Supplemental energy puts humans in charge

Energy is a subject that is greatly misunderstood. Its role in our lives is truly amazing. We humans are able to live and move because of the energy that we get from food. We count this energy in calories.

Green plants are also energy dependent. In photosynthesis, plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into the glucose that they need to grow.

Ecosystems are energy dependent as well. The ecologist Howard T. Odum in Environment, Power, and Society explains that ecosystems self-organize in a way that maximizes the useful energy obtained by the group of plants and animals.

Economies created by humans are in some respects very similar to ecosystems. They, too, self-organize and seem to be energy dependent. The big difference is that over one million years ago, pre-humans learned to control fire. As a result, they were able to burn biomass and indirectly add the energy this provided to the food energy that they otherwise had available. The energy from burning biomass was an early form of supplemental energy. How important was this change?

How Humans Gained Dominion Over Other Animals

James C. Scott, in Against the Grain, explains that being able to burn biomass was sufficient to turn around who was in charge: pre-humans or large animals. In one cave in South Africa, he indicates that a lower layer of remains found in the cave did not show any carbon deposits, and hence were created before pre-humans occupying the cave gained control of fire. In this layer, skeletons of big cats were found, along with scattered gnawed bones of pre-humans.

In a higher layer, carbon deposits were found. In this layer, pre-humans were clearly in charge. Their skeletons were much more intact, and the bones of big cats were scattered about and showed signs of gnawing. Who was in charge had changed.

There is other evidence of human domination becoming possible with the controlled use of fire. Studies show a dramatic drop in numbers of large mammals not long after settlement by humans in several areas outside Africa. (Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, based on P. S. Martin’s “Prehistoric overkill: A global model” in Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution.) Continue reading

Will the World Economy Continue to “Roll Along” in 2018?

Once upon a time, we worried about oil and other energy. Now, a song from 1930 seems to be appropriate:

Today, we have a surplus of oil, which we are trying to use up. That never happened before, or did it? Well, actually, it did, back around 1930. As most of us remember, that was not a pleasant time. It was during the Great Depression.

Figure 1. US ending stocks of crude oil, excluding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Amounts will include crude oil in pipelines and in “tank farms,” awaiting processing. Businesses normally do not hold more crude oil than they need in the immediate future, because holding this excess inventory has a cost involved. Figure produced by EIA. Amounts through early 2016.

A surplus of a major energy commodity is a sign of economic illness; the economy is not balancing itself correctly. Energy supplies are available for use, but the economy is not adequately utilizing them. It is a sign that something is seriously wrong in the economy–perhaps too much income disparity.

Figure 2. U. S. Income Shares of Top 1% and Top 0.1%, Wikipedia exhibit by Piketty and Saez.

If incomes are relatively equal, it is possible for even the poorest citizens of the economy to be able to buy necessary goods and services. Things like food, homes, and transportation become affordable by all. It is easy for “Demand” and “Supply” to balance out, because a very large share of the population has incomes that are adequate to buy the goods and services created by the economy.

It is when we have too much income and wage disparity that we have gluts of oil and food supplies. Food gluts happened in the 1930s and are happening again now. We lose sight of the extent to which the economy can actually absorb rising quantities of commodities of many types, if they are inexpensive, compared to wages. The word “Demand” might better be replaced by the term “Quantity Affordable.” Top wage earners can always afford goods and services for their families; the question is whether earners lower in the wage hierarchy can. In today’s world, some of these low-wage earners are in India and Africa, or have no employment at all.

What is Going Right, As We Enter 2018?

[1] The stock market keeps rising.

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What Greece, Cyprus, and Puerto Rico Have in Common

We all know one thing that Greece, Cyprus, and Puerto Rico have in common–severe financial problems. There is something else that they have in common–a high proportion of their energy use is from oil. Figure 1 shows the ratio of oil use to energy use for selected European countries in 2006.

Figure 1. Oil as a percentage of total energy consumption in 2006, based on June 2015 Energy Information data. (Inverted order from chart originally shown.)

Figure 1. Oil as a percentage of total energy consumption in 2006, based on June 2015 Energy Information data. (Inverted order from chart originally shown.)

Greece and Cyprus are at the top of this chart. The other “PIIGS” countries (Ireland, Spain, Italy, and Portugal) are immediately below Greece. Puerto Rico is not European so is not on Figure 1, but it if were shown on this chart, it would appear between Cyprus and Greece–its oil as a percentage of its energy consumption was 98.4% in 2006. The year 2006 was chosen because it was before the big crash of 2008. The percentages are bit lower now, but the relationship is very similar now. Continue reading

Eight Energy Myths Explained

Republicans, Democrats, and environmentalists all have favorite energy myths. Even Peak Oil believers have favorite energy myths. The following are a few common mis-beliefs,  coming from a variety of energy perspectives. I will start with a recent myth, and then discuss some longer-standing ones.

Myth 1. The fact that oil producers are talking about wanting to export crude oil means that the US has more than enough crude oil for its own needs.

The real story is that producers want to sell their crude oil at as high a price as possible. If they have a choice of refineries A, B, and C in this country to sell their crude oil to, the maximum amount they can receive for their oil is limited by the price these refineries are paying, less the cost of shipping the oil to these refineries.

If it suddenly becomes possible to sell crude oil to refineries elsewhere, the possibility arises that a higher price will be available in another country. Refineries are optimized for a particular type of crude. If, for example, refineries in Europe are short of light, sweet crude because such oil from Libya is mostly still unavailable, a European refinery might be willing to pay a higher price for crude oil from the Bakken (which also produces light sweet, crude) than a refinery in this country. Even with shipping costs, an oil producer might be able to make a bigger profit on its oil sold outside of the US than sold within the US.

The US consumed 18.9 million barrels a day of petroleum products during 2013. In order to meet its oil needs, the US imported 6.2 million barrels of oil a day in 2013 (netting exported oil products against imported crude oil). Thus, the US is, and will likely continue to be, a major oil crude oil importer.

If production and consumption remain at a constant level, adding crude oil exports would require adding crude oil imports as well. These crude oil imports might be of a different kind of oil than that that is exported–quite possibly sour, heavy crude instead of sweet, light crude. Or perhaps US refineries specializing in light, sweet crude will be forced to raise their purchase prices, to match world crude oil prices for that type of product.

The reason exports of crude oil make sense from an oil producer’s point of view is that they stand to make more money by exporting their crude to overseas refineries that will pay more. How this will work out in the end is unclear. If US refiners of light, sweet crude are forced to raise the prices they pay for oil, and the selling price of US oil products doesn’t rise to compensate, then more US refiners of light, sweet crude will go out of business, fixing a likely world oversupply of such refiners. Or perhaps prices of US finished products will rise, reflecting the fact that the US has to some extent in the past received a bargain (related to the gap between European Brent and US WTI oil prices), relative to world prices. In this case US consumers will end up paying more.

The one thing that is very clear is that the desire to ship crude oil abroad does not reflect too much total crude oil being produced in the United States. At most, what it means is an overabundance of refineries, worldwide, adapted to light, sweet crude. This happens because over the years, the world’s oil mix has been generally changing to heavier, sourer types of oil. Perhaps if there is more oil from shale formations, the mix will start to change back again. This is a very big “if,” however. The media tend to overplay the possibilities of such extraction as well.

Myth 2. The economy doesn’t really need very much energy.

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Reasons for our Energy Predicament – An Overview

Quiz: What will cause world oil supply to fall?

  1. Too little oil in the ground
  2. Oil prices are too low for oil producers
  3. Oil prices are too high for oil consumers leading to recession, debt defaults, and ultimately a cut back in credit availability and very low oil prices
  4. Oil exporters are subject to civil unrest and overthrow of governments, due to low prices and/or depleting reserves
  5. Lack of money (and physical resources that might be purchased with this money) to pull oil out of the ground.
  6. Pollution related issues–too much smog in China; too many problems with fracking; too many problems with CO2.
  7. The financial current system fails, and can only be replaced by one that allows much less debt. Oil prices remain too low under such a system. 

In my view, any answer other that the first one is likely to be at least partially right. Ultimately, the issue is that to extract oil or any fossil fuel, we have to keep the financial and political systems together. These systems can be expected to fail, far before we run out of oil in the ground. Most oil in the ground (as well as most other fossil fuels in the ground) will be left in the ground, in my view.

Basing estimates of future oil production on oil reserves is likely to give far too high an indication with respect to actual future production. Even more absurd numbers come from using “resource” numbers (which are higher than reserve numbers) to make estimates of future oil production. Coal and natural gas production is likely to fall at exactly the same time as oil, because the problems are likely to be financial and political ones, not “resources in the ground” problems.

Direct Application of M. King Hubbert Theory is Incorrect

M. King Hubbert is known for his estimates of future oil production  (195619621976) based on reserve amounts. There are two things of importance to notice about his estimates:

(a) The oil reserve estimates used are of free flowing oil reserves of the type that geologists currently were looking at. Thus, they were restricted to “cheap to extract” reserves, and

(b) When Hubbert showed graphs of world oil production following a generally symmetric curve (so downslope looks like a mirror image of upslope), Hubbert showed some other source of energy supply (nuclear in his early papers, solar in later ones) rising to high levels, before world oil production ever dropped. He even talked about making liquid fuels using a huge amount of energy plus carbon dioxide and water–in other words, reversing combustion (1962). In order to ramp nuclear or solar up to these very high levels, they would need to be  extremely cheap.

The assumptions that M. King Hubbert makes are effectively ones that would allow the economy to continue to grow and the financial system to “hang together.” If a person looks at today’s situation, it is quite different. We do not have an alternate fuel supply that will  allow the economy to continue to grow, regardless of fossil fuel consumption. The published reserves include large amounts of oil in the ground that are not of the very cheap to extract type. Extracting such oil will be impossible if oil prices are very low, or if credit availability is lacking. It is tempting for observers to look at oil reserves and assume that all is well, but this is definitely not the case.

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