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.” 
“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.
 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.