Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
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Page added on July 9, 2012
Leapfrogging now past fossil fuels to renewable energy is not just desirable but probably inescapable. The only question is whether we as a society will do it with a focused plan for a rapid transition or whether the transition will be chaotic and marked by violent swings in the economy as the world lurches from one energy-induced crisis to another. 
Clearly, it makes no sense to wait until renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels before beginning transition, particularly if you’re talking about transportation fuels. To do so would be to gamble with the entire economy and risk severely negative outcomes, like fuel shortages, riots, and depression. Are we really willing to take such risks, simply because we prefer to believe that the free market will magically sort everything out, particularly when we know that our economic theory evolved in an age of energy surplus which is now behind us?…
The right time to execute transition is not when the alternatives are cheaper. The right time is before it’s too late, and while it’s still affordable. That time was really 40 years ago. We have less than two years left before things really start getting difficult. What, exactly, are we still waiting for? 
Excellent question, and so far we have almost nothing resembling an appropriate answer. The choices remain: begin intelligent, rational, nation-wide conversations about how to plan for our eventual transition away from a fossil fuel-based society and preserve some semblance of prosperity for our future; or ignore/deny/pretend that the “massive” and “vast” resources comfortably tucked underground for millions of years need nothing more for their production than a tweak or two from the Magic Technology/Human Ingenuity Fairy and the removal from office from the extra-terrestrial liberal somehow voted into the White House as part of a vast conspiracy to destroy America by offering Muslim, tax-based regulations (or something like that….)
I’ll state for the umpteenth time that I’d love if I and peers are entirely wrong about our concerns regarding Peak Oil. And for the umpteenth time I’ll also point out that my very lovely suburban lifestyle is not one I have any desire whatsoever to abandon in any way because of Peak Oil’s impact, so I have a decidedly selfish reason for wanting to be wrong.
So … I’m either a complete lunatic who has decided his mission is to perpetuate nothing but nonsense about a non-existent energy problem so that I can … uh … uh, gain some benefits of uncertain definition, or I’ve looked at enough information over the past few years both pro and con and decided that I need to add my small voice to urging much greater awareness about an issue certain to affect us all in the not-too-distant future. While my wife may offer her own assessment on the “lunatic” angle, I’m fairly confident that most of my waking hours are spent a long distance away from that existence.
Accordingly, for all the happy talk about the vast resources just waiting to pop out of the Earth’s surface minutes after President Obama is defeated, enabling the wonders of free-market economics to once again perform their magic, those hopes and expectations must contend with more than a few damned facts and what we on the Peak Oil/climate change side of the fence like to call “reality.”
It sucks for us, too! Speaking for myself and I believe for most others urging greater awareness and preparation in advance of Peak Oil’s full range of impacts on our personal and industrial lifestyles, more information, sound planning, and actual preparation make more sense than just keeping fingers and toes crossed. A choice….
It should be clear that the vogue dismissal of peak oil fears based on optimism around marginal, incredibly environmentally destructive resources like tar sands and shale hardly stands to account. 
No one is being forced to buy into that perspective. But as I’ve asked in prior posts: What are the chances that the facts espoused by knowledgeable Peak Oil proponents such as Chris Nelder, Chris Martenson, Kurt Cobb, Sharon Astyk, Robert Rapier, Richard Heinberg, Gail Tverberg, Michael Klare et al (apologies for not naming more) are all entirely wrong and even contrived? Even after discounting their knowledge and the truths they share by 50% and there’s still a serious problem looming!
Does it make any sense at all to just simply ignore all of that and bank all our hopes that human ingenuity is going to save us just in time? What if that doesn’t happen through no fault of anyone’s?
What if geological factors—among others entirely beyond the control of our brightest technological experts—simply make it impossible to make up for the 3 – 4 million barrels of conventional crude depleting each and every day? What if the optimistic, exuberant expectations about the promise of shale, tar sands, and deep-water resources just cannot be met in a world of increasing demand?
Just how much are we all willing to risk by ignoring the facts and the ticking clock? When do we get serious about planning?
Should we wait until our transportation infrastructure becomes rusted and too expensive to maintain…? No, because declining net energy, declining net exports, and declining production will make it increasingly difficult and expensive to do anything. You have to build the replacement infrastructure while the energy and materials and capital you need to do it are reasonably available. 
Declining availability and increasing competition for the remaining fossil fuels will make it progressively more difficult to manufacture, transport, and install renewables and efficiency improvements. Within 25 years, the world could lose 25 percent or more of its oil supply, and nearly all of its available net exports. Any interruptions in oil supply will have immediate and far-reaching effects on our globalized world of resource production and manufacturing, and cause systemic dependencies to break down. 
Unfortunately, the facts aren’t changing. Conventional oil fields are depleting this very moment, and the next, and the next, and the next….We’re looking for “replacements” in inhospitable locales (miles beneath the ocean floor, for example), or we’re exerting tremendous amounts of energy, costs, and effort to find them (think tar sands and tight/shale oil). We may very well have decades ahead to avail ourselves of these unconventional substitutes, but the facts tell us they are not as energy efficient as the crude oil whose production plateaud in the middle part of the last decade. They cost more to find and produce, and for all the optimism about the quantity awaiting extraction, the more important factor is that extraction isn’t even keeping up with what we’re losing to depletion every day. And China, India, and others eager to assume a more technologically-advanced place in the world, are hungry for more.
The math isn’t working.
Yes, we can re-purpose other fossil fuels (coal, gas, heavy oil/tar) to help plug the gap in liquid fuels, meanwhile accelerating their depletion. We can use liquid fuels more efficiently. We can try every trick to tease more oil out of depleted wells. All these things will happen. Their collective effort will ease the pain (and bring on new hurts), but it is not clear whether all efforts in tandem can arrest the decline, given practical, political, and economic realities. They are all more expensive, all lower EROEI, all harder, and with the exception of efficiency improvements keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Although the pain may be eased, the problem does not go away…. When will we decide to pull the plug…?
No matter what mix we decide to pursue, if we wait until the decline starts before seriously ramping up all viable efforts in tandem, we will find economic hardship, job loss, energy volatility as demand flags and then resurges, etc. The unpredictable environment will not be conducive to large investments in risky alternatives. In short, we could get caught with our pants down. And if you’ve ever tried to run in this state, you know what happens next. 
More to come….