Our Complex and Fragile Energy-Economy
In past issues of Catholic Rural Solutions Weblog, CRS Yahoo Group, and the former Saturday Updates, I’ve declared that the so-called Peak Oil is largely contrived. I arrived at this through my 25 years in the energy industry, primarily coal, but other forms of fossil fuels as well. Now while I still believe this to be true there are some facts that also influence the Peak Oil situation. It must be remembered that in the early days of oil discovery and use oil was not only quantitatively more abundant but the access to it was, in many cases, easily achieved. Indeed, in many places “bubblin’ crude” rose to the surface. This ease of access and production is known in the industry as net energy production and is expressed in ratio form, for instance, 1 unit of energy expended in production, processing, and refining of oil in its early days gleaned 100 units of finished product. Naturally, as the easy pickin’s, so to speak, were gleaned and more effort expended in accessing and production was needed the ratio of 1:100 slowly diminished. This naturally occurring depletion, because all matter is finite, was known as the theory of diminishing returns. The theory of diminishing returns relates to the marginal utility of production, (or use-value) as described above. Based on this theory a ratio of 1:1 in the matter of energy production economics is useless. This phenomenon is not unique to oil production but is seen throughout human endeavor, as in coal mining in the UK where deeper mines reduced the ratio to non-productive status, effectively ending a centuries old national industry.
A second aspect of production is the environmental impact. No! I’m not talking about the tree-huggers superficial concerns over refineries and shipping, though to some degree this should be of concern, but of environmental impacts such as the BP / Gulf of Mexico disaster of 2010. As depletion occurs the oil reserve needed to power our technically complex society requires deeper and deeper wells. Many of the remaining reserves are situated in environmentally sensitive areas like the Artic or under the world’s oceans. These potential environmental problems are not insurmountable with proper planning, technology, and public and governmental oversight. This of course lessens the favorable net energy ratio so it can be seen that a balance must be struck to meet energy needs now and in the future.
Meantime, there are alternatives that can also be utilized using existing fossil fuels that will take up the slack from traditional crude oil production such as oil shale, coal and coal oil, natural gas, (although the current process of fracking is causing its own environmental hazards), and wood and wood gasification. Admittedly, they don’t have the net energy ratio of the early days of crude production, (but nothing existing at the moment does); but these fossil fuel based alternatives will tide us over until technology and society reach the point where non-fossil fuel alternatives can be realistically and efficiently used. At the moment solar, geothermal, wind and other forms of renewable simply cannot reach an effective net energy ratio to be of efficient use-value and are arguably at a worse net energy ratio to standard and alternative fossil fuels. This, of course, does not even address the issue of non-fossil energy alternatives being too intermittent and unreliable to sustain a complex industrial society. Here I’m talking specifically about solar and wind energy.
Thirdly, the production of alternative non-fossil fuel production by necessity entails the utilizing of fossil fuel energy, i.e. steel used in the making of electric car bodies needs coal; technical fabrication requires the use of oil in the production of solar panels, frames, wiring, etc. Therefore the price of making these alternatives is ultimately dependent on traditional fossil fuels, thus making the cost of these consistantly just beyond efficient reach. This phenomenon is known as receding horizons.
Finally, an aspect not addressed is the concentrated demand of energy in general. Generally speaking our population megalopolises are far removed from both the source and refineries of fossil fuel production. Thus vast and expensive infrastructures are needed to get the finished product to the consumers, whether residential or industrial. This would seem to be an excuse for the draconian concepts of out-lying sustainable cities as envisioned by the U. N.’s Agenda 21 scenario.
So, whether you agree that peak oil is contrived or not, the near future demands of an urban-suburban-industrial society are not just problematic but essentially, at this time at least, a genuine dilemma. Yes, individually, if one can afford it he may install alternative forms of energy for his residence in the long run he too will be affected this energy dilemma.
The YouTube video below was provided by a long-term reader of Catholic Rural Solutions for which I’m grateful. It presents the problem succinctly and brings to light all the factors affecting our energy-hungry First World society. It is about an hour long and is well worth viewing if you wish to understand the complexities of our energy needs. It is an insider’s look at the industry so crucial to our contemporary way of life. It also gives a glimpse into the complex issue of energy-economy over the next year to eighteen months.
Here is the web citation:
Richard of Danbury, D.S.G.