Why it’s imperative that we conserve energy now

peak oil graffitto

At what point do tar sands oil and fracked gas require so much energy to produce that they’re not worthwhile? Photo: Daquella manera/Flickr.

As everyone is aware by now, the US is headed towards energy independence 2030, thanks to unconventional sources of oil and gas.

If you believe the mainstream media, that is.

However, if you know anything about energy, the happy talk that energy from tar sands, fracking and deepwater oil will replace all of America’s imports today and in the future is clearly too good to be true.

But we can only understand the real problem with America’s alleged energy boom if we take it from a different angle. So, for the sake of argument, let’s start by agreeing with the oil boosters that:

  • Climate change is a hoax
  • The US remains the dominant world power and can do what we want for the next 30 years
  • Domestic political disputes are quickly and easily resolved in Washington
  • Our population will not grow at all from births or immigration, whether legal or not
  • And unconventional petroleum has no environmental problems.

I know that’s a lot to overlook. But just bear with me so I can make a serious point about the energy we need to invest to produce the energy we need.

Oilmen love reruns from the 70s

In 1970 it took about one barrel of oil to extract a hundred barrels of oil. Coincidentally or not, at the same time, our economy boomed. By contrast, by the year 2000, that same barrel of oil would only produce twenty barrels. Ever since, it’s been getting worse.

Each new discovery of millions of barrels of oil somewhere, whether in Alberta or Texas, continues to take more and more energy to extract from the Earth.With so much unconventional petroleum available does it really matter that it continues to take more energy? Yes, actually, it does.

Research by Charles Hall estimates that our current society needs an Energy Return on Energy Invested on the order of 15-20. Based on which study you believe, current conventional petroleum production is running at an EROEI of 10-15, shale oils are running 2-7 and oil sands are around 5-7. For clarity, this basically means that for every five or so barrels of oil that we get from boiling down the tar sands and pumping it to a refinery, we need to burn one barrel of oil or its equivalent.

That’s not good news, because if we believe Charles Hall, today’s economy needs a ratio of 15-20 units of energy produced to every single unit we spend.

Even if Hall’s analysis is off by a factor of two, we face major energy shortfalls in the near future without substantial conservation efforts.

If the EROEI is effectively cut in half, that is comparable to cutting production in half. Think about it.

Thus, saying that we will have energy independence because we have access to twice the amount of oil at half the EROEI means that we are breaking even compared to where we are today.

And this doesn’t take into account any environmental impact, global markets or expansion of China, India, and Brazil. Also, if we require drillers to protect the environment while extracting unconventional oil and gas, this would further decrease the EROEI.

Biggest energy hog will get stuck

The US consumes an obscene amount of energy per capita compared to the rest of the world. Our society cannot sustain itself with energy returns in the 5-7 range without drastic reduction in our overall energy consumption. To rely on unconventional petroleum and maintain any lifestyle close to what we currently have means that we need to cut our total consumption in half…by 2030.

In the real world, our population will continue to grow. No matter where you think our energy will come from over the next 20 years, we have to reduce consumption considerably or more and more Americans will be facing a Third World standard of living.

Nature doesn’t grant entitlements. The laws of physics apply to everyone. If we don’t start coming up with innovative ways to solve the problem (our current behavior requires too much energy) instead of the symptom (we need more energy to support our behavior), physics will bite us in the rear.

Remember the idea of fueling our transportation fleet with corn-based ethanol? At an EROEI of 0.1, that turned out to be a disaster. This late in the day, we do not have the time to go through the same kind of energy-return mistake again and again.

We continue to shuffle the deck within the same box. Society desperately needs the engineering community to step forward, man up (or woman up), and thoroughly evaluate the real return we get from much-touted energy sources to help us truly understand the seriousness of the situation.

– Jack Sol-Church, Transition Voice

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