when the circus comes to town…

… and never leaves. That’s how some things are beginning to feel.

I considered titling this entry “send in the clowns”. I almost called this entry “the fat man sings”.

I happened to flip on the TV and end up on C-Span, and there was Newt Gingrich. The graphic on screen said I was seeing “Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute Seminar”. He was at a podium in front of a small room filled with what looked like the Young Republicans Club or something, what appeared to be a group of maybe 40 or so college students.

I have had way too much of my life wasted hearing Newton Gingrich speak, and would not usually waste any more time on that, but I happened across this program and something he was saying caught my attention enough to decide to hang with this for at least a few minutes. The decision was reinforced a bit by quick shots of the audience and realizing that he was addressing a crowd of young people.

Just after I tuned in, I heard Gingrich ask the audience if they had ever heard of the term “peak energy” or “peak oil”. After a pause to look around for reactions, he dismissed these terms as nothing, nonsense, fiction, just some stuff “The Left” wants you to believe. He then went on to tell his impressionable young audience that over the next decade, America can become “energy independent”, that America can become “the world’s energy leader”. This is not supported by reality. Not even close. I’ll get back to this.

He also made a reference to the 1972 study The Limits to Growth, and told his audience that the problem is that it was all wrong. He described it as a classic example of the problem of computing processes of “garbage in, garbage out”. Back in the real world, looking around reveals that people who are familiar with the study and looking at the course of events since then and addressing it all honestly have a much different consensus, that this computer modeling study got it very right. In one example, Italian chemistry teacher Ugo Bardi, mentions this subject in one blog piece, and another, as well as a book examining the subject, The Limits to Growth Revisited. Bardi mentions how people have created fabricated Straw Man arguments that claim things about the study that simply were not there, and then claiming that The Limits to Growth was just ridiculous and completely off the mark. Evidently, it wasn’t, it was impressively prescient. But things like that get lost in the alternate reality narratives of somebody like Newt Gingrich.

One sick twist to the episode is that in the course of the speech, Gingrich made a statement about how “you have to look at the facts”. In actual practice, true accurate facts tend to be scarce when Gingrich speaks, and it’s a full out performance of a con man. This is a normal modus operandi for Gingrich. He stands in front of an audience speaking, assuming an air of being a combination of wise elder statesman and college history professor, projecting an air of assumed authority as a calm, learned and knowledgeable, reasonable man speaking as the voice of fact and reason. In reality, he’s a bullshit artist. He takes some selected actual true facts and weaves them into arguments of nonsense conclusions, fabricates “facts” that are just plain false (e.g., claiming that The Limits to Growth had been discredited as “all wrong”), and generally weaves some extended tale of nonsense presented as some kind of lesson to illuminate and correct everyone. As a bonus, he also likes to assume an attitude of aggrieved indignation when somebody calls “bullshit”.

Put this guy in front of an audience like I was seeing of a group of young, impressionable students regarding him with awe as a kind of wizened and learned master authority figure, and what you get is watching a devious master manipulator leading them off a cliff.

Newt’s spiel about the hydrocarbon situation included what is becoming more and more common among people delivering propaganda presentations aimed to confuse and mislead people about our fuel supply and consumption circumstances.

I’ve written about this before, but for anybody who might not have read my earlier notes, let me review something that’s fundamental to this. What has been happening a lot is that people will present a gross Straw Man argument. In that, the common routine is to set up a straw man definition by telling a reading or listening audience that “peak oil” means “we’re almost all out of petroleum”. It means no such thing. Having planted a false definition of the term in people’s heads, the next step is invariably to them point at some resource data and say “see! look at all this!”. Usually there is some account of assorted resources falling under the heading of “unconventional oil”, which is an involved subject of its own, as I’ve explained in previous notes.

The term “peak oil” does not mean “we’re almost out of oil”. It refers to the cresting of the characteristic patterns of petroleum discovery rates and extraction rates described by Hubbert’s curve. In shortest form, it means getting into the phase of diminishing returns of petroleum.

In the case of Gingrich in this speech, he talked about what’s viewed by some people as a sort of wondrous miracle that has eliminated all concerns about petroleum supplies, the Bakken formation in the western United States. Gingrich offered a rosy picture of oil-boom miracle in North Dakota.

Typical of this kind of thing (which, again, does seem popular in some segments of Americans), it’s simply described as some wonderful bounty of oil solving all needs for petroleum. The reality gets fairly complicated, and not nearly the endless miracle that some people portray, as the answer to all the country’s oil needs, wants, and wishes. You can refer to a Wikipedia page on the Bakken formation that gives you an overall summary of the story, with it being rapidly apparent, just from that, how complicated this gets.

For a start, this region and its resources has apparently been known for some time. The reasons why this stuff has not had the kind of attention and activity we’ve seen in the past few years don’t get much if any mention from the cheerleaders who talk about it like the magic wand solution that ends all concerns about petroleum supply.

The reasons why it is getting so much attention now, and so much activity, with all the hype about “the North Dakota oil boom”, basically come down to a pair of factors. One is that the options are running out. This is really and truly getting to scraping the bottom of the barrel for the dregs. The other is that nobody was going after this until the price of crude oil soared. There are reasons for that.

In the Bakken region, there has been some petroleum crude that has been accessible by the existing oil extraction processes that have been around and in use, but nothing spectacular. Basically, just some more oil fields of the oil fields of America that are more and more going into depletion, with fewer and fewer of those left.

Finding more of what people call “conventional oil”, light sweet crude, in large deposits in territory on land that is relatively easy and cheap to extract (not that getting oil out of the ground is ever really easy and cheap, but it has been, compared to the returns in amount of energy you get and in financial terms) is less and less probably. The territory of the United States is probably the most thoroughly explored oil territory on Earth, and the rate of discovery (in terms of volume per time sampled) peaked around 1930. In other words, it’s not that anybody thinks that there will be no more oil found in America, but there’s not likely to be much more, few if any new major discoveries. We’re well into diminishing returns in petroleum in America, and have been for a long time. Discoveries peaked around 1930 and went into diminishing returns decline, US oil production peaked and went into diminishing returns decline around 1970-1971. This is very old news, that isn’t getting much attention, even now.

The people like Gingrich at least appear to ignore the simple fact that any new oil resources that might come into play don’t just simply add to overall oil production rates, they have to make up for the decreases from existing depleting wells and fields simply to maintain the same total output.

But back to Newt’s assertion of the wonders of North Dakota. Gingrich referred to “tight oil”. This is one term for what is sometimes also called “shale oil”, which gets into an added complication of terminology for a couple of different substances. “Tight oil” describes petroleum crude that’s the same stuff as we have known it, but the problem and difficulty is that the oil is trapped in scattered and relatively small pockets spread throughout shale rock formations deep underground.

It’s not some giant pool of underground oil where somebody can drill down into it and just start (and keep) pumping out massive amounts of oil for a long time, with great returns on the investment of money to drill the well, as well as great returns in the ratio of energy returns on energy investment (EROEI), the comparison of how much energy you get from the end product to the amount of energy it took to get it (all totaled up from start to finish of the whole process involved). In shale “tight oil” more and more work, of greater and greater complexity and difficulty, requiring more money and more energy, produces smaller and smaller amounts of oil.

People acting as cheerleaders for this stuff talk about “improved oil technologies”, and there is no doubt that the engineering people working in petroleum extraction are doing major work in this. It still comes down to requiring high oil prices for any of this to be a viable proposition, something that is often ignored.

As I mentioned, there are people saying (or believing) that the term “peak oil” means “the oil is almost all gone”, when it means nothing like that, it’s about a turning point into diminishing returns. With that, something that might be hard for some people to get their heads around, because they haven’t learned about the general concept and what all is involved, is that it’s safe to say that we never will “completely run out of oil”, in the sense of there being none left in the Earth, and this does not mean that we’ll have an endless supply. What this means is that there will be oil left under the surface of the Earth that is never extracted from where it lies because of economic and technical reasons. The difficulty will be too great and/or the cost of getting it will be more than what you can get back by selling it.

But politicians and economists like to give speeches and write things making grand declarations about supposed solutions that mean people concerned about our petroleum supply and consumption problems are some silly persons who should be ignored.

I haven’t even mentioned the role of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in this.

But back to what I was saying, forgetting the fracking problems and all that goes with that. Here we get to the term “technically recoverable” resources. In simple terms, to make a hypothetical example, if you’re pretty sure that a location has 100 billion barrels of oil underground, but you can only actually get 1 billion barrels of it out, then as far as you’re concerned, in practical realistic terms there are 1 billion barrels there.

I’ll save a lot of typing, especially since I really don’t want to even get into it, it’s so messy and involved, but you can check out that Wikipedia page summary (or do your own research) and see how difficult and uncertain it is to even know how much oil might be had from the Bakken. Gingrich threw out a number of 24 billion barrels of oil supposedly available to us there, but looking at various estimates over the years, thing have varied wildly. Some people have suggested astronomical quantities that have never been shown to be more than wildly optimistic fantasy. I have read that people have estimated a total quantity of 24 billion barrels, and that this has been revised down to 17 billion barrels, but that this is also an estimated guess of the total, with what is likely to be “technically recoverable”, with the state of the art of extraction technology as it exists now (the super fantastic “new oil technologies” people talk about, like Gingrich) being much, much lower.

It’s important to note, here, that a 2008 study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated technically recoverable reserves with the technology and processes of the present at around 3 billion to 4.3 billion barrels.

But let’s assume that’s right, 24 billion barrels, for the sake of discussion, and we can get all of that. Crude oil consumption in recent years in the US has been in a range between about 21 million barrels per day to 18 million per day. It has been on the low side of that in the last few years, which unsurprisingly is attributed to reduced usage since the economy imploded in late 2008. So let’s look at this.

If you were able to simply tap into that supposed 24 billion barrels and suck it out as fast as you needed it to supply, on the low side, 18 million barrels a day, this would supply the oil needs of the United States for a little over 3 and a half years. But that’s not how that works, of course. Reports indicate that output from Bakken around maybe around the 500,000 to 600,000 barrel per day mark, maybe eventually that might get up to a million barrels per day.

But people listening to a blowhard like Newt Gingrich think it’s all a much different picture.

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