The End of Oil
WARNING: This is not a happy blog. It is a guardedly optimistic essay on the greatest threat facing our world.
"My grandfather rode a camel, I drive a car, my grandson flies a jet, his son will ride a camel."
--Arab aphorism on the rise and fall of the oil economy
The oil is running out. Within the next 30 to 50 years, possibly sooner, every economically extractable drop of light crude oil on this planet will be exhausted. Forever. Oil is non-renewable. Once its gone, its gone forever. And once it is gone, everything that depends on oil will cease. Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization. Everything in our global culture depends on oil: energy, food, synthetic materials, pharmaceuticals. Ninety percent of the organic chemicals that we use for these products - plastics, fabrics, medicine, food additives, pesticides, fertilizer, etc. - is made from oil. Every enterprise and activity involving machinery or technology is made possible with oil.
Decades before the oil is gone we will reach peak oil production. This is the halfway point, the point after which all oil production will decrease, regardless of efforts to increase the production rate or the rise in demand. Many analysts think that 2005 was the year that we hit peak oil. If not, the general concensus is that peak oil will arrive by 2010. The most optimistic estimate (offered by the US Department of Energy) is that peak oil will arrive by mid-century, but this estimate assumes that the production (extraction) rate is physically unlimited while reserves persist, which is not a valid assumption.
In November of 2005, the Kuwait Oil Company acknowledged to Bloomberg that the Burgan oilfield, the second largest in the world, has peaked and is now producing only 85% of the volume that was predicted for the remainder of its life. Recently, leaked information from the Kuwait Oil Company indicates that the engineering estimates of Kuwaiti reserves are less than half the officially quoted figure, or only 48 billion barrels, lending evidence to the long suspicion that the abrupt and inexplicable increases in the reserves estimates touted by OPEC states were insubstatiated exaggerations (production quotas within OPEC are based on remaining reserves). Only half of this figure, 24 billion barrels, are proved, the remainder being speculative. Additionally, though vigorously denied by the Saudis, the Ghawar field also appears to be past peak. Production has fallen and the Saudis are engaging drilling rigs from all over the world to increase the water injection pressure on the field. So, it appears that the two largest oilfields in the world are past peak (possibly well past) and in decline.
If you doubt what I am asserting, perform a search on the web for the phrase "peak oil" and do your own research. Pay particular attention to the statements of scientists and engineers and little heed to the statements of economists, bureaucrats and politicians. Most economists and US Department of Energy bureaucrats are blithely ignoring this situation (or actively working to hide the truth). They are able to do this because they are not scientists or perhaps because they are strongly influenced by the petroleum industry or political considerations. For example, the estimates of the Department of Energy (DOE), based on US Geologic Survey (USGS) Data, are roughly 50% more generous in total reserves than all other such estimates. How plausible is that? (Is this not reminiscent of WMD in Iraq?) All things are possible to economists, bureaucrats and politicians. Unfortunately for us, all things are not possible in science and engineering. We, sadly, are bound by the limits of the physical world, as opposed to wishful imagination.
The first fact being ignored by many is that oil is finite. Whether it runs out in 10 years or 100 years, it will run out. That is inescapable. No-fear-of-the-future pundits love to talk about how we keep finding new reserves and are constantly improving methods of extraction, enabling us to exploit reserves that were previously economically infeasible. What they fail to appreciate is how rarely new reserves are found now, the (very modest) effect on production rate resulting from improvements in technology and the fact that advancements in science do not magically appear simply because they are necessary for survival, regardless of the economics involved. Natural selection applies to humans as surely as to animals.
The second fact being generally ignored is the effect on the global economy of the reduction in oil production after peak oil. This ignorance is really inexcusable because it falls within the purview of economics. Estimates of production decline after peak oil range from 3% to 8% per year. Healthy economies want to grow. So, we have a problem: how to grow economies while steeply reducing the demand for the most vital commodity for all economic activity, in every sector. It requires not only reducing present reliance by 3% to 8%, but accounting for the expected future increase in demand, which could easily be a comparable amount (or significantly more if India and China continue to advance as some have projected). In short, we would need to find alternative sources of energy (and alternatives for non-energy uses of oil) in the amount of 6% to 16% of total demand per year, until the oil is gone. Let's just say that is ambitious. Realistically, we can expect recession or possibly severe depression to result. Many economists blithely suggest that as the oil price soars towards $200 a barrel, we will be able to exploit more, presently infeasible, sources. What they neglect to mention is that if the price of oil soars toward $200 a barrel we won't have the surplus funds to pursue such projects that we have today because of the strain on the economy. The rather optimistic future production estimates of the DOE in 2000 forecast a 5% probability high figure for the per barrel price of light crude in the year 2020 at $28. It currently stands at more than $80 a barrel, only six years later, down from a high of $140 a barrel due to a shortage spike, and is only down below $90 a barrel because that price spike precipitated a global economic collapse. How much faith then do we place in any information coming from DOE or the Energy Information Agency (EIA)?
Well, how much oil does America need? We comprise only 5% of the human population, so surely we can rely on our own undeveloped domestic resources and a little foreign oil from less turbulent regions, like Latin America, right? In a word, no. The US consumes just over 25% of all the oil produced in the world. That's right, we consume one-quarter of all the oil, but make up only one-twentieth of the population. We are oil hogs. We are mainlining it. We have a dependency. Just imagine then, what will be the effect when China and India truly undergo an industrial revolution and emerge as modern economies. That is happening now and our own market forces are accelerating it by outsourcing everything we can to these and other developing countries. Their oil demand is expected to grow to many times its present level.
For some the answer has been very simple: seize all the oil in the Middle East and secure our future. That brand of reasoning is utter stupidity for several reasons. In the first place, at best, it only postpones the inevitable by a few years. Secondly, only a fool would believe that the rest of the world will stand by and let us take all of the oil. The US may be a nuclear superpower, but we are not so powerful as to be able to fight the entire world. Even if we made some kind of partnership with the other major nuclear powers and divided the oil between us, we cannot sustain the economic drain of holding it by force. Look at Iraq right now. The low tech insurgents are draining our coffers at a rate that we cannot long continue. It would be like that, only far worse - and you can't nuke your own position. The nukes won't help against that threat.
Nevertheless, this course appears to be the preferred path by many in Washington (the late Bush administration and the Neo-Cons in particular, but many others as well). In my previous blog, I discussed the reasons why we invaded Iraq. High among the strategic motivations for invasion was the creation of a stable power base atop some of the largest reserves in the region. Saudi Arabia has become an undependable ally with an uncertain future. Although violent revolution in Arabia may end the tenure of the House of Saud in the near future, and Arabia holds half of the oil reserves in the region, it would be madness for infidels to attempt to seize control of the Arabian Peninsula and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Strategists believed that overthrowing the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein would cause the Iraqis to love us and permit us to establish a permanent foothold on the third largest oil reserves in the world. Those strategists were too careless in their study of demographics and recent history. So far, that kind of posture has only tenuously been achieved in the north, in what I predict will become the Republic of Kurdistan. We will champion Kurdish independence in the end, primarily to secure our position there. The vastly greater Rumailah oilfield to the south, on the border with Kuwait, with estimated reserves of 112 billion barrels, is already lost to us. The Shiites will ultimately control that. Refer to my Politico-Military Blog for a further explanation.
The Kurds live over the Kirkuk oilfield, reservoir of what some describe as the lightest, sweetest oil in the world. Light, sweet crude is the best grade because it can be rendered into derivatives more readily, hence less waste. The Kirkuk field produces about 850,000 barrels per day or 310 million barrels per year, roughly 40% of the potential total for Iraq. The US consumes about 21 million barrels per day presently, so this is insufficient for our needs - a mere 4% of our demand. Kirkuk is estimated to have reserves in the amount of 17 billion barrels - not so very much, less in fact than US reserves.
However, even if we solidify our position in an independent Kurdistan and broker a permanent arrangement for the export of the oil from the Kirkuk field, there remains a problem. How do you get it out of Kurdistan? Right now it flows through a pipeline, either north via Turkey, or south to the Persian Gulf. If we defend Kurdistan against the Turks, especially if the Turkish Kurds revolt and try to join the new independent Kurdish republic, then Turkey will be ill disposed toward us. If they allow oil to flow across their territory at all, they will apply a substantial fee. You can expect a similar situation to arise in regard to the southward avenue. The Shia do not adore us and while they may appreciate the fate that has given them autonomy and a chance at wealth, they will thank Allah for this, not us. If we add the invasion or bombardment of Iran to the equation, well, expect the Kurdish oil to be hijacked or blockaded. You can't truck it through Jordan, that is too inefficient for large quantities. Airlifting it is even less efficient.
For all our pains in Iraq, we may have bought ourselves next to nothing.
There are, of course, other potential sources of oil. What about opening up the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) to drilling? We will eventually. That's a given. But I think we ought to expend all of the foreign oil first. Including ANWR reserves, the total oil reserves of the US amount to only 21 billion barrels. At our present rate of consumption we would exhaust every drop of oil in our territories in less than three years. ANWR is no salvation. It won't even stave off the end for more than a few months.
Canada has bitumen tar sands that hypothetically hold roughly as much petroleum as the Persian Gulf, at least 600 billion barrels. However, it is solid, not oil at all as we think of it, and the most optimistic production rates are on the order of 2 to 4 million barrels per day of recovered oil (current rates are around 200,000 barrels per day). That is not a large fraction of our more than 20 million barrels per day consumption in the US, but could easily supply our non-energy uses for oil, which amount to only 7.5% of the total consumption. We need to find a solution for the 92.5% of our oil consumption that is purely for energy in various forms (gasoline, diesel, heating oil, distillery gas, coke, etc.). To cover this, the tar sands would have to yield 100 times their present production, and that would only supply US demand, leaving no surplus for Canada or other countries.
Deep ocean oil deposits are being closely examined now, as technology steadily improves for exploiting wells at the abyssal plain depth. But the number of fields being discovered is rapidly diminishing. Don't look for new discoveries in deep water to change the peak oil or end of oil dates by much. Much has been made since August 2006 of the discovery of new oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. Estimates range to more than 15 billion barrels, which is a significant figure when compared with previously known US reserves (increasing them by roughly 75%), but not very significant when compared with our rate of consumption. It would last about 2 years if it were the sole source for the US.
Antarctica has long been postulated to hold significant oil and coal reserves, but unless the ice sheets melt much sooner than we expect, exploitation will be very difficult and intermittant. Also, central Antarctica, where the oil is most likely to reside, is getting colder. There are treaty issues as well - Antarctica will become a contested continent if anyone opens up oil drilling there.
America has huge oil shale deposits in the Rocky Mountain states, estimated to be 1.2 trillion barrels equivalent - more than all the remaining known oil reserves on Earth, but it presently requires more energy to extract oil from this solid rock than is liberated. Regardless of cost considerations, this is ultimately self-defeating. However, if the rate of liberation were high enough (i.e., sufficient to cover the energy cost of extraction, as well as demand), it might permit us to exploit some fraction of the reserves and buy time to find alternative anergy sources. In the last few years some methods using heat to extract the oil in situ have yielded good results, but these methods require years to achieve the required temperatures and the rate of extraction is not high. Oil shale contains only about 20 to 30 gallons of oil per ton of shale. Solar powered heaters might make this a viable source for industrial purposes, but questions remain about the feasibility of extracting the oil spread over most of three or four states and concerning the rate of extraction.
Inescapably, we must totally wean our economy from energy dependence on oil, both foreign and domestic sources. If we are smart we will do this immediately and also enjoy the advantage of diminishing entanglement in Islamic politics. However, in the US, the petroleum industry is easily the most powerful political entity and is resisting abrupt change. Make no mistake, the petroleum idustry knows that the wind is changing, knows better than it is willing to confess, but it doesn't want to be left behind, derelict and destroyed, in the marketplace, so change must occur slowly enough for it to fully amortize its capital investments and make the necessary transformations to maintain its economic dominance. That may make perfect sense from a corporate perspective, but the consequences for the rest of us could be dire.
Prospects for Alternative Energy Sources
The good news is that the reserves of coal left on Earth should last longer than the oil. The bad news comes in several forms. Estimates of the reserves of coal do not take into account the decline that would result from a total conversion to coal from oil. We will burn it up in a few decades, by the end of this century, not in 200 or 300 years. Additionally, both combustion of coal as fuel and the processing of coal to produce liquid fuel release roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as combustion of petroleum and most of what coal remains is of the highly polluting grade (high sulfur content), so it will greatly accelerate global warming and general air pollution (acid rain) if we begin to rely on it. A small detail neglected by many in discussions of the possibilities of synthetic fuels produced from liquefied coal is that all of the methods of which I am aware require hydrogen, which must be produced either from natural gas (also in diminishing supply) or from water by electrolysis. Major infrastructure conversion would be required for us to replace oil with coal, no matter how much of it we still have left. Don't get me wrong, we will do this and its a good step, but unless we start as soon as the oil peak is reached (ie, now), we won't make the transition.
As an aside, the automotive industry is not producing vehicles that are nearly as efficient as could be. Hybrid electric technology is at least as old as gasoline engine technology. Every locomotive in the world uses it (except for antiques and all-electric rail lines) and has for more than half a century. The automakers have not yet produced a true hybrid electric vehicle. In the proper configuration, there is no transmission. The engine is much smaller, only powers an electric generator to recharge the batteries and only runs when demanded. It operates at one speed, its peak efficiency operating point. So, stop and go driving has no significant effect on fuel consumption. Current so-called hybrids are pathetic, half-hearted attempts. The industry has too much invested in gasoline engines and transmissions and is being slow to change. Why we were ever here in the first place is a 9-day wonder. It is entirely due to the attitude that oil was plentiful and inexpensive, so why conserve? I briefly worked on a program for an unmanned vehicle that was using for its platform a custom built off-road racer that was all-electric, with only a small diesel generator. Despite its space frame and riveted sheet metal chassis, this was not a lightweight vehicle, yet its electric all-wheel drive could accelerate 0 to 60 mph like a Porsche and propel a driver, navigator, jerry cans of diesel and spare tires at 160 mph, off road - all while getting 80 mpg. Yes, you read that correctly. Tesla has an all-electric version of the Lotus Elise that makes 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds. Electric vehicles are inherently faster, provide more torque, have a better power profile as a function of speed, and recharge their batteries when they brake. Also, electric vehicles can be recharged using your home's electricity for a cost of about 100 miles for one dollar of electric energy, so until you make a long distance trip you need not refuel a true hybrid at all because you can run on batteries alone for 200 to 400 miles. Imagine driving for 1/10th to 1/20th (for an SUV) of what you are now paying in fuel costs. GM has just announced the development of the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in true hybrid concept vehicle that will also be multi-fuel capable, burning anything from ordinary gasoline to E85 ethanol to biodiesel. The big hurdle is that Cobasys, a subsidiary of Chevron, holds all the significant patents to nickel metal hydride battery technology, crucial to efficiency and safety, and is slowing the pace of electric vehicle introduction to forestall any significant turndown in petroleum consumption.
There is a readily available alternative fuel called A-21 or A-55, invented by Rudolf Gunnerman, which is a colloidal mixture or emulsion of water and gasoline, diesel or (especially) naptha in a 9:11 ratio. While decried by many scientists for years, it has been fueling the buses in some American cities in Nevada and Colorado, providing equivalent or better mileage (diesels may be as much as 29% more efficient) at lower cost and with around half the emission pollutants. In my view the chief advantage, though, is that A-21 uses a form of petroleum distillate that requires less refining (therefore less energy to produce) and would allow automobiles to operate with no more than 55% of the oil we now consume. That is an immediate and extremely dramatic reduction in consumption. Both diesel and gasoline engines can be made to operate with A-21 by an inexpensive conversion. It is also much safer since it does not produce explosive vapors. The only drawback I see is that it is susceptible to freezing, but this is ameliorated allegedly by the introduction of an ethanol antifreeze. Why hasn't this materialized since its announcement over 10 years ago? As near as I can tell all the big players are waiting for the inventor, Rudolf Gunnerman, who is in his 80s by now, to die so that they can pounce on the intellectual rights. Caterpillar has already tried, so this is real, not some fantasy technology. Additionally, under federal law as defined, alternative fuels cannot contain petroleum - which prevents something like A-21 from receiving any serious consideration, despite the fact that it would dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil and lower greenhouse emissions at a stroke. In 2001, Gunnerman's company was sabotaged by a stock short seller. That is the kind of mentality we are dealing with. A few individuals smell money and block the development for personal gain.
Biofuels are extremely popular in the green movement. As I write this, USA Today is reporting that this year Brazil will be totally energy independent, largely due to its burgeoning ethanol production industry. Brazil has a large number of flex-fuel vehicles, able to burn any mixture of gasoline and ethanol from pure gasoline to pure ethanol. It is not that difficult to design a vehicle to do this. There is also biodiesel made from vegetable oils. Biofuels seem like the perfect answer. We take our huge agricultural capacity, which is underutilized (aren't grain farmers teetering on bankruptcy and paid to destroy huge stocks each year?) and turn it into a much more lucrative commodity. We reduce reliance on foreign oil, farmers become profitable, government subsidies decrease and the fuels burn cleaner than petroleum. Everybody is happy.
There's just one fundamental problem: as produced in this country at least (ie, using corn or other grains), ethanol and biodiesel require the consumption of more oil (or other sources of energy) than the energy content of the resulting product, by the time you take fertilizer, conversion and transportation into account. So, for now, its a losing proposition. Energy sources must yield far more energy than is consumed in providing them. It may be possible to solve this dilemma, using sugar cane instead of corn or wood. Sugar cane yields 8.3 times as much energy as is required to extract it; at best you can get only 1.3 times as much from corn, so its not worth even trying for breakeven. We should also examine using alternative fertilizers, producing the fuels locally at small facilities rather than transporting the sugar or the fuel long distances, or using pipelines or rail transport rather than trucks. I have some hope for ethanol from sugar cane, but the US would need about 5000 times as much sugar as we presently consume in order to replace the energy demands of oil, and that kind of increase in cane agriculture may be simply impossible, given the corresponding consumption of fresh water. There are also some very sound proposals for converting human and animal waste into petroleum, however, the rate of production is too small to replace oil from the Earth. Biofuels are probably not in themselves the panacaea we seek, although they may be part of the short term solution to reducing the demand for oil and should be pursued where the benefit is real.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology is equally plagued. Apart from the safety and infrastructure issues involved, hydrogen is commercially produced in the main from natural gas. Why waste natural gas, a perfectly sound (and more energetic) fuel, to produce a much lesser amount of hydrogen, which must be kept in pressure refrigeration and is far more dangerous to handle and transport? The reason: it burns with only water vapor as exhaust. Green is good, but that won't matter at all once we start burning coal like mad to produce the electricity to make hydrogen. Additionally, oil and natural gas are tied, since they derive from the same source. We will run out of both at roughly the same time. It makes much better sense to convert to natural gas as a means of off-setting the demand for oil, but again its only a half-measure and won't really solve our problem. You can make hydrogen from sea water at a low rate of yield, but this is presently expensive in terms of electricity, which is produced from oil, gas, coal or nuclear power.
Until low cost, high rate hydrogen production - from water only - is feasible, this is not a viable answer.
In fact, its an extremely stupid answer, because it wastes oil rather than save it.
Which brings us to nuclear power, the boogeyman of the green movement and everyone's least favorite alternative power source. Guess what? As implausible as it sounds, fission nuclear power is the least environmentally damaging means of providing for our electrical power needs for the next half century or so. It doesn't produce emissions and with careful coolant control, it doesn't pollute rivers or groundwater. We have not yet exploited the possibilites with safe and smart fission reactor power systems.
For example, in America we mainly have light water reactors producing slow or thermal neutrons and that must use uranium U-235 and plutonium Pu-239 isotopes as fuel. U-235 only occurs naturally in uranium at a concentration of 0.7%, the remainder being U-238 (natural or so-called "depleted" uranium), so it must be enriched to between a few percent and about 20% concentration, an expensive undertaking, to be useful for fuel in a light water reactor. Pu-239 is a natural by-product of neutron bombardment of U-238 natural uranium, the primary constituent of nuclear fuel, so it gradually accumulates in the fuel elements and is also fissioned by the slow or thermal neutrons, producing over one-third of the energy of the reactor.
It is necessary to recycle the fuel rods in current light water reactor designs primarily because the quantity of plutonium Pu-240 will eventually reach a dangerous level (we also remove the accumulated poisonous actinides that result from fission). Pu-240 is a by-product of neutron bombardment of Pu-239. Pu-240 is radioactive, emitting fast neutrons, and extremely dangerous in concentration in close confinement light water reactors. It won't cause fission with U-235 or Pu-239, which require thermal neutron bombardment, but it can cause spontaneous fission of the U-238 uranium (which makes up most of the fuel) and result in a meltdown because the light water won't moderate the fast neutron flux.
Rather than design only thermal neutron plants that inevitably produce huge amounts of Pu-240 enriched fuel that must be re-processed (or disposed of with usable fuel remaining), we should at least construct both fast and slow neutron power plants to burn the increasing levels of both plutonium Pu-239 and Pu-240 isotopes in the fuel. If each fuel element was made such that it remained sub-critical, even if it were 100% plutonium, then a scheme could be devised to gradually separate the fuel elements such that no runaway reactions could result. Allowing fast neutron emissions to contribute to the fission of Pu-240 could perhaps avoid the reprocessing issue and result in significantly greater energy yield. Currently spent fuel from thermal neutron reactors is sometimes reprocessed and burned in fast neutron plants or as a mixed oxide fuel in standard light water reactors, but this requires two types of reactors and/or the reprocessing.
Arguably the best nuclear fission power plant designs in existence are the heavy water reactors, such as the Canadian Deuterium-Uranium (CANDU) family. These are fast neutron reactors using heavy water for neutron moderation, distinguishing them from light water reactors, but more significantly they burn natural uranium fuel, not expensive enriched uranium. Normally natural uranium is 99.3% U-238 and only 0.7% U-235. The heavy water reactors burn the 99.3% U-238 because they use fast neutrons rather than thermal neutrons. They are also many times as efficient in their use of fuel and produce less waste (which is dangerous for only 300 years rather than 45,000 years). The fuel elements can be removed while the reactor is still in operation, so their availability is better as well. Politically, they have been resisted because they make the production of U-239 (a by-product of neutron capture by U-238) very easy. The politics of nuclear weapons is an issue that the world will simply have to adjust to in this century because as the oil disappears, for many countries, inexpensive fission nuclear power will be the only alternative and regardless of what happens in the Third World the developed world needs to use the most efficient, available and reliable powerplant designs. That means light water plants are history.
There are also novel approaches, including the gas cooled or pebble bed reactors. Pebble bed reactors use an inert gas rather than water and steam as the working fluid. The nuclear fuel is contained within small spheres, or pebbles, encased in pyrolitic graphite for neutron moderation. Because of its design, it is inherently safer than a traditional water reactor. The reaction cannot run away and melt down the core because it produces less energy as it gets hot. The cooling action of the working fluid is necessary for it to produce maximum energy. Additionally, the removal and recycling of fuel elements is simplified by the pebbles and can occur continuously as the reactor is in operation, rather than requiring the entire plant to shut down for weeks while the core is dismantled. Assuming you can safely manage the neutron flux, you can literally have a nuclear powered, hybrid electric automobile. Finally, as the supply of uranium is as limited as that of oil, its worth noting that pebble bed reactors can burn fissile fuels other than uranium and plutonium, such as thorium, which is more plentiful.
Our near-term hope for economic success in the immediate aftermath of the peak in oil production
depends on shifting to nuclear fission power, not only for our current demand for electricity,
but for alternative fuel production (e.g., hydrogen by electrolysis).
The green movement always brings up solar, wind and water power. Earth receives huge amounts of untapped energy every day from the Sun. Solar power technology is worth serious consideration, but presently it is expensive and requires a lot of oil-based energy to make the cells. Initiatives to reduce the cost of solar cells would help offset our near-term dependence on oil for electricity and should definitely be pursued. Most homes can be converted to heat water (a major source of power demand) and produce enough electricity to power all but the central heating and air conditioning. The conversion is not cost-effective yet (meaning that you save money on utility costs), so few people have done it.
Utilities are investing in solar augmentation of their conventional power generation facilities, but here too the benefit presently is not lower costs. It has to be justified in terms of environmental value or reduction in demand for oil. Micro-power generation is a hot topic. The idea is a distributed system of much smaller power generation facilities, such as solar converters, rather than large power plants. This may be a better answer in some respects than fission for the future, but solar energy is not available when it is needed most in northern lattitudes, or at night and major urban centers have high power demands both day and night. And at the top of the list of concerns is the previously mentioned fact that solar converter cells require a lot of energy to manufacture. It is debatable whether we can afford to burn all of the oil required to manufacture all of the solar cells necessary to substantially transition from oil-based power generation to solar power. I strongly suspect that augmentation by fission nuclear power will be a necessary intermediate step.
Solar power won't do anything toward solving the needs for vehicular propulsion, either. Solar vehicles have extremely low power delivery and cannot be used as we now use vehicles for hauling loads or performing other work.
Water power is already fully exploited, wherever it was available. Harnessing water power is always touted by environmentalists as a great idea until you start describing the ravages to the local environment that will result from actually doing it to any of the remaining pristine watersystems. Then they fight it with all their might. We have a growing water crisis that is as serious as the oil crisis, and the coming climatic changes will not make that situation improve.
Wind power is available in some regions, but does not provide much useful or reliable power, certainly not enough to significantly offset demand for oil, and clearly it has no role in vehicular transport, except at sea.
But all of these are only stop gap measures. None of these things will ultimately stave off the inevitable exhaustion of the fuels that we have come to depend on, although I pray that they will buy us the time to find the ultimate solution. What is required is a fundamentally new source of power.
Enter nuclear fusion.
Classical nuclear fusion involves hydrogen-helium plasmas heated to temperatures from 5000 K to 1,000,000 K, depending on what pressure you can apply to the plasma. Since we can't generate the crushing pressures found in the heart of the Sun, we are stuck with trying to ignite fusion reactions at temperatures many times hotter than the Sun. Non-trivial, I'm sure you appreciate. Still, we have gotten very, very close to achieving a steady state of plasma confinement in a device that would enable the breakover condition (ie, more energy coming out than going in). In fact, the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER) being constructed by a consortium of the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US in Cadarache, France will produce 10 times as much energy as it consumes, even if it never achieves plasma ignition. This is astounding, given how little effort is devoted to this research. Had this project been supported as it should have been, and not down-scaled, it would have been constructed on a scale capable of full ignition. More on that later.
For what we have spent on the war in Iraq, we could have already been about halfway complete on the construction of six 1500 MW fusion power plants using current technology - able to meet about 2% of our needs, or roughly 10% of what fission provides today. That is staggering in two respects: firstly, for the wasted opportunity and how much it would have bought and secondly, for the cost that complete conversion to non-petroleum electricity generation will entail. This is why I state emphatically that we cannot waste either time or money and why this cannot be left "to the market" to resolve. In the near term we are probably better served by constructing heavy water or pebble bed fission plants, until the thermodynamic efficiency of the fusion plant designs is significantly higher. The primary obstacle in the road from my vantage point for fusion power is the capital cost of the superconducting magnet windings. Increased efficiency means smaller magnetic coils for a given power output and lower construction costs. The plasma physics will improve, but the real task at this point is not so much plasma physics as it is old fashioned engineering of low cost solutions for large scale production. If someone can get adequate conductivity from low cost alloys instead of niobium alloys, then we are well ahead.
In addition to what I term classical fusion, there is emerging from the Pons-Fleischman scandal of 1989 the prospect of solid-state fusion, better known as cold fusion. Despite the opprobrium of their peers, a handful of dedicated scientists and engineers persevered and have established beyond any reasonable question that fusion reactions occur in certain conditions previously believed to be outside of possibility, including at least three distinct conditions. The US Navy has funded research into solid state fusion for years. The process releases enough heat to melt platinum, so there is definitely a real mechanism at work. The difficulty is producing it on demand and controlling it. Even the US Department of Energy has reopened the case of cold fusion. There is much that can be said about the physics involved, and the remaining obstacles, including the persistent stigma attached unfairly to solid state fusion, but I leave that for another occasion. Solid-state fusion may not be useful for producing electricity, but is expected to be useful for producing heat for living spaces and other applications (imagine a fusion heat pump).
Fusion power plants would enable us to make essentially limitless energy from water. Huge amounts of energy are liberated by the fusion of the atoms in a small amount of hydrogen. We won't deplete the (heavy) water on this planet for billions of years by fusing it into helium for energy. Our Sun will burn out and go cold long before we run out of fusion energy.
There is another potential source of practically limitless energy that I hesitate to even mention, but as it is real science and not crackpot nonsense I will venture a few words. It is usually referred to as zero-point energy or, less commonly as vacuum energy. The discovery of zero-point energy comes from the extreme fringes of cosmological and elementary physics, and is very recent. We know almost nothing about its character or how to extract it. But we do believe that it exists everywhere (including "empty" space) in unimaginable abundance. Brilliant physicist Richard Feynman once observed that there is enough such energy in the evacuated space of an ordinary lightbulb to evaporate all the oceans of the Earth. The trick is extracting it in a usable form without expending more energy than is liberated. There are scientists and small companies devoted to harnessing this most promising of all potential energy sources, but it may be decades before a real capability exists - or a breakthrough may be imminent. It is hard to say. And, to be brutally fair in full disclosure, there is a real, albeit remote possibility, that the cosmological theory which requires the existence of the zero-point energy is incorrect and that this energy does not exist. If we are wrong in a few key assumptions about the cosmos, that could be the case.
For now, I want to convey the magnitude of the breakthrough in fusion or zero-point energy sources. It is not inconceivable that such energy supplies will truly enable us to end world poverty in time, by rendering deserts arable and providing anything that can be made using electricity (including synthetic oil).
If we find the means to produce electrical power from nuclear fusion or the zero-point (in time to avert the disaster), we will be poised to enter a new age of human development. If we do not, we face the end of human advancement within this century.
The Future of the Human Race
Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the Earth. I've always placed an eternal connotation on that statement, but it may literally come true within the lifetime of the children of today. If we fail to find a solution in time, it is quite probable that the poor, undeveloped world will weather the end of oil without much added hardship (since they depend on it for so little), whereas the wealthy, industrialized world will be obliterated.
Here is a telling observation, from a lecture entitled Of Men and Galaxies, given by astronomer and cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle at the University of Washington in 1964:
Restating his argument differently, and more to the point of our present situation, if we fail in the next few decades to achieve the quest for fusion power, then the human race will never again be able to rise above the level of ensuing technological ruin, even should we persist for a million years on this planet. This is it. The end of the road. We have one chance to move forward, else we will slide back down for all time to a technological level best described as pre-industrial; perhaps as advanced as the 16th century in some locales, but possibly little better in a century or so than the early post-neolithic ages of immemorial history. Even if some residual higher technology persists for a time, it will soon dwindle and disappear as batteries die, solar power cells burn out and electronic components fail. We only achieved what we did because we had petroleum, coal and rich mineral ores. Imagine trying to reconstitute a high tech research program for nuclear fusion using only wood fires for energy, without the benefit of computers or industrial sources of materials like heavy water, aluminum, tungsten and molydenum. Even if you managed to create a working table top prototype, how would you scale it up to a major power plant? Remember, you have no transport vehicles or earth-moving equipment or sources of steel construction members - only manual labor and perhaps a few small, crudely cobbled-together steam power plants, fired by wood.
By my estimate, if we are indeed at peak oil production now, we have at most 20 to 30 years to completely convert to alternative power. I mean that we must soon be in the process of constructing facilities sufficient to meet 100% of the expected demand for fuel and electricity by the time oil is exhausted around mid-century. Power plants often take 10 years to construct and billions of dollars. Moreover, the resources needed to replace an infrastructure of coal and oil burning plants in that time frame, while simultaneously building a host of new fission nuclear plants, will be very draining to an already shrinking economy. However, we have no alternative - except annihilation. Consequently, we must devote all our available monies and scientific efforts for the next two or three decades toward this endeavor, or what happens after that won't much matter, even if the end of oil doesn't come for another 20 years.
This is not a problem that can be solved at the last second - not for the billions whose lives depend on it
- It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing high intelligence this is not correct. We have, or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.
and the posterity that may live only hearing legends of the golden era of the human race.
Given that this is such a grave matter, you would naturally expect that the government of the US would be devoting vast resources and coordinating the efforts of thousands of scientists and engineers in order to find the solution. Right? Care to guess what is the annual budget allocated for fusion power research by the US? $831 million. That's a lot of money, in one sense, but its only 1% of what we are spending on the war in Iraq.
The total spent on all nuclear fusion and related research by the US since 1953 is a mere $19 billion, less than 25% of what we spend in Iraq each year and less than 10% of the total cost of that conflict up to 2006.
Does that seem right to you? Does that suggest to your mind that our government is taking this matter seriously?
Contrary to the picture created by the artfully presented official figures, roughly 49% of our annual budget is devoted to military expenses, including around $350 billion in annual debt service for prior expenditures and $75 billion or so in veteran's benefits. But spending on national defense can't save us from the end of oil.
NASA's 2006 budget is $16.5 billion, and not one penny will bring us closer to solving the energy crisis that threatens to end our civilization.
The US consumes 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. That amounts roughly to 450 GW of production capacity. Currently, we produce only 20% of our electricity with nuclear power plants. Assuming that a 3.5 GW power plant costs $10 billion and requires 5 years to build, we would need just over $50 billion a year for the next 20 years to construct the new power plants necessary to be fully dependent on nuclear power for electricity. This figure does not consider the added capacity for economic growth or that required for the mass, high-rate production of hydrogen for vehicle fuel and other industrial fuel use. Based on Canadian estimates, you could assume as much as twice the existing electrical demand in order to produce hydrogen also. So, that is probably the minimum conversion cost for us to avoid economic collapse over the next two decades after peak oil: $50 to $100 billion per year in new power plant production. I am assuming that the full cost of alternative fuel production facilities, which are commercial, will be borne by the market; however, government subsidies may be necessary to stimulate industry to develop these facilities at the rate necessary to outpace economic sag.
You see, the Catch-22 is that private industry is managed by greedy old men who will die before the worst hits ("Apres moi, le deluge!"), so all they care about is short-term profits and padding their stock portfolios. Without some form of incentive, they will focus on lean initiatives aimed at cost cutting and will certainly not invest huge amounts of capital on speculation that a renewed fuel supply will breathe new life into a receding economy. Realistically, we are talking about a public cost burden on the order of $100 to $150 billion per year for the next 20 years. That is why we cannot afford unrestrained hysteria about terrorism or wars in the Middle East. We don't have the money to do all of these things and only one thing is needful. This is a war, but its a war against our own avarice and apathy.
I say that because it is also true that you and I have the power to solve this problem without any assistance from the government. Truly. Americans spend $290 billion each year on entertainment. Books, movies, toys, CDs, DVD rentals, video games, vacations, you name it. $290 billion. That is almost 15 times as much as has been invested on fusion research in this country since its inception in the early 1950s. All that is required is inspired leadership and the will on the part of average people to divert even a small fraction of their entertainment budget toward the hope for a future in order to stimulate innovative research and commercial development of alternative energy. Of course, full conversion would cost us about half of our entertainment budget. So, the choice is: Do we eat, drink and make merry, until ruin overwhelms us, or do we prepare for the future while eating, drinking and merry-making at a reduced pace?
If that is too abstract and unfocused, here is an even better proposal: apply a $0.15 tax to every gallon of gasoline, diesel and fuel oil consumed in this country (roughly a billion gallons a day). That money, if it were 100% earmarked for future energy development, would produce almost $80 billion annually, sufficient to make the necessary conversion with a clear and sapient plan of action. Such a small increment on the price of a gallon of fuel would not cause any appreciable trauma to the economy - we have absorbed nearly ten times that increase in the last four years.
A 15 cent per gallon tax on petroleum fuels could save us, without imposing any hardship whatever.
All that is required is the will to impose it and to use the revenues for the purpose they were collected.
Everyone reading this blog will have one of three reactions:
I had long known about the end of oil, from my geology and engineering studies as an undergraduate, so denial was not an option for me. For a few weeks, when I realized how close we probably were to the beginnings of the end, despair took possession of me, against all my better instincts and reason. I need to believe that we can find a solution - for all of us. As bleak as this blog may seem, I call it guarded optimism because the answer is well within our grasp. I am writing this not only to spur us to action, but to encourage Americans not to give in to despair or react negatively in other ways.
If we don't find a solution soon, the decline of oil will ultimately mean a deepening global economic depression. As a Christian I cannot easily walk away from a humanitarian disaster of this magnitude, even to save myself and those I love. Also, if survival means living in a world where all of the advancements of the last 500 years have been lost, perhaps for all time, I can't say that I care very much to survive and I certainly would not wish that fate on future generations. Moreover, I can't stand by as millions die worldwide in wretched misery.
Beyond this, anyone who attempts to save themselves and prepare to outlast the end as a lone survivalist or in some kind of commune will fall prey to the hordes of refugees and worse yet, to the predatory trash that will emerge from the chaos. Unless you are willing to forsake everything in order to live, or remove yourself to a locale so remote and inhospitable to life that no one will ever come there, you will become a fixed target, and a very tempting one, for desperate and ruthless scavengers. So, I am determined to help find a solution and to start conserving, in order to buy us more time to find that solution.
Stupidity and selfishness now will remove all hope of a solution.
Laissez faire won't do. Many economists and social scientists contend that selfishness is our finest trait, key to our success and survival. The free market, they argue, is evidence of that assertion. Problems that affect the collective populace, such as global environmental impacts, will be naturally governed by the market as people act in their own self-interest, they contend. This reasoning is entirely fallacious on every level. It fails for precisely the same reason that Marxism failed: human nature is defined by what is good for the individual, not the group. Refer to my blog on morality and the natural laws. The very virtue these philosophers tout is the fatal flaw. If one member of the market attempts to enact environmentally friendly changes that put it at economic disadvantage (ie, raise prices for its produced goods), we consumers will not buy more from that source simply because its green, we will still buy what is cheapest, concerned only with our private needs and utility. At the same time we hope that everyone else does the right thing. But that hope is delusional.
Who manages the major corporations (petroleum companies in particular)? It is men who are in terminal career positions. Next stop: retirement - with a fat stock portfolio and bonuses. These men have been selected above all their peers for one talent: the ability to maximize profits. They have a 3 to 5 year vision because that is the limit of their occupational horizon. In 3 to 5 years, they will retire. If Exxon Mobil goes bankrupt the moment after its CEO walks out the door with his golden parachute, trust me, he won't blink. Conversely, whatever consequences accrue, 10 years down the road, to a relentless pursuit of the bottom line will never be considered. Not even for a split second. Anything outside the window of the corporate executive's tenure is a world for which they harbor no private responsibility or concern. There are exceptions, but the exceptions prove the rule. And exceptions will be eliminated by boards and shareholders interested in the short-term growth of their own stock portfolios and bonuses.
Yesterday (as I wrote this) NPR reported a perfect example - a challenge by a stockholder to an environmentally friendly action by a major investment firm, asserting that the only legitimate purpose of the business is to enrich stockholders, not serve the greater good - in just those words. In any specific circumstance, free market advocates do not regard conservation or the environment as being allowable considerations. Their arguments only work in the abstract, where the mass of the market (a collective entity that actually does not exist in an objective sense) is supposed to act in a manner foolishly inconsistent with its economic self-interest. In reality, a resource will be exploited without abatement until it is exhausted. Alternatives will not be pursued until no other alternative remains. In the case of oil, that is fatal. There won't be enough time. Only collective, enforced action - beginning now - will save us. We cannot depend on the voluntary good will of individuals, industries and nations.
This is not about saving money on our fuel and utility bills,
- Denial or disregard of the truth
- Despair of life
- Determination to do something about it
this is about the survival of modern humankind.
If you read my blog on terrorism and America's global policy of power projection, you perceive now why I said that terrorism was a trivial concern. Compared with the gravity of the energy crisis looming in our near future, the threat of terrorists is of no significance whatsoever. Even if al-Qaeda should manage to nuke New York and kill a million people, its nothing by comparison to what will happen to New York if oil is exhausted without another recourse. The aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, as bad as that seemed, was only a very limited, brief and mild taste of what you can expect. Billions, not milions, will die globally with the end of oil, unless we are weened of oil dependency for energy. Of course it won't simply stop like the last drop from a spigot. Long before then, it will be unaffordable to ordinary persons. Without petroleum to fuel transportation and power plants there is no water, no electricity, no heat in winter, no food and no escape. Where would you go, if you could? Our whole Earth will be engulfed in desperate chaos and brought to a standstill. Most of the populace of the developed world lives in dense urban environments, far removed from the resources necessary for life, that are brought to them by power and fuel lines and by vehicle transport. Eliminate these lifelines and the inhabitants of the world's cities will either huddle in starvation and squalor, awaiting a rescue that will never come, or else pour into the countryside in the greatest mass of scavenging refugees ever witnessed by history. Even if we take early measures to avoid the worst, we will be fortunate if we do not experience a situation like the Great Depression of the 1930s.
I see several possible scenarios:
Observe that for either scenario 2 or 3, the only ones with good outcomes, we must begin immediately to convert our infrastructure to using alternative sources of renewable energy. There is a 90+% probability that we are in scenario 1, 3 or 4 right now. I think scenario 2 is belied by the revelations of reduced yield from the Persian Gulf fields and the inflated estimates of reserves.
My analysis of the data from the EIA since 1980 indicates that only about 56% of the figure touted by the EIA for global crude oil reserves is credible. That works out to roughly 720 billion barrels rather than 1290 billion barrels. What accounts for this difference is the action by (primarily) OPEC member states in the 1980s and more recently to arbitrarily restate their reserves as being substantially greater so as to increase their share of the OPEC production quota (and therefore the allowed profits). Also, the inclusion of the tar sands in Canada caused a huge step in 2003's estimate, but as previously indicated this is not light crude oil and will likely never prove to be a dependable, high production rate source for fuel. These two steps are quite obvious in the data as plotted in the figure below and are not accounted for by advances in technology or new discoveries of oil. They are bogus and were made for political and economic reasons. The green line is the corrected figure, which shows a very modest increase in reserves (both proved and speculative) since 1980. If you consider that we have consumed roughly the same quantity of oil in the last 26 years, its quite an impressive feat that we have managed to stay ahead of demand to that extent. But we are reaching the limit of that capacity. For those who see hope in the upward trend of this curve let me caution you that this data includes unproved reserves, in other words speculative reserves that may not be nearly as extensive as suggested or that may be purely hypothetical. I have also not corrected for smaller, less obvious steps that may be bogus. A more rigorous examination of the data would likely show a downward trend already.
- Scenario 1: We Do Nothing -- In this scenario, we pretend that this is a problem that "someone" is working to solve. Meanwhile, each of us, both private and corporate, continue to pursue our own selfish ends without reckoning the consequences to the rest of the populace and economy. When the peak hits (whether soon or years to come) and the economy crashes, everyone tries to minimize their own losses, risks and costs. No significant investment in the future is made. The only solutions adopted are stop-gap approaches to create near-term relief by using water or ethanol mixes to cut fuel consumption or by attempts to seize and hoard oil resources, etc. Doom is inevitable. First, low income families are driven into refugee camps, probably farm communes devoted to growing sugar cane and corn for ethanol or biodiesel. Later, unemployment reaches such a level that most of the workforce is laid off. Millions are starving. Millions are homeless. Lawlessness is unrestrained. The military is deployed everywhere to maintain order, but mainly works to secure key industries. Eventually, complete dissolution of society occurs and civilization ends. The only persons that survive this are a tiny handful of extremely well adapted families and small enclaves in remote areas that live a subsistence existence - and are menaced constantly by migratory groups of murderous raiders.
- Scenario 2: We Transform, But Gradually -- The concern over oil peak precipitates proactive efforts to transform industry and private consumption practices. However, the transformation is conducted in a very graduated pace over two or three decades. This scenario assumes that two or three decades is available to undertake such a transformation prior to peak oil. Periodic oil shortages in production spark price jumps, but the economy absorbs these shocks fairly well, and significant investments are made in alternative fuels (and vehicles), nuclear power, fusion power research, and in improved methods of extraction of useful oil from heavy oil deposits. By the time that peak oil arrives, we have converted at least 50% of our industry and private consumption to alternative means of generating electricity and alternative fuels that do not depend on oil, and are on track to make full conversion well before oil is exhausted. Fusion power is advancing at a pace that promises to soon replace all power generation. The future is secured.
- Scenario 3: We Must Transform After the Peak -- This scenario is broadly similar to Scenario 2, with the exception that all of the transformation must occur after the peak in oil production has already occurred and the economic impacts are being felt. The consequence of this alteration in the scenario is that economic recession and depression become aggravated. Despite this, governments recognize that not to pursue the transformation is self-defeating and would only result in worse consequences down the road, even if such a course offered immediate relief. Some governments, more concerned about short-term needs and their own immediate political interests, do pursue a relief approach and drive their countries into ruin (see Scenario 1). Transformation occurs, but is costly and involves extreme hardship and privation. Those that emerge from this test of fortitude and will become the economic superpowers of the following age. Those that pursue short-term solutions fall into the current status of the Third World nations.
- Scenario 4: We Try to Transform, But There is No Time Left -- In this scenario, we begin as in Scenario 2, but get a nasty surprise. Deceived for decades by inflated estimates of "proved" reserves, the governments and markets of the world are waylaid by the sudden plummet in oil supplies resulting from the aggressive methods that have been employed to extract oil at a rate that would stave off the peak in production, with the result that the peak is not detected until at least a decade after it has passed. Furthermore, these forced water and gas methods have stranded large volumes of the estimated reserves in the ground, preventing them from being extracted, effectively cutting the actual oil reserves to less than the most conservative estimates. Immediate and severe economic impacts are felt globally. Millions of vehicles are stranded. Heating oil is exhausted within days. Industries stop work. Electrical power is rationed. Martial law is declared in every developed country to maintain order, but widescale looting and pillaging are uncontrolled. Chaos erupts as governments collapse within weeks or months. Hundreds of millions begin to flee the cities in search of food, water and shelter. Billions die within months. Those that survive attempt to reconstitute, but the devastation to the infrastructure means that high technology is probably now beyond the grasp of the survivors, as everyone is primarily occupied with mere survival.
Based on this assessment, we apparently passed the peak for global oil sometime in the 1990s, perhaps as early as the 1980s crisis, but that benchmark moment has been obscured by our high pressure water injection methods that have maintained production rates and by deliberate obscuration of this fact (which was certainly known to the engineers and scientists working on those wells). By any estimate, 720 billion barrels remaining is less than half of the original global reserves. At the present rate of consumption, the corrected estimated reserves will be exhausted in approximately 22 years. That is not much time and if this scenario is accurate, the end will come without warning. That, I suppose, is the upside of this situation because our methods will buffer the global economy from the recession that would result from dramatic drops in production. However, the danger is that this approach will lull us into thinking that there is nothing to fear, that we have ample time. We do not.
George W. Bush said that America is addicted to oil. That is a wild understatement.
The whole world is dying of a cancer.
A far more accurate analogy to our situation is this: Civilization, in all that entails, is a train hurtling down the tracks toward a gorge over which no bridge has yet been built. Building the bridge to span that gorge is beyond the means of our present technology. It will take many years to build the bridge. There are no funds allocated to build the bridge. There is no one working on building the bridge. And, there is no stopping the train. In fact, the train is expected to increase its speed as it approaches the gorge. The most that we can do is to find a way to slow the progress of the train, perhaps even lay some track in front of the train very rapidly so as to cause it to run a circuitous course for as long as we can stay ahead of it. But nothing we do will avoid the gorge. At best, we can only postpone the terrible descent into the abyss - unless we build that bridge. That the people on the train know nothing of what lies ahead in no way alters their date with destiny. Hope will not build the bridge. No miracle will cause a bridge to appear, although divine inspiration may guide the building of it. Only people can build the bridge. Its ours to accomplish, or fail in the trying.
As far as I am concerned, the government officials and industry advocates who are promulgating the untruth that oil will not run low for at least 100 years are enemies of every living soul. Anyone knowingly promoting such false information is a traitor to the human race, guilty of a betrayal unthinkable - the murder of this and all future generations, and the utter annihilation of advanced knowledge and technology. These people are not merely misguided, they are wicked beyond the scope of words to adequately describe. Against this crime, even genocide is a misdemeanor.
All that is required for the future to fail is that a small number of individuals in positions of political and economic power conclude that it must inescapably fail and instead devote their efforts to the preservation of their private interests. It is my belief that a significant number of our leaders have indeed made that decision and are obfuscating precisely for that purpose (it is essential that most of us die, suddenly, for their private plans of survival to succeed - otherwise the mass of humanity will drag them down). However, they cannot do this unless they have our complicity.
What can you do?
- Awaken others to the threat
- Vote for officials who place this priority above all others and remove anyone from office who is not 100% behind sensible energy conservation, development and infrastructure conversion
- Write to your legislative representatives and to the president or prime minister:
- Clamor for laws requiring conservation by individuals and industry (e.g., higher minimum vehicle mileage ratings, recycling of industrial waste heat for power, using garbage for fuel, etc.)
- Ask for initiatives to develop and promote alternative power sources and more efficient vehicles and appliances
- Demand a shift in focus away from costly "wars" on drugs, terror and other pointless adventures
- Support the international challenge to develop a viable fusion power plant design by the year 2015 (ITER)
- Conserve all forms of non-renewable energy: electricity, natural gas, heating oil and kerosene, gasoline and diesel
- Invest in private commercial research to develop alternative power
- Convert your home to heat water and generate electricity with solar energy
- Curb your appetite; our procreation-recreation lifestyle of unrestrained consumption needs to be stopped and redirected into positive avenues
- Pray - We desperately need some extraordinary (and timely) scientific breakthroughs
My Proposed Plan of Action
The objectives of my proposed national energy challenge are: 1) zero reliance on foreign petroleum within 20 years, 2) zero reliance on petroleum and petroleum gas (either foreign or domestic sources) for energy within 30 years (we will continue to use these for industrial purposes), and 3) zero reliance on greenhouse gas emitting powerplants for both industry and private use (with exemptions for antique collectors, emergency equipment, remote sites, etc.) within 50 years. To accomplish these objectives, we must immediately and increasingly curb consumption, focus our resources on energy needs and implement a staged or cascaded scheme of energy conversion.
It is my firm belief that the optimum efficiency of energy usage lies in greatly expanded electrical power generation and replacement of private combustion engines (for vehicles and heating) with electric locomotive and heating sources. Obviously, the unreliability of electric power supply during inclement winter weather must be resolved before millions of homes heated by oil will convert. Existing inefficient vehicles will likely be driven for years until the cost of ownership exceeds the cost of replacement, rendering them obsolete. These are among the challenges, but they will not be solved until we begin.
The tenets of my plan are simple: 1) penalize excessive consumption to stimulate alternatives, 2) collect revenue and invest in specific initiatives with near-term objectives, 3) mandate energy efficiency, 4) eliminate market barriers to alternative energy investment and conversion, and 5) refocus government spending to energy problems.
Regulation and Government Reform
- Impose a consumption tax on all petroleum-based fuels (as a function of petroleum content in the fuel), to be used as revenue for conversion to alternative energy only
- Impose operating tax penalties on all low mileage vehicles (less than 20 mpg in the city and/or 25 mpg on the highway), with revenues to be collected and used on incentives to automotive industry conversion only
- Impose a graduated consumption tax on electrical power, with revenues to be used for power production conversion only
- Mandate aggressive new vehicle fuel economy standards (e.g., 25/30 mpg city/hwy by 2010, 30/35 mpg by 2015, 35/40 mpg by 2020, etc.)
- Mandate production conversion (and import) of automobiles to all-electric and hybrid electric models with 10% of new vehicles by 2010, 35% by 2015, 75% by 2020 and 100% by 2025
- Purge DOE and EIA of political and oil industry spin doctors
- Invest in DOE programs in nuclear fusion and other advanced energy technologies (i.e., give NASA's, DOD's and DHS's money to DOE)
- Develop a government-industry consortium for the development of energy technology
- Remove tax motivations for inventory minimization and "just-in-time" shipping
- Impose tax penalties on same-day, 2-day and overnight shipping
- Remove tax motivations for underloaded trailer shipping (i.e., penalize for excessive weight, but impose a flat tax for any load up to certified limit)
- Pass a constitutional amendment banning deficit spending, cut spending to a balanced budget and start paying off the national debt (that may seem off-topic, but economic stability is crucial to withstand shocks and to bear the long-term burden of conversion)
- Cut spending at NASA to only that minimally required to support clearly vital scientific efforts (i.e., not merely matters of scientific curiosity)
- Cut defense spending and force structure by 50% (or more), withdraw US forces from all overseas bases and focus on domestic defense and special operations rather than massive conventional global power projection to defend doubtful "national interests"
- Dismantle the Department of Homeland Security political boondoggle, cut back on TSA funding and force structure and focus on intelligence and law enforcement coordination to address terrorist threats
- Buy the patent rights to the aqueous fuel mix formula of Rudolph Gunnerman in the national interest and immediately license it to all petroleum fuel producers equally, using licensing revenues for energy conversion (including the production of hardware conversion for vehicles to use aqueous mixes)
- Invest in large-scale production of liquid fuel from coal and in research to develop improved chemical processes for fuel production that do not require petroleum by-products (ie, natural gas) or that use recycled waste oil instead
- Develop the deep sea oil resources within the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, including those of Cuba, as well as the Arctic basins
- Mandate waste oil recovery and develop methods of waste oil renewal
- Remove trade restrictions on Cuba and expand the importation of sugar from Latin America and Africa for use in making ethanol (as opposed to food sugar)
- Investigate and identify which methods of ethanol production offer meaningful net energy yields, and curtail all investment in those that do not
- Begin the design and construction of reliable, safe, efficient and continuously available fission nuclear power plants (e.g., pebble bed and/or CANDU type)
- Invest in the economic high rate production of petroleum from America's oil shale deposits, using in situ extraction methods and solar power to minimize energy costs, if it can be done with a net energy yield
- Invest in expanding the production of oil from Canadian tar sand and in research into better methods of reclamation
- Begin the design and construction of distributed, expandable capacity ethanol production facilities, if proved feasible
- Reclaim all surplus and waste grain or crop product that can be used in making ethanol efficiently (if any)
- Begin conversion of existing oil and gas fired powerplants and home heating systems to high efficiency, low emissions coal burning systems
- Revitalize the national rail system to reduce inefficient road shipping
- Invest in solid state fusion technology
- Increase investment in the ITER fusion power project to accelerate its construction and research, perhaps even to the scale originally proposed
- Invest in solid state fusion research for efficient thermal engines
- Invest in research into new fuel mixtures that require less refinement for petroleum when used in aqueous and ethanol solution
- Invest toward low cost, mass production of solar power converter arrays (there's an idea for revitalizing the American manufacturing sector)
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