Land of Confusion

Saturday 2010.09.25

Sometimes, you look at something and can only think “I don’t even know where to start!”.

It’s even worse when you dig into something and it inevitably and unavoidably leads off through a whole series, no, whole complex arrays of connected topics and subtopics. So give me a little slack if this begins to appear to wander a little. I find myself looking at things and thinking about them, these days, and finding it a little overwhelming to see how many major issues and gigantic problems there are, a long, long list that each, separated out individually, could be the topic of a 1000 page book.

Man. I’m thinking about some things and it’s still a question of “where do I start?”.

Recently on a Facebook page I saw a little note referring to a recent announcement about the new Chevy Volt electric hybrid. The comment was about the operating range of the machine. One obvious problem was that the comment was based on the operating range using battery power.

To clarify this in case you aren’t familiar with the Volt, it’s not technically an electric hybrid, and that term is being used loosely. It’s an electric car, to be strictly correct, which has an internal combustion gasoline fueled engine that can be started up and used to drive a generator for electric power and operate the car beyond the range possible on batteries alone. The internal combustion engine does not actually drive the wheels. Just an academic note to be clear on that.

To get back to this comment, it mocked the operating range of the Volt. Paraphrasing, it was commenting sarcastically about the 40 mile range of the Volt being enough to get them to work, and then get them about halfway back home before they had to stop and recharge (with musings about what they could do to occupy their time while they waited for a recharge to finish the trip home at the end of their workday). The first big problem with this was that they completely ignored the onboard generator using the gasoline powered engine. According to Chevrolet, the operating range using battery power only on a full charge is about 40 miles; cranking up the onboard generator engine extends the range to over 300 miles. A bit of difference to overlook. To focus in on all of this can easily result in missing a much larger point in this.

The bigger point in this, that I don’t think is terribly subtle, is this. The problem I see is in the idea that a 40 mile range on a battery charge is not sufficient to get somebody to work and back in their daily routine.

In recent years the oil consumption of the United States has been around 18 to 20 million barrels of crude per day. Worldwide crude oil production, I repeat, worldwide, in this period has been hovering at a plateau of around 80 to 85 million barrels of crude per day, that plateau being a subject all its own.

In other words, the United States uses somewhere around a quarter of all the world’s production output of crude oil.

Somebody mocks the Chevy Volt because a 40 mile battery range is not enough to get them to work and back.

Do you sense any sort of relationship here?

What followed that stuff about the Volt on Facebook was worse, as electric cars as a general concept was criticised, but it then proceeded into talk (not from me) about how hydrogen is the way to go. There’s a bit of irony in that, given that there are basically two ways I know of to use hydrogen to provide motive power for a vehicle. Burning it in an engine, or using it with fuel cells to create electrical power to drive a motor. I think some of the shots taken at electric cars there were about battery problems, which is a real issue. There are no magic wands, and in the case of electric cars as a practical future for transportation, the area of batteries is, indeed, a challenging area. That’s a subject all its own.

Hydrogen? Forget hydrogen. There is not going to be anything like what people have talked about as “the hydrogen economy”. It’s not going to happen.

Maybe you could take some time and read this or this as a quick introduction to dispel any illusions you might have. If nothing else, always keep in mind, in anything involving energy matters, that you are not, ever, going to bypass the laws of thermodynamics.

There are quite a few problems involving loose, vague, talk and ideas under a larger heading of “alternative energy” or “renewable energy” or “green energy economy” that are the stuff of whole books. Other people more knowledgable than me have written them. This is not to say that everything in this area is all fantasy and bullshit. There are many ideas and concepts that need to be developed and worked, if anything, all this should have been well underway decades ago. The key matter is that reality is what it is, and being naively overoptimistic or just plain delusional will help nobody.

It’s far to common to find people talking about the above as “the way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil”, to name one recurring theme.

At the same time, it doesn’t take much looking around to find people looking at any of the above and saying “oh, all that liberal hippy green stuff is all bullshit” or something to that effect. In this general category you’ll find the “drill, baby, drill!” crowd, who seem to believe that if only those pesky nagging “environmental whacko tree huggers” would get out of the way and allow people to punch holes in the Earth for oil wells anywhere they wanted, why, by golly, we’d have all the oil we need, and reduce our “dependence on foreign oil”.

The word here is “delusional”.

I don’t think it’s mere random coincidence that many of the same people think Sarah Palin is a great political leader, watch Glenn Beck on television and think he actually knows what the fuck he’s talking about, and hold Ronald Reagan as their benchmark standard of “fiscally conservative government”.

Welcome to the land of confusion.

I realize that in the few things I’ve written since setting up shop on WordPress to spew into the void of the interknots, I’ve written more than once about the subject of oil use and depletion. There’s a simple reason. So very few people seem to really be aware of the situation. It astounds me, and this could not be more important. It’s just stunning to see how little attention it seems to get. I’ll try, occasionally, to tell someone about the general concept of Hubbert’s peak, something laid out by geologist M. King Hubbert before I was born (and I’m not quite an old man, but no spring chicken, either). I can’t recall ever talking about this to someone directly in person and having them say “oh, yeah, I know about that”, and I also have never, to my never ending amazement and horror, had anyone hear about this and really get it. I feel pretty certain that they don’t, because, frankly, if you do really grok this, you really fully get the idea, I don’t understand how anybody could not be left stunned by the thoughts of the implications of it all.

I think I’ve written about this before; explaining this to someone (or trying, at least) and having someone reacting as if this was just some complete fictional nonsense, like it was some kind of ruse, a trick, some sort of practical joke. You would think somebody was trying to get them to go snipe hunting or something. Maybe they just really are not bright enough to get it. Maybe they can grasp the concept (it isn’t terribly complex) but if they start to wrap their head around it, the implications starting to appear cause them to freak out and go into some sort of catatonic shutdown of denial and avoidance. Maybe they can get the concept, but warily back away and dismiss it (the suspicion that this is some sort of trick to make them look foolish), possibly thinking “yeah, right, if this were true, I would’ve heard about this before!”.

That’s a problem. Frankly, I didn’t have a clue about it until maybe five or six years ago, when I first read something about it (which most definitely got my attention) and looked into it further. It was a pretty startling revelation. Generally, I think most people have a very simple, and as I found out several years ago, naïve misunderstanding of how this works. They think it’s a simple pair of possibilities: either “there’s plenty of oil” or “the oil is about to run out”. It is just not that simple.

So, we have that. We definitely appear to have all but a scattered minority of people who really think that the way this works, as long as there is oil under the ground somewhere, we’re peachy.

We have people who like to believe that we’ll have some magic technological solution, or solutions, that will just come in to place and simply allow us all to do everything the same way we do now, with depleting and finite and irreplaceable petroleum (and natural gas and coal, while we’re at it). Among other problems, it astonishes me to hear things talking about “energy” as a broad subject, as if everything under the general heading of “energy” is all freely interchangable. For some people, as long as you tell them that somebody is working on something that can provide energy, in any form, without fossil fuels, they think, great, we’re golden. Everything is cool, and we’ll just roll merrily onward.

Then we have the people of the “drill, baby!” persuasion, who have clearly not heard about Hubbert’s peak, and the peak of oil production in the United States, forty years ago. That peak is, incidentally, even with the flow of oil from up north via the Alaskan pipeline. At least the crowd convinced that “renewable energy” development will solve everything neatly are facing the reality that something new needs to be worked out, because the status quo is going to change.

The all time peak of U.S. crude oil production around 1970 reached approximately 9.5 million barrels per day. See the numbers above, recent U.S. oil consumption has been running just under 20 millions barrels of crude per day. The math isn’t complex. And that is, I remind you, looking at the peak of 1970, in decline ever since aside from short term changes to a positive slope on the graph, mainly because of Alaskan oil in the 1980s, which itself peaked and went into decline, taking the graph of overall U.S. crude oil production back into a negative slope, decline. Data for 2008 from the Department of Energy showed U.S. oil production for the year as 4.95 million barrels of oil per day.

With as many people as you can get on this, punching as many holes in the Earth within the United States as possible, there is never going to be anywhere near as much oil produced as the peak of 1970 of about nine and a half million barrels per day, never mind getting anywhere close to providing a supply of almost 20 million barrels per day. Don’t take my word for it, M. King Hubbert figured this out before I was born, and his assertions of theory on the subject were borne out when his prediction of United States oil production peaking in 1970 was amazingly accurate.

You can call much of the “renewables, green energy” crowd naively overoptimistic, but the “drill, drill, drill!” crowd are, to put it plainly, simply, and directly, completely fucking delusional. The people who tell you that, if only all oil drilling restrictions in U.S. territory were gone, we would be free of “dependence on foreign oil”, either don’t know what they’re talking about, have no basis in reality, or, they’re just blatantly lying.

When I said, above, the status quo is going to change, maybe should have phrased that differently. I should have said that the status quo is changing. Now. All through my life, I’ve heard and read occasional talk about some projected and predicted future problems of “not enough oil” or “the oil running out”. Again, to repeat this, the oil running out is not the problem, and to look at this in those terms is a mistake, just completely wrong, misunderstanding the matter. This is the stuff Hubbert pointed out, the thing far too few people understand, the thing I didn’t understand myself just a few years ago.

One way or another, we are going to have to do things differently. As the numbers above make it ridiculously obvious, here in the United States, more than anywhere else on the planet, we have arranged life and virtually everything we do around the assumption of a steady flow of relatively cheap, plentiful, high quality petroleum. This is going to be a problem.

Mocking an electric car because a 40 mile range on a battery charge is not enough to get you to work and back is not going to fit well with the reality of things in the not so distant future.

It has been suggested that the way we have treated the remarkable windfall of natural resources in the form of finite amounts of fossil fuels, especially petroleum, has been like a lottery winner or some sort of trust fund baby, a recipient of a large inheritance, who then proceeds to just piss it all away at an obscene rate, living in a mode of wretched excess and waste, until they suddenly find themselves bankrupt and broke, wondering what to do now, instead of living comfortably for the rest of their lives. The problems are compounded here. First, that we’ve blown through these resources at such an absurd rate that we’re suddenly looking at a real crisis, and the second, compounding the complexity and crisis level difficulties; that so much, virtually everything, has been arranged around operating in these ways, devouring the resources in the ways we now do as “normal”, standard operating proceedure, that this leaves us all facing a serious problem.

Let’s put it in short form.
This is worth taking some time to dwell on this. I mean, really, just let your mind chew on this for a while.

The way life and commerce in the United States has come to be conducted, especially since World War Two, has devoured the available petroleum resources at an incredible, and increasing, rate.

The rate we burn through the stuff carries us at an accelerating rate toward the point of the peak of worldwide oil production, Hubbert’s peak. By definition, reaching and passing that peak takes us into a permanent down slope of declining oil production rate, with oil becoming more and more expensive, less and less available, in not just lower quantity, but lower and lower quality.

When we are well along into that situation, we will be looking at this decline happening while having put ourselves in a situation where everyday life and business has come to revolve around, and completely depend upon, a steady flow of large quantities of relatively cheap and high quality petroleum just to function at all.

The way we now arrange and do things, by being so dependent on mass oil consumption, is exhausting the very stuff it has become dependent upon, faster and faster.

If this isn’t enough of a problem, add in a gigantic extra complication, that of basing economics entirely on the concept of perpetual “growth”, which is entirely dependent on the premise of steadily increasing supplies of energy, not decreasing, at increasing levels of expense.

Forgive me for rattling on a bit repeating myself on this point, but I’m kind of writing and trying to work out as I go: how can I put this most plainly? Do you see the craziness of the situation yet? Is this clear? I’m hoping by now that anybody reading this has had this sink in thoroughly and it really, truly, fully registers. I hope that this is clicking completely into place, and perhaps, it’s easy enough to understand why I go really over the top in sheer disbelief when I hear somebody suggest (apparently seriously) that what we really need is to improve oil extraction techniques and methods to increase oil production, and so on…. in other words, according to some people, our solution to “the oil problem” is to work on ways of depleting the remaining stuff even faster.

It all keeps leading back to the problem of lack of awareness and understanding of the phenomenon that M. King Hubbert figured out, and pointed out to anyone who would pay attention, over fifty years ago.

I should note that so far, I’ve only been talking about the United States regarding the matter of oil consumption. I haven’t even touched the subject of oil consumption elsewhere in the world.

Whatever else we do, one thing is overwhelmingly obvious. We need to make the most of the petroleum that’s left. In the roughly century and a half or so that the human race has been using the stuff, we’ve consumed it at a steadily increasing rate, so extreme that we’re already looking at the peak of oil production, with not much in the form of a plan B to deal with scarce supplies of it.

A lot is going to change, whether we like it or not, whether we see it coming or not. Things are going to need to become local and regional again. Much more local and regional. Once upon a time, that was how most things worked, and going beyond that was a big deal. There is a time coming when that will be the case again. I don’t think we’re talking about going back to the 18th century. I do think some things are likely. As oil becomes more scarce and expensive, I suspect that cars and aircraft will be more as they were in the early part of the 20th century. Sure, they’ll still exist, but not in the way they have been, and the only people making regular use of them will tend to be the fairly wealthy. Forget driving SUVs and jumbo pickup trucks as daily driver personal transportation fifty to a hundred miles a day. Forget hopping on an airline flight for a little vacation trip. Hopping in the car for a road trip to Vegas will be unlikely.

For anybody who still doesn’t think so today, it will become exceedingly obvious in the not so distant future that what has become known as “globalization” as normal business was one of the all time worst plans in the history of mankind. It will truly be regarded in future historical review under the general category of “what were these people thinking?”. International trade has been part of human life for a long time, and it’s important. This has changed significantly over just the past few decades, and it doesn’t take genius insight to understand that the changes revolve completely around the use of mass quantities of petroleum fuel. International trade has transformed into “globalization”, where commerce between different regions of the planet is not just a special, rarified, form of business, it has become a normal way of doing things. Here in the U.S., all kinds of manufacturing have been decimated, virtually abandoned and thrown on the scrap pile, by corporate management unable to look at much of anything beyond “cost cutting”, with an idea that if they shut down their own manufacturing in this country, and have it done in China (communist China) or elsewhere on the other side of the planet, their accounting figures tell them that they can make larger profit margins even after shipping everything 10000 miles or so from the opposite side of the Earth across the Pacific ocean. Ship it across oceans on gigantic freighters burning enormous volumes of diesel fuel, unload it and transfer it all into a fleet of diesel fueled trucks to roll across the interstate highways in 53 foot boxes to the local corporate chain cinder block box discount barns that have virtually destroyed local stores and an array of businesses. To use a word that’s used often these days, this is not sustainable.

It’s unfortunate that some words can become so frequently used that they become some sort of “buzzword” that begins to lose any effective meaning in communication for some people; they begin to ignore it. The word “sustainable” means something. It means something very important. It has meaning that directly addresses the possibility of the survival of all of us having anything like a decent life, or simply surviving at all. It’s not some academic game. It can actually continue and refresh itself and be sustained. It’s a simple concept.

The destructive effects, the repercussions and consequences of globalization as a way of doing the ongoing business of human existence, are much more extensive than the most obvious problems, like, millions of people who used to make a living doing useful, productive work, making useful things, being tossed overboard. It goes much further, such as what this has done to the very concept of maintaining and repairing things. Take some time on your own and do a survey of the area where you live to find radio and television repair shops, for example, and assess the results.

From time to time, I think to myself that a simple exercise, a little experiment, might be illuminating for people. It would go something like this. Take a few days and go through everything in your home, from wall to wall, everywhere, and remove anything with a label that says “made in China” (or Taiwan, or Malaysia, or Singapore, or Vietnam, or….). Remove it from the place and stick it in some big storage container outside. When you’re done, stop, take a good long look around, and assess things. leave everything in storage and carry on with your daily life. It could be a bit of a shock.

What happens when what you might have regarded as the perpetual, endless, supply chain of cheap crap from 10000 miles away suddenly has problems? All that stuff that you removed, what about when that stuff wears out or breaks? Are you going to repair it?

We do, no doubt about it, need to work on different ways of dealing with energy. There is much talk about how we obtain it. There is not nearly enough about how we use it.

As I’ve already said, we are looking at imminent changes that will force us, one way or another, to move back toward local and regional living and business. To do that, there is an awful lot of work to do in rebuilding many things that have been lost, discarded, neglected, destroyed, along with figuring out many new things. I’m not talking about just suggesting that we can simply go back to how things were a couple of centuries ago. That’s madness, impossible even if we decide this is desirable.

Part of the reality here is that we do need to develop and use methods of gathering and using energy that are not based on devouring finite resources that, once used, are simply gone, and irreplacable, but we also can’t waste time and resources on ideas that are science fiction fantasies, like “the hydrogen economy”. It’s vital to understand practical reality and scale and the resources and economics. Recently I’ve seen a commercial spot on television promoting ethanol. In this, an actor portraying a farmer stands in some city plaza somewhere delivering some soliloquy monologue as people pass by around him seemingly unaware, much like you would see if you were in some downtown area and some madman was bellowing on a street corner to anybody who will listen (and nobody will). The farmer character says something like “just give me a little sun, a little rain, and I can provide all your energy needs”.

I would suggest having a little talk with an actual farmer, they will tell you that, in fact, they need quite a lot more than just “a little sun and a little rain” to turn out a crop. This is another example to consider. I don’t just mean that specific television advertising alternate reality delusion fest, I’m talking about just the whole general subject of ethanol as our new alternative to replace petroleum for fuel. Forget it.

Ethanol is, in fact, a decent fuel. It does work, with limitations. It’s being used as fuel for internal combustion engines now, a little bit. The key phrase is “a little bit”. Ethanol or methanol has been used as a fuel in motorsports for a long time. Yes, you can power engines with the stuff. But aside from the technical problems, the biggest issue is the matter of scale, with economics right there alongside. This silly television commercial serves as a particularly ridiculous example of avoiding the reality of the subject. In any consideration of any matter of energy supply, one of the fundamental factors involved is the ratio of energy return over energy invested (EROEI). The mathematics of how much energy you get out of something compared to the energy that has to be put into a system to obtain the resulting energy. Another is the basic matter of scale. It’s one thing to make some sort of prototype and make a working relatively small system; it is a much different to develop and sustain a large scale system for widespread general use.

All this is a huge subject, and I’ll leave this to you, dear reader person, to research and think through.

Any engineer will tell you that it’s one thing to take an idea, a basic concept (which might be brilliantly simple, or incredibly complex) and make some kind of prototype device or small system to demonstrate and test that does perform a certain function, and really does work (e.g., build a car with a new method of providing motive power and rolling the vehicle down the road). It’s another to make a large scale, ubiquitous system that works out in all the ways involved. This means not just making the technology perform a function, but also making it logistically and economically practical. If you’re on a quest to make a better mousetrap, it doesn’t matter much to develop a new design for the ultimate mousetrap if it costs $50,000 per item to make it, or you can only build 100 per year.

There is quite a lot of deluded nonsense that could be sorted out by some open minded viewing of things and an application of the idea of “use the right tool for the job”. This doesn’t just refer to consideration of “new energy”, it applies to the present, right now, right at this moment. It applies to things like people living 30 or 40 miles or more from the place where they work, and hauling their own singular individual asses back and forth in some gigantic massive truck (either an SUV or pickup truck). It will be no fun at all when this sort of madness leads us into circumstances where the people who really need such vehicles to go about their business, people who actually need such heavy duty vehicles for purposes of getting work done, find the matter of fueling the things to be a serious problem. I sit here thinking about this and find that I can think of a few people who I know or have known in recent years who have an SUV or pickup who really, truly, require the capabilities of the beast to go about the things they do on a regular basis. There’s nothing wrong with that; there are reasons why such vehicles were designed and built in the first place, there is actual real practical purpose. What I regard as insanity of staggering levels is to see what a minority that category of people is now.

This isn’t something that requires a detailed statistical study. It’s not subtle. All you really need is to pick a section of road somewhere, and observe. Look around at the traffic and examine the vehicles you see on the road grouped by vehicle category and your best guess about their use at the moment.

People talk about things like ethanol and hydrogen in terms like “our energy future” without much considerations of the actual logistics and numbers of the reality involved in making anything work on a general use large scale.

Other people talk about some fantasy that if only anybody could drill for oil anywhere in the United States, we, here in the U.S., would have all the oil we needed to carry on doing everything just as it has been (and more, for “growth”), without actually examining the numbers involved in reality.

Relatively few people appear to be giving much time and thought to the biggest and most obvious and realistic idea: figuring out how to make the most of the petroleum we have remaining by changing how we do things to use much, much, less of the stuff.

During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Barack Obama made a statement about motor vehicle tire pressures and the potential savings in fuel consumption from keeping tire pressures up. He was mocked and ridiculed for it, while he was absolutely right about this. Higher tire pressure reduces rolling resistance, one of the forces a motor has to overcome to roll a machine down the road. It’s one of the most sensible and easy things anybody could suggest in a discussion about petroleum use. Here’s something that’s unbelievably simple, requires no extra expense and virtually no effort. In a country where petroleum use runs around 18 to 20 million barrels of crude oil per day, if you can do something this easy and reduce fuel consumption by maybe 5%, maybe 10%, is this something to mock as ridiculous?

Things like this can make a boy discouraged about reaching a general consciousness and concensus about what the problems are, and facing what we need to do.



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