So the Romney campaign has released its energy plan. It looks a lot like the things envisioned by Reagan a political generation ago–lots more drilling on federal land, no nod to conservation or global warming, subsidies for alt energy like solar and wind killed. It’s different from Obama, but not markedly different–Obama is hardly a greenie, having helped BP cover up the true damage from the Deepwater Horizon mess, for example. And Obama has approved the XL pipeline boondoggle, a move that makes it easier for big oil to sell its wares to China. The pipeline also provides an impetus for the shale oil boondoggle in the US and Canada. So absent an alternative, most voters will vote for one of the two major candidates and hope things don’t get too bad.
Larger problem–most people in the US are delightfully uninformed (and incurious) about where their energy comes from and how much of it is left. There are plenty of writers on the subject, but it barely gets a nod in most media. In 1956, M. King Hubbert, one of the most renowned geologists in the oil business, gave a speech that made him the topic of ridicule for the rest of his life. Hubbert had looked at the trend lines of his industry–year of exploration, year of first oil well, year of depletion for oil fields, year of falloff in production. Based on historical data going back to the first oil strike in Pennsylvania, Hubbert saw that new discoveries of oil were declining in the US and worldwide, even as demand for oil continued to climb. So just as Pennsylvania had peaked and production had fallen several years after the first discoveries, so would regional and national production. Ultimately, the oil production worldwide would peak as well–Hubbert thought it might be as early as the 1990’s. “peak” by the way, does not mean we run out–it means that we’ve gotten out half the world’s oil. But the disclaimer here is that it would be the half easiest to find. And the harder oil is to recover, the less value it returns on the great ‘energy return on energy invested’ scale (EROEI or sometimes EROI). The close-to-the-surface fields in Texas and the Middle East returned upwards of 100×1 on drilling; once you sink platforms in deep water or put them in places off the transport grid, the return is much less. here’s an article on how various energy sources stack up. Oil from the Chevron ‘Jack II’ field may well return less EROI than wind turbines.
And speaking of Jack II, Americans are completely innumerate when it comes to estimates about peak oil being a hoax because of discoveries in deep water or in the Bakken fields. Jack II (the whole field) may have 15 billion barrels in it (it’s more likely that half that is recoverable there). The world uses 30 billion barrels of oil every year, so even if you could pump out everything from Jack II, it wouldn’t cover what the world uses in four months. And a find of seven billion doesn’t replace Cantarell, the world’s second largest field (in the Gulf of Mexico). It is in decline right now, losing as much as 15% a year. Mexico may not be in the oil-export business in a few years, a fact that has big implications for both the US (which needs to find other oil) and Mexico (which uses the profits from PEMEX to balance its books).
Again, Americans are really incurious and easily mislead about their prospects in the energy future–this is especially disconcerting when we realize that though the US has less than five percent of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the world’s oil. But our domestic supply right now is around 6.4 million barrels a day–we burn some 20 million barrels (or around 25% of world supply). There are obvious economic ramifications to sending billions of dollars out every day so that we can keep our A/C at 68 degrees in August.
Larger problem: the Obama plan doesn’t do nearly enough to get us to an energy independent future. The Romney plan does even less. And if we really are in a world where energy growth is impossible, we have reached the end of growth itself.
Postscript–this essay has been corrected for some minor errors on spelling and an incorrect number–I stated that world oil use was 30 billion barrels a DAY. It’s actually around 30 billion barrels a year. US consumption is around seven Billion barrels a year, or 20 million barrels a day. My estimate includes oil and condensates.