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Synthesis/Regeneration 53   (Fall 2010)

Ready for "Beyond Petroleum?"

by Henry Robertson

The sea is no longer burning. The plague seems to have passed, leaving the Gulf and its coastal people to their slow regeneration. In the age of statistics bureaucrats tried to corral the blowout with numbers, but there is no suppressing the images of oily death and desolation. We cried for BP and the government to stop it. We cast blame and file lawsuits, anything but face the real question: What was that rig doing in 5,000 feet of water?

Floating rigs like the Deepwater Horizon can sink a well through 10,000 feet of water and another 30,000 feet below the sea bed. The engineering challenges are enormous. The pressure at such depths is so great that poking a hole in the sea floor risks an explosive release of gas and oil - exactly what happened. BP unleashed forces it couldn't control.

What was that rig doing in 5,000 feet of water?

"Drill, baby, drill," the right wing chants. They blame those damned environmentalists who stopped the oil companies from drilling onshore. But oil independence is an illusion. The fact is, we're tapped out in the lower 48.

Meet JOE

Peak oil is the story that never quite seems to crack the mainstream media. Peak oil is the moment when half the natural endowment of oil is gone. There's still plenty of oil left, but production will start an inevitable decline even as demand, especially from fast-developing countries like China and India, keeps rising. The oil that's left is less accessible and more expensive to extract. The law of supply and demand will then dictate inexorably rising prices and the end of the world as we've known it.

Some analysts think the world peak has already arrived. We won't know it immediately because extraction can plateau along for a while - as in fact it has been doing since 2005 - before dropping. "Optimists" like the statisticians at the US Geological Survey and Energy Information Administration think the world peak won't come until 2030-40. So not to worry - as if 20 or 30 years is plenty of time to make a transition of historic magnitude. We'll have to find new ways to make and move our food and goods, and our cherished mobility will be curtailed.

Early this year the US Joint Forces Command raised some eyebrows with its Joint Operating Environment report (JOE), an assessment of world economic, demographic and other trends and how they will affect the military's ability to wage war in the face of new threats.

"By 2012," says JOE, "surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 MBD" (million barrels per day). "By 2030, the world will require production of 118 MBD [it's now 86 MBD], but energy producers may only be producing 100 MBD unless there are major changes in current investment and drilling capacity."

JOE doesn't say it can't be done, but: "Assuming the most optimistic scenario," such as more intensive exploitation of "unconventional" oil sources like the vile Canadian tar sands, "petroleum production will be hard pressed to meet the expected future demand of 118 million barrels per day."

US onshore extraction peaked 40 years ago. We now import two-thirds of our oil. And for all the effort and expense, drilling at depths of 5,000 feet or more accounts for less than 1% of world oil production.

What to do? For starters, we should lay to rest the glib form of climate change denial that goes, "Puny humanity can't affect vast nature." Yeah, right. Tell it to the Gulf of Mexico.

Don't boycott BP

Urgency runs up against reality. We won't be free from oil anytime soon. America has got itself down a suburban cul de sac with no other way out.

Boycotts and demonstrations at BP gas stations are one response, but they're beside the point. Reckless as it was, is BP the worst of the oil companies? It was Exxon after the Valdez spill, then Shell for what they did in Nigeria, remember? Oil is a fungible commodity. It makes no difference if you buy your gasoline from BP or another oil major.

The only meaningful reaction is to cut your oil consumption. To bring oil's contribution to global warming down to manageable levels, taking America's disproportionate use into account, cut it 95%.

No city-dweller should need to own a car.

Very few of us are in a position to do that. Quite by design, our society is now thoroughly car- and truck-dependent.

The problem is bigger than that. In 2009, for the first time, the US was not the largest car market. It's now China. The only thing we can do about that is lead by example. If we don't swear off fossil fuels, China won't either.

The first thing to do is take the taxpayer money that's always been gobbled up by highways and put it into public transit and rail, both passenger and freight. No city-dweller should need to own a car. Big trucks average six miles per gallon. It's hard to imagine a more wasteful way to move freight, with a few exceptions like flying in cut flowers from South America.

Repopulate the cities, depopulate the suburbs. Return suburban land to agriculture.

As oil shortages increase, we may have to do something more rational and orderly than let the law of supply and demand send its blind price signals to the marketplace. We may have to resort to rationing ("Socialism!"). There are many frivolous uses for oil that we could do without - cheap plastic trinkets, carnival rides, jet skis and other forms of fossil-fueled fun, motor "sports," disposable packaging.

We should plan the obsolescence of planned obsolescence. Products could be required by law to be durable, recyclable, and capable of being repaired rather than thrown away.

Transportation commands 70% of oil in the US. The personal automobile and easy jet travel will have to give ground. Higher priority goes to feeding ourselves, and agriculture is another major user of fossil fuels for farm machinery, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and hauling the food to market. Eventually we may have to revert to the pre-industrial, self-sufficient, village economy.


But wait, I'm forgetting about the preferred solution, the techno-fix. Some day we may have a modest supply of biofuel made from algae, which won't take land away from agriculture. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a long way off. Another fix is already coming, though - the electric car. It's not much good if it's run by coal and nuclear power, but maybe there's a marriage to be made in heaven between those car batteries and the power grid.

Repopulate the cities, depopulate the suburbs.

The US has more vehicles than people. Imagine if all our vehicles were electric and ran on renewable power. If wind and solar energy, which are variable, made up 20% of our electricity, they would pose problems for the transmission grid, which can't handle big swings in supply. Electric car batteries could stabilize the grid and provide backup power. The concept is known as vehicle-to-grid or V2G. The cars would be called upon during the day, when demand is high, and recharge at night. There is no solar energy at night, but the wind tends to blow more strongly than during the day.

By one estimate, if all our cars were electric, they'd constitute a power source of 2865 gigawatts (GW); one GW is a large power plant. But those batteries run down and have to be recharged. According to the Energy Information Administration, the entire US generating capacity from all sources was 1104 GW in 2008. We'd have to build an enormous amount of wind capacity, and whatever amount is needed must be tripled because wind power is only available a third of the time on average. This doesn't trouble V2G backers, who'll be happy if we recharge with fossil-fuel and nuclear power or just assume that the wind capacity will somehow be there. Can a society bankrupted by greed and hitting the limits of its natural resources pull this off?

Techno-fixes harness the profit motive - minimize costs, maximize profits and grow by driving the competition out of business. This has been done before, and the winners of the fossil fuel round of competition are still around. If the car companies think the fix will make them less money than business as usual they'll try to kill it any way they can. They did it with the first generation of electric cars.

Even if the automotive fix works, we suckers still have to pay for the cars, the highways, the high-tech transmission grid, the wind turbines and solar panels, etc. The whole suburban infrastructure will still be there and growing. Whose costs are being minimized?

The crowning glory of industrial capitalism is not its technology, which owes more to science and engineering than to business. It's the institutionalized, glorified, virtuosic, focus-group-tested, statistically validated, market-proven lie - the advertisement, the sales pitch, the lobbyist's shill. BP - "Beyond Petroleum" - once tried to convince us that black is green. As the big growth corporations sniff green profit opportunities, they'll probably persuade a complacent public that it's true.

The revolution we need is not industrial.

It's an easy sell. People have enough to worry about without being told to change the most affluent life style the world has ever seen. If the corporations offered to sell them the change on credit they could buy it, but credit is the illusion on which financial bubbles are made.

The revolution we need is not industrial. Without fossil fuels we'll have to live more by community and the sweat of our brows. How many takers?

[10 sep 10]

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