I. OIL SHALE

When we think about energy these days, and try to sort out the history which led us to today's volatile situation, we tend to skip right past the decades following World War II, much celebrated decades though they were, to get to the funky stuff beyond. There is a tendency to think of these postwar decades as a boring equilibrium Good Ship Lollypop phase, with the salient energy fireworks starting in the late 1960s -- an implication being that the energy situation we enjoyed in those years was "normal." I would argue that the postwar decades were not normal at all, but a unique and bizarre phase in history, the likes of which we probably won't see again.

The post-war decades saw freakish rates of suburbanization, highway building and general affluence and gainful employment among the population. The Big Three competed only among themselves for American dollars, there being not much of an import market (perhaps for several reasons, not least of which that the German and Japanese ability to make cars had recently been bombed into oblivion). There was little intellectual challenge to the tailfin V-8 paradigm. Most Americans had yet to awaken to the ecological ramifications of driving. Most importantly, oil was abundant and cheap. Fields in Texas and Oklahoma seemed to be bottomless magic wells of light sweet crude, and American oil companies were finding and controlling even more promising deposits in the Middle East.

The post-war decades laid the groundwork for our contemporary energy predicament, though few realized it then or realize it now. When Americans' oil consumption surpassed the country's potential to supply those needs with homegrown resources, a point we must have passed some time during those golden Potsy letter-jacket years, what might mave been an ominous milestone went completely unnoticed. There was no public policy response. The moment was washed away in global oil abundance and domestic production that was still increasing and seemed limited only by technology and logistics. The Arabian desert was our personal sandbox. Favored thugs in charge all over the Middle East. There were hints of big oil deposits in Alaska. The energy situation seemed somehow under control, even as the country's energy consumption ramped ever skyward. The idea was that Americans could increase their consumption, ad infinitum, no problemito, there would always be plenty of oil to make it work.

The late 1960s started punching obvious holes in the facade, which is why we usually start our analyses there. The Mid East boiled up and regimes began to take full ownership of the resources within their borders, kicking foreign oil companies down to contractor status, or kicking them out entirely. OPEC began to assert itself in myriad ways. Back in the States, long-standing production limits were removed and the Texas wellheads were opened in response to the ominous Mid-East rumblings. Oil companies employed all the latest technological wizardry on a massive scale to maximize domestic production. The huge fields of Texas answered the call. Within a few years, however, the flagship deposits started to, how to say this delicately, they started to crap out. The engineers responded with increased injections of water and CO2 into the rock around the reservoirs to pressurize the wells. Still the production of domestic crude decreased rapidly. The 1973 oil embargo put an exclamation point on the seemingly sudden loss of control over our national destiny. Gas lines. A whiff of panic in the air. This was the first time in a long time that Americans felt any vulnerability in terms of energy supply.

Nineteen-seventy marked the all-time peak of American oil production, amid frantic efforts to increase output. This was the oil industry's Houston We Have a Problem moment. Note that it wasn't the environmentalists or even the politicians standing in the way of drilling which forced the volume down. Drilling in fact increased massively after 1970 (peaking around 1982), drilling technology advanced, but production started downward and continued rolling downward. Drill baby drill? Oh, we did. It's the geology stupid. As such, the peak of American oil production had been predicted by some geologists. The geologists, in turn, were ridiculed by economists, politicians and other types who are almost never correct. That American oil production could peak and enter irrevocable decline is an idea that still garners ridicule to this day, forty years after the fact. People just don't want to accept it. It's impressive.

Despite the yeoman efforts of the American educational system and mass media to inform the public on these matters, somehow SOMEHOW a common myth persists: That environmental regulation is the primary obstacle which keeps the United States from producing enough oil domestically to satisfy its voracious appetite. If it weren't for those dang caribou-hugging environmentalists and their socialist red tape, oil companies would be unleashed to drill in all these magical oil-rich places and make all the oil we'd ever want out of the oil shale of the West. People who deal in this myth are often talking about 'reserves.' We could even call it the Reserves Myth. We hear versions of it all the time: "The world still has [x trillion] barrels of proven reserves left in the ground, enough to supply our needs at current levels of consumption for [x] years ... blah-dee blah-dee ..." The persistence of this mind-wreck, which fails on several levels while missing the point entirely, has been helpful to certain interests. Well-paid footsoldiers and talking heads work tirelessly and shamelessly to perpetuate it. The persistence of the myth is particularly frustrating considering that it takes about two minutes of rudimentary background research (aka googling, or, some of you may have heard of books) to understand that reserves volume is not among the most important variables. Flow rate, cost, and of course net energy, that's what it's all about. It's a simple concept. You might have the largest "proven recoverable reserves" of petroleum in the known universe, but if you can only get an eye-dropper's worth at a time it won't do you much good. If it costs about an eye-dropper's worth to extract that eye-dropper's worth, then it really won't do you or anybody much good, and rightfully you should call the whole thing off. If you're messing up the environment while playing this net energy shell game then you have the very definition of Not Worth It, or a good snapshot of proposals to develop "oil shale" deposits in the western United States. If you're asking for taxpayer assistance to embark upon such a scheme, as Royal Dutch Shell has been, angling for government "partnership" (cash) to take care of various development costs so they can sell the product back to Americans at market prices, well... we could go on and on here.

When the Reserves Myth people speak of "more oil than Saudi Arabia" under US soil, they are talking primarily about unconventional petroleum deposits which may produce, by the most hopeful estimates of the companies involved, a few hundred thousand barrels per day, and that only at great cost. Shell's fantasy for Colorado's western slope involves building the largest coal-fired power plant(s) in the state to heat hundreds of giant metal tubes buried in the earth; after several years of high-energy in situ cooking, the kerogen of Colorado's 'oil shale' may transform into an extractable substance. Shell estimates one giant power plant per 100,000 barrels-per-day in this elaborate scheme. Industry promotional material carefully avoids any mention of such paltry rates of production, focusing of course on the irrelevant reserves.

If there were a Saudi Arabia in Colorado's celebrated Piceance Basin, this fantastic resource could be producing 8 -10 million barrels per day of actual crude oil with relatively little trouble. That's what Saudi Arabia means. This isn't Saudi Arabia. It's not even the Alberta tar sands, which already produce one million bbd and may double that. "Oil shale" will never account for more than a small fraction of American oil consumption (which is currently around 19 mbd). So when people start talking about reserves and the Saudi Arabia's worth that supposedly exists around these parts, feel free to laugh dismissively.

For instance, feel free to chortle at Senator Orrin Hatch, who has been one of the worst Reserves Myth offenders, when he says things like "There is more oil in oil shale in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming than the rest of the world's oil combined ... People are going to go berserk when they find out that all along we had the capacity, within our own borders, to alleviate our dependency in an environmentally friendly way." [Fortune, June 6, 2008]; Oh Orrin. Silly silly Orrin. I figure he must know better. He didn't fall off the truck yesterday, this guy. He is what is known as a shyster, trying to sell something. More accurately, he is the one who has been bought and sold. And now like a zombie vampire he goes out into the world trying to infect as many others as he can. It's a luctrative but, one imagines, soul-crushing existence.

I am not steadfastly opposed to developing the west's unconventional oil. We might have to do it some day. As conventional oil supplies become increasingly scarce and expensive, and renewables are perhaps unable to pick up the slack, kerogen deposits might become a vital source of energy for the nation's most critical functions. To save it would be best, steward the resource as a sort of insurance policy for future generations. It would suck to be truly in need of these unconventional oil reserves, only to find out that we already used them up driving back and forth between Old Navy and Chili's.

 

TO BE CONTINUED ...

 

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