Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Peak oil and Optimistic Pessimism

On one of the online peak oil forums in which I actively participate there are several members who rejoice as they enthusiastically bring to the group every new pronouncement from the secret land of the energy fairies. This is done with the drive and verve of a snake oil salesman who has just received a new shipment of bottle corks. One could be kind and assume that this is done to bring balance to the discussion in the face of such an overwhelming mass of doom-n-gloom pessimism. And their certainly is a reasonable amount of that around. But, in my mind, that is wholly reasonable. Most of the forum members who are posting messages are relatively new to the concept of peak oil. As such they are overwhelmed by the implications of peak oil and, when they understand the deepest of these implications, quite frankly most of them are frightened, desperate, and find little solace as they look at the geopolitical world around them.

As each of these new whiz-bang energy alternatives is discussed it becomes increasingly clear that none of them is going to be able to offer any serious mitigation to the problems global society will face on the downside of Hubbert's Peak when the global oil supply can no longer keep pace with global demand. The simple reality that we all sooner or later come to terms with is that oil has been the most energy intensive fuel source this planet and our species has ever seen or will ever see. And when peak oil newbies, as they are affectionately called, fully understand the depth of our total societal reliance on oil despair often replaces former denial, even if only temporarilly. The constant reaching out for salvation from the energy fairies is largely seen as just another form of denial. The constant expression of relief at every new alternative energy development project or every new piece of new technology that promises unprecedented energy efficiency is generally viewed as the cruelest of false hopes.
Our forum members who so enthusiastically revel in every new positive piece of energy news, probably understandably, tend to view the generally negative reception of such news as doom-n-gloom. They tend to categorize those who reject these pieces as doom-n-gloomers or trolls. "Who," they ask, "doesn't want society to be able to carry on as long as possible." These techno-fix members do not accept that their wish, their hope, and their endless pursuit of sustaining techno-fixes in ultimately short-sighted in the extreme. This is largely based on the fact that they see energy supply as a problem in isolation. They choose not to consider the extreme damage that we have done to the environment and the extreme psychological damage that we have done to the human species as part of the problem of which peak oil is but a very dominant syndrome. They tend to reject reminders that, at least for the past half century, global agriculture and our ability to feed ourselves has been totally based and dependent upon fossil fuels. They tend to reject reminders that our everyday world is made up of over 300,000 products made from or derived from oil, many of those products themselves critical to the efficient and effective running of global human society. They reject reminders that the current social infrastructure has been built with the first half of the world's oil endowment and that it will take that second half of our oil reserves to rebuild the infrastructure into a sustainable post-oil model.

What these techno-fixers see as pessimism and doom-n-gloom is, in fact, an optimism and expression of hope, a hope that we will soon peak and start the slide down the other side in order to force us all to have to come to terms with eventual depletion and start working on developing the society in which we will have to live on the other side of depletion. There will be tremendous pain on the road to post-oil sustainability and most in the peak oil movement want to get on with the preparation. Any pessimism is based on the frustrating reality that current society has so many serious roadblocks to being able to get on with that preparation that even peak-oilers, despite their being fully aware of what is to come, cannot prepare properly because of those roadblocks. Yes, their pessimism is based on the belief that TPTB will do everything in their power to maintain the status quo as long as possible, regardless of the downside results of that effort. Their pessimism is based on a strong belief that the effort will be far too late and far too little, despite the fact that we have known for at least a half-century that the game would soon be up.

Those who see and understand the full implications of peak oil do not want to see an endless procession of new alternative energies and techno-fixes designed to maintain the status quo as long as possible. Yes, they take mild pleasure in seeing these things shot down. Not because they want to see disaster unfold on the other side of peak oil but because they realize that the longer we wait, the longer we prolong an unsustainable human societal model, the greater will be the unavoidable disaster on the other side. They want to mitigate the worst of that inevitable disaster, not worsen the situation by holding off any longer.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Relocalization and Retail Food Chains

One of the most important and critically necessary social adjustments to peak oil is relocalization of food security. Today the food on your tables has travelled an average of 2500km to get there. The dishes and the table on which they sit and the various equipment and tools involved in the preparation of that meal on the table have travelled an average of over 6000km to get to your home. The food production and distribution system on which you depend to feed yourself and your family has become a truly global system which is critically dependent on oil and other fossil fuels.

Even over these past several years the energy costs imbedded in that global food system have risen dramatically. There are periodic cost respites, slight dips in a steadilly increasing cost upslope. But even at this stage we are a long way from peak food cost. We will probably look back at these times of expensive food as the "good old days." The reason, of course, is that peak oil and peak food cost are not synonymous. If we arrive at peak oil still totally dependent on a global food system then peak oil is the starting point for an exponential rise in food costs that will turn food into a luxury item.

We cannot continue, over the long term to be so critically dependent on a global food system that is going to falter under the weight of future skyrocketing oil prices. And in this case the long term will probably be measured in years, not decades. If we are to feed our families as we slide down the downslope on the other side of peak oil, the cost of food must become the cost of food. The greater the energy cost component there is in that food, based on distributing it around the world, the more the cost of food is going to follow the rising cost of energy as oil moves toward depletion. Relocalization of the food supply, so that the food on your table is produced (including grown) within 100 miles of you, is the only realistic and sustainable way to take the energy cost out of your food costs. The food in your local grocery store/supermarket must increasingly come from local suppliers, local growers, local processors, local co-ops.

Ideally the bulk of the food on your table would be grown and processed and preserved by you, either on your own land or as part of a local gardening co-op. There are, unfortunately, many legislative hurdles in the way of this happening in urban areas on a large scale. That will remain the case until local municipal governments adopt a stance supportive of peak-oil preparation and undertake the process of changing municipal codes to re-orient towards mixed agriculture/residential zoning and move away from the fixation on manicured lawns. This will take time and probably will not occur in most municipalities until the reality of peak oil is glaringly obvious and the voters are not only receptive to such changes but demanding them.

In the interim, however, much of the relocalization could be accomplished through your local grocery store or supermarket acquiring the food on their shelves from local producers and processors. Though that would make a tremendous contribution to local food security, it is not going to happen under present practices and policies. Most food retailer chains are contractually obligated to their current food suppliers. This help them keep their prices down, at least helps them keep their costs down. Whether or not those cost savings are passed on to customers is another issue.

A key part of the contractual arrangement with the chain's suppliers is the issue of exclusivity or market share. The chain store is contractually obligated to buy certain percentages of their shelf stock from that supplier, to place that stock in specific shelf locations at specific heights with measured distance from particular competitors. A key part of that market share obligation that the food retail chains must commit to is to not acquire product from local growers/producers. The food crops produced by the local farmers basically cannot be sold into the local community but must be channeled into the food processing/distribution system through which it may eventually, but probably will not, make its way back into local food stores.

Probably the most critical challenge in relocalization of the food supply, therefore, is to be able to undo the contractual agreements that prevent local food retailers from independently acquiring their product from local growers and producers. This will probably require a serious amount of local public pressure. It may also require municipal governments to require local food retailers who wish to sell food within their jurisdiction to acquire a certain proportion of their product (a proportion that should increase over time) from local producers and suppliers.

Such changes would, initially at least, probably increase the local cost of food. This will be partly artificial but most certainly partly real. The retailer would, through these changes, lose much of their advantage of volume buying. But as the global oil and energy costs grow and the energy cost component in the food supply grows, the energy cost advantages of local supply will begin to kick in and the growing costs of food out of the global food system will surpass local costs and local supply will become an advantage. Over time it will become a critical necessity as well.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Peak Oil Methadone

The problem with Methadone treatment for drug addiction is that it keeps the focus on the addiction, through the use of an alternative, rather than shifting the addict's focus to preparing for and building a life for after the addiction. The problem with keeping the focus in the peak oil debate/discussion on the energy component of oil and trying to find alternative fuels to replace the energy derived from oil is that it keeps the addicts (all of us) focussed on the addiction rather than developing a new paradigm for life after the oil to which we are addicted is no longer available at a level that that addiction can be supported.

As long as we allow the peak oil dialogue to stay focussed on the energy issues we are playing right into the hands of the pushers who are feeding that addiction. We allow debunkers an easy target to focus on by promising all of those existing and potential energy sources. They offer ethanol which, like any good addict, allows us to continue to put out good money for the next fix rather than considering how to put food on the table. In a world that cannot produce enough food to feed our 6.5+ billion population with billions of dollars of oil-derived petrochemical inputs, we turn to ethanol to support our addiction at the expense of taking vital food producing land out of the food production system. The global emergency grain reserves over the past several years has dwindled from a marginal 119 day supply to a sub-critical 57 day supply. Global grain production has fallen below global grain usage in each of the past three years and will probably continue to decline while the population continues to rise.

The pushers feeding our addiction offer us coal to liquid (CTL), natural gas to liquid (GTL), tar sands and oil sands and oil shale, electric cars, hybrid cars, all to continue our addiction rather than offering methods of kicking our addiction and moving on with an addiction-free life.
We can not cure our addiction by continuing to substitute new alternatives in support of that addiction. At some point we have to get refocussed. The longer that takes, the more difficult it is going to be and the greater the number of casualties that will result.

Kick the habit.
Bypass the methadone.
Get clean.
Move on.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Chevron's "Jack 2" Deep Water Oil Discovery

So much hype over nothing! Give me a break. CNN, Fox, CNBC, and any other news outlet in North America have been all over this thing for the past 2-3 days. Why?
Chevron's "Jack Two" well is a "new" deep water well in the Gulf of Mexico in a field that "could" hold between 3 billion and 15 billion barrels of oil. They won't know exactly how much oil is down there until they drill more wells to get a true measure of the reserve. The reserve is a total of 28,000 feet down beneath about 7,500 feet of water. Chevron expects to be able to deliver crude from the well to market by 2010.
If absolutely everything about this "discovery" (it was actually discovered in 2000) is the best they could hope for, this whole field may be able to be pushed to deliver up to 500,000 barrels a day some time after 2013 from 100 or more wells.
But let us look at some hard realities.
Generally about half of the oil in a reserve is ultimately recoverable which, if the estimates are for the total reserve size, would mean that 1.5 to 7.5 billion barrels may ultimately be recoverable.
The oil is 28,000 feet down which will require tremendous amounts of energy to get it to the surface. It may even mean that it takes more energy to extract the oil and get it to a refinery (meaning a negative EROEI) than it ever produces in energy.
The well and the field are in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, hurricane alley. And being that far offshore in deep water it is very possible that they will not be able to deliver that crude to shore by pipeline, therefore having to have a tanker-loading facility on the platform. Any tanker being loaded would not be able to make a successful run for shore with a rapidly developing, unpredictable hurricane bearing down on the gulf. Even if they could deliver the crude to shore by pipeline, we have seen the tremendous destruction that can be inflicted on underwater pipelines by a hurricane like Katrina or Hugo.
Even if 15 billion barrels of oil can be extracted from this reserve, that represents less than two years of US demand and only 6 months of global demand. And it won't start to be delivered antil 2010 or later.
There is also a small technical geological issue involved here. It has generally been understood that the viable oil production zone goes down to somewhere between 15-20,000 feet. This is the deepest production well that has ever been drilled. No one knows how the production dynamics of such a deep well will play out. It may be that only a quarter of the oil down there, or less, is ultimately recoverable. The potential of applying technology like water injection or gas injection or lateral drilling on such a deep well are extremely limited. Once well pressure drops and production falls off wells on such a reserve are going to have dramatic and rapid production drops.
All in all, therefore, this "discovery" ain't no Ghawar. It is far too little far too late to make any impact on the long term global crude depletion curve. Sure is good for a November election though.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Peak Oil And Global Warming Do Not Fit Socially Believable Disaster Profile

No explosions. No volcanoes. No earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, floods, tectonic upheaval, no buildings falling. No hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes. No cinematic special effects, pyrotechnics. No dramatic, heroic rescues. Just a long, slow, grinding, debilitating, dehumanizing, hungry slide into...... nothingness.
The combination of the social destruction of peak oil and the ecological destruction of global warming and climate change could, over this next century, kill more people than ever existed on earth prior to the last century. Together they could reduce the human population to a billion or less, force the remainder to gather together into a few narrow pockets of ecologically and climatically sustainable regions.
To be honest, we have no idea how these two devestating forces are going to play out. The greater part of the human race are urban dwellers, living in a virtual world of technology reliant on incredible amounts of continuous energy for its very survival. We have disconnected ourselves from the land, from the real natural world that sustains all life on this planet, the only world that will eventually be left to us when the energy that sustains our technological world diminishes and eventually disappears and our urban enclaves begin to crumble about us.
How do you show people a long, insidious catastrophe like that? How do you compress the next couple hundred years into a ninety-six minute movie to make it visible? What special effects can possibly show people what this future is going to be like? How can we possibly show people what it is they need to see to understand what lies ahead and which compels them to prepare in order to even be able to survive the collapse and have a chance to be part of the rebuilding.
I know this is rather apocalyptic, but that's the mood I'm in right now. It happens every once in a while.

Homestead or Community?

There is a common thread running on three of the peak oil groups in which I participate that is at the heart of much of the duality within the peak oil movement. These threads are discussions on an article by Rob Hopkins in early September in Energy Bulletin. The article is entitled "Why the Survivalists Have Got It Wrong." The whole article can be found at http://www.energybulletin.net/newswire.php?id=20051.
This article illustrates an unfortunately common misconception of the peak oil movement and, specifically, of peak oilers. That misconception must, in my mind, betray a lack on understanding for the author of the article. It is as though the author is aware of peak oil (the article is, after all, in Energy Bulletin, one of the most trusted information sources for peak oilers) but knows absolutely no one "involved in" the peak oil movement.
The article starts from and stays with the premise that peak oilers are "run for the hill survivalists" who all adhere to a philosophy of building their own isolated, wilderness survival homestead, totally cut off from any involvement with or sense of responsibility to any community. I have addressed this issue before in other articles. The huge flaw in the argument presented in this article, however, is a perception that peak oilers arrive at this strategy by choice, by first choice in fact. Therein lies the betrayal that the author would seem not to know any peak oilers, at least not well enough to understand their motivation.
No peak oiler that I know, whether on the various forums I am involved in or personally, has as their first choice running off into the wilderness and disassociating themselves from community. Most "seasoned" peak oilers arrive at this option out of frustration after years of being considered a nut case, years of fruitless attempts to warn those around them of the coming danger. Eventually most peak oilers reach the point where they feel that if no one wants to listen, if no one wants to see the danger ahead and start to prepare, then to hell with them. There's too little time to prepare without wasting it on people who adamantly do not want to listen.
In every peak oiler's failed efforts are attempts to motivate community into preparation. This is with the clear recognition, to most, that the only viable survivability must be community based. Clearly individual preparation and the abandonment of and isolation from community is not their prefered approach.
Even though pursuing personal preparation is where most peak oilers end up, most still do so with the belief that sooner or later the wider community will "get it" and when they do the isolated, prepared peak oiler will be there to assist, to train, to educate, to organize. Most believe that when the community is ready, meaning the community ceases to be an impediment to preparation, they will reinvolve themselves with that community. I have an old saying that I think says it best; "The right idea at the wrong time is the wrong idea."

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ethanol/Bio-diesel VS Food

Thrashing about for an alternative source of energy to support business as usual as the global supply of crude oil goes into decline more and more energy companies, university research projects, and governments are turning to the enticing spectre of ethanol and bio-diesel. Increasing acreage of industrial agriculture soil around the world is being converted to the production of corn, soy, sugar cane and any other crops intended to be diverted into the production of motor fuels. There are serious proposals as well for the production of motor fuels from wood, from coal, from natural gas, and from seaweed.
All of this is coming about because the love affair with hydrogen that has been passionately engaged in for the past couple of decades has fizzled out in the face of hard geothermal realities, like one of those many moonlight kisses that cool in the morning sun. Hydrogen, even the most ardent supporter eventually accepts, is only an energy carrier, not an energy source. It takes energy to produce hydrogen and store it and convert it back into an energy bundle, and more often than not those working on hydrogen fuel options are facing the realization that it takes more energy to produce and convert hydrogen than the energy derived from the hydrogen itself.
The very important and sad bi-product of this new love affair with ethanol and bio-diesel is that it is severely impacting, and going to increasingly impact, our ability to feed and support even the existing human population, let alone support the ongoing increases in that population. For six of the last seven years the world has produced less grain crops than the world has consumed. The amount being produced has declined for each of the past three years. The world's emergency grain supplies have, over this past few years, declined from a 119 day reserve to a reserve level below the danger level, currently 57 days. And it is believed, by all reputable agronomy scientists, that global grain production will continue to decline as global warming, environmental pollution, soil toxicity, soil depletion, global aquifer depletion, fresh water contamination, and soil salination continue to exacerbate the problem.
As I have said repeatedly, peak oil is not about the oil, not about motor fuels, not about running our cars and SUVs and vans and all the other fuel-driven engines. It is about our inability to feed a growing human population. We can not do it today. When we lose the increased crop production capability that fossil fuels have given us, when we lose the artificial fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides and other agricultural chemicals that have been the underpinning of the green revolution that has seen our population more than double in the past half century, there is going to be a tremendous nutritional deficit throughout the world.
We cannot continue to pursue our western lifestyle as we have when it comes at such a huge price to the near-term human population of this planet. Past failures of agriculture were always local and were responded to by finding new territory and starting over again. There is no new territory left. We cover this entire planet and the whole process of economic globalization should have made one thing perfectly clear to everyone. In a greater way than the global economy was a global societal benefit, the abundance of human created problems we are facing on the near-term horizon will represent a totally unprecedented global catastrophe.