Saturday, June 5, 2010

How to Use Less Oil (and why we must keep drilling)

As we have learned recently, oil can make quite a mess. Nevertheless, oil is a wonderful substance. The world's endowment of oil is/was largely responsible for sponsoring many of the advancements that have brought sufficient food and longer, easier lives to many in the world. Yes, oil has also sponsored "excess", but that is in the process of correction. Oil's highest and best use is not in burning it as a fuel. As Kenneth Deffeyes said in Hubbert's Peak, someday our grandchildren will ask/exclaim, "You burned all those wonderful molecules?!"

Since about 70 percent of the oil consumed in the USA is used for transportation, "Peak Oil" is really a transportation issue (initially, at least). It would be wonderful to be able to snap our fingers and have electric car or PHEV replacements (where applicable), but the electrical storage issues are still not resolved (lithium supplies for batteries, or a new technology), so production and replacement can't yet take place on a large scale.

The bottom-line is that we must have sufficient fossil fuels as we transition. And we will have to maintain a substantial level of oil and gas exploration and development activity - in fact an increased level of activity - as the law of diminishing returns takes over on the right hand side of Hubbert's Curve. If we continue to follow what seems like the vogue path of seeking to marginalize our fossil fuels industry, Hubbert's Curve will transform into Hubbert's Cliff, with even more catastrophic results at all levels of society and the economy. Such talk and action also drives a divisive stake into the heart of our nation. Fossil fuels or "clean", alternative energy? The reality is, as we transition over the next 20 years or so we will need substantial quantities of fossil fuels AND ramped-up conservation and alternative energy sources. In 40 years we will still need fossil fuels, but far less will be available. So, we must preserve and even enhance our fossil fuel infrastructure even as we ramp up alternative energy sources and implement substantial conservation.

Currently our nation and the world have a substantial endowment of recoverable natural gas. Natural gas emits half the carbon of coal, when burned. Further, natural gas can be used directly in vehicles, with fairly easy conversions using existing technology. Natural gas can also be a carbon-neutral, renewable fuel when it is produced from waste biomass (manure, landfills, etc.). So, given the impending oil shortage (currently masked by the economic downturn), and while we wait on electrical storage advances, it makes sense to convert a portion of our truck fleet, bus fleet and our passenger cars - to natural gas. If you want to see a lot of natural gas vehicles in action, just go to Italy, or Bolivia.

In an effort to continue to try to explain "Peak Oil", and also to make the case that natural gas is a suitable transition fuel for vehicles, the following presentation was developed for and delivered to the Gulf Coast Association of Geologic Societies, at their annual convention on September 27, 2009:

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