bitter politics as the norm and genuine fears about our economic prospects serving as the framework from which everything else seems to spring—messages that our world as we know it is going to “collapse” because of either declining oil production or warming temperatures is hardly welcome or cheery. Thinking about all the dominoes that will start to tumble when our comfortable lives are interrupted by the lack of fossil fuel resources in the amounts and at prices we’re accustomed to is likewise unappealing.

And where there is so much confusion (a nice way of saying the all-too-often intentional misrepresentation of facts) about these scenarios, it’s easy to understand why human nature’s first response or inclination is to simply dismiss or discount the warnings. Either they are too much to handle right now if one is inclined to believe the facts; or they’re viewed as fear-mongering and thus at best useless as a communication strategy. We want to wake up every day having at least the impression that we have some control over what is happening, and when events as monumental as climate change or a future without the same levels of oil to power everything we do intrude on an already disquieting set of circumstances, it’s simply too much. I get that.

So the choice then becomes: just ignore the facts, promote more fear, or do … something.

Unfortunately, we are facing a future where the supply of oil will no longer satisfy demand—including our own. Ignoring the facts won’t make them go away. (Wish they could!). Fear won’t help, either. So there go the first two options.

But what are the strategies? What can we do? It’s clear that we’re not going to fashion by tomorrow afternoon a new scheme of design, production, transportation, and consumption for a world with limited supplies of fossil fuels; but we do need to begin the discussion and start considering the broad implications. I don’t see too many volunteers, however. Can’t say that I blame anyone for that. Most of us have plates that were full long ago. Piling on more would not be anyone’s first choice, especially where solutions are not readily apparent or available, and certainly not quickly or easily attained.

At a time of federal paralysis on energy and climate legislation, our push for progress must happen from the ground up, in our schools, churches, cities, states—and sports teams” [2]

Given how utterly dysfunctional our government seems to be right now, at first (second, and third) glance that approach makes sense. Our history is filled with stories of successes and changes instituted at the local or individual level when it was clear that the institutions normally relied upon for change were unable to fulfill their responsibilities. The dilemma is that while this is true, waiting for small groups here and there to effect any semblance of meaningful change is the most time-consuming and haphazard approach we could take—given the broad impact declining fossil fuel supplies will have on virtually every aspect of our lives.

Without some national vision of what goals are being sought as we transition from an industrial economy once effortlessly powered by fossil fuels, we’ll wind up with tens of thousands of approaches! We clearly will not have sufficient time to allow for all of these (we hope) local successes to spread to the general populace, if they are not first tied in to some greater purpose and set of objectives. Only then can regional and local governments and agencies best address the needs of their constituents, guided as they will be by national objectives which recognize both the limitations and opportunities resource availability makes possible; only then can we turn loose the private sector to design and then implement needed structural and industrial/transport modifications, guided by those same considerations.

The challenge of creating readily available and price-favorable alternative energy supplies only highlights the importance of developing critical and comprehensive plans now.

“[I]t is often assumed that alternative energy will seamlessly substitute for the oil, gas, or coal it is designed to supplant—but this is rarely the case. Integration of alternatives into our current energy system will require enormous investment in both new equipment and new infrastructure—along with the resource consumption required for their manufacture—at a time when capital to make such investments has become harder to secure. This raises the question of the suitability of moving toward an alternative energy future with an assumption that the structure of our current large-scale, centralized energy system should be maintained. Since alternative energy resources vary greatly by location, it may be necessary to consider different forms of energy for different localities.” [3]

“A clean, secure, safe and affordable energy future is clearly among the preeminent challenges facing the United States and other nations. It calls for a major acceleration in the pace of energy technology innovation: invention, translation, adoption, and diffusion.” [4]

All fine and well, but where will that vision come from? As I mentioned only half-jokingly in that recent post mentioned above, I doubt that we could get Congress to unanimously approve a resolution declaring December 25 as Christmas Day. How can we expect the majority of our congressional leaders to relinquish their fierce grasp on partisan ideology so as to cooperate on a scale they seem wholly incapable of understanding, let alone embracing? “Acting for the common good” apparently no longer means what it once did, and we are all the poorer for it already.

That’s going to have to change. Will it? Can it?

I don’t know for certain. I do believe that we must find a way to impress upon our national leaders the fierce need for a national vision about powering our future with something other than fossil fuels. Sadly, to date they are seemingly unprepared, or at least unwilling, to discuss the challenges of a world already in the throes of Peak Oil. If we—or they—fail, then we cannot rationally hope or expect to successfully deal with the myriad complications that are certain to arise in world needing an energy resource that is simply no longer as available as it once was.

That political non-approach cannot be our option. Plan B, anyone?

I’ll explore this complex issue in greater detail over the course of my next few posts.

Sources:

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-k-comstock/the-transition-town-movem_b_788693.html; The “Transition Town” Movement’s Initial Genius by Craig K. Comstock – November 27, 2010
[2] http://blogs.forbes.com/amandalittle/2010/11/15/can-professional-sports-do-more-than-politics-to-save-the-planet/; Can Professional Sports Do More Than Politics to Save the Planet by Amanda Little
[3] http://www.postcarbon.org/report/127153-energy-nine-challenges-of-alternative-energy; The Post Carbon Reader Series: Energy – Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy By David Fridley, p3-4 [Excerpted from The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises, Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2010 – http://www.postcarbon.org/reader)
[4] http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-energy-tech-report.pdf; REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT ON ACCELERATING THE PACE OF CHANGE IN ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES THROUGH AN INTEGRATED FEDERAL ENERGY POLICY by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, November 2010 (p17).

In a number of prior posts, including my post from earlier this week, I have tried to impress upon readers of this blog the urgent need for planning. In a future world that was once created, maintained, and enhanced by fossil fuel resources at every step, we’re going to have to devise means and methods to achieve many of the same functions without oil to sustain the efforts. That is no easy task.

Certainly we will help the cause by paying attention to our energy usage and by finding ways to conserve, starting right now. Every measure will help. If we don’t have the basic energy resource (oil) available to us to power our industrial economy in all its facets, then obviously “alternative” energy resources will have to step in as substitutes.

There’s one serious problem: we don’t have alternative energy resources anywhere near the quality, quantity, or scale to serve as an appropriate substitute. That’s Gigantic Hurdle Number One, and we’re not going to clear that bar any time soon absent a legitimately miraculous discovery in the near term; or a massive, nation-wide commitment to make the transition away from our oil-powered economy—with all the research, design, testing, implementation, and sacrifice that entails. The latter is very likely the one we’ll have to depend on, sooner or later. Sooner is the better option.

As mentioned in my last post, as have others, the Hirsch Report was quite clear that mitigation efforts designed to transition away from oil as the foundation of economic growth and industrial production required an all-hands-on-deck twenty year process. With Peak Oil now, apparently, a few years past already, we’ve got a calendar problem. Those mitigation efforts would have had to begin about a quarter of a century ago. Turning back the clock has never been an option, and it’s not available now, either.

“Achieving any really significant percentage of renewable energy contribution to current consumption levels appears to be next to impossible. Current efforts to try and achieve this impossible target require ever more massive and complex machinery and higher and higher inputs of, increasingly scarcer materials and fossil energy to achieve.
“The point is very simply that an enormous amount of fossil energy is required to manufacture, install and operate all forms of renewable energy systems. Without the input of fossil fuel the existing renewable energy projects could never have been built and could not be maintained in operation.” [1]

Worldwide discovery of oil peaked more than three decades ago. Every year since, we have been using a lot more oil than we’re finding. Spin that any way you’d like, it’s still bad math. Approximately two-thirds of the countries producing oil (including the U.S.) have now—or long ago—reached peak production. That math doesn’t work any better.

As the remaining major oil producers continue to expand their own economies and serve their citizenry, the amount of oil they will have left over to only then export to countries like our own will decline. Whatever sense of entitlement we might insist upon won’t be worth much when that reality intrudes. That’s a grand social psychology problem we’re not close to recognizing. We’ve always gotten whatever we need … sometimes just because we wanted “it.” There will be a lot of whining and complaining in the years to come when the realization dawns on us that “just because” is no longer good enough. The citizens of the world have every reason to expect or desire growth and prosperity for themselves. And I don’t foresee the peoples of developing nations deciding en masse to forestall progress so that Americans can continue to gorge themselves at the world’s expense. That may not be a happy message to receive, but it’s an honest one.

And let’s not forget that finding and producing the same quality and quantities of oil that has sustained us to this point is only going to be more difficult; which of course also means more expensive. Oil producers won’t be absorbing those higher costs out of the goodness of their hearts, either. We’ll be paying for that.

But so far we have no strategies to address these real-life consequences of peak oil production. The ones we are employing (because we have no alternatives), make less sense as time passes.

“What is crazy and wasteful is that the U.S. and other countries are still building car assembly plants, roads, highways, parking lots, suburban housing developments, and airplanes as though cheap oil will last forever (Brown 2009). We continue to make investments in an infrastructure that will be superfluous shortly after we build it. This is an example of a market that is failing because it does not anticipate even short-term changes.” [2]

What’s a better approach, as we continue to seek ways to pull ourselves out from the depths and burdens of this ongoing Great Recession (and no, tax cuts for the wealthiest few hundred among us really is not the solution)? Perhaps our national leaders might consider the opportunities to redress the myriad infrastructure repair and maintenance issues with an intense focus on adapting that infrastructure to a world where fossil fuels are no longer available to power or sustain it—and us. Relying on the normal resources is painfully short-sighted now. Certainly a reliance on hands-off government for an undertaking this complex is pointless to argue or consider. An unfettered corporate world cannot begin to handle the myriad aspects of this nearly-incomprehensible conversion.

More planning might be a good idea right about now, before we throw money and fossil fuel resources at problems that desperately require our attention.

Other nations, notably China, seem much more capable and willing to prepare themselves for a new energy culture than we are. That’s a problem now, and it’s going to become an even greater and more pervasive problem for us down the road unless we start getting our national act together. But no one wants to take that first giant step to explain to Americans that we’ve got a brewing challenge ahead, one that will too quickly morph into a crisis unless we start doing things differently … now.

“‘China right now is preparing to roll out electric cars, lithium ion batteries, solar cells, cellulosic ethanol. This is where the future of energy is. We’ve a finite resource in oil, just like we had a finite resource in whale oil, and we made a transition,’ said [Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.)]. ‘And we have to really focus our national energies in a bipartisan way, I would hope, on finding our way to compete with China to really build new energy sources of the future.’”

“President Obama has made a similar case repeatedly in recent years, stressing the fact that countries like China and India ‘aren’t playing for second place.’ There’s a gut-level appeal to messages like these, at least there might be, targeting a certain nationalistic impulse — advancing America’s interests isn’t just about a debate over the size of government, it’s also about positioning the United States as a world leader in a competitive landscape.” [3]

The opportunities are still there, daunting though they may be. But unless and until we come to some national recognition about what the real world is going to be like for all us—Republicans, Democrats, You-Name-Its—we cannot hope to prepare ourselves for the massive changes that will confront us in the years ahead. Can we still lead? Will we?

The song remains the same: crisis, or opportunity?

Sources:

[1] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-25/how-sustainable-renewable-energy; How sustainable is renewable energy? by Roger Adair
[2] http://sustainability-ayersj.blogspot.com/2010/11/peak-oil-3-national-and-global.html; Peak Oil 3: National and Global Production Peaks of Oil and Other Resources by John Ayers
[3] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_11/026813.php; THE GLOBAL-COMPETITION ARGUMENT by Steve Benen