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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

We Will Kill for Oil


Honesty is so distasteful.

We'd so much rather see WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER, even if this sweet homily seems sort of hollow when affixed to the back end of something that weighs 6,000 pounds and gets 12MPG. Do these people think that there is no connection whatsoever between the 20% of our oil we import from various hot spots in the Middle East and Africa, and our 65-year-involvement and multiple wars there?

Was there ever any other reason for our cozy relationship with major human rights violator Saudi Arabia?  Or for our presence in Iraq, which is expected to displace Saudi Arabia as the largest producer and exporter of oil over the next decade? Or Afghanistan, of great strategic importance in accessing and securing the estimated $12 Trillion in oil reserves projected to reside in the Caspian Sea.

And how many people here want to reckon with the consequences of a sudden, drastic reduction in available oil supplies? So far, there is no indication that our local leaders even consider the possibility, let alone how it would cascade through our systems to produce critical shortages and major system failures. Chicago has no emergency plans in place, and instead of making the improvements necessary to our critical transportation and utility infrastructure necessary to keep the city intact and functioning with decent levels of safety and sanitation in the event of a prolonged emergency, are searching for more paths by which to divert tax revenues from essential public needs to the back pockets of corporate cronies while starving our increasingly decrepit and inadequate public transportation. To date, I have not once heard the term "peak oil" pass the lips of Obama , who prefers to talk about "reducing our dependence on foreign oil", as though there were any other kind, especially since it has become glaringly evident that offshore drilling is not likely to offset the fading production of the super giants, and neither are the tar sands of Calgary,which require staggering quantities of fresh water and natural gas to work, which means that the oil from the sands is not only partially subsidized by Canadian taxpayers and would have a negative EROEI without that subsidy, but comes at the expense of natural gas supplies, which are subject to rapid and irreversible depletion just as oil is.

Iraq and Afghanistan were Bush's Wars, then became Obama's Wars, but they're really our wars, and they probably will not end until every last drop of oil has been extracted from every last well, or at least until the cost of extraction is a barrel in for a barrel out. That time may come sooner than we think as it is. Obama's promise to end these conflicts, so quickly reneged on, is being flung in his face by foes and former supporters alike and will no doubt be used as a major wedge in the 2012 election by the next pandering con artist who runs on promises to accomplish the impossible, but anyone who believes that we'll withdraw from these conflicts anytime soon is probably someone who believes in perpetually self-renewing abiotic oil, or that we can run our economy on wind turbines, used restaurant grease and corn liquor.

It is probably useless to consider that our resource wars are only hastening resource depletion, or that all combatants will eventually lose, for the oil will deplete remorselessly no matter who controls it. But in the meantime, we probably have no choice but to soldier on, since we are still in stone denial concerning our extreme dependence on petroleum and are in no way prepared to make the adjustments and arrangements that would enable us to withdraw from the Middle East and lose access to the bounty of Iraq, or the Caspian sea. Nor is the rest of the western world, which relies upon the U.S. to do the dirty work of securing the oil supplies for other western nations, and any political aspirant who suggests that we confront the inevitability of resource depletion and consider these wars already lost, and learn to live with much less energy, is committing career suicide.

So what it all means is that we will continue to kill and be killed for the oil in the Middle East, and Africa, too,  just as we have for decades now, because the alternative, a rapid withdrawal with the possible sudden loss of 20% of our usual supply, would mean incredible chaos and violence, and random death on a mass scale,within our borders, as the systems we rely on to deliver electricity and clean municpal water and vaccines and medication and cheap, abundant food, all start to wobble and fail for lack of the necessary energy imputs to run them. It's an alternative that I'm personally not willing to accept if there is any way around it, and I'm sure you aren't, either, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for our leadership and general public to embrace the only alternative to "the war that will not end in our lifetimes", as Cheney  put it, which is to downscale and rearrange our systems and our lives to enable us provide for ourselves at a decent level of modern comfort and amenity in the absence of copious quantities of oil.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Over The Cliff

While American policy makers pass energy bills designed to pander to various lobbies and to allocate the largest subsidies to the "alternatives" to oil that are least likely to be suitable replacements and provide us with even basic amenities in the energy-short future, a number of geologists and energy analysts are eying the rapidly dropping rates of new gas discoveries, and the steeply falling drill rig count with growing alarm.

Natural gas is now considered to be the most likely substitute for oil, in spite of the fact that it, too, is a fossil fuel that is almost always found in proximity to oil, and is also subject to depletion. Gas prices are at deep lows and consumption has dropped in recent years, and policy makers and the public alike are pacified by the assurance that we have enough natural gas in North America to last 100 years at current rates of consumption. 

Energy writer Kurt Cobb at Resource Insights, among a number of other prominent prognosticators, believes that natural gas supplies are headed "over the cliff", that the drop could be rapid and precipitous, and its onset could take place in less than three years. In a recent article at SCitizen, he outlines the convergence of circumstances now in place that could cause seemingly plentiful North American natural gas supplies to plummet precipitously in the near future. These include not only the unexpectedly rapid rate of depletion in recently drilled wells, but the shutting in of existing drills due to extremely low current gas prices.

As I've pointed out in previous posts, a 100-year supply will become a twenty-year supply very quickly were consumption to increase by just 5% a year. That's something we need to be very concerned about, because at this juncture, our leaders, driven by the fossil fuel lobby and in deep denial concerning our ability to continue business as usual as that has been done sine WW2,  are hell-bent on converting our fleet of 200 million cars and trucks to natural gas. The conversion of our gigantic fleet of petro-burners to natural gas would cause consumption to ramp up very steeply over the next decade, and drive this extremely valuable fuel into steep depletion, with dire implications for our ability to meet other critical needs, such as for food and heat.

Not only is natural gas used to heat most of the homes in the U.S. and is the most efficient and economical way to do that so far, our population of 305 million (and growing) people are extremely dependent upon mechanized agriculture for food, and natural gas is absolutely essential for manufacturing the nitrogen based fertilizers that made the "green revolution" possible.. Obviously, rapidly declining gas production could mean widespread food shortages, or even famines, in this country that has never experienced such a thing, and would also make many other essentials, such as ample home heat, unaffordable for a sizable fraction of our population. That the result would be unbelievable suffering accompanied by a steep increase in disease and hunger and rapidly falling lifespans, ought to be obvious, but our leaders don't seem overly concerned with the implications for our non-rich population, which is about 95% of us.

Rapid depletion of existing wells could easily cause crippling shortages and steep increases in prices in the next few years even if we don't increase our consumption. Therefore, it would be sheer insanity to double the demand for this fuel by adding the load of our entire transportation system, if indeed we could even begin to convert our fleet of gasoline burners, or put into place the delivery system needed to make the fuel widely available.

The promotion of natural gas as the silver bullet that will save our energy-intensive way of life is just the next stage of denial. Our business and government leaders now recognize that peak oil is a fact, and we are understandably frantically casting about for a "solution" that will permit business as usual to continue, forgetting that all resources have a depletion curve. This is why our political leadership and business elite not only will not be of any help in dealing with the vicissitudes of life in a rapidly contracting economy and increasing scarcity of necessites, but will actually be major obstacles to successfully managing the massage shift in our economy and its physical underpinnings now underway.