A small subset of the public (1) believes in both global warming and peak oil and (2) takes the corollary view that only believing in at least one of the two forces realization that an energy transition on a civilizational scale is necessary. In scouting for allies, double believers don’t consider the denial of global warming or peak oil to erect an immediate stop sign. Think global warming is bogus? No matter. It’s irrelevant if I can convince you we have to change anyway because of peak oil. You’re a believer in peak oil already? Great. You’re on the same team as the subset before we even identify what you think on the other issue. Believe in global warming but eye peak oil skeptically? Again, same team. One out of two is all it takes.

However friendly they may be for coalition building, double believers are schizophrenic in their comparative cue-taking from mainstream scientists. Go to the IPCC, and it’s not hard to find scientists who take global warming seriously. Go to the USGS, and it’s lots harder to find scientists who overtly support the peak oil thesis. So how exactly do the double believers justify a stance that respects the conclusions of the relevant professionals on the one hand but not the conclusions of the relevant professionals on the other? How can they take almost anything the IPCC says as gospel, and then turn right around and dismiss the 2000 USGS global oil assessment? Explain the go-along here versus the dissent there.

My view as a subset member is that the discrepancy is explained by the common sense of lid science. By lids, I refer to tops of containers that hold a substance, such as the top of a jar containing peanut butter, or the top of a balloon containing hot air. By common sense, I mean that most nine-year-olds know you can’t remove peanut butter from the jar, short of breaking the glass, if you can’t remove the container top, and know you can’t make the top of a hot-air balloon maintain buoyancy, prolonging the adventure, if you don’t have enough hot air to fill the cavity beneath. Let’s call these principles Lid I and Lid II.

The global warming idea springs from energy-balance physics in the form of the greenhouse effect.  Proponents might be more persuasive if they retreated from global-warming vocabulary, suggestive of processes that are mysterious, and framed the idea with non-mysterious greenhouse-effect vocabulary. The concept is familiar to anybody who knows not to put a child in a vehicle in July with the windows rolled up, or knows glass houses can grow some plants even when it’s cold outside. In the case of the child, incoming visible light radiation passes through the vehicle’s glass windows to strike the interior. Reflected off the interior surfaces of the vehicle is infrared radiation, containing heat energy. But the rolled-up windows prevent convection, or mixing of warmer air inside with colder air outside. Temperatures inside can quickly soar to as much as 130 degrees on hot days. In a greenhouse as well, hindrance of convection enables temperatures higher than in the air outside.

This is Lid I. In the atmosphere, natural greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiated by Earth’s sunheated surface and themselves re-radiate the energy in all directions, including back toward the surface. Thus near-surface temperatures are about 60 degrees higher than they would be without these gases.

Anthropogenic greenhouse gases amplify that effect. Complications follow in the form of questions about atmospheric physics, clouds, oceans, solar flux, etc., and, generally, whether we’re stuck with the windows rolled up or there’s a saving-grace atmospheric equivalent of vehicular air conditioning.

The IPCC and the preponderance of scientists can’t find any sufficient offsetting counterpart, and do find recent temperature increase. Further questions address modeled secondary impacts of the greenhouse effect. Does sea-level rise invade Louisiana, Florida, or Manhattan, and if so by how much and how fast? Is there an effect on the number or frequency of hurricanes or forest fires? Are there breadbasket regions where these effects reduce rainfall? Are there any effects on snow melt supply of mountain water to hydroelectric dams? Are there effects on other species, and which affect us as a result? Do we just sleepwalk, or do we investigate such effects from a policy perspective of basic Boy Scout or Girl Scout preparedness?

Explanations of the peak-oil idea typically focus too much on M. King Hubbert’s curve and not enough on his boxes. Here’s the graph from Hubbert’s published 1956 paper:

The vertical Y axis measures billions of barrels per year of oil extraction from the Lower 48 states preceding Alaskan and Hawaiian statehood. The horizontal X axis measures years. One box equals 1 billion barrels per year times 25 years, or 25 billion barrels. Hubbert applied a literature-search estimate that the Lower 48 would produce ultimately, cumulatively, about 150 billion barrels, or six boxes worth. Hedging, in case that was wrong, he examined how the situation might differ if the ultimate were as high as 200 billion barrels, or eight boxes. Fortuitously, in between the conference presentation and publication, a new survey of experts from the oil industry establishment added to the literature, and the highest ultimate given by any expert was 200 billion barrels.

Either way, Hubbert said, the six-box or eight-box constraint meant that the future had to at least ballpark-resemble the idealized curves he proceeded to draw. Six or eight boxes worth would support only so great a maximum value on the Y axis. Letting oil out of the ground and consuming it was like letting hot air out of the balloon and losing lift. The Y value would have to sag eventually, and the timing of the sagging commencement depended on the constraint the estimated ultimate placed on maximum annual extraction as consumption of the geological oil bounty proceeded.

Extraction would reach a max, or summit, and begin descending, which is why the contemporary vocabulary is framed as peak oil. This is Lid II. A saving-grace circumvention of the constraint was to postulate lots more than eight boxes, enabling prolonged lift. Post-1956 estimates proceeded to do just that, ballooning to well over twenty boxes, but intervening time has demonstrated that the vast extra oil they discovered on paper has not materialized in reality. Even Prudhoe Bay oil from Alaska and deepwater oil from the Gulf of Mexico, while augmenting Y values, haven’t yielded 50-state production greater than the Lower 48 max the eight-box path predicted for 1970 and the oil companies reached right on Hubbert’s schedule.

Of course, when US oil production peaks, you can still go to Saudi Arabia, the North Sea, or Mexico, but now the issue concerns world oil production and the realization that when it maxes out, there’s no place else to get more lift, and production inevitably has to descend. Déjà vu all over again, super-optimists are postulating vast quantities of what’s ultimately recoverable internationally, surpassing not only the two trillion barrels peak-oil geologists have estimated but also the more generous three trillion barrels the USGS estimated in 2000. What is a prepared Boy Scout or Girl Scout to do on a precautionary basis, should the new super-optimists prove to be wrong just like the earlier ones? Peak-oil believers don’t recommend energy policy somnambulance, and double believers have not one but two reasons to favor something else.

Mr. Kuykendall is a retiree from a nonpartisan legislative staff agency in Texas, where he was a senior research associate. His extracurricular peak-oil niche has been as a Hubbert historian/archivist.

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the ASPO-USA position.)

2 thoughts on “Putting A Lid, or Two, On Energy Policy Somnabulance – By Chris Kuykendall”

  1. The IEA says that the era of cheap oil is over. Ya think? They predict that oil will cost $120 a barrel in 2015! And that is after saying that Chinese growth is the reason that the cheap oil is gone. What planet are these people living on? Unless the economies of the developed world stay at very low levels of growth for the next few years, oil could easily hit $200 by 2015. In my opinion, it will be between $200 and $250 by then, if we are lucky and don’t suffer a global economic collapse before then from a dollar melt down. Think how many new cars all those new Chinese auto plants will be churning out by 2015. The Chinese could be buying 20,000,000 cars a year by 2015.
    But maybe there are a bunch of giant new onshore oil discoveries that I haven’t read about out there, and oil will be selling for only $120 a barrel in 2015. Sure it will. If an asteroid hits.

  2. Does anyone know how long a vehicle burning natural gas would last? Since it burns so clean, it would seem like a piston engine running on natural gas would last a long time, especially with the new synthetic oils. The lower power output would seem to slow down engine wear too.
    Even if you had to fill up every 100 miles, it sure beats walking. Actually, if you had to fill up every 40 miles, it beats walking! And you can have air conditioning and heat. Those will cut down on the all electric car range, unless you happen to live in San Diego. And you can carry groceries and haul stuff in your own car. That is rough on the bus. Natural gas vehicles could work. Using it to generate electricity is a waste. It should be saved for transportation, which is critical in order to maintain a high standard of living in a large country designed around cheap transportation fuel. Use coal, uranium, and wind to make electricity.

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