[NOTE: This is the latest installment in a new PeakOilMatters series (which started here). It’s about finding a new and better vision to get to, through, and beyond Peak Oil and its widespread impact on what we produce, how we produce, and how we live. We won’t be falling off a cliff tomorrow, and the full brunt of Peak Oil’s effects won’t be experienced all at once, either. Gas and oil do not have to disappear entirely, nor do gas prices have to rise into the stratosphere before Peak Oil’s impact is felt.
Gradually, but inexorably, changes will be in the offing, however. We need to come to a better understanding of this, and start preparing ourselves now for the lengthy transition and just as lengthy ongoing impact of Peak Oil on all of us. Many issues must of necessity be considered, and I hope to make a contribution to the public dialogue we need to have. I hope you’ll find these objectives enjoyable as well as beneficial. We have more of a voice than we think we do. Finding that voice just might be our best hope.]


I have on several occasions (most recently here) commented on the determined efforts of some to either blindly ignore facts about climate and energy challenges, or present pseudo-arguments which upon even the briefest of examinations prove to be not much more than at-best disingenuous and misleading. To what end, however, I have not yet figured out.

Joel Kotkin recently posted on The New Geography website arguing that the United States must work to expand production of its “ample” (?!) oil and gas supplies. (The website is not exactly a bastion of broad-minded liberal thinking, although Mr. Kotkin is one of the contributors who generally offers reasoned arguments advocating his positions, rather than uttering nonsensical conservative/libertarian sound bites which sadly tend to get more air play—and I say this even though I almost always disagree with his and New Geography’s perspectives.) Although Mr. Kotkin is probably correct that the recent Japanese catastrophe may have ended (whether justified or misguided) any support for nuclear power power here for the foreseeable future, his reasons for urging greater fossil fuel production are governed by the same misguided and factually-deficient motivations that lesser advocates likewise propose.

If you are one who defines “long-range planning” as extending not much beyond a few weeks from now, then pursuing more fossil fuel development as our primary energy policy is a great choice.

As with almost every choice we face regarding the energy resources we’ll depend on in years to come, there are sound arguments for and against most policies under consideration. At some point, however, we will have to make some tough decisions. Delaying the inevitable can no longer be an executive strategy, however. The time to begin making difficult decisions (sure to antagonize, dismay, or confound a sizeable percentage of citizens and experts alike no matter which policies are eventually pursued) needs to begin a couple of years ago.

Richard Heinberg said it best (no great surprise):

“Either we direct public investment toward developing expensive, low-grade fossil fuels (such as tar sands, oil shale, and shale gas) in a vain effort to maintain growth in our fossil-fuel dependent economy, or we direct investment toward building the renewable energy infrastructure of the future.” [1]

I can’t disagree with the premise Kotkin raised that at least some progressives overestimate how quickly and successfully renewable fuels might supplant fossil fuels. But an implied criticism that they will be “highly dependent” on subsidies ignores the fact that the entire Republican contingent in the House recently voted unanimously to continue subsidies for the oil companies. (And I’m not clear why he states that the wind power industry’s receipt of “subsidies many times higher per megawatt hour than fossil fuels” is really the appropriate benchmark in determining that assistance. The renewable/alternative industries have a lot of catching up to do, and it’s delusional to pretend their contributions to our energy future won’t play important roles.)

Worth noting:

“… the big five oil companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell — made $893 billion in profits (my emphasis) from 2001 to 2010.” [2]

Given what is at stake in terms of our economic future and increasing energy needs worldwide—on a planet with diminishing fossil fuel resources, coupled with the complexity of and the nearly-inconceivable efforts required to transition us away from fossil fuel dependency in favor of as-yet-undetermined combinations of “other” fuel resources—subsidies are almost mandatory for renewables/alternatives. What may not be so necessary in an economy with limited financial resources to spread around are subsidies for industries managing a tidy few hundred billion in profits.

“In the face of sustained high oil prices it was not an issue—for large companies—of needing the subsidies to entice us into looking for and producing more oil,” [Former Shell CEO] John Hofmeister told National Journal Daily…“The fear of low oil prices drives some companies to say that subsidies should be sustained,” Hofmeister said. “And my point of view is that with high oil prices such subsidies are not necessary.” [2]

Continuing on that same theme, Kotkin criticizes wind power’s relatively feeble contribution to supplying the nation with electricity. He then offers up a right-wing talking point which cheapens his position unnecessarily as he snarks about wind turbines “wiping out whole flocks of birds.” As someone who generally releases insects back into the outdoors when I find them in my home, rather than just stomping on them, I’m certainly concerned that countless numbers of birds have reportedly been injured or killed by the fan blades. Just wish some of that same “concern” would have been evidenced by Kotkin’s conservative/libertarian peers when so much wildlife was killed during the charming Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year. Relying on the birds-being-killed argument as a foundation for dismissive treatment of a renewable is not the type of visionary thinking we can afford at this point. There are others on the Right for whom that nonsense is better suited.

His legitimate concern that solar panel production has been largely taken over by China would have been a fairer statement had he mentioned how little federal support solar production (and all other renewables, for that matter) has been accorded in comparison to the fossil fuel sector. Perhaps a more concerted effort by leaders of both parties might have ensured a more favorable economic environment for that industry to take flight here in the U.S.

Although the comment was directed to Haley Barbour and others flying oil company flags—while they (of course) go on blaming President Obama for high prices at the pump and criticizing his energy policies in general—Joseph Romm’s observation applies just as well here:

“There is a notable theme here — aside from crass political point scoring, these attacks are calibrated to protect oil as a primary energy source at the expense of cheaper green alternatives, while pushing for even more oil drilling here in the United States. These opportunistic attacks come as the oil industry prepares to pump unprecedented sums of money into the political process. Since the midterm elections, the oil industry has ‘been very aggressive right out of the gate because of the huge opportunity with the election of their allies,’ as Daniel J. Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told the Houston Chronicle yesterday. Oil and gas companies spent $146.3 million on lobbying last year, and that number is poised to rise as the presidential election approaches. For example, the American Petroleum Institute will start donating money to political campaigns this year.” [4]

(To be fair, Kotkin also mentioned that many conservatives are beholden to the nuclear industry for similar reasons.)

His essay then lapses into the dismal, imprecise-but-sure-to impress buzzword strategy I’ve been criticizing repeatedly (bold/italic mine).

“The pragmatic way out of this emerging energy mess means focusing on our increasingly abundant supplies of oil and gas.”

“‘Peak oil’ enthusiasts may not have noticed, but recent discoveries and improvements in technology have greatly expanded the scope of U.S. energy resources. New finds are occurring around the world, but some of the biggest are in the United States.”

“Shale oil deposits in the northern Great Plains, Texas, California and Colorado could yield more oil annually by 2015 than the Gulf of Mexico. Within 10 years, these finds have the potential to reduce U.S. oil imports by more than half.”

U.S. production peaked forty years ago and we now produce only about half of what we did at the peak! Exactly how impressive are “increasingly abundant supplies” (“some of the biggest” no less!) when measured against that fact? Where is any mention of ongoing depletion rates which mitigate against oil production increases and resources? Conveniently omitting any explanation about what’s involved in the production of oil shale (cost, effort, energy resources used, actual as well as projected production levels, pollution and other environmental degradation concerns, etc.) skews the reality about those “some-of-the-biggest/abundant supplies” just a bit, as does the failure to mention the technological challenges (and hence expense, cost, time) in offshore or Arctic drilling….

“Here we go again. Every time gasoline prices spike, no matter the reason, Republican leaders and talk radio’s libertarian elite reach for the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) latest talking points and crank up the “drill, baby, drill” rhetoric….
“The GOP’s real energy crisis is one of focus. Republican leaders are focusing their energy on keeping America overly dependent on a resource that is far more plentiful outside our own borders. They largely dismiss the strategy of reducing demand and seem content to have us suck our own limited oil reserves dry as quickly as possible. It is a phony solution that they think will play well politically.
“Peddling geologic ignorance may score some points with voters who don’t know any better, but it won’t bring the promised relief at the pump.” [5]

And as for Kotkin’s “could yield more oil annually by 2015 than the Gulf of Mexico” meme:

“Deep-water” begins at 500 metres. In total there are around 70 oilfields in the Gulf of Mexico that are at least this deep. The total production from these wells is 800,000 barrels of oil per day (b/d). BP’s flagship the Thunder Horse platform contributes about 250,000 b/d. They will maintain this maximum production for about 5 years and it will then begin to decline.
“Mars-Ursa is the largest oilfield in the GOM. Production began in 1996, gave maximum production of 270,000 barrels per day from 2001 to 2004, and now production has dropped to 150 000 barrels a day. In a few years it will be finished. New oilfields in deep-water or in the Arctic will experience the same brief history. Those 800,000 b/d that today are produced in the Gulf of Mexico make up approximately 1 % of global production. The reality is that it would be fairly easy to do without all of this production.”

In a world that uses some 85 million or barrels of oil per day, we probably don’t need to spend much time on a resource that provides less than 1% of the total. So touting a replacement that could/might/possibly double that amount still isn’t worth a lot of space on a page … at least if you are also considering depletion rates on existing fields vs. increasing world-wide demand. The math gets ugly, and that tiny percentage becomes even less impressive.

One more point to mull over for now:

“In the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster—a crisis that was unanticipated, on a scale for which companies had not prepared to respond—changes in safety and environmental practices, safety training, drilling technology, containment and clean-up technology, preparedness, corporate culture, and management behavior will be required if deepwater energy operations are to be pursued in the Gulf—or elsewhere. Maintaining the public trust and earning the privilege of drilling on the outer continental shelf requires no less.” [7]

“Oil reserves have been declining for a decade, and it is an article of faith among petroleum geologists that the easy oil — easier to find, less complicated to drill — has all been extracted and that the explorers are now into the hard oil. When the Deepwater Horizon rig, drilling an exploratory well deep into rock through a mile of water and three miles into the ocean floor off the Louisiana coast, struck a highly pressurized pocket of oil and gas, causing an explosion, it was in some ways a consequence of this iterative, competitive game, each generation of discoveries pushing further into the unknown.
“A few years ago, the industry norm was to drill at depths of 15,000 or 20,000 feet. Now the frontier is 35,000 feet, where engineers find higher temperatures and pressures. ‘The scarcity of new reserves has been driving companies into plays that have previously been seen as extremely high risk and high cost,’ said Brian Maxted, the chief executive officer of Kosmos Energy, a deepwater-exploration company in Dallas. ‘The trend recently has been in going toward ever-deeper waters and ever-more challenging environments.’” [8]

Not cheap. Not easy. Not quick. Not good. (Damned facts!)

I’ll have more to say about Mr. Kotkin’s oil shale observations (and other comments in his article) next week.


[1] http://old.globalpublicmedia.com/memo_to_the_president_elect; Museletter [200]: Memo to the President-elect on Energy Realism and the Green New Deal; December 2008
[2] http://theenergycollective.com/josephromm/53216/drill-baby-drill-fails-oil-prices-soar-spite-sharp-increase-us-production-under-oba?utm_source=tec_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter; Oil prices soar in spite of sharp increase in U.S. production under Obama by Joseph Romm – March 9, 2011
[3] http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2011/02/11/oil-subsidies-ceo/; Ex-Big Oil CEO: Subsidies For Oil Companies ‘Are Not Necessary’ by Pat Garofolo – February 11, 2011
[4] Romm – see [2] above
[5] http://www.frumforum.com/the-gops-oil-drilling-pipe-dream; The GOP’s Oil Drilling Pipe Dream by David Jenkins – March 15, 2011
[6] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-03-15/%E2%80%9C-oil-arctic-not-worth-risks%E2%80%9D; The oil of the Arctic is not worth the risks by Kjell Aleklett, President of ASPO International – March 15, 2011 (Original article: http://aleklett.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/%e2%80%9cthe-oil-of-the-arctic-is-not-worth-the-risks%e2%80%9d/)
[7] http://www.infrastructureusa.org/deep-water-the-gulf-oil-disaster-and-the-future-of-offshore-drilling/; DEEP WATER: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling – January 10, 2011
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/magazine/16Drilling-t.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper&pagewanted=all; The Will to Drill By BENJAMIN WALLACE-WELLS – January 16, 2011