do adjust your picture

Tuesday 2012.02.28

I’ve really never had much fondness for politics. It’s perpetually annoying and irritating and full of noise, involving people a little too full of themselves and their own delusions of grandeur. A clear view of reality tends to get lost, more so in some periods than others. Right now, the present time in the United States is pretty deeply intangled in a “more so” period, for a batch of reasons that should be apparent to anybody really paying attention. The unfortunate thing is that too many people are not paying close attention, while equipped with enough knowledge of history and the world in general to sort things out, and honestly applying a little thought to that. For many people, it’s a matter of swallowing a steady stream of worthless little sound bite blurts and being too easily caught up in some petty insane sporting games of Team Us versus Team Them, because somehow, they convince themselves that’s easier.

Anybody in the US paying any attention to the news and the current circus of American politics knows what I’m talking about, but just for context for any future reading, the matter at hand is people seeking the nomination of the Republican party to be their candidate for the 2012 presidential election, raising the subject of retail gasoline prices here in the United States.

If you have been paying attention, over the past couple of weeks, as I write this in late February 2012, you know one particular song and dance being performed. The Republican party contestants squabbling with each other over who gets to be their party’s designated candidate, and, they hope, the next President of the United States, has taken up the theme triggered by the mendacious pontification of Newton Leroy Gingrich.

According to Newt, if only he were the man in charge, the price of a gallon of gasoline in the United States would be around $2.50, and the delusion meme taken up by everybody in Team Republican is that gasoline prices are too high, this is yet another example of how President Barack Obama is all wrong in all possible ways, and if only one of them were President, that would all change and be just as everybody wishes, which would be cheap endless petroleum fuel for all.

The ritual chant of the 2008 election campaign of “drill, baby, drill!” has now taken on a new life, shocked into twitching animation again in the form of a Newt Gingrich meme slogan of “drill here, drill now, pay less”, which is just as detached from reality as the same assertions were in 2008.

One simple chunk of facts of the world is that a good general approximation is that people buying gasoline in the United States have generally been paying anywhere from about half to less than half of what people are paying for gasoline in Europe when you look at prices and do the conversion of currency and volume units to USD/gallon. That would be about right, right now, if the US price were $4/gallon. In other words, to state the obvious just because the obvious is so completely obscured by the noisy chatter, here in the present day United States, very few people seem to realize how relatively easy we have it in this department, even at times when the fluctuating prices are relatively high in our perspective.

That’s just one small element to the matter here, almost a side item to the bigger theme, even though this lack of perspective is so completely pervasive.

The bigger problem and issue is just how badly detached from reality all the current noise is from the Republican political contestants and everybody who sees themselves in that camp. The same recurring issue comes back around again and again for anybody who tries to operate in the domain of what you might call reality-based humans; are people spewing deluded noise really, honestly, sincerely ignorant of what’s involved, or maybe they really know better, and are operating in the rancid activities of deliberate deception and confusion, hoping that large numbers of people will believe some brew of fiction, nonsense, and deluded wishful thinking, because that would suit somebody’s ambitions to gain money, power, or both.

We’re in times and a situation when we can’t afford this insanity. I’m not being hyperbolic, either, when I use the word “insanity”. It’s very literally applied, to describe a state of people in irrational mental processes that are not operating in the realm of reality.

The latest installment of his web column finds James Howard Kunstler writing about the general same theme in “A Fog of Mendacity“.

There are a couple of notions around and in play that are fictional nonsense. One of them is the wishful fantasy that if you want more oil flowing, and increase the rates, you can just drill more holes in the Earth and, presto, out it comes, as much as you wish. The other is people putting forth the idea that the President of the United States of America or any other figure in political power has much, if any, influence over petroleum fuel prices.

Lean in a little and let me lay some things in front of you. I’ll go through this a little backwards, starting with prices and digging back through some following questions of “so why is that?”.

To start, let’s look at a recent chunk of history. This is a chart of the retail price of unleaded regular grade gasoline in the United States, compiled by the US Energy Information. An average price was calculated from a sampling of American cities with prices then calculated to an average for a month. What we have below is, first, a look at the range of time covering the time in office as President of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, up to a couple of months ago, this past December of 2011.

That covers the time period when either Bush or Obama has been President, almost up to the present day as I write this. I threw in a vertical divider to mark the X axis time scale to clarify when Barack Obama took office.

To add a little more longer term context, examine a graph of the same data of US monthly average retail unleaded regular gasoline prices, going further back in time.

One thing that’s immediately visually apparent is that as you go through time, especially around the beginning of the second term of President George W. Bush, fluctuations in the averaged retail price of gasoline started getting more chaotic and widely varied. There’s a clue, although it occurs to me that some people could draw a reflex jump to false conclusions and think that this means that the retail gasoline price fluctuation was, somehow, a result of G.W. Bush beginning a second term as President. No.

Another thing that’s obvious takes us right back to the beginnings of this recent burst of “high gas prices” noise, when Newt Gingrich made a declaration about the relatively low price of a gallon of gasoline when Obama took office, compared to what it was right at the present moment, and then took that to immediate conclusion you can paraphrase like “see? Obama made gas prices go wild!”, which is pure deceptive manipulative bullshit. If you know what’s happening and what’s involved, it’s practically obscene. It says much more about Newt Gingrich as a human being than it does about petroleum.

I was thinking for a few minutes about doing some spreadsheet work to break down some specific items, like the lowest and highest prices during the terms of Bush and Obama, average price during their terms, but I’ll skip that. You can look at the graphs and get the general idea. Somebody can select just specific bits of data over the period like Newt Gingrich did, and present it as a significant point, that’s just deceptive bullshit without the context.

Attributing either credit or blame to either Bush or Obama for prices being low or high at any given point, or any past or future President, is mostly nonsense that misses the larger picture of reality.

Have a look at a view of long term history of crude oil prices over the history of petroleum use.

It might be helpful to have a more stretched view of only more recent times:

It’s significant to see the way the curve goes when you get to around the middle of the past decade. It was a problem during the time in office of G.W. Bush, and then for Obama coming in after him, and despite all the noisy clueless political game chatter, nothing either one of them could or can do would affect this to any significant degree.

At this point you might ask, why did the price start going up so much in the last decade and also become so wildly volatile over the past decade?

Have a look at this chart.

This shows you something big, something fundamentally profound. What we have there is a visual indication of what some people call a “wobbly plateau” or “bumpy plateau” that was predicted as a consequence of hitting limits of possible production flow rates on a worldwide scale, the complex real world phenomenon of hitting “Hubbert’s peak” where the limits interact with economic phenomena.

There it is in action.

You can look around and find a lot to read on the subject of oil (as I’ve pointed out more than once mentioning the array of articles collected via the Drumbeat section of The Oil Drum), and find many people arguing, as I’ve also pointed out, that any peak is far off in the future, or even making a nonsensical argument that the very idea of a peak has, somehow, been negated by some thing or another, but the reality shows a picture that seems to be indicating that we already are at the all time world peak.

There’s what it looks like. This is the big item right there, really, if you want to take away a top theme item from this; that we might be riding the bumpy plateau effects of the all time world peak of oil flow rate.

We can take a look at a longer term view, up to around 2009 on the following graph, showing worldwide production rates, along with US production, there for reference.

Only more time will tell us if the period we’re in now really is the all time peak, but right now it’s looking like it.

You also see a good long term picture of a thing or two.

One of these things is seeing how much of the world’s oil production is US oil. Look at how much of the whole world’s oil supply was from the United States around 1960, and then look at recent years.

Because of the scale of the graph when you include worldwide production with US production, it makes the US production look less varied. Take a look at US historical data on its own.

That makes it much more obvious. This a significant chunk of information, and that’s a bit of an understatement. It’s central and fundamental to any thinking or discussion about petroleum in the United States, and about one minute of looking at that information, given a little basic understanding of what “Hubbert’s curve” or “Hubbert’s peak” actually means, is more than enough to make it extremely clear just how deluded or dishonest some people are being when they talk about oil.

There’s the peak of US oil production around 1970, and the decline of diminishing returns on the post-peak side of Hubbert’s curve. The all time peak was midway between 9 and 10 million barrels of crude per day. The last few years have been around the 5 to 6 million barrels per day range, going up again. We’re at about the same production rate as around 1950 or so, with much more consumption. How much more?

With the big financial implosion of 2008, which kicked into action when the price of crude oil went up over $140 per barrel, petroleum demand is down. Basically, though, we’re talking about the consumption of oil in the US ranging around 17 to 21 million barrels of crude per day. As I’ve written before, even if there were huge sustained increases in US oil production, it would be a long way to just get to the levels of 1970 at peak, and even if that happened, this would be nowhere near enough to meet US oil consumption.

If you look above at the US production history graph, you can see the peak around 1970-1971 and then the significant decline, but with a kind of mini-peak from the late seventies to a return to the decline slope around the late eighties. What is this?

There is the reason for that little mound of brief increase, peak, and back to decline, due to crude from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. Prudhoe Bay was the single largest oil discovery in US history, and that peaked, rather quickly, and went into major decline. Now, part of the political chatter is that we should violate the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to get oil there, which has been estimated as holding less than half the oil that the Prudhoe Bay field had.

Just to make this clear, in case it isn’t already obvious from looking at the graph above showing 1940-2011 US oil production, there is something in play for any new added oil sources. To even keep the rate of oil flow steady, new sources don’t simply add more, because there’s the phenomena of many existing sources in US territory in steep decline, so added new sources must make up the difference, before there is any possible overall increase.

Added to all this, much of the political noise is completely avoiding what tar sands and oil shale really are, what the actual substances are (they are not crude petroleum), and the complications and problems both have, in expense and complexity of the processes, the damage to the Earth including massive water consumption and pollution, the energy inputs required and the consequences in energy return on energy investment (EROEI). The impression you get if you read and listen to a lot of people is that tar sands and oil shale are simply wonderful bounties of “more oil”.

Remember all this as you wade through the noisy song and dance acts.

I do want to be clear about something here. When it comes to the topic of prices for crude oil and retail prices in the US for gasoline and diesel and other refined petroleum products, and opinions about what they should be, or why they are what they are at any given moment, I don’t really have much to say. That’s a whole knotted batch of complex craziness in that, and I’m no financial and economics expert. Professional people make full time work of that kind of thing, and you can dig around and find all kinds of things about those topics, among all the people who do “market analysis” all day every day.

The funny thing is, even there, I’m not so sure about how seriously to take any of that. From what I can see from where I sit, people with serious qualified backgrounds in the financial world can go through all kinds of complex analyses, and in the end, most of what happens comes down to assorted kinds of herd/flock/mob pyschological phenomena that’s unpredictable for all sorts of reasons, and I’m not convinced that much of what you can read and hear of this sort really means a hell of a lot in reality.

The scatter chart shown above shows what kind of strange and complex things happen when the oil supply rates are bumping up against limits. All of this is just that much more reason to pretty much ignore it and move on when some politician starts saying they can make the world price of a barrel of oil or a gallon of gasoline at a retail pump in the United States X amount if only they were in charge and everything went their way.

In the meantime, you’ll know when you’re encountering somebody getting serious and speaking the truth, when they say that the only kind of “solution” to our petroleum situation is figuring out how to live and do what we need to do while using much less of the stuff.

It would help a little if everybody in the United States read the paper generally referred to by people as “the Hirsch report”, formally- “PEAKING OF WORLD OIL PRODUCTION: IMPACTS, MITIGATION, & RISK MANAGEMENT“, from 2005. This is not exactly a light read, but it’s not terribly hard to get through and understand. It lays things out pretty clearly. It’s available to the public for anybody interested, a paper that was written by authors Dr. Robert Hirsch, Dr. Roger Bezdek and Robert Wendling, by request for the US Department of Energy.

This particular report is important to note for a couple of big reasons. One is the obvious; it’s a pretty concise and clear look at a subject that’s important to a degree that’s really hard to overstate. I mean, it’s talking about subject matter and issues that are so incredibly important to anybody living in the United States, or anybody living in any technological, industrialized society, that it should be read by every high school student, for a start, and any functionally intelligent adult American. The other big reason to mention it is broadly related to the whole point of why I’m writing this piece right here and now; the fact that the Hirsch report, being as important as it is, is, for the most part, an obscure, generally little known document, to most people, even while anybody who has been trying to pay attention to the petroleum situation knows about it.

If nothing else, the Hirsch report is definitely absolutely essential reading for anybody who either acts in a role of governing, or has ambitions of government office, and anybody who wants to act in any public position where they open their yap about anything related to the subject of petroleum or “energy” as a broader subject. Instead of people in public positions of power acting in the interests of the people at large based on solid information about reality and thinking, speaking, and acting honestly and rationally, we get steady streams of pompous self aggrandizing idiocy that only confuses matters more.

It’s only compounded by the irresponsibility of news media that ought to be clueing us in on the vitals, but mostly just propagate more chattering noise, often turning to people for “information” (in quotation marks as slightly euphemistic usage) who are possibly the last people in the world to consult and put on camera.

Just days ago, as the whole “high gas prices as cheap applause political meme” thing was getting into full swing, I flipped on CNN. There sat Anderson Cooper doing his nightly time slot of news infotainment. The subject of this recent gas price political chatter came up, and here’s how he addressed it. He brought on a couple of guests for a segment of just a few minutes. He didn’t bring them in there, with him in the studio, they were the typical setup of having some talking heads somewhere else in the world, everyone separate, with all parties staring into their own camera.

Never mind the names, I don’t even care, it really doesn’t even matter. It was two people, in the roles of “Republican strategist” and “Democratic strategist”. Seriously, I’m not kidding.

The idea of Anderson Cooper and/or whatever CNN producer to address this was to bring in a pair of political game coaching staff persons and let them yap for a few minutes. As a side note, even that was a farce, as when the “Democratic strategist” had their turn to speak, “Republican strategist” had to keep interrupting babbling right over the other guest when it was their turn to speak. [As another note further afield, it occurs to me that even mentioning that is something that would get some people chattering that I’m showing some sort of “liberal Democrat bias” by even mentioning this, despite the fact that the situation was clear and simple; one person was speaking when it was their turn to speak, the other was speaking when it was their turn to speak and when it was the other guest’s turn to speak.]

More to the point, neither of them had a thing to say that was of any use for the purpose of informing viewers of things they need to know and understand. It’s impossible to describe how frustrating and maddening this kind of thing is.

One other item was an indicator of things. There was an excerpt from a speech President Obama was giving somewhere, and he brought up the recent Republican political posing about gasoline prices. To paraphrase one thing he said, it was basically “the people who say we can just drill our way out of the problem don’t know what they’re talking about”. At that point, the clip cut and we were back to Anderson Cooper staring into the camera, saying “that may or may not be true…”.

I wanted to smash the TV. What Obama had just said in that speech excerpt video clip was absolutely true, completely, clearly, unambiguously true, at least one little tiny bit of candor, based in truth of reality, among all the political noise and dancing around that’s avoiding the fundamental matters involved. This would be very obvious and clear to Anderson Cooper and anybody involved on CNN staff if they did just a fairly small amount of basic research and investigation of the subject, as if they were actual real live fucking competent journalists.

Instead, it was what’s now almost standard practice; don’t do your fucking job and do the homework, just fish around for a couple of talking head guests, pick people based on some idea of choosing opposite counterparts representing “this side” and “that side”, have a few minutes of chaotic barking, and think “job done, go to commercial” with some idea that they’ve presented something “balanced”. What happened to the idea of doing the work yourselves to find what the actual facts are on a story, and present that to people, as the news?

Turn to Fox News on this subject, you’ll find a parade of chattering talking heads riffing on variations on a theme of left wing radical liberal Democrat environmental extremist commie are keeping us from having all the oil we want and keeping America free and prosperous.

Turn to CNBC and you’ll probably get a slightly different parade, the talking heads in this setting likely to be people saying why, shucks, there’s no oil problem, we have all the oil your little heart desires, if only that mean old Big Gummint regulation gets out of the way and everybody invests all your money in my business enterprise.

It’s no wonder the right things aren’t getting enough attention.

To follow up on one thing after thinking about the CNBC mode of addressing oil, there is something more to say briefly on the economic and financial aspects here. It’s obvious that one element of the subject here, angry chatter about the price of gasoline in the United States, is something that does get some attention, the whole tangled world of “the markets” and “oil speculators”. Again, I’m not even going to try to dig into all that, but the point is, all that certainly is, obviously, woven all through this, but while all that goes on, with whatever discussion of the subject is going on, the more fundamental factors of reality are overlooked.

A lot of chatter that avoids the basic fundamentals does go on at length about the economic and financial factors, which definitely are part of the whole saga, but then gets so caught up in the secondary things that it becomes profoundly confused and misdirects attention, and often comes to some seriously mistaken conclusions. Just as one example, I encountered something on the web, that I definitely do not recommend as a useful piece, but simply point out as an example of something wrong. Somebody wrote what superficially appears to be a very serious, studied, thoughtful analytical article, that would probably make a major impression on many people, but contains so much nonsense.

Many of the same things you can find in many such articles are there; specious arguments about “debunking ‘peak oil'”, saying “well, many times in the past people predicted that we were running out of oil soon, and they were wrong, so…” (the false logic apparently being “people have made predictions, that turned out to be wrong, therefore, predictions are wrong”), and a variety of argument that leads to some sort of conclusions that say things like “there will be no ‘peak oil’ until we hit ‘peak innovation’ or ‘peak technology'”, ignoring the finite limits of hydrocarbons beneath the ground. Which is getting irrational to the point of being just flat crazy. I mean really, truly, literally insane. I’m not trying to be rhetorical or hyperbolic here. I mean, literally, insane, not thinking rationally based in reality.

In shortest breakdown form, it all rests on some basic factors in most general form:

  • What petroleum there is that remains, both on the scale of what’s within the US, and what there is over the entire planet.
  • The rate we are consuming the stuff.
  • The characteristic patterns of rates of discovery and production discovered by geophysisist M. King Hubbert, described as “Hubbert’s curve”.

Everything else follows from that.

In the speech comments made by President Barack Obama that I mentioned (the one that Anderson Cooper said “may or may not be true” rather than doing the work to find out what was true), saying that we are not going to make oil problems go away by just drilling more, this was just one tiny bit of actual reality inserted into the noise. What he said is completely true. There are way too many people in the United States today operating on vague hearsay, and some sort of fantasy based mental processes, that seem to have somehow convinced them that there’s just this endless sea of petroleum underground, and if we just drill a bunch more holes in the Earth, out it flows, as much as we want when we want as long as we want.

You now have enough information in front of you in the data I’ve shown you to have a pretty good understanding of what fictional nonsense that is, as well as understanding that people framing the subject in simplistic questions like “are we almost out of oil, yes or no?” are just completely and fundamentally failing to understand and recognize the factors involved.

Beyond all of this I’ve just presented, let me leave you with a thought that should have been universally obvious decades ago, that’s being completely left out of everything in all the political chatter.

All of the forms of hydrocarbon fuels under the surface of the Earth are a finite resource, substances that formed a long, long, time ago, over extremely long periods of time, a one time windfall for the human race discovering that the stuff was there and it could be used for various purposes.

One of the most fundamental concepts of what Hubbert found, regarding petroleum, and described in the generally bell shaped curve we know, is that the rate we first discover oil deposits, and later, the rate we extract them from the ground, follows a general form of that curve, with the key point being that the rate of volume over time reaches a peak, and then goes into a decline of diminishing returns, not near the end of what’s there, but somewhere around midway through the total quantity.

In United States territory, we reached that peak forty years ago. We here in the US had our time of being the primary source of petroleum, and for a short era, being what seemed to be the kings of bounty of petroleum resources in the world, and we blew through it fast so fast that we hit the peak and diminishing returns decline after just a few decades of using the stuff up in earnest. We’re past that now, and all the fantasies, delusions, political demagogery, market games, and technological cleverness in the world won’t somehow magically turn back time and void this.

There’s an epidemic of lunacy that ignores all this, that just says that we want to keep using it as much as we have been using it, or even more, so, somehow, we’re just going to make it come to us, reality be damned. There’s an obvious ending to following a train of thought here, and that is this.

If you set out to “solve” the issue of not having the rate of oil flow you wish by somehow, any way possible, extracting it from the ground and using it even faster, you’re not solving anything, you might increase the production rate (while, importantly, you’re having to do this by making up for declining existing sources as well) for a short term, and by using up some volume of what remains that much faster, you’re moving the situation that much faster toward a state of even more extreme depletion at some later time, and the more extreme dropoff happening that much sooner. In other words, it might seem convenient right now, but actually makes it much worse much sooner.

This is serious stuff, and if you think you might live beyond the next ten years or so, this ought to be a pretty important thing to think about, especially when faced with politicians spewing whatever bullshit they think will get cheap applause and put them in positions of authority and power.

For relatively young people, this should be just completely outrageous, especially when so many of the politicians honking away with idiot slogans like “drill, baby, drill” and “drill here, drill now, pay less” will also chatter about supposed concern “for our children’s future” regarding accumulating government debt, and then turn right around and demand that we keep spending $600 billion a year or more on covering the planet with a military empire that has no relation to “defense”.

Bullshit abounds.

In the meantime, you’ll know when you’re encountering somebody getting serious and speaking the truth when they say that the only kind of “solution” to our petroleum situation is figuring out how to live and do what we need to do while using much less of the stuff.

Yep. I said that before. There, I said it again.

We’ll know somebody is facing reality when they tell people the truth of the situation, long term, and addresses the simple fact that we need to use less petroleum (and other fuel resources I haven’t been talking about), more slowly, and figure out what we need to change about what we do, and do it. Somebody has to be bold and honest enough to tell people, “so, you’re not happy with the petroleum fuel situation, then why the fuck did you buy some behemoth SUV or pickup truck to haul nothing but your own solo ass and buy a house 30 or 40 miles away from where you work?”.

When World War II flared up, older generations here in America faced all kinds of major challenges, especially having been going through the Great Depression. Resources had to be conserved and there were things like “victory gardens”, assorted materials rationing, all aside from the obvious dangers and sacrifices faced by virtually a whole generation of young men going into the military. Now? People bitch and whine if they don’t have enough cable TV channels or they don’t have the latest generation clever mobile phone.

People complain that they might have to pay $4 per gallon for fuel that people across the pond are paying $8 per gallon or more to put in their tank. Well, kids, that isn’t going to get better, overall, whatever bouncing fluctuations we might have. We have much bigger problems than that if we don’t get a grip on how we’re blowing through the stuff.

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