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Peak Oil Matters

A fresh perspective on the concept of peak oil and the challenges we face

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Archive for December, 2011

I realize that this is surely too much to ask of Santa this holiday season, but there’s never any harm in asking. Sometimes, when you least expect it, good things do happen…..

As we approach 2012, dealing as we are with a struggling economy; highly-partisan politics which get almost nothing done (in no small part because some of those responsible are blessed with or beholden to an ideology where facts don’t always matter); signs everywhere (at least for those who place some value on evidence and facts) that our Earth is warming and fossil fuel resources are declining, I’m hoping that the vital, mandatory dialogues we engage in in the days and months to come are guided by an integrity and honesty too often lacking.

No one (myself included) wants to deal with problems of fossil fuel decline and what that means for all of us (even the delusional, fact-free inhabitants of this planet), or warming climates whose consequences are now coming into sharper view.

None of that is pleasant by anyone’s definition. Filled as we are with enough of life’s challenges and burdens, adding to a full plate issues whose impact on every aspect of our lives will overwhelm almost every other matter we each and all contend with is on no one’s wish list.

But I’d like to think that our collective future matters to all of us just as much as our individual prospects do to each of us. And for us to give ourselves the best chance of a satisfying future, we need to deal with some problems and challenges and realities. And we cannot do so effectively or successfully if we continue to allow too much nonsense, half-truths, lies, and misrepresentations to serve as guideposts for the conversations we need to start having about ten years ago. Serious discussions need to replace the too-many specious ones.

With that said, here’s a few simple wishes I’d like to see fulfilled, to be fleshed out in the weeks to come:

Stop putting morons in office or as candidates for office who have no clue what they’re talking about!

If we were serious, we would open up enough oil fields in the next year that the price of  oil worldwide would collapse. Now, that’s what we would do if we were a serious country. If we were serious… – Newt Gingrinch [1]

Clueless … but sure does sound good, doesn’t it? Perhaps Newt might want to break away from his pontifications long enough to read this and this before he spouts that same nonsense next time.

By the way, this: “Current prices of over $100 a barrel make even complex efforts at recovery enormously profitable” [2] isn’t really a good thing unless you are an oil company. That “over $100 a barrel” price is kind of a problem for most of us, unless you have some inside knowledge that the oil companies are from now on going to explore and produce cost-free to the public. Might want to think about pointing out the other side of that argument, since I’m not holding my breath on that oil industry alternative….

While you’re at it, when telling us that peak oil has been “discredited”, tell us by whom. (No, I don’t mean oil industry shills whose livelihood depends on their mouthing the company line regardless of its veracity. Offer up a few well-respected experts not beholden to the God of Fossil Fuels. Tough task, I’m sure, but give it a go and see who turns up.)

This inane type of commentary doesn’t help your cause much, either:

The peaksters claimed that the world was on the point of reaching an oil production tipping point. After that, the laws of the market — which these individuals never understood in the first place — would cease to function and the Four Horseman would gallop abroad. The solution was much tighter control by governments, and draconian restrictions on personal freedom.

“Draconian restrictions”? Sounds awful! Wonder what that might refer to? If only the author hadn’t run out of space before he could explain….(I am almost 100% certain that none of my peers has ever been concerned about the Four Horseman galloping abroad, which then begs the question: Which “abroad” are we talking about: Canadian right-wing crazy or American right-wing crazy?)

If you are going to argue that we are not facing fossil fuel/energy supply issues, then do us a favor (yourself included) by giving us reasons (the kinds based on facts) why you are right and I and others of like mind are wrong.

Start by tossing out that idiotic one-page media guide you all seem to worship … the one that tells us that we have “vast” or “massive” supplies at the ready; or that Field X might possibly produce a sufficient amount of needed supply that could perhaps satisfy many of our needs well into the future.

Put some numbers in those appeasing, empty statements you all toss around. If you are so sure about your position, then just give us the facts! (You do remember what those things are, right?) Discuss the counter-arguments and explain why they are incorrect with more of those annoying facts (the real ones). Explain what’s involved in producing these magic resources you tout.

Just how much is “vast” in the world we live in? What exactly does “could possibly” mean? We brain-damaged liberals can’t relate to “maybe we could possibly have massive reserves.” Help us out!

And if you decide you are going to have just enough integrity to address the issues honestly, put some context in your statements, also.

One of your Peak Oil-denying peers recently offered the blog and financial world these tidbits of profound energy analysis, and for the many who probably couldn’t be bothered for any of a dozen reasons to ask a few follow-up questions, I’m sure this sparkling assessment was all they needed to hear (I could have selected similar comments from a dozen recent articles):

The Canadian oil sands, a combination of sand, water and oil found mostly in the Canadian province of Alberta, are believed to contain 1 trillion barrels of oil while another 1 trillion barrels are believed to be trapped in rocks located in the states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. All told, the US is estimated to have around 1.5 to 2.6 trillion barrels of oil reserves. However and according to Peter Huber, the co-author of ‘The Bottomless Well,’ just the oil sands of nearby Alberta alone may contain enough hydrocarbon to fuel the entire planet for over 100 years.

In 2009, Occidental Petroleum Corporation’s (NYSE: OXY) announced the discovery of between 150 million and 250 million gross barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) reserves within an outlined area in Kern County, California. Approximately two-thirds of Occidental Petroleum’s discovery is believed to be natural gas while the entire discovery may be the largest new oil and gas discovery made in California in more than 35 years. Moreover, Occidental Petroleum California proved reserves already stood at 708 million BOE at the end of 2008 and represented approximately 24% of the company’s worldwide reserves.

Let’s take a look at each of these paragraphs, and allow me to ask a few questions.

Can you explain to the uninformed what’s involved in extracting and producing tar sands in contrast to conventional oil fields? How much more expensive is the process? (We’ll get all of it out of the ground, right?)

How does the quality of the end product measure up? (Sorry, but “in some cases it could possibly compare favorably” isn’t an answer.) How long does it take to get from Point A to gas in my tank? What kind of resources (water, natural gas, etc.) might be involved in the tar sands process? Where do those resources come from? At whose expense?

Any environmental issues we might need to ponder? (Humor us; we like to pretend there are environmental impacts … that whole global warming thing.) How easy is it going to be to just extract the oil “trapped in rocks”? (it is oil, right … the liquid kind most of us think of when you say “oil”? Perhaps it might possibly not be? Oops!)  Any contrasts in refining this unconventional resource versus conventional crude? Extra costs, perhaps? More effort? More time? Quality concerns?

How does the decline in supply among the existing conventional oil fields around the world factor in to these massive reserves which could possibly produce as much as several million barrels per day in another decade or two? Should we be concerned that existing exporters of conventional oil may not have as much to share in the years to come? Are we going to stay ahead of future demand by producing these vastly massive/massively vast reserves (inexpensively, easily, and quickly, of course)?

That’s just off the top of my head. Gimme a few more minutes and I’ll have a few more technical questions for you….

And as for the second paragraph, here’s where “context” would be oh-so-useful! I won’t quibble with the author’s math, I’ll use his high numbers, and I’ll even round-off the totals for ease.

So it appears that a couple of years ago Occidental “discovered 150 million and 250 million gross barrels of oil equivalent.” Wow! “Gross barrels of oil equivalent”! How cool is that? (Um … so is that, like, you know, regular oil?)

Let’s be generous and use the 250 million figure, and we’ll just call it oil, okay? The “two-thirds … is believed to be natural gas” part has me wondering. Two-thirds of 250 million in natural gas means one-third of 250 million in oil, so we’re talking about 85 million barrels or so of oil, right? Can’t put any of that natural gas in my car, but hey!

If we have approximately 85 million barrels of (“equivalent”) oil available (at a cost of what … a few bucks? Coupla weeks of drilling, maybe?), then (here’s where “context” would really, really help the uninformed), that’s about a whole day’s worth of world-wide supply. Fan-freakin’-tastic!

A word of unsolicited advice: if this kind of “logic” and substantive “analysis” is your best shot, consider coming over to the dark side with us. Let go of the fear-driven, paranoia-laden short-term thinking which prevents you from understanding that actions taken and not taken today are going to matter ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty years from now …. a hell of a lot more than any of us realize, given what’s at stake.

Today, when powerful men sit down and make decisions, they generally make those decisions as if the future didn’t exist, as if the consequences of their actions were beyond anticipation, as if they bore no responsibility for foresight. The future’s not welcome in the room. [3]

Perhaps you and we should do something about that? See if you can’t put some of your talents to better use helping … well, everyone.

Happy holidays to all!

Sources:

[1] http://www.consumerenergyreport.com/2011/12/12/why-some-republican-are-delusional-about-oil-and-energy-policy/; Why Some Republican are Delusional About Oil and Energy Policy, by Robert Rapier December 12, 2011. See also: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/8646#more; A Reality Check on Oil Supply for Newt Gingrich by aeberman, November 28, 2011
[2] http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/12/08/oil-rich_america_112318.html; Oil-Rich America? by Victor Davis Hanson
[3] http://www.alexsteffen.com/2011/12/putting-the-future-back-in-the-room/; Putting the Future Back in the Room by Alex Steffan, December 11, 2011

I wasn’t certain if I was going to write another post at this time on the phenomenon of the fact-free efforts to deny the reality of Peak Oil, but there is simply too much good crazy available to pass up the opportunity. There’s always the risk of getting into an endless battle over the nonsense Peak Oil deniers routinely offer, but I remain convinced that the greater harm is in letting that nonsense go unchallenged.

Erik Curren’s recent “request” for proactive responses to the flurry of not-coincidental efforts to once again misinform readers about the realities of our energy future made it almost mandatory that I add at least one more post. [A must-read for the week is Chris Nelder’s recent post discussing “Why energy journalism is so bad.”]

Before jumping into the pool of right-wing half-truths, a terrific piece by David Jenkins at [the conservative and almost-always reasonable and well-considered writings of the] FrumForum offered this bit of wisdom, which sadly seems glaringly absent from far too many of Mr. Jenkins’ peers on the right:

Conservatism requires decisions to be made on the basis of a clear-eyed and unbiased analysis of fact, and an adherence to values that have stood the test of time, not emotions stemming from a rigid political dogma.

As Mr. Jenkins rightfully laments, “clear-eyed and unbiased analysis of fact” is increasingly absent from most right-wing discussions about the state of energy resources and climate change. Most of the time, facts themselves are missing, at least when they are not cherry-picked, glossed over, trivialized, or misrepresented. When reality intrudes on a well-rehearsed ideological rant, it is easier to just dispense with it … saves so much time and effort.

A fact tossed about in recent weeks without explanation or context (amazing how much those attributes can restore reality to an otherwise irrational bit of nonsense!) is how much U.S. oil production has increased in just a few short years. That’s so wonderful … at least up to the point where those statistics are then contrasted with the actual, fact-based peak production more than four decades ago.

That annoying little detail, pointed out by, among other, James Hamilton [PDF here], tells us that the current “oil renaissance” [1] is only a renaissance if a 43% disparity between the current level of production and the 1970 peak production totals is your idea of a renaissance.

Not to be too picky, but this cited article, touting the possibility of “an all-time high” in North American production by 2016 conveniently omits one teeny, tiny little bit of information. While labeling this as “crude” oil production, the author doesn’t point out that the primary source of this magical increase is not actually crude oil as the term is commonly used. The Canadian tar sands and various shale oil deposits in the United States which he refers to are considered unconventional oil resources.

All the growth in supply since [2004] was not crude but unconventional liquids, including natural gas liquids, biofuels, refinery gains, synthetic oil from tar sands, and other marginal resources. These liquids are by no means equivalent to crude [and] hide the fundamental issue of the depletion of mature fields. They also hide the declining energy density, higher cost, and lower flow rates of these new resources.

As Shell, Chevron, Total, the IEA, and a host of other serious observers have openly declared since 2005, the age of cheap and easy oil has ended. The ‘oil’ that’s left is progressively expensive, difficult, risky, marginal, and fraught with secondary effects like increasing carbon emissions, demand for water, and competition with food. [2]

And on a related theme, yet another ideal example of the fact-free assertions offered by those unable or unwilling to genuinely explain the facts, we have this gem [my emphasis added]:

[S]ignificant technology advances have unlocked abundant natural gas and oil resources. These greatly expanded resources have already benefited our country economically. Increased supplies of natural gas have resulted in lower prices and helped revitalize many U.S. industries.

The study * announced several conclusions:

First, the potential supply of North American natural gas is far bigger than previously thought. It is now understood that the natural gas resource base is enormous and that its development … is potentially transformative for the American economy….

Second — and surprising to many — North America’s oil resources are also much larger than previously thought. These oil resources offer substantial supply for decades and could help the United States reduce, though not eliminate, its reliance on imported oil.

These conclusions are rocking the establishment’s reliance on such now-disproven myths as ‘peak oil’ and the necessity to ‘go green’ in order to reduce reliance on liquid hydrocarbons. [3]

There’s not a single highlighted (and context-free) term or phrase in those few paragraphs that lends itself to being quantified, so it’s a bit challenging to agree that those “conclusions” are “rocking the establishment.” I’ve yet to read anything by any Peak Oil peer who’s reeling from being so rocked. Wishful thinking won’t make it so. (And “now-disproven” by whom?)

As I discussed here, these kinds of vacuous positions are what pass for substantiation by those unwilling or unable to accept the fact that unquestioned reliance on energy supply business-as-usual is what’s going to be “rocked.”

At what point will they realize that their short-sighted, narrow-minded inability to accept simple truths will afford them absolutely no protection from the consequences of the irreversible depletion of the finite resources which made life as we know it possible? Having accessible resources today offers few assurances that business-as-usual will remain our birthright.

If only some of their wasted efforts to try and deny reality might be used instead to help persuade others that planning for a lengthy and inevitable transition to industry, business, and daily living dependent on something other than increasingly-harder-to-find-and-extract reserves might be a worthy pursuit for all of us….

To quote Mr. Jenkins once more:

When you listen to the policy focus coming from the right, such as a gluttony-driven energy policy that eschews conservation and renewable energy but favors aggressive fossil fuel production, it sounds a lot like 1960s liberalism’s credo: ‘if it feels good, do it.’

Any restraint on material appetites, even efficiency measures that make a dollar go further, is the enemy of a political ideology that places a premium on material gain and immediate gratification. This is not conservatism. There is nothing conservative about waste and gluttony.

More to come….

* The National Petroleum Council’s September 15 report: Prudent Development – Realizing the Potential of North America’s Abundant Natural Gas and Oil Resources, found at www.npc.org

Sources:

[1] http://www.chron.com/business/energy/article/N-American-oil-output-could-top-40-year-old-peak-2193837.php; N. American oil output could top 40-year-old peak by Tom Fowler, Houston Chronicle
[2] http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/there_will_be_oil_but_can_you.html; There Will Be Oil, But At What Price? October 4, 2011 by Chris Nelder and Gregor Macdonald
[3] http://www.thenewamerican.com/economy/commentary-mainmenu-43/9636-north-american-oil-development-is-reducing-demand-for-foreign-oil; North American Oil Development Is Reducing Demand for Foreign Oil by Bob Adelmann