Robert Newman’s “History of Oil”

July 31, 2006

If you’ve got a broadband connection and around 45 minutes to kill, check out this brilliant blend of comedy and eductation from British Comedian Rob Newman. It’s informative, funny (if you like ‘British’ humor), and timely. More, please!

In order to get more people informed on these kinds of topics, we need more exposure in the media. Mainstream newspieces on television are usually either sound-bites that convey only a little information, or it’s a point/counter-point kind of scenario where economists/cornucopians/political hacks get to muddle the issue. Newman tells it like it is… now if only more mainstream entertainers would do the same. ‘Syriana’ was a good start, but it was too confusing to too many people.

Link – Google Video

Great article on Oil in the Chicago Tribune

July 30, 2006

Linked from LATOC:

A Tank of Gas, A World of Trouble

This series of articles journals the process by which a tankful of gas makes its way from Nigeria into your gas tank. Worth a read… I’ll update this article later with comments, depending on how the rest of my day goes.

A Little Disclosure

July 28, 2006

There’s an interesting post at OIFS today in which Jim discusses his transition from viewing his lifestyle choices as trying to be morally superior to seeing them as the most logical way to prepare for the changes that are coming. He mentions me in that post as one of the people “actively preparing” for that future, and I thought I’d take a few minutes to give people a hint as to what I am doing.

A quick look at my profile shows that I’m living in suburban sprawl of the Twin Cities metro area. Hardly the place for the someone who claims to be concerned about our future to be living, right? Well, it depends on your vision for the future, and what you want out of it. I believe our way of life and its supporting systems will collapse some time in the next decade or two. I wish I could narrow the timeframe more than that, but there are simply too many unknown variables in play right now to make a more accurate assessment than that. If pressed, I’d say that by 2015, the changes will be undeniable. That said, I don’t think we’re going all the way to Mad Max or a similar anarchical hell. We’ll be living much more locally; not many people will be commuting 30 miles each way to and from work unless you’re fortunate enough to be near public transport of some sort, and are willing to sacrifice 4 or more extra hours out of your day to get to and from your workplace.

Most assessments show that in 2020, even if we’ve peaked now, we’ll still be producing roughly the same amount of oil as we were in 1980. That’s still a hell of a lot of gasoline and associated products, but with a lot more people on the planet demanding access to that oil, prices will be much higher. The net result of this is a lot less commuters, a lot less discretionary income to be spent on tech toys, cheap clothing that needs to be replaced every season, and other crap. People will need to make wiser choices about where they live, what they buy, and how they eat. So, will the road system crumble? No, but there will be a lot less cars on the road.

Anyway, I grew up in the Twin Cities suburbs; it’s what I’m most comfortable with and where my family chooses to live. I don’t know that I’m cut out for the rural, agricultural life, and while I have nothing against living in the city, the advantages don’t outweigh the disadvantages for me at this time. My current residence is new, relatively energy-efficient for a traditional house, and we’re located within walking distance of most of my wife’s family, and within biking distance of work, shopping, etc. I’ve got between 1/5 and 1/4 of an acre that I could potentially turn into a permaculture garden, but for now I’ll content myself with some raised vegetable beds and ‘decorative’ flowers, herbs and other plants that can pass themselves off as landscaping. No need to pick a fight with my fellow homeowners until it’s really needed.

I’ve also taken steps to wipe out pretty much all of my long-term debt except for my mortgage. I’m not as concerned over the mortgage for a few reasons:

  1. I’ve got a 30-year fixed rate that’s quite competitive over the long history of interest rates, and I’ll be paying down the principle at the same time. None of that dodgy interest-only ARM crap for me.
  2. The federal budget is so screwed up, and our money supply is so mismanaged that inflation (and perhaps hyperinflation) is pretty much guaranteed unless the US decides to simply default on it’s debt obligations, which I don’t see happening, especially under Helicopter Ben’s watch.
  3. When you get right down to it, private ownership of property is pretty much a myth in the USA. If the government wants your property, they’ll take it. Whether they do it by eminent domain, raising your property taxes sky-high, or via executive order, they will take what they need, when they need it. Search on ‘Executive Order 11490’ or ‘FEMA private property’ sometime.

So, I’ll stay where I am until I pay the property off, or it’s taken away from me. In the latter event, I’ve got family with plenty of extra room nearby. At any rate, it’s impractical to think that everyone will up and abandon the hundreds of thousands of homes that inhabit the Twin Cities suburbs to either move back into town, or to the small towns and take up farming. Most people don’t have the skills to raise food properly, especially in a low-energy setting. Many of us will have to make a go of it in the burbs, and until my family decides otherwise, I’ll be one of them. We’re expected to add another million people to the area by 2020 or so, and that’s before taking into account any migrations of people from regions that will be hammered by rising energy costs like the Southwest, or even the old South. These people will need to live somewhere, and I’m guessing that the in-filling of Minneapolis, Saint Paul and the inner-ring suburbs will only handle some of them.

Most importantly, I’m trying to learn a new skill set based on what I see as being important for the future. I’m learning about bike maintenance, gardening, permaculture, cooking, green building and other related issues. While making money will always be important, I think it will become much more critical for people to be constructive members of their local society. My goal is to eventually be able to teach others on these subjects, since the more self-sufficient everyone becomes, the less I have to worry about my starving neighbors stealing all the produce out of my garden.

Finally, I’m trying to get the word out. My own family, like most of the people out there, either don’t agree with my views on the coming transition, or they simply don’t want to hear about it. Few people like to be told that their way of life is on life support, and that they’ll have to give up activities and patterns of life that are comforting to them. For some reason I can’t just sit back, read, and stew on it in private, so I’ve decided to set up this blog to hopefully start some discussions about coming changes, and to get out crucial bits of information that will make people think, if not take action.

I’m not setting myself up as a pillar of virtue, nor am I trying to sell anyone anything or convince them that the way of life I am choosing is the only correct path to survival. My goal is to inform, to help build the community of upper-Midwest peak oil/sustainability people, and start building the world my children will inhabit.

Quick post on Ethanol

July 27, 2006

Daily Reckoning has an interesting post on the perils of Ethanol

Tom Whipple

July 27, 2006

One of my favorite peak oil commentators is Tom Whipple. A retired CIA analyst, Whipple writes a weekly colmun for the Falls Church News-Press, a local paper in the Washington DC suburbs whose readership includes a number of policy makers inside the Beltway. Mr. Whipple is decidedly in the camp that oil depletion is for real, and his weekly columns butress his argument well. He also is the editor of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil – USA‘s weekly Peak Oil Review. If you’re interested in energy depletion issues at all, I heartily suggest you subscribe to this free service.

Whipple’s current piece, The Guns of August (redux), covers his thoughts on parellels between the current Middle East crisis and the start of World War I in 1914. Not a comforting thought, but then there’s little to take comfort in regarding world politics these days.

Staying above the level of alarmist, sensationalized writing, Whipple logically adresses the issue of peak oil in a fashion that is both compelling and easy to follow. His archived columns can be read here.

On Petrocollapse…

July 27, 2006

Reader Mauricio posted a comment for OIFS’ note about my blog regarding his skepticism over ‘petrocollapse.’ I think this bears some discussion, since the peak oil crowd has its own internal fault lines much like any other group.

You can loosely break down the Peak Oil crowd into three or four groupings:

  • Cornucopians – These are the folks that think there’s nothing wrong; that there’s plenty of oil to be found; and that life will go on much as it has. If oil won’t do the trick, coal gasification, tar sands, ethanol, hydrogen or some other techno-fix will step in and save the day for us.
  • Soft-Landers – These are the ‘moderates’ of the peak oil movement, and they generally believe that while there will be some disruptions to our way of life, we’ll eventually get to some kind of low-energy way of life without too much disruption and chaos.
  • Hard-Landers (a.k.a. Doomers) – These are the folks that believe that we’re in deep, deep trouble. Multiple support systems will fail, taking down the power grid, and our modern industrial society with it. Die-off, war, environmental degradation, etc. will wipe out a huge chunk of the Earth’s population and drive us back into the Stone Age.

Many of the pundits out there can be grouped accordingly, with many of the more prominent ones (Kunstler, Heinberg, Lundberg, Ruppert, Savinar, etc) being put in the Doomer category. Economists, dreamers and other people with a vested interest in the status quo will usually be put in the Cornucopian group.

The levels of ‘Doomerosity‘ differ, of course. Some people think we’re in for a hard generation or two until we finally pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get on with the new arrangement for life, while others are sure it’s the end for humanity. I take ‘petrocollapse’ to mean the most hardcore doomer position, namely that shortly after we pass the peak of production, all hell will break loose due to economic crises spawned from oil demand permanently outstripping supply, and from the inevitable resource wars that will spring up shortly thereafter. Some, like Jan Lundberg, seem to be gleefully awaiting this prospect, while others simply see that as the fastest way to getting back to some sort of viridian agrarian fantasy where everyone lives in a Tolkein-esque setting.

I personally have trouble seeing things play out this way. The control structures that are in place globally will likely have at least some mitigating role to play in slowing down the descent. I find John Michael Greer’s idea of catabolic collapse a more likely scenario. Modern industrial society will collapse and revert to a simpler way of life over several generations, versus an immediate and catastrophic breakdown of society and all of its mechanisms.

Our modern way of life relies on many immense, complex and energy-intensive systems to keep things working. The national power grid, natural gas pipelines, our road systems and interstate highways, airlines, the internet, industrial food production, Just-In-Time warehousing & supply chain management, and other systems are really quite fragile.

The regional blackout of 2003 was caused by a single power station going offline, and some high-voltage lines went down. California has been forced to order rolling blackouts during the hottest weeks of summer for the last few years.

James Kunstler raises the point in his book “The Long Emergency” that we have no idea what will happen if there’s an interruption in the natural gas pipelines. If 20% of the pilot lights go out in an affected area, what happens when service is restored? How many explosions would we deal with? Not all systems will have state-of-the-art shutoff systems, so trouble in inevitable. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re drilling as fast as we can just to keep natural gas production levels stable, while our reliance on it grows every year. Most of the houses built in Minnesota and elsewhere in the upper Midwest use natural gas for heating, in addition to stoves, clothes dryers and water heaters. What happens when there just isn’t’ enough to go around anymore. We’ll pull the plug on fertilizer makers first, but what happens when it comes down to a fight between natural gas-fueled power stations out west versus people in the Midwest and northeast needed to keep warm in the winter?

Our modern road system requires regular maintenance to keep highways in useable shape. What happens when we can’t afford to pay the millions of dollars road maintenance requires every year? Who makes the decision as to which roads are maintained and which roads crumble?

All of the scenarios listed above can be caused by periodic shortages of power. None of them require the permanent, crippling shortages that petrocollapse proponents like to discuss. This makes the issue of petrocollapse moot, much like the debate about the actual peaking of oil production is not that important. What is important is that sooner or later (I’m thinking in the next five years or so, if we’re lucky), oil demand will permanently outstrip supply, and from that point on, the world’s economies are in trouble. We’re starting to see the first signs of that in places like Zimbabwe now, but there it can be partially attributed to a totally incompetent government in addition to the normal vicissitudes of supply & demand. Until more countries (and more advanced ones) start to feel the pinch, oil depletion will remain an area mostly for the opinion pages versus hard news.

Our way of life relies on abundant, cheap sources of energy. If that energy remains more or less abundant, but the price increases significantly, the economy will suffer. If that energy becomes scare and very expensive, both the economy and humanity will suffer. Either way, it’s a problem that is looming now, even while most people choose to ignore it. I can draw a parallel between our current situation and late 1930’s Europe, when many people saw conflict looming, but chose to ignore it for as long as they could. Feel free to ignore the extremists, but don’t discount the underlying facts.

Obligatory Bike-Related Content for OIFS readers…

July 26, 2006

My son turns 4 next month, and we bought him a 16″ bike as a present. We bought a cheap one from our friendly neighborhood toymart since odds are good that he’ll use it for two years at the most, and if it gets 100 miles on it, I’ll consider myself fortunate that my kid loves biking. The next bike will be a higher-quality one, but for this first one, I figure I’d roll the dice and get a $60 cheapie and put it together by myself.

This particular model has both the skid-brake as well as hand brakes, but the hand brakes are almost totally worthless. I spent more time trying to get the cheap, stamped-metal sidepull brakes on my kid’s new bike working correctly than I did working on the brakes on my refurbished early 90s Schwinn Searcher. Tighten things up, but not too tight, or nothing works. The cabling keeps popping out of the guides, etc. I had foolishly planned on quickly putting the bike together and then washing & cleaning the gunk out of the Schwinn’s drivetrain. Silly me. An hour later and I called it a night.

Looking at the Schwinn in some detail, I’m guessing that I’ll be installing a new chain & new cassette at the end of the season anyway, since the cogs on several gears are really worn down. There fore I thin I’ll be skipping heavy-duty bike maintenance until the fall when I can take it into the basement, put it up on the repair stand, and strip it apart. I’m just getting back into biking after a long hiatus, so I bought this model from the good folks at the Sibley Bike Depot. $150 for a quality steel frame, fenders & Blackburn rack. Can’t beat the price, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to learn bike repair on that then on something new from the store.

Perhaps in a couple of years I’ll be able to shell out the dough for a nice Atlantis or something, but in the meantime, the Schwinn will do fine.