THE COMING IMPORT CRUNCH

Our old friend, Richard Heinberg, in his Museletter #218 has provided an interesting set of statistics that are sure to give you pause.  According to his calculations, between 2005 and 2008, U.S. net imports fell from 12.5 million barrels per day to 11 million barrels per day – a decline of about 1.5 million barrels per day. During that same time period, China and India’s combined imports rose from 4.6 to 6 million barrels per day, or close to 1.5 million barrels per day. So, it looks like, as we use less, they are using more and essentially taking up all the excess slack.

But here’s the real kicker, according to Heinberg, if we extrapolate these trends, China and India’s net oil imports would exceed U.S. net oil imports some time around 2013 – about three years from now.  And  here’s the worst part of it. If we express China and India’s net oil imports as a percentage of the exports from the top five net oil exporters (Saudi Arabia, Russia, Norway, Iran and the UAE) China and India went from importing the equivalent of 19% of these countries’ combined net oil exports in 2005 to importing 27% of their combined net oil exports in 2008. Heinberg then goes on to conclude that, extrapolating on that trend, China and India will be importing the equivalent of 100% of the combined net oil exports from the top five oil exporters sometime around 2019. I graphed the situation and it looks like this:

Which means that if you’re worried about our continued dependence on foreign oil, you can stop.  Our oil import problem is about to solve itself in the form of, well, no more oil for us to import.  I guess that’s good.  Unless, like me, you think the only thing worse than foreign oil is no oil at all.  

Of course, that can’t be possible.  Mainly because it would be unimaginably bad for my lifestyle. And since I can’t imagine it, it can’t happen, right?  Besides, everyone knows that trends lines on graphs never continue uninterrupted. Something will happen to alter the extrapolated curve – tar sands, oil shale, visitors from outer space, whatever. Bottom line is, I don’t care what these peak oil doomers would have me believe with their graphs and their statistics and their charts. The American way of life is non negotiable. So, something will happen to alter our fate. That’s just reality. And, in recognition of this reality, I have created my own graph. And here it is:

Basically, what I’ve done is pushed and pulled a few assumptions and parameters, and voila, the problem is solved on my terms. I call it the economist’s graph. You’ll probably notice the big bump that really makes the difference out at the end of the trend line. That’s the new energy source that we haven’t discovered yet but that I am sure we will any day. That’s big. But, don’t take my word for it. Ask any expert, except Richard Heinberg. The guy just can’t read a graph.

THE SIMPLE REALITY BEHIND GLOBAL WARMING

I want to get this off my chest. I just don’t understand the global warming debate. I mean, I get the scientific theory underlying global warming. What I don’t understand is how Americans, who freely admit to being scientifically illiterate on most other subjects, are suddenly all experts on this issue. My guess is that what’s really going on is that global warming is just another form of theology to most of these people. After all, it’s a lot easier to just assume one’s conclusion on something that requires thought and analysis than to actually have to read something on the subject, right?

And that’s too bad. Because, whether you want to believe it or not, the basic science behind global warming is really very simple. And it works like this. If we were to pump carbon dioxide into a clear glass cylinder and expose it to a light source, the temperature of the gas inside the cylinder will rise higher than would a glass cylinder filled with ambient (regular) air. This is because the carbon dioxide slows that rate at which the gas inside the glass can dissipate the energy the glass absorbs from the light source. We can run that experiment 100 times and the result will be the same every time. Believe me. Better yet, do it yourself. Everyone who runs this test will get the same result, whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. It’s just one of the characteristics of carbon dioxide that it does this. And that’s one of the nice thing about science. You don’t get to vote on it. The physical world will continue to do what it does regardless of your individual opinions, thoughts and desires. So all you really need to remember is this – all other things being equal, the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the higher the temperature will tend to be.

Now I understand, and so does everyone else, that, while the scientific principal behind global warming is simple, the earth is a complex system and there are other variables in play. And so, the global mean temperature is subject to a lot of other potential influencers. As a matter of precise science, the impact of these other influencers at any given time makes modeling the precise timing and impact of global warming very difficult. And it’s these details that the global warming sceptics are really quibbling about when they attack the theory. It’s the complexity that gives them the ability to interject a bunch of “maybes” into the argument. Maybe increased water vapor in the air will counteract the effects of the carbon dioxide by reflecting more sunlight. Maybe the sun will get dimmer and pump out less energy. If one or more of these “maybes” were consistent with any currently observable phenomena or data, they might be entitled to some traction. However, as far as I know, they aren’t, so they don’t. After all, if frogs had wings, they wouldn’t bump on the ground when they hopped. But they don’t, so they do. The reality is that all obfuscating conjecture aside, for the purposes of simply projecting the general trend of the global mean (average) temperature over time, the other influencers of temperature and climate tend to fluxuate within given ranges and so, cancel each other out. And so, for the purposes plotting the long term trend, the other variables essentially remain constant. The only variable that changes is carbon dioxide. So the long term trend continues to be up. That’s what we are seeing and it’s consistent with increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but, after holding relatively stable of for about a decade, the average global temperature has begun to rise again over the past six months. Why it stabilized for approximately a decade is anyone’s guess. However, given the nature the climate system, it was a pretty safe bet that the temperature was not going to remain stable forever. The only question was whether the graph would begin to trend up or down. And, while we all might have hoped that the graph would have begun to trend down, I wouldn’t have bet on it for the reasons stated above. And sure enough, it has begun trending upward again. Once again, this trend is consistent with carbon dioxide load being a principal influencer of global temperature and inconsistent with the theory that other influencers can be counted on to cancel it out.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that there will be just as many people deriding the notion of global warming tomorrow as there are today and raising the same hypotheticals without any supporting data. Just remember that we went through this same charade a few decades ago with regard to cigarette smoking with all the same sorts of obfuscating nonsense. To which the simple answer was if there was no connection between cigarettes and poor health, how come cigarette smokers got lung cancer and emphysema and non smokers seldom did. Some things are just common sense. Cigarettes cause cancer and carbon dioxide causes global warming. Depend on it.

 

 

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY – THE HOPE AND THE HYPE

Well, I guess it had to happen. The gulf blowout has brought oil issues to the public attention in a way normally reserved for $4.00 a gallon gasoline. So now we all wring our hands and wonder what’s going on. How come, after 100 years of happy motoring, we’re having all these oil issues? And most importantly, whose fault is it? I don’t know the answer. All I know is that all of a sudden we seem to be having a lot of trouble producing enough oil at a price I want to pay. So what I want now is a solution, and one that isn’t going to inconvenience me. Something like – well – “Drill Baby Drill.” What ever happened to that one?

Someone better think of something fast because all this oil business is really messing up my long term plans. I mean, I know oil is a finite commodity and that we are bound to start running short of it someday. Everyone gets that. So you doomer environmentalists can spare me the lecture. It’s just that I always figured I could keep on with the happy motoring lifestyle at least for another 20 or 30 years then just fob the problem off on my kids. They’ll be bummed. But I won’t care. I’ll be dead. It’s their problem. But now they’re telling me that the stuff we need to keep happy motoring going is going to start running out sooner rather than later. So I need a plan B.

Luckily, as it turns out, the Greens and Al Gore have already worked that out for us. Just build wind mills and solar panels, link them together with a trillion dollars worth of smart grid, wave a magic wand to replace our 300 million gasoline cars with electric, and the problem is solved. Sounds good, but just to be sure, I did the math. And here it is. A barrel of oil can produce about 1.5 megawatt hours of energy. The average wind turbine can generate a maximum of 3 megawatts. However, because of the vagaries of wind, a 3 megawatt turbine will generate 1 megawatt on average. So, each hour, the average wind turbine generates about 1 megawatt hour of energy. Over a twenty four hour period our wind turbine can generate 24 megawatt hours of energy. That’s about 16 barrels of oil. We burn about 20 million barrels of oil in this country each day. So, if each wind turbine can replace 16 barrels of oil, that means we only need 1,250,000 wind turbines to replace our oil. We already have 35,000 megawatts installed right now. So, that’s about 12,000 turbines. Only 1,238,000 to go. I’m thinking if we really kick it, we can put up 50 a day. That’s 18,250 per year. At that rate, we’ll have them all up by the year….. 2078.  So now I’m starting to think alternative energy is not going to be the ticket to keep me mindlessly motoring either. At least not in the time frame I need. I guess that makes sense if you think about it. After all, if windmills were so great, why didn’t the Dutch stick with them?

But, if the oil’s running out, and the windmills aren’t going to keep me on the road, my future is not looking too good. You’re probably thinking the same thing. But stay calm. The problem will ultimately solve itself one way or the other. People have lived for hundreds of thousands of years without gasoline and cars an air conditioning and refrigeration and all that other stuff and they did just fine, didn’t they? Well, I guess it depends on whether you think chasing a Wooley Mammoth with a sharpened stick is a better deal than dinner at the pizza shack. Me, I’m not so sure.

So now I’m thinking that maybe I’ve just been framing the problem wrong. Until now, my attitude has always been, if you can’t come up with something at least as good as oil, then don’t bother me with it. You’re probably like me. And you’ve been thinking, if they can put a man on the moon why can’t they come up with an energy source that doesn’t inconvenience me or require any sacrifice on my part, right? But if that’s not going to happen, maybe what we really need to do is get some perspective on the issue. Let me tell you what I mean. Imagine you’re zipping along in your car when you suddenly run out of gas. Bummer right? One minute you’re cruising down the road like a god from Mount Olympus, and the next, you’re on foot like primitive man. Now, imagine that this takes place in the long, long ago, before cell phones, so you can’t phone for help. What do you do? You do what we did back then. You start walking. At that point, a horse or a bicycle starts to look pretty good.

And that’s what I mean about perspective. Compared to what we have today, a world run on renewables maybe doesn’t look so good. However, compare it to a world where everyone’s on foot and living in mud huts or whatever and it starts to look a lot better. Not that there’s anything wrong with walking. But when you’ve been on foot for a while, a horse or a bicycle starts to look pretty good. And a train looks like a veritable magic carpet. And, if we act while we still have the chance, alternative energy might be able to deliver something along those lines.

But, here’s the thing about alternative energy. Just like you’ve got to dig a well before you need the water, you’ve got to build your alternative energy system while you’ve still got the oil to help you build it. Sitting around yelling “Drill Baby Drill” while the oil to runs out will guarantee that your kids will be on foot. They’ll be out there trying to build a wind and solar powered system with hammer and tongs. And that’s going to be a real bummer. So, I guess my thinking is, when it comes to alternative energy and alternative transportation systems, I’m not going to hold out for something as good as what we have. My attitude is – does it beat walking? If it does, I’m all for it. And I’m all for it right now.

Don’t agree with me? That’s fine. I don’t have crystal ball. But have fun walking.

THE OIL PEAK – ARE WE THERE YET? or WHERE’S MY ELECTRIC CAR?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s currently a big debate going on over whether we’re “running out of oil.” I’m no expert, but I don’t see how can we be running out of oil when we’ve got a 100,000 barrel a day gusher in the gulf. And that’s just one well !  Then there’s the tar sands and the oil shale and the coal to oil technology, and all that other stuff the experts tell me we can use. So, don’t tell me we’re running out of oil. That’s just silly talk, right? But then I find out, apparently it’s not the total resource base you have to worry about, but the rate of extraction. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you have one trillion, 10 trillion, or 100 trillion barrels of oil reserves. The world uses about 80 million barrels of oil a day, and if for some reason the current daily production of oil can’t supply that number, there’s going to be problems. Remember the 1970’s, or maybe you don’t .  And here’s the kicker – after climbing steadily for the past 150 years or so, the daily rate of production has been flat for the past six years or so. And that’s not even the bad news. According to some people, this flat line in production is just a prelude to an inevitable decline in oil production rates.

Maybe you’ve heard of these people. The peak oil movement, or “peaksters” they’re called, or sometimes just Doomers. They trace their analytic lineage to the famous (in energy circles anyway) M. King Hubbert, who in 1956 predicted, correctly as it turns out, that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970.  As I understand it his analysis was as follows. Oil production from any newly discovered well follows a predictable bell-shaped curve, with the rate of production gradually rising for a period of years, until it reaches a peak. After the peak, the rate of production gradually decreases until the well reaches a point where further oil extraction is no longer economical. A second proposition is that the peak of a well’s production will generally arrive approximately 32 to 35 years after the discovery of the well. Hubbert observed that this relationship holds true not only for individual wells, but for entire oil producing regions generally. The peak of discovery for oil in the continental United States was the mid 1930’s. From this, Hubbard extrapolated that the peak of production would occur approximately 35 years later, or around 1970. When oil production in the continental United States peaked in 1970, Hubbert’s reputation was sealed.

Hubbert also used his famous Hubbert’s Curve analysis to predict that worldwide oil production would peak between 2000 and 2010. This prediction was based on the observation that the peak for discovery of new fields world wide occurred in the mid 1960’s. A simple extrapolation from that yields a predicted peak for world wide oil production of approximately the year 2000. Hence, the current debate over whether the prediction is accurate and whether we are currently at or near the peak in worldwide production. And hence, the significance of the fairly steady rate of approximately 80 million barrels per day for the past six years, despite extreme swings in the price of oil.

Of course, as you might expect, the folks in the energy mainstream denounce this notion of peak oil as errant nonsense. We’ve got scads of oil they say. Just look at the reserve figures. But, as per the above, it’s not the reserve figures, but the rate at which those reserves can be converted into actual usable oil that counts. And here’s the rub – not all reserves are created equal. There’s the light, low sulfur grades of crude. The kind that’s easy to get at and refine. The kind that we’ve been using up at increasingly high rates for the last hundred and fifty years. And then there’s the other kind of reserve – the thick tar and oil sands kind of reserves. The kind that’s hard to get out, high in sulfur and difficult to refine. And most importantly, the kind that flows very slowly.  And that’s pretty much what we have left.  Oh, plus all that oil that’s under miles of ocean.  So, maybe we do have a problem I’m thinking.

But, not to worry, say the experts. We just have to wait for the right price signals. Then the magic of the markets combined with good old fashioned Yankee ingenuity will invent a substitute for oil. What substitutes you might ask. Well, take your pick – solar, biodiesel, ethanol, electric cars, whatever. Just have to iron out a few bugs and they’ll be ready any day.  I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that based on what we’ve seeing from the oil industry lately it’s pretty much time we were deploying this stuff.  But, as far as I can tell, it’s not any more ready now than it was thirty years ago when we had the last energy crisis.

So, what happens now? Don’t ask me. There’s any number of doomer prognosticators you can read who can give you their predictions about the social and economic impacts of running out of oil.  The Doomers can also give you all kinds of advice about what you can do about it. But, I wouldn’t advise reading any of them because they’re depressing.  In a nutshell, they  say that if the world runs short of oil we’re probably going to be looking at a scenario that looks a lot like – well what we’re seeing now. Economic stagnation and unemployment. If you ask me, when faced with a dire and apparently intractable problem like that, ignoring it seems at least as valid a strategy as worrying about it. The end result is the same regardless right? So, that’s what I plan to do about the problem – ignore it. Besides, maybe it will just go away. There’s always been more than enough gasoline around to keep us all going for as long as I can remember and so, statistics and science aside, how could it ever run out? And anyway, I’m sure some real smart person is working on a painless solution as we speak. Get back to me when production hits 60 million barrels a day.

 

BLOWOUT IN THE GULF

Boy was I ever wrong! Just when I had concluded that offshore drilling in the modern era was as safe as a walk in the park, we get the biggest blowout since Spindletop. (Bigger actually, since I’m told they capped Spindletop in ten days or so.) You probably thought the same thing. In our defense, though, we can say that we were only taking the word of people in the know. You know, the experts. The people whose opinions matter. The people who told us that we hadn’t had a blowout of any real consequence since Santa Barbara in 1969. And that includes the president, who is way smarter than me, or probably you as well. At least, that’s what they tell me. And besides, you and I both know our opinions don’t matter anyway. So who can blame us for being wrong?

Well, I hate to say it but, people with a lick of sense, for one. In fact, they are probably all saying “I told you so,” right now. And that probably includes the guy who discovered the fourth law of thermodynamics. You know, the one that goes: “if something can go wrong it will.” That law of nature that not only explains but predicts that supposedly unsinkable ships sometimes sink, failsafe nuclear reactors sometimes blow up (or at least leak), and blowout proof oil wells still blow out, especially when they’re under a mile of ocean where you can’t fix them. At least it’s good to know that God is still in the heavens. But anyway, I’ll be ready next time. No more “drill baby drill” for this guy.

But that still begs the question – what do we do now? Like you, all I know is what I read in the papers. So it’s hard for me to decide whether I need to be worrying about the gusher at the bottom of the sea, or Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt. So, just to be safe, I’m doing both. And, I have to tell you, the former’s got me a little more worried than the latter these days. At first, I wasn’t too concerned. You probably weren’t either. The experts, you know, the people who matter, were on top of it with a tool kit full of top hats, top kills and junk shots and miles of oil booms. Pretty much the same things they deploy every time there’s a spill. And, they’ve worked pretty much like they always have in the past, which is to say not at all. But there’s always a first time I suppose, and so I figured it was worth a shot. Plus, the president sent down a whole slew of top government scientists to help brainstorm the problem. Apparently, even the Nobel prize winning secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is taking time off from inventing our next energy source to help out. I’m sure a guy who has a PhD in whatever he has a PhD in can master oil field technology in a weekend or so and get a handle on this thing. So, they’ll think of something, I’m sure of that.

I don’t know about you, but of all the things they have tried so far, my personal favorite was the junk shot. The notion of clogging the well with golf balls and shredded tires is certainly intriguing. I guess that’s the word for it. I don’t remember Red Adair ever doing that, but then, I don’t think he had a PhD. Actually, I do think I recall seeing something like that on the Red Green show. I don’t know what Red Green was actually doing with it, but it makes you wonder if some of their writers have PhD’s.

But, I’m digressing. To get back to the big question – what do we do now- at least now that we’re two months into it we have a clear answer to that one – no one has any idea. I’m no expert, but as I understand it, an oil well is a lot like a bottle of soda. It’s a combination of a liquid with dissolved gas inside. Shake the soda bottle with your thumb over the top and soda and gas comes gushing out like, well, like a gusher. The same principal drives oil out of wells. And, apparently, the deeper one drills into the earth’s crust, the higher the gas pressure in the well tends to be and hence, the harder it is to plug it. Plus, along with the gas and the oil, a lot of sand and other grit comes up the well bore. So, as long as the blowout keeps going, the well casing, the blowout preventer and any other pipes and cement down there are all gradually being eroded away – like they’re being sand blasted – which they are. So, the exit holes that the oil is coming through are tending to get bigger and are allowing more oil to come through. By the time the relief wells get drilled, there might be nothing left down there but a hole in the ground. And of course, by now you’re probably wondering whether the relief wells can work if they’re pumping mud into a hole in the ground rather than an intact well casing. Don’t ask me. The experts seem to think so, so that’s what I think too. They’re the experts, they should know right?

The whole situation puts me in mind of that old theological question, i.e “can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it ?” It looks like we are now examining the secular equivalent, which is, can technology create a problem so big that technology can’t solve it? This seems to be the central question at the heart of the environmental debate. The environmental movement posits that infinite growth of anything on a finite planet is impossible. As Eric Sevareid was fond of saying, the chief source of problems is solutions to other problems. Thus, each advance in technology is designed, in part, as a solution to an existing problem. This solution, then creates a larger problem which we again must try to solve through technology. According to the environmentalist paradigm, technological innovations responsible for growth will eventually be unable to solve the problems the growth causes and the whole system will come crashing down. Modern industrial civilization, on the other hand, is based on the opposite assumption. That is, there is no limit to the ability of human ingenuity to fashion technological solutions for any problems that are caused by human technology. Running out of oil? Invent a substitute for oil. Running out of fish? Invent a substitute for fish. Running out of air? Invent of substitute for . . . well you get the picture. In fact, this notion of technotriumphalism is so woven into the fabric of modern civilization that it might well be considered one of the world’s great religions. And, the track record of the past 300 years is pretty compelling evidence of the validity of this particular creed.

However, unlike the other religions of the world, technotriumphalism suffers from the flaw of being ultimately empirically based. Thus, it is subject to being empirically tested. In fact, the whole process of industrial civilization is conducting that experiment right now. And, although 300 years of success in engineering new solutions to existing problems is consistent with the technotriumphalist’s credo and pretty compelling evidence of its validity, it is not conclusive. This is because, in the empirical world of science, one thousand experiments that are consistent with a hypothesis do not prove it is true. However, one experiment can prove it is false. Thus, 300 years of consistent technological advance cannot prove that human ingenuity can conquer all. It can only provide evidence to the faithful that their faith is not misplaced. However, one failure to solve a critical problem via technology can prove the belief system unequivocally false, and catastrophically so.

Which brings me back to the blowout in the gulf. It may not prove the fallacy of technotriumphalism. However, 100,000 barrels a day with no end in sight certainly gives one pause. My old biology professor once told us that roughly half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. At least if I heard him right. Now we have massive quantities of hydrocarbons spilling into the ocean where they are being eaten, hopefully, by bacteria that metabolize them by combining the carbon and the hydrogen with oxygen – oxygen they get from the ocean – leaving behind huge swaths of oxygen depleted ocean. What does this do to our oxygen supply. I don’t know. Something to think about anyway.

Of course, we could always apply some common sense and conclude that conducting an uncontrolled experiment that has a pretty good chance of a very bad outcome is not a good idea. After all if you were climbing a ladder you knew you were going to fall off of at some point, you would probably stop climbing, right? But what do I know? I thought drilling in the gulf was a good idea . I once had a professor who said, “you can be as clever as you want, but there’s really no substitute for having some sense.” Maybe the gulf disaster will do that for us – give us some sense. In the meantime, I think the Red Green show is on. Maybe he has a solution.

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