Archive for Saturday, January 10, 2009

Global threat

January 10, 2009


To the editor:

Global oil production will hit its peak in a few decades, at which point oil prices will skyrocket and consumers like the U.S. and China will quickly drain every last barrel they can afford to buy. As supplies dwindle, an economic disaster dwarfing Katrina will unfold.

The U.S. GAO concluded there’s an urgent need to assess and develop alternative energy technologies to avert “severe economic damage.” The DOE warned of “extremely damaging” impacts if measures aren’t put in place at least 10 years ahead of time.

Peak oil impacts range from dire to catastrophic. At best, we face a crippling recession and widespread inflation. At worst, we face severe global food shortages threatening wide-scale starvation and an overall breakdown of social and economic institutions. And if history’s any guide, we should expect a series of military invasions into every remaining oil field on the planet.

Ask yourself: When oil becomes scarce, how will I get food? How will my water district purify water without petrochemicals? Which of my medications are made out of petrochemicals? How will I get to work? Will I even have a job anymore?

Some point at alternative energy technologies as a silver bullet. But most energy analysts say it’ll be decades before such alternatives are available for wide-scale implementation.

We’ve kept our head in the sand for too long, and rather than address this issue, we continue to focus our attention on more important matters like roundabouts and football fields. I think it’s time to change the subject.

Steve Craven,


SettingTheRecordStraight 9 years, 2 months ago

The good news is that known, accessible tar sands and oil shale reserves hold enough petroleum to provide humans with energy for hundreds of years. Problem solved.

khprather 9 years, 2 months ago

It does no good sticking one's head in the sand, acting as though no problem exists. Tar sands and oil shale are not a viable solution to the problem. Even if climate change weren't an issue (which it certainly is), accessing these "alternative" forms of oil is much more expensive and the final product is of a poorer quality. The law of supply and demand: if the cost goes up, demand goes down; if demand goes down, cost goes up further. We cannot rely on fossil fuels much longer.Steve Craven refers to figures stating that oil production will peak within a few decades. This is the optimistic number. Some sources state it will peak in the next five years, while others say it already has (I still remember $4/gallon gas). For those who are sceptical, Craven references the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Dept. of Energy for support. I'd like to point out that Secretary of Energy-Designate Stephen Chu also recognizes the impending threat of "peak oil." (See this PowerPoint presentation by Chu on the issues of climate change, peak oil and alternative energy solutions -- )Ignoring the problem helps nothing. Acting like it does not exist only makes things worse. Do some research. Learn the facts.

SettingTheRecordStraight 9 years, 2 months ago

khprather,Aren't you concerned that unnecessary alarmism over "peak oil" will scare some in positions of authority to drastically overreact to a perceived crisis? After all, peak oil threats have existed since the early 70's. Why waste trillion$ on alternative energy schemes that are too expensive (ethanol), highly unreliable (wind), too dangerous (hydrogen) or incredibly inefficient (solar) when we have a steady, proven, abundant and realitvely inexpensive source already?I'm not denying the need for research and development into alternative energy, and it will be a great day when we ween ourselves off of petrochemicals. But let's remember that alternative energy is still an alternative, not what necessarily works best in the real world.

khprather 9 years, 2 months ago

SettingTheRecordStraight,I am concerned about unnecessary alarmism, because fear and crisis are not healthy for our political processes. However, my understanding of the situation is that our energy systems are indeed reaching a crisis point. The data on oil reserves is not an exact science, and experts are unable to say exactly how much oil we have left. But we do know that fossil fuels are a finite resource. We do know that U.S. oil production peaked in the 1970's. Three of the five largest oil fields in the world have reached peak production in the last 5 years, including Mexico's Cantarell Field (discovered in 1976). The United States foreign policy since (at least) the 1970's has largely been determined by the location of oil resources, and as of late, this has only gotten us into trouble. At some point we are going to have to say "when."I agree with you that we need to continue our R&D efforts, however we need to start acting on some of the knowledge we've developed since the '70's. And again I agree that alternative energy is only an "alternative," and I don't suggest immediately switching over to a solar-powered nation. But we do need to diversify our energy sources. Diversification will give us true energy security by not having to rely on a finite resource from unstable parts of the world. Again I agree that I don't want politicians (or others in positions of authority) to make rash decisions, but there's nothing rash about providing incentives for alt. energy development and taking down the road blocks that hinder the necessary transition to a more diversified energy economy. Already we're seeing great strides: 30% tax credits on solar/wind/geothermal systems starting in 2009, tax credits for energy efficient appliances and home upgrades. We're seeing talk of high-speed train systems throughout the U.S. (,0,1163801.story). I even heard that net-metering is on the agenda for the Kansas legislature for 2009. This would be a great boost for home energy systems and would decrease regional energy needs.Eventually, we will have to do without oil. Whether we want the transition to be smooth or rocky is the question. In response to Windlass, we HAVE kept our head in the sand for too long, and the time to act is now. But we're not "screwed" unless we give up.

Matt Toplikar 9 years, 2 months ago

Being an alarmist is one thing, seeing a problem and wanting to do something about it is another. People should not be scared, but they should be aware so they can plan accordingly. If you want to argue that Peak Oil won't happen for 30 years that's fine. I respectfully disagree, but let's take that assumption just the same. If we have 30 years before our oil prices start skyrocketing to a point where the price of oil becomes drastically more expensive than the average person can afford; if we have 30 years before the price of oil significantly affects shipping prices of goods and foods; if we have 30 years before the price of oil hikes up the cost of plastic, cosmetics, pesticide, clothing, paint, glue, soap, etc.. it's probably a good idea to start really thinking about this problem before it gets the better of us.If affordable electric cars came out today, it still might take 20 years before most people had one, because most people only buy a car every 7-10 years or more and many of those are used cars. Not to mention the fact that the infrastructure to build and maintain electric cars on a mass scale is nowhere in sight. But even when we have a full squad of electric cars driving the roads, we'll have to find a way to pay for the extra electrical costs with either coal, nuclear, solar, or wind power plants. These things take years to build and take much energy and money themselves. Replacing our outdated power grids for solar and wind generators will likely cost trillions of dollars, while opening a massive amount of new nuclear plants is unlikely until we actually come up with a way to dispose of the waste.I'm not saying this to alarm anyone. I'm just saying that all of this stuff is going to take a lot of time and a lot of money so we might as well start now.

khprather 9 years, 2 months ago

Good points, mtoplikar. If it's inevitable, why wait?I also wanted to link to this article that I referenced earlier regarding the possibility of net-metering in Kansas. An overall encouraging article.

Richard Heckler 9 years, 2 months ago

No matter if oil would never run out it pollutes just the same which is the greater problem. Cheap or expensive fossil fuel pollutes.Then one of the other hidden expenses of fossil fuel which anyone concerned about fiscal responsibility is the variety of subsidies that go to the multi billion dollar giants. So in reality consumers are likely paying near $20.00 per gallon. Additionally taxpayers/gasoline consumers are paying one more time in a huge way: The Military Cost of Securing Energy According to a new report from National Priorities Project (NPP), the United States is spending between $97 and $215 billion dollars annually on military action to defend access to oil and natural gas reserves around the globe. The Military Cost of Securing Energy provides a critical analysis of the military cost of defending U.S. energy concerns overseas. The report estimates that the military spends up to 30 percent of its annual budget to secure access to energy resources.Global warming and too many tax dollars for fossil fuel/energy demands taking other steps ASAP. While moving towards cleaner and independent sources will require money it is also creating millons of jobs that have been lost to outsourcing.

jade 9 years, 2 months ago

Excellent points, Merrill and khprather. Check out this video and its predecessor. The do-nothing option is shown through an exercise in logic to be, well, stupid.

devobrun 9 years, 2 months ago

Money.The true cost of any product today is directly related to the amount of energy required to build the product. The reason solar panels and windmills are not cost effective without subsidies is that they don't produce more energy than it takes to make them.Monetary subsidies hide this fact. That is, lousy ideas are subsidized by carbon taxes and cap and trade voucher systems to pay for the energy to make alternative systems viable.But these monetary subsidies don't solve the problem of energy inefficiency. Wind and solar still are bad ideas because they yield a red bottom line on an energy budget.Leave the $ out of the figure of merit that is used to evaluate alternative energy. What is the energy budget for these systems?If you spend more energy to develop and operate the alternative systems than you will yield from them, then don't bother. This is the situation that we are in right now. Throwing subsidies at them doesn't change the situation.

Matt Toplikar 9 years, 2 months ago

XD40:Just to clarify. Yes Peak Oil theory has been around since the 1950s. It successfully predicted when oil production peaked in the U.S. during the 1970s, and has been predicting many other country's peaks with very accurate results. As you say, it is true that more oil deposits have been found since Peak Oil theory was proposed, however, if you look at the data there has a been a significant and sharp decline of oil discoveries over the last 60 years. In other words oil discoveries have become significantly smaller and less frequent for quite some time. When you read in the news that we've recently found 10 million barrels of oil somewhere, it might sound like a lot, but in comparison to how much we actually use (19.6 million in the U.S.) on a daily basis, it doesn't put much of a dent in our regular consumption.

Matt Toplikar 9 years, 2 months ago

Geologists believe ANWR holds about 10.4 billion barrels of oil. This might last us about a year and a half at best. Geologists estimate about 60 billion barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. This might take us another 10 years, but offshore drilling is much more expensive, so if you want to rely on it for our supplies, oil prices will still go up. These figures are of course only reliable if our oil consumption doesn't increase which is of course unlikely seeing as how it's been steadily increasing for some time.By comparison, Saudi Arabia which has the largest discovered oil field is estimated to have around 260 billion barrels.You also have to take into account that after about half of an oil field is drained (the peak) it becomes increasingly difficult and more expensive to extract the oil from the field due to a drop in pressure. Also, the oil past the peak is not as energy dense and takes more effort and money to refine.Again-- not trying to be an alarmist or a pessimist, just saying this isn't something we should procrastinate about.

khprather 9 years, 2 months ago

devobrun,I agree that subsidies often hide the true cost of a product. Merrill made that point earlier about the true cost of oil (including oil industry subsidies, environmental degradation, military expenses). But I don't believe this is a valid argument in the case of alternative energy industries. They will certainly need to be subsidized in order to compete with the subsidized oil industry, but your assertion that "they don't produce more energy than it takes to make them" is absolutely not true. From the Energy Department website: "The energy payback period [for PV modules] is also dropping rapidly. For example, it takes today's typical crystalline silicon module about 4 years to generate more energy than went into making the module in the first place. The next generation of silicon modules, which will employ a different grade of silicon and use thinner layers of semiconductor material, will have an energy payback of about 2 years. And thin-film modules will soon bring the payback down to one year or less. This means that these modules will produce "free" and clean energy for the remaining 29 years of their expected life." technology is improving and will continue to improve. The more we invest into these technologies, the faster the improvements will come.I also want to say that I completely agree with Ariadne. In the last 100 years of human history (as we have learned to make use of oil for a variety of purposes), the population of the Earth has more than tripled. According to Ariadne's numbers, from 1800-1900 we had 60% growth; from 1900-2000 we had 300% growth (five times faster in the last century). This is a problem that we haven't even begun to deal with. I don't even know what a solution would look like.

devobrun 9 years, 2 months ago

kprather: I'm an electrical engineer. I know of the claims, and I don't believe them. Here's why.Efficiencies of CIGS and other polysilicon or nanoparticle thin films are improving in the laboratory. Energy used to build the solar cells is being reduced. Large-scale production has been met with less than stellar results.It's one thing to make a 19.6% efficient solar cell in laboratory quantities and it is another to built billions of them. It is one thing to mount and maintain a few thousand of these things in a controlled environment, and it is another to place them all around in a wide range of environments.What about dust, dirt, moisture? What about wide temperature extremes and shock? How do these effect lifetime? What is the failure mode of these things? Do they tend to be catastrophic, or do they fail gracefully? Are these gimbal-mounted with controllers? What about their energy to build and maintain? And then there is the problem of double production. When the sun doesn't shine, you must have a coal-fired plant to make up the loss of unreliable energy. Is the energy required to build that plant factored into the energy budget? Engineered products are usually presented to the government and to the press by marketing and public relations people, with a dose of lawyers thrown in.----------------------------------------------------------------------------It isn't just a matter of money.Henry Ford and Thomas Edison spent millions on development of a battery to use in Ford's autos. They lost a lot of money before they realized that the incremental improvements were no match for gasoline.----------------------------------------------------------------We are in the era of hype regarding alternative energy. Wanna example? Corn-based ethanol. Its a bust. Bad idea. They at least went too fast. Will there be alternatives to oil in the future? Certainly. Is there an emergency? No. Relax, Prather, the engineers will get you out of the political and business mess that exists today. But it will take a while. In the mean time, stay with stock in Exxon and Peabody. Put yer poker money into Nanosolar---------------------------------------------------Oh, one last thing. Engineers will tell you that sophistication is not a goal of good engineering, the opposite is true. Fossil fuels are simple. They are no longer full of surprises.....except when Al Gore and Jim Hansen come along. This whole thing is a created reality, and I think that the reasons behind the hysteria are not engineering-based. This is a power and money grab. There are people in this world who want to control it. They can't as long as energy is in the hands of capitalists. Energy is the most important commodity in the history of the world and the megalomaniacs want it. They want top-down government control of the whole industry and this CO2 bunk is yet another attempt to kill big oil.

Matt Toplikar 9 years, 2 months ago

( - Reports circulating on the Internet tell of an oil field spanning parts of western North Dakota and eastern Montana where 400 billion barrels of oil supposedly are just waiting to be tapped. However, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) tells Cybercast News Service that those huge estimates are "a myth."A USGS report issued in April estimates that there are between 3 billion to 4.3 billion barrels of oil in what is referred to as "the Bakken Formation" -- well below the 400 billion barrels discussed on the Web, but up from the previous estimate of 151 million barrels made in 1995.

devobrun 9 years, 2 months ago

OK, I'm old fashioned. But I think that a business should be able to compete on the merits of its current and projected probability to make a profit. I'll invest in such a company.I'll invest in Exxon and Peabody Coal, but not in General Motors. I think that businesses that have a bad product and a worse management team and have commitments that are ruinous should go out of business. Like GM, Chrysler ,Lehman Brothers and windmills: is a new world of social engineering. It is a new world of social economy. It is a new world of European-style socialism. These next few years are going to be boring. I'll miss the cowboys.

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