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25 July, 2011

Another Letter RE: "Motorists Driving Less, But Gas Prices Keep Rising" *OR* THE REAL TRUTH ABOUT SHALE OIL

In order to follow along with the originating conversation that this letter refers to, click here. As always, the letter first, then my response below.
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"I see you have now added a "commodities report" box to your site. Thanks for doing that.

I might add that watching TV on the Nazis and WW2, that Germany didn't have any oil, so what they did was to use coal to make oil and gasoline. Interesting. Because Wyoming has enough coal deposits to fuel the USA , depending on whose figures you read, for up to 500 to 800 years!

Well, with modern advancements, I'm sure that some company could convert coal to oil/gasoline today better than Germany did in the 1940's, and probably cheaper too. (And just think of all the good, high paying jobs that would generate!)

And I read on several sites that the USGS has written reports that state there is more oil under North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming then there is in all of Saudi Arabia. But, the oil companies won't touch it for fear of driving oil prices down to $25 a barrel. They want to keep the price high so they can make tens of billions in profits. I say to hell with the oil companies, nationalize all of them and use the profits to bring down the national dept!

Why should Exxon make 300 billion a year? And give their CEO a 250 million dollar bonus. What does one do with that much money? The government could pay off some of the dept with that kind of money.

It's still the New York City speculators driving up the price of oil. I don't think they should be able to buy up contracts unless they can take delivery! They would drop those contracts like a hot potato then and oil would drop to 40 to 50 dollars a barrel.

Some gloom and doom sites have written and you've probably read them too, that gasoline could go to 15 to 20 dollars a gallon. If it did, could you afford to spend 300 to 500 dollars to fill up your car or pickup gas tank every week? How could people afford to go to work? Or why even bother.

In my area, the power company (electric), if you can believe this, burns OIL to produce electricty. And now our power bills are the highest ever! When i went to pay the last bill, there were more people waiting in line to see service reps about making some kind of payment plan (or I guess just have it shut off-in the hot summer time). And because they are making so much profit, they gave their CEO (said the newspaper) a 2 million dollar bonus! Can you believe that?!

What does he need that for? To pay for his country club membership? If they have this much in profits, use it to lower the bills, or better yet, let the city take it over and any profit generated can be used to pay for city services!"

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My Response: Since you posted anonymously, I'm not sure if this communication is coming from the same anonymous individual who replied over the weekend or from another reader altogether, but I would advise anyone reading this now to definitely go back and read the previous discussion linked to at the top of this article. There is a lot of information in that previous post that I don't necessarily want to repeat. Rather, I will mostly be responding directly to the above letter in as close to a point-by-point method, as is possible in this type of medium.

Regarding using coal as a resource from which to extract petroleum equivalents, I will admit that there is quite a lot of promise evident there. Several plants have been and are currently being built to do exactly what you're talking about, and believe me it is big news in my coal-rich home state of West Virginia.

The problem with doing this on a full scale basis, as would be required in order to supply the kind of demand that you get into when talking about nationwide and worldwide energy usage, is that -- like the shale rock that is so abundant beneath North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming (it is not "oil" as you stated above, but rather solid rock with hydrocarbon chemicals embedded within it) -- coal is a solid, not a liquid that you can simply pump out of the ground, fill a barrel and ship off to a refinery.

As a matter of fact, even crude oil itself doesn't exactly work quite that easily nowadays. The popular public image of someone "striking oil" and a gusher of black liquid erupting into the sky to fall upon their elated heads like black rain is largely a thing of the past. Nearly all of our major oil fields are depleted to the point where, in order to get the oil out of the hole, millions of gallons of seawater first have to be pumped down into the well to flood it and bring the oil up, where they are then re-separated and the oil can be harvested. Most of this is not the deep black light sweet crude oil that all of us think of when images of petroleum come to mind; most of that is gone now, and what we are left with is by-and-large a heavier, gummier substance, more brown than black in color, and far, far more difficult and time-consuming to process. But, at least existing refineries have been modified so that they can process it into energy. These same refineries will be of no use whatsoever when it comes to refining coal or shale rock. An entire all-new infrastructure must needs be built to do what you are talking about - just where do you think the money is going to come from to do all that? I am at a loss to see how anyone could even imagine in their wildest dreams that this will lower gas prices.

In order for coal or shale rock to be converted to a liquid petroleum equivalent on the scale that would be required in order to meet just our energy demands here in the United States, much less the rest of the world, would require the energy industry to spend literally billions of dollars. They would have to build hundreds of brand new facilities; purchase large quantities of brand-new equipment (much of which is not even produced on a large scale right now, because all of these types of operations up to this point have been few and far between); and, train workers in entirely new processes they will have to follow just to do their jobs. Oh, and don't forget that rock doesn't travel down pipelines nearly as easily as liquid, so every bit of it is going to have to be put on trucks and driven cross country to the facilities where it is processed, some of which will likely be hundreds of miles from the places where the raw resources are harvested. So, that means you have to hire hundreds if not thousands of truckers to haul your rock up and down the interstates, deal with the Teamsters Union and it gets even better... every one of those trucks has to run on either gasoline or diesel fuel! Further energy must also be expended in great amounts once the raw resources arrive at the processing facilities; the rock must be superheated to very high temperatures in order to extract the petroleum equivalent hydrocarbons.

And yet you folks think this is going to make gas prices go down?! Not likely, my friends. Not likely.

In fact, I have my doubts (and I am not alone) that, taking all of the above into account, it would even end up being a profitable enterprise. There exists a concept, against which all of these kinds of arguments must needs be weighed, known as EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested). To put it succinctly, if harvesting an energy source costs you more energy than it produces, then it is a pointless venture that will actually leave you worse off in the end than if you had not bothered in the first place. Think about all that I have said above and weigh it all against that concept, and you will understand where I'm coming from.

Now, that is not to say that I disagree with you entirely. As of this moment, we are not yet deeply in the throes of a Peak Oil scenario (though I believe it is only a scant few years away), and so I agree with you that the current weirdness in oil and gas prices is a result of market manipulation that needs to be end yesterday, if not sooner. Everything above was, rather, directed toward all of the recent talk of coal and shale "oil" somehow representing a savior that will allow us all to continue driving gas guzzling SUVs and loafing on the couch watching "Dancing with the Stars" until the end of time. The truth is that the way we live today is the direct result of enjoying easy access to cheap energy, a state of affairs that has existed only for the past handful of decades and never before in all of human history, and is quickly coming to an end. It falls to us, therefore, to prepare ourselves for this coming, otherwise our civilization will simply not survive.

Also, I cannot agree with the idea you put forth regarding the government nationalizing the oil industry. The government in this country is far too large and overreaching as it is, little resembling anything close to what the Founding Fathers intended. Nationalized industries are a collectivist, left-wing concept, with which I do not hold. The United States of America was never meant to be a collectivist state, but rather a state built by and for individualists. Never forget that we are afforded the right to the "pursuit of happiness," not to a guarantee of happiness. As much as many people would like to turn the United States into a socialist state, I cling to the faith that the American populace would never allow this to occur. Honestly, to ever truly yield that small bit of faith would likely result in me never sleeping another peaceful night again.

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