Fossil Fuels Aren't Forever
By EV World
In light of Chevron's recent announcement of the discovery of a potentially large reservoir of petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico, more than five miles below the surface in 4,000 feet of water, it seems appropriate that we ‘podcast' Congressman Bartlett's address at George Washington University last May during the Sustainable Energy Forum's Peak Oil and the Environment conference.
The impression given in the media is that Chevron's discovery not only casts doubt on the theory of peak oil but also will help secure America's energy independence. Neither is true given the U.S.A.'s voracious appetite/addiction to oil, some 20.5 million barrels a day. Neither ANWR nor the new Gulf of Mexico field will significantly impact either the price of oil or reduce the nation's dependence on imported oil. It only buys the nation weeks not years of additional oil, the burning of which only aggravates the problem of global warming and climate change, not to mention the other pollutants it pumps into the atmosphere and dumps into our watersheds and water tables.
Jack No. 2 isn't America's savior, no more than are the oils presumed to be in the strata underlying the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Now, Congressman Barlett.
The Republican Congressman from the western district of Maryland began his nearly 30-minute address by candidly wondering if he was just "preaching to the choir" when it comes to the subject of peak oil. He told the audience made up of some of the nation's top environmental and energy researchers that he began questioning the sustainability of oil production 30 years ago.
Fossil fuels "are obviously finite," he said. "What does that mean. Does that mean ten years, a hundred years, a thousand years? Obviously, they aren't forever, so what does that mean?"
He alluded to the speech he gave at the ASPO USA meeting in Denver, Colorado in the Fall of 2005 in which he questioned the rationale for trying to find ways to fill the gap between declining oil production and rising demand. Just as we note in the opening, Barlett questioned why we would want to continue contributing more and more carbon dioxide by the burning of fossil fuels from natural crude to the synthetic (coal-based) kind?
"We are developing a bigger addiction to oil…and bigger withdrawal symptoms…"
He quoted Secretary of State Rice who recognized that the "rush" to secure energy is "warping" international diplomacy and relations. Then he cited a joint letter from 30 of the nation's leading policy and security analysts -- including top-ranking generals and admirals -- to the President warning of the consequences of our over-dependence on oil. He noted that Americans represent one out of every 22 people in the world, yet we consume twenty-five percent of the world's oil.
He asked, "Have you ever asked yourself the question what is so special about us that this one person out of 22 has a fourth of all the good things in the world? I think it's productive to reflect on that. If we can figure out how we got here, then maybe we can figure out what we have to do to stay here. That‘s going to be a big, big challenge."
He explained that according to a recent Army Corp of Engineer's report that if America had to live just on its own oil reserves, we'd run out of oil in just over four years. [Combining the forecast reserves of ANWR and the new Gulf of Mexico field might extend this to 6 or 7 years.]
He pointed to a chart that displayed a comparison of the energy use of various nations plotted against their GDP and happiness. He said that American's would likely feel as good about their lives as nations using half the amount of energy we use on a per capita basis.
"There are at least a dozen countries up there [on the chart] that use half the energy we do and feel better about their quality of life than the average American."
Despite being a Republican, the Maryland Congressman, leveled blame squarely on the shoulders of Ronald Reagan for squashing efforts to deal with America's peak oil moment that occurred in 1970.
"In a very real sense, we've blown the last 26 years", he said, "because we knew darn good and well when Reagan came to office that we were on the down slope of Hubbert's peak and instead of an appropriate response to that, the response was let's encourage drilling because there obviously is an infinite supply of oil there. Just give our oil companies a profit motive and they'll go out and find more of it. There was more drilling, but there wasn't much more oil found. As a matter of fact, I think in 1982 we used more energy drilling for oil than all the energy we'd ever get from the oil we found in 1982."
He garned applause for questioning the wisdom of exploiting the oil underneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the interest of national security when it will do so little for us today and will leave nothing for future generations.
"Every day, it becomes more and more valuable," he said, "Let's leave it there."
Carrying on this theme, he criticized as "unconscionable" the enormous debt transfer -- as well as energy deficit -- we are passing on to future generations.
"What could be more selfish?"
He took strong issue with the illogical forecasting methods used by the US Geological Survey to predict how much oil is left to be found, which indicates that there will be another 2 trillion barrels of oil yet to be pumped.
The problem is, he emphasized, one of compound growth. A modest 2 percent annual rate of growth represents a doubling of demand in just 35 years.
"What everybody has been focusing on is how to fill that gap [between steadily climbing oil demand and gradually declining production]. I am not sure that we ought to try to fill that gap for a couple of reasons. If CO2 is contributing to climate change, why would we want to make that worse to fill in the gap? And also almost all of the resources, the ones that we would use to fill the gap come from fossil fuels."
Bartlett is a strong supporter of nuclear power. He indicated that opponents may be open to it as an alternative to "shivering in the dark". He is more skeptical about hydrogen since he recognizes that it is an energy carrier and has to be created from some other primary energy source.
"I suspect that a lot of people believe that the hydrogen economy is going to save us, that it is an energy source. Why even talk about hydrogen if it will always take more energy to produce hydrogen then you get out of it?" he asks rhetorically.
For two reasons, he asserts. "When you use it, the only byproduct is purified water and it's non-polluting... as long as its made from things like wind and solar. If it's made from coal, it's no longer non-polluting. The second reason is that if used in a fuel cell -- assuming they can be manufactured economically -- you use the energy of hydrogen twice as efficiently as in a reciprocating engine, producing electricity and heat."
He cautioned, however, that it is his understanding that if you "waved a magic wand" and converted every car on the road today to be powered by a fuel cell, you would have used up all the world's platinum for all time.
He pointed out that the industrial revolution was "sputtering" because of its dependence on charcoal and suddenly took off with the adoption of coal and later oil and natural gas. World population growth also started to grow more rapidly in lockstep with the growth of fossil fuel energy use.
"In another 100, 150 years we will be through the age of oil and gas and coal. What then?" he asked. Instead of maturely asking how we can use this vast, wonderful resource of fossil fuels to the most good, for the most people, for the longest period of time, humanity acted like a bunch a kids who'd now discovered the cookie jar and "just pigged out."
"We're continuing to do that with no thought of the future."
Bartlett observed that 85 percent of all our energy comes from fossil fuels and that they are finite. At some point soon we're either going to have use less or find other sources and use them more, but at the moment only about 2 percent of our energy comes from infinitely renewable sources.
"I am a big fan of solar. I have a home in West Virginia that is totally off the grid. But the reality is, we have a long, long way from solar and wind… making any meaningful contribution."
He said that half of our renewables are made up of hydroelectric power and the U.S. "peak out" in this category, having already tapped the best sources.
Summing up, he said he is optimistic that we will get through the problem of peak oil, but that it will involve a commitment similar to that experienced by our parents and grandparents in World War Two. And it needs to have government leadership combining the technical and political urgency of the Apollo Moon project and the intensity of a Manhattan project.
"With a program like that, I think we may make it through. Minus that I think we're in for a really rough ride."
You may listen to Congressman Bartlett's entire address using either of the MP3 players to the right or by downloading the file to your computer for playback on your favorite MP3 player. URL: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/sef06_rbartlett.mp3.