Helping America Navigate a New Energy Reality

The Bearable Weight of Not-Being, by Tad Patzek

By on 19 Sep 2011 in commentary

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

My friend, Rob Dietz, has reminded me about these words by Aldo Leopold: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” But when I mention the assorted causes of my internal bleeding to my wife and friends, they all look at me with disbelief and impatience. They do not feel the way I often do. What if their thinking is wiser and reflects what really can be done in a world overrun by seven billion people, who always want more than they have at any given moment and place? For most people on the Earth, “more” means safe water to drink, fresh food to eat, and a shelter with a cook stove and an outhouse. For the very few “more” means a $2.5 million watch and unlimited access to all conceivable resources to be used at will.

So let me step back. The Earth, our beautiful blue and green living planet, will continue to be when we are gone, just as she was before we came. In fact, she probably is shutting down or simplifying her life-giving forests, savannahs, estuaries and oceans to get us to launch and shrug us off a little faster; a pesky, self-important and self-righteous species that literally eats her alive. Boy, is she getting tired of us and our prayers for a rain here while we are obliterating trees and clouds over there. In my lonely chronic hurt, am I yet another well-meaning but self-deluded, affluent American, who thinks that he may stem the inevitable with a teaspoon?

Save the planet?! What a stupid and arrogant thing to say! How about this: “Please, please, God, let the planet save us, and we promise to get out of her way.” Of course, as a species, we are organically incapable of saying this simple prayer and following up on it.

The New Yorker Cartoon Collection

We can’t say this prayer, because more for us is all we want. To make sure that we get what we want, we have created and refined the most successful – if only for us – social contract in the history of mankind: The Global Capitalism.

Where I write these words, everyone – even the poorest – has benefited from the global capitalism and everyone uses the multitudinous fruits of its technology. So why should we change? Only because we may be committing suicide in slow-motion? Or because millions of others are suffering and dying for our comfort?

Sorry, no time to answer these questions. I’m off in my Prius to a farmer’s market 12 miles away. I positively need to pick up some locally grown produce and a fair-trade cappuccino. It’s my time to relax. So why do I need to see that guy in a beat-up truck who’s smoking a cigarette and drinking coke? What an environmentally insensitive slob! And he also looks so tired and unhealthy. Maybe he lost his job? Oh, who cares anyway? What a nice cappuccino…time to relax…

A 6-mile wide lake of absolutely deadly toxic waste left near Baotou, China, after refining and smelting the rare earth metals we use in our Priuses and in wind turbines. But I love my Prius and the renewable electricity I get. Did I mention that plenty of soil there is also poisoned, as well as groundwater and one of the major waterways in China? In short, people die far away so that I can boast my environmental credentials and drive a Prius.

P.S. I hope that Milan Kundera would agree with my assessment. Please read his masterpiece, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

P.S.P.S. For the record, I actually do not own a Prius but drive a small, diesel engine-powered Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI. And I do not drive 24 miles to get a stupid cappuccino. Every day, I do see, however, the poor and the dispossessed, even in the affluent booming Austin, TX.

Tadeusz (Tad) Patzek was recently appointed to the ASPO-USA Board of Directors. He is the Lois K. and Richard D. Folger Leadership Professor and Chair of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Between 1990 and 2008, he was a Professor of Geoengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to Berkeley, he was a researcher at Shell Development, a unique research company managed for 20 years by M. King Hubbert. Tad’s research and teaching involves mathematical and numerical modeling of earth systems, and the thermodynamics and ecology of energy supply for human survival. He is also conducting research on unconventional natural gas and oil resources. Tad is a coauthor of over 200 papers and reports, and one book.

Yergin Is Half-Right About Oil, But Other Half Is What Matters

In “There Will Be Oil” (September 17, WSJ, Page C1), Daniel Yergin concludes that a peak in global oil production is “nowhere in sight.” By focusing on the timing of such a peak, however, he dangerously distracts attention from the monumental challenges facing the oil and gas industry today, and the new energy and economic reality the world has entered. With demand for oil and all forms of energy continuing to rise exponentially-including rapid growth in China, India, and other developing countries-and huge uncertainty whether fossil fuels can keep pace-the most foolish course of action would be business as usual.

For evidence we have a serious problem-aside from rising oil prices and their obvious ripple effects on the economy-one need look no further than a landmark report by the National Petroleum Council, an advisory body created by the federal government to draw from expertise within the oil and gas industry to inform public policy. Facing the Hard Truth About Energy, released in 2007, documents the range of technical, economic, and geopolitical factors that are hindering access, investment, and profitable development of the world’s oil resources. The report clearly recounts why increasing supply to meet rising demand will be far from a cakewalk.

So what is Mr. Yergin glossing over? He states that so-called “unconventional” oil resources will become a familiar source for petroleum-such as deriving oil from tar sands, heavy crudes, or even oil shale. However, the costs and risks of getting unconventional resources out of the ground-technical, financial, economic, and environmental-are completely different than for conventional oilfields on which we have relied to this moment in history. Increases in unconventional production will be hard-pressed to offset declines in key oil-producing countries, such as Russia, Kuwait, Mexico, Venezuela, and Norway.

Mr. Yergin also counts other liquid fuels-such as natural gas liquids and biofuels-in his figures for “World Oil Production.” These fuels, however, are significantly different from conventional crude oil and face their own constraints. They comprise more than a third of the current U.S. production shown in Mr. Yergin’s graph, but this masks that U.S. crude oil production has fallen from its 1970 peak of 10 million barrels per day to less than 6 million barrels today.

Let’s all loudly agree: we are not running out of oil! But we are rapidly depleting the high-quality relatively easy-to-extract-and-refine oil that has fueled a tremendous expansion of the world economy since the dawn of the petroleum age. Yes, petroleum companies may continue to make money developing new resources, especially if rising global demand helps drive high fuel prices. But overall “energy profits” for society -the energy returned from invested resources-are shrinking rapidly, even as oil prices and corporate profits may rise. How consumers will fare and how the world economy will function under this new energy reality is cause for serious concern, discussion, and action.

Jan Lars Mueller is Executive Director for the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas USA (ASPO-USA), which promotes open dialogue and understanding of Peak Oil, resource depletion, and the role of energy in the economy. ASPO-USA is hosting its annual conference November 2-5 in Washington DC.

2 Comments

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  1. Robert Spoley says:

    Gentlemen
    Interesting topic. However I disagree with certain statements. We are no different than any other animal on this planet so far as our wants go. We’re just better at fulfilling them. The biggest problem with us was hinted at early on. Scale. 7 billion is just too many. 2.5 billion is probably sustainable, even with fossil fuels. At the lower number a whole bunch of potential “tipping points” can be avoided. I’m not for mass killings, just drastically slowing down the birth rate. More than 2 kids per family should be criminalized, regardless of weather you can afford it or not. It’s all about taking responsibility. The irresponsible ones breed like mice with the same end result.
    So far as liquid fuels are concerned, the future is all about GTL. It says goodby to “stranded gas”, “hindenbuses”, “jihadmobiles” and a whole assortment of too expensive transportation schemes. When you throw in methane from methylhydrates (they are renewable), GTL diesel fuel is probably aforever kind of thing. That takes care of the mobile part of civilization. The stationary part can be addressed by electricty from thorium. Then you’re back to the original problem, ther’s just too d—n many of us. Who do we see about that?

  2. cameron conacher says:

    If we are 7 Billion little bugs in a petre disk then the difference is we can:
    1) clean up by recycling
    2) reduce intake by technology
    3) migrate to lower energy needs as supply/demand changes
    What we have a difficult time at doing is:
    1) having a heart to do the job (terminator 3 cyborg isn’t into ‘good Samaritan’ heart issues). Neither are Muslim’s who subscribe to Jesus as a ‘good’ teacher, nor Jew’s who see Jesus as a imposter but have a democracy.
    2) using knowledge to further liberty in deeds that help one another. We are rather more Darwinian in being ‘red in tooth and claw’. One calls for a soul, other simply for a hormone driven drive (instinct).
    3) a free culture is a constant balance of chaos between the two.

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