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.