Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
Page added on December 13, 2016
When asked about the state of the world today a single descriptor appears in my mind as distinct and maddening as a warning klaxon on a sinking ship: a precarious state of affairs.
There are many who see the varied symptoms of the problems that face not only the United States, but civilization across the globe, but there are unfortunately few who realize just how large the size and scope really is.
The first thing to note is that just about everything is interconnected in some way shape or form; the energy we consume, the environment in which we live, and the economy that facilitates our current way of living. I think the best way to get a full picture is break down each one of these items and then show how they all come together.
When I talk about energy, I’m not talking just about how we power our vehicles or our homes but I’m also talking about the byproducts and the costs of transportation that get goods from point A to point B and something that is called EROI (Energy Returned on Investment) which is basically a ratio to compare how much energy one receives versus the energy it takes to harness the source. The following bullet points are going to hopefully explain each of the major forms of energy that we have and the problems with each one.
Now, the instant thing I hear whenever I talk about this is “Oil prices are rock bottom, how can there be shortages when it’s so cheap and we have a gigantic supply glut?” The answer to that question is shale. Shale wells are great in the short term if you overlook all the environmental damage they cause from fracking, but things get kind of squirrelly as time goes on. After the first year of production shale well outputs can drop as much as 40% and then 10%-20% every year after that. One only has to look at this graph to see what I’m talking about:
So while shale has given short term a supply glut, it’s not something that can be maintained unless new wells are discovered and exploited constantly. Here’s where the economy comes into play: shale oil is expensive to extract and most companies do not have the liquid assets on hand to finance these wells out of pocket, so like just about any other business they go to banks for loans and banks lend the money to get a return on their investment. With a glut in supply like we currently see the cost of oil is down so that means company profits are down and these loans still have to be paid or defaulted on. Banks use risk as a way to gauge if a loan is worth their while, with the price of oil so low and the oil companies’ profit margins are so thin currently; would banks lend these companies the cash to start up operations when the price goes back up? My guess would be probably not.
I don’t think that it is a secret to anyone reading this that our economy has been in bad shape for a long time. The current state of our economy has been something that has be fomenting for a long time; the actual timeline itself varies depending on the beliefs of who you talk to, some say it’s when the Federal Reserve was instituted, other say it was when the United States was moved from a currency that was directly tied our gold stores. Regardless of how it began, the current situation is this: the tools to hold our economy together, specifically the quantitative easing the Federal Reserve has been using to prop up our failing economy. None of the underlying issues that caused the great recession of 2008 have been remedied, and not just the US but the entire global economy lack the ability to respond to another crisis.
There are so many things that could trigger another crisis that they could easily take several posts of similar magnitude to do them justice; things ranging from the trillion plus dollars of student that may or may not be paid back, economies in the Eurozone failing (Greece and Spain come to mind) to service their debt, wage stagnation, the constant devaluations of major economies (see: Japan) the fluctuating prices of global commodities, the list goes on and on.
The point being that any one of these pressing issues have the ability to spiral the global economy into a situation that it is not only ill equipped to respond to, but have already expended the tools to even soften the blow of a financial catastrophe.
There is a large debate about climate change today as to if it is an actual phenomena or if it is the result of the planet going through normal warmth and cooling periods. What I say to both of these is there are pressing problems that aren’t necessarily related to climate change but have the potential to cause famine on a global scale. The first pressing issue is soil erosion. Back before tractors and other instruments of modern day farming, there were methods in place to ensure the integrity of soil; these methods ranged from letting fields lay fallow to replenish the nutrients itself, letting the unused parts of plants decompose into the soil to replenish the nutrients they extracted growing, and the decomposition of companion crops (which also in many cases kept pests from destroying these crops). Today modern day farming consists of mainly growing humungous monocultures, spraying copious amounts of pesticides, harvesting and removing all of the plants, and pumping fossil fuel based fertilizer into the ground to replenish the nutrients into the ground so that the cycle continues next year. The problem with this method of farming is that causes havoc in the natural ecosystem of the soil and greatly accelerates the process of erosion, and once this soil is gone it doesn’t matter how much fertilizer you pump into the ground, nothing will grow. It is estimated that at current consumption that we will deplete our current topsoil in 60 years, this is at current consumption.
Now take into consideration that world population isn’t shrinking and I’m sure all of these people would like to eat, so if population increases, demand increases, therefore an acceleration of that model which claims we have 60 years left (assuming that wasn’t an overly optimistic evaluation to begin with).
Now we deal with subject of monocultures, why it is a glaring vulnerability in the world’s supply of food. The biggest factors aside from the depletion of topsoil are disease and pests. One type of plant dominating a huge swath of land is a prime candidate for disease to ravish entire fields, if you don’t believe me I welcome you to read about the current corn rust problem plaguing (no pun intended) farmers today, or read about the sad history of the American Chestnut tree that was almost went extinct in the 19th century.
What would happen if a fast spreading version of current corn rust currently affecting farmers were to spread across the entire rustbelt? What if it affected wheat? While this hasn’t happened yet, I can surmise that this would cause panic on a massive scale.
Now pests, those persistent little critters that were before mitigated with the use of companion (or cover) crops which served the dual purpose of giving the insects something easier to munch on than the crops we wanted for ourselves and replenishing the integrity of the soil producing a more nutritionally sound product. The fact is and it’s no secret that insects and other pests develop immunity to conventional pesticides over time which results in the more judicious use of said pesticides. What effect does this cause the people who consume the products that contain these copious amounts of pesticides? The answer is an accelerated risk of cancer. Here is a snippet from cancer.gov:
“However, compared with the general population, the rates for certain diseases, including some types of cancer, appear to be higher among agricultural workers, which may be related to exposures that are common in their work environments. For example, farming communities have higher rates of leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma, as well as cancers of the skin, lip, stomach, brain, and prostate.”
This begs the question of why, why would we continue the use of these pesticides when we have verifiable evidence of the effects of their use? The answer is that there isn’t any other way to feed a gigantic and growing population. One can also surmise that if the feeding this population justifies this risk to the health of the world, that a system this risky is also equally as vulnerable.
What I have described here is only a brief overview of the problems that we face today and doesn’t take into account other underlying issues such as a crumbling infrastructure, climate change, geopolitical happenings, dwindling water supplies, ocean acidification, massive algae blooms creating vast dead zones in our oceans, and many others. This problem is often masked in its enormity and it is extremely difficult to distill this down into manageable talking points, other than to say that we are facing an extremely precarious state of affairs.