Monday, February 26, 2007

Crisis on the Horizon 1: Peak Oil

Here's my first posting on what I see are the coming problems we'll have to deal with in the coming years. It involves Oil.

Or, more to the point, the fact that soon we'll start truly running out of the liquid stuff.

Now, the fact is that Oil isn't the only energy source we have. After all, nuclear gives us (in the US) an average of 20% of our electricity needs. Coal gives another sizeable hunk, and can be rejiggered into gas or diesel to use in are vehicles. We have enough Dams in this nation to give certain areas in the United States plenty of energy (and it's not the United States who have this wealth, as well -- Egypt exports energy to much of Africa thanks to the Aswan High Dam). And there's an active alternative energies support system that is presently giving many people most, if not all, their present energy needs.

So we're not going to lose all our energy yet.

However, Oil has many advantages that the above sources don't have:
  1. Oil is liquid, which makes it easier to transport.
  2. Oil is relatively clean. No need to worry about poisons, pollution or Plutonium damaging the planet for millions of years.
  3. Oil can be carried along cheaply, and the technology has developed over the years for distance, power or torque.
  4. No need for a grid to use it.
And consider that (outside of the Northeastern Megalopolis) we exclusively use liquid petroleum products for transport (and even in the Megalopolis petrol is the energy used by the majority of vehicles in use at any one time); and you can see a problem is coming up.

And the thing is, even with the gasification of coal, the amount of energy gotten cannot be matched by Oil or Natural Gas today. And there isn't really enough Gasification plants out there to cover what will be needed in the future.

And the four biggest fields out there have either proven to be in decline or are suspected to be in decline. The East Texas fields are already exhausted (as are the Oklahoma and on-shore Louisiana fields).

As an example of this, I remember visiting the Oklahoma capitol buildilng on two occasions: in 1976 and 1996. The first time the oilwell had a massive sign talking about how the oil is taken from directly underneath the Capitol building, and had graphic depictions of the logos of the oil companies that bought the crude (in full color, let me add). In 1996, the sign was reduced to a small board referring to where the oil came from and the depletion date (1996, oddly enough, I believe) and a single company listed (Phillips 66, in an old-style orange-and-white format).

They keep finding Oil, but rarely is it in big pools that are easily exploited and ready to use. Nowadays they're buried under tons of salt water or in dangerous areas or are overloaded with Sulfer or are locked in shale. It's getting to where you'll use more energy to get at the stuff then you'll get from the oil (at which point you might as well leave it alone).

So what will happen?
  • First off, we won't run out of oil itself. We will, however, get to the point where what we get, however easy it is to get, will remain unused because our refining methods require larger crude inputs than can be supplied.
  • Second, before all this happens we'll go crazy trying to make cars that only run on electricity (with or without gas or diesel). This can already be seen with the Chevy Volt and with Wal-Mart's hybrid truck project. More will follow, such as UPS and the continued efforts with the hybrid car concept in other companies. Whether they'll be affordable (especially when the other debt bubbles collapse and prices for gas-only trade-ins fall through the basement) is another question.
  • Third, eventually there will have to be rationing. My guess is that suddenly there will be a massive order of busses, and that GM and Ford will be magically saved with such an order. There will also be a sudden requisitioning of tour busses to use for commuting, as a stop-gap. Travel to and from church will, of course, be allowed (although how many people will remain believers when their favored beliefs require heavy costs to support is questionable), as will certain other, more local trips (shopping, medical visits, mall visit) -- at least for a while.
  • Fourth, watch out as people struggle to deal with the new realities. Divorces will be delayed (or put aside), people will struggle with learning how to be friendly with their neighbors, lots of formerly precious baubles will be tossed aside as useless junk, people will learn to retrofit their homes with other sources for heating fuel.
  • Trucks and certain mass-transit vehicles (busses, vans) will be made, built and used and given preference over automobiles.
The above, of course, assumes a slower change with a leadership ready and able to force the adjustments. Anything sudden and irreversable (or a leadership so chickenshit that they'll rape ANWAR), and all bets are off (and, indeed, unpayable).

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