Not making a difference since 2006. Blog motto: Always be sincere whether you mean it or not.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Okay, is it time to panic yet?

A few days ago, oil drops a fiver, and I'm thinking an overbought market. Yesterday, up near $11 on war rumors. It's like getting whiplash watching a tennis match, except the trend is one way.

So, if an attack happens, and the Strait of Hormuz gets blocked, we shall see if the center can hold. We'll see if we can even have a center.

A few years ago, through a friend, I sort of had a writing audition for a small Western Massachusetts newspaper. I was to review a book on the then new subject of peak oil. I flunked the assignment as the editor thought I was trying to bring a tad too much humor to the task.

Now, peak oil is out there as a subject, but like global warming, how much can a non expert know. The book, Out of Gas by David Goodstein is a few years old now, but if you are a non science geek, it is a good read. Mr. Goodstein explains it so we non nerds can comprehend it.

I liked his book, but I can't say I've learned enough to make a judgment. My doubts about peak oil are not related to science, I still don't know enough to be confident one way or the other. It's a human thing. Everybody is jumping on the peak oil band wagon. Usually, that means the crowd has joined at the wrong time in my life's experience.

Out of Gas, by David Goodstein

Repent, the end is nigh. No, this time we really mean it. Sort of. You see, the world is running out of the stuff that makes it spin. Ah, but it started running out of that stuff on the day of the first gusher in 1859. Now, however, we really do have a gasoline crisis.

According to David Goodstein, author of Out of Gas, we have used up or are about to have used up half of all the petroleum that ever will be available on this planet. In a world where demand for black gold only increases, a declining supply being fought over by nations, not to mention individuals, reminds one of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Life may get interesting indeed.

Yeah, but some might say, we had those long gas lines in the seventies and a few years later, gasoline prices were lower, adjusted for inflation than ever. Still. I occasionally like to get my paranoa juices flowing. After all, I haven’t had so much fun since before the y2k scare fizzled. Who is this Dave Goodstein, another crank? Would that he were. Dr. David L. Goodstein, Ph.D is a physics prof at Caltech, which is not a school advertised on matchbook covers. His biography is a lengthy list of accomplishments. He is the real thing who, lucky for me, has the ability to communicate to primitives with an entertaining style of writing.

Doctor Dave, lays out the problem well. He recaps the now well discussed Hubberts Peak. For those who have not heard about it, geophysicist M King Hubbert predicted in 1960 that oil production in the lower 48 would peak around 1970. He was right. It has been downhill ever since. Recently, other geologists have been using Hubbert’s methods. Brace yourself. Peak is coming within this decade. It may even have already occurred.

What does this mean? It means more people competing for less oil, forever. The crisis does not begin when the last drop is pumped, but when the half way point is reached. And, what happens when such a competition begins. One thing is, the price starts to rise. Now the author avers that a steep inflation will occur as we all compete for all the various petrochemical products. I tend to agree with him, but for a different reason. Inflation does not occur when the price of one commodity, or even a set of commodities become scarce and prices rise, for in a system where the central bank could actually control itself, the prices of other commodities must decline. If past is prologue, don’t expect the fed to exercise restraint.

So, how do we replace the missing energy? Do we go to a methane economy, making up the shortfall with natural gas products? Will we actually be better off when spurred by higher energy prices, less polluting forms of enegy come into production? Goodstein looks at a lot of alternatives.

About that methane economy. The use of natural gas as an alternative for Texas Tea could be done, with some effort. The problem is that peak natural gas will come just a couple of decades after peak oil.

Okay, scratch that. What else? Well the author notes there is a lot of elemental carbon buried beneath our planet’s surface. The stuff is coal. You can even liquefy it for driving in a process that is energy intensive and expensive. Oh, there are a few drawbacks. It is very dirty and gives off a lot of waste such that if we go over to a coal economy and you eat a lot of tuna, you may be able to take your own temperature.

The good doctor also looks at nuclear. He actually likes it. As mentioned above, I am a primitive and that may explain a fear of nuclear power. I would not wish to live next to an atomic plant, nor would I wish that fate for someone else. Reality, however, causes me to realize that when the bulbs start to flicker, my countrymen and women will look at things in a different light, so to speak. Of course, I would not like to live next to a coal fired plant either. It is a dilemma we may be forced to choose, assuming we are even asked. The greenhouse gas spewing chimneys or a potential mountain of spent fuel.

There is even a peak uranium problem as if we go full bore on nuclear we have only a twenty five year supply tops. That little problem can be circumvented by building breeder reactors to change a form of uranium into plutonium and providing a lot of fuel and fissile material for electricity and bombs. Anyway, whatever help nuclear provides, it won’t work in you car.

There is a clean form of atomic power. It’s called fusion. The author discusses it and its arrival is devoutly to be wished. His comment on it and another hope, shale oil, is all we need mention, “It has been said of both nuclear fusion and shale oil that they are the energy of the future, and always will be.”

As to hydropower, been there, done that, at least as much as we can on this planet. Wind? It’s great stuff, and it has a place. Unfortunately, it does not have enough places. Photovoltaics gets a “needs improvement” on the prof’s report card. He has a lot of suggestions on space based solar and improving what already exists. All of them good ideas, but of limited utility if peak is occurring now.

Obviously, the poor man spends way to much time in the classroom and needs to get out more. Just doing a little sociology led me to an energy solution that will be cheaper than any Manhattan Project . You see, I watched the movie Super Size Me wherein Morgan Spurlock eats only at McDonalds and almost becomes poster child for save the whales. Well, Professor Chazz Weaver, an economist went on the McDiet for a month, but exercised an hour a day and lost weight. Morgan’s movie spent a good deal of time on the epidemic of obesity. He had statistics and a lot of visual evidence to prove there is a big (pun intended) problem in our homeland. actually, I kind of relished (I can’t believe I did that) his scenes of people whom the Good Lord should have never given tee shirts and shorts. My love handles don’t feel so bad.

Still, there is an energy crisis to solve, Anybody with a McDonald’s jones that shows within certain guidelines should be required to exercise on a stationary bicycle attached to a generator that is plugged into the electrical grid. The bike would measure the amount of effort necessary to use up enough calories to be of benefit to the rider. Business loves to tout the win/win solution to a problem. Heck here we have a win/win/win/win/win. MickeyD’s wins because its customers are now svelte. The environment wins because other than some panting much less CO2 is belched into the air to produce electricity. The health care system wins as there will be fewer ambulances rushing to emergency rooms. Big Mac lovers win as they will feel and be (sort of) healthier. I’ll win as I’ll be on my way to Stockholm to pick up my Nobel. Or maybe this paragraph explains why Doc Goodstein teaches Physics and I’m just hacking around here in hillbilly Massachusetts.

The question does remain, is David Goodstein right or wrong. If he is right, and we don’t have adequate fixes in place, our world, as we know it will come crashing down on us. His worst case is that 95% of us are superfluous. Volunteers? His best case is we go to methane as a bridge while working on newer technologies.

One bit of anecdotal evidence that we are responding to peak oil here in Nova Anglia is the increased sales of outdoor wood stoves. Recently, friends of mine have mentioned their purchases and have related it to getting out from under fuel bills. Now this may not be a response to declining energy supplies. It could be a reaction to the possibility that Mr. Greenspan might no longer be able to work his magic in restraining inflation. No matter. If either becomes a crisis our Saudi Arabia of wood here in the Northeast will be gone in short order. A logger friend of mine related a couplet that described Massachusetts in the 19th Century,

From Pittsfield to the sea
Nary a tree you could see.

So it could be again.

I have been reading about the peak oil crisis for awhile now. So far, most of the press has gone to people who are believers. It has taken a small effort, but I have found some who disagree. The best of the lot appears to be Michael Lynch, President, Strategic Energy and Economic Research, Inc., and Research Affiliate, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lynch is cited in the footnotes of Dr. Goodstein’s book. Mr. Lynch attacks the Hubbert Model as being inadequate and has fun pointing out that the peak crowd have been crying wolf for a while now. Most famously, he tells about Colin Campbell, one of the movement Gurus, prediciting imminent peak since 1989. From what I have read, I tend to agree more with Mr. Lynch. That is, up to point. The demand pressure is great what with the new Chinese and Indian middle classes wanting to join the ranks of car owners, but if the oil industry can react to demand by exploration and research, they may push the day of reckoning off for a few decades. If their efforts gradually reach a point of diminishing returns, that other technologies (some we may not be all that pleased with) will almost seamlessly take up the slack.

I would guess, if we are going to have a real life changing twenty-first century energy crisis, it will have a big political aspect to it. An invasion of Iran could do that trick.

For me, the most enjoyable aspect of this book was the review of junior high school science. Actually, it was science put in terms simple enough that an eighth grader could understand. Thanks Doc for coming down to my level. I know you had to travel.

Some biographical info below:
Dr. David L. Goodstein, Ph.D., is Vice Provost and Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Caltech, where he has been on the faculty for more than 35 years. In 1995, he was named the Frank J. Gilloon Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor. In 1999, Dr. Goodstein was awarded the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and in 2000, the John P. McGovern Medal of the Sigma Xi Society. He has served on and chaired numerous scientific and academic panels, including the National Advisory Committee to the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate of the National Science Foundation. He is a founding member of the Board of Directors of the California Council on Science and Technology. His books include States of Matter (Prentice Hall, 1975, Dover, 1985) and Feynman’s Lost Lecture (Norton, 1996), written with his wife, Dr. Judith Goodstein. In the 1980’s he was Director and host of The Mechanical Universe, an educational television series that has been used by millions of students all over the world.

In recent times, while continuing to teach and conduct research in experimental Condensed Matter Physics, Dr. Goodstein has turned his attention to issues related to science and society. In articles, speeches and colloquia he has addressed conduct and misconduct in science, the end of exponential growth of the scientific enterprise, and issues related to fossil fuel and the climate of Planet Earth.

Dr. Goodstein has been Caltech’s Vice Provost since 1988.

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