Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Other Arrangements

If you haven't read James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, but you're interested in or worried about peak oil, check out his piece in Orion, "Making Other Arrangements." Here's the crux:

"And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production peaked in December 2005 at just over 85 million barrels a day. Since then, it has trended absolutely flat at around 84 million. Yet world oil consumption rose consistently from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to above 85 million so far this year. A clear picture emerges: demand now exceeds world supply. Or, put another way, oil production has not increased despite the ardent wish that it would by all involved, and despite the overwhelming incentive of prices having nearly quadrupled since 2001. "

This article ran in early 2007, so Kunstler's figures may be a bit out-of-date, and no doubt optimists and those with an interest in maintaining the belief that we can continue forever at our current pace have published refutations, either of the basic numbers, Kunstler's interpretation of those numbers, or both. I can't begin to keep up with the technical details, since everyone with a stake or a political or ideological ax to grind seems to have his own numbers and interpretations.

Most folks that I talk to here in the Dallas area are in Dick Cheney's camp: Petroleum prices are too high. Like it or not, ours is a fossil fuel economy. The obvious solution is to increase production. It's as simple as that. Drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, open offshore areas to drilling. That'll get gasoline prices down for a few years. In the meantime "they" will come up with solutions to our long-term energy problems.

But, as Rod Dreher points out:

"For the record, I agree with USA Today's editorial board that we ought to drill in ANWR, but that it barely make a difference in the nation's energy use.According to federal government estimates, if we started drilling today, oil would start coming out in 2018, and would peak in 2027 at -- are you ready for this? -- a whopping 780,000 barrels a day. According to the CIA Factbook, in 2004 the US was consuming 20 million barrels a day. If we had ANWR pumping at peak right now, it would meet less than five percent of our daily needs. And by 2018? Even more of a drop in the bucket, assuming we don't reduce consumption, which we almost certainly will have done by then. "

I don't support drilling the ANWR. I think the probability of environmental damage outweighs the potential benefit. More than 90 percent of Alaska's North Slope is open to drilling. Surely we can set aside and protect this great wilderness. Just because very few Americans want to go there, let alone live there, (It's just a goddamn wasteland! I seen it on TV!) doesn't mean it isn't worthy of protection. Nor does the fact that caribou have been seen hanging around the Alaskan pipeline (Hell, they like that pipeline!) mean that drilling and the associated development wouldn't damage the refuge's ecology.

As for off-shore drilling, I'm not educated enough to comment responsibly. I'll just say that I'm very skeptical given the cost and complexity. How close are we to effectively burning a barrel of oil to get a barrel of oil? Are the existing reserves large enough to justify development costs? Here's Kunstler, in The Long Emergency:

"The ratio of energy expended in getting oil out of the ground to the energy produced by that oil in the U.S. oil industry has fallen from 28:1 in 1916 to 2:1 in 2004 and will continue falling."

I really ought to check these numbers since they scare the hell out of me. Surely, I'm over-simplifying or misinterpreting. Please, somebody tell me why these numbers aren't that worrisome, that 2:1 really is a comfortable margin. Please. Or convince me that Kunstler is wrong.

Oil industry technology is progressing! We can get the petroleum more efficiently!

Yes, but as we deplete fields, oil becomes more difficult and expensive to extract. Will technology keep pace? Or will it fall behind and the ratio of energy gained to energy expended continue to slip? And what about the effect of petroleum cost on the pace of technology?

But let's be optimistic in the short term. Let's say oil producers are able to ratchet up production and gas prices begin to fall significantly. Won't consumption, which has decreased slightly due to high prices, begin to rise? So we plow ahead, of course, as does China and India, instead of making the kinds of "other arrangements" recommended by Kunstler, Bill McKibben, and others, or for that matter, any changes. Change can be expensive, painful, and frightening, and our neighbors, co-workers, and kids might think we're odd. Worse yet, we could over-react. After all, things still seem to be working. Surely "they" will do something to keep things going.

Maybe they will. The old engineer in me still has plenty of respect for human ingenuity. I know better than to assume that the currently unimaginable is impossible. Yet I also believe in physical limits, so I'm far less sanguine than market ideologues who shrug and say, "Don't worry. Market conditions will stimulate the necessary innovation," as if economic theory, a strange brew of sociology, politics, and mathematics, is anchored by the kinds of laws that form the foundation of the hard sciences.

What should we do? We hear a lot about the need for local economies and walkable communities. But how should the average suburbanite get started?

A while back, Matt asked a similar question and received some interesting comments.

In his column in Sunday's Dallas Morning News, Rod Dreher makes a few suggestions that will cause some of his conservative colleagues to turn green and rip out of their suspenders and bow ties. A sample:

"•Dramatically changing zoning restrictions to permit small retailing in residential areas, making it possible for people to walk or bike to do their shopping. Refuse to approve new housing developments unless they are designed for pedestrian accessibility to retail areas.

•Through regulation and tax-code changes, encouraging the development of local farming, so population centers can better afford to feed themselves. Similarly, discouraging the use of arable land for development.

•Government investing in expanding broadband infrastructure to make high-speed Internet access more accessible and affordable. A recent study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found ranked the U.S. 15th out of 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband performance. Offering tax incentives to companies that use the Internet to decentralize their workforce to homes and neighborhood clusters."

All well and good. But consider a composite suburban couple, the kind of folks who commute 10-20 miles every day, then come home and drive their kids all over creation. Both husband and wife work at professional jobs. In fact, they're probably corporate transplants, mortgaged to the hilt. They can't afford private school for the kids; if they move into the city, the kids will have to attend a very rough public school, the kind with gangs and metal detectors. Their home hasn't gained in value. There's a swimming pool where they might have grown vegetables. They've spent their adult years living like most everyone else at their economic level, their income growing along with their debt. But now they're seeing troubling signs, feeling that that ought to make some adjustments.

Any ideas?

Let's hope the optimists are right. Otherwise, I'm not seeing a smooth tranistion from the current fossil fuel economy to whatever lies ahead.


Matt Mullenix said...

Ideas a’plenty. More ideas, in fact, than my wife will allow me to implement. :-)

It’s no exaggeration to say that I think about this every day. But like almost all my neighbors, I am squarely in the mainstream of American overconsumption and underproduction.

Here’s what I do manage: Biking to work almost daily (8 mile round trip, an admittedly easy ride), vegetable garden (small one, but with aspirations), local focus for my hunting (I remain within 10 miles of my house for all by one week of my 6-month hunting year), general frugality (though never as frugal as I could be); and the production of a significant portion of my income (about 25%) garnered through work from the home.

For the future I’d like to gain some household energy production capacity through renewable sources---a bike generator, solar, wind. These are the things my wife is balking at currently! But like the tide, I am relentless.

I also have plans to up the size of my garden and to establish some neighborhood co-ops for spare veggies and game meat. Within my SE Louisiana neighborhood, many households maintain a small garden and have at least one hunter; these are local traditions we ought to reward.

I also contribute to a bike advocacy group centered at the university, which offers bike commuting workshops, bike corrals at public events and has successfully petitioned the city to include bike paths in several major throughways.

I believe that existing alternate technologies, especially for automobiles, will continue to expand in the market provided gas prices remain high. Engines that run on water or compressed air or homebrewed bio-fuels have been around for 100 years and would probably suit the needs of most for transport.

But I wonder if simply switching to “sustainable” fuel supplies will really save us from our over consumptive habits?

The problem with modern technology in general is that it increases our capacity for work without increasing our wisdom about what makes for good work. It promotes bad practice as handily as good practice and releases us from our natural limits. We can hardly do else but destroy our surroundings with such power. Prove otherwise, if you can…

Frugality and self-sustenance need to become American ethics once more. Is that possible? Was it only possible before because there was no other option?

I’m afraid we may have to suffer a lot worse than $4 per gallon gasoline before we become a truly conservative people again.

mdmnm said...

Nice, meaty post, thanks! I've put off commenting a bit hoping I could think of something constructive or as insightful as Matt. That isn't going to happen. For what it is worth, like you, I doubt the transition will be smooth. Too, I don't think drilling in the ANWR is an answer, if for no other reason than that we'll need those hydrocarbons in the future. Against some of my expectations, I think that we are facing "interesting times" in the Chinese curse sense. On the other hand, I remain essentially optimistic. How unexpected is it that a guy in Plano, a guy in Baton Rouge, and a guy in NM could have a conversation so easily?

p.s. "The Callings" seriously rocks.

Henry Chappell said...

Matt, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I certainly can believe that you think about this issue every day because I do as well - with increasing guilt. Jane and I have always been pretty frugal, but I'm still amazed at how much fuel, water, and just "stuff" we go through.

I can say, with satisfaction, that Jane's commute is fairly reasonable by Dallas-area standards and mine isn't too bad either - from the coffee pot to my upstairs office.

Your point about a significant portion of your income being earned through home-based work is a good one, and I have to think that economic necessity will force more folks to consider that option - something that might ultimately be good for the country. I'm thinking specifically of Mr. Berry's essay "Thoughts on the Presence of Fear."

Lately, I've developed a serious interest in rainwater capture. We often get real frog-stranglers here in spring and winter, and I see all of that fertilizer and herbicide-laden water streaming down the street, headed for the creeks. Like you, I plan to expand my vegetable garden. Even with heavy mulching I'll have to water several times a week in July and August. So why not use rainwater stored in my own tank? I suspect the lawn-Nazis in the homeowners association will have something to say about it.

I really like the vegetable and game meat co-op idea. In my neighborhood, you'd look long and hard for a vegetable gardner and even longer and harder for a hunter. Folks see the dog box in the bed of my truck and ask me if I keep animals in there.

I envy your ablity to hunt within 10 miles of home. When Maggs retires, I'll do very little quail hunting, which requies a four-hour drive at best, and concentrate on hunting closer to home with Cate.

We're in for some interesting times. Our kids and grandkids will live in a world much different than the one we've known. They may actually have to make do with less.

Henry Chappell said...

Mike, I think the whole ANWR battle has become more ideological or symbolic than practical. Although I don't support drilling, I can understand some of the more thoughtful arguments for doing so. On the other hand, it seems to me that the most strident "drill at all cost" folks are less interested in possible benefits than in simply winning the battle against the "enviros."

You're absolutely right about our being able to chat so easily. I remain hopeful but very watchful.

Do you ever wonder about the long-term effect of like-minded folks finding each other through blogs and other forms of Internet communication? I often read about the downside - the echo chamber effect and so on. On the other hand, we might end up helping each other out one of these days.

And many, many thanks for your kind words about The Callings.