Is Yergin Correct about Oil Supply? (an Opinion the WSJ did not run)

On Monday after the WSJ ran Daniel Yergin’s essay, There Will Be Oil, I submitted this rebuttal.  They ask to have the exclusive right to any submission for 10 days. At this point, they have neither printed it nor responded back, so it seems OK for me to post it here instead.

Saturday, September 17, the WSJ ran an essay by Daniel Yergin called, “There Will Be Oil.” In the essay, Yergin argues that the advocates of “peak oil” theory are wrong. He says, “Meeting future demand will require innovation, investment and the development of more challenging resources,” but he doesn’t make this sound like a huge problem. Most of the big challenges would be above ground issues, like politics, mismanagement of resources, and wars.

Should we believe this story? It sounds strangely dissonant, compared to what we have been hearing from other sources. In 2007, the National Petroleum Council (NPC) issued a report called, “Facing Hard Truths about Energy.” In fact, Daniel Yergin was one of the authors of the report. The cover letter to this report said,

“To meet the accumulating risks, all recommendations of the 2007 report require implementation with increased urgency and commitment. As stated in the 2007 report, there is no single, easy solution to the global challenges ahead. Given the massive scale of the global energy system and the long lead-times necessary to make material changes, all actions must be initiated now and sustained over the long term. We need all economic, environmentally-responsible energy sources to assure adequate, reliable supply.” Continue reading

Drilling Down: Tainter and Patzek tell the energy-complexity story

Joseph Tainter and Tadeusz Patzek are authors of a soon-to-be-released book called Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma. This book is part of Charles Hall’s Briefs in Energy series with the publisher Springer. An earlier book in this series was The Limits to Growth Revisited, by Ugo Bardi.

The new book, Drilling Down, is not simply the story of the Gulf oil spill (although it does tell this story, quite well). Tainter and Patzek use the story of the Gulf oil spill as the background for discussing the energy-complexity spiral, and its relationship to this accident.

The energy-complexity spiral occurs because the availability of abundant, inexpensive energy permits increased complexity. Complexity has the advantage of allowing society to solve more problems, but it has the disadvantage of being more costly–that is requiring more energy for its creation. The need for more energy (and the fact that Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI) is declining) leads to a need for more complexity to obtain this additional energy, assuring that the cycle continues. With growing complexity, there is an increased risk of accidents that can be expected because of the complex nature of the system, but which are hard for participants to foresee. Continue reading

IEO 2011: A Misleadingly Optimistic Energy Forecast by the EIA

The EIA published International Energy Outlook 2011 (IEO 2011) on September 19, showing energy projections to 2035. One summary stated, “Global Energy Use to Jump 53%, largely driven by strong demand from places like India and China.”

It seems to me that this estimate is misleadingly high. The EIA is placing too much emphasis on what demand would be, if the price were low enough. In fact, oil, natural gas, and coal are all getting more difficult (and expensive) to extract. Prices will need to be much higher than today to cover the cost of extraction plus taxes countries choose to levy on energy extraction. The required high energy prices are likely to lead to recessionary impacts, which in turn will cut back demand for energy products of all types.

We live in a finite world. While it is true that huge resources of oil, natural gas, and coal are still theoretically available, we are starting to reach practical limits regarding extraction at prices that do not lead to economic contraction. Continue reading

European Debt Crisis and Sustainability

What would humans have to do to really live sustainability with the world’s ecosystems?

I got a shock when I read about the pattern of species extinctions which is taking place that form a part of what is called the “Sixth Mass Extinction.” It turns out that man’s adverse influence on ecosystems didn’t start a few hundred years ago, when we started using fossil fuels. Instead it started way back, when man was still a hunter-gatherer, and there were fewer than 100,000 people on earth.

According to Niles Eldridge, in describing the Sixth Extinction:

  • Phase One began when the first modern humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago.
  • Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago when humans turned to agriculture.

In this post, I’ll explain a little more about the Sixth Mass Extinction, and how fossil fuel use has contributed to it in recent years.

I’ll also talk about a new bottleneck that humans seem to be reaching related to oil limits and financial crises that grow out of these oil limits, with the current example being the European Debt Crisis. Depending how this and other debt crises work out, it seems possible that human population will decline. If this should happen, it could lead to a reduced problem with species extinction.

But the whole situation illustrates just how difficult attaining sustainability with world ecosystems is likely to be. Humans by their nature seem not to mesh well with world ecosystems. Unless humans become completely extinct, it seems likely that humans will always have difficulty living in a truly sustainable way.

Continue reading

Will plug-in automobiles be a success?

Will plug-in cars be a success?

If by success, we mean “sell lots of vehicles” the answer is probably “no” unless the price comes down a lot–say 50% from today’s prices, so that price is in line with what common people can afford. People don’t pay more for a car than the loan officer will approve for a loan, plus their available down payment. Today’s high price puts plug-ins out of the price range for most people unless there are huge government subsidies–subsidies that governments cannot afford. The cars have other drawbacks–like limited range and the possible need for expensive battery replacement long after the warranty has expired–further cutting back on the marketability of the cars.

The high cost of plug in vehicles is not just the batteries–it is the cost of the cars themselves. Unless these costs can be brought down, the use of batteries with lower capacity to recapture braking energy and to provide an acceleration boost, similar to the way today’s Prius does today, may be a better choice, and is likely to produce a car which is salable to a wider range of potential buyers.

Even with their drawbacks, I expect plug-in cars will find at least a small market, for a number of reasons that I will explain in this post. One of these reasons is that many people believe that plug-in automobiles will reduce CO2 emissions. In my view, this belief is false–but this belief, as well as a number of other hopes and fears, are likely to lead a steady interest in plug-in automobiles by those wealthy enough to afford them, as well as support by politicians who want to appear to be doing something useful. Continue reading