This is the final installment of a four part series [links below], suggesting/urging that different conversations about our energy future start taking place. The background for this series is stated in that first post*, and I’ll remind those readers that it is inspired by an article from the Wall Street Journal in December on production of and policies dealing with fossil fuels—specifically the shale/tight oil supplies here in America. [Any quotes are those of the author and are taken from that WSJ piece unless otherwise noted. I've updated/corrected the link.]

* In brief: I single this out strictly because it was so representative of a viewpoint which, from the progressive side of the divide, makes little sense and is a curious contribution to educating the public. Truthfully, nothing from that article cannot be found in any number of others on the same subject. That so many of the typical assessments from those denying we have fossil fuel supply problems appear in this piece, coupled with the commentary offered by readers, makes it a terrific source to help “the other side” appreciate our concerns. I just hope it matters … soon.

In my last post, I also began a discussion of a report authored by Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute which the WSJ article relied on for some of the observations shared about our energy future. [Any quotes from Mr. Mills will be cited as “Mills:” ]

No doubt the WSJ’s enthusiasm for prospects of energy independence were buttressed by Mr. Mills’ recitation of facts about the estimated resources found in Alberta, Canada, the shale regions on the western portion of the U.S., and “the technically easy-to-access oil” in Alaska/the Arctic. He certainly picked the high side of various estimates, but for these purposes, I won’t dispute the numbers; whatever the actual total, they are significant.

The problem from the perspective of those of us concerned about adequate supplies of energy is that Mills’ report, like his peers, offers almost no information whatsoever about the production aspect of these finds. Touting just the impressive totals leaves the less-than-fully informed public with the belief that but for the federal government stepping on the toes of the good-hearted fossil fuel industry, we would be awash in vast supplies almost forever. Another great story. Facts intrude.

Mills: The tantalizing possibility of North America by 2030 becoming the largest supplier of fuel to the world would require about an 80 percent increase in aggregate hydrocarbon production over two decades. From a resource perspective, this does not present a challenge, as earlier illustrated. From an engineering perspective, it is unlikely to be a stretch.

Common sense will tell you that extraction of fossil fuels in Alaska and/or the Arctic would not meet anyone’s rational understanding of “technically easy-to-access.” Seriously? The shale regions of the Green River Formation Mr. Mills cited (“an estimated 2000-3000 billion barrels of oil”) sounds fantastic. Were it not for the fact that attempts to produce anything from that region have been unsuccessful for close to a century (the kind that has a hundred years in it), and that it’s not actually oil at all, but a precursor called kerogen requiring genuinely vast amounts of energy to  convert it into an acceptable substitute—which I’ll remind you has not yet happened—then we could all share in the delight. Seems we’re well past “unlikely to be a stretch.” Don’t recall seeing any of that information in the report….

Also worth noting that “resources” are quite different from reserves, so until a resource becomes a reserve as technically defined in the common parlance of the industry (“underground resources that can be produced profitably at today’s prices from known fields using existing technology” – Kurt Cobb), it’s just a big number designed primarily to impress those with access to relatively little information … the public, for instance.

The WSJ article notes that a Canadian official recently cited estimates that the Alberta province may contain “an incredible 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil in its oil sands.” Not a single word followed to discuss what’s involved in production; costs; what’s left behind; the contentious environmental disputes; when this “incredible” estimate might materialize (think decades), or the fact that if all 175 billion barrels were produced, at current demand that’s less than a six year supply. This post offers other factors about tar sands production.

The Mills report followed a similar strategy. Accompanying recitation of the “vast” and “abundant” totals are exactly no facts about the costs, effort, refining issues, rapid depletion rates,* environmental consequences, lifestyle impact on residents, chemical residues left behind/spilled, incredible amounts of water and natural gas being diverted from the regions discussed, and the inferior quality of these shale/tight oil resources—among other considerations.* [See this, for example.]

Believe it or not, all those issues actually matter a great deal—perhaps not to oil industry officials focused on the bottom line, but there are others who matter, too. The public, for one….

Exploration of these unconventional resources (tight oil is probably better deemed a conventional resource) are currently possible not just because of technology. The “fracking” touted in the Mills report as a stunning display of ingenuity has actually been around for more than half a century, (although the specific technology now in use has been employed for about fifteen years). Were it not for persistently high prices to begin with (wanna take a guess as to who pays?), the industry could not afford to use existing technology and expand capabilities in order to produce in these regions.

This is all good news?

Just wondering: if public and commercial commitments and investments into research and production of alternate forms of energy were conducted at anywhere near the scale dominated by the fossil fuel industries with their finite supplies, might there be lots of “billions” and “trillions” tossed around, with “staggering potential” for X, Y, and Z, along with some very heady conclusions about how many jobs will be created and all the tax revenue that will flow—not to mention an environmental improvement or two?

Might the public have a different perspective on what our future holds if they were provided all of this information, rather than cherry-picked Happy Talk which benefits … not the public? What’s the point?

~ My Photo: Pt. Reyes, CA – 09.15.04

NOTE: Today’s & tomorrow’s blizzard will likely affect my plans to return home to MA from current location in FL, so posts already written and scheduled for early next week may be delayed

Links to the series
: [updated to correct one of the links below]