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Pentagon and peak oil - then (1957) and now

by Jerome a Paris Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 at 03:06:12 PM EST

Below is an incredibly perceptive speech by one of the best known names of the last 50 years of US military history: Admiral Hyman Rickover, the builder of the "Nuclear Navy". That speech was recently posted on the net via the Energy Bulletin.

Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare.

Engineers whose work familiarizes them with energy statistics; far-seeing industrialists who know that energy is the principal factor which must enter into all planning for the future; responsible governments who realize that the well-being of their citizens and the political power of their countries depend on adequate energy supplies - all these have begun to be concerned about energy resources.

Our civilization rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels. What assurance do we then have that our energy needs will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels: The answer is - in the long run - none.

The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot.

This is the fundamental insight that keeps awake at night all the pessimists and peak oil worriers: we have built a civilisation which relies to an incredible extent on fossil fuels, and these are finite. There is debate about how large the resource is, but it does not elimiate the fact that we are burning through our capital.

But the most significant distinction between optimistic and pessimistic fuel reserve statistics is that the optimists generally speak of the immediate future - the next twenty-five years or so - while the pessimists think in terms of a century from now. A century or even two is a short span in the history of a great people. It seems sensible to me to take a long view, even if this involves facing unpleasant facts.

For it is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates, total fossil fuel reserves recoverable at not over twice today's unit cost, are likely to run out at some time between the years 2000 and 2050, if present standards of living and population growth rates are taken into account. Oil and natural gas will disappear first, coal last. There will be coal left in the earth, of course. But it will be so difficult to mine that energy costs would rise to economically intolerable heights, so that it would then become necessary either to discover new energy sources or to lower standards of living drastically.

For more than one hundred years we have stoked ever growing numbers of machines with coal; for fifty years we have pumped gas and oil into our factories, cars, trucks, tractors, ships, planes, and homes without giving a thought to the future. Occasionally the voice of a Cassandra has been raised only to be quickly silenced when a lucky discovery revised estimates of our oil reserves upward, or a new coalfield was found in some remote spot. Fewer such lucky discoveries can be expected in the future, especially in industrialized countries where extensive mapping of resources has been done. Yet the popularizers of scientific news would have us believe that there is no cause for anxiety, that reserves will last thousands of years, and that before they run out science will have produced miracles. Our past history and security have given us the sentimental belief that the things we fear will never really happen - that everything turns out right in the end. But, prudent men will reject these tranquilizers and prefer to face the facts so that they can plan intelligently for the needs of their posterity.

Again, it's quite amazing how all the current debates are summarized in these 3 paragraphs:

  • Admiral Rickover flags the main macro drivers of the debate: population growth, and EROEI (energy return on energy invested). One is the fundamental driver of overall demand, the other is the main determinant of net supply;
  • those that scoff at the peak oil crowd typically focus on the short term (the next 10-20 years), whereas the peak oilers are flagging what could happen later - in a timeframe that governments should already think about, espepcially when planning infrastructure;
  • the timeframe Admiral Rickover mentions is still valid today. All estimates, including those of the most optimistic critics of peak oil like CERA, see a peak in production before 2050. We've spent the last 50 years worsening our dependence while the problems loomes closer. We have the additional twist of global warming today, something which will make even worse the option of concentrating on burning more coal when oil and gas get scarce;
  • the essential argument of those that suggest to do nothing is to rely on hope, or luck, or to say that the worriers are crying wolf. There's no substantial argument beyond "you've been wrong before, so you'll be wrong in the future".

We need to "prefer to face the facts so that [we] can plan intelligently for the needs of (...) posterity." We have 50 more years of facts, including 40 years of decline in oil discoveries, and 20 years of deficit between our oil consumption and our oil discoveries - i.e. the bits of our  "capital" that we did not know about have almost all been found, and we're burning the whole set at an increasing speed.

... unless science can perform the miracle of synthesizing automobile fuel from some energy source as yet unknown or unless trolley wires power electric automobiles on all streets and highways, it will be wise to face up to the possibility of the ultimate disappearance of automobiles, trucks, buses, and tractors. Before all the oil is gone and hydrogenation of coal for synthetic liquid fuels has come to an end, the cost of automotive fuel may have risen to a point where private cars will be too expensive to run and public transportation again becomes a profitable business.

Today the automobile is the most uneconomical user of energy. (...)

It is the most ravenous devourer of fossil fuels, accounting for over half of the total oil consumption in this country. (...)

Reduction in automotive use would necessitate an extraordinarily costly reorganization of the pattern of living in industrialized nations, particularly in the United States. It would seem prudent to bear this in mind in future planning of cities and industrial locations.

This was flagged 50 years ago: our infrastructure will largely determine our energy consumption patterns. For the past 50 years, infrastructure has favored car use - thus the comments by many of you in my earlier diaries that there is simply no option but to drive cars in many parts of the USA, and thus that higher gas prices will hurt many Americans who have no alternative. Which is absolutely true, and suggests that it is all the more urgent to move things in another direction, and to start working on infrastructure that creates no requirement to use cars.

Building public transportation and the like will take time, but it would appear most unwise today to continue to authorise unending sprawl to go unchecked: it needs to be stopped, before it can be reversed.

Life in crowded communities cannot be the same as life on the frontier. We are no longer free, as was the pioneer - to work for our own immediate needs regardless of the future. We are no longer as independent of men and of government as were Americans two or three generations ago. An ever larger share of what we earn must go to solve problems caused by crowded living - bigger governments; bigger city, state, and federal budgets to pay for more public services. Merely to supply us with enough water and to carry away our waste products becomes more difficult and expansive daily. More laws and law enforcement agencies are needed to regulate human relations in urban industrial communities and on crowded highways than in the America of Thomas Jefferson.

Certainly no one likes taxes, but we must become reconciled to larger taxes in the larger America of tomorrow.

Government. Regulation. Taxes.

Simply because our civilisation requires to be organised, and some scarce resources to be shared as fairly as possible. and one resource might get less abundant in the foreseaable future, and its use will need to be organised, regulated and, yes, taxed more. It's just become 50 years more urgent today.

Note that today's Pentagon also worries about fossil fuels. It recently published a report on how to reduce DoD fossil fuel use (commented here), and it has been discussing the issue for a while in various fora (see a review of military literature here).

Time to Energize America.


In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 at 03:14:11 PM EST
Powerful stuff!  I think I'll send this each of my congressment and local officials. I've thought for a long time that the way we live in the US is insane, even apart from the energy issues.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 at 07:29:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Unbozo at DailyKos has a wonderful comment on yor diary where he adress urban sprawl:

Where is Baron Von Haussman when you need him?

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 02:17:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The message of course being: if they could tear down an entire national capital and replace it with the marvel we call Paris 200 years ago, what couldn't we do today if we really wanted?

(And had as good architectural taste as they had)

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 02:26:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Isn't that what Kelo is all about? Public fiat giving vast tracts of the city to rebuild as they please (well, not exactly as they please, with some urban considerations, but nothing that prevented profit from being made)?

It was a huge giveaway to the rentier/bourgeois classes at the expense of the underclasses. It was a well run process, with ferocious drive, and a great long term outcome, but by no means can it be called an exercise in democracy or in citizen rights...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 03:28:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have no idea what you are talking about. Will google.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 04:29:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Important part:

by Laurent GUERBY on Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 at 04:16:59 PM EST
A very concise version of all the arguments. Brilliant. For 1957, sheer intellectual genius.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 at 05:13:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually this was not really such a great new realization, even for 1957. For example, in 1955 in Princeton a symposium was held organized by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, with the results published in a 1193 page tome titled "Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth." The volume is available in your local university library.

In a chapter (page 367) of that volume, Eugene Ayres of the Gulf Research and Development Company (i.e. Gulf Oil) summarized the then-known estimates of global energy supplies, and he reaches the same conclusions (roughly) as are listed in this diary. Basically, we've had a good century or so of very intensive use of fossil fuel, and it's going to run out.

Just as a point of interest, his estimate for the global peak oil date was 2000 for global petroleum production.

"Peak Oil" is not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination. What is new is the (slow) realization of it by the general population.

by asdf on Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 at 07:44:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Jimmy Carter, whose energy policies were the sanest of any US president to date, was a submariner in Rickover's Nuclear Navy.  Coincidence?  I think not.

From wikipedia:

[Carter] attended Georgia Southwestern College and Georgia Institute of Technology and received a Bachelor of Science degree from the United States Naval Academy in 1946. Carter was a gifted student and finished 59th out of his Academy class of 820. Carter served on submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. He was later selected by Captain (later Admiral) Hyman G. Rickover for the U.S. Navy's fledgling nuclear submarine program, where he became a qualified command officer.[1] Rickover was a demanding officer, and Carter was greatly influenced by him. Carter later said that next to his parents, Admiral Rickover had the greatest influence on him. There was a story he often told of being interviewed by the Admiral. He was asked about his rank in his class at the Naval Academy. Carter said "Sir, I graduated 59th out of a class of 820". Rickover only asked "Did you always do your best?" Carter was forced to admit he had not, and the Admiral asked why. Carter later used this as the theme of his presidential campaign, and as the title of his first book, "Why Not The Best?"

We all bleed the same color.
by budr on Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 at 05:39:29 PM EST
A couple of years ago I got into an environment where I was reading lots of British and European writers from the pre- and post-war (I and II) periods. One of the things that struck me was how well-understood the dynamics of what was happening was.

For example, Ford Maddox Ford's series "Parade's End" starts before WWI, goes through the war and end afterwards. Erich Remarque has a good book about the 1923 German inflation: "Black Obelisk". The common theme from many of them is the realization that the world was moving toward a catastrophe and that there was nothing that could be done to stop it.

Unfortunately, I get the same feeling these days. When a person like Al Gore can go around and say we will grow our way out of resource limitations by being smarter, what hope is there for rational discussion?

Suppose there are no good solutions to impending resource limitations. The industrialized countries will need to get poorer and they will still dominate the weaker ones who will also suffer. Can we realistically expect people to sacrifice now when they know what is coming? Isn't this what the frenetic 1920's were all about - live for today, for tomorrow you may die?

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 at 07:36:05 PM EST
But the 1920's were also the politicians saying that they couldn't ask people to make economic sacrifices now, not after the sacrifices they had just made after the 14-18 war.

what comparable sacrifices have we made in the last ten years so that we should be allowed to run the world into the buffers?

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Dec 3rd, 2006 at 08:03:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]

British and European

I need to start writing about "New Yorkers and Americans"...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 01:40:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe we just need to accept reality.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 02:15:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I admit the reality of the perception. I regret the insufficient perception of reality.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 03:19:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Who's "we"?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 05:32:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Whoever thinks "British" is a subset of "European".

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 05:33:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, perhaps I should have said British and continental European, but the British themselves seem to have some problems with being integrated into the rest of Europe.

They still drive on the wrong side of the road, and they still use their own currency, for example. People would have gotten even more upset if I had said "English" writers even though this is what most of them were.

Many of us in NY feel that we are living in a different country...

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Mon Dec 4th, 2006 at 09:25:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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