Saturday, February 25, 2012

Science: Peak Oil and Why That Politician You Like Is Not a White Knight Who Is Going to Rescue You from High Gas Prices

Politicians are a little bit like men who want to get you into bed.  They'll say anything you want to hear to get you to take a roll in the sack with them.

Trouble is, it's often not true.  That guy you met in the bar is probably not "falling for you," he just wants to get laid.  That political candidate that is promising you $2 gas or an electric car is just trying to get your vote.

Gas and other energy will remain very expensive in the coming decades no matter what we do.  This includes drilling, funding alternative energy, and manufacturing electric cars.

The problem starts with the concept of "peak oil" and "peak gas."

Peak Oil

The "peak oil production" originally had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with science.

Peak oil is when a well reaches its peak production capacity and starts to decline in production.  That well is nearly empty.

In 1956, a geologist named Hubbert realized that just like an individual well can reach its peak, a whole country could, too. Using a very simple model, he predicted that the US would reach peak oil sometime between 1965 and 1970.

And the amazing thing was he was right within a few years:

Source here (U.S. Energy Information Agency.)

Drill, baby, drill

So the US reached its peak oil sometime around 1970.  But what about the rest of the world?

Global oil production does look like it could be slowing down:

Source: Plot of data from EIA (here).

But our own oil has definitely peaked, and the oil from many of our neighbors and allies may also have peaked:

Source: Dartmouth

Other energy: TANSTAAFL

So the US has reached peak oil, no matter what we do.  There is no magic oilfield out there for us to tap.  Any tapping will help reduce our dependency, but very temporarily, and once it's gone, it's gone forever.

But what about other energy sources, such a coal, natural gas and alternative energy?

The problem is each of them have a price to pay.

Natural Gas: Are You Fracking Kidding Me???

We do, in fact, have a great deal of natural gas in this country.  And natural gas burns cleanly and has the highest CO2 to energy ratio of any fossil fuel.

So, once it's out of the ground, it's a good, clean fuel to use.

But just like oil, stocks of natural gas can decline after a peak.  If you look at the graph above, you can see this happening with all US gas stocks except one: shale gas.

Why is shale gas important?  Perhaps you have heard of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.  

While it's not 100% certain what the consequences are of fracking, fracking has been linked to severe groundwater contamination in some regions.

Thus, most of the public who cares about the environment dislikes the idea of fracking.  And it isn't paranoia, there are really contamination risks, just like any time you drill offshore you risk a spill.

However, the other major alternatives are coal and nuclear.

Coal: The Fuel of the Future?

Coal is a great fuel for two reasons: it is cheap and it is very plentiful.

However, in just about every other way there's problems.  Coal smog is extremely toxic.  In 1952, a terrible coal smog hit London and killed an estimated 12,000 people in what is now known as The Great Smog.

It also gives you very little energy for how much CO2 it puts in the air.  And, like natural gas, mining coal can have some serious consequences.

Nuclear Energy

The problems of nuclear energy are fairly obvious.  While it's very clean while in production, each nuclear plant produces 20 metric tons of nuclear fuel waste each year, with a global total of around 20,000 metric tons of dangerous nuclear waste produced each year that must be stored indefinitely.  

Nuclear might be a good short-term, small solution, but it's easy to see how in a few decades we'll hit some major problems.


"Wow!  We're on the way with renewables!  8%!"

Not really.  Not unless you think the peak of world renewable technology development was in 1950.

Renewables are a good idea, particularly for generating electricity.  But most renewable energy in this country - 66% - comes from hydroelectric, like the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Other major sources include things like burning garbage.  

So, despite the bru-ha-ha, it looks like the first renewable energy forms we developed - such as garbage incineration and hydroelectric dams - are the most productive and feasible.


We can also see from the graph above what drives our oil consumption - transportation.  Transportation is 94% by oil, and 71% of our oil is used for transportation.

Until we get our transportation off of oil and on to another system - such as natural gas - we're going to be stuck paying $4, $5, $10 for a gallon of gas. 

Supply is going down and demand is going up.  You don't need some vast Illuminati conspiracy - either from oil companies or environmentalists - to see that's going to drive up prices no matter what you do.

The only other alternative is change our infrastructure.  But that's slow, and we won't feel the effects in our pockets until after several decades.  And stopping drilling won't help any of the major changes we need to make, simply because it takes a great deal of energy to totally re-vamp your infrastructure.

So don't listen to that white knight politician.  He won't save you.  Nothing will but diligence, dedication to the problem and time.

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