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21 July, 2009

This Just In: Peak Oil Crisis Cancelled! Back To Business As Usual, Thanks To New Oil Discoveries... OR NOT... Sorry To Shatter Your Fantasies

It never fails that every so often the news will surface (usually from a decidedly right wing source) that some previously unknown oil deposit has recently been discovered somewhere within U.S. territory that contains enough oil to power us for a gozillion years, and we can now go about our business without Arab boots against our throats and without making any changes whatsoever to our happy motoring, SUV loving, resource wasting lifestyles. In fact, I've written about it previously as recently as just a few weeks ago.

Now, before you freak about me taking a little dig at the right wing, understand that I am far from a latte-sipping lefty. I am a fiscal as well as social conservative in my bones, but that doesn't mean I have to be one of the "Drill, baby, drill!" crowd; I would love it if I could be one of those people, but I have a problem that makes it impossible for me. My problem is a little thing called logic and a belief in scientific facts. You don't have to be a full-blown geologist to be able to grasp a little bit about geology, and, with minimal research, data exists that would make most of the "Drill, baby, drill!" people's heads spin if they bothered to check into it for themselves. Sadly, most don't because the issue has become so politicized that any notion of devoting even a moment to learning something that could actually have a chance at changing their minds (and, thus, upsetting the status quo and endangering their position in the tribe) is avoided at all costs. And, yes, I said tribe. I won't go into that in great detail here as it is too complicated to explain with brevity, but all political thought is modern tribalism, us against them. Right versus Left is a sociological culture war, nothing more.

Getting back on track, there was yet another news item recently that fit the description I provided in the first paragraph. First, there was the article touting the "US Government’s Secret Colorado Oil Discovery," which asserts that there's more than 2 trillion barrels of oil hidden in an untapped reserve 1000 feet under the Rocky Mountains and that it represents more oil "than all the other proven reserves on earth." WOW! That sounds great! Except for one problem: they're talking about oil shale and it isn't in any way a new discovery. We have known it was there for a long, long time.

The problem with harvesting and utilizing oil shale, in a nutshell, is that it "requires more processing to use than crude oil, which increases its cost as a crude-oil substitute both financially and in terms of its environmental impact." (from the wikipedia page) But, while the environmental issues involved are huge, the real truth is that, even if you just say environment-be-damned "Drill, baby, drill!", it won't even be worth it in the end. It is an energy sink or at the very least it is close to being one, meaning the lengthy processes required to actually get the oil shale and turn it into a viable crude oil substitute requires as much or nearly as much energy as you get out of it.

The thought processes that allow folks to believe in these fairy tales evolve from a fundamental misunderstanding of Peak Oil theory and the concept of EROEI or Energy Returned on Energy Invested. Peak Oil has nothing to do with running out of oil. There will still be oil in the earth even after mankind is long extinct and forgotten. Peak Oil "is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline." And, with that decline, comes both soaring prices as well as the inescapable fact that as the oil becomes harder to extract the process will require more and more energy, thus decreasing the EROEI or Energy Returned on Energy Invested. The normal every day "Black Gold, Texas Tea" that we all envision when we hear the word oil has to be mighty scarce and expensive before the EROEI of oil shale even approaches a point where it becomes worthwhile to exploit on a large scale. And, by that time, the price will be so exorbitant as to dictate that most petroleum-based products strictly become the toys of world governments and perhaps the uber wealthy.

You and I will have long been relegated to horse and buggy before then.

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