Peak Oil: Another Dose Of Crude Oil Reality
Leapfrogging now past fossil fuels to renewable energy is not just desirable but probably inescapable. The only question is whether we as a society will do it with a focused plan for a rapid transition or whether the transition will be chaotic and marked by violent swings in the economy as the world lurches from one energy-induced crisis to another. 
Clearly, it makes no sense to wait until renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels before beginning transition, particularly if you’re talking about transportation fuels. To do so would be to gamble with the entire economy and risk severely negative outcomes, like fuel shortages, riots, and depression. Are we really willing to take such risks, simply because we prefer to believe that the free market will magically sort everything out, particularly when we know that our economic theory evolved in an age of energy surplus which is now behind us?…
The right time to execute transition is not when the alternatives are cheaper. The right time is before it’s too late, and while it’s still affordable. That time was really 40 years ago. We have less than two years left before things really start getting difficult. What, exactly, are we still waiting for? 
So What ARE We Waiting For?
Excellent question, and so far we have almost nothing resembling an appropriate answer. The choices remain: begin intelligent, rational, nation-wide conversations about how to plan for our eventual transition away from a fossil fuel-based society and preserve some semblance of prosperity for our future; or ignore/deny/pretend that the “massive” and “vast” resources comfortably tucked underground for millions of years need nothing more for their production than a tweak or two from the Magic Technology/Human Ingenuity Fairy and the removal from office from the extra-terrestrial liberal somehow voted into the White House as part of a vast conspiracy to destroy America by offering Muslim, tax-based regulations (or something like that….)
I’ll state for the umpteenth time that I’d love if I and peers are entirely wrong about our concerns regarding Peak Oil. And for the umpteenth time I’ll also point out that my very lovely suburban lifestyle is not one I have any desire whatsoever to abandon in any way because of Peak Oil’s impact, so I have a decidedly selfish reason for wanting to be wrong.
So … I’m either a complete lunatic who has decided his mission is to perpetuate nothing but nonsense about a non-existent energy problem so that I can … uh … uh, gain some benefits of uncertain definition, or I’ve looked at enough information over the past few years both pro and con and decided that I need to add my small voice to urging much greater awareness about an issue certain to affect us all in the not-too-distant future. While my wife may offer her own assessment on the “lunatic” angle, I’m fairly confident that most of my waking hours are spent a long distance away from that existence.
Accordingly, for all the happy talk about the vast resources just waiting to pop out of the Earth’s surface minutes after President Obama is defeated, enabling the wonders of free-market economics to once again perform their magic, those hopes and expectations must contend with more than a few damned facts and what we on the Peak Oil/climate change side of the fence like to call “reality.”
It sucks for us, too! Speaking for myself and I believe for most others urging greater awareness and preparation in advance of Peak Oil’s full range of impacts on our personal and industrial lifestyles, more information, sound planning, and actual preparation make more sense than just keeping fingers and toes crossed. A choice….
It should be clear that the vogue dismissal of peak oil fears based on optimism around marginal, incredibly environmentally destructive resources like tar sands and shale hardly stands to account. 
What Are The Odds?
No one is being forced to buy into that perspective. But as I’ve asked in prior posts: What are the chances that the facts espoused by knowledgeable Peak Oil proponents such as Chris Nelder, Chris Martenson, Kurt Cobb, Sharon Astyk, Robert Rapier, Richard Heinberg, Gail Tverberg, Michael Klare et al (apologies for not naming more) are all entirely wrong and even contrived? Even after discounting their knowledge and the truths they share by 50% and there’s still a serious problem looming!
Does it make any sense at all to just simply ignore all of that and bank all our hopes that human ingenuity is going to save us just in time? What if that doesn’t happen through no fault of anyone’s?
What if geological factors—among others entirely beyond the control of our brightest technological experts—simply make it impossible to make up for the 3 – 4 million barrels of conventional crude depleting each and every day? What if the optimistic, exuberant expectations about the promise of shale, tar sands, and deep-water resources just cannot be met in a world of increasing demand?
Rolling The Dice?
Just how much are we all willing to risk by ignoring the facts and the ticking clock? When do we get serious about planning?
Should we wait until our transportation infrastructure becomes rusted and too expensive to maintain…? No, because declining net energy, declining net exports, and declining production will make it increasingly difficult and expensive to do anything. You have to build the replacement infrastructure while the energy and materials and capital you need to do it are reasonably available. 
Declining availability and increasing competition for the remaining fossil fuels will make it progressively more difficult to manufacture, transport, and install renewables and efficiency improvements. Within 25 years, the world could lose 25 percent or more of its oil supply, and nearly all of its available net exports. Any interruptions in oil supply will have immediate and far-reaching effects on our globalized world of resource production and manufacturing, and cause systemic dependencies to break down. 
Unfortunately, the facts aren’t changing. Conventional oil fields are depleting this very moment, and the next, and the next, and the next….We’re looking for “replacements” in inhospitable locales (miles beneath the ocean floor, for example), or we’re exerting tremendous amounts of energy, costs, and effort to find them (think tar sands and tight/shale oil). We may very well have decades ahead to avail ourselves of these unconventional substitutes, but the facts tell us they are not as energy efficient as the crude oil whose production plateaud in the middle part of the last decade. They cost more to find and produce, and for all the optimism about the quantity awaiting extraction, the more important factor is that extraction isn’t even keeping up with what we’re losing to depletion every day. And China, India, and others eager to assume a more technologically-advanced place in the world, are hungry for more.
The math isn’t working.
Yes, we can re-purpose other fossil fuels (coal, gas, heavy oil/tar) to help plug the gap in liquid fuels, meanwhile accelerating their depletion. We can use liquid fuels more efficiently. We can try every trick to tease more oil out of depleted wells. All these things will happen. Their collective effort will ease the pain (and bring on new hurts), but it is not clear whether all efforts in tandem can arrest the decline, given practical, political, and economic realities. They are all more expensive, all lower EROEI, all harder, and with the exception of efficiency improvements keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Although the pain may be eased, the problem does not go away…. When will we decide to pull the plug…?
No matter what mix we decide to pursue, if we wait until the decline starts before seriously ramping up all viable efforts in tandem, we will find economic hardship, job loss, energy volatility as demand flags and then resurges, etc. The unpredictable environment will not be conducive to large investments in risky alternatives. In short, we could get caught with our pants down. And if you’ve ever tried to run in this state, you know what happens next. 
More to come….
Peak Oil Matters
9 Comments on “Peak Oil: Another Dose Of Crude Oil Reality”
Siddhartha on Mon, 9th Jul 2012 12:20 pm
The Germans are preparing…but that’s the German mindset for you…Americans only react when a problem crosses a certain size threshold. Oh well, pain first then change.
BillT on Mon, 9th Jul 2012 12:58 pm
First…there arr no such things as “renewable” energy. All renewables exist because oil makes it possible. There are no ‘renewables’ that have enough NET energy to reproduce themselves AND do their energy job like provide electric or move vehicles. None.
Everyone of them require oil energy to exist, be maintained and be replaced when they wear out. ALL of them.
Even nuclear, if it is life cycled from ores, to a thousand plus years of protected storage, would be net energy losers. Those who believe that their grand kids will be driving around in electric cars, having their homes air conditioned and heated with renewables, all the techie toys, etc., are all dreaming.
Are you even aware of the energy to get the steel for a typical mining machine of say, 1,000 tons? First you mine maybe 100,000 tons of rock to get 5,000 tons of ore, then you haul that ore to a smelter where it is melted down at 1,700 degrees into steel, and poured into sand molds that also weigh many tons and required much energy to get to the foundry, it is then cooled and shook out of the cast and trucked to a machine shop where it is finished into a piece of the total machine. Then those 1,000 tons are trucked to the mine and assembled. After all of this energy use, it is then powered by oil to dig the ores for the windmill, electric car, PV panel, etc.
Now we have the ores for the renewable manufacture…but that also goes through the same energy intensive series of processes to get to your roof top, back yard, driveway. When it is worn out, it is then trucked to the smelter where it is melted down and other new ores added to make a new piece. How many trucks hauled materials to make that one renewable for you? 10? 20? More?
SolarDave on Mon, 9th Jul 2012 1:46 pm
Good points, BillT, and I don’t disagree with the theory.
However, if what you say were to be correct, a 100% “renewable” powered society would need to spend more than 100% of its total energy production budget just to build renewable power systems.
If that were true, current wind and solar power levels in US and Germany would be requiring vast amounts more energy to manufacture than they do now.
Germany gets more than 20% of its power from renewables. Are you suggesting that the equivalent of more than 20% of Germany’s electric production goes to manufacturing, distributing and installing those renewable power systems?
I find that hard to believe, but some hard numbers might convince me.
Kenz300 on Mon, 9th Jul 2012 3:35 pm
Quote — ” Leapfrogging now past fossil fuels to renewable energy is not just desirable but probably inescapable. The only question is whether we as a society will do it with a focused plan for a rapid transition or whether the transition will be chaotic and marked by violent swings in the economy as the world lurches from one energy-induced crisis to another.”
It is time to transition to safe, clean alternative energy sources. Wind, solar geothermal, wave energy and second generation biofuels made from algae, cellulose and waste are the future.
We can now make biofuels from trash or waste. The world produces a lot of trash every day. That is a more sustainable solution than burying the trash.
sunweb on Mon, 9th Jul 2012 4:02 pm
solar dave – actually the proof on the energy viability of so-called “renewables” rest with you who are promoting it. Bill T gets you started by looking at the whole system. If these technologies which are actually extension of fossils could reproduce themselves (and that proof lies with you. We already have enough “unintended consequences” with multiple technologies) they still would then need to produce all the products that fossil fuels now make available. Walk through your world and look at all the stuff including the bicycle in your picture that are available because of cheap, high density fossil fuels. See my essay on to make a light bulb:
Wishful thinking will not make it happen. I lived off the grid for 30 years, 20 of which I had solar electric panels and wind. I was never disconnected from the fossil fuel world nor could I be unless I lived a lifestyle akin to the middle ages.
Doug W. on Mon, 9th Jul 2012 4:11 pm
Job one is conservation, using as little energy is necessary instead of wasting it. Second, emphasize direct use of sunlight as possible. As someone pointed out at a solar workshop 35 years ago. “We don’t need a solar technology, we need a solar culture.” We can probably keep the lights on for a good long time. Transportation fuels are another matter. Maintaining our current level of complexity on alternative energy sources probably isn’t possible.
Keith on Mon, 9th Jul 2012 5:47 pm
And it isn’t oil itself that has allowed us this civilization, but easy oil. EASY OIL! They always seem to forget that when talking about fracking and tar sands and such saving us.
tubaplayer on Mon, 9th Jul 2012 8:30 pm
“I’ll also point out that my very lovely suburban lifestyle is not one I have any desire whatsoever to abandon”
What a strange dichotomy between your lifestyle and the rest of what you write.
Abandon the McMansion lifestyle. Abandon it NOW. Those that survive the storm that is coming will do so because they chose to do some personal preparation. Dig up the manicured lawns. Yourself, by hand. Plant fruit and nut trees. Plant stuff that you can store and eat.
Get your hands dirty and start to prepare. If you do not you will just be one of the sheeple that does not make it through what is to come.
Governments will continue to do nothing except be subservient to Big Business As Usual, in whose pockets they are. And they simply have no answer for what is coming.
BillT on Tue, 10th Jul 2012 1:36 am
Solar Dave, one example…
I worked at a foundry that makes railroad switches, those things that make it possible for a train to switch tracks at intersections. They use small electric furnaces to melt about 12 tons of manganese steel at a time over about 2 hours. That one furnace takes the electricity of a small town of about 25,000 people to melt the ores and scrap to a temperature of 1,800 degrees. It is then poured into a ladle and craned to the sand mold that will receive the liquid steel.
The entire process to make only seven switches starts at the mines for ores, the scrap yard for the recycled steel and proceeds to the foundry. The furnace itself begins in a similar fashion as it has to be maid and continually relined with firebrick which has to be manufactured somewhere else. The Electrodes are also manufactured somewhere else and are eaten away in the process of melting the steel. Electric cranes handle all of this stuff and run continually in the foundry moving stuff in or out. The patterns to make the molds are made in a wood shop and the wood is cut and dried and trucked to the shop from Canada. The sand for the molds is trucked in from the sand pits many miles away and washed and prepared. Etc.
This is just one part of the railway system in the world. There are probably a million of these switches in the Us alone and all wear out and have to be replaced. Do you think this can be done with windmills and PV panels and moonshine? I don’t.