Monday, January 17, 2011

“The Terrible Disconnect”

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has a sobering article on the coming end of oil. Actually, it’s supposed to be a profile on the modern day deepwater “wildcatters,” the optimistic geophysicists who have mapped all the oil in the globe and get to spend $100 million drilling an exploratory well miles and miles beneath the ocean floor to find if their guesstimate is correct.

But it’s hard to see the glass half-full after reading stuff like this:
The possibility of a boom commands particular attention now, because the industry’s faith in a limitless future has begun to diminish. The International Energy Agency — which had until recently been optimistic about oil — concluded last fall that the world has very likely already passed its peak oil production.

“The deepwater was one of the last big exploration plays on the planet,” says Gerald Kepes, a partner and head of upstream and gas at PFC Energy, a consulting firm. “We’re now looking at the second half of the global deepwater play. You can see the end of it, maybe 25 years from now.”

This should be sobering news to everyone who still thinks opening ANWR to oil drilling will make a hill of beans worth of difference to anyone. There are 650 billion barrels of oil left in the world that we can actually pull out of the ground. We know where it is. Some of it is in war-torn areas like Angola, some of it is off-limits to us in places like Russia. Most of it is so far under the ocean floor that it’s extremely dangerous and expensive to tap. The Deepwater Horizon accident of 2010 gave a lot of folks their first clue how hard it is to drill far below the sea floor.

This is nothing new, nor is this the first time I’ve written about it. But it’s not something we’re talking about. And there’s a huge disconnect among the American people who hear stories about massive oil finds off the coast of Brazil and think, “see? We don’t have anything to worry about!” What they don’t realize is that these wildcatting geophysicists have known about that Brazillian oilfield, it’s been mapped out for years. The news is not that we found it, the news is that they were able to tap it without blowing the oil platforms to kingdom come. Again: we already know how much oil is left in the world and we know where it is.

Even our optimistic wildcatter is a little frustrated at how uninformed the general public is:

“It’s frustrating to me,” Farnsworth told me. “It’s never going to change, but the general public always thinks, I should be able to get a gallon of gasoline, and it should be damn cheap, and whether I choose to drive a 10-mile-per-gallon car or a 40-mile-per-gallon car should have no impact on that price. We know how hard it is to explore for oil, and we know how hard it is to get it out of the deep water. And there’s been this incredible disconnect, which might have been lessened by the spill, between what people think it takes to get gasoline in their car and what we do.”

Americans need a wake-up call, but unfortunately politics has colored how we talk about oil in this country, and we have some incredibly irresponsible people who want to see their party in power who are not being honest with the American people about this stuff. If you know there are only 650 billion barrels of oil left in the entire world and you know that we know where it is and the issue isn’t finding it but figuring out how to get at it, wouldn’t you start cutting your use? Finding alternative energy sources? Instead of telling people we need to “drill here drill now, dagnabbit!” -- which we are already doing -- wouldn’t you be telling people, “we’re running out let’s find out how we can switch to something else and conserve what we’ve got left”?

In fact, power players like Newt Gingrich notwithstanding, that is in fact what we are doing. Yesterday’s article made reference to a TED talk by geophysicist Richard Sears, former vice president for exploration and deepwater technical evaluation at Shell Oil, and now a visiting scientist at MIT. “Planning For The End Of Oil” is a quick talk, and I highly recommend you watch it here:

According to this, our use of carbon-based fuels is steadily declining, and has been for decades. Not just since the current economic downturn, but since 1985. This was fascinating to me. Despite what political partisans on the right are saying about how we can drill our way out of this mess (we can’t), the global economy is steadily transitioning away from oil. Oil is playing a less significant role every year.

In fact, says Sears, we have been “de-carbonizing our energy systems” for generations.

This is a very hopeful message to me because it tells me despite the rhetoric, we can and will innovate. I love it when Sears says “the Stone Age ended not because we ran out of stones.” The human experience is one of constant innovation and change, it’s in our very DNA. We cannot drill our way out of Peak Oil but we can innovate and, indeed, that is exactly what we have been doing.

Pastor John Shuck has been talking about Peak Oil over at Shuck and Jive, most recently in his What is Peak Oil and Why Should the Church Care? post. I agree with Shuck that we need to do more to educate the public, to remove that “terrible disconnect” that Farnsworth referred to between what consumers think about our energy supply and what reality tells us.

But that said I have a huge beef with a big contingent of the Peak Oil crowd. I know a lot of these folks, many are good friends of mine, but I see them spreading a message of fear that shuts people down and weakens the message. I know people who have bought farmland off in the country and are preparing for the coming Peak Oil Apocalypse by hoarding seeds and planting fruit trees. Their vision of the future is one of fear and food shortages as all transportation comes to a grinding halt.

I just don’t buy it. And I don’t think you can educate people about the reality of peak oil when you’re spreading a doom and gloom message about how our future looks like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or “Mad Max.” In fact, I think that’s counterproductive. When you have one side saying, “ZOMG we’re all gonna die we’re dooooomed,” and another side saying, “all we need to do is drill in ANWR and build some more refineries,” which side are you going to gravitate towards?

I see a terrible disconnect on both sides of the argument. But in the middle is the reality of geophysicists like Richard Sears and Jim Farnsworth, people who know how much oil is left and exactly where it is, and how expensive it is to reach. People need to understand we have reached the limits of what is available but there are vast new energy resources out there of the non-carbon variety that we have just begun to tap. And we started on that path decades ago, long before Al Gore had a slide show or the Bush Cheney Oil Wars or any of that.

People need to understand the reality of our energy situation. They need educating. And they need a positive message, not one of fear.