MuseLetter #240 / May 2012 by Richard Heinberg
Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 119 KB)
This month’s newsletter comes in 2 parts. The first part is what I hope you will find a useful and timely FAQ on current issues. It is the culmination of my experience from Q&A sessions during recent lecture tours. It is also a key part of the support kit for budding presenters out there who want to make use of Post Carbon Institute’s new customizable presentation “YOU ARE HERE: The Oil Journey”*. Part 2 is a new essay on gasoline—what it is, and what it means to us.
Top 11 FAQs for “Oil Journey” Presenters
I’ve been giving lectures on Peak Oil for over a decade now, and always look forward to the question period after the main show. It’s an opportunity to interact with the audience, and to see where my presentation may need tweaking or where my thinking may be shallow or incorrect.
Now Post Carbon Institute is offering a tool to help others who wish to give presentations about our global sustainability crisis—a beautiful PowerPoint called “YOU ARE HERE: The Oil Journey
,” featuring a script and images that are geared to general audience with little prior understanding of the issue. Presenters of “YOU ARE HERE” are likely to be bombarded with a lot of the same questions I’ve heard over the years, so I thought it might be helpful if I compiled some of those. Other presenters may have answers to these questions different from mine, and that’s of course fair; consider these to be mere examples, suggestions, or conversation openers.
Here are the top 11, along with brief sample replies and some resources for further reading.
1. But what about natural gas? I’ve heard we had a 100 year supply. Can’t we use natural gas in place of oil? Won’t natural gas be a good “bridge fuel” to get us to a green, growing energy economy?
A: Actually, US proven reserves of natural gas amount to only about 12 years’ worth of supply. More gas resources will no doubt be discovered, thus adding to those reserves, but most of the new sources will be in “tight” shale deposits, where production costs and depletion rates are high. Currently there is a shale gas supply glut due to very high rates of drilling a few years ago, when natural gas prices were several times their current level. But now that gas is so cheap, the producers that specialize in shale “fracking” are actually losing money; therefore they’re cutting back on drilling. In a year or two we will see declining production and higher prices. Bottom line: while it’s true that new technology has increased natural gas supplies over the short term, the long-term outlook is more complicated. Natural gas is a depleting fossil fuel, and technology cannot change that fundamental fact. Natural gas will not substitute in any meaningful way for increasingly expensive oil, because very few vehicles currently are able to use natural gas and it will take decades to change that situation—and gas supplies won’t be sufficient even if we could retrofit existing vehicles fast enough. Moreover, the climate impact of producing and burning gas from shale deposits is no better than that of mining and burning coal—so the environmental argument for using more natural gas doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
2. I’ve read about the extraordinary potential for “tight oil”—petroleum trapped in low-porosity rocks like shale, that’s produced by hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling. Apparently so much of this is coming from North Dakota now that it’s causing total US oil production to increase. Some people are even saying that America could be oil independent within a few years.
A: Yes, tight oil production in North Dakota is booming—but why? Geologists have known about the Bakken oil deposits for a long time, and have had the technology needed to get the oil out of the ground. But costs of extraction were too high to justify drilling. Now that rates of global crude oil production are failing to grow to meet new demand, oil prices are very high—and that makes production of marginal sources like tight oil economically viable. And that in turn means continued production from these sources depends upon continued high oil prices: if the price level falls, production will slow. Several analysts have described recent claims for reserves and potential production rates from tight oil plays as overoptimistic. A realistic forecast shows US crude oil production continuing to increase for the next decade (as a result of additional tight oil and deepwater production), but then resuming its decline. In this most-likely-case scenario, US crude oil production in 2020 will not come close to matching the peak it achieved in 1970. Unless Americans reduce their oil consumption significantly, the nation will still be hooked on imports.
3. What about coal? I heard we have a 250-year supply. Won’t coal keep our economy growing, even if the environmental consequences are awful?
A: Several recent studies (including ones by the USGS) have concluded that coal supplies for the US and the world as a whole have been exaggerated. Enormous amounts of coal exist, but the great majority of it is unlikely ever to be mined because of its depth, the insufficient thickness of seams, and the quality of the resource. As with other fossil fuels, we have already picked the low-hanging fruit. Two recent studies conclude that global coal output could peak within the next decade or so. Meanwhile, as China’s consumption grows (that country now uses 4 billion tons per year, fully half the world’s production), coal prices are set to increase substantially even in countries that are self-sufficient in supply, like the US.
Further reading: Richard Heinberg, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis,
Introduction and Chapter 8; Heinberg and Fridley, “The End of Cheap Coal
Vol. 468, November 18, 2010
4. Then what about nuclear? Couldn’t modular/thorium/breeder reactors power the world for centuries?
A: Too expensive and too risky. A detailed report in a recent issue of The Economist magazine—not known for any knee-jerk anti-nuclear stance—called nuclear power “the dream that failed,” and concluded that its role in the foreseeable world energy picture will never be more than marginal. The ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Japan has led that country to abandon nuclear power, and Germany is following suit. Even though China appears to be doubling down on its nuclear bets, from a global perspective the industry is essentially moribund.
Further reading: The Economist,
Special Report, “Nuclear Energy: The Dream that Failed,” March 10-16, 2012; Tom Murphy, “Nuclear Options
5. Isn’t the real problem human population? What’s a truly sustainable human population? Won’t there be a huge die-off?
A: Yes, population is a vitally important issue. Population growth exacerbates every problem facing us. As the global economy stagnates or contracts, the impact of declines in per-capita industrial output can be reduced by policies to rein in population growth. Moreover, a good argument can be made that family planning investments will benefit the poorest nations first and foremost, since large, poor families tend to spend all their income on food and shelter, leaving no surplus for education or the formation of a small business. But while good population policy is desperately needed, it is no cure-all: changing demographic trends is a slow process, and many of the challenges facing us will converge over the course of the next couple of decades—far too quickly to be adequately addressed by reducing birth rates. So we need to think systemically to address a range of economic and ecological issues simultaneously while doing our best to support seven billion humans and counting. And while we’re doing all that, we also need to reduce birth rates.
6. When I think about all of these challenges, I just get overwhelmed. Where do we go for hope?
A: First, address your mental state. If you’re emotionally overwhelmed by information about climate change and resource depletion, you may need to ration your news intake so as to increase your effectiveness at helping tackle these enormous global problems. Spending hours a day in front of a computer screen feeds depression. Take time off, go outdoors, do some gardening, and interact with other people face-to-face. You will probably find inspiration in community resilience-building projects, where you can see and touch the results of your and your friends’ efforts. Cultivate a creative hobby and spend time in nature. Your efforts to save the world will be far more effective if other people perceive your mental and emotional state as being grounded and balanced. That doesn’t mean you should deny and suppress the pain and fear that any healthy human inevitably feels when contemplating the fix we’re in. Allow yourself to feel those emotions (otherwise you’ll be detached and inauthentic at best, unhinged at worst), but don’t let yourself be incapacitated by them.
Further reading: Kathy McMahon, “The Survival Mindset
”; Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
7. I’ve been thinking this way for years. The problem is all those people who don’t “get it.” How do we convince them?
A: I wish I had a sure-fire answer to that one. Sometimes simple persistence pays off. If people have dug themselves into a certain worldview, it may take time for them to change their ways of seeing. It’s important for you to have the facts at your command, but it’s just as important to create “frames,” as George Lakoff calls them—stories that make sense of the data. Often simple metaphors, such as “low-hanging fruit,” help people grasp the essential character of situations that might otherwise require lengthy explanation. It’s also important to tailor the message to the audience: if you understand where other people are coming from, it’s much easier to connect with them. Unfortunately, there are many people who are completely invested in maintaining a cornucopian view of the world, and there may be no way of reaching those people. Don’t waste your time on them; focus your attention on people who can be educated.
8. Isn’t the real problem one of distribution? If wealthy Americans didn’t consume so much, there’d be enough for everyone. Similarly, if the “one percent” weren’t siphoning all the world’s wealth, we’d all be doing fine. Shouldn’t we just be fighting for fairness?
A: As long as our economy is set up in such a way that it requires continued growth in order to function, then even if we distribute wealth fairly we will hit resource limits and fail. That’s not to say that equity is unimportant. As the national and global economy inevitably shift from growth to contraction, more equitable distribution will be necessary if we are to maintain social stability. If distribution of wealth becomes even more inequitable (and that’s the current trend), people will rightly conclude that the system is inherently unfair and not worth saving. They will rebel, and governments will crack down brutally to maintain the status quo. The result will be a chaotic, violent collapse of the entire system. It doesn’t have to end that way. If wealth is more evenly distributed as a result of reform, and if everyone is encouraged to understand the challenge facing us, then people can be persuaded to make shared sacrifices in order to build an economy that fits within Earth’s limits.
9. Aren’t the oil and car companies sitting on patents for free energy devices or carburetors that get 100 mpg? Can’t we solve our energy problems just by defeating these evil corporations?
A: I’ve heard stories about suppressed energy technologies, but have been unable to verify them. Typically the stories entail oil or car companies buying up patents and hiding them, but every patent ever issued in the US is freely searchable, so it should be easy enough to find these “suppressed” inventions. On the other hand, many machines that have been patented don’t actually work, and that’s why they haven’t been commercialized. Now, it’s true that the automobile industry actively discouraged the development of new safety features, including seat belts, and also lobbied Congress for decades to delay energy-efficiency regulations. Moreover, the oil companies have spent enormous sums in efforts to distort and mute both the scientific research and the public discussion regarding climate change. Such corporate abuses must be brought to an end, and I support activist efforts to do that. However, even if they succeed, that won’t solve the basic problem: we’ve become addicted to energy sources that are unsustainable, and there are no “silver bullet” alternatives that will enable us to maintain economic growth such as we’ve seen over the past century.
10. The problems seem so huge, the solutions so small. How can little efforts like Transition Towns hope to deal with war, resource depletion, and climate change, if national governments can’t?
A: There are two answers to that question. First: We have to do what we can. Yes, fundamental national and international reforms are needed to deal with global problems like climate change and resource depletion, and activist efforts to address those issues are needed now more than ever. But we are seeing a general deterioration in the ability of our national political system to respond both to converging global problems and to the public’s concerns. Reforming our national government is a big, multi-decade job, if it’s even possible to accomplish. Our economic and environmental problems will not remain on hold while we put the country’s political system in order, so we have to do what we can where we have more leverage—at the local level. Second: There are good reasons for working locally anyway, regardless of difficulties in achieving national and international reforms. Localization is inevitable as transport fuels become more scarce and expensive. If we don’t increase local self-sufficiency proactively, the reversal of globalization will result in the collapse of essential support systems—so building local food systems should be our first priority. Also, local organizing creates the necessary basis for political, social, and economic change at higher levels.
11. Innovation has solved problems and opened opportunities for us in the past. Why would you think that innovation can’t solve all our problems now? Don’t we just need to put more money into research?
A: Innovation will be essential as we adapt to our new economic reality. Some new technologies (such as renewable energy and ways to use energy and resources more efficiently) will need to expand significantly. But every technology has its costs. Economies cannot grow forever, even if they are based on renewable energy. We must adjust to the fact that our civilization has reached limits with regard to population, water, soil, raw materials, and, in all likelihood, energy. In the end, our adaptation will require as much social innovation as technological change, as we learn to live with less, and to live more equitably.
Next time you find yourself in traffic, try this nifty thought exercise. Ignore the cars within your field of vision and imagine instead the contents of their fuel tanks. Visualize gasoline flowing up and down the highway.
Let’s assume the typical American car carries seven gallons of refined petroleum product in its tank at any given moment (a 15-gallon tank half-full). That’s a lot of liquid to be carting around. In fact, gasoline is the second-most-consumed fluid in the US after water. Each American household consumes an average of 350 gallons of water per day and 2.5 gallons of gasoline; milk, coffee, and beer clock in at .15 gallons, .12 gallons, and .1 gallons respectively.
If you do this visualization exercise, you might find yourself seeing rivulets, streams, and—in the case of big freeways—rivers of gasoline coursing across the land. For the US as a whole, 400 million gallons of gasoline enter the flow every day. But, since we routinely carry more gasoline with us than we intend to use immediately, the total amount in car gas tanks at any given moment is roughly seven times larger, so that America’s gasoline rivers slosh with 2.8 billion gallons on any given day.
A real river or stream is the spine of a watershed and the heart of a riparian ecosystem. Trees, shrubs, insects and their larvae, fish, birds, amphibians, and mammals all derive their livelihoods from flowing water.
A river of gasoline is sterile by comparison, even though petroleum itself is composed of some of the same main elements as living things—carbon and hydrogen. Oil is a fossil fuel, after all, made of heaps and heaps of dead algae compressed and heated over millions of years so that carbohydrates became hydrocarbons. Gasoline rivers are no place for non-human life forms: only the most daring of weeds and foolhardy of animals venture there, with the latter often ending up as road kill. Indeed, highways could be thought of as rivers of death.
Water makes itself seen and felt as it falls from the sky and collects in puddles, ponds, lakes, and oceans. The tiny fraction of Earth’s water that enters municipal delivery systems temporarily disappears into a maze of pipes but soon re-emerges at the ends of faucets and showerheads.
Gasoline is covert and furtive by comparison. Oil emerges from wells and, via pipelines, enters refineries; from these, gasoline gushes through more pipes that carry it to regional distribution centers, whence it is delivered by tanker truck to filling stations. We travel to those stations to dispense gas by hose into the tanks of our cars; from those tanks it is delivered to its final moment of combustion within the engine. At no point along its path is oil or gasoline customarily exposed to public view.
What we see instead, for the most part, is the automobile—a painstakingly crafted exoskeleton that carries gasoline and humans from place to place—and a landscape substantially altered to suit automobiles. We obsess over our cars: they are our symbols of freedom and status. We judge them by the elegance of their design, their top speed, and their acceleration. We revere their brand names—Mercedes, Ferrari, Jaguar, Bentley, Cadillac, Lexus. We take for granted the gasoline that makes them go, until a gauge or warning light on the dashboard forces us to pull over and buy more. Yet without gas there would be no point to the automobile; even the brawniest Porsche could do no more than ornament a driveway.
We complain about the price of gasoline, yet at four dollars per gallon it is cheaper than coffee, beer, or milk—cheaper even than most bottled water.
Unlike those other liquids, gasoline is explosive. It literally gives us a bang—and a fairly big bang, at that. Visualize slowly pushing your car miles at a time, your leg and arm muscles straining to move a ton or two of metal, and you may gain some appreciation for how much power is being released by each drop of the gasoline that speeds our cars down the road with virtually no effort required on our part.
Visualize gasoline-powered civilization arising as if by some maniacally accelerated evolutionary process. It all began so recently, in the mid-nineteenth century, and spread across the globe in mere decades. Automobiles mutated and competed for dominance on vast networks of roads built to accommodate them. Shopping malls and parking garages sprang up to attract and hold them. And powering it all was an ever-widening but mostly invisible river of gasoline—the poisonous blood of 700 million dinosaur-like machines that now dot landscapes around the world.
Visualize gasoline’s combustion by-products spewing out of millions of tailpipes and into the air breathed by children. As we pump oil out of the ground we transfer ancient carbon from the Earth’s crust into the atmosphere at a rate of 5.2 metric tons per car per year. A car that gets 25 miles per gallon of gasoline spews 47 gallons of CO2 per mile (at standard temperature and pressure). Like gasoline, carbon dioxide is invisible most of the time; you have to use your powers of visualization to see the thickening blanket of CO2 that traps more and more of Earth’s heat.
Visualize ancient subterranean oil reservoirs rapidly depleting, with half of Earth’s entire inheritance of conventional crude converted to CO2 and water during the lifetime of an average baby boomer (1950-2025). Already, nations are straining to adjust to declining oil abundance, searching for alternatives, and fighting over what’s left. No, we’re not running out of oil. We’ve only begun tapping tar sands, tight oil, and polar oil. But what’s left, though impressive in quantity, will be expensive, risky, and slow to extract.
Visualize a time, years or decades from now, when machines designed to burn gasoline sit idle, rusting, and abandoned. No, we won’t quickly and easily switch to electric cars. In order for that to happen, the economy would have to keep growing, so that more and more people could afford to buy new (and more expensive) automobiles. A more likely scenario: as fuel gets increasingly expensive the economy will falter, rendering the transition to electric cars too little, too late.
Visualize life without gasoline. You might as well start doing so now, at least in imagination; soon enough, this will no longer be an exercise. Already prices are high and volatile. Next we’ll see international conflicts that shut down big portions of the global oil trade for weeks or months at a time. Strategic reserves will be tapped. The government will commandeer supplies for the military and police. One way or another, you’ll be using much less gasoline than you do today. How will your food be grown and transported? How will you get around? Will your job still exist? How will your community function?
Visualizing gasoline won’t make more of it magically appear. But understanding the extent of our dependence on it helps us address our vulnerability to the inevitable process of depletion. Imagining a world without gasoline could be a useful first step in preparing for a future that’s coming at us whether we’re ready or not.
FAQ board image via shutterstock