September 28, 2004

The End of The Age of Oil. As is well known, the future of our world society will be shaped by how we solve the impending energy crisis. As the election comes near, this issue should be one of utmost importance. Caltech physics professor, David Goodstein, clearly lays out the energy situation we are faced with today and describes some possible solutions. Of particular interest, he introduces the idea of "Hubbert's Peak", a peak that sort of describes the maximum point in a bell curve that represents the usage of a natural resource like oil or natural gas. He argues convincingly with actual figures that we may now be reaching our peak in oil production and then discusses what this may mean for the future. I personally think the future of our energy lies with the daring snapping shrimp and his claws.
  • "...the doughnut has the perfect geometry required for containing a hot plasma undergoing thermonuclear fusion." Its comforting to know that a dougnut might save us all. Very good read. I agree that the challenge before us is on the scale of the apollo program, perhaps even larger. The problem is, we have leaders who dismiss energy conservation as nothing more than a "personal virture" and provide only meager resources for research into alternative energy sources. We likely won't muster any meaningful resolve until oil hits $100/barrel. (Although it looks like its halfway there already.
  • we have leaders who dismiss energy conservation as nothing more than a "personal virture" Our present leaders, certainly. I think Kerry is serious about it. Plus the challenge isn't quite as complex as going to moon, I don't think. The hardest part will be getting people to give up their Chevy pickup trucks and Ford SUVs. I think we are technologically there already (biodiesel, electric motors using solar cells, natural gas etc.).
  • Well, a couple points - first, oil isn't going to simply "run out" cataclysmically, one day we'll all have gas and heating oil, and the next zippo. Oil companies realize better than we the finite resource on which they have based their industry, so they continually look for new fields, improve extraction and refinement methods, add natural gas and synthetics to their portfolio, things of that nature. As proven stocks of oil deplete, the concentration in these areas will increase. At the same time, you have continual (if currently slow, but there is an ebb and flow to it) improvement in efficiency and alternative fuelling. Sure, the low price-per-barrel of the 90's brought about the rise of the SUV, but at the same time that same period also saw the introduction of the Prius, the Mini, and the natural gas vehicle, which are becoming increasingly popular. Hydrogen and fuel cell powered vehicles are starting to be talked about as an inevitability, not some pipe dream. Gradually looming oil supply pressures will cause more attention and more money to be paid to these sorts of endeavors. Adding to that, you see some return of older fuel supplies - coal, nuclear - that had been discarded in favor of cheap oil coming back stronger. Coal, especially, we see around here. Illinois sits atop a bed of sulfurous coal - but to burn it straight causes acid rain in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Now, we are hearing stories of increased production and newer cleaner use based on more effcient air scrubbers, "fuming" coal (heating it rather than burning it so it releases some ignitable gas, something like that), things along those lines. Coal mines long (and difficultly) defunct are reopening. And even staunch Greens are coming back around to nuclear, what with newer safety standards for reactors. Then there are the new fuels - corn-based ethanol fuels are already a huge part of the gas supply here in the midwest, and I've seen more than one house with solar panels on the roof and lined with black plastic piping to heat water. All of which is to say, the end of oil may not be as disruptive as the apocalyptics would care to believe, and can easily have several benefits, two of which that come to mind are overall increases in environmental cleanliness and the reduction of the disproportionate affect of the middle east on world events.
  • I heard there was this dude, right? And he was like, a genius or something? And his senior project in school was to make a car that ran on a glass of water and produced chocolate bars as a by product, and OMG HE FUCKING DID IT! But this was in the 80s, like, and when Reagan heard about it he made a few calls and the oil companies bought up all the kid's patents and then like sat on them. So the kid is rich, he got an A and everything, but what I want to know is, where's my chocolate bars? True story.
  • I know Bubs sells flamethrowers that shoot chocolate hundred dollar bills (imitation chocolate). So I'd check with him TP.
  • Very interesting article/speech btw. I've often dreamed of having the resources to build a house in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, generate my own power by some damn efficient (no pun intended), but small hydroelectric apparatus apparently on a select market, and sell the remainder back to the grid.
  • The hardest part will be getting people to give up their Chevy pickup trucks and Ford SUVs. Going to the moon was a technical challenge. Dealing with a long-term energy shortage is not just a technical, but also a cultural challenge.
  • Fes: All of which is to say, the end of oil may not be as disruptive as the apocalyptics would care to believe I don't think the tone of the article was at all apocalyptic. The author made the same points that you did: as the price of extracting oil increases, this will open doors to other kinds of energy. The point was, though, that most of the other forms of energy that we're currently able to exploit (natural gas, coal, and even nuclear fission) are still based upon a finite resource. And with countries such as China starting to dramatically increase their standard of living, we're going to see the burn rate accelerate.
  • Price of oil graphed: here. It's almost doubled over the past 1-2 years.
  • We likely won't muster any meaningful resolve until oil hits $100/barrel. I'm hoping it will be before that. I remember years ago, when people in the States were up in arms about prices reaching as much as $1.50/gallon, that I wouldn't bat an eye--and policy makers certainly wouldn't--until it hit $2/gallon. I suspect when it gets to $3/gallon in the U.S. politicians will start finding the yarbles to move on it. I think Kerry is serious about it. Yeah, I'd agree, but there's a limit to what he can do should he win, and also, this is something that will require some long-term effort, like 10 or more years to become more energy-efficient. I appreciate the above article because it is laying out the need to take this approach now, without a good deal of the spin.
  • I suspect when it gets to $3/gallon in the U.S. politicians will start finding the yarbles to move on it.
    Whereas I fear it'll spur US politicians to become ever more aggressive about making sure what's left comes to the US consumer at prices that are politically convenient, irrespective of what the actual owners of said oil resources may think. Rome. Egypt. Grain.
  • Good link. Fes, I wish I shared your optimism. Unfortunately, the reason we depend so much on oil is that it really is cheaper to produce than most other energy sources around. True, as oil prices go up we will see companies developing new ways to get oil out of the ground--but the companies will only do so when they are assured that oil prices will stay high, like $50+ per barrel. In the late 1990s, oil was around $10 a barrel, and companies want to be certain that prices won't drop to that level again. Some people, like James Kunstler (whose Clusterfuck Nation editorial assumes that oil production will drop soon), predict a ratcheting effect, where the high price of oil causes recession, reducing demand and lowering oil prices, which causes oil usage to go up again, and so on. As for fuel efficiency improving, there was an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal this morning on that topic--I wish I could find a free link. Toyota is still selling more Sequoias (15 mpg) than Priuses (55 mpg), and that trend needs to reverse in order for oil use to stabilize in the U.S. Car manufacturers have performance (ie more horsepower) as their main priority, not efficiency. Do you prefer driving a car which gets 50 mpg, or one which can really power up a hill? Well, maybe you don't, but the average American seems to. Finally, while we will certainly see alternative fuel sources become popular, I don't think ethanol is one. A big reason we get such good corn yields is the fertilizer we use, which is basically a petroleum product. And hydrogen may become an oil substitute, but it is not a primary source of energy--to generate hydrogen, you need power from somewhere else.
  • About the Prius -- what's the deal with the months-long waiting periods? I was briefly looking into getting one earlier this year, and I was told that the queue was about 4 months long! I've heard it's worse in the west coast. Has Toyota taken steps to meed demand since then?
  • Interesting discussion going on here. I'm glad I posted it. This issue, regardless of your stance on it, is perhaps of most dire importance. Clearly, the future of the oil supply, and really, of where our energy comes from, will profoundly affect everything we value today in modern society (from transportation, computers, light production, heating, ipods, to coffee and hamburgers). I personally feel that even IF the oil supply were to last another million years, it is imperative that we transition to more benign sources of energy. Sources that do not cause geopolitical instability, do not destroy the environment, and do not cause international and intranational socio-economic divides. Fusion power really is the answer to it all... and should be as aggressively pursued as possible. There are a few other fusion power schemes besides the ones that Cal-Tech are working on, and they should all be given careful and detailed consideration by private industry as well as the government.
  • The whole "peak oil" thesis is controversial, and I have no idea if it is sound. But if we are running out of oil, the solution will be new energy sources, more than conservation. Fusion and fission, wind and coal, can certainly replace oil--and more cleanly if we do it right. And cheap energy is a good thing. It is cheap energy that is lifting much of the undeveloped world out of poverty, providing more calories for the hungry of the world, and blurring the borders between nations. An increase in energy prices that was extreme enough to cause conservation in the first world would lead to mass starvation in the thrid world. Not worth it just to see my fat neighbor pushing his Hummer down the road.
  • LarryC - peak oil isn't, as near as I can see, very controversial at all. In one sense, peak oil has been and gone since the 1970s. That's when global production per capita peaked, and it has been downhill (or steady) ever since. Another very telling graph is the one which shows oil field discoveries over time, which clearly shows discovery peaking several years ago. peak oil curve here
  • The hardest part will be getting people to give up their Chevy pickup trucks... Ah, but the hybrid 4x4 Chevy Silverado is already here. Wooo! Fuel economy still ain't that hot but, hey, we gotta crawl before we can walk.
  • The whole "peak oil" thesis is controversial
    No, it isn't. Well, OK, it is. But only in the way that, say, the idea of a connection between smoking tobacco and lung cancer is controversial. Oh, and the biggest thing we're going to lose as oil runs down? Easy international travel. Being able to get from New Zealand to Europe in 2 - 3 days instead of several months is a result of the fantastic power and portablility of fossil fuels. Once they dissapear, so does fast, easy air travel, and we're back to ships and perhaps zepplins, which will also knobble a lot of forms of international trade based around perishable and/or portable goods.
  • Stop it, you're making me nostalgic! /goes to watch Space Captain again
  • Err, Sky Captain. Gah!
  • OOh, imagine going to Europe in a zepplin! Why don't we develope floating cities that use the air currents of the updrafts as a power source! Maybe "Sky Captain and the World of Tommorow" was not just a bad movie, but a true prophecy of the future!
  • Peak oil
  • Gasoline has definitely started to become less of a consumable commodity in this house. Over the weekend, I thought it would be nice to take the kids for a trip to some rural areas, just for the heck of it, but it took a little self-persuasion to justify the hour-long drive just for the sake of driving. A couple of years ago we'd often take off and go exploring back roads and small towns when it was rainy and we were bored. That is as much from trying to support a family of four given the current cost of living where we are, but certainly the fluctuating cost of travel doesn't help.
  • Homunculus: Only for some. Others never could. Others won't/don't care. I'm hearing you, Trac. Gettin' out into the back country used to be a favorite pastime, whether on a day jaunt or camping. And there's no way I'm going to be pulling that horse trailer much. Guess those horses have to pull their own weight. Although, hay will probably continue to climb, so I might wind up eating selling a horse or two.
  • Peak Oil? Now we're looking at Peak Water :(
  • Dan, I just lurve how the media portrays some poor miserable looking Africans standing around empty pots when discussing water problems. Like it's not happening to the US. Let's talk about California, Arizona, New Mexico water problems, eh? The US already has reached Peak Water--we just haven't realized it yet. How about that USGS nitrate contamination map? What is one of the biggest polluters of our groundwater? You guessed it: the oil industry. In addition to the many other ways of polluting by passive means, the process of 'fracking' or deliberately injecting pollutants into the ground to extract oil has the oil industry lying and denying the extent of the groundwater pollution they are causing in this country. They always deny any culpability or minimize their damage--just like BPs claim of 5,000 gallons/day--try 40,000 or more a day going into the Gulf. The greedy bastards are killing us slowly for their unholy profits.