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.

Grow your own

July 24, 2006

I talked briefly about food issues in my overview post, but recent news items has caused me to look at the issue in more detail. To recap, our ability to produce food is tied in to our ability to harness cheap energy. Modern industrial agriculture relies on massive inputs of energy for the following steps (among others):

  • Chemical fertilizers (aka the “Green Revolution”) are produced from natural gas using the Haber Process.
  • Petrochemical feedstocks are used to help produce the pesticides & herbicides to increse crop yields.
  • Gasoline is used to power the farm machinery and truck that sow, harvest and transport the food.
  • More energy is used in preparation of the food, whether it’s canned, flash-frozen, or otherwise processed.
  • More energy is used to ship the prepared food to the wholesaler, to the grocery store, and home to your freezer/pantry/refridgerator.

In his article “The Oil We Eat,” Richard Manning estimates that 10 calories of oil are used to produce one calories of food. It stands to reason, then, that if we are so dependent on oil for food production, any fluctuations in the price of oil will have a direct impact on our grocery bills. Ben Bernanke, in testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, indicated that oil prices rising by another $10 – $15 per barrel will have “significant consequences” for the US economy, and he’s referring to the rate of inflation which inexplicably doesn’t include food and energy prices in it’s “core rate.” Needless to say, one powerful hurricane hitting the Gulf of Mexico this year could easily drive the price of oil up $10. If that happens, get ready to pay even more for your hamburger and bread at the local food market, for the volatility that the food sector is famous for won’t absorb the higher costs of oil well at all.

Another area that is starting to get some press is food shortages. Because everyone other than the poorest subsistence farmers relies on energy other than the sun, oil scarcity will have dramatic consequences for world food production that most people are totally unaware of. has an interesting page on news articles related to food shortages that is worth reading.

Without access to electricity, water pumps and irrigation systems will fail.

Without access to cheap oil and natural gas, the costs of making fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides will rise. Most farmland in the US and elsewhere has been turned into a biological dead zone through years of pesticide and herbicide use. Without heavy use of fertilizers, crop yields in these areas will plummet.

As America and the rest of the world embraces ethanol as a fuel source, decisions will have to be made about how to use our fields. Food or fuel? Relying on market controls to make the decision will likely mean the poor people being priced out of both options.

One option I expect to see becoming more popular is home gardening. Out here in suburbia, many developments place restrictions on how much (if any) of your yard you can use for gardening. I’d expect these rules to be challenged or simply set aside as food prices rise. I personally am looking at starting some stealth permaculture design on my property, filling in some of the blank spaces around the house with perennial herbs, some raspberry bushes, and other things like that. You’re seeing more news stories about watering bans around the Twin Cities metro area, and sooner or later, that will allow enterprising homeowners to turn their formerly barren lawns into productive gardening patches.

Here in the Minnesota area, I’ve recently spotted the website for the Permaculture Research Institute – Cold Climate. It’s still in it’s formative stages, from the looks of it, but I’m excited to see that there’s starting to be an established permacluture presence around here, and I’m looking forward to taking some classes here soon. I think that both permaculture and green building/remodeling will become large industries at some point in the USA’s future for no other reason than that it’s the most practical way forward. Other high-tech ‘solutions’ will sooner or later suffer from energy scarcity, while permaculture shows us a way to truly thrive. I believe that the suburubs will survive in one fashion or another, and like David Holmgren states, it’s a perfect fit for permaculture, since we’ll have the land, and people have to both eat and live somewhere.

In the meantime, I’m looking at acquiring a cache of open-pollinated vegetable and herb seeds, and learning how to save seeds from harvest to harvest. Putting in some small garden beds and prepping them for organic gardening methods will be a wise investment over the next few years, and gaining the knowledge and experience at doing so will make you a more valuable member of society, no matter where you’re living now, and/or where you’ll end up.

(Lack) of stability in the Middle East

July 21, 2006

Israel is massing it’s troops on the Lebanese border today, and Lebanon is already talking about how they will defend the border if necessary. They won’t stop the Israelis, of course, but they need to do something to resist no matter how unlikely their chance for victory may be. Meanwhile, western nations try and get their nationals out of the way while doing very little to actually stop Israel’s asymmetric response to Hezbollah’s attacks. The US appears content to let Israel collapse the Lebanese state while trying to link Syria and/or Iran to the whole mess.

In a related matter, Turkey, a NATO member and US ally, is talking about entering Northern Iraq to combat Kurdish insurgents there if the US can not keep them in line.

People in the US Congress are finally starting to utter the ‘C’ word when it comes to the Iraqi situation, which is slowly but surely spinning out of control.

Meanwhile, the Taliban, whom we thought had been more or less eradicated by the US shortly after taking over Afghanistan, have been making a comeback. Without western forces, the Karzai government would have a shaky hold on power at best.

Iran continues to be defiant over it’s nuclear program, playing for time while the G8 tries to put pressure on them to accept or reject the terms offered to them last month. The Iranians have nothing to gain by moving quickly, and so they delay.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in Middle East right now, and if Israel does invade Lebanon, all bets are off in terms of both the geopolitical picture over there, as well as what will happen to the price of oil, which has been testing record highs recently. Gas prices, while high, have been fairly stable in the USA due to a mild start to hurricane season, and relative stability in both the stock market and the Middle East. I’m wondering how long both of those forces will remain balanced, for there are many dark clouds on the horizon right now, and they have potentially dire consequences for our future.

One of the issues that is brought up repeatedly throughout the peak oil blogosphere (and related forums, etc) is that the world isn’t prepared for change. We have endured one of the longest periods of peace and economic prosperity that the world has ever seen, and we’ve become totally dependent on the massive & complex systems that organize our modern lifestyle. Where does your power come from, or your gasoline, food, or clothing? Odds are good that it all comes from somewhere else, whether it’s the far side of the metro area, the state, the country or the planet. How are you going to survive and provide for your family if the power’s out, or you’re out of work? What happens when the prices at your local box-mart rise by 25 percent due to the increased costs of shipping stuff from the cheap labor paradises on the other side of the world?

The Middle East (more accurately, the energy reserves of the Middle East) is crucial to our short-term survival. Without unlimited access to oil , our economy will falter, and that will start a domino effect of consequences that will shatter many peoples’ lives. We will be locked in tight with Israel until the presidential elections of 2008. I’ll be curious to see if the next president (regardless of party) may start deciding that our long-term friends are becoming more trouble than they’re worth, especially since our support of them is a major thorn in the side of our erstwhile Arab allies who are sitting on top of all that oil and natural gas. Without major US support, Israel is in trouble, and as I’ve referenced in my previous posting, they will not go down quietly. How the US manages this relationship over the next few years will play a very large role in determining the future course of history. I hope the people in charge have the guts and the brains to make the hard, yet correct choices that will need to be made.

It appears that we are starting to enter the Fourth Turning, one of those periods of time where tensions build and then unleash tremendous change on the world. It feels to me as if the entire world is like a spring, slowly but surely being twisted and coiled up until the pressure becomes to great and the spring lets go. It’s an exciting time, for sure, but also a stressful one. A lot of people in the USA, at least, seem to have the subconcious feeling that something’s not right; that there are unseen forces at work slowly changing our lives, our country, and our world. Take your pick: from the various US intelligence scandals, corruption scandals, energy issues, environmental issues, and the economy, we’ve got a lot of balls in play right now. Sectors of the US population appear to be waking up and figuring out that all is not well. we may not have figured out what to do yet, but it sure appears that more and more people are at least starting to pay attention.

People are already commenting on the fomenting human tragedy in Lebanon. I wonder how many of then can connect the dots and see how that can lead to a larger scale tragedy elsewhere?

Election ‘06, and Why it Doesn’t Really Matter…

July 18, 2006

It’s that time again when we’re being subjected to the incessant bombardment of ads for various candidates vying for public office. Here in Minnesota, we get to elect the governor, a US sentor, and the usual slate of statewide and district reps & senators. One interesting thing I’ve noted about this time around is that ‘energy security’ is becoming one of the big buzzwords for (most) candidates of all political stripes. More people are noting that America’s dependence on oil is becoming a big liability for us both economically as well as politically. Without an adequate supply of the cheap stuff, the wheels will come off the US economy, and to secure access to it, we’ve become politically entangled with a number of states around the world who outright reject many of the values we tell the world we stand up for in when we ‘spread democracy.’

Unfortunately, most of the pols running for office here are embracing ethanol as the fuel of the future. While producing mass quantities of the stuff will no doubt benefit Minnesota farmers in the short-run, it’s not a true solution. Yet both of the main candidates for the US Senate, Amy Klobuchar (Democrat) and Mark Kennedy (Republican) are promoting it’s use as the fuel of the future. Neither of them talk much if at all about oil, other than the usual bromides about price gouging, kicking our dependence on oil, and all that.

In contrast to the equally uninspiring senatorial candidates’ positions on energy, there’s a marked difference between the two main gubernatorial candidates. Mike Hatch (Democrat) has a detailed position paper on his website talking about energy independence and sustainability, while Governor Tim Pawlenty’s (Republican) website is about as uninformative with regard to his position on energy issues as you can get without displaying a blank piece of paper.

So whom to choose? I’ll leave that up to you. I personally am politically agnostic, for neither of the big two offer any sort of leadership on issues of energy and sustainability. The way our political system is set up, though, they are the only real contenders for political power both at the state and national levels. Other parties have neither the base nor the funding to put up anything more than a special interest or protest candidate. With a lack of leadership on any of the truly important issues, I’ll be voting for gridlock, since both parties have shown that they can’t be trusted with complete control of the White House and both houses of the Congress.

I’ll close by mentioning the party that should be galvanizing voters on these issues: The Greens. Descended from the Green parties of Europe, you’d think that they would be the natural fit for people who focus on these types of issues. However, in our extremely polarized political environment that we have today, the Greens will never appeal to anyone that hasn’t gotten kicked out of the Democratic party for being too liberal. A quick look at the Minnesota Green Party’s caucuses shows listings for Free Media, Animal Rights, GLBT causes, and womens’ issues. There’s nothing wrong with any of these issues, but they appeal to very narrow bands of voters, and will likely be enough to scare off any vaguely conservative voters who may be concerned about the world we’re leaving behind to our kids and grandkids. Perusing their main platform shows another large set of very polarizing stances on issues. While I’d love to see them become a larger force in regional, if not national politics, I just don’t see it happening anytime soon. They won’t be the party to lead us down a road towards sustainability, but they may be the party to help us pick up the pieces after our current paradigm crumbles.