12 August 2008

Peak Oil and the President: An Energy Plan I Can Vote For

By Chris Heuer

Here’s a joke about America’s Energy Plan for you: A guy walks into a bar filled with average Americans and randomly asks them if they’ve ever heard of global warming (and the potentially serious impact it could have on future generations of human beings all over the world).

Of course,” almost everyone replies. “I saw An Inconvenient Truth! I know all about…

Have you ever heard of peak oil?” the guy asks, interrupting them all.

Practically nobody has, and that’s the joke.

If you don’t get it, don’t feel bad. As recently as last April I wouldn’t have gotten it either. Oil has been around my whole life. I have never had any reason to question its presence or potential absence. Yes, there were dim and then more urgent warnings in the background, but these were always related to pollution, to environmental devastation. And after all, I’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth too.

I never thought that worldwide oil production might peak in my lifetime. I never thought about what would happen if it did peak and then remained flat while worldwide demand for it continued to rise. And I certainly never thought about what might happen if worldwide production entered terminal decline in the midst of that overwhelming demand.

Then a friend of mine told me what peak oil was all about, and I haven’t been able to look at anything in the same way since. I can’t look at the furniture in my living room without trying to calculate how much oil went into its manufacture and transport. My bookcase, for example, is made out of the wood of an old barn (I recycled and did my part to save the environment, yay me!) but how much gas did the carpenter burn driving out to the site of that old barn to load the two by fours into the back of his pickup truck? How much electricity did he burn cutting the wood with his table saw? My television, this laptop, how many barrels of oil? My easy chair, my front door, its lock, my son’s plastic swing, the light bulb glowing in my lamp? The entire townhouse I live in, the city I live in?

How much oil?

I’m from Wisconsin, land of row upon row of corn green and wheat yellow in the summer. How much diesel (derived from oil) to power the tractors to plow and harvest the fields? How much more to transport the kernels and grain to the trucks and boats and planes that take it all over the world?

How much mass starvation if oil hits three hundred, four hundred, or five hundred dollars a barrel? You can maybe put a solar panel on the roof of a tractor’s cab to run some of the air conditioning, or the radio, but can that solar panel drag a plow? How much oil goes into the production of a solar panel, anyway? Or a wind turbine? How much oil to mine the metal that makes a propeller blade?

I’m not an energy expert, so I need to know the answers to these questions. Because there are things that I just don’t get. John McCain wants to build nuclear power plants. Barack Obama wants to temporarily tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to bring down gas prices. How much oil does it take to mine and transport an ounce, a pound, a ton of uranium? If you release a million barrels of oil from the Reserve, how many barrels of oil does it take to fill it back up again, especially if (and probably when) gas prices go back up a few months or a year from now?

I don’t know if this is going to amount to much, but I’m not going to vote for the guy who can’t or won’t answer this stuff. And for what it’s worth, I’m going to tell my wife and everyone else I know not to vote for him, either. I want both candidates to discuss their views on peak oil on public television. I want them both to tell me what they plan to do if the peak is five years off, twenty, or if it occurred five years ago. “America is addicted to oil” doesn’t cut it anymore… that’s like saying human beings breathe oxygen and water is wet. “I’ll get America off foreign oil in ten years” isn’t good enough for me either. I don’t care if oil isn’t going to entirely vanish tomorrow. I want a president who plans—and acts—as if it will.

Did you know, for example, that algae holds great promise as a third generation biofuel? What do our candidates think about that, and how will they scale up production beyond a few demonstration plants? Does either candidate have a plan for creating hydrogen production facilities that run on renewable power? How about installing an infrastructure to transport and store hydrogen so our cars and trucks and tractors can run on it… without relying on petroleum? How do we rebuild our electric grid so that plugging in our hybrids five years from now doesn’t black out an area the size of Los Angeles?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But my President has to. If the era of cheap and easy oil is over, the political era of cheap and easy promises is over, as well.

Originally posted on DeafDC.com, reposted here with author's permission.  © Copyrighted material. This article cannot be copied, reproduced or redistributed without the express written consent of the author.

Photo added by EcoDeaf from here.


  1. Ever heard of the Green River Formation?

    There is about 1.5 trillion barrels of recoverable oil down there, enough to make the USA the new kingdom of oil for the next 200 years. By comparison, the world had consumed over 1 trillion barrels of oil since the oil was discovered in Pennsylvania.

    That is a LOT of oil. Drill here, drill now. ;)

  2. Hi Rob (Chris Heuer here, I'm not having much luck creating a Google account so I'm replying under the Anonymous option):

    My understanding is that peak oil isn't just about how much oil is still in the ground, it's also about worldwide infrastructure for pumping it (or mining the oil shale in the case of the GFR), refining it, etc. It's about EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested). Oil shale needs to be heated to extract the oil... it can still yield a positive EROEI balance, but it takes a lot of energy, and therefore much more scale-up and production, than conventional light sweet crude production does. It takes a long time to build that infrastructure. So if worldwide peak oil was in 2005, we're going to have to make use of an ever-shrinking petroleum base to build everything we need to exploit unconventional oil sources. To put this in perspective, after Katrina damaged a lot of Gulf oil production, gasoline shot up above $3.00 a gallon in this country for the first time since the '79 oil embargo (I'm pretty sure, anyway). Currently oil is at $116 a barrel, down from $145 a month or so ago, but it climbs at even the slightest hiccup in delivery disruptions. This is already happening while the world is working almost as hard as it can to produce 85 mbpd. Imagine what would happen to prices if 85 million barrels per day aren't immediately available anymore for a variety of reasons (refining capacity, infrastructure shortages, etc). How will we scale up oil shale mining when diesel is $8-$10 dollars a gallon? And remember this would be an operation spread out over several years--it's not like we're just going to drill a mine, get the shale out, and it goes to the pumps all in the space of a few weeks.

    Just saying.

  3. Rob,

    Oil shale is not such a simple solution. It is expensive to recover and will require lots of water, which is not good since fresh water is also another resource we are running low on. Also, this does not do anything towards lessening our impact on climate change.

    I hope we are able to innovate and lead the way to change in time, for the alternative clearly is for our petroleum based economy to crash and go through the second Great Depression.

  4. Am learning quite a bit from everyone here, thanks. Oil isn't my forte, but whoa, its unbelievable how we've built our entire lives around our dependency on oil.

    Tyson, the only alternative than actually changing is a second great depression? Very true. I'd vote for you. Scare everyone off oil! :)

    I'm truly hoping Obama is going "easy" with the energy plan he's proposing only because he doesn't want to lose the conservative voters - and once he's in office, he'll push hard and fast for our independence from oil.

  5. Also, Rob, my apologies, I meant to say "(GRF)" in my reply above (Green River Formation) and not "(GFR)." Typo. Having problems editing.

  6. This is great information. Just like Raychelle, oil isn't my forte, but I'm not an ignorant of it, yet as much as I can - I try to stay alert & be aware of what's going on and also learn how/what I can do something to reduce the usage. Thanks for the article & the additional comments!

  7. There's plenty of oil in the bellies of fat Americans. We just need to force everyone to get liposuction, then render all that fat they suck out.