Sunday, May 04, 2008

Worried about energy? You should be

Kennebec Journal
April 6, 2008

Lenny Reich

As if you didn't know, the prices of gasoline for your car, diesel for your truck, and heating oil for your furnace have been going up.
So, it's not surprising that pressure is mounting on the federal government to do something -- draw on the 700 million gallons of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or give the go-ahead for drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, or force countries like Saudi Arabia to sell us more oil, or maybe all of those and a few other things besides.

The White House has felt the pressure from many directions. Consumers, producers, truckers, retailers and farmers, not to mention service providers like restaurants, lawyers and movie theaters depend on cheap fuel to keep themselves and their customers warm and mobile. Expensive fuel is very bad for business, and members of Congress have urgently carried that message to the White House.

Acknowledging our pain but resisting calls for action, President Bush recently responded to the pressure by saying that it would be wrong for him "to provide false hope to people who think that [the government is] going to be able to have an immediate impact to reduce gas prices. This is something that we're all going to have to work through."

I don't know about you, but that didn't make me feel better.

We need to have affordable oil products because we depend on them every day -- from heating our homes and workplaces, to powering all kinds of equipment, to running our cars, trucks, snowmobiles and jet planes. Oil is energy-rich and easy to store and transport. Other than a few years in the 1970s, oil has always been cheap and readily available.

Until now.

So, what can we do? Unfortunately, the problem is so big that none of the "likely suspects" will work -- not wind turbines or solar cells, not nuclear, shale oil, hydrogen, ethanol, biodiesel or hybrid cars; not drilling for oil in the deep ocean or in places now off limits because of environmental restrictions, not new refineries or just about anything you want to name.

Why not? Because none of these provides what's needed: large scale and short lead time.

OK, what scale is required? Consider that the U.S., with 4.5 percent of the world's population, consumes about one quarter of the world's oil production. That's 5.5 times the world average per person. To put it in simple terms, we are energy hogs. About 10,500 gallons of oil per second -- every second of every day -- streams into the national fuel tank. Replacing even a tenth of that would be a gargantuan task. What about half of it? What about more?

So, why is this problem becoming apparent now? Are we running out of oil?

No, we're not. However, we are running out of cheap oil and certain supply. Oil is getting more expensive to find and to produce because the large fields in easy-to-access places got tapped first.

Now we have to go after the rest. World oil production has been stagnant at around 85 million barrels per day for almost three years but demand continues to rise, putting upward pressure on prices. Supply is stretched very thin, and any problems in the oil fields, the shipping lanes or the refineries can cause supply interruptions and price spikes.

Unfortunately, the long-term situation does not look any better. We need time to bring projects to fruition, time for the projects to have large-scale effects and time to make changes in our lifestyles, our economy, our attitudes, and our expectations. Finding ways to replace diminishing oil supply is a long-term problem and will require long-term solutions.

In the meantime, the world's daily oil production will slowly decrease and prices will inevitably go higher. That probably won't happen tomorrow, but it will happen. The only questions are whether oil production will increase before it begins to decline, when the decline will begin and how rapid it will be and how fast prices will rise.

Lenny Reich is Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Colby College and a resident of Belgrade.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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