Thursday, January 27, 2011

A "Conversation" I had about Peak Oil

The other night at work, on break, I was reading a book called "The Impending World Energy Mess: What It Is and What It Means to You", by Robert Hirsch and two other energy experts.  Hirsch is known as the author of the Hirsch Report, a report requested from the U.S. Department of Energy and published in 2005; this was one of the first official documents pertaining to peak oil and energy.  Anyway, I want to try to go more in-depth with the book when I'm done, but so far, I highly recommend it.  Although it's written by scientists, it's very accessible to the layman, and there are plenty of charts and graphs. 

Anyway, when I was on break, a co-worker asked me what I was reading; I told him, and then said something like "if you think gas prices are bad now..."  What happened next is why I am no longer enthused in trying to relate to people the problems with our energy supplies and our structure.  The overwhelming majority of people are profoundly ignorant in the basics of energy (I am no great shakes myself, BTW, I stumbled upon this issue nearly by accident) and trying to educate them on the basics of PO is a monumental task. 

The co-worker (who is a very nice guy) then said that we wouldn't have problems with gas prices if we simply switched to electric.  Admittedly, my response was errenous, as I got into how the production of a car takes up roughly 20 barrels of oil, leaving us still dependent on oil.  I should have talked about the "scale" problem; what I mean by "scale" is that while it may not be terribly difficult to roll out electric cars for a few people with the means to buy them, or to retrofit a few cars running on the internal conbustion engine to an electric one, it is more difficult, by leaps and bounds, to get the vast majority of drivers to buy electric cars (for the reason, again, of high costs) or to retrofit the existing fleet of cars and trucks to run on electric power.  Also, although I am clueless on how our electric grid works, I'd imagine that charging up a large volume of vehicles in people's homes and businesses would take up a monstrous amount of energy, on top of what is already being consumed via AC, television, stereos, iPod chargers, microwaves, and all the rest. 

So, although I did not mention most of these things to this gentleman, chances are he would be overwhelmed nonetheless.  I had a similar experience with another person who was convinced that alternative energy would save the day, and she became very heated when I tried telling her that it probably wouldn't be that simple. 

Anyway, the guy across from me jumped into the fray.  He said that we wouldn't have oil problems if we were just able to recover the oil that we'd lost in the Gulf of Mexico.  This brought up what could have been an interesting retort from me, as I wanted to ask, "but why were we there to begin with?"  If oil is so easy to obtain, why are we in remote, underwater enviroments like GOM?  The easy-to-obtain stuff, the "low lying fruit on the tree", as it were, has already been plucked, and in order to get more, our oil companies are having to build stations in close-to-uninhabitable spots like GOM and the Arctic. 

But on top of that, he gave another whopper.  He said that the U.S. has high reserves of oil, but yet we import most of our oil from overseas.  The fact is that our oil production (the lower 48) peaked in the early 1970s and has been declining ever since.  That is why we are a net importer of oil.  But, maybe he was talking about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is an emergency fuel store of oil that's run by the DOE.  Let's look at the facts concerning the SPR.  The SPR holds 724 million barrels of oil (as of August, 2009).  The world consumes, roughly, around 85 barrels a day; the U.S. makes up around one-fourth of that amount, or 21 million barrels.  So, we would have a 34 day supply of oil, at current levels, if we were cut out of the remainder of the world's oil supply.  But, of course, if there was a cut-off, there'd be huge sanctions and crash programs imposed on the U.S. populace, as going about business-as-usual would be insane.  In any event, the maximum withdrawal capability from the SPR only amounts to 4.4 million barrels a day, a little more than one-fifth of our current daily oil usage. 

Unfortunately, I did not have some of these facts (particularly concerning the SPR) on hand while talking to these gentlemen, but I doubt it would have made a difference.  Someone had once told me that there are two responses that you get when you try to discuss PO and its implications with somebody.  They will either laugh at you (which I imagine is the more common response) and talk about alternative energy or technology, or they will be filled with an irrecovable sense of doom, like being told that they have cancer and will die in six months.  Our politicians and mass media do not help in this, as they simply do not talk about it, and instead blame the once again rising energy prices on arcane figures like "speculators".  All we could hope for is that more people will wake up when the economy crashes again, due to energy becoming too expensive, and rest assured, it will. 

(BTW, I should start linking to this in every PO-related post; this is probably the best, easiest online primer on peak oil to read, for those of you who don't quite understand some of the topics I'm covering on these posts:  Life After the Oil Crash homepage.)   

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