Thursday, March 27, 2008

It takes oil to make everything else.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008
The Paradox of Production

One of the things that makes the challenge of peak oil so insidious, and so resistant to quick fixes, is the way in which many things that seem like ingredients of a solution are actually part of the problem. Petroleum provides so much of the energy and so many of the raw materials we take for granted today that the impacts of declining oil production extend much further than a first glance would suggest.

Read through discussions of the energy future of industrial society from a few years back, for example, and you’ll find that many of them treat the price of coal and the price of oil as independent variables, linked only by the market forces that turn price increases in one into an excuse for bidding up the price of the other. What these analyses missed, of course, is that the machinery used to mine coal and the trains used to transport it are powered by diesel oil. When the price of diesel goes up, the cost of coal mining goes up; when supplies of diesel run short in coal-producing countries – as they have in China in recent months – the supply of coal runs into unexpected hiccups as well.

I’ve pointed out in previous posts here that every other energy source currently used in modern societies gets a substantial “energy subsidy” from oil. Thus, to continue the example, oil contains about three times as much useful energy per unit weight as coal does, and oil also takes a lot less energy to extract from the ground, process, and transport to the end user than coal does. Modern coal production benefits from these efficiencies. If coal had to be mined, processed, and shipped using coal-burning equipment, those efficiencies would be lost, and a sizeable fraction of total coal production would have to go to meet the energy costs of the coal industry.

The same thing, of course, is true of every other alternative energy source to a greater or lesser degree: the energy used in uranium mining and reactor construction, for example, comes from diesel rather than nuclear power, just as sunlight doesn’t make solar panels. What rarely seems to have been noticed, however, is the way these “energy subsidies” intersect with the challenges of declining petroleum production to boobytrap the future of energy production in industrial societies. The boobytrap in question is an effect I’ve named the paradox of production.

It’s crucial to understand that the problem with our society’s reliance on petroleum is not simply that petroleum will become scarce in the future, and will have to be replaced by less concentrated or less abundant fuels. It’s that a huge proportion of industrial society’s capital plant – the collection of tools, artifacts, trained personnel, social structures, information resources, and human geography that provide the productive basis for society – was designed and built to use petroleum-derived fuels, and only petroleum-derived fuels. Converting that capital plant to anything else involves much more than just providing another energy source...

This is why, of course, that government will have no real choice but to act to make sure that petroleum products are accessible and affordable to vital industries. They will cause a demand destruction in the gasoline/diesel market by the simple expedient of outlawing them for most private automobile and home garden appliance uses.

As we creep closer and closer to this reality, it will be harder and harder to obtain the non-gas powered machines and gadgets we will need to continue to run our homes, yards, gardens and businesses in a reasonably efficient manner. The time to begin planning for the inevitable is now, class.

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