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Drilling Rigs in North Dakota

I used to be a a fan of George Monbiot. His writings in The Guardian about energy and climate change may be an alarmist, but he’s one of the few voices globally bringing any attention to these issues. That being said, his most recent article (especially given mine) just struck me as utterly ridiculous. In it, he renounces the idea of Peak Oil, about which he made so much noise, asserting that there’s “enough to fry us all” left in the ground, in places like Bakken ND. Both claims are more than a little optimistic…

Monbiot’s argument, of course, is not uncommon. It is, however, often discredited, as with another good recent post from The Automatic Earth, which follows up their look at gas in Bakken with some of the numbers involved in oil extraction.

The claim that Shale oil and other “unconventional” sources are plentiful enough to replace crude oil shows a deep lack of understanding of what “Peak Oil” means. Contrary to what alarmists like to claim, it doesn’t mean we suddenly “run out”. The peak is the half-way point, after which the decline begins. When this happens it becomes very hard to expand production the way it had been in the past, prices rise and production shifts toward resources which would never have been practical before, like tar sands, oil shales and deep-sea drilling.

In the past decade we’ve seen prices rise to about five times what they had been, a virtual “gold rush” toward towns like Bakken and Ft. McMurray and a global economic collapse. That’s exactly what was predicted by writers like Richard Heinberg and James Howard Kunstler – not an immediate Mad-Max apocalypse, but the beginning of a long, painful march in that direction.

It’s easy enough to repeat the claims of Peak Oil – many people did, Monbiot included. The substance of the “peak oil” argument, though, lies in math. The most important concept here is EROI (Energy Return on Investment). It always takes some energy to make use of resources like oil – pumping, refining, etc. “Light Sweet Crude” from large reserves (ie: Texas, Saudi Arabia) can return fifty or more barrels of oil worth of energy for each one it requires. Tar Sands projects have trouble returning five, with many projects returning far less than that. Once it takes more than one barrel’s energy to pump out one barrel, there’s not much point in drilling for it. Much of this energy comes from “higher quality” sources like natural gas, required for “upgrading” the bitumen (tar) into “synthetic crude”. There have been proposals for nuclear reactors, and even underground nuclear weapons* as a means of developing these fields. Oil Shale, where the oil is embedded deep in non-porous rock, takes a tremendous amount of energy and money to release it. Also worth noting is the fact that nothing else comes close to the EROI of crude oil – nuclear, solar and wind all fall far closer to the Tar Sands.

Monbiot’s main error is to mistake financial cost for EROI, something most capitalists have been doing for the last decade. Yes, skyrocketing oil prices and new technologies make “unconventional”, previously unprofitable resources suddenly look very attractive. This is exactly what “Peak Oil” predicts. If this wasn’t happening, oil prices would be sitting comfortably in the $20-30/barrel range and wouldn’t need “upgrading”. A more nuanced look at how this all works can’t forget about the realities of global markets, which is why most of the more clever doomsayers were predicting the financial collapse of 2007-8 in incredible detail years before it happened. Nobody doubted that prices would fall once they’d helped to trigger a financial meltdown, but the important point is that they never fell back to their old levels, and have started to skyrocket again whenever a “recovery” started to show its face. What we’re seeing now could easily be described as a “Long Emergency”, what else could describe warnings from the IMF and others of imminent “lost decades”?

The other main point in Monbiot’s article is that there’s enough oil left to “fry us all”. Nothing about peak oil denies this, though things would certainly be far worse if supplies oil supplies were actually unlimited. The main fear here is that because of the extremely low EROI of unconventional oil sources, they’re far worse for the climate than traditional petrochemicals. The Tar Sands are one of the world’s largest sources of carbon emissions, and that doesn’t count the effects of actually burning the oil they produce. This gets compounded with other risks, like massive spills (Gulf of Mexico), forcible dislocations and even oil wars. Also contributing is the way these economic shocks impact renewable energy projects, often some of the first to get cut when times get tough. One way or the other, we still don’t totally understand how any of this “climate change” stuff works, and it’s entirely possible that a cataclysmic “tipping point” in emissions could already have passed.

Last month saw over two thousand heat records shattered. We’ve just witnessed another series of severe storms in the US as well as some of the worst Colorado wildfires ever recorded. Locally, we’ve seen a drought, a strangely warm winter and are now experiencing a painful heat wave. How much more must we endure before we start seriously questioning this path?

We are running out of oil. We have been running out of oil since the first wells in Petrolia, Ontario, a century ago. Since then we’ve extracted more and more each year, until things began to struggle over the past decade. The amounts we use now are stunning, as The Automatic Earth points out, a billion barrels of oil in a new field may sound like a lot, but we now use that amount globally in about 11 days (America alone in 52). Bakken, ND, may have several billion “ultimately recoverable” barrels – hardly a new Saudi Arabia. That George Monbiot is repeating these tired arguments is sad, but perhaps not surprising. After his decision to support nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster (thoroughly discredited), I haven’t been paying him much attention. If anything, this is another sorry example of how shallow analysis can be in the mainstream press, even from “good papers” like The Guardian and liberal heroes like Monbiot.

For around a year now, America has been witnessing something of a natural gas boom. Thanks to the massive production capable through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), small towns like Bakken, ND were beginning to say the same kind of explosive growth as Tar Sands hotspots like Fort McMurray. Swept away by shale gas madness, many in the business press were beginning to envision the USA as the world’s next big energy exporter, like Canada or Saudi Arabia.

Are you frackin’ kidding me? America would first need to meet its own colossal appetite for energy, which isn’t likely to happen any time soon. The very fact that people believe this could happen (and are investing a heavily in it) is a testament to how little most people understand about energy – who uses it, where it comes from, or how that happens.

America was a major oil exporter decades ago, but production in the lower 48 states peaked decades ago and has been in decline since. Anybody who doubts “Peak Oil” should take a look at these charts, as they paint a very good picture of how this can happen even in a nation as rich and technologically advanced as the US. A nation defined largely by the Texas Oilman suddenly found itself at the mercy of Arab oil embargoes with no ability to pump enough to compensate, and more than three decades of promises to “get off foreign oil” have done nothing to reverse this decline.

In all likelihood, we’re at, near, or already past this point globally. The last decade saw prices skyrocket from under $20/barrel to over $100. This brought a lot more “capacity” online which could never have been practical at former prices – deep offshore drilling rigs, mining tar sands and oil shale or warzones in the Third World. In spite of this, global production has stayed fairly steady since about 2005. This has put an enormous strain on the world’s already weak economy, leading to the only really effective form of conservation we’ve found: recessions.

Natural gas, unlike oil, doesn’t “peak” – the analogy usually used is a “cliff”. Rather than the long, drawn-out declines seen with thick, viscous oil, pressure in a gas well can drop off very quickly. When “good” wells are hard to find, oil production turns to even slower processes like the tar sands. The Gas industry has turned, instead, to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), a rather explosive process which moves much faster, accelerating the decline after an initial period of euphoria.

It now looks like that euphoria is starting to fade. Over the past few years fracking has flooded the market with cheap gas, pushing prices to a third or quarter of the price of actually producing it. Prices bottomed out in April, and the number of drilling rigs online has now sunk back to 1999 levels. This ridiculous state of affairs was driven by tens of billions of dollars invested in the dream that Bakken and others like it would become the next Fort McMurray. These investment funds have been used to sell gas at a loss, in the hopes of maintaining the illusion – in essence, a Ponzi scheme. This is the epitome of bad financial planning – as it not only prevents those funds from being used to build new rigs (or rigs in places they might turn a profit), but also because investors inevitably catch on. This process is starting to show cracks, as companies start going broke, scaling back production or finding their wells empty, putting our continent in the position for a huge price shock in the near future.

In many ways, energy has been the domain of large centralised corporations since the days portrayed in There Will Be Blood. Edison himself consciously developed electricity to be a centralized, profitable system, and we’ve seen the process repeated many times with hydro, nuclear and other new means of generation which ultimately became better engines for generating money than energy. Unfortunately, while we can print as much money as we want, energy is subject to the basic rules of thermodynamics: it has to come from somewhere, and only in finite amounts.

America’s fracking boom is in serious danger of becoming a bust. Beyond the danger of groundwater contamination, past the risk of earthquakes and leaving out the obvious consequences of burning all this gas, we must also accept the limits of physical reality. Extracting gas faster doesn’t mean there’s any more in the ground than before – only that we’ll run through it much sooner. It’s time to accept that there are no giant oil or gas fields waiting for discovery or brilliant new ways of accessing them which will solve our growing energy woes. We’ve known for a decade now that this crunch was coming, it’s long-past time to start preparing for it.

Once again, the price of gasoline is on the rise. In the past week, it’s shot up to $1.26-8 per litre around here, a rise shadowed by a few dollars a barrel raise in the price of oil yesterday. Whether these prices, along with many other markets, can continue their rapid rise from the depths of depression into some of the heights seen just before the crash is uncertain, but the rising cost of oil is without a doubt one of the most threatening factors.

It isn’t just consumers who pay for gas. Oil products play an important role in industries from agriculture to plastics, transportation, medicines and heavy construction. Everything rises with the price of oil, leaving many already-struggling folks to pay even higher rates for food, heating and transportation. Petrochemicals are the lifeblood of our industrial economy, and cutting our supply is like choking our society.

Why so high? Tensions with Iran certainly aren’t helping, but it would be utterly dishonest to ignore the rest of the world. Oil production is maxxed-out worldwide, a problem which has been recurring since the middle of the last decade, where evidence now suggests “peak oil” has probably already occurred. Despite an enormous rise in price (3-4 times where it was a decade ago, even at it’s depths), major exporters like Saudi Arabia have been unable to bring much ‘spare capacity’ online, and alternative “dirty oil” sources like Canada’s Tar Sands are far more expensive (and destructive). In spite of this, there’s been an enormous growing thirst for oil as industrial nations like ours refuse to cut back and developing nations like India and China rapidly industrialize. The Oil Drum reports that humanity just passed “500 Exajoules”, or a total of 10 times the energy we used a century ago, showing clearly that our demands on this planet are still growing.

Many had hoped that the “oil shocks” of the last decade were simply a result of financial manipulation, but it’s becoming clear that we’re going to see a repeat of this precipitous rise with every apparent step toward “economic recovery”. It will act as a brake on the world economy and only get worse as the supplies dwindle. Along with that will come increased wars over oil-rich regions, and industrial “gigaaprojects” like the Tar Sands which are beginning to span a continent at incredible costs. The added cost of both will only further burden our economy. We are entering a frightening spiral of resource depletion here, and it’s going to challenge the very way our society operates.

At what point do we stop pretending this isn’t happening?

Sometime soon, those in charge will have to choose between “they’ve been saying that for decades” and “nobody saw this coming”. The arguments levelled against “peak oil” today are little different than those which I encountered a decade ago, acting seemingly as if the last decade’s oil shocks and global meltdown didn’t happen or were somehow unrelated. Decades of policy were written based on the premise of endlessly expanding energy use, even when it became apparent that it was totally impossible.

Peak oil theories never stated that the oil would “run out” one day – just that a slight “peak” would be passed on a long plateau near the middle of our oil supply, after which it would dwindle. Smaller oilfields have always followed this bell-curve, and the sum of a lot of small bell-curves is, of course, a much larger one. After the “peak” is passed, the cost of extracting oil in those volumes rapidly rises. For a short while volumes can be maintained through much larger investment (higher prices, subsidies, frantic pumping etc), but sooner or later they will dwindle. If this theory continues to hold true, the economic shock-waves we’ve seen so far are the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, saying such things labels me an alarmist, an apocalyptic doom-sayer or simply a “nut-job”. Civilizations, we’re told, cannot end and only change for the better. If there is a problem, we’re told, our leaders will deal with it. Unfortunately, “keep calm and carry on” can only work for so long. Those in power have done nothing to suggest that they understand these problems or have any workable solutions to them – instead they’re trying more of the same, but bigger, harder, and with more power. Any real “solutions” are going to have to come from elsewhere. This issue strikes at the heart of our communities, homes and everyday lives, and that’s where resistance has to (and already has) begun. There are no easy lines between “activism” and “lifestylism” here – a real paradigm shift in the way we live requires both, and nothing less can begin to grapple with the scope of the problem here.

This year America’s collective gas bill is on track to hit half a trillion dollars. With that comes not only colossal public expenses, but crippling blows to individual finance. Some Americans are reportedly paying up to 50% of their income on their cars between insurance, repairs, fuel and other expenses. Those with the largest burden, of course, are often the poorest. A new website and project from the New America Institute is hoping to bring attention to the high cost of car ownership. The Energy Trap features personal video testimonials from all over the US talking about the time and money being devoted to people’s commutes.

This high cost is starting to take its toll (often literally). The Globe and Mail recently ran an interesting article about “Peak Cars” (RTH link), which notes that rates of driving have already been falling for some time, especially among young people. Because of the high cost of insurance, generally low incomes and already high debt burdens, it just doesn’t make sense for many young people to drive. For most younger men I know especially, it’s pretty much an either-or choice of having your own car or appartment, and I must admit that I would have trouble owning a half-decent car for less than I pay in rent. Putting this in visual and financial terms, Streamline Refinance released this ‘infographic‘ about how much commuting costs in terms of housing or how much it effectively lowers your wages. They claim a thirty mile commute is the long-term equivalent of just under half a million extra to spend on a home (after mortgage voodoo is worked out), or nearly a million if both couples drive it.

Cars provide a perfect example of how costs in our society get hidden by distribution. Governments certainly spend a lot on roads, highways and parking lots, – more than any other form of transport, and most other programs – but that doesn’t buy any vehicles. On top of the horrendous cost of roads (often tens of millions per kilometre for urban highways), there’s also the price of the cars themselves as well as their fuel and parking spaces. These costs are borne by the public, so they don’t show up on government balance sheets except as tax revenues. Instead they’re paid directly by us, or hidden in the prices of everything we buy (“free parking” at malls, trucking costs etc). Despite this illusion, the price of cars is still a very real public cost – simply paid for directly by us and not by the state.

There are, of course, a great many public costs associated with cars. Virtually every part of the industry receives massive public subsidies (oil, manufacturing, roads etc). This includes policing, the incredible increase in regulations needed for traffic management, and the criminalization of many otherwise-harmless activities like “jaywalking”. It includes health care costs related to accidents, inactivity and air pollution, as well as the incalculable price of human suffering for those affected. And then there’s the environment costs – mining, quarrying, oil extraction, roads, parking, smog, sprawl, climate change – any of these, alone, generate billions in “externalized” costs for the environment and society. Oh, and then there’s oil wars…

What this demonstrates is that demanding “jobs” or “growth” as a cure-all to economic issues can in fact lead us into traps that really aren’t economic or efficient at all. Automobile manufacturing is pretty much the primary industry in Ontario, linked by some to one out of four jobs. Taken uncritically, that’s a massive boon to our economy. But is it? We need to be wary of “progress” measured only in hours worked or money spent – neither relates directly to our welfare or quality of life. Health, safety, air quality – these things do. The more intently our economy focuses on the abstractions it creates, the more it loses focus on measuring or accounting for real world value, and the more detached and alienated it becomes.

With the decline in first-world manufacturing, most people (especially in Hamilton) are no stranger to the idea of work becoming more irrelevant and pointless. If you have any doubt that a person can be employed full-time for purposes which create next to no real-world value, I’d suggest a short stint at one of our many call centres. Complex and expensive machines like cars provide an attractive remedy to that, since they’re one of the few things we still make. Unfortunately, making pointless machines is no more useful than making pointless phone calls. Time spent building cars and roads is time which by definition isn’t spent on housing, food or medicine (all are in fact more expensive as a result). Decades of development make it fairly clear that providing a posh fleet of luxury vehicles for the wealthy doesn’t equate to feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. The last decade has shown pretty clearly what happens to the world’s poor when we try using part of our food supply (corn) to supplement our fuel supply.

It’s time to focus on our needs, and not ill-defined amorphous ways of getting them like “jobs” or “economic growth”. If we need to get from one side of town to another, there are ways of achieving that which don’t involve over a hundred horses’ power per person. There are bikes, trains, feet and buses. There are better ways to efficiently use those cars (ride and car shares), and there are far more efficient ways to build and arrange cities so a half-hour car ride isn’t necessary to reach school, work or amenities. If we need homes, let’s devote our funds and efforts toward building the best and most efficient homes possible rather than convoluted methods of financing them. If we need food, let’s grow it. If we need clothes, medicine or tools, let’s make them. Doing these tasks is “work” too, often far more rewarding than most jobs you could name (which is why so many people do them when not paid for it). If the jobs we’re working and institutions we’re relying aren’t meeting our needs, why continue to meet their demands for cash and labour?

With the growing shortages of just about any resource one can name, the environmental struggles of the past century are about to become a lot more “real”. With declining economic prospects and growing energy costs, “green living” is going to go from being a middle-class lifestyle fad into a basic demand of millions of poor people, even more than today. This is a necessary transformation if the environmental movement is to grow and evolve. Rather than asking ourselves what we can do to shame and cajole motoring suburbanites into changing their “evil” ways (cars, meat, McDonalds, Wal-Mart etc), it’s time to ask ourselves how we can help the growing chunk of society who can no longer afford to be a part of this industrial, petrochemical society. How do we help people live through the winter when natural gas and fuel oil are no longer available (Canada has already seen a fuel oil shortage, and our gas reserves are plummeting)? How do we help people get to work, school or grocery stores when they have to sell their car? If environmentalism wants to become a truly popular movement, these are the kind of questions we needs to ask. Most people don’t benefit from pollution and environmental devastation any more than we do from sky high bank and corporate profits. It’s time to stop pretending “the environment” is a separate issue from the political and economic woes faced by average people – all economic issues are ecological, and vice versa. Once we all recognize this, we may finally be able to do something about it.

Yestderday saw further falling stocks and oil price rises, in what has become a far too normal day of news. Leading the crisis was the failure of recent OPEC talks. Though price are skyrocketing (Brent Crude is now around $120/barrel), oil producing nations have been unable to increase output.

The world has been faced with a lot of economic bad news lately, and yesterday was no exception. The TSX is now down 7 days in a row. The Americans are reaching their legal “debt ceiling” and many are talking of a default. Obama is now planning for “one last stimulus” – a payroll tax cut which hopes to change sagging employment figures. There’s also big layoffs in the works at many of the largest financial institutions in the world – such as JP Morgan and Bank of America. Fears about the stability of the American, European and Chinese economies is causing many people to worry heavily about the globe as a whole.

Two key stories have come forward in the past few days that really illustrate how rotten things have become, and on what kind of scale. There’s the exploding scandal around Sino-Forest, a Chinese forestry firm listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. It appears to have been using a convoluted web of subsidiaries and a lot of imaginary trees to bilk investors for millions. Another brewing story involves the enormous African land grab by hedge funds, unearthed by a new Oakland Institute study. In 2009 these hedge funds bought up 60 million hectares of land – an area the size of France – displacing millions to grow cash crops for export.

Faith in the global economy is fading fast. With all the talk of a failing recovery and “double-dip recession”, it’s starting to become clear that this is not just like the recessions of the past. This isn’t just another correction or recession. When markets failed in the past (something that’s happened at least once a decade for most of our lifetimes), they could always turn to expansion. They could open up new foreign markets, pump more fossil fuels or take on more debt. These aren’t long-term solutions, though, and we’re running out of band-aids. Many fear that another market crash is in the near future, but the real threat is a long, grinding decline in our fortunes. What do we do if endless, perpetual growth is no longer an easy option?

Gasoline prices are on the rise again, now well above $1.33/l here and now over the dreaded $4/gallon mark down south. This is prompting all the traditional ire and rage, and it’s happened so many times in the last decade that it’s now a familiar tune. Gas companies are “gouging us” by raising prices well above actual oil prices, and keeping them high long after oil prices drop. The solution posed, of course, is to have politicians legislate the price down by going after oil companies, gas stations and speculators. Obama is now threatening to cut billions in subsidies from oil companies, to prove (as he ramps up his next campaign) that he’s doing something. but will it help?

The first question we need to ask is clear: are oil prices rising? Yes. The price of a barrel of oil now is around five times what it was a decade ago, and now twice what it was after the Crash of 2008. Is speculation a part of this? Definitely – it always is in markets. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. We’re running out, and it’s really beginning to show. Are we approaching “peak oil”? At this point, we may already have passed it.

Peak oil doesn’t mean that there’s an unmovable line on a graph that oil production must follow. It does mean, though, that maintaining this decade’s level of production (highest ever, but unable to increase much) is going to get harder and harder: ie: more expensive and more carbon intensive. It also means that the longer we stretch it out, the steeper the decline will be when we stop, since the total amount of oil left can only drop.

There is enormous political pressure, both from the public and from the private sector to keep oil prices artificially low, since oil is used in nearly everything we do and price increases spread fast. Demand is rising much faster than supply and the only way to shield ourselves from the massive price increase this is generating is to pump oil out as fast as possible. We’re relying on dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, oil sands/shale, offshore drilling, warzone oil and many other options, but all are showing many of their own problems. In the long run, it really only amounts to working as hard as possible and accepting the highest costs in an effort to get the lowest price possible. Not a wise business policy, especially when many nations rely on oil reserves to feed their populations.

Some people are now waking up to this fact. A recent paper from the NYU Law School on Integrity has stated that Government calculations on the costs/benefits are fundamentally skewed. By imposing a “now or never” outlook, they never explored the option of simply waiting. Cleaner and cheaper technologies will inevitably exist in the future, and we’ll likely be able to sell at higher prices, too. And while it’s written about America, exactly the same could be said about Saudi Arabia or anywhere else.

If we hadn’t been highly subsidizing the price of oil until now, it would already be much higher. But what would that mean? We’d already be a lot less reliant on it. We’d already be using less (which paradoxically, might mean we’d be paying less at the pump now). We’d have more bikes and solar panels, and probably be eating much healthier food. The longer we refuse to admit that oil is actually running out, the rougher that eventual transition will be. As we can now see from the volatile world economy, we’re not saving ourselves any money by going on a mad dash for the last of endangered resources, and unfortunately many of the first casualties of the 2008 crash were the same green energy programs that might have helped us deal with this.

It’s easy to pretend that gasoline and oil prices are high because corporations are greedy and corrupt. It’s absolutely true. But it’s not the whole story. We, as people, can’t fix this problem by getting angry and demanding that our leaders “fix” it. Politicians and corporations aren’t going to take us “off the grid” because there’s nothing in it for them. But every time the price of gas goes up, there’s a little less in it for us to play along.

Chris Wilson at Slate Magazine has put together a beautiful animated map which depicts the economic crisis. Where jobs are gained, he puts a blue dot, and a red one where they’re lost. The bigger the dot, the bigger the loss. The animation runs month-by month, and by the end of the three years (the present), it looks like America has been bombed from space.

How many of these job losses hit people with dependants? How many cut off benefits to a family? And how many of these people will ever be able to get jobs like these again. This isn’t just about boom-and-bust economic cycles, the fabric of our Continent’s economy is changing before our eyes. Manufacturing is disappearing, big industries are consolidating and major resources like oil and fish are vanishing.

What this most recent global meltdown shows is a “perfect storm” where all the factors lined up. It wasn’t just mischievous bankers. It was a world system which has been stretched to the breaking point. And it isn’t over. We may have put seven trillion dollars worth of duct tape on it. Not only did this piss away any savings we might have had, but it only made the basic problem – trillions in bad loans – worse. And it isn’t just money – in real economic situations – production, fishing or farming, one can often pull a lot of money out in the short term by making awful decisions in the long run (like not spending money repairing them), and live-or-die recession situations bring that out. Notice how quickly renewables spending started to dry up when auto companies needed bailing out?

Ten years from now there will be far less oil left. There will be less farmland, less trees, less fish, less ores and coal veins, much less fresh water and far more people. National debts, bolstered by the bailout, will be far more taxing on every dollar we spend. Whether the next “bubble” will “burst” because of high fuel costs, risky investing or the high cost of responding to natural and industrial disasters, it cannot be far off. If there’s one thing that went through my head while visiting New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it’s that there’s no way even America’s economy could take that kind of damage more than a handful of times. It isn’t just the cost of responding, or even the repair bill. It’s the fact that the economic systems which support such things have been levelled. To quote one guy on the Greyhound Bus going through Biloxi, “I haven’t seen anything like this since Vietnam”.

Like Katrina, and like the last recession, the worst of this will fall on ordinary people.

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