Sunday, December 16, 2007

When The Wells Run Dry

In 1956, M. King Hubbert predicted that the United States would hi peak oil production in 1970-71. American reserves would begin to decline at that point.

People laughed. Until 1972's production numbers came out. And 1973's. And so on. They stopped laughing.

Hubbert also predicted that worldwide oil reserves would peak in 2006. He doesn't seem to be too far off the mark.

Other scientists have predicted that American has seen its peak natural gas production. We already import 15% of natural gas from Canada, which accounts for 50% of their production.

The rapidly expanding world and American economies have been built on cheap energy. As production has ramped up to meet demand and has been able to keep pace, energy has been really cheap.

That's now stopped. With one or two hiccups going forward, oil & gas production will plummet.

This issue weighs heavily on my mind because of issues raised in a film I watched yesterday, courtesy of Free Speech TV: The End of Suburbia

(side note: run, do not walk, to your local electronics store and get DishTV, which is the only full time outlet for Free Speech TV. Or sign up online. This channel alone makes it worthwhile.)

To-wit: what happens when the oil (and gas) runs out?

We can roughly divide gas and oil in this fashion: gas powers our homes and workplaces, while oil provides transportation. It's a gross simplification, but it is useful.

Both oil and gas provide an enormous amount of energy per unit of measure. Alternatives, like biomass, wind, or solar, don't provide nearly as much energy, and in some cases (biomass and ethanol), the energy required to extract fuel may actually exceed the energy obtained. Add to that fact that the input energy currently comes from fossil fuels, and you have a bad bargain. Nuclear could possibly replace natural gas as a means of producing electricity and heating and cooling, but some estimates are that we'd need upwards of 10,000 more nuclear power plants in order to match current demand, which would deplete fissible materials faster than we'd run out of oil. Coal is a possible short term solution, but even setting aside the environmental issues, it's good for maybe another hundred years or so.

In other words, unless some drastic measures are taken, within our lifetimes, we face a crisis unheard of in human history: a withdrawal from an addiction that will make getting off crack look like a walk in the park.

What do we face? What happens when the wells run dry?

Well, obviously, we wouldn't be able to drive cars much anymore, it takes about 90 barrels of oil to produce one car, and that's before fuel, so we'd lose a lot of mobility. Any fuel, including biomass or biodiesel, will be prohibitively expensive to produce. We'll take care to only use as much as necessary.

The United States is woefully undercapacity in terms of public transportation. Our rail system is antiquated to the point of being no better than Third World. Airplanes will return to being the luxury they once were, the toys of the wealthy.

Too, even if scale up our rail system, we'd need to provide electricity. That could be done locally, of course, perhaps some form of solar energy generation along the tracks (or even in the tracks). But I'm not ready to look at solutions.

We'd lose the electric grid as we know it: highly centralized power production demands highly efficient fuels to produce the power to send down the grid. Since the transmission of electricity implies the loss of electricity (no cable is 100% efficient, there''s always some heat loss as you go, the farther the more there is), we'd need more localized forms of power in order to replicate the current grid.

Heating our homes and offices would be a bit of a problem, since something like 86% of buildings rely solely on gas or oil (or electricity). Some places are lucky enough to be near raging bodies of water, like Niagara Falls, but hydroelectric capacity is pretty near 100% in this country and Canada.

So expect to be cold in the winter and hot in the summer, since the wattage of most American heating and cooling systems is beyond the capacity for all but the most sophisticated and extensive (and expensive!) solar technology at this point. We'll be scaling back on comfort.

Just in time for global warming! Mother Nature does love her little jokes.

Ah, but it gets worse! While we're shivering in our hovels, how will we eat? You see, nearly every effective pesticide or fertilizer on the market today relies on...petroleum. Current estimates are that it takes about ten calories of hydrocarbons to bring one calorie of food to your table, which includes transportation. Take away those hydrocarbons and you can see...that's the end of the California Caesar salad on your dinner table in Boston in January.

Well, so while you're shivering and starving, I guess you'll have to look for something to distract you. Um, well, see...plastics.

Look around you. Take a careful look: this computer you're reading this on. That TV in the corner, or that radio. The stereo. Your iPod.

Plastic is a petroleum based product as well.

It's going to be rather boring. This is truly going to be "survival of the fittest" in the world. We'll have to learn to do without and to live locally and tribally. There will likely be vast swaths of America abandoned because it turns out, the homes are too far from anything to walk to and from.

The crypt of conspicuous consumption will be the American cul-de-sac.

Larchmont, NY. Orange County, CA. Arlington, VA. These will be the new slums in the 22nd Century. We're already seeing a return to urbanization in both traditional industrialized cities as well as in new urban planning out in the suburbs, but along the lines of how cities grew up in the 19th century: around transportation stops and commuting hubs. In other words, eliminating the need for cars by extending cities outward, so that if you need to buy a new couch, you hop on a train to the city and have them deliver it to you.

The old tract houses and McMansions will be abandoned as people realize it is untenable to maintain a manicured lawn with sheepshit scraped off the (encroaching) forest floor. Homesteaders will either buy these houses on the cheap for multiple families (like many undocumented aliens do now), or will turn their half-acre of land into some form of self-sustainable farm, living off the grid as best as they can.

Will any good come of all this? I think so. The term gridlock almost automatically gets taken away, and if you simply must drive (or fly) from one place to another, you'll find the going is pretty smooth. But that's to be expected, you're paying first class fare.

Too, the rise of the Internet economy will make it a lot easier for people to stay off the streets to work and conduct business. That will help make things a little easier for us all, especially if we continue to develop this non-physical presence in the world. That could be affected by the lack of central power distribution, but hey, someone will figure out how to send low-power signals down the wires that can work computer servers, I'm sure, as a back up to local generation.

That's right. That little dance of having a back up power source for computers will be reversed. You'll be using your own power, and have the grid, such as it is, as a back up.

The world changed a lot because of cheap energy, to become what we have today. The change back will be painful, mostly because we are like children: we had something and we don't want to give that up.