Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Oil Sands Not Looking So Good

The world is full of unrealistic expectations for other sources of energy to prop up industrial civilization, which has started its inexorable slide down the slippery slope of peak oil. Among these sources are oil sand (also known as tar sand) and oil shale. However, the huge energy inputs required for their exploitation ensure that they cannot possibly give us the huge energy gain that we got from conventional oil, which gave us globalization, industrial agriculture, the car culture, and the airline industry, not to mention countless other things that make our global consumer society what it is.

Oil has dropped from its all-time high to hover around the $100/bbl mark, and now we have crowds of people proclaiming that peak oil is a fiction, which leads me to ask why oil did not drop back down to $20, but that’s another story. The point here is that, according to these two articles, the profitability of exploiting oil sand and the volume of Canadian oil exports to the US are in jeopardy at $100/bbl, which is still too high for the health of the global economy. Of course when the price of oil shoots back up again, oil sand will perhaps become profitable. Or not. I say this because extracting the useful hydrocarbons requires a lot of energy, much of which apparently comes from natural gas, and in the future that and other energy sources will likewise get more expensive. In that sense we have the same situation here as with corn ethanol: they are all dependent on conventional fossil fuels. Trying to get a better energy and economic return out of oil sand, oil shale, ethanol, and other fuels dependent on conventional fossil fuels is ultimately like a dog chasing its own tail. A similar situation holds for renewables because all their hardware has to be manufactured, deployed, and maintained using fossil fuels. Yet you can’t tell this to energy gurus, who believe that we can free ourselves from oil and keep industrial civilization humming along.

So the vast oil sands of Canada are not going to save the day, any more than American oil shale or Brazilian ethanol.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Back to Organic Fertilizer

In an entirely predictable development, farmers are rediscovering that livestock waste is valuable as fertilizer. What prompted this, of course, is the rising cost of artificial fertilizers. But it won’t stop here. I also predict that when artificial fertilizers become still more expensive, farmers will seek other organic inputs as well. In fact, they will be looking for anything organic to amend their soil, and that will lead them into conflict with biofuel producers who want organic “waste” as feedstock. You read it here first.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Stored Solar Energy vs “Real Time” Solar Energy

There is a serious misperception — promoted willingly and willfully by politicians, corporations, and the media — that renewables can substitute for fossil fuels, prop up industrial civilization, and allow us to maintain our profligate lifestyles. Visions of electric and biofuel-powered vehicles dance in people’s heads, leading them to believe in a future in which we’re still enjoying personal mobility, with the only difference being that all those millions of vehicles (and aircraft) are just powered by some other energy source.

Industrial civilization and motorized society came about because exploiting fossil fuels allows us to access millions of years worth of stored solar energy in a very short time. But renewables and biofuels allow us to access solar energy basically only in real time. Of course it’s possible for us to make biofuels and generate electricity, and then store them for use later, but that is a pitifully small amount of energy compared to what is stored in fossil fuels.

Therefore, once fossil fuels are no longer available, for one reason or another, we will be back to accessing solar energy in real time just as people did in the ages before industrial civilization arose. Renewable energy infrastructure can of course enable us to gather more solar energy than would otherwise be possible, and I am therefore totally in favor of using the current small window of opportunity to build as much renewable energy infrastructure as possible. Doing so would help us achieve a soft landing instead of heading into a crash. But we shouldn’t be led to believe that harvesting solar energy in real time can substitute for the massive amount of solar energy stored in fossil fuels, and we must also keep in mind that our renewable energy infrastructure will gradually degrade because fossil fuels are needed to maintain it.

Understanding this difference between harvesting solar energy in the stored form of fossil fuels and in real time is the key to understanding why industrial civilization has no future.

Friday, September 05, 2008


Fuel Taxes and Road Maintenance, Again

Talk about feedback loops! Do I need to say again how the decline in revenues from fuel taxes is going to devastate the budget for road maintenance? Here we see that the US Highway Trust Fund is not only down, but nearly out. The situation is critical. Unless funds come from somewhere else (not easy, considering that the US government is broke), it’s just a matter of time until the road network deteriorates to the point of being impractical for motor vehicle traffic. Keep a watch on this one.

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