“We also have Secretary Steven Chu, my Energy Secretary. Where is Steven? There he is over there.”
– President Obama at Georgetown U last week
Blame Steven Chu, then, because when it comes to America’s energy predicament, the president has been woefully misinformed. Mr. Obama pawned off a roster of notions and proposals already product-tested in the public meme-o-sphere. Almost everyone of these ideas is inconsistent with reality, based on faulty premises, or represents some kind of magical thinking. What they have in common is that they’re ideas the public wants to hear, whether they are truthful or not, because we don’t want to change the way we live.
The central idea in Mr. Obama’s speech is that we will reduce our oil imports by one-third in a decade. This is a gross distortion of reality. The truth is that our oil imports will be reduced automatically, whether we like it or not. The process is already underway. The nations that export oil to us are using much more of their own oil even while their supplies have passed peak production and entered depletion. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Mexico have some of the highest population growth-rates in the world. They sell gasoline to their own people for less than a dollar a gallon. At the same time China and India are driving more cars and importing a lot more of the world’s declining supply. (China has perhaps the equivalent of a four-year supply of its own oil in the ground, and India has next-to-zero oil of its own).
One meme circulating around the Web these days is that the USA has the equivalent of “three Saudi Arabias” in the shale oil fields of North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. That is not true. A lot of this magical thinking focuses on the Bakken fields of Dakota. We’re currently producing less than 400,000 barrels a day out of Bakken and the projected maximum ten years from now is around 800,000. We use 20 million barrels a day in the US running suburbia, Wal Mart, and the US military. By the way, Bakken shale oil requires extensive rock fracturing operations – “fracking” – which means a lot of horizontal drilling, which means a lot of steel pipe. It is not just a matter of sticking a steel straw in the ground like we did in Texas in 1932.
Note: much of the shale “oil” in other western states is not actually oil. It is kerogen, an organic precursor to oil, in effect organic polymers that have not been subjected to enough heat and pressure to turn into oil. If you want to turn it into oil, you have to cook it – which takes energy! That’s after the mining operation to scoop it out of the ground. That takes energy too. Or, you can send machinery into the ground and cook it in place. That takes energy, too. We are not going to get oil out of there anytime soon – and perhaps never.
The “drill drill drill” gang is under the impression that North America has vast unexplored regions where oil is just begging to be discovered. This is not true. The New York Times reported after Obama’s speech – in a disgracefully dumb story by Clifford Krauss – that the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast contain 3.8 billion barrels of oil. Really? Hello! The US uses over 7 billion barrels of oil every year. Does the Arctic National Wildlife refuge contain between 4 and 11 billion barrels (US gov estimate)? Great, that averages out to about a year or so of US supply. And I’m not even against drilling there, only against the idea that it represents a meaningful “solution” to our problem.
Meanwhile, the old standby Alaskan oil fields at Prudhoe Bay are depleting so remorselessly that there may not be enough flow in a year or so to move the oil through the famous pipeline.
How about Canada’s tar sands? Well, first of all, they belong to Canada, not us, unless we want to change that – and that could be politically messy. The tar sands will never produce more than 3 million barrels a day. The operations are already too huge, costly, and damaging to the northern watershed. Canada is our number one source of imported oil, but China would also like to buy Canadian oil. Are we planning to invoke the Monroe Doctrine to prevent Canada from selling its oil to parties outside the Western Hemisphere? That could be messy, too.
Mr. Obama returned to the popular theme of bio-fuels. Our initial venture into this area was the ethanol fiasco which, predictably, took more energy to make than it produced, and had disastrous effects (still does) on corn commodity prices – in effect stealing from the food supply in order to drive to the Wal Mart. The next venture will apparently be in algae. We’ll discover (once again) that what works as a science project doesn’t scale to run millions of cars.
Mr. Obama told the nation that we have a 100 year supply of natural gas. (The moronic Larry Kudlow of CNBC told his audience it was 300 years). Neither of them knows what he is talking about (and evidently Energy Secretary Chu doesn’t either). So far, proven reserves of shale gas amount to about a 4 to 6 year US supply at current rates, and total natural gas reserves – including conventional gas, the kind that doesn’t require fracking – amounts to about a 12 year supply. The idea that we are going to ramp up an entire natural gas fueling system for America’s tractor-trailer trucks is an absurdity.
Ditto the notion that we are going to electrify the US auto fleet.
Here’s something to chew on: we run about 250 million cars in the USA. Let’s say we ramped up an electric vehicle fleet of 10 million cars – which, by the way, is a purely hypothetical and wildly optimistic number. Do you think it might be a political problem if 10 million lucky Americans get to drive electric cars while everybody else either pays through the nose for gasoline, or can’t even afford to own a car anymore?
There are a few things you can state categorically about the US energy predicament and the national conversation we’re having about it – including the leaders of that conversation in government, business, and the media. One is that we are blowing a lot of green smoke up our collective ass. None of these schemes is going to work as advertised. The disappointment over them will be massive and probably lead to awful political consequences.
Another is that we are ignoring the most obvious intelligent responses to this predicament, namely, shifting our focus to walkable communities and public transit, especially rebuilding the American passenger railroad system – without which, I assure you, we will be most regrettably screwed ten years from now. Mr. Obama had one throwaway line in his speech about public transit and nothing whatever about walkable neighborhoods.
The reason for this obvious idiocy is that it’s all about the cars. That’s all we care about in the USA, the cars. We can’t get over the cars. We can’t talk about anything except how we’ll find magical new ways to run all the cars. This is a very tragic sort of stupidity and if we don’t change our thinking about it, from the highest level on down, history is going to treat us very cruelly.
A special shout-out here to The New York Times, whose abysmal reporting on these issues, once again, is due to their reliance on a single source: the IHS-CERA group, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the paid public relations auxiliary of the oil industry, led by that mendacious sack of shit Daniel Yergin, whore-in-chief.