Second oil-related post

What if peak technology occurs roughly in the same wave as peak energy?

All those oil stories (below) got me to thinking along slightly different lines. Jim Kunstler’s latest post over at Clusterfuck Nation brought it about. By-passing the back-handed shots at NASCAR fans, he’s talking about what we might consider ‘the usual’ for Kunstler, but with something interesting. The idea of peak technology:

…another nearly universal expectation is that we will go through an orderly transition between the end of the oil fiesta and whatever comes next – implying, naturally, that some new sovereign energy resource is out there in destiny’s green room, getting prepped up, waiting to be sent on-stage. The confusion about this, induced by strenuous wishing, is such that most people expect the next energy resource to consist of technology itself.

This has been the heart of my beef with the rosy future crowd. Energy and technology are not the same thing, not interchangeable or substitutable. If you run out of one (energy), you can’t just plug in the other (technology). I certainly believe other energy resources exist besides oil and methane gas, but I maintain that we will be grossly disappointed by what they can do for us, given what we are currently running in society. Nor am I categorically against the idea of using these other things: solar, wind, bio-fuels, what-have-you. I can even be persuaded on nuclear with its many hazards, if that’s the only way to keep the lights on. But all of these things will not preclude the extreme necessity to make severe changes in our manner of daily living – and to do so rather quickly.

This is something that gets mentioned here and there (and here). One of the great things about oil, relative to other fuels, fossil, nuclear or renewable, is that it can, with relatively little work, be poured into a car and combusted (you heard me). Bio-fuels too, which is probably their main appeal relative to non-stupid alternative fuels.

What Jim Kunstler has found, and to which he is responding, is this idea, everywhere from thinktanks to the Wall Street Journal to State of the Union addresses, that we’ll just be saved. That technology will come along in the nick of time. That – to use Kunstler’s words – some new sovereign energy resource is out there in destiny’s green room, getting prepped up, waiting to be sent on-stage.

I also liked this anecdote:

Last year, for example, I was shown the new bio-medical research “facility” at the University of Michigan, a building at least the size of a Cunard ocean liner, and wondered as I beheld it exactly how they were going to heat the goddam thing ten years down the line. But one might as well ask how the U might fund the paychecks of the building’s occupants as Michigan’s economy falls into an ever-larger crater. Such is the hubris-induced weakness of mind among those in charge of things that these mundane questions are not even asked.

I try not to think of that part about the costs of academics, relative to their value. That’s where come in (or rather, go out into the cold with no valuable skills. Actually that isn’t true. I’m not Australian for nothing). Now, back to oil. The choice of USD60-65 per barrel as the appropriate price for oil, in particular.

“A price of $60 to $65 is appropriate for consumers and producers, because it boosts means of investment in the oil industry in light of growing demand for oil in the coming years,” state firm Kuwait Petroleum Corporation’s (KOC) monthly newsletter quoted Hasan Qabazard as saying.

If he meant investment such as that of hedge funds’ speculation, then sure. If he meant investment in the finding of new oil (i.e. in the industry from an industrial perspective), I don’t follow him. I used these two graphs from the Oil Drum a long while back (except I’m now not hot-linking them, because I’m trying not to be a dick to blogs I like):



That’s flat-to-declining oil production coupled with massively-increasing oil rigs. Will there be a use for this infrastructure, when there just isn’t any oil? Remember also, importantly, that exports are important, not production. As production wanes, and OPEC domestic demand increases, OPEC exports fall much more quickly than mere production. We would also hope to have found our alternative prior to that last drop that’s drawn. I just don’t see the value of long-term investments.

Oddly, a colleague of mine made a very interesting suggestion in a vague email-debate concerning turbine power. He suggested that there are a few areas with open space, wind (or tides/waves) and current-or-intended occupation by Big Oil, making them prime contenders for private industrial establishment of the sort of large-scale infrastructure needed. I was at least immediately taken with how funny such a move would be, in terms of wrong-footing screaming lefty tits like me.

The inestimably-good blog the Big Picture has commented a few times that, every time they hear that the sub-prime/CDO/hedge fund fall-out is “contained”, they are reminded of this scene from the Princess Bride:

[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The idea being that “contained” does not mean what many people (Bernanke included) think it means. I have the same reaction to the Peak Oil issue. Take your pick: “oil”, “energy”, “technology”. I do not think these words mean what a lot of people out there seem to think they mean (hint: they do not mean, “relax, divinity has got your back”).


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