Saturday, August 30, 2008

Peak Oil Trumps Climate Change


I am not a tree hugger. I am not a member of Greenpeace. I don’t work for a wind turbine company. I am not out to save the earth or mankind. I’m not even politically active.

What I am is a person that decided to try to cut though the agenda-driven noise, educate myself and see if I could arrive at some reasonable conclusions. The following is based on countless hours of reading. Unfortunately, this has included reams of misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, bad science, ignorance and our one-and-only abundant, inexhaustible resource; stupidity. I have also found many credible, well researched and well thought out documents. That said, some things are just not knowable to any certainty. Wherever possible I have cross-referenced data and opinions. In many cases I have done the calculations myself to verify and then done them all over again. I am going to quote very few numbers here but I will make some strong assertions and attack some “truths”. Above all, I have tried to use critical thinking and relied on what “just makes sense”. It has been an amazing learning experience.

I don’t mind if you don’t believe me, but to dismiss me would be at your peril, even if I am dead wrong:

  • The best thing you could do would be to read this and then investigate on your own. I think we are in for some very tough times and I would be very happy to have someone prove me wrong.
  • The worst thing you could do is take someone else’s word for it.

The miracle of oil

The crux of the issue is that as energy sources go, fossil fuels are king. In terms of portability, storability, stability, and energy density they have no equal, not even close. If you are thinking of hydrogen, it is not an energy source; it is an energy carrier, and a damn poor one at that.

Now back to fossil fuels: They are also, at present, essential for non-stationary applications such as transportation. Unfortunately, over two-thirds of our oil goes to transportation.

Without a plentiful supply of cheap energy, the dramatic development in much of the world in the last 100 years would have been impossible. This can not be overemphasized. Oil's ability for multiplication of effort, over human power, is staggering. Just one example is the vast amount of ores extracted, transported and processed to provide the materials essential to our economies could not have happened in the time frame that it did, and perhaps not at all. Keep in mind, the processing and transportation cycle could occur many times for just one product.

To emphasize:

  • The Cathedral of Rouen, which was the tallest building in the world (151 m) until 1880, took almost 900 years to complete. This was accomplished with manpower. Real, physical man-hours, the sweaty kind.
  • The Burj Dubai, presently the tallest free standing structure in the world by any standard, is expected to exceed 800 m and will have taken 5 years to complete. This was accomplished with oil, in more ways than one.

In light of this multiplier, oil is still very cheap, and more importantly, unlike we in a developed world; it is rightly perceived as very valuable resource to a developing nation.

India and China are in a development race. Not against each other, or against the USA, but in a race against time.

Energy is the economy and sometimes even life itself.

If China and and/or India have come to the same conclusions that I have, regarding the limited viability of alternative energy sources, they realize that certain things must be in place prior to serious oil depletion. The "Hydrogen Highway" is nothing more than a cruel hoax and biofuels competing with food needs is insanity. The market economy rarely factors in our well being.

As I try to explain to people the true value of oil and how we have collectively squandered such an incredible endowment, the consistent response I get is “Oh, they will figure something out, they have to!” I have not seen anything in any Constitution that guarantees this and there is no proven breakthrough visible on the technology horizon that I know of. Perhaps if I could find out who they are, I could go quiz them as to their progress. I get back to you on that.

Part of the problem is denial, for those that understand and part of the problem is disbelief because no one who is alive today and born in a developed country ever knew a time when there wasn’t a relative abundance, even during the Second World War.

That said, I feel that the biggest part of the problem is numeracy. It’s an important skill to have. Too few people have faintest idea of the mind-boggling amount of energy we consume and what will be required, in terms of time, money and resources to find a replacement. We are dealing with very large numbers here.

Literacy also plays a part. Oil companies are referred to as energy producers, but this is misleading. Oil companies consume energy in the process of extracting and processing oil, which is a pre-existing energy resource. This applies equally to all other natural resources. A generating station produces electricity, but it does not produce energy, it consumes energy while it converts the energy contained in various fossil fuels.

Once we can no longer chop it down, dig it up or pump it out, we will have to capture it and/or convert it. To do that in any quantity, we will need many, many wondrous machines.

What we choose to do and make with the remaining oil will determine how well we will live and thrive in a Post Oil world on a limited energy budget. Some say Hummers and A380’s are wondrous machines but they won’t do the trick. Do I need to say “part of the problem…”? We need to create an alternative energy conversion system and that task will be much, much more difficult when the oil is gone. Some would say impossible relative to how we live now.

For 99.5 percent of renewable energy, the sole source is solar, and it always has been. Our brief blip with oil was due to solar energy that had been converted and banked. That account is about to be closed and we will be on a solar budget. So many joules per day and that’s it. We can save it but we can’t get an advance. This is not my opinion, this is physics.

In one hour more sunlight falls on the earth than

what is used by the entire population in one year.

“Gee, thanks for that. I feel so much better now. I’ll just get a few solar panels and life will be peachy. There is so much energy out there that we will all live like kings.”

This woeful bit of vague, meaningless, useless information was gleaned from a website promoting alternative energy. It is also terribly, dangerously wrong. Don’t get me started. Please figure this out for yourself. Not for my sake, for yours. I will specifically address this cornucopian rubbish in a later post.

Numeracy factors into any implementation as well. Once any given technology is selected, the sheer number of resources that have to be applied to planning, procurement, construction and commissioning are difficult to get your head around.

Then there is the issue of time frame. These will be megaprojects that may not be completed before the oil runs out. I must point out that as each and every country does the math, there will be fierce competition for resources that will continue to climb in price as supply drops and oil prices rise. If investors are waiting for oil prices to rise high enough to guarantee profitability and immediate payback, we will all pay dearly.

The Oil Clock
I believe that we have reached Peak Oil and the life of relatively cheap oil is finite; between 20 and 40 years. I also believe that it is closer to the former, but the time frame for both peak and depletion is largely moot. Twenty years is a relative blink of the eye, after which we are faced with a Post Oil world. Middle age gives you that perspective.

You can not get rid of the oil clock. You can slow it down through conservation, higher efficiency or alternative energy. That might give you enough time to track down that jar of magic pixie dust that you bought on the Web and is either back-ordered or stuck in shipping.

You can even stop the clock by not using a single drop of fossil fuel, but it is such a versatile feedstock for innumerable chemical processes that it should be limited to that use and that use only as soon as possible. Please note I said should, but that is highly unlikely.

Much like climate change, there are going to be winners and losers in the Post Oil era.

This is why I dislike the term "Global Warming" and prefer “Climate Change”. Not only will there be an increased general warming of the earth, but heat movement patterns are changing, evidenced by changes in ENSO, (the El Nino Southern Oscillation) and also in the Gulf Stream. These changes will become more dynamic and dramatic as the CO2 levels, temperature and ocean levels increase.

Similarly, as fuel prices increase, changes in energy movements and money movements will also become very dynamic, and the effect on the winners and losers will be no less dramatic.

What I see is a Goldilocks scenario; after Peak Oil:

  • Too Cold. Third world countries will never develop, as they have no pre-existing infrastructure and can not afford to establish one. The plus side is they are not addicted to oil. Providing the government is not malevolent, most can likely survive on subsistence farming. Limited resources will eliminate any excess population.
  • Too Hot. Developed countries will experience severe, radical changes for which they may not have the resources such as physical skills or mental skills needed to cope. At the very least, the effort and cost of adapting to a Post Oil world will be enormous. For example, a proposal to provide a replacement for just 20% of the US electrical supply with wind turbines will cost between 350 and 400 billion 2008 dollars and would not be completed until 2030. This is simply a proposed scenario and there is no indication that there is any serious inclination to do so in the near future. This substantial investment would do nothing to address the energy needs of most transportation systems. Further energy burdens will emerge as fresh water stocks dwindle and energy intensive water processing methods such as reverse osmosis are required.

The highly developed infrastructure of the first world is a double edged sword. The entrenched energy burden is staggering and the population is disinclined to deprivation or hard work. Expectations of income and lifestyle are high and deeply engrained. (Thank you, Madison Avenue.) Further, it is likely that a large portion of the infrastructure is in decline. As resources are directed towards energy issues, further infrastructure declines will occur prior to Post Oil. This is the equivalent of starting out on a long road trip with a bald set of tires and a leaky radiator.

On the plus side, the only way that a country can survive in a Post Oil world is through the very resources that part of the present infrastructure provides.

To put this in clear relief, the holy grail of energy production is controlled nuclear fusion. Uncontrolled nuclear fusion is what the world’s nuclear arsenal provides and I’ll mention that later.

Underdeveloped countries have neither the financial ($20B USD) nor technical resources to establish a Large Hydron Collider like the one starting up at CERN. It may never produce energy related solutions, but at least Europe can ante up to get in the game. It’s not the only game in town but the others are just as expensive.

Now we get to the porridge that may be "just right", and I did say maybe.

  • A developing country like China or India has some huge advantages. Each has an enormous workforce accustomed to manual labour. Manpower, particularly cheap manpower, will be critical. Much of the population consider deprivation a way of life. They also have a well educated, highly skilled and highly motivated segment of the population. They have the infrastructure to make advanced technology as well as an established and improving transportation system. Perhaps most importantly, they each have the mentality of a rising power without the burdens of apathy and trivial distraction. Neither country is susceptible to extreme bullying as they both have nuclear weapons. (Yes, I believe it may come to that) Nuclear aside, neither is particularly concerned about damages to the ecosystem, which means they are largely unfettered. They are presently exempt from CO2 emission constraints, and are likely to stay that way. China has the additional advantage of having a strong single party government so any policy direction charted is not stalled or sent off course by lobbying or partisan politics,(or elections for that matter).

The geo/economic/politics of energy
So, in order for
China and India to continue to build their infrastructure as efficiently, as cheaply and as quickly as possible, they will be in an "Oil Rush". During Peak Oil and Post Oil, they will likely be able to produce various renewable energy products at a fraction of the cost of the first world. After all, they have been training to do that for years by supplying the West with billions of dollars worth of crap and technotrinkets that we so love. They will be capable of providing themselves with renewable energy systems and if there is any surplus of systems or energy, they can be sold to the developed world, thus providing increased cash flow.

To put the human resource of China in perspective; China holds $260B in US federal debt. At $.57/hr (the average Chinese wage) that $260 B could employ the equivalent of the entire US workforce for one and a half years at 40 hours a week. That’s more than a few odd jobs worth. Liquidation of that obligation would also undermine the dollar's value. This is yet another example of where numeracy, awareness and knowledge are crucial.

iPODs and DVD players today, wind turbines and solar cells tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the US is wallowing in debt, (largely foreign owned), on a federal, state, civic and personal level. It has a decimated middle class with a questionable education and an impending recession exacerbated by sky high energy costs. The critical petrochemical infrastructure is rusting out because the industry could not afford to replace it when oil was $10/bbl and have made no significant investments since, unless it applied to oil exploration or development. Other infrastructures have fared little better as maintenance and upgrade investments were instead offered up to the twin gods of Profit and Low Taxes. The public and privates sectors are equally culpable.

The US has a demoralized population with a deeply divided, dysfunctional political structure with little apparent will or purpose. Americans are preoccupied with filling their SUVs with $4 gas, so they can read about Paris and Britney while waiting in the checkout to buy imported food. On the other hand, most Chinese and Indians consider themselves lucky to have a motorcycle and blessed if they have a car. Further, as they continue building their infrastructure, they have the luxury of designing in energy efficiency, rather than shouldering the cost of retrofitting existing structures and systems. Frugality is an intrinsic part of their lifestyle that doesn't need to be learned.

Most of the developing countries’ inhabitants can exist without heat or air conditioning, perhaps not well but they can exist. The northern, developed countries learned how to exploit fossil fuels to stay warm and cozy. How do we, the developed world compensate for a lack of cheap plentiful fuel, and what will it cost?

Oil reserves are only a small part of the price equation, production is the key. At present, world production is barely keeping up with demand. The slightest deficit can have a significant upward effect on price. Manipulation of production may drop the price slightly but there are indications that production can not be increased without damaging some very large reservoir structures that are already in decline. As demand drops in the US, due to recession or conservation, continued demand from India and China will tend to keep the price, and production, up. As reserves fall, prices will continue to rise. This will deepen and/or lengthen the recession in US and most of the western world that is a not a net exporter of oil. This will further impede their transition to renewable energy.

While it is true that a sagging US economy may affect revenues for the developing world, I posit that India and China will continue their development programs unabated, just at a lower rate. I feel that they can little afford not to do so. Whether the expansion is based on ideology or pragmatism matters little.

I did say that oil would never come down didn’t I? Well, unless there is a major world economic downturn, vast new reserves suddenly appear or nano-particles can recover the unrecoverable portion of all the reservoirs, I stand by it. Any fluctuations will be just that, and they will become wilder as supply and demand become more closely coupled.

Even if any of above conditions change, that will simply delay the same ultimate scenario, as was shown by the demand drop during the energy crisis of 1972, which was a manipulated shortage, not a real one.

You may be asking about unconventional oil such as in the Alberta Oil Sands? Well, yes it’s true that there are an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels there and it can be extracted at great financial, energy and environmental cost but it all comes back to production. The entire complex, involving many oil companies, and 30 Billion dollars invested, presently produces about 1.9 million barrels per day and is expected to produce about 5 million barrels per day by 2030 providing they can find a sufficient skilled workforce and material costs don’t go through the roof.

Now, what is that as a percentage current world demand? What is the estimated demand by 2030? I urge you to Google it, to start your path to energy awareness.

I’ll give you a hint, to emphasize once again our profligate ways; the world presently consumes one thousand barrels of oil per second, 24/7.

“Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my!”
“Oh, the cost, the effort, the economy, my economy!”, “Someone else should go first!”.

During the Second World War, both sides mobilized, huge efforts were undertaken, vast sums were spent and some economies were ruined, but we did it and we all recovered. Why not now?

While this debate rages; “Have we peaked?”, “When will we peak”, “When will we run out?” ad nauseum, the earth gets warmer, the air gets fouler, the oil reserve gets smaller and the population grows larger. Tick-tock. It won’t be any easier on $200 oil or $300 oil.

“You think that’s inconvenient??
If we assume that
China and India are as oblivious as the United States, and we would be very foolish to assume that, then soon we will all just be out of energy, renewable or otherwise. The fewer renewable energy systems we create just means that fossil fuels are depleted that much faster. That scenario would be nothing less than apocalyptic. It would, however, nicely take care of food shortages and climate change assuming we don’t reach the tipping point first.

In the absence of nuclear fusion or pixie dust, forget about climate change. We will try to work it in there if we can, but no promises. In our ongoing quest for so-called development, to paraphrase George Bush Sr., it's all about the energy stupid, and that energy is oil.


Noah Scales said...

Respectfully, Bob, I think it's all about society and whether it is worth preserving. At the crux of arguments for how we should save ourselves is the premise that we should save ourselves.

There's nothing admirable about wanting to save myself (much less preserve my lifestyle) at the expense of others. Many people are as selfish as I am, and if they cooperate with me to preserve a collective lifestyle, maybe I can make it last a little longer. We might talk amongst ourselves about it, and reassure each other that we're doing the right thing, but it isn't unless we've shown we can sacrifice something other than our reputations as moral people.

From what little I know of his book "The Revenge of Gaia", Lovelock's suggestions are analogous to ridding Gaia of a cancer, through a fever (climate change) and radiation therapy (nuclear power). Maybe Lovelock values Gaia above humanity, killing off people to keep something that is more important than humanity. After all, preserving Gaia preserves an ecosystem and all the creatures within it, while preserving my lifestyle at the expense of all other creatures on the planet serves no one else, necessarily. However, I am not a deep ecologist or radical environmentalist. If species die, oh well, I want my species and my civilization (including the US nation) to continue. However, most people do not care about one American's desires.

Therefore, to solve Peak Oil and Climate Change problems, my interests as an American might have to be swept aside. That's OK, but being an American lets me tackle global problems like energy and climate change using the power of our democracy, so maybe American life can be saved after all.

This is why I am glad to be an American!

Noah Scales said...

Hi, Bob.

Here's a URL to recent information from the arctic. Methane release from warming high latitude ground was one of the tipping points for climate change, and sure enough that point is passing by. In other words, Gaia can start passing gas in greater and greater amounts.

See .

Bob Brannigan said...

Hi Noah:

Sorry I missed your last post until now.

Methane in the Arctic is potentially a huge GHG factor, but there are some interesting developments lately.

Land based permafrost may not thaw sufficiently to release methane as previously feared. Whew!

Then we find that plumes of methane are being released from the marine permafrost, as your link points out.

At first I saw this as counterintuitive, but I realized that the thermal mass of the water has the capacity to raise temperatures in the marine permafrost at a much greater depth than warmed air can.

There is much more to be learned, but if the marine mechanism causes an acceleration, we could get a land permafrost melt as well.

Scary stuff.