Monday, May 14, 2012

Peak Hysteria: Peak Oil and Fracking

Fracking71 up35 down
A new way of extracting oil from shale deposits via hydraulic fracturing. Unfortunately whoever came up with the name never saw Battlestar Galactica. -- Urban Dictionary
According to a report from the GAO on energy production the amount of oil in the Green River Formation equals or exceeds the world's known reserves.
Increasing domestic oil production. Being able to tap the vast amounts of oil locked within U.S. oil shale formations could go a long way toward satisfying the nation’s future oil demands. The Green River Formation—an assemblage of over 1,000 feet of sedimentary rocks that lie beneath parts of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming—contains the world’s largest deposits of oil shale. USGS estimates that the Green River Formation contains about 3 trillion barrels of oil, and about half of this may be recoverable, depending on available technology and economic conditions. The Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, estimates that 30 to 60 percent of the oil shale in the Green River Formation can be recovered. At the midpoint of this estimate, almost half of the 3 trillion barrels of oil would be recoverable. This is an amount about equal to the entire world’s proven oil reserves.
This oil would need to be recovered with the process known as Hydraulic Fracture or "Fracking" wherein high pressure water and, erm, toxins, are injected into deep rocks and bring out the oil. It's environmentally nasty and comparatively expensive. And bad for the environment--but it works.

Peak Oil
Here is the  beginning of the Wikipedia entry for Peak Oil:
Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline. 
In theory this will lead to at best, a "low energy future" which could be quite green and pleasant if you believe its adherents. At worst: Complete collapse of society (the "Mad Max" scenario--presumably with even less driving). The "middle ground" is somewhere around humanity stuck in an agrarian lifestyle for, well, the rest of forever--without medicine, plastics, or anything else.

It's a disaster. You can browse the apply named or any of the many, many similar sites for further information.

How Do You Reconcile These Things?
First, let's put the above in perspective: 3 Trillion new barrels of oil, if you could get it, would, frankly, dwarf the current supply. Here's a chart. The big numbers are billions. A 3 Trillion Barrel find ... is off the charts.

So if true, then what? Well Citigroup says "Fracking has killed Peak Oil." That would kinda make sense. Of course the Peak Oil guys say that Fracking has a bad EROEI--that's energy-speak for Energy Return on Energy Invested (more energy in than you get out). The rejoinder to this is that even if true (and true for current technology) if the energy forms put in are not identical / fungible to the energy forms you get out it can still well be worth it (consider that a loaf of bread takes way more energy to produce than you get from consuming it--but we don't feel "bread" is unsustainable).

But do I know? No. I do not know--I'm not an energy expert. Here's what I think is interesting:

The Psychology of Peak Oil
While I concede that Peak Oil is a scary concept--and that it is difficult to distinguish between what's "really going on" and what "is alarmist" I think that there is a very interesting strain of evangelicalism in the Peak Oil community.

Here is a pyschologist who has created a disorder for people who aren't scared enough by Peak Oil:  Panglossian Disorder.
Inspired by the eternal optimist Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide, psychologist Kathy McMahon, who calls herself the “peak shrink,” explains on Peak Moment TV (episode 199) that she invented Panglossian Disorder. It’s a condition of people who view the post peak oil future with unrealistic and even pathological optimism, the kind that is usually a front for deep fear, effectively shutting off to the realities of possible major future changes.
You're crazy if you don't believe the conspiracy theory!

Here's a video that PetroApocalypse suggests for "your loved ones."
For those who do not want to hear it or accept Peak Oil, don’t waste your time trying to convince them. If it’s someone you love and whom you want to accommodate post-Peak, despite their current disposition, go ahead and plan for their needs if they won’t do it themselves. Do this for everyone you can afford. For the rest, consider them on their own. And I mean now and post-Peak. And be prepared to be strong if they come calling, realizing that you were right all along and that you laid in a supply of food and water.

Note that the image conjured up by the text is pretty bleak: you ignored my advice--so you're going to die.

What Do I Think?
I suspect that even low-density forms of energy and even with the lack of general attention to renewable we have today, we can, societally, dig our way out of a Peak Oil disaster. The "fast-collapse" scenario seems especially unlikely as, even as prices go up, we seem (with the shale oil, using coal as an extraction resource, etc.) to have a buffer that will allow for some game-changing.

But I could be wrong. I'll admit that.

However, as with every other conspiracy theory, with the cross-fire of allegation and counter-allegation I'm forced to ask: "Who do I trust?" and "Who is saying things that make the most sense." The people who are treating non-believers as disordered lose some credibility there right away. The idea that, for example, Citigroup's take on Fracking is "in on it," too stretches belief pretty badly.  The guys running the Peak Oil web sites are not innately more credible than the guys running the big investment firms. It's the other way around, really.

I also think there is a sort of cold comfort in believing the world is going to "end" soon. Here is a letter from a guy (a family physician in Canada) who is having trouble convincing his wife of Peak Oil. He wants to stop his mad race to build a retirement nest-egg and spend more time with his kids. Why? Well the nest-egg will surely dry up in the Mad Max future and, hey, his kids.

Honestly? I'm with him. I think his goals are on target--and taking up gardening and buying photo-cells for his house? I think that's generally good advice too. There's nothing wrong with that. However, I think his excuse for this--rather than just confronting his wife and saying "I'd rather spend more time with the kids rather than working in a mad-scramble to pay off the mortgage" is that he wants to convince her (as he's convinced) it's a survival strategy.

I'm not a psychoanalyst. Maybe it is a survival strategy: but I think, arm-chairing it from here, that it's pretty straightforward. He isn't trying to spend more time with his kids because Peak Oil appeals to him. Peak Oil appeals to him because he really wants to spend more time with his kids.

I think that's actually what I'd call the healthy case (as in: I assume I believe a whole bunch of things that look logical to me but are not--if my life is relatively healthy as judged by society then, hey--Tinfoil hats are sexay!). The less healthy case is the other thing I liked to here ...

Where you fantasize about your neighbors starving to death outside your compound going "If only we'd listened ..." with their last dying breath.

Then you eat them. ... What? It's protein.
Fracking Cylons!

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