One thing that really bothered me while watching the Republican National Convention was when Michael Steele made the famous statement, “drill, baby, drill!” referring to the Republicans’ plan to open up more areas to oil and natural gas drilling in response to the current energy crisis. Instead of addressing the problem of reckless waste in America, the Republican solution is to use up every last drop of oil we can get our hands on. The entire world was blessed by what once was an abundance of cheap petroleum, a substance that is packed with potential energy and is extremely easy to obtain and carry around. However, we’ve managed to nearly suck our own supply dry and are in the process of sucking up what remains in the rest of the world. As a society, we only consider conservation when people are fighting us for it or when we simply can’t afford it.
The problem is that we’ve left our frugality up to the free market. When oil is cheap, we consume it like there’s no tomorrow. When oil is expensive, we cut our consumption a little bit, but assume that technology will save us and something else is going to come along to replace oil. We’ve completely invested ourselves in a way of living that assumes access to abundant and cheap energy that is easy to transport. If this energy source dries up, we’ll be in a lot of trouble and we’ll spend the rest of our lives explaining to our children that we can’t call for an ambulance because we spent 15 minutes at the Starbucks drive-through each morning, idling the 8-cylinder engines in our cars, waiting for burnt coffee that was shipped from Indonesia.
What’s ironic is that way back in 1958, M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist working for Shell Oil, predicted that the total production of Oil in the US would peak between 1965 and 1975. Production levels would hit a maximum and then decline as the oil ran out and became more difficult to get out of the ground. This proved true and led to the 1970′s oil crisis when OPEC realized they could influence US foreign policy by cutting off the supply to our increasing oil demand. Some have predicted that global oil production peaked in 2005 or that it might come as late as 2030. There’s also debate whether oil production suddenly falls off like we saw in the US or that it will gradually decrease. Either way we can be sure that we will run out of oil (or at least easily obtainable oil) and that we ought to use it wisely and prepare for a time when we won’t have it. You’ll find that we also depend quite a bit on natural gas, which faces the same problem – we’re going to hit a peak within 30 years if we haven’t already.
The worst part of this crisis is that there is no good replacement for oil. Oil is essentially years of sun, water, and carbon packed into a convenient liquid. Many of the alternatives we talk about try to essentially short-cut the oil making process.
Let’s go over some of the alternatives.
This is everyone’s favorite alternative. What they don’t tell you is that most of the hydrogen produced today is simply processed from natural gas. Once that runs out, we’d have to use electrolysis or genetically engineered organisms that process biomass. Electrolysis is very energy intensive. The energy you put into splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen is more than what you get out of it from the hydrogen produced. Typically, the processes that involve genetically engineered organisms require some sort of organic feed stock and a lot of land. We’ll get to that in the next section. What’s also problematic about hydrogen is that it’s very difficult to store and transfer. It has to be highly pressurized, opening it up to risk of explosion. Hydrogen also requires containers made from special materials because it is very corrosive and, being the smallest element, tends to seep through even metal.
Ethanol, biodiesel, biomass
Ethanol is the darling of midwestern policy makers. The hope is to replace, or mostly replace oil with fermented plants or animal waste. This sounds great until you realize that our farmers currently have such high yields because their crops are fertilized with ammonia, which is produced from natural gas. We’re essentially eating natural gas and making ethanol out of natural gas. Some studies have also suggested that there simply isn’t enough arable land in the world to supply biomass for our increasing energy needs, especially if there was no petroleum with which to fertilize crops and power farm equipment.
Another issue facing both hydrogen and bio-based energy is that a lot water is required to produce either. With bio energy, you’re limited to using fresh water, which is becoming more and more scarce. Water levels in the Great Lakes have been steadily decreasing and many aquifers in the midwest are drying up. The massive reservoirs in the Southwest are also failing to meet demand as water is shipped to LA, Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Las Vegas.
Some people have proposed converting coal into gasoline (and other fuels) using a process developed by German scientists when Hitler was gearing up for war. The US Air Force has already started using synfuels. The problem is that this will cut our 100 year supply of coal down to 30 years or fewer. It’s also very dirty as it releases tons of carbon dioxide.
Another alternative proposed is to power our cars off of the power grid. The first problem with this is that 22% of our power generation comes from – you guessed it – natural gas! The other problem is that battery technology has plateaued, even with the high demand of electronics over the past 20 years. GM keeps putting of a half-battery powered car because they can’t find the right battery that can survive extreme temperatures, keep a charge long enough, and not need to be trashed after two years of use.
The best and simplest way out of this crisis is to change how we live. Here are some quick, practical ways to get going in the right direction:
- Drive more conservatively. Slowing down (45-60mph is good), accelerating slowly, and anticipating traffic can boost fuel economy significantly. I regularly squeeze 42mpg out of my car that’s rated at 36mpg. Manual transmissions help a lot as you can shift early and coast without burning fuel.
- Drive less. The best solution is to live close to your job and shopping. Being able to walk or bike to both is best. I really suck at this, given that I drive 66 miles to work
- Go vegetarian. Meat is very tasty, but it’s also very energy intensive, compared to growing vegetables. At the very least, giving up beef — the most energy intensive meat — is a good step.
- Paper over plastic. I had a laugh when I recently read a label on a plastic bag at the grocery store that said plastic was better than paper because it was made from natural gas instead of trees. I’d rather recycle or reuse a paper bag than use up more petroleum.
- Cloth over paper. Bring a duffel bag or buy some linen grocery bags so you don’t have to use paper or plastic at the store. In Germany and Austria, Julie and I got some cool linen shopping bags with drawings of famous buildings from the cities we visited.
- Recycle. We’ve been able to cut our trash output in half by recycling paper (mostly junk mail), boxes, cans, and glass. Vegetable scraps go in our compost bin. Instead of sending food through the garbage disposal and into the river, at least put it in the trash. Most landfills convert your rotting food and diapers into electricity. One of the best ways to recycle is aluminum cans. Aluminum requires a lot of energy to manufacture.
- Consume less. Do you really need all that stuff in your basement? Do you really need to stuff yourself when you go out to eat?
- Ride the train. Airplanes get about 32 passenger miles per gallon while trains get 54. Trains offer a much more pleasant experience, especially if you travel on the East Coast.
- Eat locally. Instead of buying produce shipped from California or Peru, eat food that was grown close to you.
Oil has done tremendous things for the world. We can import goods from all over the world. We can drill water wells for people deep in remote jungles. We can have completely sterile plastic instruments and high tech equipment for medical procedures. We can visit every corner of our country and meet many different people. We’ve been able to produce an abundance of food, enough to feed everyone on the planet. We live until we’re 70 to 100 years old. We can choose where we want to work. We can take a vacation to a tropical resort.
It would be unimaginable to see all of these wonderful things disappear just because we find it more convenient right now to live in the suburbs and not have to think about conservation. We can’t gamble on technology to save us.
So you’re probably thinking, “nice, a political post right before the election.” What disappoints me is that not even Obama is willing to take the drastic steps needed to truly stop wasting oil. His proposals are really only half-measures, like promoting cars that get 100mpg by 2015. It doesn’t address the underlying problem that our current living arrangements are based on the assumption that we’ll always have the energy that we demand.
What this comes down to is how responsible are we going to be with this amazing resource we’ve been endowed with? We can’t sustain the pace we’re at. It’s time to slow down!