As I mentioned in my last two posts, there are some common threads running through the mostly nonsensical camps arguing against the reality that oil is a finite resource which is now on the downside of its maximum production rates. We fact-based lunatics call that Peak Oil.
I outlined (only partially tongue-in-cheek) some of the initial red flags readers should be alert to when combing through material discussing the pros and cons of Peak Oil. So far I’ve established five separate “criteria” for making a quick determination whether an article discussing Peak Oil deserves more careful attention. Those two prior posts (my most recent efforts on the subject; see here for more) provided examples of what to look for.
Today’s discussion is about something which I’m not entirely convinced is an actual criteria for my modest little test.
Where on the list does one put outright nonsense?
Several weeks ago, Tim Worstall posted an essay at Forbes which left me speechless. I’m sure Mr. Worstall is a very pleasant man who does a great many good and helpful things for others. That being said, his claim that Peak Oil is just so much nonsense, based on the arguments he put forth, has to be among the most bizarre attempts at refuting something I’ve ever read. (It was not his first article attempting to debunk Peak Oil, either. That is a different topic.)
Any article on the topic of energy supply claiming, as does Mr. Worstall, that “[W]e’re discovering entire new planets to explore for the stuff” probably deserves at least a “Say what?” before plunging in.
What’s most noteworthy is that his is not an isolated example, sad to say.
His post is actually a fairly brief piece, and it might be worthwhile for purposes of this one to read it first, so you have your own sense about the points he was trying to make.
Mr. Worstall disputes and denigrates the concept of EROEI. In a must-read article on the subject of energy, peak oil, production, and our future, Jim Quinn describes EROEI as follows (while duly noting that “The concept of energy returned on energy invested [EROEI] is beyond the grasp of politicians and drill, drill, drill pundits.”):
EROEI is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource. When the EROEI of a resource is less than or equal to one, that energy source becomes an ‘energy sink’, and can no longer be used as a primary source of energy. Once it requires 1.1 barrels of oil to obtain a barrel of oil, the gig is up.
To help us understand what Mr. Worstall attempted to explain, let’s use another example from the world of finance.
You have $100.00 to invest, and decide to do so with Trusty Financial Advisor (TFA). After a reasonable period of time during which TFA uses its expertise to provide you with the best (and honest) return possible, you not only get back your $100.00, you get you another $100.00 in addition, while TFA earns a nice commission in the process. Most people, I’m quite certain, would be happy with a return of 100%. As TFA’s specific “basket” of investments becomes more popular, that 100% return will eventually become more difficult to sustain, but over more reasonable periods of time, TFA is still returning at first $50.00, then $30.00, and now $20.00 for every $100.00 you invest. Not as spectacular as that first investment, but who kicks at 20% returns in this economy? TFA’s commissions decline as well: more effort for less of a return, but so far so good nonetheless.
In energy production terms, EROEI is a lot like the principle behind this example.
If oil exploration and production results in finding more marketable oil than is “invested” (the energy quantity of all of the machinery and technology and staffing and transportation and what-have-you) , that’s a good investment. Early on, as others have noted, using the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil in exploration and production netted oil pioneers as many as 100 barrels of oil in return. Now that’s a damned good investment, and dwarfs my little $100.00 return on $100.00 invested example above.
Pretty straightforward, agreed?
What if your $100.00 investment with TFA is now giving back only $3.50? You are still making more than if the $100.00 stayed in a coffee can, but 3.5% is not all that exciting after a run of great returns in the past. TFA is now expending a lot of time and energy just to get you that return and a much smaller commission as well. It’s still on the plus side of the ledger, and a lot of people in this economy might not bitch too much.
But what if we’re down to just a few pennies in return? Incentives to invest become more difficult to justify, and once we get close to you give TFA $100.00 and TFA gives you back $100.15 and that’s it, time to play elsewhere. TFA won’t get rich that way, and long before then TFA will stop expending so much time and effort and expense if that’s the best it can do. And no one is going to play the game if investing $100.00 gets you only $90.00 of that $100.00 back. That game is over long before that’s a likelihood.
We’re not at the “few pennies” stage of oil exploration and production yet, and probably won’t be for quite some time to come, but we’re getting there. Slowly, steadily, surely, the “easy” oil isn’t being found because it just isn’t there any more. That investment has maxed-out, and now we’re investing elsewhere: deep water, tar sands, shale, perhaps the Arctic … not like the those early stick-a-straw-in-the-ground-and-out-it-comes oil finds.
More effort; more costs; more time; more difficulties in general; less inclination for countries to give up all they have left; increasing demand; less supply day-by-day simply because we’re taking out something that isn’t being replenished … all those factors add up to investing more to get less. That’s not good math.
This is all a long preface to get to the complete nonsense the good Mr. Worstall offered readers in attempting to rebut the reality of what I’ve just described.
In his own words as he first addresses EROEI (“That is, as far as I understand it, the argument.”) we get this [my commentary added]:
Basically, what is being said is that as oil gets deeper, more difficult to pump up, perhaps with tar sands we’ve got to use more energy to purify the stuff, then at some point we hit a boundary, a system boundary [Not the terms I’d use, but okay so far]. We’ll be using more energy to get the oil out than we’ll get energy from the oil we get out. [By Jove, I think he’s got it!] Which, self-evidently, is nonsense, [perhaps I spoke too soon] that’s like the internet companies losing money on every transaction and they’ll make it up in volume. [Huh?! Someone took a sharp right turn off of the I-get-it highway]
In the very next paragraph, there’s hope that this last comment was just a brief detour. Got lost, back on the right road: “… it does work in certain special situations. It would indeed be self-evidently absurd to use 10 barrels of oil at one site to pump up one barrel of oil. [Yes! He’s got it!] Better, obviously, to use one of the 10 you have and have 9 left over.” [Damn. So close! That is, as far as I understand it, the argument: if you keep using up what little you have left because you can’t get more, and are no longer trying, then … uh … uh, at some point, you kinda get to the point where nothing is left. Perhaps that’s not the wisest course of action? Just saying….]
What follows after he makes this statement: “But let’s really go wild here and think about something very different indeed,” is a interesting journey to say the least; more an indication that we have now officially lost contact with reality, and a search party is in order.
If you haven’t read what Mr. Worstall discusses next, he decides to use the growing and producing of wheat (for bread: “the staff of life”) as his way of refuting EROEI. He sets aside other energy components required in growing the wheat (fertilizer, transportation, etc.—all perfectly reasonable to do for these purposes) and claims—I assume accurately—that we expend far more energy in creating a loaf of bread than the energy we get from it. I’ll give him that, and since he is obviously far more skilled mathematically than I am, I won’t dispute his computations as to how much energy is expended and “wasted.”
He decided to focus on just one of the essential elements required in growing wheat: fresh water. His premise is that 1000 tons of water are required to grow a ton of wheat. I’ll buy that, no questions asked. (Keep in mind that for his purposes we’re setting aside all of the other energy components needed.) Mr. Worstall concludes that the solar energy required to evaporate the ocean water which must then fall back to earth as fresh water works out to 35 times the amount of energy (calories) we get back from a ton of wheat.
I’ll go along with that, but immediately after we come to a fork in the road. I’ll go left, and Mr. Worstall apparently beams himself directly to Planet Rational Thinking Not Necessary:
And we’re quite happy with this. We don’t think it odd at all. And we most certainly don’t say that it’s unsustainable because it doesn’t pass the ERoEI calculation.
The reason we’re not worried about it is because we’ve got vast amounts of energy coming to us as sunlight. Huge, massive, great big gobs of it. And we’re entirely happy to use it copiously, waste huge amounts of it, because there is so much. We want that energy in a form that can be used by our bodies and we’re just delighted to waste 97% of the energy in order to get a bit in the form we can use….
And the reason that ERoEI doesn’t mean very much is that we’re not, an any kind of human scale, limited by the availbility [sic] of energy. The Sun simply pumps in so much energy that total energy availability simply isn’t a binding constraint upon us. What we’re interested in is usable energy and we’re quite happy to waste total energy in order to get usable.
So there you have it. We have lots of energy from the sun (no doubts there); we waste a lot of it to grow wheat (okay, I’ll buy that); and since we’re happy eating the bread and wasting the sunlight, EROEI as it relates to finite amounts of oil in the ground is “still nonsense.”
(There’s very little rational comparison between quantities and characteristics of these two vastly different energy sources, but why interject reason into the conversation now?)
Fairly certain that I don’t need to say one more word except … WOW! (and point out this was in Forbes online, not Mr. Wacko’s Wild World Of Online Crazy magazine … WOW! Again.)