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

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Tag: infrastructure

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Gail Tverberg shares some of the most insightful observations about the connection between economic growth and energy. In an article posted at her website several weeks, she raised issues which are too often shunted aside in the primary debate of  continue reading…

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Richard Heinberg and Chris Martenson, two of the most respected and thoughtful advocates publicly urging greater awareness of peak oil, recently teamed up for a broad and informative discussion about energy supply. [Unless otherwise noted all quotes here are taken from their conversation.] continue reading…

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Alternative energy depends heavily on engineered equipment and infrastructure for capture or conversion. However, the full supply chain for alternative energy, from raw materials to manufacturing, is still very dependent on fossil fuel energy. continue reading…

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At the risk of starting a cat fight where truth may too quickly become a casualty, why don’t we more forcefully challenge those who deny peak oil (and global warming) and who do so for reasons that generally ignore reality in favor of narrowly-defined interests? continue reading…

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[W]e must realize that all resources are inextricably interconnected, and also require energy to produce. We can’t overlook continue reading…

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Oil plays an essential role in almost everything that touches our everyday lives. From the food we eat to the means by which we transport ourselves, our goods, and our services, to what we grow, build, have, own, need, and do, oil is almost always an important element. But the painful truth now and soon is that the ready supply of oil and gas that we almost always take for granted is on its way to becoming not-so-ready—recent production increases notwithstanding.

What happens when there’s not enough to meet all of our demands, to say nothing of those of every other nation—including the many countries seeking more growth and prosperity? What sacrifices will we be called upon to make? Which products will no longer be as readily available? Which services? Who decides? What will be decided? Who delivers that message to the designers and producers and shippers and end users? What’s their Plan B? And how will we respond when decisions are taken out of our hands? Where exactly will the dominoes tumble?

There is nothing on the horizon that will work as an adequate substitute for the efficiencies and low cost and ease of accessibility that oil has provided us. We simply do not have the means to make that happen—not the technological capabilities, not the personnel, not the industries, not the leadership … yet. Clearly, we do not have enough time to do it all with effortless ease and minimal disruptions.

Piecemeal approaches that address some small aspect of need for some short period of time in some limited geographical area for just a few consumers is in the end a monumental waste of limited resources, time, and effort. We can’t wait until we’re up to our eyeballs in Peak Oil’s impact to start figuring out what to do. We’re too close as it is. We’re going to have to be much better, much wiser, and much more focused. **

Here’s the latest contribution to my Peak Oil’s Impact series—observations and commentary on how Peak Oil’s influence will be felt in little, never-give-it-thought, day-to-day aspects of the conventional crude oil-based Life As We’ve Known It. Changes in all that we do, use, own, make, transport, etc., etc., are inevitable. A little food for thought….

I came across an interesting article I had saved from late 2011, discussing business strategies worth considering. The title alone: “Safeguarding Your Supply Chain Against Rising Oil Prices” suggests it would be worthwhile for corporate executives whose businesses require juggling inventory and labor costs along with issues surrounding one or more distribution center locations in their supply and distribution chain.

In an era of rising (or fluctuating) oil prices, business leaders would be wise to consider author Lorcan Sheehan’s advice:

The challenges that ensue can negatively impact your supply chain if your infrastructure is not equipped to handle quick adaptations. However, by planning ahead and reevaluating where your supply chain activities are performed, as well as your current processes, you can face these challenges head-on and lessen the impact on your operations and your bottom line.

I don’t even pretend to be an expert on business practices, but this brief read contains a range of solid advice about the need for planning in advance of escalating prices. Basic supply and demand tells us that as the demand for fossil fuels continues to grow, and the supply and/or energy efficiency of what is being supplied decreases, prices will rise. The dominoes for any one or all businesses of any size dependent at least in part on fossil fuels will then tumble quickly.

As I urge repeatedly, planning across the board is among our highest priorities, and well in advance of the more obvious and inevitable impacts Peak Oil will impose on all of us.

The scope of considerations Mr. Sheehan offers suggests that the planning and risk mitigation efforts are not something business executives can slap together in a half-day conference. Product needs; labor costs; taxes; environmental considerations; utilizing multiple routes to market; the possibility or or need to move supply chain activities; inventory maintenance; assembly locations; shipping, along with product packaging and redesign issues are all discussed in this article.

Similar considerations on both smaller and larger scales must be planned for by every business entity and government agency. Last-minute is not a strategy anyone should rely upon. Worth postponing?

~ My Photo: Good Harbor Beach, MA – 09.05.05

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 Peak Oil Matters is dedicated to informing others about the significance and impact of Peak Oil—while adding observations about politics, ideology, transportation, and smart growth.
            – Check out my new website

** Opening paragraphs adapted from prior posts:

http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/02/15/looking-ahead-to-peak-oil-transition-part-iv/
http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/02/07/looking-ahead-to-peak-oil-transition-part-i/
http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/12/13/thoughts-on-peak-oil-planning/
http://peakoilmatters.com/2011/02/14/peak-oil-a-new-direction-pt-5/
http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/02/25/peak-oil-infrastructure-more-to-discuss-part-ii/

 

 

 

 

An observation worth noting … and pondering, from Earth Projects [quoting comments from David Demshur,  Chairman, President, CEO of Core Laboratories]: continue reading…

 

 

 

 

An observation worth noting … and pondering, from Samuel Alexander:

This point about breaking our addiction to oil deserves some brief elaboration, because it raises the spectre of what Tom Murphy (2011) has called the ‘energy trap.’ In order to break the addiction to oil, economies dependent on oil arguably need to invest huge amounts of money and energy in building new social and economic infrastructures that are not so heavily dependent on oil (e.g. efficient public transport systems to incentivise people to drive less; localise food production and critical manufacturing, etc.). But since this transition has not yet seriously begun, the necessary investment of money and energy is going to be required at a time when money and energy are scarcer than they have been in recent decades. This places us in the ‘energy trap.’ Politicians are going to have a short-term incentive not to invest extra money and energy in new infrastructure, since people will already be feeling the pinch of high oil prices. This means that there will be very little or no surplus money and energy to direct towards the necessary infrastructure projects. But while this will provide some short-term relief for people and politicians, it delays the inevitable need for that new infrastructure. But a delay only exacerbates the problem, since the necessary investment will then need to come later, at a time when energy and money are scarcer still (see also, Hirsch et al, 2005) [1]

A succinct and accurate assessment of a point I (and others) have made on a number of occasions. Waiting until we have less in order to then try and get more is an ass-backwards approach on its best day.

We might be wise to start pondering some of these common sense considerations, and we ought to be doing so fairly soon.

One major party is a strong proponent of less of pretty much everything, and it might also be wise for us to start examining who keeps benefiting from that ideology and those idiotic policies, and who suffers—now and on down the road.

Is a hint really necessary?

* My Photo: Gloucester, MA July 2008

Sources:

[1] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2012-08-07/degrowth-expensive-oil-and-new-economics-energy; Degrowth, expensive oil, and the new economics of energy by Samuel Alexander – 08.07.12

An observation worth noting … and pondering, from Richard Heinberg:

Energy literacy arms us with the intellectual tools to ask the right questions: What is the energy density of these new fossil fuel resources? How much energy will have to be invested to produce each energy unit of synthetic crude oil from oil shale, or electricity from thin-film solar panels? How quickly can these energy sources be brought online, and at what rate can they realistically deliver energy to consumers? When we do ask such questions, the situation suddenly looks very different. We realize that the new fossil fuels are actually third-rate energy sources that require immense and risky investments and may never be produced at a significant scale. We find that renewable energy technologies face their own serious constraints in energy and materials needs, and that transitioning to a majority-renewable energy economy would require a phenomenal re-tooling of our energy and transportation infrastructure. [1]

More than two years ago, I noted this [modified slightly here]:

When you stop for a moment and consider all the highways, the aqueducts, the power and electric grid systems (poles, wires, etc.), the schools, the hospitals, the bridges, the sewers, the farms, the waste treatment facilities and all the other components of our infrastructure, the amount of fossil fuels needed to design, build, repair, maintain, and renovate all of those elements are beyond staggering! Dealing with the impending reality that the fossil fuels which served at the heart of our infrastructure will no longer be [as readily] available [and affordable]—thus requiring that the repairs, maintenance, renovations, re-design, delivery, and functioning of these complex components will necessitate something other than fossil fuels—means that the transition over to alternative energy sources or brand new design features will take years (read: decades.) We can’t wait until we’re up to our eyeballs in Peak Oil’s impact to start figuring out what to do. We’re too close as it is.
Our great dilemma then rears its head: We do not yet have the alternatives energies in place to effect an orderly and efficient transition. It’s going to take many, many years, much trial and error, and incredible amounts of research, design, production, and delivery implementation in order to achieve seamless transitions away from fossil fuels—assuming those efforts to identify efficient alternative energies prove successful! What are we supposed to do once the existing fossil fuel resources are not so plentiful ever again? [2]

[1] http://richardheinberg.com/museletter-234; What We’re For: MuseLetter #234 / November 2011 by Richard Heinberg
[2] http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/02/25/peak-oil-infrastructure-more-to-discuss-part-ii/; Peak Oil & Infrastructure: More To Discuss Part II

What kind of a nation do we want to be?

This will be, if not the most important question we’ll collectively ask ourselves in the months and years to come, in the top 2 or 3.

The answers we produce—“we” being our political leaders, our business leaders, the media, and perhaps most importantly: each and every one of us—will obviously determine the strategies we adopt and the successes and prosperity which (we hope) will remain available to us. In this new series, I’d like to offer my two cents’ worth and provide some talking points to help us sort things out.

If we are not standing at the most critical crossroad of our industrial and economic history, the signs on the side of the road are letting us know it is coming up soon.

We face some challenges. The headlines tell us all we need to know about employment and economic woes, the increasingly disheartening hypocrisy and gamesmanship that continue to define politics here in America, and a growing unease about the direction of our country. I begin writing this post only 24 hours after the tragic, senseless, idiotic massacre in Arizona that nearly claimed the life of a by-all-accounts well-respected Congresswoman, and did in fact kill several other just-as-innocent bystanders. (A nine-year-old girl? Really? How is that justified under even the most insane of insane defenses?)

Climate change evidence continues its daily march into reality—the inability of deniers to grasp simple truths notwithstanding. And atop and amid all of these lovely and encouraging challenges, we have some fossil fuel resource problems knocking on our door.

Let’s hope that the convergence of these issues sparks a different level and quality of public discourse. Most would be hard-pressed to think that that would not be a good thing….

As I and others have taken great pains to explain, if we have not yet reached the point where we have extracted and sent to market the highest level of oil production we’ll ever attain (I think we have, as does the International Energy Agency, among others much more in the know than me), we’re pretty damn close. And as I and those same others have taken other great pains to explain, we’re not on the verge of imminent collapse, either. The process of ever-declining oil production, and thus ever-declining amounts of oil available to us, will unfold over a fairly lengthy period of time. I have no plans for a Chicken-Little-Sky-Is-Falling party anytime soon. Despite the efforts of peak oil deniers to attribute this false claim to us, we are not running out of oil—at least not for many decades.

That does not mean we are problem-free for years or decades to come, however. We need to shine some light on that distinction while starting the very lengthy and complex process of transitioning our everything away from never-ending reliance on fossil fuels … oil, specifically.

There are still many billions of barrels of conventional oil still buried underground, and perhaps many more billions—hundreds, perhaps—of unconventional supplies buried as well. If that’s where the discussion could end, then Peak Oil would indeed be the rantings of another group of paranoid conspirators rightfully ignored as should be those who continue to think President Obama was born on Mars or wherever.

But it’s a wee bit more complicated than that.

The fact that we may have enormous quantities of unconventional reserves/resources underground isn’t the be-all and end-all of the are-we-or-aren’t-we-running-out-of-oil discussion. What must be understood more clearly is that having those presumed resources in the ground is one thing and all fine and well as a starting point. But getting unconventional resources (by fact and definition available only with considerable extra effort, time, and cost) out of the ground and into the marketplace at reasonable costs and in reasonable time frames while conventional supplies continue to decline is a very, very different thing. They are called “unconventional” for a number of reasons, after all!

If it costs more (and let’s not even discuss the environmental degradation and water resource consumption issues that are part and parcel of unconventional oil extraction and production), takes more time to get to the market, is of lesser quality, and clearly much more difficult to extract, the math doesn’t work. Unconventional resources aren’t the answer … not even close. (Tighter supplies of the conventional fossil fuels our engines are designed to burn means higher costs at your local gas station, for one thing. Anyone experiencing anything like that nowadays?)

Demand worldwide is increasing, regardless of where the charts suggest U.S. demand might be right now. As much as we like to admire our exceptionalism and burnish our lofty perch as the One and Only, we’re not alone on the planet, and what we want isn’t the beginning and the end of discussions about resource consumption and supply.

There are many billions of people on this planet who do not now enjoy and have never enjoyed the levels of growth and prosperity this nation has been blessed with, and there are very few among those billions who would not like their own chance at their own version of the American Dream—tarnished and bruised though it may be. We—they—are confronted with a pretty simple yet very powerful obstacle, however.

Finite resources are … finite. Not infinite. Not not finite. Whatever spin one may wish to employ to make the problem go away, the math is what it is. It takes some impressive contortions to suggest that the increasing demand clashing with declining supplies shouldn’t concern any of us. In one sense, those deniers are correct on the “any of us” scale … it concerns all of us.

Production is declining, however slowly that may be; unconventional resources are not making up the difference; alternative energy supplies are many, many years away from supplanting the fossil fuels we’ve depended on for the last 150 years or so, more people are asking for more of this declining resource, we don’t have an infrastructure in place to accommodate the requirements of non-fossil fuel resources, and there is no magic out there which will enable the increasing demand to be satisfied in full, at acceptable prices, quality, or timeliness. That is not going to change, and not going to get better. A month bump-up in production here and there sounds wonderful, but long term, it means next to nothing.

Facts are indeed annoying as hell. But the sooner more of us take the time to understand and appreciate what we must deal with, the sooner we can devise and then employ the strategies we’ll need, and the sooner we unleash the still-awesome capabilities of this nation and its remarkable citizenry to create a future that may just turn out okay despite our seemingly-best efforts to keep screwing it up.

I am by temperament a very optimistic person, and it is that attitude that will guide my efforts in this humble little blog to get us thinking and being and doing differently. Not easy? Check. Highly idealistic at the moment? Double check. Not enough to dissuade me? Triple check.

We need to take a look at where we are and what we are doing in a world now filled with relentless and great change, complexity on levels never before imagined, and widespread hopes for progress intersecting on the back side of a nearly-overwhelming global financial crisis. At the same time, these circumstances demand that we come to some better understandings and decisions about what we are doing to both adapt to energy and environmental concerns as well as participate in that adaptation if we continue to hold on to hope.

That’s the hyper-broad overview….

Recognition that change is taking place is the first step to then embracing it and participating in its evolution. Opportunity, or crises?

I’m no historian, but my vague recollections of American History suggest that “difficult” has never been the one insurmountable obstacle that has kept us from achievement. No reason to change that now.

I’m going with “Opportunity”, and will devote most of my posts in these next few months to exploring what that means and what we might do to seize the moments that now present themselves. Hope you’ll stay tuned.

To be continued next week….