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The painful truth is that with a decline in oil production in the years to come—coupled with increased demand once/if it does in fact increase again—as we’d like to think [hope?], with the realities of reduced investment and research in alternatives tossed into the mix, we’re rendering any prospects for growth and improved well-being nothing but delusional aspirations.

When will there be a pause in denial and the flow of misleading half-truths so that all of us can begin the complex, years-in-the-making processes of adaptation to a world where fossil fuels are not the immediately available source of energy?

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An observation worth noting … and pondering, from Al Gore:

Have we gone completely nuts?
We haven’t gone nuts — but the ‘conversation of democracy’ has become so deeply dysfunctional that our ability to make intelligent collective decisions has been seriously impaired. Throughout American history, we relied on the vibrancy of our public square — and the quality of our democratic discourse — to make better decisions than most nations in the history of the world. But we are now routinely making really bad decisions that completely ignore the best available evidence of what is true and what is false. When the distinction between truth and falsehood is systematically attacked without shame or consequence — when a great nation makes crucially important decisions on the basis of completely false information that is no longer adequately filtered through the fact-checking function of a healthy and honest public discussion — the public interest is severely damaged.

The former Vice President was speaking of climate change when he wrote those words, but the observation is surely applicable to the state of our national (and state) political “conversations,”, and they are every bit as relevant in the discussions about the future of our energy supplies.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sparked a bit of controversy in her farewell to the State Department several months back when she offered comments on the Senate hearings at which she  had testified by observing that her critics “[J]ust will not live in an evidence-based world.”

The rampant nonsense we’re all subjected to serves an interest; it’s just not a particularly honorable, decent, or even remotely ethical one. This is a good thing? Citizens are now routinely subjected to a tedious spate of half-truths, context-free “facts,” smooth assurances, and arguments straight from carefully-crafted playbooks which further the interests of a very small group—and only those groups. Why?

Shale oil/gas production is not nearly the panacea industry shills are making them out to be. Increases in U.S. production are wonderful advances, but without the necessary context which informs us that conventional supplies continue their inexorable depletion and decline; that shale wells decline at even faster rates (to say nothing of their assorted other concerns, as I explain in a series which began here); that what is now being produced is of a lesser “quality,” and that exporting nations are keeping more of their own supplies, exporting smaller amounts. Most citizens don’t have the familiarity or expertise to think about such things, but those less-than-pleasant truths matter … a lot!

Why can’t industry officials and their media outlets share all the facts about fossil fuel production and supply issues so that the public has not only a greater understanding about the challenges we face, but can also begin to act now to address the problems intelligently by working with the officials and organizations and industries whose assistance will be critically important in helping us all to adapt?

That statement is no doubt viewed by many as both naive and idealistic, but why should telling the truth and respecting those who depend on others for information and guidance be anything other than simply the right thing to do?

~ My Photo: Good Harbor Beach, MA – 10.22.07

Look for my new website, coming soon!

In the course of conducting research for a book I’m now working on, I came across this post of mine, written just after the November 2010 elections.

I have from time to time asked this question or a variation thereof: What kind of a nation do we choose to be? What is our collective vision for this great country?

I thought there were enough parallels in the issues discussed in that 2010 post to re-visit it now, as perhaps the most momentous election in history looms in on the near horizon. After editing it by eliminating discussions about infrastructure not relevant to my intentions today, along with a tweak or two for clarity, I thought that re-posting the main themes might spark at least a thought or two as we move into the final stretch of the national elections.

Enjoy … and ponder. This stuff matters.

~ ~ ~

Where we’re going as a nation obviously carries significant import for where we go as individuals: can we expect prosperity and growth, or will the decline feared by many prove to be to our destiny? That’s not a pleasant option to contemplate under any circumstances.

But now, when the energy resources we might otherwise count on to boost us back to customary levels of prosperity (and beyond) will not be available to us in the same measures in the immediate years to come (and beyond), we have even more daunting challenges. Even acknowledging them is extremely painful and discouraging. Contemplating what has to be done is paralyzing to most of us.

So what do we do?

There’s little reason why we cannot be the world’s most successful or prosperous nation as those attributes are commonly measured. But we will not do so by relying on business as usual, demonstrably failed policies of the past, or levels of vitriol that are almost laughably inane. These are not the paths to restore our nation to that lofty place. (Waiting for tax cuts to the wealthiest one per cent of Americans as one strategy to help all of us guarantees one thing and one thing only: one hell of a long wait.)

Is this the best we can do? Are we going to permit justifiable anxieties and fears and doubts cloud our vision as to the choices we need to make (fraught with their own set of less-than-ideal policy considerations and consequences). This remains an economic crisis. There is no getting around it. It was a long time in the making, and it will not be “fixed” anywhere near as quickly as we would wish. Perfect solutions are nowhere to be found, and every choice has ardent supporters and detractors. Economic challenges atop and surrounded by looming energy and climate challenges most are ill-informed about at best only add to the dimension of what we will have to contend with. We need broad-based plans now, and under the worst possible conditions.

But as I have suggested often, this is also about opportunity. Our future prosperity will be measured in large part by the vision we develop right now about how economic growth will be produced and sustained in a world with a very different base of energy resources. We cannot continue to rely on unlimited amounts of inexpensive and energy-dense fossil fuels to sustain us at the same levels as in the past, let alone support our hopes for greater levels of growth and economic prosperity in the years to come. We need to accept that. Then our work and innovation can begin in earnest.

Oil production has not increased in nearly five years, and with demand on the upswing and a host of economic and geological challenges confronting prospects for producing more, we need to come to terms with the fact that we need to redefine growth and create new means and methods of production in a once-again growing economy. Less government is the exact opposite of what we need. Less ideology runs hand-in-hand with this approach.

We’re not going to suddenly discover magical amounts of fossil fuel reserves though magical technologies because the Republican Party controls the House. Energy resources don’t concern themselves so much with political ideology. What’s left (and there are still massive amounts left) is going to be harder to find, extract, and pay for. The quality and quantity will simply not be there in the manner we’ve come to expect. That’s the reality, and those are the facts. This means we’re going to have to make do with less just when we need it all more than ever, and just when millions more have asserted at this same time their needs and demands for the same finite amounts. Party affiliations shouldn’t be expected to change any of that.

But buried as we are under the weight of this Great Recession, it is even more frightening to contemplate that we may not get back to our expected levels of growth soon, if ever. That fear and anxiety—stoked by too many for whom integrity is an entirely foreign concept (if you have to resort to disingenuous misrepresentations to further your aims, what does that say about the message, and the messenger?)—clearly played itself out in the elections held last week.

I get the sense that what the last election was about was not a rejection of the President’s agenda and legislative successes as much as it was a frustration and anger (buttressed by much legitimate anxiety) that things are not better already, and too many of us thought that it would be. Feeling largely powerless, the majority of voters opted to check off the box marked “Someone Else” as their way of contributing to problem-solving. “Someone has to do something to get us some results right now” was the basic message … not entirely dissimilar to 2008’s message. We’ve proven once again that we’re an impatient and forgetful nation.

“Someone else” is a familiar electoral option, but at times one of questionable logic and wisdom. The delusion about quick and inexpensive solutions (and amnesia about the severity and breadth of problems that escorted President Obama into the White House)—notions or hopes that this could all be fixed with a couple of waves of his magic wand—collided quickly with the reality of the depth of fundamental problems which ushered in the Great Recession. Choosing Someone Else is no guarantee that the nearly insurmountable economic, industrial, and employment problems are going to be alleviated any quicker, if at all. And with one party committed to spending even less on crucial needs, we’ve got our work cut out for us just to stay afloat, let alone move ahead.

We need to be educated about the truths, painful as they are. There are no golden options, no guaranteed measures to restore us back to the “normal” we took for granted. Yes, deficit spending is no panacea. Debt passed on to future generations is not anyone’s first choice under ideal or even less-than-ideal circumstances. No one wants to pay more taxes for anything! But that’s the deal we strike with this form of governance. Less means less. More doesn’t always mean better, but more is more, and we need more of the more than we need the less.

The harsh reality is that we are in a far different set of circumstances than most of us have ever faced. Coupled with the equally harsh truth that we are going to have to fashion new measures and definitions of growth and prosperity (if that’s even possible, hate to say), and will have to achieve much of it in the years to come under a different set of rules and with different energy resources (many not yet in place), we have some serious, deep-seated, and long-lasting problems to address. The time to plan and prepare so as to ensure a seamless transition to new standards of industrial and economic production has passed. It’s not too late, but it is getting very late in the game. Adapting to means of production and supporting our vital infrastructure with different sources of energy will take extraordinary vision, planning, innovation, and implementation … and that will all be years in the making.

We’ve kicked enough cans down the road as it is. This is one more we cannot afford to pass on to the future.

These challenges need to be addressed not just by others. As I have taken pains to stress in numerous posts, we all have a stake in what happens to us and to our nation, and we all bear responsibility for helping to fashion solutions. Voting is one contribution to be sure, but let’s make certain that it is an informed choice and not solely a lashing out in impatient frustration. I’ve been on the unemployment lines, too. I understand and remember the anguish and the soul-sucking stress that governs every waking moment. Tomorrow is too long a time to wait.

In these circumstances, voting cannot be our only contribution, however. Ideology won’t create a better climate, or produce more fossil fuels from ever-declining reserves. Technology and innovation and inventions will help, but there are no plans for them to all show up early in December. We’re going to have to recognize—on top of all of our other economic challenges—that we’re going to have to make do with less of the fossil fuel-based means of producing goods and services which have long sustained our ways of living. Conserving, like it or not, is going to be a standard M.O. for us.

And to think that we can achieve any semblance of prosperity again under a political agenda that suggests we’ll spend less—less on education, less on research, less on training, less on our children, less on programs to help the many disenfranchised, less on vital infrastructure, less on necessary federal programs and departments that safeguard our citizens in a variety of ways—is to compound the delusions. The truth is that the only place where these magical economy-strengthening spending cuts will come from will be on programs that aid or benefit the vast majority of the not-wealthy Americans—ones that offer us the potential for future prosperity or serve as lifelines now. Do we really want to define our nation’s character by the philosophy of “every man, woman, or child is on their own ‘cuz I got mine.”?

By all means let’s be certain that we cut back even more programs to help the distressed, and compound the neglect to our vast infrastructure needs to insure that the wealthy have enough money to buy a seventh or eighth home. That money is gonna trickle down one of these days to us, I just know it!

If there’s any lesson that Republicans are going to take away from this election it is that vitriol and intransigence and total unwillingness to cooperate work — politically, at least, if not in terms of getting anything done that meaningfully improves the welfare of Americans. [1]

This is a good thing? This is what we cast votes for? This is who we are?

Are the hundreds of millions of not-wealthy Americans really content with the nonsensical explanations that the few wealthy and the major corporations need more tax cuts at their expense, while asking those same hundreds of millions of not-wealthies to sacrifice even more? Now, under these dire economic conditions?!

An ill-informed electorate that too often allows others it only thinks have more knowledge and information to lead the debate and frame the issues is every bit as damaging as abuses of power or media manipulations. The reality is that Republican Party officials’ statements about creating jobs by reducing the deficit through spending reductions and tax cuts are economic nonsense and nothing more. Analysts much more intelligent than I am have demonstrated that not one of the policy plans the Republicans produced would reduce the deficit by so much as a nickel, and prominent among those misrepresentations is their proposal to reduce taxes on the wealthiest one per cent of Americans (oh the horror that that may not come to pass!) as a means of jump-starting us back to prosperity. That alone is going to add $700 billion to the deficit! Hello?

We have to be better than that, and we have to be smarter.

The Republican agenda favors business and the wealthy. It’s not any more complicated than that. That is their history over these past few decades. If you are comfortable with that ideology, if you think that that approach is going to somehow help you and your community; or enhance and support your personal values; if you think that you can obtain the same breadth and depth of government services (most of which we completely take for granted) by giving government less funding; that spending less money on the fundamental and badly in need of repair and maintenance and revitalization infrastructure (which enables us to have industrial and economic success in the first place) is the path for future economic and industrial growth; and/or that these and similar approaches will somehow help restore this nation to levels of progress and growth and prosperity and innovation that have long been the envy of the world, then keep leaning right. It’s a free country.

‘I don’t get what they think they’re doing to stimulate the economy right now,’ said [Bill] Gale [a senior fellow in economics studies at the Brookings Institution]. ‘I can understand that people are angry or upset about the economy. But I can’t understand how that anger and anxiety has turned into this set of legislative proposals [tax cuts for the wealthy, less regulation, massive spending cuts].’ [2]

We have to be better than that, and we have to be smarter. We cannot afford otherwise.

Our rage and frustration and animus that things are not better by last month at the latest has blinded and is blinding us to the future we do face: one where the rules will change of necessity, and one where the energy foundation of all of our progress and prosperity in the past century and a half will not be available to us as it has been. It’s not pleasant to accept that, but accept it we must, for if we do not understand what is at stake, what kind of changes need to be made, and how much we need to act in concert—political ideologies notwithstanding—then any hopes we have for pulling ourselves out of this dire set of economic challenges are a collective waste of time. (And yes, deficit spending by our government cannot and must not continue indefinitely, I get that part. We’re talking about spending a lot of money. That’s not nearly as simple a proposition as one would like to think.)

We have too much to do and design and innovate and implement and repair and maintain and support and provide to rely solely on the market place. Borrowing costs are ridiculously low; there’s an urgent need to repair and modernize our transit systems and bridges, schools, power grids, water and sewer facilities and all the other elements of our vast infrastructure; there are millions looking for work whose income earned will in turn be spent in the marketplace, and thousands of companies and millions of their employees who will benefit from the spending accompanying this work.

We need a national vision with courageous, honest national leadership (Democrats and Republicans) unconcerned with narrow-minded and short-term ideological nonsense. This is about so much more than partisan principles. It’s about what is best for us as a nation now, next week, next year, and for the rest of this century at the very least. No easy, simple, or inexpensive and consequence-free decisions are on the horizon.

What will we choose for our future? What answers—and opportunities—will we be able to provide for our children and grandchildren?

Sources:

[1] http://www.salon.com/technology/how_the_world_works/2010/11/03/what_next_for_the_economy/index.html; After the GOP deluge, what next for the economy? by Andrew Leonard – 11.03.10

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/05/AR2010110507092.html?hpid=topnews; Republicans map out their agenda of less by Lori Montgomery – 11.05.10

 

[NOTE: This is the latest installment in a new PeakOilMatters series (which started here). It’s about finding a new and better vision to get to, through, and beyond Peak Oil and its widespread impact on what we produce, how we produce, and how we live. We won’t be falling off a cliff tomorrow, and the full brunt of Peak Oil’s effects won’t be experienced all at once, either. Gas and oil do not have to disappear entirely, nor do gas prices have to rise into the stratosphere before Peak Oil’s impact is felt.
Gradually, but inexorably, changes will be in the offing, however. We need to come to a better understanding of this, and start preparing ourselves now for the lengthy transition and just as lengthy ongoing impact of Peak Oil on all of us. Many issues must of necessity be considered, and I hope to make a contribution to the public dialogue we need to have. I hope you’ll find these objectives enjoyable as well as beneficial. We have more of a voice than we think we do. Finding that voice just might be our best hope.]

~~~

If you were experiencing some new, painful, and unknown physical or medical symptom, the natural inclination of almost everyone would obviously be to meet with a doctor and find out what might be the cause. It’s probably fair to state that if the diagnosis unfortunately suggested a serious medical condition, the great majority of us would then want to know the truth, learn as much of the facts as we can, and understand all that we can about our treatment options.

It’s probably just as fair to state that we would not expect our doctor to keep the facts from us for entirely self-serving reasons having nothing to do with our well-being. Surely we would not expect or want our doctor to provide us with a host of lies and twisted interpretations of facts about our serious medical problem—or turn the problem over to his plumber. I don’t want my physician telling me that the excruciating headaches I’m suffering from are most likely caused by a few paper cuts (or a clogged drain) and that the best course of action would be to ignore the symptoms because they don’t really matter.

Why then, are legitimately serious world-wide problems being treated as carelessly and ignorantly as the medical scenario described above? We’re allowing either the habitually mis- or uninformed, or those who deliberately misstate facts for purposes at best questionable, to “inform” citizens about the true state of climate change or fossil fuel production (to say nothing of the truths about budgetary cuts), denying consequences at every step!

Why is the refusal to provide us with truthful information (needed to fashion appropriate responses) an acceptable course of action? Exactly how is any if this helpful? How much ignorance or self-serving narrow-mindedness are we expected to tolerate … at our expense? It’s fine and necessary to offer opinions in order to arrive at meaningful and beneficial solutions, but it is not acceptable to manufacture “facts”—or misrepresent them—to support those opinions.

The main premises of climate change and peak oil production are not especially complicated. I’m far from being the brightest guy around, but I know how to look at before and after photographs and appreciate that there are some way-outside-the-bounds-of-normal climate warming conditions. I can understand that as the entire planet warms even a little bit, more sunlight-reflecting ice melts instead, and the resulting (darker) waters absorb more sunlight. Warmer water (and steadily higher air temps interacting with the water) produces more water evaporation into the atmosphere, which then interacts with wind patterns and related features of normal climate creation. These progressive conditions prompt changes in weather patterns over time. If they are so significant that they are in fact creating changing patterns as is clearly the case, then (a) we’ve got some issues that won’t be resolved any time soon, and (b) at the very least, mitigation ought to become a much more familiar practice to everyone.

I know that when I see a photograph or a news clipping showing thousands of exhaust-spewing autos crawling along a highway at seven miles an hour for miles on end, and recognize even for a moment that this similar scene is repeated day after day after day in countless thousands upon thousands upon thousands of cities and regions in hundreds of nations around the world (many of which have far less stringent or even non-existent pollution controls), that there is a LOT of exhaust getting kicked into the atmosphere, and that the radiated heat from sunlight striking the Earth’s surface, which at one time escaped rather effortlessly back into the atmosphere, is now being trapped by those chemicals and compounds. If heat isn’t escaping, then it’s … not! (GOP leadership still with me on this?) A fairly fundamental concept most three-year-olds could grasp.

So if the heat is trapped within our atmosphere, and more and more of it likewise is similarly trapped day after day, (and keep in mind for those struggling with the science so far: heat is a warm effect….), then the atmosphere is in turn getting warmer … even in tiny, imperceptible measures. (I don’t think I can make that any simpler.)

So if the Earth’s surface (which includes water, for those still struggling to understand) is then heated even a little bit, then things that evaporate in higher temps … such as … water, escapes into the atmosphere. Moisture in the atmosphere is eventually going to fall back to Earth in some form of precipitation because that’s what it does here on Planet Earth. If it’s cold, then more moisture in the atmosphere results in more snow; and if it falls in warmer climates: more rain. Deniers with me so far?

I also understand just enough about basic math that when more and more autos are continually added to the mix over a period of decades, then more and more exhaust has been kicked into the atmosphere for those many years, and will continue for years to come. There are no giant vacuum cleaners just beyond Earth’s atmosphere which are going to be sucking up all that carbon and other-chemical stew. When we add factory exhausts and the heat or exhaust emitted from a zillion different machines of all kinds into that mix, and then add even more, then by golly we’re producing a LOT more greenhouse gases drifting into the atmosphere than we did even a few short decades ago. One would have to practice an other-worldy amount of denial and delusion to think that the cumulative effects of these conditions won’t cause major problems in the years to come. That’s where the GOP leadership comes in….

We’ve got an entire group of federal politicians denying the most basic of scientific facts regarding climate change! Narrow-minded (dumb) ideology now trumps science! If you live in a climate-proof bubble, then I guess you’ll have nothing to worry about. Congratulations! Don’t want to deal with the possibility of climate change? Become a Republican politician!

This is insane … and we’re meekly letting it happen!

I also understand that oil is a finite resource; we’re not making more of it on a weekly basis. Water in a tank is likewise a finite resource (setting aside obvious replenishment from outside sources—an option not available with oil.) No replenishment and the same levels of demand are going to eventually drain the tank. That’s just what happens. For those like me who are mathematically challenged, it’s nonetheless fairly clear that if you have a given amount of something and then some portion of that something is used or removed regularly and not replaced, you wind up with less. Peak Oil deniers with me so far?

If demand increases and there is still no replenishment, the water tank is going to be depleted faster because more people are using more of that same limited resource. Put that tank underground and in hard-to-access places, and the problem increases exponentially. Perhaps some Gatorade or soda or vodka might take care of a few liquid needs (using that same water in production, by the way), but they cannot provide all the benefits of water, a lot more effort is required to supply those inferior alternatives, and they cost more, too. Oil shale? Tar sands? Seeing any similarities yet?

Substitute the word “water” with the word “oil” and you have the basic conditions we call Peak Oil. Not rocket science … mostly just common sense, with all the fear, misrepresentations, obfuscations, disingenuous and distracting irrelevancies removed from the conversation.

As best I can determine, there’s not a soul on this planet who is not exposed on a daily basis to weather (it snowed here in Massachusetts last Friday), and over time, to climate. I’m just as certain that there are billions on this planet who depend in one way or another (regardless of whether they’ve even once considered it) on fossil fuels to provide them with either some sustenance or product or transportation or a production/employment/personal resource.

Bottom line: relying on those who deny facts carries its own unpleasant set of consequences. If you like surprises then continue to believe we have no climate or oil production problems.

“[I]gnorance undermines the entire process. When voters are ignorant, candidates are more likely to lie, confident in their ability to get away with it. When the electorate is disengaged, policymakers feel less pressure to exercise good judgment, knowing they can just pull the wool over the public’s eyes later.” [1]

If, however, you prefer knowing, and you like the idea of having a say in what happens and what kind of plans might be considered which will surely have a direct impact on you in some way at some point, and then understand how the plans and strategies will take shape, it is time join in.

Understand, too, that these are not stand-alone challenges. If we are going to cut funding for mass transit and research—among other things—then we’re really just creating even more problems later on. Seems like we have an ample supply as it is, but if you are one of those who believe that postponing solutions until the problems get worse and become that much difficult to solve is the ideal state, then by all means encourage tax breaks for the wealthy and funding cuts for the rest of us.

Why invest in our future if we can secure tax breaks for the few wealthiest* among us today? Your beliefs will be richly rewarded down the road … or your children will have the pleasure of dealing with the “rewards” of today’s shortsighted decision-making.

[*An aside, from Robert Reich: “The 150,000 households that comprise the top one-tenth of 1 percent now earn as much as the bottom 120 million put together.”]

Solutions to all of these challenges are just a tad more convoluted, and many of them indeed carry legitimate arguments for and against. I won’t for a moment ignore the legitimate concerns about our debt and deficit. I just happen to believe that spurring demand across the economic spectrum is more critical now than inflicting more pain on 99% of our population, while lopping a few hundred thousand more off the employment lines in the process. But that is the governing philosophy of the GOP. If you are among the 99% of the population suffering through the Great Recession and its aftermaths, now would be a good time to ponder this for a moment as we verge on a shutdown of our federal government. I’m reasonably confident that Warren Buffet and Oprah and Rush Limbaugh and the Koch brothers et al will manage just fine. What about you and your family?

Some solutions are not that complicated, however. We’re free to decide that what we propose and then implement to accommodate the resource issues of the future will be worse than simply letting nature takes its course. We’re also free to decide that come what may, we want to give ourselves and our children the best opportunities possible in a significantly different environment. Our capacity to achieve either end is available to us. The upshot is that regardless of your beliefs or reliance on a host of less-than-truthful representations, change is upon us.

What will we choose? Our leaders will take their marching orders from us. If we do not provide them with guidance, then we will leave it to others arguing for their own narrower interests instead, or we’ll afford leaders the freedom to act on behalf of their primary benefactors. Neither of those latter two options is our best course of action. The consequences are pretty straightforward.

To be continued….

Sources:

[1] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2011_03/028551.php; PONDERING THE ‘HOW DUMB ARE WE?’ QUESTION by Steve Benen – March 21, 2011