Peak Oil at Council

There it is on the agenda for Portland City Council on Wednesday:

205TIME CERTAIN: 10:15 AM – Accept the report of the City of Portland Peak Oil Task Force (Report introduced by Commissioner Saltzman)

18 responses to “Peak Oil at Council”

  1. all this peak oil alarmism is real starting to get to me. it is a political loser, and blatantly untrue. as the article jk linked to points out, the issue is not peak oil, the issue is quality of the oil. there is no shortage of oil on this planet, what is peaking is the cheap, and easy “sweet light crude”, after that runs out we have heavy crude and then massive amounts of oil shale and tar sands, etc. so yes, we’re running out of the easy stuff, and we have an impending production bottleneck (global demand is approaching global supply). the heavier oil is going to cost more (eventually a lot more) to extract, and require more energy (eventually a lot more) and other resources such as water. but it is there, and plans have already begun as to how to get it.

    don’t buy it? down in australia, the united states’ sole global warming denying partner, and location of 30% of the known uranium reserves on the planet, they have been reporting on the increased interest in development of “Small Nuclear Power Reactors”. our homegrown politicians have been pimping the hydrogen economy very hard since bush announced his $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, and it was in this same speech that he began heavily pushing more nuclear, and expidited LNG terminals (ie: federally controlled, so states cannot object). the department of energy has been dutifully on the case ever since. believe it or not, all these technologies are connected. let’s take a look at the so-called “hydrogen economy”.

    the hydrogen economy where we fuel our cars with hydrogen and out comes clean drinkable water is all hype. sure, it’s a beautiful vision, but right now and in the near (and not so near) future it is nothing less than a pipe dream. that is, unless it’s function was not to deflect attention away from the real point. anyone remember when bush proposed building oil refineries on military bases? why on bases? because there is little to no red tape, no permitting, no battles with nimby’s, and so on.

    the connection between hydrogen, oil refineries, and small scale nuclear and LNG is a little bit subtle. above i called the hydrogen economy a pipe dream–it is. hydrogen is very difficult to transport, it bonds so easily that it affects the properties of its container, causing leaks or weakening structures, and increasing risks of accidents. hydrogen bonds are called hydrides. much of the research around fuel cells technology involves creating hydrides to carry the hydrogen, (ammonium and methane are two promising examples), which means the exhaust is not just clean water (and usually contains carbon dioxide). ironically, there is a much simpler way to carry hydrogen: hydrocarbons. you known… petroleum? fossil fuels? a hydrocarbon is a hydride of carbon. and hydrocarbons do not need fuel cells, since we already have the internal combustion engine that so efficiently burns them in the form of gas. heavy-crude can be refined over, but it will also be desirable to enrich it with hydrogren to maximize the efficiency. when the heavy crude is becoming to hard to extract, we will go after tar sands and oil shale. process heat nuclear reactors will be used to create very hot steam (1000+ degrees) to separate the crude from the sand/shale, the crude will then be enriched with hydrogen as described above. so instead of clean fuel cells we get hydrogen enriched heavy-crude burnt in an internal combustion engine.

    but where does the hydrogen come from? well, back to small scale nuclear. there are no good sources of raw hydrogen (except the sun…), but hydrogen is everywhere. especially water. most commercial hydrogen is produced using steam reforming of natural gas, which will be in abundance once all 32 of those new LNG terminals are in place. the process heat reactors create hot steam, which reacts with the methane in natural gas, leaving some hydrogen and some carbon monoxide, the latter of which is then pushed through a water gas shift reaction to produce some more hydrogen and some carbon dioxide.

    i want to emphasize that this is not some kooky conspiracy theory, the technology exists, the science is sound, and the infrastructure is in the planning stages. all the pieces are coming into place. the oil refineries on old military bases, the LNG terminals which we are not allowed to oppose, the dramatic increase of interest in nuclear reactors (even among green types), the development of small scale–even portable–heat reactors, and the never ending hype over hydrogen is the lynchpin.

    the reason why peak oil alarmism concerns me, is because the result of alarmism, when successful, is to get people to demand “they do something about it”. “they” in thise case being the government. the solutions to “peak oil” are obvious; we should shift over to an electricity economy, plug hybrid-electric cars, electric cars, multi-modal transportation networks, smart grids with peer-to-peer production/distribution, etc. but this is not everyone’s favored solution, especially those with an economic stake in the current system. the bush government is not waiting for gas to hit, say… $5 a gallon and for the people to “demand they do something about it” to start preparing, they are going to be quite prepared; they’ve been getting prepared for years. the other reason peak oil alarmism concerns me is, “peak carbon storage capacity” ie: global warming. global warming is a problem that is both real, and utterly solvable with resource light, capital intensive, clean, renewable energy sources combined with the solutions to “peak oil” that i mentioned above. right now, there is an emerging national fuzzy warm feeling about slowing and stopping global warming, but “peak oil”, accompanied by all it’s associated sunk capital, looms on the horizon just waiting for those indefinitely increasing gas prices to force the political will in an entirely different direction.

  2. Yesterday’s NY Times article was interesting and needs to be read. Maybe the Oregonian will run it.

  3. I don’t think anyone is arguing that there isn’t still a LOT of fossil fuel locked in the earth’s crust. The issue is the economics (and environmental impact) of extracting it and turning it into usable fuels.

    If energy gets several multiples more expensive, that has devestating impacts on the world (and U.S.) economy. The call to action is to adopt a series of conservation measures and development of a portfolio of alternatives to avoid this disruption.

  4. The fad back in the 1970’s was that a new ice age. Now the chicken littles are trying to scare us that we’re going to burn up! They just want to take away all our freedoms and make our only option for getting from place to place be the cramped mass transient system.

  5. The issue is the economics (and environmental impact) of extracting it and turning it into usable fuels.

    Which is the same thing as this statement isn’t it?

    ““That’s why peak oil is a moving target,” Mr. Hatlen said. “Oil is always a function of price and technology.””

    It seems to me the argument of “peak oil” has been that even with higher prices, production will not be able to keep up with demand. That we will reach a point where you can’t produce more oil at a price people will pay for it.

    My problem with “peak oil” is that it is sometimes uses as a fatalistic argument that we can sit back and wait for the inevitable decline and demise of automobiles. Given the current dependence on automobiles that seems unlikely. Already many people are paying more on transportation than they do for housing. If you look at the cost of health care, no on in the 1950’s would have thought people would pay that much for basic health care. People adapt. And they will adapt to high oil prices.

    If we want to reduce the negative impacts from automobiles we need to address them directly. Not wait for some inevitable global catastrophe to do it for us.

  6. The neat thing about hydrogen is that you just add carbon and you get gasolene. Bye, bye peak oil. And bye bye CO2 as an excuse to shut down American society.

    If you are a warmer, then you can hope we get CO2 from the atmosphere, making the gasolene carbon neutral.

  7. JK –

    We already have a proven, bio-tech, nearly completely automated method for removing CO2 from the atmosphere: Grow more trees than we cut down.

    Hydrogen as an energy carrier (it is not an energy source, at least not on this planet) may have an important role to play, but I suspect that a wide diversity of modes of energy consumption will be a significant part of the automotive marketplace — everything from hybrid cars (Toyota’s Prius sales up 87% over a year ago despite recent gloom-and-doom punditry about “low” gas prices and the expiration of tax incentives), all-electric cars, hydrogen burners, hydrogen fuel cells, bio-diesel, etc.

    The truth about our energy future is that there is no single solution to replacing oil’s current role. There will be many, and people will select the mode (or modes) appropriate for their requirements.

    – Bob R.

  8. Yeah, if Alaska melts they could plant trees up there, make it easier to extract more oil and at the same time provide the world with more building materials. I am so tired of hearing all the gloom and doom! What do they expect us to do, give up everything and all the progress of the last 300 years? Maybe they should bulldoze down all the cities and return it to productive farmlands.

  9. Yes Peter, the current administration is really doing us a favor by building permanent military bases in the middle east (Iraq) and spending countless lives and billions of dollars in the process. We are positioning ourselves militarily for the decline of “the cheap to extract oil” in the middle east. Instead they could have spent the money building an alternative energy infrastructure here in the US and created millions of jobs. This is where we should be spending our dollars. Er… I guess I should have said “spent”

  10. The war in Iraq isn’t *JUST* about oil…. Those people want to blow us into oblivion and Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the map” and is developing nukes so it can start armageddon. The liberals would love to shut down the war and let these extremists conspire to blow us and Europe up. So we could be spending our dollars on developing alternative sources but our lives would be in danger instead. Sounds like a great plan to me.

  11. It is true that as oil prices increase, it becomes more economical to extract harder & harder to get to reserves. However, this means that prices will thus continue to go up and up, otherwise “energy” companies won’t find it profitable and may switch to other forms of energy. This is why some of them are investing into biofuels already.

    ‘peak oil’ will thus be pushed further and further out, to a point where prices will be higher than today, but there will be other competing fuels on the market… particularly electric vehicles, biodiesel, and hydrogen. But make no mistake, business as usual is changing for the long term.

    What none of this takes into account, however, is the fact that there are currently only about 5-10 million vehicles in China – and they are growing at a rate of around 75% a year. In just a few short years, China could have more cars than every other country in the world combined… which would oustrip any ability to meet demand. Prices would go UP.

    Good thing China has started to move towards sustainable development (albeit slowly) and already has an established bicycling population!

  12. The original hydrogen economy proposal to switch all cars to hydrogen involved building approximately 1,000 to 1,500 nuclear powerplants (averaging 1 GW) to carry out the electrolysis of water & convert it to hydrogen. This was just for the US. I wouldn’t even want to entertain the idea – considering the long-term environmental risks, and the political controversy this would entail. (1,500 potential new 3-mile islands, anyone? Terrorist targets?)

    Also, a note about nuclear plants: the world nuclear association ( currently estimates that there is only 40 years’ worth of extractable uranium (by today’s tech & economy), and a total of between 100-250 years’ worth in the long term of fuel. In short order, it’s not sustainable – plus you have to figure out what to do with 2.5 million tons of radioactive waste over the next 40-100 years… when we still haven’t dealt with the PAST 50 years worth. Also, if we built another 1,000 nuclear power plants, we’d go through the supply much faster than is currently predicted.

    It will probably be cheaper in the long run – and have a much lighter environmental impact – to invest in low-emissions energy production, from solar to wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal, wave, biofuels, nuclear, and so on… There is no ‘silver bullet,’ but it is clear that because of rising demand for energy for the past 200 years the price of energy will be going up.

    However, probably the most important aspect of the energy equation is to increase efficiencies so you don’t need as much energy in the first place!

    As part of this, heating, cooling and lighting buildings currently uses about 50% of domestic energy production. Transportation and industrial process use about 25% each – so the biggest savings will come from green building. If we can chop energy use with Green/LEED buildings in the US by 50-75% over the next few years, we won’t need nearly as much energy.

    Sorry the long post, just trying to put things in perspective.

  13. JK – from your nytimes article:

    The 12-country cartel… is poised to control more than 50 percent of the oil market in coming years, up from 35 percent today, as Western oil production declines.

    Most oil production will end up being centered in the ‘stans throughout the Mideast and former Soviet Union. Besides being a heavily unstable region of the world, much of this new oil capacity is actually being claimed by Europe, Russia, Japan and China. We would do well to reduce reliance upon energy sources from the other side of the globe, as it will add much stability to our economy by not depending upon it. Remember the 1970s, anyone?

  14. ok, well, i glanced over the public comment of the peak oil task force, and it looks like a pretty sane document. my sole exposure to that group was via “the end of suburbia” movie, which definitely falls on the hyperventilation side of peak oil advocacy spectrum. the flipside of that coin is the licking-lips-and-tapping-fingers-ala-monty-burns type, like certain texas billionaire friends of president bush.

    so the peak oil group points to a 2010-2020 with a max of 2040 peak, though the midline projections i am familiar with are more 2020-2030, but i guess it’s always changing. the scenario i outlined above adding tar sands and oil shale extends the peak into the 22nd century, which shows the danger of focusing on peak oil as the problem–if peak oil is the problem, then the market has a solution, and people like JK will be out there hyping it at every step. it may not be a good solution, or a long-term solution, but when people start crying about gas prices, it is a solution that will be easy to understand, and will be ready to roll out. it will be an easy sell because millions (and billions worldwide) have already bought into the hydrocarbon economy. think of all the sunk costs.

    focusing on peak oil, without equally emphasizing “peak carbon capacity” (aka global warming), is a losing strategy. the hydrocarbon economy has two problems: one with inputs, one with outputs. fixing the input problem, makes the output problem worse. fixing the output problem makes the input problem a moot point. peak oil alarmism is all about the inputs, the the public comment mentions global warming just once.

  15. oops, correction…

    looks the public comment pdf took a very long time to load all the search results for global warming, there are indeed quite a few, mostly in the context to mentioning similar goals contained in the Local Action Plan on Global Warming.

  16. I attended the portion of today’s city council meeting regarding the Peak Oil Task Force presentation, which was passed 4-0 (Commissioner Adams was absent).

    One of the comments made said that although Portland has the best ‘handle’ on peak oil, we have a long ways to go. One of the things mentioned was for everything to work, we must utilize local resources (farms, grocery stores, shops, etc.).

    CRC came up in the public testimony, with the argument the current options would doing the exact opposite of what the council is trying to do.

    PGE building more natural gas-fired power plants instead of investing solely on renewable energy was another. (Side observation – notice PGE is raising rates again because another natural gas plant is coming online soon, and if you sign up for one of their ‘renewable energy’ programs, you pay a surcharge to get this renewable energy? So, because you still have to pay 100% of the base amount, you’re paying for something you’re saying you don’t want to use!)

    It was even commented that the report could be viewed as a “guideline” for other communities to follow.

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