Sunday Train: Oil Addiction is a Political Choice, not a Necessity

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

We can tell that an energy policy is not aimed at ending our nation’s oil addiction in time when the speech presenting it follows up:

The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity, our long-term security on a resource that will eventually run out, and even before it runs out will get more and more expensive to extract from the ground. …


I set this goal knowing that we’re still going to have to import some oil. It will remain an important part of our energy portfolio for quite some time, until we’ve gotten alternative energy strategies fully in force.

Listening to a Speech versus Reading a Speech

When you listen to a speech, the speaker dictates the pace. You have as much time to reflect on the content as is allowed ~ unless you zone out through the next section ~ and you have a sequence of claims to assess.

A skilled speaker could use this to present a Dirty, Oil and Coal and Nukes strategy as if it was a Living Energy Independence Strategy:

  • Present lots of shiny little little Living Energy Independence baubles, with lots of speech time talking up how important they are, without any numbers on what percent of the problem they are slated to solve
  • Give a major Dirty Energy plank quickly, with a plausible sounding excuse that does not demand substantial mental engagement by listeners; and,
  • Play semantic games which toss in short, easily overlooked language to define specific dead end energy technologies as if they are Living Energy Independence technologies.

Enough of each of these, and you can have an Energy Strategy that involves assuming oil addiction well beyond when that oil will be available to be addicted to, and massive investments in Dead-end Energy Technologies, with some minor window dressing in Living Energy development, and leave listeners with the impression that you have a big Living Energy speech.

Witness President Obama’s Energy speech last month at Georgetown University.

Advance Knowledge is a Bullshit Innoculation

A little knowledge in advance is a useful thing in fending off being conned by the strategy of dressing up a Dead-End Energy Strategy in Living Energy Independence clothing.

The first is the situation with oil. In conventional oil field, production in mature fields declines by 5% a year. So over the course of a single decade, a nation’s production in its mature oil fields at the start of the decade will decline by about 40%.

(its not 50%, because its 5% of the amount of the start of each year, and so the decline in year 10 is from a much smaller base than the decline in year 1.)

So new oil production equal to 40% of the production at the start of the decade is requires just to stay even. And the simple geography of real big oil fields is that they are really big, so they are relatively easy to find. The oil fields that are harder to find are the ones that are hard to find.

Given that we have been producing lots of oil for over a century, we have found all the fields that are big, easy to get at, and easy to produce. All of the remaining oil fields at this time will be small, and/or hard to get at, and/or hard to produce from.

That’s why fracking oil production is such a big deal: you get oil from fossil carbon because its gone low enough underground to “cook” but not so low that it overcooks and becomes mostly methane. Sometimes that happens in large quantities in porous rock, and that’s the big oil strikes that we have already made. Sometimes that happens in large quantities in non-porous rock, and that’s the big oil fields that we were unable to produce half a century ago. You have to invest energy and material in breaking that rock up underground to get at that oil.

That’s why “heavy oil” is such a big deal: some oil deposits were not underneath any capping rock, so the methane and volatile lighter liquids have long since escape, and only a thick sludge remains. You have to invest energy and material in getting that thick sludge to flow ~ or if its close to the surface, strip mine it and use energy and material to separate it on the surface.

And of course that’s why “deep water drilling” is such a big deal ~ some oil deposits are at locations a mile under water, so its damn hard to get the drilling rig to the oil to drill for them. Of course, when they turn into gushers a mile underwater, we might wish they were not to easy to get to the “surface”, a mile underwater, since we’ve learned what the Oil Industry has likely always known ~ its even harder to cap a gusher a mile underwater than it is to drill for oil that far down, which makes it “even harder than what we recently became able to do”.

None of this stuff is a big deal in the US of the 1930’s, with the big Texas oil fields producing. They are only a big deal now because we are scraping the bottom of the barrel, and have to produce oil from the dregs or from the barrel stuck way back on the top shelf that we risk knocking over and spilling as we grab for it.

And none of this stuff is going to indefinitely make up for the normal 40% loss of the mature fields of the beginning of the decade. “Drill Baby Drill” falls apart from the fact that we already got the easy stuff, and we have to scrape more from the bottom of the barrel than is actually there just to break even.

So when you see a chart like this one from International Energy Agency, you now know why that firm ground of future production from oil wells already developed is trending down the way it is, and why Oil E. Coyote’s footing is so insecure, standing as he is on top of oil production from fields yet to be developed including oil not yet discovered. A less magically optimistic estimate of where supplies of oil and natural gas and close substitutes will be heading over the next few decades comes from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil 2008 Base Case:

We have likely already hit the peak of regular oil, and adding the heavy oils raises the total but does not shift the peak much ~ as would Natural Gas Liquids if we shuffled the order that they are laid out in the diagram. Adding deepwater oil pushes the peak out to just about now. Adding natural gas and natural gas substitutes (eg., extraction of coal field methane) does not shift the peak, but it does push out the steeper part of the downward slide to the Twenty-Twenties.

And our economy relies primarily on oil and close oil substitutes to move. Without oil, as we presently run things … uhm, things do not run. Without oil, we are immobilized.

On the flip side of that, we presently produce substantially more oil and close oil substitutes than we consume for everything other than transportation. When the natural gas liquids and the recycling of a substantial amount of natural gas energy into Dead-End Biofuels is included, we import about half of our oil and close-oil-substitutes, and use more than half on transportation.

Indeed, transport’s share (the line in the above graph, with the percentage axis on the right hand side) has been growing over time ~ and the above graph shows that this is because electrical, residential and commercial use has been stable (dropping relative to activity, since that is more electricity, a bigger population, and more commercial activity in 2005 than in 1975), industrial use has been growing relatively slowly, with the biggest share of growth coming from the transport sector.

Which means, of course, if we were to shift to an oil-free transport sector over the next 20 years, we would require only modest changes in everything else to be entirely self-sufficient in oil. And we would not have to use up all our oil now, when it is worth $2~$3 a gallon (the oil, that is ~ gasoline also includes refining, transport, retailing, destroying cropland to make the Dead-End type of ethanol, etc.), but could have substantially more economic value available to use in the 2030~2050 time frame, when it will be worth $10~$20 a gallon or more.

Since, after all, what is “Drill Baby Drill” except being a “Drill and Burn” Oil Liberal, using it up now so our children and grandchildren will be resource poorer.

On To The Speech!

Now, on to the speech. After some buttering up the crowd:

In an economy that relies so heavily on oil, rising prices at the pump affect everybody — workers, farmers, truck drivers, restaurant owners, students who are lucky enough to have a car. (Laughter.) … And for Americans that are already struggling to get by, a hike in gas prices really makes their lives that much harder. It hurts.

Frame the problem as oil prices, rather then the fact that oil is a dead end as an energy source.

Now, here’s the thing — we have been down this road before. Remember, it was just three years ago that gas prices topped $4 a gallon. … And none of it was really going to do anything to solve the problem. There was a lot of hue and cry, a lot of fulminating and hand-wringing, but nothing actually happened. Imagine that in Washington. (Laughter.)

The truth is, none of these gimmicks, none of these slogans made a bit of difference. When gas prices finally did fall, it was mostly because the global recession had led to less demand for oil. …

The point is the ups and downs in gas prices historically have tended to be temporary. But when you look at the long-term trends, there are going to be more ups in gas prices than downs in gas prices. And that’s because you’ve got countries like India and China that are growing at a rapid clip, and as 2 billion more people start consuming more goods – they want cars just like we’ve got cars; they want to use energy to make their lives a little easier just like we’ve got – it is absolutely certain that demand will go up a lot faster than supply. It’s just a fact.

See how all that fact was used to sneak in the false premise that the problem is demand rising faster than supply, implying that supply is rising, “just not fast enough”? “Demand is rising in the face of stagnant and soon to be falling supply” presents a substantially different face.

Mind you, technically demand is “rising faster than supply” ~ just as if Joe is driving North, and Jack is driving South, Joe is “making more progress North” than Jack. So its not a flat-out lie ~ while still being quite misleading in its implication.

So here’s the bottom line: There are no quick fixes. Anybody who tells you otherwise isn’t telling you the truth. And we will keep on being a victim to shifts in the oil market until we finally get serious about a long-term policy for a secure, affordable energy future.

The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity, our long-term security on a resource that will eventually run out, and even before it runs out will get more and more expensive to extract from the ground. We can’t afford it when the costs to our economy, our country, and our planet are so high. Not when your generation needs us to get this right. It’s time to do what we can to secure our energy future.

These are both strictly true. Now, you’d think with that preface that the strategy being presented would involve getting serious, but it is not. And the “eventually runs out” is a misleading distraction from “will be available in smaller and smaller annual amounts from here on out”. So subtly misleading, but true statements on their face.

And today, I want to announce a new goal, one that is reasonable, one that is achievable, and one that is necessary.

When I was elected to this office, America imported 11 million barrels of oil a day. By a little more than a decade from now, we will have cut that by one-third. That is something that we can achieve. (Applause.) We can cut our oil dependence – we can cut our oil dependence by a third.

This is true. We can cut our oil dependence by a third in a decade. A serious policy of oil-free transport would mostly eliminate our oil dependence in two decades, and there are perfectly reasonable paths to that end that entail getting one third the first decade and two thirds the second decade.

I set this goal knowing that we’re still going to have to import some oil. It will remain an important part of our energy portfolio for quite some time, until we’ve gotten alternative energy strategies fully in force.

We cannot tell from the phrasing of the claim whether this is true or a lie, because it is left entirely vague how long “quite some time” is. If “quite some time” is two decades, it is, of course, a flat out lie.

If we had adopted a serious policy to drop the use of oil for transport in 1980, we would have been oil independent at the beginning of this decade. Instead, we elected Reagan. If we had adopted a serious policy to drop the use of oil for transport in 1992, we would be approaching oil independence now. Instead, we elected Clinton. And if we had adopted a serious policy to drop the use of oil for transport in 2000, we would be a third of the way there already, with the remaining two thirds coming out in the decade ahead, but instead we elected George W Bush.

We keep not deciding to do it, but that is a political choice, not a necessity. And it seems from President Obama’s policy announcement ~ given that the Republican alternative will necessarily be worse ~ that we are going to once again decide not to do it, so we will not, in fact, be on track to oil independence.

So it is in the broader context of the speech that we know that the claim is a lie: since the strategy does not present anywhere close to all that we could in fact do to pursue an end to our imported oil addiction, the amount of oil imports envisioned in the speech is certainly more than we “need to” import.

Given the policies presented, the claim that we will have to import oil “for some time” is a choice to remain addicted to oil, even though the alternative of not remaining addicted to oil is a feasible choice.

Obama’s Proposed Path To Continued Oil Addiction

This begins by continuing to increase America’s oil supply. Even for those of you who are interested in seeing a reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels – and I know how passionate young people are about issues like climate change – the fact of the matter is, is that for quite some time, America is going to be still dependent on oil in making its economy work.

This argument is a misleading shell game. People hearing it will assume that “increasing America’s oil supply” means that we are producing more oil per year, as part of the policy objective ~ which means at the end of ten year’s time, we will be pumping more American oil than we are now.

Indeed, the “Strategy” being described includes this short stretch of oil production figures, presented out of context, to make it seem plausible that the line could just keep heading up over the next ten years. In other words, despite mocking Drill Baby Drill, the plan incorporates the central false premise of Drill Baby Drill.

So here’s the missing context ~ and note what happened the last time that we did Drill, Baby Drill, in the 1980’s, getting a much bigger increase in oil production then, compared to the modest increase in production shown in the above graph:

Indeed, some of that dip in the first half of the decade was clearly a reduction of more than the usual amount, so starting the graph with that dip, as the Obama Energy Strategy does, is profoundly deceptive in two ways. Both the baseline set well above zero, and the contrast with a level in 2008 below levels, combine to give a misleading image of a massive increase in production.

New Energy Sources

Now, in terms of new sources of energy, we have a few different options. The first is natural gas. Recent innovations have given us the opportunity to tap large reserves — perhaps a century’s worth of reserves, a hundred years worth of reserves — in the shale under our feet. But just as is true in terms of us extracting oil from the ground, we’ve got to make sure that we’re extracting natural gas safely, without polluting our water supply.

There is a quite important, rhetorical, reason to shift from the supply side to the question of how safe this fracking gas is in the space of one paragraph. Diverting attention to the question of gas safety diverts attention away from the central factual shell game being played here.

One hundred years reserves at present rates of use is obviously less than one hundred year at higher rates of use. If we wish to double our use of natural gas to make up for presently imported oil, one hundred years reserves automatically becomes fifty years reserves. If we wish to quadruple our use of natural gas to make up for presently imported oil, then one hundred years reserves becomes twenty five years reserves.

And of course, that’s just gross production. As the “flammable water” effect makes clear ~ the ability to burn water coming out of the faucet when fracking chemicals get into underground water supplies ~ fracking uses fossil-fuel derived chemicals as part of the material resource required to release natural gas bound in non-porous rock. And pumping the material under pressure to fracture the shale takes energy.

So compared to the conventional natural gas produced as a side-effect of oil production, where the natural gas is either used in some way or must be flared off to reduce the risk of explosion, the net energy yield of “one hundred years” of fracking gas reserves is less than one hundred year’s worth of conventional natural gas.

This slicing of “100 years” into fifty or even twenty five years is required if we were to shift to natural gas in a big way in transport. Natural gas electricity production is more compatible with volatile energy sources such as wind and solar than coal power is, so if we are pursuing a substantial reduction in dead-end electricity by expanding renewable energy supply, natural gas electricity is the last dead-end energy source we should phase out of electricity production.

Relying on natural gas in a big way in transport would implies that we use a lot more gas per year, and then there goes the “100 years reserve” out the window. While the following diagram, which measures energy in “Quads”, is necessarily a tangle, note that the total domestic gas energy supply (left hand side near the top) is smaller than the oil energy going into transport (middle right near the bottom, so cutting oil energy use in transport by 10% by shifting to natural gas requires more than 10% growth in US domestic gas production:

And of course, although fracking gas requires constant new drilling ~ each fracking gas well only produces for a relatively short period of time ~ the effect of finding and exploiting the “big” finds first also applies to fracking gas. “One hundred years of reserves”, exploited at two and a half times that rate would imply annual production levels tailing off sometime around the twenty year mark ~ in other words, creating a “Peak Gas” crisis as a result of shifting to Natural Gas to evade the “Peak Oil” crisis.

And You Knew that Coal Power Can Be Clean Power ~ Right?

And just like the fuels we use in our cars, we’re going to have to find cleaner renewable sources of electricity. Today, about two-fifths of our electricity come from clean energy sources. But we can do better than that. I think that with the right incentives in place, we can double our use of clean energy. And that’s why, in my State of the Union address back in January, I called for a new Clean Energy Standard for America: By 2035, 80 percent of our electricity needs to come from a wide range of clean energy sources – renewables like wind and solar, efficient natural gas.

Aha, 80% from “clean energy” sources. BTW, that includes an increase in natural gas consumed to make electricity ~ but we have “100 years reserves” as long as we don’t increase the rate that we use it.

… oh, and the finale of that paragraph:

And, yes, we’re going to have to examine how do we make clean coal and nuclear power work.

We know from the record on “safe oil drilling” in the “Drill Baby Drill” part of the Energy Strategy what it means to “make something work”.

How it works is to say what ought to be true, and then say that it is true.

A tremendous efficiency is gained by skipping, in the process, finding out whether it it true. As The Rachel Maddow Show has documented, new oil drilling permits are being handed out now based on 2009 oil safety plans, which could not possibly incorporate “lessons learned” from the BP oil disaster. And a recent study of the cut-off system in the blowout preventer. The “blind shear” component of the blowout preventer is not necessarily able to cope with bent pipe. And a blowout can bend the pipe. And that is the same technology that the drilling now being issued permits relies upon.

But say that safety has to be assured, and then say that it has been assured.

The same method makes it straightforward to “make clean nuclear power and coal work”. Say that it has to be done, then say that it has been done. Fixed.

“Safer” nuclear power could quite clearly be pursued. There are nuclear power technologies that, unlike Light Water Reactors, are passively fail safe against meltdown. Molten salt may be part of a safer technology, because while water gets less effective at blocking the nuclear chain reaction as it heats into steam, molten salt gets more effective at blocking the nuclear chain reaction as it heats. Thorium fuel cycles may be part of a safer technology. Whether that “safer” is safe enough ~ that is not an issue I am going to look at here.

But its much simpler to simply say we need to make nuclear power safer, do something, then declare that whatever the result was is safe enough.

And “Clean Coal” was always in the past about reducing the amount of damage done by coal fired electricity. (including radioactive emission, since coal power plants in normal operation are much bigger emitters than nuclear power plants in normal operation). Making it “clean” in the sense of not emitting carbon dioxide from a process that is at its core combining carbon with oxygen to release heat and carbon dioxide ~ that is a technological challenge that we have no guarantee will ever be accomplished.

But its much simpler to simply say we need “Clean Coal”, do something, and then declare that whatever the result is, is clean enough.

A Serious End to Oil Imports

Most importantly, we know that the Strategy presented in Georgetown is not a serious effort to end imported oil because it does not call for the things that could do that.

Increasing the energy efficiency of gasoline powered automobiles can reduce oil imports ~ it obviously cannot eliminate it, unless the liquid fuel is also replaced.

Yet increasing production of Living Biofuel must first replace the production of Dead-End Biofuel, and sustainably harvest sufficient energy to replace oil is another as-yet unproven technology.

The energy use in our transportation sector in 2008 ~ and as shown above, we are so close to 100% dependent on oil and related fuels for transport that this is roughly our oil consumption ~ is:

  • 62% (61.4%) light vehicles and trucks
  • 16% (15.6%) heavy truck freight
  • 10% (9.7%) Air
  • 4% (3.6%) Shipping
  • 3% (2.7%) Military Use
  • 2% (2.4%) Pipeline Fuel
  • 2% Rail
  • 1% Bus
  • 1% Recreational Boating
  • 0.5% lubricants

We can do all we want to about more efficient recreational boats, more efficient school buses, and more efficient trains and ships ~ and unless it included shifting out of light vehicles, heavy freight trucks and air, it won’t be more than nibbling at the edges.

OK, assume that we can use natural gas production to stave off the impact of declining domestic oil production over the next twenty years. Then with half of our current use of liquid fuels coming from oil imports, and transport using 60% of our liquid fuels (70% at the depth of the recession, but that is only because industrial production is the second ranking consumer, and industrial production was way down), eliminating 5/6 of our oil use by transport accomplishes the goal.

OK, let me assume that we can provide 20% of our transport power from Living Biofuels on an across the board sustainable basis. How do we get the above mix to Import Independence in twenty years?

For Air, let’s assume that 1/4 of current air patronage can be shifted to electrified HSR, 1/4 can be eliminated through improved communication technology, 1/2 is fueled by liquid biofuel. In terms of totals, that would bring us to:

  • 2.5% conserved
  • 2.5% electric powered
  • 5% biofuel (15% available)
  • 2.5% oil (14% available)

For heavy truck freight, lets assume that 50% can be shifted to electric Steel Interstates, which amounts to 45% energy conserved and 5% electricity, 50% can be shifted to Pluggable Hybrid Electric local truck freight, 15% electric and 15% biofuel, and 20% conserved through improved efficiency. In terms of totals, this brings us to:

  • 10.9% conserved,
  • 5.7% electric powered,
  • 7.4% biofuel (12.6% available)

For light motor vehicles, conserve 20% of powered transport through providing clustered local trip centers, walkability, and cycle transport, shift 20% to local neighborhood electric vehicle, shift 20% to metropolitan electric vehicles, save 20% by doubling the energy efficiency of the remaining pluggable hybrid electric vehicles, consuming 20% of balance as electricity and 20% as biofuels. In terms of cumulative totals, this brings us to:

  • 22.9% conserved,
  • 41.7% electric powered
  • 19.4% biofuel (0.6% available)

Of course, by making the three big consumers entirely oil independent, the 16% of current oil available is sufficient for all of existing shipping, rail, buses, recreational boating, pipeline power and transport lubricants. Yet, obviously, there are opportunities to reduce the oil consumption of the less than 16% that constitutes “all other transport energy use”.

Can this program be accomplished? Certainly not in ten years. If ten years is “a substantial period of time”, even adopting this program will leave us as import oil addicts in a decade. And much of this ~ the biofuel components for example ~ cannot be started now, but rather require us to lay the foundation in this decade and would primarily roll out in the second decade.

So this would be more like 30% to 40% imported oil independent in the decade ahead, with two decades to hit 100% imported oil independent.

But, on the other hand, I have left potential transport energy power sources on the table. Even if the Living Biofuels do not pan out to this level ~ there is still renewable electric power producing ammonia, there is still solid biomass in the form of biocoal and the possibility of direct carbon fuel cells, and given the massive energy wastage in our transport system, there are likely greater energy conservation gains available.

And unlike the “stay an addict forever, just consuming at lower levels” strategy proposed by the Administration, the “kick imported oil completely in twenty years” strategy involves being on the road to independence, so that if when we hit the increasingly more serious limits to availability to imported oil over the next two decades, we will be able to respond by doing what we are already doing, just faster.

By contrast, the Administration approach to give up on kicking our imported oil habit means that when it becomes critical to start doing so rapidly, we will have to arrive at policies to allow us to do so in the middle of the economic turmoil of massive oil price shocks.

And having experienced two oil price shocks as a kid and one as an adult, I worry that our already irrational policy process only becomes less rational when faced with oil price shock.

Midnight Oil ~ King of the Mountain

Blacksmith fires up the bellows

Cane Cutters Burning the Load

Workers of the World

Run to the Top of the Mountain

1 comment

  1. BruceMcF

Leave a Reply