Sunday, July 3, 2016

Black Gold

Albert Marrin is a history professor who has written dozens books for young readers.  In Black Gold, he discussed the geology of fossil energy, emergence of the oil industry, geopolitics, oil wars, environmental impacts, and future challenges.  I was intrigued by his perspective on geopolitics.

Before World War One, the British navy scrapped many coal-burning warships and began building modern boats that ran on oil.  This gave them a big advantage over the German navy.  The era of industrial warfare had arrived.  Nations with tanks, trucks, and planes could easily smash horse-powered enemies.

America joined the war in 1917, and brought lots of oil.  German ports were blockaded, their war machine ran out of fuel, and they were defeated.  In this new era, for the first time, oil became essential for military success.  Young Hitler grasped this, and so did the British.  A primary objective of the Brits was to seize control of Middle Eastern oil, a yet-to-be developed treasure that made greedy gits giddy.  They succeeded, invented new nations, and found obedient puppets to rule them (and loot them).

Of course, wealth and power frequently turns decent people into obnoxious monsters.  Troublesome puppets were replaced with new ones, Britain got very rich, and the Arabs and Persians developed an intense hatred of Brits.  In World War Two, Hitler launched his oil-powered blitzkrieg, made a beeline for oily Baku, and planned to grab the Persian Gulf.  In this war, American oil once again came to the rescue.

Germany and Japan learned the hard way that running out of oil is for losers.  Everyone knows this today.  U.S. presidents have poured trillions of dollars into maintaining control of oil, whilst jabbering about freedom, democracy, and weapons of mass destruction.  For some mysterious reason, millions of Middle Eastern folks now loath and detest the U.S.

In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis are a sect that perceives most of modernity as pure evil.  They don’t look fondly on the lavish lifestyles of the ruling Saud family.  Marrin asserts that the government agreed to subsidize the spread of Wahhabi schools into other regions.  In exchange for this funding, the Wahhabis agreed not to make trouble in Arabia — but trouble anywhere else was OK.  “In short, Saudi oil profits fueled terrorism.”

Russia now controls much of the natural gas that powers Europe, and Western powers are eager for an alternative, a pipeline from the Middle East that bypasses Russian control.  It would be reasonable to conclude that the coming decades are not going to be a sweet celebration of love, peace, and happiness.  Expect big drama as the age of hydrocarbons swirls the drain, climate change pounds the luckless, and Big Mama Nature hurls overshoot overboard.

The rear end of Marrin’s book was annoying.  The book is intended for use in schools.  He recommends that the U.S. should become energy independent as soon as possible.  The best solution, he says, is a combination of fossil fuels and alternative energy — solar, wind, biomass, hydro, geothermal, nuclear (no mention of sharply reducing consumption).  The assumption is that independence is possible, and that the consumer way of life will be free to continue down the path of mindless self-destruction.

Teachers, librarians, and parents should have an above average understanding of energy issues before selecting books on the subject.  These issues are going to have a staggering impact on the lives of the target audience, young readers.  It’s long past time to sit down with youngsters and have a highly embarrassing birds-and-bees discussion about the fact that the abundant energy bubble is going to turn into a pumpkin during their lifetimes.  Preserving their ignorance seems cruel.

In the book, readers learn that nuclear reactors can generate lots of electricity, but they occasionally barf large amounts of radiation all over the place.  Therefore, it’s very important to properly dispose of spent fuel because it’s extremely toxic.  Great idea!  How?  William and Rosemary Alley discussed this issue in Too Hot to Touch.  They note that today “there are some 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries.  More are on the way.  Yet, no country on Earth has an operating high-level waste disposal facility.”

Obama cancelled plans for the Yucca Mountain site, which was as close to perfect as is possible — after 25 years of research at a cost of $10 billion.  Because it was cancelled, spent fuel rods continue building up, many of them temporarily stored in cooling ponds.  If the circulating pumps for the cooling ponds stop, the water boils, the pool evaporates, and the rods are exposed to air, melt, and release radioactive gasses.  The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods.

Readers also learn that the U.S. has huge coal reserves, enough for 250 years at the current rate of consumption.  To understand why this is a meaningless statement, watch one of the many versions of Albert Bartlett’s famous lecture, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy on YouTube.  Every student and teacher should watch it.

Read Jeff Rubin’s book, The Big Flatline.  You’ll learn that the production of top quality anthracite coal peaked in 1950, and grade B bituminous coal peaked in 1990.  There is abundant grade C coal, lignite, which is especially filthy to burn.  Since lignite is so low in energy, it cannot be shipped long distances profitably.  It is absurd to use 100 calories of diesel to haul 100 calories of low quality coal.

This is an extremely important issue — energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).  The book doesn’t mention this.  EROEI is also highly relevant to oil.  Rubin and others note that in the good old days of high-profit gushers, it was common to invest one calorie of energy to produce 100 calories of oil (100:1).  By 2010, typical EROEI was about 17:1, and some are predicting 5:1 by 2020.

Rising prices enable the extraction of difficult and expensive non-conventional oil and gas.  At some point, declining EROEI makes extraction pointless, regardless of market prices.  Consequently, most of the oil in Canadian tar sands will be left where it is.  The EROEI of tar sands now in production is about 3:1, and 5:1 for shale deposits.

Readers learn about renewable energy, like wind, solar, and hydro.  See Ted Trainer’s book, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  Learn about the significant shortcomings of the various types of alternative energy.  Discover why no combination of them will ever come anywhere close to replacing the energy now provided by fossil fuel.  Discover why we will not enjoy a smooth and painless transition to a sustainable, renewable energy future.

The education system, from grade schools to universities, seems to be largely committed to a “don’t scare the children” strategy.  We don’t want to fill kids with despair about their grisly inheritance.  Also, publishers want to avoid discussions that piss off poorly informed parents, or the politically powerful titans of industry.  The publisher did allow Marrin to drop hints that there might be some trouble in the future.  It’s a touchy game.  Sales can be harmed by too little reality, or too much.  The book’s takeaway message is that we have the solutions for our energy challenges, but we don’t have a lot of time to fool around.  Things will be OK, probably, maybe.  Is that likely?

Marrin, Albert, Black Gold: The Story of Oil in Our Lives, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012.


al most a moron said...

Yes I just bought b.p. and made a profit, oil runs the world ,

Riversong said...

FYI: The energy quantum "calorie" (or, more precisely, the kilocalorie) is used primarily as a measure of the energy value of food.

The energy value of fuels is typically measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units).

The EROEI of fuels is BTUs in per BTUs out.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Riversong,

I plead guilty. A primary concern of mine is to present information that can be understood by a broad spectrum of readers. I think that far more will understand “calorie” to be a measurement of energy than “BTU.” Obscure techno-jargon can scare away some who are still in the early sections on the path of learning.

I checked my dictionary, and calorie has three definitions. The first two describe measuring heat (energy). Only the third mentions food. Whatever. I can hear the approaching sirens of the Vocabulary Police. It was nice knowing you. Have a good life!

Thom Hawkins said...

Many important points, Rick. A big topic. To narrow it down a bit, let me say that parents are already rehearsing their children in how to to deal with their grisly inheritance. The children will deal with it the same way their parents are dealing with it: Extreme Chronic Denial. I see it all around me--a morbid reality.

In Lucre We Trust, Thom

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Thom! I wonder how much of the problem is denial, and how much is just simple ignorance. Our mass media and education systems do a super-poor job of thoroughly discussing the Earth Crisis. If you live like a normal consumer, I think that eco-ignorance is the default.

Thom Hawkins said...

Just speaking from my personal experience with people, Rick, I see folks who are informed but refuse to change. They seem to take a sort of perverse pride in continuing to do things they absolutely know are not in their best interest, either short term or long term.
It's hard to believe that with all the information floating around, there are still those who don't know they are poisoning themselves and the earth. One grossly obese friend came to me and asked me to help him stop killing himself with food and chemicals. He knew what he needed to do, but wouldn't do it. He said, "What I'm doing to myself is unsustainable!" I said, "What do you want me to do? You already know what to do." He said, "Make me stop!" I replied, "How can I do for you what you refuse to do for yourself?"
Another common answer I get is, "This is what I grew up with. I can't change now." So, Rick, there seems to be a cultural feedback mechanism that reinforces people's comfort level with self-destructive behavior. That mechanism goes something like, "Leave me alone. Everyone else is doing the same destructive shit." We are faced with a nearly global culture of nihilism, and precious few have the fortitude to step out of line. Who knows, maybe they're right. Maybe evolution has doomed us all anyway, so why not party hardy?
This is not to say that there isn't a lot of misleading and inadequate information in circulation. I have no problem giving you your point, but I think it is trumped by nihilism. We are either a deeply flawed species or a prime expression of the Medea Hypothesis. In the aggregate, we probably are incapable of doing much better than we are doing now. In the specific, a few will take better care of themselves and the planet, but that will always be a drop in the bucket of our rush to oblivion.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Thom! I fully agree that denial exists. I also believe that most of the herd is different from you and I, and they truly are ignorant about the Earth Crisis. They may be extremely well informed about pickup trucks or pop music.

I was once talking to a doctor at a party. I explained that the current way of life is temporary. He asked if we were going back to horse and buggy. Yes, I replied. He gasped, spun around, and disappeared. Ha!

Venkataraman Amarnath said...

You ask whether we can scare children about the possible future.
Please read Prof Corey Bradshaw's open letter to his daughter. In his web sight he describes how his five year old daughter cried after learning about global warming from her dear father.

Thom Hawkins said...

Even if you educate the herd, Rick, most will continue to believe that the laws of nature do not apply to them. They will keep sliding through the stop signs and running red lights when they don't see a cop. That's human nature.

However,that's probably a moot point, because we never have and probably never will truly and fully educate the herd, despite the staunch efforts of a few undeterred teachers like yourself.

What keeps you and me and others like ourselves going is our conviction that if the herd ever does get educated about sustainability, it will become possible for humans to live in harmony with the natural world. That's why I like to hang out with the EcoVillage/Permaculture/Simple Living crowd--living proof we can do better.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Amarnath,

I read Bradshaw’s letter to his daughter.

He apologized for sharing an overwhelming truth with her when she was just five, and it seriously upset her. He felt she would have been more ready to handle the truth when she was nine, when he wrote the letter to explain his choice.

“I will, however, defend my lecture to you because the urgency of action is so great we cannot afford to coddle the next generation in ignorance, for this is the generation that will begin to cop some of the worst ravages of our environmental neglect,” he wrote.

It is indeed painful when a pet dies, or a grandmother. It’s painful to hear that your future will be a time of big juju.

Black Gold is recommended for ages 12 and up. As I wrote, I’m sorry that he wasn’t able to reveal more in his book.

Thanks for sharing the letter.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Thom!

My evil plan is not to educate the herd. I agree that the masses will continue on their merry way, disregarding inconvenient truths. “If a plan is not working, stick to it.”

There are some brighter lights who are interested in learning about the reality they have inherited. My plan is to offer them some info that may be useful to them. Who knows if there will still be two legs in a hundred years. If there are, it would be great if at least a few of them understood the sequence of blunders that resulted in our embarrassing predicament.

You and I are doing what our hearts tell us to do. And that is exactly what we should be doing.