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Peak Oil Matters

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Archive for April, 2011

(A continuation of Monday’s post.)

In this second part of my look at The Hirsch Report, I’d like to focus on the advice and conclusions Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues offered, as they now apply to current conditions.

“It is possible that peaking may not occur for several decades, but it is also possible that peaking may occur in the near future. “We are thus faced with a daunting risk management problem:
• On the one hand, mitigation initiated soon would be premature if peaking is still several decades away.
• On the other hand, if peaking is imminent, failure to initiate mitigation quickly will have significant economic and social costs to the U.S. and the world.
“The two risks are asymmetric:
Mitigation actions initiated prematurely will be costly and could result in a poor use of resources.
Late initiation of mitigation may result in severe consequences.” [p. 59-60]

Given the magnitude of the transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy to one in all likelihood requiring combinations of alternative sources of energy—depending on the region and industry—it’s fair to wonder whether any mitigation efforts can be considered “premature” at this point. With 70% of our transportation needs currently being met by fossil fuels, the effort to convert and/or implement alternative plans to satisfy that personal and commercial demand alone will require years of effort … more than a decade in all probability. At this point, absent some magical intervention by energy angels, we are simply too late into the game to prepare ourselves for an effortless shift away from fossil fuels.

That being the case, the sooner we begin the process of planning and implementing (with due regard for the testing and ramping up of new sources of energy), the fewer problems we will nonetheless have to contend with, and the lesser their severity … I hope. It makes no sense to delay for any reason at this point, as we can be certain that there will be some disruptions to our economy, industrial production, and lifestyles as the full brunt of declining oil production seeps inexorably into almost every facet of our ways of life.

There are almost no legitimate assessments which suggest we’re still decades away from Peak Oil. Any time frame shorter than that will be a problem. Let’s not add more problems on purpose because of ignorance or delusion that a rescue is just around the corner, or that we can afford to wait. We can’t.

While we still have at least a sufficient supply of fossil fuel resources, let’s begin the process of re-designing/re-creating our transportation and industrial infrastructures to accommodate alternative energies. Diverting existing resources to those efforts will cause enough hardship as it is. Let’s not make it any worse for ourselves by waiting for the resource pie to get even smaller.

The Hirsch Report offered up a series of “Wildcards” (all from p. 63) which might have the effect of either minimizing the adverse consequences of Peak Oil (“Upsides”), or making it much worse (“Downsides”). I’ll offer a comment or two on each, starting with his “Upsides” in this post. I’ll cover the “Downsides” in my next post.

“The pessimists are wrong again and peaking does not occur for many decades.”

The simple answer is that this wish and hope is extremely unlikely at this point. I’ve yet to come across a single credible report from any authoritative source suggesting anything of the kind. Given that the International Energy Agency ‘s World Energy Outlook 2010 report concluded that Peak Oil occurred five years ago, this is probably not a good bet. (See this and this.)

“Middle East oil reserves are much higher than publicly stated.”

After decades of already-questionable representations and a complete inability for outside sources to verify those stated reserves, we shouldn’t be counting on more magical discoveries or even a half-rational explanation as to how Middle East reserves magically increased by substantial amounts when OPEC production quotas were changed in the 1980s to tie in with stated reserves: higher reserves = more oil allowed to be sold = more revenue. Funny how that all worked out….

“A number of new super-giant oil fields are found and brought into production, well before oil peaking might otherwise have occurred.”

After decades of exploration with all the advanced technology available (and several decades of demand exceeding discoveries—see this), it would be borderline delusional to think that there might still be any such fields remaining. Most recent discoveries of “giant” oil fields turn out to be not nearly as impressive when those annoying facts are added to the discussion.

“High world oil prices over a sustained period (a decade or more) induce a higher level of structural conservation and energy efficiency.”

While energy efficiency (including higher mileage standards) are more frequently discussed, there are indications that the auto industry is already balking at raising mileage standards, and that consumers are not exactly racing to purchase the most fuel-efficient automobiles. With one of our major political parties having already taken the oh-so-mature and visionary step of returning Styrofoam packaging to the House of Representatives’ cafeteria rather than continuing to use recyclable materials (they sure showed us, right?), the education process is a long way from being complete.

“The U.S. and other nations decide to institute significantly more stringent fuel efficiency standards well before world oil peaking.”

A legitimate question to ask is: What’s the likelihood of getting any such agreement at this point? We can’t get everyone (meaning the fact-free GOP) to get on board with greenhouse gas emission standards … we can’t even get them to accept climate facts! “Drill, baby, drill” sums up their energy policy … facts about its at-best questionable value as a solution notwithstanding, of course.

“World economic and population growth slows and future demand is much less than anticipated.”

A possibility, of course. One has to wonder if slowing economic growth is what any of us should be actively rooting for, however. The truth is that it’s likely going to happen in any event. I’m advocating that we ought to actually plan ahead for that eventuality rather than just “count” on it as a possible solution to Peak Oil. I won’t go down the road of population growth except to state that it might be wise for at least some of our leaders here—and across the planet, for that matter—to at least wonder once in a while just how many resources they think this planet has left to provide for an approaching nine billion citizens.

“China and India decide to institute vehicle efficiency standards and other energy efficiency requirements, reducing the rate of growth of their oil requirements.”

Clearly this is not beyond the realm of possibility (and certainly China has taken many steps already in that direction as it is, exhibiting an understanding about the need for energy efficiency and the future which seems notably lacking here in the States—highlighted by a recent Pew Research Center report indicating that China now accounts for almost half of the world’s solar modules and wind turbines). That option alone won’t do the trick, however. But any contributions from major population and energy-consumption regions are a step in the right direction.

“Oil prices stay at a high enough level on a sustained basis so that industry begins construction of substitute fuels plants well before oil peaking.”

Two words: too late. Besides, sustained high fuel prices will curtail demand, which curtails profits, which curtails incentives for investments, which….

“Huge new reserves of natural gas are discovered, a portion of which is converted to liquid fuels.” See this recent post.

“Some kind of scientific breakthrough comes into commercial use, mitigating oil demand well before oil production peaks.”

Two words: too late. For all the astonishing technological breakthroughs mankind has introduced into the marketplace, hoping for that breakthrough here and now which will quickly replace a substantial majority of the 80+ million barrels of oil we use each and every day borders on the insane. Hoping for it to even slowly replace that oil is not much better. Certainly there is a great deal of research and innovation taking place as I write this (not nearly enough in the United States, unfortunately … tough to do when funding is reduced because the Magic Economic Fairy has decided that doing less for our future prospects is the best way to ensure more for our future), but we are many, many years away from successful invention, production, testing, implementation, and full commercialization of anything that could do the trick. Miracles do happen now and then, but if that’s our primary strategy, we are in some deep sh_t.

Crisis, or opportunity?

To be continued….

~~~

In two posts (here and here) written several months ago, I discussed once again the unfortunate truth that there remains a determined effort by some to either completely discount the reality of declining oil production, or who skate along the edges of truth by resorting to combinations of disingenuous arguments or incomplete facts.

Three articles in particular from the past week or so jumped out as more evidence that this disinformation campaign continues. One was a piece originally from a right-wing website with its irony-rich title of American Thinker; another, a predictably one-sided article from the Wall Street Journal, and the third an op-ed from U.S. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

In a post I wrote last October, I suggested it was important that we continue to call out those in the media, industry, or government whose preferred truth-telling strategies are to … not be entirely truthful.

While very few of them enter into the Senator Jon Kyl fact-free world of blatant lies, I remain puzzled by their continuing unwillingness and/or inability to deal with the facts. It seems entirely logical that if one is attempting to come up with solutions of any kind to deal with specific challenges or problems, it’s much easier to fashion effective approaches if you aren’t making stuff up in the first instance!

The American Thinker author set out to extol us all on the virtues of “recent advances in oil-extraction technologies such as fracking (the high-pressure injection of sand, water, and small amounts of chemicals into rock or other formation to loosen up the oil and separate it from the surrounding rock).” The fact that a new report came out at the same time indicating that carcinogens have been used as part of this wondrous fracking technology never made it into this body of work. But one man’s “large quantities of carcinogens” is probably another’s “small amounts.” As long as it doesn’t affect him personally, does it really matter?

The moratoriums which several states have imposed on fracking until its environmental consequences can be more fully explored (to say nothing of potential earthquake-causing effects some are now worried about) likewise seem to have escaped this author’s attention. Damned facts….But, hey, what are a few silly carcinogens, water-table contaminations, and earthquakes when you’re discussing profits, right?

This author then touted the magic of Canadian tar sands. Correctly stating that Canada is now our biggest supplier of oil, the author then proceeded to misstate by a mere 40% or so the amount of oil we use each day (“eleven million barrels” when in fact we use closer to nineteen million … that’s Jon Kyl-fact territory). He then ramped up by castigating those who oppose a new pipeline project which “would have the capacity to give us yet another 1.1 million barrels a day from our kindly cousins in the Great White North.” Wow! Now I can buy a Hummer!

His objection is straight-forward: “The environmentalist beef with the project is that the oil the Canadians will ship through the pipeline is be extracted from the reserves in their vast ranges of tar sands. These reserves are huge — on the order of 175 billion barrels of oil, which makes for more than two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s proven reserves. But the environmentalists fear that the after-products of the tar sand oil extraction will harm the environment.”

Nice to just glide over the facts … all of them, about how tar sands production takes place, or the actual environmental degradation which results from production; the immense demands on two other finite resources—natural gas and water—required in the process; the costs, effort, and/or time involved in extracting oil from the tar sands; the fact that production rates aren’t all that impressive—certainly much less than what had originally been envisioned, or the poisonous tailing ponds left behind.

For some reason, the following is expected to be reassuring: “However, it is both presumptuous and silly for American environmentalists to oppose this joint project to ship Canadian oil. First, it is not as if Canada were a corrupt, third-world dictatorship where the leaders are willing to despoil their own country for some low-end cash. The Canadians have a fine record on environmental protection (as good as our own, in fact. And they have gotten the extraction process for tar-sand oil very ecologically safe. Over 80% of the water used in the extraction process is recycled, and the ‘trailing ponds’ [sic] (which contain the remains of the extraction process) are being planted over with trees and shrubbery.” I guess the birds which otherwise die when they land in the ponds will now have a place to roost, until the trees die.

I won’t quibble with Canada’s environmental efforts in general. Canadian environmental standards are indeed quite admirable. And it will be a while before I completely grasp how Canada’s not being a “corrupt, third-world dictatorship” is relevant to consequences already on record. But to lump what happens in and around the tar sands regions of Alberta with the country’s entire enviro protection record is a disingenuous-at-best attempt to skate past the facts about higher cancer rates, afore-mentioned poisonings of water fowl, the water contamination, etc. I guess in a fact-free world, those are all “ecologically safe” outcomes.

Besides, we have good news according to the writer: “[T]hese tar sands are already laden with petrochemicals to begin with!”

And to end his argument on a high note, the writer claims that the “green dreamers” who stand in the way of all the jobs created and taxes to be paid if the pipeline project were to go through (as opposed to alternative energy research and production, which I guess must result from job-free invisible gnomes and benevolent, tax-exempt industries) are nothing more than environmental crazies who “oppose all sources of energy known to work, and they support only sources of energy proven to be inefficient.”

Yep! That’s us, all right. We love to spend all our time and money on things we know just won’t work at all because … because we’re … ah, you know, “green dreamers.” Yikes!

The Wall Street Journal article highlighted an interview with John Watson, Chevron’s CEO. The reporter wasted little time in blaming President Obama for following in the footsteps of his predecessors by “peddling an America free of fossil fuels” and “closing off more acreage to drilling, pouring money into green energy, pushing new oil company taxes, instituting anticarbon regulations,” asserting that “America is going backward on affordable energy.” The advantage of two-week-long visionary thinking….

Mr. Watson boasted of an unnamed Chevron oil field in the Bakersfield, California area which at one time was providing “only 10 or 20” barrels of oil for “every 100 barrels of oil ‘in place,’” and “thanks to a new technology called steam flooding, Chevron is now getting 70 to 80 barrels.” I’m guessing he was referring to the Kern River oil field, which as of a few years ago had an estimated reserve of approximately 475 million barrels of oil, and has been producing for more than one hundred years!

Unfortunately, the math portion of the explanation was omitted. World-wide, oil demand is about 85 million barrels per day. About 18 or 19 million of that is here in the U.S. Quick math: That field has about a 5 or 6 day world-wide supply, or less than a month’s supply if we kept it all to ourselves. No mention of how quickly Chevron can drain the field. Probably not an inexpensive undertaking, either. Facts! Who needs ‘em? (See this Oil Drum article for more information.)

The WSJ piece then proclaimed the wondrous fact that “Over the past 30 years, even as ‘peak oil’ was a trendy theme, the world’s proven reserves of oil and natural gas increased 130%, to 2.5 trillion barrels.” Space limitations probably prevented the writer or Mr. Watson from explaining anything about costs, efforts, time factors for production, ease of access, or the fact that for several decades now, we’ve been using several times more oil each year than is being discovered.

“Mr. Watson has little time for the Beltway fiction that America will soon be able to do without, or nearly without, fossil fuels. Yes, ‘we need all forms of energy.’ But the world consumes 250 million barrels of energy equivalent today, only a ‘tiny fraction of which’ is wind and solar—and even those ‘are not affordable at scale,’ he says.” I can only assume space limitations once again prevented the author or Mr. Watson from explaining just why that is. It would take a few extra paragraphs to explain how diligently the oil industry has fought attempts to devote investment dollars into alternative energy research or just how much they contribute to campaign coffers to ensure Big Oil occupies a large place on political radar screens and subsidy legislation.

“Bottom line: ‘We’re going to need oil and gas and coal for a long time if America wants to keep the lights on.’” Not exactly a solution, but if the nation’s leaders refuse to commit the resources needed to transition away from a declining, finite supply of fossil fuel, then Mr. Watson is correct in a perverse, lack-of-vision kinda way.

“As for soaring oil prices, Mr. Watson blames growing demand, tighter supply, Mideast uncertainty and inflation.” Hmmm … “growing demand, tighter supply?” Why, that sounds like signs of Peak Oil!

“That pretty much sums up the broader choice America faces on energy policy. It can listen to the Washington siren song on alternative energy, pouring scarce dollars into green subsidies, driving up the cost of energy, and driving out U.S. manufacturing and jobs. Or it can embrace our own fossil fuel resources, which are cheap and plentiful.”

“Cheap and plentiful?” Really? I suppose on a fact-free planet that’s true. And like the American Thinker above, it would appear that a massive expansion of research and production into alternative sources of energy would also presumably occur only as a result of job-free efforts by invisible gnomes and benevolent, tax-exempt industries. Geez! Just curious, but why haven’t these “cheap and plentiful” supplies been produced already, inexpensively and quickly (even during Republican administrations)?

“What I see are people who want affordable energy,” says Mr. Watson. “They want strong environmental standards—they want a lot of things—but first and foremost they want affordable energy. And if you want affordable energy, you want oil, gas and coal.”

By all means, let’s continue to ignore Peak Oil and do absolutely nothing to plan for alternatives. Affordable Energy No Matter What The Cost! would make a fine bumper sticker! We’re entitled to what we want because we’re exceptional. Let’s not forget that. Besides, if we’re lucky, we’ll pass that problem on to our children when they’re older, and then they can ignore it, too. Sounds like a plan!

And as for the good Senator from Alaska, (the senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, no less), her Washington Post op-ed last week titled, “Setting the record straight on America’s oil,” should more accurately have been sub-titled: “Is Not Something I’m Prepared To Do.”

The Senator expressed her concerns about “some of the information presented about America’s energy potential. Left unchallenged, it will contribute to a mistaken belief that increased domestic production is not truly possible.” I’m not sure who might be making such claims, but … okay!

“The president said this month that ‘even if we doubled the amount of oil that we produced, we’d still be short by a factor of five.’ That’s simply incorrect. Doubling our production would trim imports nearly in half. Boosting production by a factor of five is not currently feasible, but if it were, it would make the United States the world’s largest producer.” And that’s relevant why? How? The United States peaked in oil production four decades ago. We now produce only about half of what we did at the peak. So arguing over the possibility of becoming the world’s largest producer is beyond meaningless. (But a good sound bite if you’re not paying attention!)

“Perhaps most misleading is his claim — also made by others — that the United States has ‘about 2, maybe 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves; we use 25 percent of the world’s oil.’ That line is crafted to make the audience think that America is both running out of oil and using oil at an unsustainable rate.”

Um … well, we’re not “running out of oil” (which Peak Oil proponents allegedly make all the time if you listen to the Right, a charge repeated by the Senator. They’re correct only if by “all the time” one actually means “never, at least by any credible authority on the topic”). But the “unsustainable rate” part … that’s actually a problem, and one that is only going to get worse as long as our national strategy is predicated on ignoring it.

Andrew Restuccia was nice enough to take some time after that op-ed came out to do some of that … whatchacallit? Fact-checking?

For starters, he addressed the Senator’s “2, maybe 3 percent” factoid:
“The EIA [Energy Information Administration] says the United States has 20.7 billion barrels of proven oil reserves as of 2009, the year with the most up-to-date data available….U.S. proven reserves are significantly smaller than countries like Canada (178.1 billion barrels), Venezuela (99.4 billion barrels), Saudi Arabia (266.7 billion barrels), United Arab Emirates (97.8 billion barrels) and Libya (43.7 billion barrels).
“Overall, based on those numbers, the United States has about 2 percent of the world’s proved oil reserves.”

Facts 1; Sen. Murkowski: 0

Next up, the Senator’s assertion of a “misleading claim” that “we use 25 percent of the world’s oil”:
“The United States consumes massive amounts of oil. The EIA says the United States consumed 18,771,400 barrels of oil per day in 2009. That’s higher than any other country in the world….
“In total, the United States consumed 6.85 billion barrels of oil in 2009 and 6.99 billion barrels of oil in 2010. That’s about one-fourth of the world’s oil.”

I hate math, but I believe that “one-fourth” would be within the margin of error for someone claiming “25 percent.”

Facts 2; Sen. Murkowski: 0

Moving on, the Senator then makes this claim: “Right now, America has an estimated 22.3 billion barrels of oil reserves. But that’s hardly the whole story. A recent Congressional Research Service report that I commissioned with Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma found that the United States’ recoverable oil resources are estimated at 157 billion barrels. That is seven times as much as our reserves and doesn’t even include the roughly 900 billion barrels of unconventional oil resources nearing commercialization.”

As an aside, relying on Sen, Inhofe for an impartial and fair assessment of any energy matter not entitled “Big Oil” is a lot like relying on Rush Limbaugh to deliver impartial and fair assessments about opposing political viewpoints … not gonna happen. Having said that, the report she mentions states the following:

“U.S. proved reserves of oil total 19.1 billion barrels, reserves of natural gas total 244.7 trillion cubic feet, and natural gas liquids reserves of 9.3 billion barrels. Undiscovered technically recoverable oil [my emphasis] in the United States is 145.5 billion barrels….[That’s later defined as follows]:
Undiscovered technically recoverable resources (UTRR). Oil and gas that may be produced as a consequence of natural pressure, artificial lift, pressure maintenance, or other secondary recovery methods, but without any consideration of economic viability. They are primarily located outside of known fields.” [1]

“Undiscovered” resources….Seriously? And “nearing commercialization” is as unspecific as one can get. What does that mean?

“Our consumption levels may seem high, but in fact they’re directly proportionate to America’s share of the global, petroleum-based economy.” That’s actually a big problem, Senator. Declining supply, increasing world-wide demand, and our insistence on getting whatever we want, when we want it, and at an “affordable” price goes to the heart of Peak Oil’s challenges.

Another frequent argument made by the Right is that increasing domestic oil production and “estimated X millions of barrels of oil” here compares favorably to Persian Gulf imports. The Senator tossed in her two cents: “Relying on reserves to depict America’s oil excludes all of the lands that have never been explored. My home state of Alaska, for example, holds an estimated 40 billion barrels of oil — the equivalent of more than 60 years’ worth of imports from the Persian Gulf.” That’s fine as far as it goes, if “estimated” is acceptable. For those who aren’t paying attention or don’t understand where we get all of our nearly 12 million barrels of imported oil each day, mentioning domestic potential in the same sentence as “Persian Gulf” sounds like the answer to all our fossil fuel prayers.

Mr. Restuccia pointed out more of those damned facts:

“The U.S. imported 11.7 billion barrels of petroleum a day in 2009, which comes to about 51 percent of the petroleum used in the United States. As of 2009, the country got 21 percent of its oil from Canada, 10 percent from Mexico, 9 percent each from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia and 7 percent from Nigeria.”

In other words, potential domestic supply measured against the Gulf is less impressive as soon as it becomes clear that the Persian Gulf isn’t exactly a huge supplier of oil for us (not that 9 percent isn’t a good chunk of our imports, but when one is left to think that Persian Gulf oil is the majority source of oil, it loses a lot of its effectiveness as a talking point).

Facts 3; Sen. Murkowski: 0

It’s also worth noting that the Senator of course neglected to mention any facts about how we increase our domestic production: what’s involved, how much it will cost, how long it will take, environmental concerns….It’s the by-now familiar tactic of the Right: make pronouncements which sound good and hope no one is going to ask for explanations.

Echoing a point made by many others (including a report from the Bush Administration), Mr. Restuccia sticks another pin in the balloon about the impact of increased domestic production:

“Even a dramatic expansion of domestic oil and gas drilling will have little effect on oil and gas prices, as they are largely set on world markets.
“Here’s EIA Administrator Richard Newell, in written testimony delivered to the House Natural Resources Committee March 17:
“‘Long term, we do not project additional volumes of oil that could flow from greater access to oil resources on Federal lands to have a large impact on prices given the globally integrated nature of the world oil market and the more significant long-term compared to short-term responsiveness of oil demand and supply to price movements.’”

Game. Set. Match: Facts.

Perhaps we need to start having different kinds of discussions … the kind where facts are important, where leaders are willing to be honest, and where we are ready to deal with the truths about fossil fuels.

Sources:

[1] Report for Congress: Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress – U.S. Fossil Fuel Resources: Terminology, Reporting, and Summary by Gene Whitney, Section Research Manager; Carl E. Behrens, Specialist in Energy Policy; Carol Glover, Information Research Specialist – November 30, 2010.

As I have been consistently urging in most of my posts in recent months, planning for what happens in the wake of Peak Oil’s arrival must become a national priority—and not just one for Congress. This is an all-hands-on-deck necessity, and every day we choose not to begin the complex, lengthy process of figuring out how to adjust to a world where the basic energy source for almost everything that we’ve produced in the last 100+ years will no longer be available as we’ve come to expect and demand is another day of almost certain difficulty for all of us. That’s not a good formula for growth and prosperity in the years to come.

Given what is at stake, I thought it might help readers new to the Peak Oil discussion to review the observations and suggestions of one of the seminal works of the past decade (see a prior discussion here). Back in 2005, energy advisor Robert L. Hirsch and his colleagues, on behalf of the federal government, issued a report entitled “The Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management”—commonly cited as the Hirsch Report—sponsored by the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the Department of Energy (PDF here). The Hirsch Report offered an informative assessment of the then-current state of oil/fossil fuel production in the early part of the 21st Century. Of greater importance, it presented a clear warning about the potential consequences if we all fail to plan for the day when oil production has begun its inevitable slide down the slope from its peak.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), peak oil production occurred about a year after the Hirsch Report was released. Not good.

The Hirsch Report begins with a stark advisory:

“The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.
“Dealing with world oil production peaking will be extremely complex, involve literally trillions of dollars and require many years of intense effort.” [p. 4]

Among its key recommendations, the Report suggested that a “crash-course” of mitigation efforts would need to be undertaken at least a full decade before Peak Oil’s arrival in order to avoid many if not all of the drastic challenges and consequences brought about by declining oil production and the availability of fossil fuels to meet our (increasing) needs. If the IEA assessment is correct—and there’s no reason to believe it is not substantially accurate as is—then we are already five years behind in preparing ourselves. Not good.

“Intervention by governments will be required, because the economic and social implications of oil peaking would otherwise be chaotic.” [p. 5]

“Prudent risk management requires the planning and implementation of mitigation well before peaking. Early mitigation will almost certainly be less expensive than delayed mitigation.” [p. 6]

That’s just for starters. “Less expensive” seems to be out as an option for us now. What kind of “intervention” by governments might be needed has by all indications not yet been considered—at least publicly, as I discussed in my last post. That should be cause for concern.

A quick acknowledgement about how much of our nation’s transportation depends on a ready supply of inexpensive gas and oil suggests even to the entirely uninformed that adapting to the post-Peak Oil world is at a minimum going to be a monumental undertaking of almost-indescribable complexity … in other words, a big challenge! The transportation aspect is not just about dependence on our personal vehicles, either. A significant percentage of our produced goods are transported via trucked freight, and there’s a fair amount of air travel to keep in mind as well. This sobering observation offers plenty of motivation:

“We cannot conceive of any affordable government-sponsored “crash program” to accelerate normal replacement schedules so as to incorporate higher energy efficiency technologies into the privately-owned transportation sector; significant improvements in energy efficiency will thus be inherently time-consuming (of the order of a decade or more).” [p. 24]

So what’s the Plan? Business as usual and a whole lotta hope ought to be off the table already. Denial and ignoring it in the hopes it will just go away aren’t of much help, either. Three questions posed to readers [p. 10] when the report was issued have even greater relevance today. Do we have answers yet?

“What are the risks of heavy reliance on optimistic world oil production peaking projections?
“Must we wait for the onset of oil shortages before actions are taken?
“What can be done to ensure that prudent mitigation is initiated on a timely basis?”

Optimism is fine and well … up to a point. Believing that we’re doomed is not the best starting point, so a recognition that with great, concerted effort we may still be able to count on our nation’s great intellectual and cultural resources to lead the way is certainly advisable. But that notion alone, without planning and then implementation, is not much more than an empty platitude. Obviously waiting until we’re up to our eyeballs in Peak Oil’s impact and consequences is not the preferred approach, but time’s a-wastin’. We’re damn close to that point now.

“[D]oing the research required to bring new technologies to commercial readiness takes time under the best of
circumstances. Thereafter, more than a decade of intense implementation will be required for world scale impact, because of the inherently large scale of world oil consumption.” [p. 7]

Ensuring prudent mitigation is one of the key topics I’ll be devoting scores of posts to in the coming weeks and months. Suffice it to say, leaving it all up to our nearly-useless Congress without a great deal more involvement on our parts is a sure strategy for not-so-pleasant consequences which I don’t want to give even a first thought to. We need to start having difficult, painful, but honest public conversations about what happens in the years to come when the oil and gas we rely on every day is simply no longer as available as it has been for decades. There’s no getting around that fact.

“Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.” [p. 59]

That outcome ought to be scaring the bejesus out of us right about now—to least enough for us and our leadership to get off our asses and start having those conversations and putting plans into place starting today. That phase alone is going to take many months of thoughtful consideration and an examination and understanding of what makes our industries productive and successful, and in turn affords us the myriad options and opportunities we’ve enjoyed for decades. Plan B for all of that is not going to be the end result of a couple of chats at someone’s weekend retreat.

The concluding advisory is not comforting given how inadequate our preparation has been to date:

“In summary, the problem of the peaking of world conventional oil production is unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society. The challenges and uncertainties need to be much better understood. Technologies exist to mitigate the problem. Timely, aggressive risk management will be essential.” [p. 7]

We’ve past the point where “aggressive” is called for. Whatever comes after aggressive is where we need to be, and soon.

I don’t like the thought of crash-program anything, but with oil production having at a minimum plateaued half a decade ago, the signs are not good for a return to business as usual. A minor bump-up in production from oil shale is not a reason for concluding that the Peak Oil problem can again be put to bed. We need to have the courage and wisdom to recognize that, and then begin the process of putting our magnificent talents and the ethics and creativity of our peers to work as we lead the way into the post-Peak Oil world.

Crisis, or opportunity?

To be continued….

[NOTE: This is the latest installment in an ongoing 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 the discussion of 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.]

~~~

“‘By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 MBD.’” [Source: PeakOil.net]
“While there are two ‘coulds’ in that statement, the mere possibility that such an imminent arrival and massive shortfall could be true should give every prudent adult a few second thoughts about what the future may hold. If surplus production capacity disappears in just a couple of years, there’s an entire world of planning that should really take place beforehand at the international, national, community and personal levels.” [1]

That statement needs little embellishment or explanation. It goes to the very heart of my reasoning for developing this lengthy series, and coming from someone like Chris Martenson, who has earned legitimate credibility, I can only hope that the underlying message will soon resonate with many more officials and citizens.

Several weeks ago, in the course of gathering my notes and writing rough drafts of this and my last post, I came across yet another well-reasoned and pointed discussion from Lindsay Curren at Transition Voice (here). In expressing her own concerns about the lack of leadership on the subject of Peak Oil, she offered this:

“In spite of the difficulties President Obama faces in navigating this minefield, he does have one trump card that can turn his prospects around. He just doesn’t know it yet….
“Like other presidents, Obama has reminded the American people that oil is a finite resource, that it’s running out and can’t be replaced. He’s talked about how conservation and a shift to a broad portfolio of renewables and mass transit can, at the very least, shift the direction while also creating jobs. In essence, he’s hinted at America 2.0, the lower-energy version.
“What he hasn’t done is come out boldly and say the words ‘peak oil,’ explaining to the American people that this is the end of the era of cheap energy for good.”

Chris Martenson adds this, from the same article cited above:

“The impact of peak oil on markets, lifestyles, and even national solvency deserves our very highest attention – but, it turns out, some important players seem to be paying no attention at all.”

What Chris suspected, and as was confirmed in a presentation (by Rick Munroe) cited in his article, is that while our military (among other nations’) is definitely concerned about Peak Oil and its impact on the operations and responsibilities it’s currently charged with and will likely face in years to come, nothing is being done at the national political level. (Munroe himself, in another article, offered this: “This author has yet to encounter a study conducted by a military analyst which dismisses peak oil as an implausible, alarmist issue.”) There are no governmental departments and no bureaucrats who’ve been assigned the task of figuring out anything about what we should do.

Acknowledging as have others that electoral politics hampers our officials from dealing with long-range planning and problems, Martenson added:

“So I came away from the ASPO conference pondering two completely polar trends that combined to create a lasting discomfort. On the one hand we have more and more private and military organizations coming to the conclusion that peak oil is imminent and will change everything, possibly disruptively. On the other hand there appear to be no plans within the civilian government to deal with a liquid fuels emergency.”

Uh-oh! We’re already years behind in establishing anything approximating even a minimal understanding of the variety of challenges and impacts that will arise from declining oil production. That energy resource so thoroughly permeates just about everything we own, use, or do that it is a nearly incomprehensible task to imagine how much will have to change when we’re faced with less oil for everything. So not planning or even discussing it will help us … how? And Republican budget proposals to cut even more funding for research and innovation so that the Koch brothers et al pay even less in taxes helps us … how?

A few months ago, I wrote this, and my assessment has not changed:

“Plans are in order—lots of plans. This is no quick-fix modern day dilemma, and it is most definitely not a challenge that we can rely on the “market” to solve on its own. What remains just as doubtful is the ability of our national government to lead the way, and that’s a problem. I’m not sure right now that Congress could easily, quickly, or even by majority vote declare December 25 as Christmas Day. Certainly they couldn’t do so if President Obama offered that up. This is not encouraging, and it’s even less so when we have a more-than-insignificant number of “leaders” who cannot seem to accept anything that even remotely resembles scientific fact.
“We’re going to need a national government with national leaders who can … you know, lead; people who actually understand what is at stake, have some kind of vision for what we need to do now and going forward, are willing to articulate that to the citizenry, can explain what we all have to contribute, and are willing to make the tough choices devoid of ideology. Declining oil production has absolutely nothing to do with conservative or liberal philosophies of governance.
“We’ve got an entire industrial and commercial infrastructure that is going to have to be modified, re-built, or in many cases created anew to allow us to move forward with something other than oil to power it. There’s no pretending otherwise, and waiting is simply not an option any more—not that it has been.”

If we can’t count on our leadership to so much as give voice to the problem’s name, then planning and implementing is rendered all the more difficult. My effort—to offer some semblance of comprehensive proposals and a vision for how we might address this, as inconsequential as the attempt might be—will at least be a start. But Lindsay Curren is absolutely correct: the President has to start telling us the truth about this. It is beyond inconceivable to think that he, or any of his recent predecessors, knows absolutely nothing about Peak Oil! This is not a tiny little problem that just crossed someone’s radar screen for the first time yesterday afternoon.

The truth will also include clarifying a bit of disingenuous fact-telling called out by Gregor Macdonald in a piece he wrote at the beginning of the year:

“One of the methods EIA Washington and IEA Paris have increasingly relied on in recent years to obscure the very serious and now very real problem of oil depletion is to include biofuels and natural gas liquids in the accounting of global oil production. The technique that both agencies use to conduct this obfuscation is a familiar one, in which the key information is aggregated (buried) into a much larger barrage of data and presentations….
“In order to rebut this Secrecy by Complexity it’s the obligation of responsible energy analysts to explain the falsehood of adding biofuels and natural gas liquids to measures of oil production. The reason is simple: natural gas liquids are not oil, and they contain only 65% of the BTU of oil. Worse, biofuels are barely an energy source themselves and are the product of a conversion process of other energy inputs. Accordingly, the world is not producing 84, or 85, or 86 million barrels of oil per day. Nor will the depletion of oil be solved by the production of biofuels in the future.
“When the EIA in Washington falsely composes such forecasts, aggregating future natural gas liquids and ethanol into a supply picture for ‘oil’ as they do each year in The Annual Energy Outlook, this disables the public’s ability to accurately understand the true outlook for global oil supply.”

We’re already burdened enough by the deniers and certain groups of elected officials for whom disclosing facts and engaging in truth-telling are onerous exercises to be avoided as often as possible. We don’t need this Administration to add to the confusion.

Expanding on a quote I recently offered from Ezra Klein, his observation seems especially apropos in this context:

“In order for most Americans to tune out of politics and not get ripped off due to their inattention, politicians need to be acting in an honorable, ‘non-self-interested’ way.
“This is why things like partisanship, evidence of corruption, the public understanding of earmarks and so forth are so damaging. They’re signs that the process in Washington is broken. As Hibbing and Theiss-Morse note, most Americans don’t have terribly strong views on policy and figure people of good faith could fairly easily come to agreement on the nation’s major problems. When that’s not happening, people get scared. They’re not paying attention, and they’ve certainly not hired high- powered lobbyists to butter up members of Congress with attention and campaign contributions. But they know others have. So they worry — rightly — that their disinterest leaves them holding the bag for the favors that powerful interests are getting. And the worse the process looks from afar, the more they figure they’re right to be worried.” [2]

It’s not necessary to belabor the point that no one wants any more problems to contend with. Certainly problems that go to the very core of what enables all of us to lead the lives we do, produce the goods and services we offer, transport ourselves in the variety of ways we do, and enjoy the benefits of our ingenuity and industry are major challenges no one has the stomach to deal with voluntarily. But deal with it we must. The problems and restrictions—which a declining oil supply is going to impose on us (no matter how fiercely we choose to deny or ignore it)—call on each of us to wade in and play a role in coming to terms with Peak Oil.

As I’ve urged in recent posts, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and find a place where we can participate and contribute to the massive undertakings needed to adapt to a future with different sources of energy. But we cannot do it alone, and our efforts may prove to be nothing but futile if we aren’t getting direction and the truth from our leaders. We can then all find a place in the big middle to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

“When we begin to tell the truth we can tell better stories than anyone who has to tell lies. It is a story about heroism, and responding to dreadful odds, about courage and self-sacrifice for the betterment of the future – all the things that everyone actually gives a damn about that are never asked of them. It is so easy to say that other people are fools when those people have never heard anything but lies and they have never been asked to be more than consumers. Time to ask. Time to tell the truth.” [3]

Amen to that.

More to come….

[NOTE: Owing to out-of-town commitments, this will be my only post of the week.]

Sources:

[1] http://seekingalpha.com/article/230013-future-chaos-there-is-no-plan-b-for-oil; Future Chaos: There Is No ‘Plan B’ For Oil by Chris Martenson – October 14, 2010 [citing a statement in the 2010 Joint Operating Environment report, which provides information designed to assist U.S. military officials in planning future exercise and endeavors.]
[2] http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2011/02/americans_dont_like_politics_-.html; Americans don’t like politics — and that matters by Ezra Klein – February 25, 2011
[3] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-03/election-over-now-what-do-we-do-all-fear; The election is over – Now what do we do with all the fear? by Sharon Astyk – November 3, 2010

[NOTE: This is the latest installment in an ongoing 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 the discussion of 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.]

~~~

“The United States continues to slumber while a catastrophe lies in wait. Increasing numbers of analysts and policymakers are warning of another super price spike for oil and the likelihood of “peak oil” more generally….
“Even if global oil production increases in the coming years, if there is less available for oil-thirsty nations like ours the situation will be far worse than total oil production figures would otherwise suggest.” [1]

“As demand grows in the next decade, we will not have the oil-production capacity we will need to meet demand….The $140- per-barrel oil price of three years ago was not an aberration — it was a warning.” – Shell Oil Chief Executive Officer John B. Hess. [2]

Not the cheeriest way to start, but damned annoying facts are damned annoying facts.

So what are our enlightened leader proposing in these last few weeks? Let’s take a look:

The President, reiterating prior policy recommendations (and in doing so pointing out that his Administration is currently engaged in developing the country’s oil and gas resources, notwithstanding fictitious allegations to the contrary by some Republican officials), is again calling for a long-term, “comprehensive energy strategy.” The President added: “We need to increase our access to secure energy supplies in the near term and we’ve got to make our economy more energy-efficient and energy-independent over the long run.” [3]

Unfortunately, those recommendations aren’t all that unlike the proposals put forth by every President in the past forty years. Great sound bites, but until we actually start doing something about the actual problem instead of whining about higher prices and seeking genuinely dumb short-term solutions (see Jim DiPeso’s commentary on why adding fuel supplies to the marketplace by opening up our Strategic Petroleum Reserve is the wrong strategy), our next few Presidents will likewise make the same call to end our “addiction” to foreign oil … until declining oil production in those intervening years makes it obvious even to the entirely delusional that there won’t be many “fixes” left. We might not want to wait until then to start doing something….

In that same article cited above, President Obama indicated that his office is considering new oil-and-gas development onshore and offshore in Alaska while trying to strengthen relationships with non-OPEC oil-producing countries like Brazil. In a direct challenge to continuing and by now tiresome GOP assertions that drilling for more oil is the be-all and end-all of our fossil fuel worries, Mr. Obama pointedly stated that drilling is “not a long-term solution.” (See this.) His recent proposals, however, leave much to be desired….

During the Bush Administration, the United States’ Energy Information Agency issued a report (updated and confirmed in its 2009 follow-up: “Impact of Limitations on Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Federal Outer Continental Shelf”) in which its analysis of the difference between full offshore drilling (“Reference Case”) and restricted drilling (“OCS limited case”) concluded there would be no impact on gasoline prices in 2020, and a whoppingthree cent” (that’s not a typo) per gallon decline by 2030.

GOP officials who continue to tout drilling never get around to mentioning that little factoid. Of course, they also never bother to mention any other facts about drilling off-shore or in the Arctic such as the extreme exploration conditions which must be accounted and paid for, the length of time that will pass before full production (such as it may be) will be reached (i.e., several decades), and an assortment of other bothersome little details which would only contradict the “benefits” their sound bites imply. It goes without saying that there is no mention of the current political turmoil in the Middle East and parts of Africa … annoying considerations which most market analyst experts believe to be primarily responsible for recent price spikes. What good are experts if a good political sound bite is available instead?

And if a sound bite won’t work, there’s always Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe to interject a healthy dose of nonsense. The Senator is of course pointing fingers at the Obama Administration for recent gas price hikes, albeit via a rather curious sidetrip into … dumb as the basis for his allegations. As Steve Benen pointed out in a recent post (the GOP does keep him busy!), Inhofe attributes the price increases to the President’s “goal” to address greenhouse gas emissions. Not current legislation. Not an actual law. Just an objective … which, as Steve noted, sadly has no chance whatsoever of becoming law anytime soon.

Steve said it best: “[T]he GOP doesn’t have a serious energy policy. It only has a pro-oil policy.” [4]

They say these things and they seek to pass legislation based on these “beliefs”—which will harm the great majority of us while favoring the wealthy few—because we let them. That is a sad truth….We’re better than that.

Once again, more damned facts: The GOP budget proposals call for drastic cuts across a broad spectrum of programs, among them renewable/alternative energy research. Fortunately, (as I mentioned in a recent post) every single House Republican did vote to extend government subsidies to the oil companies. Thank God! (For a genuinely ridiculous “defense” of this legislative pursuit by the usually ridiculous Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, read this.)

At least the oil companies won’t be asked to suffer the consequences of budget reductions as will women, children, students, medical patients, Medicare recipients, the unemployed, our national infrastructure, our environment, or our national security—all of which have been targeted by Republican budget-cutting proposals. Let’s not forget that these budget cuts are not supported by significant majorities of Americans in various recent polls. American majorities do support cuts in foreign aid, getting our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and repealing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. But why should that matter? It becomes more obvious with each passing day that money talks loudest….

Good to have priorities….Integrity and our future well-being? Not so much.

The truth is that oil production worldwide has been on a plateau for more than five years. (A blip here and there is no cause for celebration or relief that all is now well once again.) Despite the leveling off of production, prices are still rising. So if prices are still on the increase and most oil producers are not taking advantage by … producing more so that they, you know … make more money, then this suggests that are some fundamental problems beyond just supply and demand. (U.S. oil production actually increased last year, and prices still rose.) Perhaps the GOP might prevail upon the President to use his magical superpowers to create more easily available, inexpensive oil which can come into the market by … perhaps next Tuesday?

Extreme and unwarranted measures targeted at lowering gas prices to appease consumers today is a band-aid solution and nothing more. It solves nothing … unless the objective is to merely ignore the problem, postpone both planning and implementing the changes which are on their way, all so that we’re creating more problems for ourselves down the road.

In that case, then by all means: drill, baby, drill.

More to come….

Sources:

[1] http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article_display.cfm?a_id=2393; The Peak Oil Catastrophe-In-Waiting by Tam Hunt – March 10, 2011
[2] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-08/u-s-should-mull-1-gas-tax-boost-auto-efficiency-hess-says.html; U.S. Should Consider $1 Gas Tax, CEO Hess Says By Jim Polson and Edward Klump – Mar 8, 2011
[3] http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/677-e2-wire/149005-amid-rising-gas-prices-obama-calls-for-long-term-energy-strategy; Amid rising gas prices, President Obama calls for long-term energy strategy By Andrew Restuccia – 03/11/11
[4] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2011_03/028346.php; A RENEWED DEBATE OVER ENERGY (THAT PROBABLY WON’T GO WELL) – March 9, 2011

[NOTE: This is the latest installment in an ongoing 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 the discussion of 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.]

~~~

“Citizen or politician, however, it is undeniably difficult to show political leadership on an issue as challenging and unpopular as peak oil. Much like global warming, it’s an incredibly huge and complex issue that requires a certain amount of scientific and technical knowledge to fully understand — and it also happens to threaten our very way of life.” [1]

“America’s problem today is that almost nobody in any official position is willing to publicly recognize the real nature of the problem we face and start talking about realistic solutions. So long as our elected officials and our media continue to speak endlessly about the recovery that is supposedly underway and continue to hold out the hope that, by voting for this or that candidate, all will be well, the great charade will continue and the people will get madder and madder….
“The real problem, of course, is that without a continually growing source of cheap and abundant energy, such as that provided by fossil fuels, there will never again be significant economic growth in the sense to which we have become accustomed.” [2]

“For now however, we are mired in a period when politicians debate and run for office seemingly without an appreciation of serious underlying issues such as resource depletion, overpopulation, and global warming. For now the political debate is shaped in terms of the short vs. long run benefits for the voters – with the short-run beating concerns for future generations hands down. Any action that is perceived to hurt the pocket books of one’s current constituents such as increasing the cost of energy or raising taxes is considered a non-starter.” [3]

“We will never do the things that are needed unless we know the full extent of our predicament.” Michael Brownlee [4]

In a recent post (here), I suggested that the first step to be taken in beginning the long and complex process of dealing with the effects and consequences of declining oil production is that we as citizens must make at least a nominal commitment to learn the facts for ourselves rather than taking as gospel the pronouncements and opinions of others—especially those whose motivations are at best suspect. Upon the most casual of observations, the facts readily available will make it clear to just about everyone that Peak Oil is indeed a looming, serious problem having the potential to drastically change almost everything we do, use, and have.

As I have also indicated, the complexity surrounding Peak Oil’s impact means that it is most definitely not a stand-alone problem. Whatever strategies and solutions we collectively arrive upon to address the myriad effects will require a frequent, delicate balancing act which gives due regard to economic, political, cultural, social, and climate challenges as well—among other equally serious issues fighting for attention and resolution. Easy is not part of the equation.

Just as critical a first step is a challenge that may prove to be even more daunting than obtaining the interest and involvement of millions of everyday citizens: getting our political, industry, and media leaders to tell us the truth!

The great majority among these leaders are rarely the ones we can count on to deliver bad news, especially when so much of the electorate has far too little understanding of any number of issues (and I say that with no malice or intent to criticize, as I have frequently acknowledged that the burdens most of us deal with daily are more than enough to keep us occupied). Having a vested interest in maintaining employment as public officials (while preferring to let future elected officials deal with the real problems) limits their inclinations to tell us unpleasant truths. Why worry about environmental or energy problems, or the enduring hardships of millions of “average” Americans, when there’s another election just around the corner—and campaign contributions to solicit? Priorities, people … priorities!

And what is intended as criticism is my opinion that one need only examine the Republican leadership’s utter inability to explain how their slash-and-burn-but-protect-the-wealthy-at-all-costs fiscal policies are supposed to help anyone earning much less than a few million dollars per year. They’ve mastered the sound bites that appease their base. An important question still unanswered is how much harm their actions will cause to so many—base included. Those in that base might want to start giving that some thought….Spending cuts for everyone else but us is at best a delusional hope.

Those damned facts are annoying as hell … they just won’t go away. Some of the more absurd among those “leaders” have long since ceased to even slow down at the “brazen” or “hypocritical” stop signs which even the minimally decent would acknowledge.

The always-wonderful, sensible Steve Benen recently pointed out that the entire Republican delegation in the House voted unanimously in opposition to legislation that would have ended subsidies (paid for by your and my tax dollars) to the oil companies. Pat Garofalo noted that the top five oil companies (BP and ExxonMobil among them, of course) “made a total profit of nearly $1 trillion over the past decade.” In acknowledging the profitability of those companies, Steve made the following observation:

“For the typical American, I suspect this will seem hard to understand. In the face of fiscal challenges, Republicans are ready to slash funding in education, health care, job training, and national security, but they’re not willing to end taxpayer subsidies — our money — for the oil industry? An industry that’s already enjoying extraordinary profits?
“Also note, ending the subsidies would save the federal government tens of billions of dollars, making a significant dent in the deficit-reduction campaign that Republicans pretend to care about. It’s a reminder that the GOP’s commitment to fiscal responsibility is shaped in large part by who’ll suffer as a result of the cuts — working families can feel the brunt of the budget ax, under the GOP vision, but ExxonMobil can’t.”

And in another post, Steve pointed out that in a recent poll conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, seventy-four percent of those polled (consistent with the majority who believe that jobs and economic growth are more important objectives than deficit reduction) stated that eliminating oil and gas subsidies was one measure that lawmakers should undertake to help reduce the deficit. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for keeping the subsidies, is it? But whose voice matters more: the oil companies, or a few hundred million American citizens?

In answer to the expected Republican charges that ending the subsidies would cost jobs and raise gas prices, blah, blah, blah, Pat offered this:

“[A]ccording to the Office of Economic Policy at the Department of Treasury, cutting the subsidies would affect domestic oil production by less than one-half of one percent. In fact, the United States produces about the same amount of oil now that it produced in the 1950s, despite billions in subsidies that were handed out over the past 30 years.
“As for prices at the pump, the Joint Economic Committee looked at one particular tax subsidy — which was intended to preserve U.S. manufacturing jobs but is continually claimed by oil and gas companies — and found that, ‘In the long run, the removal or modification of the tax deduction is unlikely to have any effect on consumer prices for oil and gas.’ Job loss from removing the subsidies is also likely to be minimal, since there would be little change in production.”

What kind of a nation do we want to be?

Back in November, I wrote this:

“And to think that we can achieve any semblance of prosperity again under a political agenda that suggests we’ll spend less— less on education, less on research, less on training, less on our children, less on programs to help the many disenfranchised, less on vital infrastructure, less on necessary federal programs and departments that safeguard our citizens in a variety of ways—is to compound the delusions. The truth is that the only place where these magical economy-strengthening spending cuts will come from will be on programs that aid or benefit the vast majority of the not-wealthy Americans—ones that offer us the potential for future prosperity or serve as lifelines now. Do we really want to define our nation’s character by the philosophy of ‘every man, woman, or child is on their own ‘cuz I got mine.’”?

Among the programs the GOP hoped to gut (but has so far failed to do, and yes, with a dozen-plus votes from Democrats in a recent attempt) was the Environmental Protection Agency program that collects data on greenhouse-gas emissions from domestic companies, effectively neutering the ability of the program to regulate emissions. But as Jon Chait explained, (and this is only one example among many that makes it quite clear that GOP officials don’t particularly care about how the American public feels about their current efforts as long as the wealthy are on board):

“A new bipartisan national survey of likely 2012 voters finds American voters at odds with those in Congress pushing to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to update air pollution standards, including Carbon Dioxide.
“An overwhelming bipartisan majority wants the EPA to set stricter limits on air pollution, with about three-quarters of voters backing tougher standards on Mercury, smog and Carbon Dioxide as well as higher fuel efficiency standards for heavy duty trucks.
“More important, voters explicitly reject Congressional efforts to stop the EPA from updating these standards both as a whole and in a debate specific to Carbon Dioxide standards. After a balanced debate on the issue, with language based on that recently used by supporters of Congressional action, a two-to-one majority opposes Congressional action to stop the EPA.”

So let’s think about this for a moment. If the GOP was pushing legislation to cripple the EPA while the public is decidedly opposed to those efforts, who winds up benefitting? Whose interests are being served? Not yours, and not mine! This is okay? How are these and so many similar budgetary proposals helping Americans other than wealthy big business owners who can now keep more of their profits? If we’re going to wait for that trickle- down theory to work here (as elsewhere), bring a big book and a change of clothes because you are in for one hell of a long wait.

In other words, if most Americans have to suffer the effects of more pollution and fewer safeguards in order to protect wealthy big business owners from having to do … you know, the right thing, “so be it.” More damage to our environment and added health problems to Americans as a result is a small price to pay if big business can keep more profits so that they … uh, keep more profits. What thought process makes this acceptable?!

I guess we’ll just have to hope that the ongoing degradation of our infrastructure (highways, sewers, bridges, etc., etc), our continuing failure to even consider, much less invest, for the future, and the environmental harm that will continue unabated as a result of this “wisdom” can be placed into some kind of suspension mode or protective bubble so that no further damage ensues until that magical day when all the suffering the vast majority of us will have to deal in the face of these budgetary actions just ends, we find inexpensive and easy-to-produce oil at every corner, our climate has magically restored itself, and once again, it’s morning in America.

“President Obama’s efforts to preserve and even increase resources for core programs appear to be failing in a Congress determined to demonstrate its clout. But reducing funds for things like education, scientific research, air-traffic control, NASA, infrastructure and alternative energy will not produce much in savings, and it will hurt the economy’s long-term growth. It would happen at the very moment that countries from Germany to South Korea to China are making large investments in education, science, technology and infrastructure. We are cutting investments and subsidizing consumption — exactly the opposite of what are the main drivers of economic growth.
“So why are we tackling our economic problems in a manner that is shortsighted and wrong-footed? Because it is politically easy. The key to understanding the moves by both parties is that, for the most part, they are targeting programs that have neither a wide base of support nor influential interest groups behind them.” [5]

By all means, let’s do all we can to encourage as much additional suffering and hardship as possible (the wealthy excluded, of course!), and let’s make it that much more difficult to regain our footing years down the road when the efforts and costs of correcting all of this damage will be exponentially greater. Let’s be sure we deny ourselves every opportunity to invest in our future while we make damn sure that ExxonMobil continues to enjoy the benefits of billions of dollars in subsidies … so they can continue to provide us with less oil. And let’s do our very best to make sure we don’t explain this very well, or at all.

I’m sure that the GOP and its visionary Tea Party activists will come up with a damn fine explanation as to how this is going to help most of us … and I’m sure they’re working hard putting the finishing touches on that masterpiece of logic and vision as I write this. Should be available any day now….

To be continued….

Sources:

[1] http://postcarboncities.net/node/3593; Showing leadership on peak oil by Daniel Lerch – 8 October 2008
[2] http://www.postcarbon.org/article/226164-the-peak-oil-crisis-civil-unrest; The peak oil crisis: civil unrest by Tom Whipple – January 13, 2011
[3] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-09-09/politics-great-transition; Politics in the Great Transition by Tom Whipple – Sept 8, 2010 (Original article: http://www.fcnp.com/commentary/national/7306-politics-in-the-great-transition.html)
[4] 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 – Nov 27, 2010
[5] http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2056610,00.html; Are America’s Best Days Behind Us? By Fareed Zakaria – March 3, 2011

[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.]

~~~

If you were experiencing some new, painful, and unknown physical or medical symptom, the natural inclination of almost everyone would obviously be to meet with a doctor and find out what might be the cause. It’s probably fair to state that if the diagnosis unfortunately suggested a serious medical condition, the great majority of us would then want to know the truth, learn as much of the facts as we can, and understand all that we can about our treatment options.

It’s probably just as fair to state that we would not expect our doctor to keep the facts from us for entirely self-serving reasons having nothing to do with our well-being. Surely we would not expect or want our doctor to provide us with a host of lies and twisted interpretations of facts about our serious medical problem—or turn the problem over to his plumber. I don’t want my physician telling me that the excruciating headaches I’m suffering from are most likely caused by a few paper cuts (or a clogged drain) and that the best course of action would be to ignore the symptoms because they don’t really matter.

Why then, are legitimately serious world-wide problems being treated as carelessly and ignorantly as the medical scenario described above? We’re allowing either the habitually mis- or uninformed, or those who deliberately misstate facts for purposes at best questionable, to “inform” citizens about the true state of climate change or fossil fuel production (to say nothing of the truths about budgetary cuts), denying consequences at every step!

Why is the refusal to provide us with truthful information (needed to fashion appropriate responses) an acceptable course of action? Exactly how is any if this helpful? How much ignorance or self-serving narrow-mindedness are we expected to tolerate … at our expense? It’s fine and necessary to offer opinions in order to arrive at meaningful and beneficial solutions, but it is not acceptable to manufacture “facts”—or misrepresent them—to support those opinions.

The main premises of climate change and peak oil production are not especially complicated. I’m far from being the brightest guy around, but I know how to look at before and after photographs and appreciate that there are some way-outside-the-bounds-of-normal climate warming conditions. I can understand that as the entire planet warms even a little bit, more sunlight-reflecting ice melts instead, and the resulting (darker) waters absorb more sunlight. Warmer water (and steadily higher air temps interacting with the water) produces more water evaporation into the atmosphere, which then interacts with wind patterns and related features of normal climate creation. These progressive conditions prompt changes in weather patterns over time. If they are so significant that they are in fact creating changing patterns as is clearly the case, then (a) we’ve got some issues that won’t be resolved any time soon, and (b) at the very least, mitigation ought to become a much more familiar practice to everyone.

I know that when I see a photograph or a news clipping showing thousands of exhaust-spewing autos crawling along a highway at seven miles an hour for miles on end, and recognize even for a moment that this similar scene is repeated day after day after day in countless thousands upon thousands upon thousands of cities and regions in hundreds of nations around the world (many of which have far less stringent or even non-existent pollution controls), that there is a LOT of exhaust getting kicked into the atmosphere, and that the radiated heat from sunlight striking the Earth’s surface, which at one time escaped rather effortlessly back into the atmosphere, is now being trapped by those chemicals and compounds. If heat isn’t escaping, then it’s … not! (GOP leadership still with me on this?) A fairly fundamental concept most three-year-olds could grasp.

So if the heat is trapped within our atmosphere, and more and more of it likewise is similarly trapped day after day, (and keep in mind for those struggling with the science so far: heat is a warm effect….), then the atmosphere is in turn getting warmer … even in tiny, imperceptible measures. (I don’t think I can make that any simpler.)

So if the Earth’s surface (which includes water, for those still struggling to understand) is then heated even a little bit, then things that evaporate in higher temps … such as … water, escapes into the atmosphere. Moisture in the atmosphere is eventually going to fall back to Earth in some form of precipitation because that’s what it does here on Planet Earth. If it’s cold, then more moisture in the atmosphere results in more snow; and if it falls in warmer climates: more rain. Deniers with me so far?

I also understand just enough about basic math that when more and more autos are continually added to the mix over a period of decades, then more and more exhaust has been kicked into the atmosphere for those many years, and will continue for years to come. There are no giant vacuum cleaners just beyond Earth’s atmosphere which are going to be sucking up all that carbon and other-chemical stew. When we add factory exhausts and the heat or exhaust emitted from a zillion different machines of all kinds into that mix, and then add even more, then by golly we’re producing a LOT more greenhouse gases drifting into the atmosphere than we did even a few short decades ago. One would have to practice an other-worldy amount of denial and delusion to think that the cumulative effects of these conditions won’t cause major problems in the years to come. That’s where the GOP leadership comes in….

We’ve got an entire group of federal politicians denying the most basic of scientific facts regarding climate change! Narrow-minded (dumb) ideology now trumps science! If you live in a climate-proof bubble, then I guess you’ll have nothing to worry about. Congratulations! Don’t want to deal with the possibility of climate change? Become a Republican politician!

This is insane … and we’re meekly letting it happen!

I also understand that oil is a finite resource; we’re not making more of it on a weekly basis. Water in a tank is likewise a finite resource (setting aside obvious replenishment from outside sources—an option not available with oil.) No replenishment and the same levels of demand are going to eventually drain the tank. That’s just what happens. For those like me who are mathematically challenged, it’s nonetheless fairly clear that if you have a given amount of something and then some portion of that something is used or removed regularly and not replaced, you wind up with less. Peak Oil deniers with me so far?

If demand increases and there is still no replenishment, the water tank is going to be depleted faster because more people are using more of that same limited resource. Put that tank underground and in hard-to-access places, and the problem increases exponentially. Perhaps some Gatorade or soda or vodka might take care of a few liquid needs (using that same water in production, by the way), but they cannot provide all the benefits of water, a lot more effort is required to supply those inferior alternatives, and they cost more, too. Oil shale? Tar sands? Seeing any similarities yet?

Substitute the word “water” with the word “oil” and you have the basic conditions we call Peak Oil. Not rocket science … mostly just common sense, with all the fear, misrepresentations, obfuscations, disingenuous and distracting irrelevancies removed from the conversation.

As best I can determine, there’s not a soul on this planet who is not exposed on a daily basis to weather (it snowed here in Massachusetts last Friday), and over time, to climate. I’m just as certain that there are billions on this planet who depend in one way or another (regardless of whether they’ve even once considered it) on fossil fuels to provide them with either some sustenance or product or transportation or a production/employment/personal resource.

Bottom line: relying on those who deny facts carries its own unpleasant set of consequences. If you like surprises then continue to believe we have no climate or oil production problems.

“[I]gnorance undermines the entire process. When voters are ignorant, candidates are more likely to lie, confident in their ability to get away with it. When the electorate is disengaged, policymakers feel less pressure to exercise good judgment, knowing they can just pull the wool over the public’s eyes later.” [1]

If, however, you prefer knowing, and you like the idea of having a say in what happens and what kind of plans might be considered which will surely have a direct impact on you in some way at some point, and then understand how the plans and strategies will take shape, it is time join in.

Understand, too, that these are not stand-alone challenges. If we are going to cut funding for mass transit and research—among other things—then we’re really just creating even more problems later on. Seems like we have an ample supply as it is, but if you are one of those who believe that postponing solutions until the problems get worse and become that much difficult to solve is the ideal state, then by all means encourage tax breaks for the wealthy and funding cuts for the rest of us.

Why invest in our future if we can secure tax breaks for the few wealthiest* among us today? Your beliefs will be richly rewarded down the road … or your children will have the pleasure of dealing with the “rewards” of today’s shortsighted decision-making.

[*An aside, from Robert Reich: “The 150,000 households that comprise the top one-tenth of 1 percent now earn as much as the bottom 120 million put together.”]

Solutions to all of these challenges are just a tad more convoluted, and many of them indeed carry legitimate arguments for and against. I won’t for a moment ignore the legitimate concerns about our debt and deficit. I just happen to believe that spurring demand across the economic spectrum is more critical now than inflicting more pain on 99% of our population, while lopping a few hundred thousand more off the employment lines in the process. But that is the governing philosophy of the GOP. If you are among the 99% of the population suffering through the Great Recession and its aftermaths, now would be a good time to ponder this for a moment as we verge on a shutdown of our federal government. I’m reasonably confident that Warren Buffet and Oprah and Rush Limbaugh and the Koch brothers et al will manage just fine. What about you and your family?

Some solutions are not that complicated, however. We’re free to decide that what we propose and then implement to accommodate the resource issues of the future will be worse than simply letting nature takes its course. We’re also free to decide that come what may, we want to give ourselves and our children the best opportunities possible in a significantly different environment. Our capacity to achieve either end is available to us. The upshot is that regardless of your beliefs or reliance on a host of less-than-truthful representations, change is upon us.

What will we choose? Our leaders will take their marching orders from us. If we do not provide them with guidance, then we will leave it to others arguing for their own narrower interests instead, or we’ll afford leaders the freedom to act on behalf of their primary benefactors. Neither of those latter two options is our best course of action. The consequences are pretty straightforward.

To be continued….

Sources:

[1] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2011_03/028551.php; PONDERING THE ‘HOW DUMB ARE WE?’ QUESTION by Steve Benen – March 21, 2011

[NOTE: This post is part of an ongoing series (which started here) through the next few months whose purpose is to provide tangible examples of what our future might be like in a world where we will no longer have available to us the quality and quantity of fossil fuel energy sources as we have long been accustomed to possessing and using. Some examples will describe significant impacts beyond the most obvious one: less but more expensive gas to power our vehicles.
Other posts will describe routine aspects of daily living that will likely change when producers of goods and services no longer have inexpensive and adequate supplies of the fossil fuel resources they need. I’m certain that the questions I raise will in turn raise other concerns as well. It is only by acknowledging the consequences affecting each of us that we can begin an intelligent national process of planning and implementing new methods of providing the goods and services we’ll need or desire.]

~~~

A few weeks ago, I came across an article about several California small businesses which were being adversely affected by rising gasoline prices. As the story noted, small businesses are responsible for creating more than two-thirds of all jobs in this country. Any price hikes in gasoline are sure to affect almost all of them in one way or another … and that’s probably not a good thing.

One business featured in the story was a San Francisco-area carpet cleaning service. One of the owners expressed her growing concerns about the steady increase in those prices, since the significant added expenses were interfering with expansion plans she’d been hoping to implement this spring in light of a slight surge in demand for her services.

Businesses will suffer from increased costs for transportation as do individuals and families. When any of those consumers see price spikes in what they view as “necessities” (and are presumably not operating with an unlimited budget), some other piece of their budgetary pie is going to be sacrificed as a result. For you and me, a full tank of gas this week which winds up costing an extra couple of dollars over last week’s total may not seem like such a big deal over the course of a year … some weeks the prices will be higher, other weeks perhaps not. (In all likelihood, we’re past the point where we ought to be expecting substantial and/or regular decreases in pricing, unless of course we’re all fortunate enough to fall into another recession….)

So let’s say that after twelve months of semi-regular price increases, maybe we’re now spending $200 more than we did last year for the same amount of fuel for our vehicle. (The U.S. Department of Energy, however, is now estimating that these recent price hikes will cost the average family $700.00 per year. Not an insubstantial amount for those living paycheck to paycheck—if that.) More than one vehicle in the household, and the ding to your wallet is a bit more pronounced. If that were the extent of the impact, then on balance it might be manageable—but that’s an optimistic stretch. Of course, it doesn’t end there.

If our transportation costs are increasing, so too are the transportation costs of most other businesses and service providers. Few will absorb all those increases on their own out of the goodness of their hearts, and so that means prices across the board are inching up, too. (One obvious example important to everyone is the price of groceries. Most foods and beverages are shipped, and that means a lot of companies handling the deliveries are seeing their expenses increase. It doesn’t end there, either. The dominoes tumble quickly up and down the supply chain.)

But for a business like that carpet-cleaning service with its eight trucks and equipment which are all powered by fossil fuels, it’s not just a few extra dollars each week. The owner indicated that her gas expenses had increased a not-at-all insignificant 32% in January of 2011 over her costs a year earlier. With even higher prices in February, that math was not likely going to make her feel any better when it came time to looking over the monthly budget for her business. None of her options were encouraging: don’t hire new employees, pass on the costs to her customers, or refrain from purchasing new replacement vehicles.

Those choices have consequences. If she doesn’t hire new workers (and let’s not even consider the negatives to those who may have been counting on employment there), expanding her business will be more challenging. If she doesn’t expand her business and thus attract more revenue, and fixed expenses are increasing, the bad math results are easy to compute. At some point, the ongoing prices increases will force her to make other painful decisions. If prices level off, she can be sure that in the not-too-distant future, the availability of gas sourced from a steadily-declining supply base will have the same effect. Perhaps she doesn’t reach that point for a year or two or five, but the interim period will not be pleasant.

If she passes on the costs to her customers, there will come a time when at least some of them will have to decline her services, because they and their businesses or employers will be dealing with the same set of problems, and soon enough they’ll be making some sacrifices as well. And if her customer base shrinks, it’s not rocket science to see how that affects her, her family, and what she is able to spend her business revenue and net income on. Guess what happens to those businesses she frequents either for supplies to maintain her own company, or those establishments she relies on for personal reasons (clothing stores, hairdressers, etc., etc.)?

Of course, this series of cascading problems is not unique to an economy in the throes of gas price increases. It’s what happens in any recession, and it’s also what happens when a particular industry or two suffers shortages or price hikes for one reason or another. Most of the time, however, some semblance of fiscal equilibrium is reached in due course, and “business as usual” is once again the norm.

But with Peak Oil, the return to business as usual should not be counted on. At some point, price increases because of declining supply and ever-increasing demand (let’s keep in mind that there are a few billion people on this planet quite eager to experience their own version of prosperity just like all of us “wealthy” Americans have been enjoying for several decades) are going to hit a wall, or ceiling, or both. Most of us are simply not going to be able to afford ever-increasing prices, and it’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around all the changes and consequences which that eventuality is going to lead us to. (Plans, anyone?)

It’s just as realistic to expect that at some point, regardless of then-current prices, we may all be dealing with restrictions on availability of one kind or another, so affordability may prove irrelevant. You may be able to afford the $7.69 per gallon price that your sister or neighbor or son cannot, but if your city’s gas stations have reduced their supplies by X percent, what you can or will agree to pay won’t matter as much.

The third option our carpet-cleaning business owner may be contemplating as her fuel expenses eat up more of her budget is to simply not replace her equipment and/or the vehicles she relies on to travel to her customers. They won’t be bringing their hardwood floors or wall-to-walls to her office, so what happens when more and more repairs to her vehicles are needed? Safe to assume that those vehicles and machines are not equipped with protective bubbles which prevent wear and tear over time, so at what point do those types of repair expenditures become prohibitively expensive? What then? No good options, it would seem. Plans?

Do you see any significant differences in the types of problems your own home or business delivery service company might find itself dealing with now or soon enough? If you don’t own such a business, what about the home services you rely on? Appliance repair? Landscapers? Your own carpet-/floor-cleaning needs?

What are you going to cut back on when those providers are passing along their higher fuel prices on to you? Are you okay with those changes? Inclined to start mowing your own acre-plus yard because the landscaper will be charging 2 or 3 times what they did a couple of years back? Easy enough to take your malfunctioning refrigerator to your local or perhaps-no-longer local repairman? The list is limited only by one’s imagination.

We’re all guilty of taking a great many things for granted in our daily living. Talking about a carpet-cleaning service is one of only scores of similar services we don’t give much thought to in utilizing their services regularly. Peak Oil is going to change that.

Plans, anyone?