Friday, August 15, 2008


Peak Oil and Geopolitics

We can thank Jeff Vail for combining peak oil (specifically geological factors) with what he calls “geopolitical feedback loops,” and he has done a further service by starting a series to treat this matter in detail. You can read part one here. I won’t go into it much here except to say that he describes a potent cocktail of factors that could limit oil supply to importing nations much sooner than expected.

Unfortunately, politics seems to create more problems that it solves, and on a global scale it seems even more so. This reality has always affected how states or other groups obtain (or fail to obtain) resources and energy, but with countries and world regions so globally connected now, and especially with the global nature of trade in fossil fuels necessitated by their uneven distribution, geopolitics is coming to define everything. Look at the brouhaha over Georgia, which is seen by the big players as a pipeline corridor, rather than as a country. Now multiply that by one hundred.

With all the easy oil now found, geopolitics will increasingly play off of geology and make life — or death — miserable for millions.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


No Energy Savior Yet

It appears that just about everyone thinks we will be able to carry on as usual by deploying renewables and new technologies, even when fossil fuels become unavailable for some reason (price, scarcity, etc.). But the essential point which people are overlooking — perhaps because they don’t want to see it — is that all these non-fossil fuel sources of energy are themselves dependent on fossil fuels. Just think about that for a moment.

For example, let’s say you want to build a wind farm. Or put up an array of PV panels over a few acres of sun-drenched desert. Sounds easy — until I tell you that you are not allowed to use fossil fuels to do it. So how are you going to manufacture all that hardware, haul the components to the sites, install them, and then do maintenance? The answer is, you won’t. Biofuels? Without fossil fuels, they can never be produced on a scale large enough to make a difference, even if you ignore or discount their effect on food production.

Or let’s say you have a shiny new electric car. You’re sitting on top of the world. Zero emissions! And you can zip right past the gas station. But wait. There are some little catches you might want to consider before buying an EV. First, the vehicles need fossil fuels for their manufacture, just as the renewable energy infrastructure does. And second, without well-maintained roads, it means nothing to have a car, no matter what kind of propulsion it has. How do you think roads are built and maintained? Where do all that concrete, gravel, asphalt, and other materials come from? How about the other infrastructure like traffic lights, road signs, and bridges? How are all the materials transported? How are the trucks and heavy machinery themselves manufactured, and what do they use for fuel?

Alright, you say. But we can still keep the lights on with nuclear power, right? Not so fast. Nuclear power too is heavily dependent on fossil fuels inputs from start to finish, and even beyond. How is uranium ore mined and processed? How are those machines built and powered? How is fuel fabricated? How about the construction of a nuclear power plant? Disposal and management of nuclear waste? The demolition of spent plants and disposal of the debris? And finally, how about the energy that will be needed for many generations in the future to manage the waste? All that is impossible without fossil fuels. So, as soon as fossil fuels become unavailable to the nuclear power industry, nuclear power is dead and the lights go out.

Finally, for fossil fuels to become “unavailable,” all that is needed is a single political event, or prices that are too high. Our huge and complex fossil-fuel system is extremely fragile and could crash at any time.

In conclusion, renewables and nuclear cannot substitute for fossil fuels because of their high dependence on those very fuels. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), there is as yet no source of energy that can substitute for fossil fuels.

Ultimately — barring the discovery of a totally new dense form of energy — we will return to a pre-modern lifestyle. Think 18th century. Whether we do it quickly or gradually depends on the choices our politicians make. As such, the outlook is not good.

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