Crude Awakening

I took a couple of hours last night when I should have been working and instead watched Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, part of The Sundance Channel project, “The Green.” The documentary provides a solid overview of a topic that I believe is going to be the next global warming, both in terms of the far-reaching effects and also in how ineffectually we deal with them. Like global warming, the idea of peak oil–that at some point demand will outstrip supply, that there is a tipping point beyond which we can no longer rely on oil as the central engine of our economy–has been around for years. In fact, no doubt through the efforts of various lobbies and think tanks, it’s developed somewhat of the same patina as global warming: you almost have to be a crackpot to believe in it. The weird thing is, it’s not a theory–no belief is required. The idea that a finite resource with unchecked demand will at some point become scarce and expensive is, in addition to being day one of Economics 101, just a logical fact. The only question is when. A significant portion of the movie is spent on this, and by all accounts it’s going to happen for sure within the next hundred years, most likely in the next 50, and quite possibly in the next 20. We’re already feeling the effects today, despite serious continuing efforts on the part of the oil industry (of which the U.S. government is currently a business unit) to shield us from this reality.

I’ve blogged about peak oil in the past, and what continues to fascinate me about the prospect is that it truly represents an inversion of what we in America have come to think of as the way of the world. We believe that (and I say this because we certainly act as if) we can grow and innovate our way out of anything. This is another tautology (like the fact that a limited resource eventually runs out): capitalism demands growth. As we define it, capitalism is growth. The way to solve any problem is to work harder, make more, “leverage” our resources, get bigger, achieve economies of scale, and so on. This is what we believe. And we also tend to believe that we’ve accomplished this for the last 100 years purely through ingenuity and the sweat off our brows. In fact what we’ve been doing is living like global trust-fund kids–cashing in an inheritance to buy lots of pretty toys, have some exciting adventures, and generally engage in a whole lot of showy, meaningless, masturbatory games (a.k.a. Western culture). That inheritance, the dead relative writing all the checks, is oil. That oil represents the captured and condensed energy of thousands of years of solar radiation and millions of years of tectonic activity. That oil is not replaceable, not literally in terms of the hydrocarbons themselves, nor theoretically in terms of the energy they provide.

I had the opportunity to bring this idea up to a real live futurist a couple of years ago. I managed to catch Bruce Sterling’s attention at the SXSW closing party, and I asked him if the “oil problem” wouldn’t begin to sort itself out after peak oil. I figured a guy who so often talks about radical change would be interested in what would happen in a world where oil prices started hitting the steep part of the hyperbola (in case the image doesn’t come quickly to mind, the hyperbola is the curve that never comes back down). He wouldn’t take the bait. So maybe even bright greens don’t want to talk about peak oil. Certainly $300/barrel crude is going to cut into the fun of building fabjects out of quick-curing polymers.

The movie throws around some interesting, if dodgy, statistics. By far the most optimistic one is the idea that we could cover half the state of California with solar panels to provide for the current energy demands of the United States. Sounds ridiculous at first, but if you think about it, this is within an order of magnitude of the total coverage of pavement in the U.S. So if the solar energy industry grew (hey, look, we can grow our way out of this one too!) to just the size of the paving industry, we might be okay. That’s an over-simplification, of course, but it’s at least a scale we can deal with. But how long have we been laying down pavement? And unfortunately solar panels, like pavement, require a lot of petroleum to make. Crap. As the movie points out, if we tried to replace oil with the only other high-density energy source we have at the moment–nuclear fission–all the known nuclear fuel deposits would be depleted in about 20 years at current rates of growth and consumption. Double crap.

On a technical level, I wish they had spent more time on two subjects: hydrogen and coal. As far as I’m concerned, hydrogen can never get too much debunking. We really, really need to get this straight. Hydrogen is not oil. Hydrogen is electricity. Hydrogen is not a source of energy, not a resource; it’s a medium for energy transport. You have to make (technically liberate) hydrogen, and that making represents a net consumption of energy from other sources. I don’t get how we’ve missed this, since it’s the most basic kind of thermodynamics problem. The movie does, however, explain why we’ve been sold this bill of goods called hydrogen (and also why we’ve been so willing to buy it): transportation. We’re a transportation society. Nothing happens in our society that isn’t transportation. Literally. It’s another tautology: if it doesn’t involve transportation, we don’t think of it as having happened. Unless you’re lucky enough to be sitting on the beach receiving free WiFi at the moment, if you stood up and looked all around you’d see roughly 1000 items in your field of vision. Each of those 1000 items traveled roughly 1000 miles to get to you. Each of the manufacturing and transportation system responsible for generating and delivering those items to you relies on roughly 1000 other processes of manufacturing and transportation to do their work. Somewhere between the second and third degree of separation, just the room you’re sitting in required approximately one billion miles of transportation to reify. According to the movie, greater than 95% of all transportation energy comes from oil. The reason for this is obvious: liquid fuels are the only energy sources dense enough to power modern transportation equipment. Try to imagine a wood-burning automobile or a coal-fire airplane… it’s impossible. From a political and economic perspective, this is why we need hydrogen, no matter how far-fetched and misguided the idea of a “hydrogen economy” really is. There is simply no way to maintain our economy without high-density liquid fuels. The unsuitability of hydrogen as an aircraft fuel is just one flaw in the hydrogen plan for maintaining “business as usual.” The big problem is, where do we get all the hydrogen?

The really glaring omission, from a how-bad-is-all-this-likely-to-get perspective, is coal. I’m not sure it’s mentioned at all in the movie. This is strange because coal is exactly how we’re most likely to pad the energy budget in the short- to mid-term. It’s not dense enough for transportation, but it works “great” for generating electricity, and in a post-peak world it might even start looking “good” again for heating purposes. The reason for all those quotes is that this is a horrible idea. Even Texas has to think twice about installing new coal-fired electric generating plants; that’s how bad they are–even red states don’t want them. But ultimately we may not think we have a choice. Given the demands China and India (everyone continues to assume Africa will never get its act together enough to join the party) will put on petroleum in the next 20 years (hey, it’s a free market), I think coal is going to come to be seen as the “stay the course” approach for America’s energy problems. Coal, after all, has a strong lobby, and we have plenty of it right here in the U.S.–all you have to do is blast off the top of a mountain in West Virginia. Hell, they won’t even complain. Much. This is shaping up to be a serious problem post-peak oil. If we really do try to cushion the free-fall with coal, the environmental and human costs could be worse than what we’ve seen from petroleum.

I have several other complaints about the movie. The tone wavers between overly-dramatic and overly-pedantic. Some of the speakers are ill-chosen. The presentation of the guy sitting in his Y2K peak-oil bunker, while perhaps cinematic, comes across as particularly undermining. Yet presumably his is the agenda most in line with the typical viewer–personal and family-level survival in the world of peak oil has to be the top priority for most of us. And yet there are two possible approaches that come out of this: sit in your bunker and let the rest of the world burn, venturing out occasionally for the bare necessities (American foreign policy in a nutshell), or, and I’m really going to think outside the box here for a second, fix the fucking problem. Unfortunately, the movie also makes the classic Casandra-style mistake: predicting doom and gloom without providing any hope for solution. This is exactly the rhetorical mode humans, perhaps Americans in particular, find least appealing–we simply can’t cope with bad news that lacks a massive dose of cognitive Splenda to cover the bitterness of reality. We shut down; we go into denial. In fact, the news has been so bad for so long that we no longer enter and leave denial: we inhabit it. Denial is the name on the door of our bunker, posted right above the sign “protected by Smith & Wesson” (I am, in fact, describing my own bunker here as well).

I strongly recommend this movie. If peak oil isn’t on your radar, this is a good introduction. Even if you’re relatively up to speed on the idea, this movie illustrates some concrete examples of localized peak oil experiences (Texas and California for two domestic ones, but also Venezuela and Azerbaijan, which didn’t “grow past” peak oil quite as effectively–even Saudi Arabia seems to be on the down slope). I’d suggest fixing yourself a stiff drink during the opening (the whole “blood of the Earth” thing is a bit much). If it helps to get through the rest, imagine this is all happening to someone else–the average Saudi, for example, who already lives about 40% below what we consider to be the poverty line.

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