OilPrice Interview

If you’re interested, oilprice.com posted an interview polling my take on energy alternatives and related issues.  Regular Do the Math readers have likely heard much of it before, but perhaps will enjoy a different packaging…

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24 thoughts on “OilPrice Interview

  1. I enjoyed your interview and would like to commend you on creating one of the most informative blogs I have ever come across. I wanted to comment briefly on algae biofuel possibilities and perhaps also on artificial photosynthesis. Algae’s efficiency in capturing the sun’s energy compared to crop plants is often seen as one of major advantages of the technology. However it is critical to realize that most of these efficiency numbers are derived from algae cultures growing with an enriched CO2 supply (often 5% or greater CO2). Most algae biofuel projects plan on getting their CO2 from powerplant flue gas or some other fossil fuel source. While this would have benefits, it would imply that fossil fuel consumption was still necessary for an algae biofuel scheme to work. So the comparisons to crop plants, which get their CO2 only from the atmosphere, are not really fair. I am not terribly familiar with artificial photosynthesis, but I wonder if the current plans also would require a enriched supply of CO2? I suppose other ways of concentrating CO2 could be devised but these would likely be energy intensive, thus lowering the overall efficiency of any technology that depended on them.

    I was also intrigued by the mention of Peak Phosphorus in your interview. As you mentioned we are likely moving into a period of “Peak Everything” a term I heard a while back that I thought was particularly apt. I actually am a postdoc at UCSD working on algae wastewater treatment processes. One of the benefits of that technology would be to capture the phosphorus in wastewater instead of the current paradigm of “flushing it out to sea.” Certainly this won’t prevent peak phosphorus, but the idea is to turn a waste stream into a resource. Anyways, keep up the great work! I’m looking forward to the next post.

  2. Tom,
    I noticed that the headline for the article included:
    “Resource depletion is a bigger threat than climate change”.

    “Bigger threat” seems to imply that the consequences of resource depletion outweigh those of climate change.

    I was just wondering if that statement acurately captured your point of view…

    Or would “Resource depletion is a more immediate threat than climate change” be more accurate?

    • I was provided a menu of possible headlines, many of which uncomfortably exaggerated my viewpoint to grab attention. After a few edits and some rejections, this remained on the list and was chosen. I’m okay with this statement, in the sense that ignoring the pickle we’re in could have far more dramatic—and yes, immediate—consequences for human welfare. In the worst-case scenario, a systemic collapse of our fragile, crystalized world would result in an abrupt decline in fossil fuel use: far better than the “green scenarios” of the IPCC, from a CO2 point of view. So I see post-peak oil challenges as a first-order effect of our fossil fuel saga, and climate change as a slower, second-order effect. I hope to be proven unfounded in my concern, and that climate change actually is the worse of the two…

      • Hard to know what to “root for” these days.

        A sure sign we’re in a predicament.

  3. Nice article, a succinct place that I can point friends to so that they can get a primer on the issue at hand.

    Had an idea for Education of the issue. A TV show about living in the post-decline world. Much like how we have Falling Skies (aliens) and the Walking Dead (disease, cough-zombies-cough) showing post apocalyptic worlds, all be it far fetched. Both are going to run out of manufactured goods like bullets and gasoline and have to revert to a iron age lifestyle. The shows have not gotten there yet, but should.

    If we could show people what life would be like without cheap fossil fuels and not get preachy about it, then I might help to crystalize the view in people today. Granted we would still have a world society and not be as drastic as the 2 shows I spoke of, but things are going to get a lot more local than people think.

    I live in Chicago, IL. We can/should be able to get cheap Apple, Corn and Dairy products. However, where is my coffee and bananas going to come from (equatorial areas) and what is that going to cost me? What did these products cost before the National Highway? Before the ICE? What was life like in Chicago in 1920, 1880?

    • I have also thought a movie might be a great way to communicate the challenge. The problem is that movie theaters are a place we go to suspend disbelief. Anything can happen. Movies often portray the world as it isn’t because an accurate world is <yawn>…sorry…boring. The stories I am aware of (though not intimately) portray a post-peak world accompanied by some low-probability “black swan” precipitator that viewers can wave off as unlikely, so the whole message gets shot.

      I think the real story of post-peak fossil fuel will actually be boring in some sense, relying only on modes we have seen before (loss of market confidence, bank failures, etc.) It will also likely be systemic and diluted: death by a thousand paper cuts. Maybe not the best entertainment.

      Then again, perhaps a realistic treatment will get people to realize that it is possible to have collapse without anything major and dramatic happening—like an asteroid hitting Earth, zombies rising from the grave, global pandemic, nuclear warfare, etc.

      • Tom, I am very grateful for your blog adressing concerns which often cause me wake up horripilating. It is still for many of us so important to realize that we are not crazy and things are really as bad.

        An image that comes to my mind recurrently is the horror of the great famine in Ireland, 1845. There are too many similarities with our situation today – like the Irish then, we have made ourself totally dependent from a ressource which is not stable but prone to disappear at any time.

        One important bit to the issue of “technofix culture”: I want to point out the analyses of Michael Dittmer from CERN about future of nuclear power. Especially concerning are his findings about fission – it seems, first, that number on Uranium reservers are far too optimistic. Second, that the hailed Thorium breeder technology so far has been mostly a failure. And third, that nuclear fusion has severe fundamental problems with the breeding reaction which is essential for Deuterium-Tritium reactions investigated today. Unbelievable large of Tritium must be produced first using fission – which means another rapidly closing time window – and it is not even proven that breeding blankets can be efficient enough at all.

        See, please,

        http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100430/full/news.2010.214.html .

        BTW, a possibly important trend here in Germany is wind gas – using wind-electric overproduction to electrolyze hydrogenium which is fed into existing gas pipelines. This works and is done today. It is not a solution for peak oil but might pave a road.

        Cheers, Johannes

    • But I think the future is not set in stone and we theoretically COULD have a future not too too different than we do now. If the world was committed to sustainable energy then we’d be allocating as much FF’s now towards this end as we could right now. Conceivably we still have enough FF’s to replace, say, half of the world’s cars with EV’s, and put solar panels on most peoples’ roofs. We’d have mass adoption subsidies for heat pumps to heat homes in winter, and begin mass production of Sterling engines to make electricity from wood stoves in winter. Less time spent at work, less consumerism, no more banks, in many ways I think it would be a significantly better existence than now.

      Of course, given the current political climate and lack of understanding of the issues by the general public, I see slim chances of this happening. It will take some radical wake-up call to bring about change, but by that time it will largely be too late and the real culprit — resource depletion — will probably not be generally accepted anyways.

      But we will indeed get our wake-up call. I personally think the next little while is going to be very interesting; I’m not part of the gradually-grind-away-and-decline crowd. These are exponential functions and they go out with bangs, not whimpers. The US dollar is now the longest lasting debt backed fiat currency in history (40 years), and in 2008 it began its exponential debt spiral towards hyperinflation. When everyone loses all their life savings and a loaf of bread costs $10 one week and $100 the next, confidence will be lost in the system and that is the one thing holding everything together right now.

      • “no more banks”? A lack of risk-management and money-protection services is supposed to be a good thing?

        “its exponential debt spiral towards hyperinflation”

        The actual core inflation rate over the past four years has been nearly zero. Or how Japan, with a worse debt situation than ours and for longer, also has seen scarcely any inflation, more like deflation, even.

        [snark edited out]

        • Damien, I won’t go into all the reasons why the banking system is the antithesis of “risk management” and “money protection services” — not because I wouldn’t want to, but because this isn’t the place for that and it would take longer than I would be allowed to post here. Other than to say, with all due respect, “You’ve been duped”. My thermodynamics page goes into a lot of the reasons why we are being held hostage and robbed blind by the financial system, and why we don’t need banks and would be much better off without them.

          The inflation rate you refer to is one that’s based on highly manipulated statistical gimmicks invoked by the government reporting agencies, done for the purposes of, 1) magically turning economic contraction into growth, 2) duping savers into putting away their nest eggs for a net return of about minus 5%, interest minus inflation (essentially, transferring wealth from savers to debtors).

          Where I live gasoline has gone up 15% in the last 3 months, and probably averages 15% per year long term. Most other prices are also rising (except houses — that’s asset deflation with price inflation). But of course, the CPI doesn’t include the two most important expenses we have, food and energy, in its calculation because it purports them to be too “volatile”. Well a simple moving average would solve that problem. The real reason food and energy aren’t included is because then the inflation rate couldn’t be manipulated to be only 2%!

          What’s happened is that the systemic deflation from the collapsing economy has been offset by high-power money printing, which is why prices haven’t been dropping. This means that an economic recovery is mathematically impossible because then all that high-powered money would be multiplied in fractional reserve lending and inflation would go through the roof, killing any nascent recovery.

          • “highly manipulated”: I suppose this includes a conspiracy with the Billion Prices Project at MIT, which looks at retailers and gets rates pretty close to the CPI?

            “But of course, the CPI doesn’t include food and energy”

            Wrong. The CPI includes everything faced by consumers, as befits something that benefits are indexed to. http://www.bls.gov/cpi/cpifaq.htm#Question_7

            “Core inflation” as used by the Federal Reserve does exclude food and energy, as befits something used for macroeconomic money supply management. Inflation due to money supply overheating is different in cause and prognosis from inflation due to the oil running out. The Fed can’t do anything about peak oil.

            Correcting your last paragraph is probably beyond the scope of this blog; suffice it to say that you’re in opposition to evidence-based mainstream economic theory. Deflation would be the opposite of recovery, and that “money printing” is part of what keeps us out of a second Depression.

          • Damien, thanks for your input on inflation measurements. I will investigate further.

            As to your last paragraph, “you’re in opposition to evidence-based mainstream economic theory.”

            Well thanks, since I wouldn’t trust mainstream economic theory with a 1000 foot pole. It lacks a fundamental understanding of how economies work and this, ultimately, is why it is failing miserably. However, disagree that I am in opposition to evidence, since as you partially-correctly point out,

            “Deflation would be the opposite of recovery, and that “money printing” is part of what keeps us out of a second Depression”

            Yes, and only Keynesians would believe that printing worthless pieces of paper and dropping interest rates to 0% could fix major structural problems in an economy. Money printing to fill in a deflationary hole is called “hyperinflation”. That’s why prices are up, even though the economy is in the dumps.

            While it’s true the Fed can’t do anything about Peak Oil, what it could do is stop trying to squeeze more growth out of an economy that can no longer grow. The Fed could also stop hiding the truth about Peak Oil from the masses, so that we could all engage in a frank discussion about our energy challenges.

  4. Tom Murphy:

    Wind and next-generation nuclear also deserve mention as potential large-scale sources. Yet none of these help directly with a liquid fuels shortage.

    So next-generation concepts – particularly thorium – are preferable. Then again, we are not prepared to execute such schemes this moment, so they are not much help in a near-term crisis. And ultimately, like so many things, nuclear is yet another technique to create electricity. That’s not where the pinch will come.

    My response:

    Of course, with adequate heat and electricity we may synthesize an energy carrier like ammonia via the Haber Process (or the far more efficient SSAS). Considering the scale of our need and the potential of thorium reactors, should we not set aggressively upon this course, while simultaneously putting in motion near-term stopgap measures to cross the chasm? Isn’t that what we’ve essentially been trying to do for decades anyway, hoping that our fast breeder program would evade political attack and evolve out of development, and into widespread commercialization? That didn’t happen, but we can now try again with a far better approach. I believe that if you take the time to examine the technical hurdles involved (system integration, corrosion/tritium production, core neutron damage, plumping configuration, 20% HEU for initialization, etc.), you will agree that we have a very high chance of making liquid-fueled nuclear reactors an affordable reality, provided adequate resources. A sizable public program would be preferred, but it may also be possible to accomplish this task via private upstarts, if the regulatory environment is not oppressive.

    Political reality demands hope, and if that essential quality lies within a particular technological pathway, then that is entirely acceptable. We’re going to need a lot of public support to push technology that is out-of-favor with both the old Green anti-nuke crowd and industry. If those scientists who comprehend the stakes of the Transition to Sustainability cannot competently take the lead, our tail will continue to wag us about as more forward-looking societies will seize this opportunity. China is obviously doing so now. I think such an issue is a matter of vital national security, just like Churchill’s transition of The Royal Navy from coal to oil.

    Tom Murphy:

    We deserve better than blind hope that someone somewhere will pull off a transformative energy miracle.

    My response:


    Tom Murphy:

    …anything that can synthesize liquid hydrocarbons using a non-fossil input.

    My response:

    Green Freedom is a proposal by Los Alamos NL for carbon-fuel synthesis, but this is not something that will likely be competitive at the scale of a billion vehicles or so- NH3 would probably turn out to be far more economical and environmentally sound. Non-fossil carbon inputs would basically be: biomass, the ocean, the atmosphere (my guesstimate of least to most costly).

    • We can do non-fossil non-biomass carbon-based transport fuel, given heat and electricity and demand for cement.

      World cement production in 2010 was 3.3 gigatonnes and released 90% of that amount of CO2 (~5% of global emissions). 45% of the CO2 came from the lime, i.e. 1.4 gigatonnes of non-fossil CO2, which could produce ~0.4 gigatonnes of synthetic (CH2)x hydrocarbon fuel. In 2010 we burnt 32 gigabarrels of crude oil, producing 10 gigatonnes of CO2. A lot of that was crappy byproducts, not high quality transport fuel; e.g. distillate is 20% and kerosene 9%. A lot of the transport can be electrified or made more efficient (air travel is only ~5%) so scraping by with 0.4 gigatonnes per year of high quality liquid transport fuel is not out of the question (and looks way better than biofuels at currrent or reasonably likely tech). Cement is growing fast, and faster if you want more renewables, as they’re heavy cement consumers.

      Table the dream of finding a magic chemical catalyst for photosynthesis; if exquisitely engineered plant cells and enzymes are so horribly inefficient at it, it’s obviously a tough problem to tackle head-on at ordinary pressures and temperatures with bulk chemical catalysts. Use existing proven technology at scale. Take the process heat and energy at high efficiency from solar thermal, and use it to power lime kilning and synfuel (CH3OH and CH3OCH3 being the prime candidates, via sulfur-iron high temp H2O splitting, reverse water-gas shift reaction and GTL). The energy losses on each stage are bound to be less overall than in photosynthesis, and the pure CO2 from kilning is easy to capture. Peak limestone is not coming soon.

      Then, think about whether it’s going to be cheaper to install that much solar thermal with heat+electricity storage and transmission to where the CO2 is or vice versa, or whether putting in the small amount of work remaining to perfect then deploy high EROEI Th232/U233 liquid-fueled or U238/Pu239 metal-fueled sustainable nuclear for the heat and electricity on site around the clock without the long-lived waste is more likely to fit into national budgets. Either way, current or near-term tech, plus some conservation and substitution, and we can indeed have enough hydrocarbon transport fuel with zero fossil fuel input to get by. No photosynthesis, natural or artificial, required.

  5. Interesting interview. Thanks for the response to Lucas Durand, clarifying how the interview was conducted… and finalized.

    You describe the energy crisis as greater than the climate crisis. This does not surprise me, although it amazes me. Predicting points (in time or whatever dimension) of crossing instability thresholds has always been a terribly squishy enigma. It-all makes me think of «Fire and Ice» by Robert Frost, bearing in mind that what matters is neither the «fire» nor the «ice» but the «perish». Kinda subtle.

    One question I have long been meaning to ask: in your blog headline photo of written calculations and a slide rule, what is the slide rule? I have a 10″ K&E Log Log Duplex Decitrig that helped me in Engineering School and for quite some years afterward; a somewhat similar 10″ Post Versalog and 10″ Picket Log Log Dual Base (both bought from former classmates who departed from Engineering School) and a 5″ K&E Log Log Duplex Decitrig that I still use on occasion (to impress and inspire grandchildren, among other functions). Yours is none of these. It also shows little sign of wear & tear, at least that I can see in the photo. Could you enlighten me? I will be most grateful!

    • The side rule is a 20-inch K&E (don’t know model number: it’s at work now). It has a self-lubricating redwood interior, and can carry three digits all day long…

  6. Tom, your interview on OilPrice.com was very simple and logical. I’m dismayed that most of the world can not think this clearly. I’m in the process of writing a book on the potential for advanced nuclear power (the liquid fluoride thorium reactor) to address our resource, population, energy, and climate problems. I’m quoting some of your remarks, with URLs, if you don’t mind. Please let me know if you would like to review a draft in a couple of months.

  7. Tom: a couple of related references on fuel synthesis from air, water, and nuclear energy:

    They don’t look at solar source, since nuclear has lower capital costs, and I think they’re using some cogeneration with the nuclear heat too. Claim profitable operation at $5/gallon initially, possibly down to $3.90 with scale and refinements. (Production cost is more like $1.60 but capital/interest costs are high.) $5 billion for an 18,000 barrel/day plant, so total replacement of US usage would mean $5 trillion. This may include the cost of the nuclear power plant, rather than being additional.

    Numbers imply about 50% efficiency. 2000 MW electricity plus 470 MW steam -> 17,000 barrels/day gasoline, which latter I convert to 1.3 GW.

    First link has an odd carbon production graph that I don’t understand.

  8. [moderator note: normally way to long for a comment, but what the heck–this is a slow thread…]

    Tom, not to beat a contaminated horse, but I think it is not sufficient to treat nuclear power as just another energy source – you can do the math, but in this case the numbers alone are not the whole story.

    Large-scale use of nuclear power raises issues no other technology does – aside maybe from hypothetical heavily genetically modified organism for photosynthesis or hydrocarbon generation.

    1) Fukushima should be a watershed moment with respect to corporate/private nuclear power plants. The corruption, and the criminality of TEPCO at any level – along with the basic issue of insurance all nuclear power plants are facing – should make clear that while handing nukes over to the Army Corps of Engineers or NASA is not a guarantee by any means, it at least adds a level of accountability and transparency. Without government guarantees and funds, private nuclear industry would cease to exist.

    2) Civilian nuclear power is directly linked to the issue of proliferation. The NPT is a fraud, and between Iraq’s “weapons programs related activities” and “prevent[ing] Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon” that it is not actually working on, illegal preventive war might now be a repetition of history in reverse – farce first, catastrophe second.

    3) Nuclear powerplants are catastrophic targets in any nuclear exchange – a warhead distributing the radioactive inventory of spent fuel pools and cores is unrivaled in destructiveness. I do not share the hysteria about nuclear terrorism, but anybody taking it seriously should concern themselves with the risk of nuclear power plants.

    4) Terrorist threats – as well as civil disobedience, simple assembly, and outspoken opposition – combined with the perceived and actual risks of nuclear contamination and the proliferation of highly radioactive has serious implications for civil liberties and open society. The most likely form proliferation of weapon-grade critical mass to a non-state actor is packed as a warhead, but if you think that criminal access to reprocessing is more likely than a warhead – and more likely than another Harrisburg/Chernobyl/Fukushima – you will have to discuss “national insecurity” claims that “Knowledge of Mass Destruction” and “Individuals of Mass Destruction” have to be contained at all cost.

    5) Long-term storage of radioactive material is an unsolved problem. In the abstract, we can consider approaches in which in the future solar power would be used to provide energy to accelerator facilities and fission piles that “burn off” highly radioactive or dangerous isotopes after lots of nukes and 50 years of storage got us through the current predicament, but that’s writing another blank check our grandchildren will have to cover. Or we can take a hard look at seabed borehole disposal, and do the math. Sure, CO2 and Methane might prove to be waste just as deadly due to scale, but disposal remains an unsolved problem.

    6) Finally, as with the national battery and everything else, how does nuclear power scale to the needs we have to cover, especially if we need nukes for synthetic fuel generation? If we cover Arizona with mirrors and panels, contractors and laborers are going to make mistakes. In the context of a broken solar power plant, we face costs or repair and downtime. In the case of nuclear power, how does the increased risk of a “crash program” or “scram” for large scale nuclear power affect the cost analysis?

    It is a pity – less arrogance from the engineers, more accountability and transparency, and education for an ignorant public could have avoided both the accidents of the past and the cost of having to reclaim trust that has been lost over decades, or never built in the first place. Nuclear power plants are submarine reactor designs crammed down in a desperate DoE attempt to find a use for the Manhattan Project that was not a weapon of mass destruction. It brought us Plowshare and other insanities, it was born out of the fundamental dishonesty of “Atoms for Peace” and the lie at the heart of the NPT. Now that we might desperately need them, it might be too late to Do It Right.

    • OTOH, France gets 85% of its electricity without incident. US gets 15? 20? with one major incident that barely release any radioactivity.

      Waste, well, I won’t call it solved, but I don’t think we’re looking at fusion or space elevator difficulty here. It basically divides up into “fission fragments with half-life 200,000 years and not much radioactivity”. The middle category can probably be ‘burned’ until it’s all in the other two categories via breeder reactors. The first category needs to be storable for 900 years for the longest lived and most dangerous isotope to be at the 0.1% level. The third category can probably be ignored, or viewed as no more dangerous than the natural radioactivity and heavy metals in the environment.

      Fukushima made me more worried about the, hrm, implementation fidelity of safe designs, but given the alternatives I’m not ready to rule it out.

  9. It seems a little silly to be talking about fossil fuel shortages when natural gas is priced so cheap there practically giving it away. Sure David Hughes (a professional doomsayer whose natural gas predictions have been absurdly inaccurate) is skeptical about shale, but the rest of the country (including Barack Obama) isn’t.

    I think if you do the math you’ll see that renewable energy is going to be drowned under a glut of shale gas for the next 5 years, minimum. 10 is more likely.

    [final angry snark edited out]

    • “[final angry snark edited out]”

      Sigh, I know this whole glut of energy we’re experiencing in the US must be hard for you guys to take.

      Better to plug your eyes like Ulysses than Google “gas glut”.

      Give it time. You’ll reconcile yourself to “disaster postponed” – just push DDay back 5 years. (And if that’s not enough, 5 years more… and so on… and so on…. )

      • Okay, here’s the original statement that I removed because I deemed it to be unbefittingly abusive (and wanted to remind readers to refrain from such tendencies):

        “Sorry to pierce your eco-doomer-conservationist fantasy, but the US is going to be running the AC with the windows open for a number of years to come.”

        I find that your statements here and above miss the mark. Consider that the gas glut is but a few years old, that it seemingly has done nothing to relieve gasoline prices, and that my electricity bills have not fallen to the floor. Yes, maybe this “glut” will last many years yet. But it would be irresponsible to declare our energy future settled/secure based on this short history in a secondary energy sector (i.e., compared to oil), and not gird ourselves against an uncertain future. Fossil fuels will wane, and we should be ready for this, rather than declaring that “it won’t happen on my watch.” We deserve better in the way of preparation.

        Also, be prepared to have comments continuing in this vein denied for approval, as per the discussion policy. I strive to maintain a civil forum for discourse—whether or not I agree with the opinions expressed, so please make points without the jabs.

      • Postscript to readers: this exchange resulted in the following response excerpt:

        “I am curious whether someone who is both a long-time peak oiler and a trained scientist is willing to permit basic facts regarding the shale gas glut to infiltrate his personal blog. It’s up to you, and your sense of honor, credibility, and responsibility for younger, more impressionable readers, to decide whether you want a fair airing of the facts, or a Pravda style recitation of the party line.”

        While I am certainly not opposed to respectful disagreement, I consider the tone to be outside the bounds of civil, respectful discourse. The discussion policy aims to prevent personal attacks/accusations. When one warning is not enough, commenting privileges are lost.

        As to the issue at hand, nowhere do I overtly deny that natural gas supply exceeds demand at present. I’m just not so easily convinced that this is the dawn of new age of energy abundance based on the experiences of a few years, and as such have not written much on the topic. My worries about the future are not completely allayed by what may prove to be a temporary bonanza. My view is a bit longer term and encompassing.

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