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You may have read that President Obama is going to propose energy as a key piece of his agenda in the State of the Union tonight:

President Barack Obama will encourage the country's booming natural gas output in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, while defending his administration's energy record

Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of domestic natural gas output, pointing to natural gas as a possible area of compromise for Democrats and Republicans.

...

Obama's address will also focus on the importance of not sacrificing environmental protections and investments in clean energy during this time of budget constraints and concerns about job creation, said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund.

...

Heather Zichal, a White House adviser on energy and climate change, released an editorial last week highlighting rising domestic oil and natural gas production, as well as falling oil imports under Obama.

Is this a good idea?  Is this a good approach to our energy problems?  The three primary issues motivating an energy shift are:

1. Climate change.

2. Economic concerns.

3. Energy independence / national security.

The three are of course deeply interrelated (climate change has major economic and national security impacts, etc.).  But those are the three standard arguments.

Will a modest increase in natural gas production do the trick?  Will an increase in domestic oil production?  Will small investments in renewables be enough or even meet the need we have?

Climate.

Joe Romm is right (and it's rare I say that because I tend to disagree with him on a number of issues):

Building lots of new gas plants doesn’t make much sense since we need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades if we’re to have any chance to avoid catastrophic global warming.

...

The fact that natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere was in fact, first demonstrated by the IEA in its big June 2011 report on gas — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change.  That study — which had both coal and oil consumption peaking in 2020 — made abundantly clear that if we want to avoid catastrophic warming, we need to start getting off of all fossil fuels.

...

Then came a remarkable new study by Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that concluded:

   In summary, our results show that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades.

Read the whole thing: Romm clearly lays out why natural gas has been claimed to be a solution for decades and isn't really a solution to anything.

(Setting aside the immediate climate issues, natural gas obtained via fracking has many well-known environmental problems.)

Economic concerns.

Natural gas has multiple problems beyond the environmental.  The "boom" in shale gas may by not much more than a speculative bubble---in land.  The land with claimed gas reserves is going for huge premiums while natural gas prices are at record lows.  That is: there is likely less natural gas than claimed.  See here or here for more.

Energy independence.

What sort of energy independence do we need?  Well let's look at what we import:

That is, we already produce as much coal and natural gas as we consume domestically.  It's oil that we import a ton of.  Jeffrey Brown has more, deconstructing the recent non-story about us exporting refined oil products.

In summary, natural gas isn't the answer: it is unlikely there's enough of it to be a real viable base for our energy needs but there is enough of it that it might push our climate over the edge.


What about other options?  Solar, wind, etc. will not plug the primary hole we're facing: a liquid fuels bottleneck.  That is, we have plenty of ways of making cheap electricity right now.  Demand isn't rising for electricity.  While I'm fully in favor of moving off of oil and fossil fuels, it's important to highlight the panoply of false solutions out there right now.

Five facts are essential for understanding our energy predicament today:

  1. Oil is critical to transportation and agriculture in the United States.
  2. Numerous reports and studies (including the Department of Energy commissioned Hirsch Report, the UK Task Force on Peak Oil, and the German Military) indicate we're at, near, or past the point of maximum global oil production, often known as peak oil.   This indicates that no matter what drilling is attempted, the world will never produce oil at a faster rate, and that after peak production declines.
  3. The Hirsch Report concluded that it would take a 20 year crash program to mitigate the effects of oil depletion, meaning that the crash program should have started around 1990 to avoid what they called "severe" economic impacts.  Also, the mitigation program they proposed relied upon coal, heavy oil, and tar sands, all of which would exacerbate our climate problems.
  4. The industrial capacity for building alternatives is a tiny fraction of what would be needed to substitute for fossil fuels even within 2 decades, given the massive scale required.  (Just to give an idea of the scale involved - per Bill McKibben the sunk cost of today's fossil fuel infrastructure is $10 trillion, and would require 10-50 years of operation for capital cost recovery.)
  5. Almost none of the substitutes provides a dense liquid fuel substitute for oil that can be used in transportation or agriculture.  The only alternative that does - algae-based biofuel - is extremely far from commercial viability and requires even more land area per unit energy than corn-based ethanol.

By all indications we are currently in the period of peak liquid fuel production, and the prices we're seeing reflect that.  Most recessions in the past few decades have coincided with an oil price spike.

However, since oil production was increasing steadily until the mid 2000s, the economy had head room to grow.  That is, after each recession, it took a while for prices to rise because despite increasing demand, production was going up too.  Now production is flat and soon to be headed down, so even a partial recovery like the one we're experiencing now is sufficient to cause a price spike, and drive a new recession.  That means that our recoveries never get us out of the hole we were in from the previous recession before the next recession digs us down even deeper.

In summary:

  1. Our economy depends upon fossil fuels, particularly oil.
  2. Oil and fossil fuels are finite.
  3. In the production of all finite resources, production must reach a peak at some time.
  4. Discoveries must precede production.
  5. Discoveries of oil are well past their peak and current geological  studies indicate we are near or at the peak of oil production.
  6. Fossil fuels more generally must be phased out due to their impacts on our climate.
  7. No alternatives can substitute for oil or fossil fuels in scale, malleability, or cost.
  8. The decline in oil production and energy availability has a direct, negative impact on industrial economies.

What should an energy policy look like to respond to this set of challenges?  Like Jimmy Carter's.  Yes, Carter's name is almost used as a dirty word in Washington these days, but it's exactly this set of predicaments that he was trying to avoid with his energy policy.  That means we need a massive effort in the following areas:

  • Electric transportation: electrification of all rail (both passenger and cargo; local commuter rail, etc.), and of bus systems.
  • Promotion of urban policies that enable use of public transit, bicycling, walking, etc.
  • National energy conservation based upon California's multi-decade success story (in keeping energy use from rising)
  • Investment in alternative energy sources, primarily solar and wind.
  • Ending of all fossil fuel and biofuel subsidies.
  • Preparation to transition to a no-growth economy.

There's a lot that can be written on each of these points, but first we have to get the conversation on the right page.

Originally posted to barath on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 03:21 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (7+ / 0-)

    contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

    by barath on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 02:54:03 PM PST

  •  When you say "ending [...combustion...] subsidies" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath

    Are you including the current exclusion of externalities (ignoring death by air pollution, etc.) as a subsidy?   That's the big kahuna.

    My paraphrase in the title, actual referred text is:

    Ending of all fossil fuel and biofuel subsidies.

    We shall not participate in our own destruction.

    by James Wells on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 03:39:43 PM PST

    •  Yeah, that's very true (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      James Wells, SolarMom

      I didn't think of it that way, but you're very right that's a hidden subsidy that needs to be ended.

      (I'm still hoping we'll get a 100% clean energy dividend implemented someday, even if only at the state level)

      contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 04:10:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  And it's ultra-huge! (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        barath, SolarMom

        I understand that if the full externalities were included today when pricing new energy projects, that renewables beat combustion on price.  So that full accounting, by itself, could divert most to all new energy capital investment in the right direction.

        We shall not participate in our own destruction.

        by James Wells on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 04:13:40 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  You know, it's sort of screaming into the wind (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          James Wells, SolarMom

          What you and I write about...  I feel like I've been posting a lot of diaries on this stuff but I'm not sure there is or will be interest beyond a small group of folks.  And this is despite the fact that it has such major implications for, well, just about everything we do in our society.

          I wonder even with a nominally receptive reader base like at dKos whether we've reached saturation, and if so, if it's it worth it to keep writing about it...

          contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

          by barath on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 04:39:43 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Just ahead of our time! (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            barath, SolarMom

            But as a newcomer, I'm totally impressed with the wealth of content that you and others like A Siegel have written.  If there's nothing on the recent list, I can just choose someone and read back in time.

            FWIW, it's worth it to me ...

            We shall not participate in our own destruction.

            by James Wells on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 05:05:24 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Ok... (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              James Wells, SolarMom

              Well I guess then we should keep plugging away... :)

              I was thinking I'll start doing more news-oriented posts here and keep the analytical / prose pieces at my blog at contraposition.  I figure people like to read about the latest news rather than read me talk about oil and energy and limits to growth for the 20th time :)

              contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

              by barath on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 05:11:58 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

            •  Seriously - the historical record will matter (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              barath, SolarMom

              Of what people knew and when they knew it, not only at a national media level but also at retail.

              Someday, the deniers will be down to the 8th dog of denial:

              8. It's all the climate scientists' fault for not providing a convincing enough case, back in 2011 when there was still time to do something about it.

              There's is already quite a bit of evidence of this position taking shape, along the lines of "We would have done something about climate, but Al Gore polarized it on us and made it political.  And BTW he's fat."

              On that future day, going-forward choices will still matter.  So on that future day, it will be important to show that the relevant information was being put out there by passionate and informed people.

              We shall not participate in our own destruction.

              by James Wells on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 05:12:49 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  I realize I'm part of the small group of folks... (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                James Wells

                ...into these issues, but I do hope you keep posting.  

                This was spot on, barath.

                “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” -- FDR, 1936

                by SolarMom on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 07:59:40 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

  •  Transition to a no-growth economy (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    shaharazade, barath, Lawrence

    Obviously this has incredibly huge barriers to social possibility.

    I see the critical first step as:

    Moving to non-GDP measures of wellness

    This is incredibly important regardless of whether an economy is growing or shrinking, but it becomes critical in a non-growth situation.  If it is possible to shift the focus to objective measures of wellness, then not only does it regenerate hope for continued "progress" (cit this diary) but hugely increases the chances of actually making useful changes going forward.

    We shall not participate in our own destruction.

    by James Wells on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 03:52:37 PM PST

  •  That NCAR study is frightening, is it shows how (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath

    NG from fracking releases so much methane at the source that it is, indeed, worse than coal or oil.

    NG from conventional production could, indeed, virtually halve CO2 output in comparison with coal plants, but gas produced via fracking should be banned.

    I agree with much in this diary, but think that ending biofuel subsidies would be really shortsighted, as they can provide us with fuel for heavy-duty transportation, such as shipping and air travel, as we figure out how to electrify those.  Cor ethanol should not be subsidized, but cellulosic ethanol, ethanol from sugar beets, and especially biomethane show great promise.

    "A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle" - Mohammed Nabbous, R.I.P.

    by Lawrence on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 04:27:23 PM PST

    •  It's a problem of scale. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lawrence
      I agree with much in this diary, but think that ending biofuel subsidies would be really shortsighted, as they can provide us with fuel for heavy-duty transportation, such as shipping and air travel, as we figure out how to electrify those.  Cor ethanol should not be subsidized, but cellulosic ethanol, ethanol from sugar beets, and especially biomethane show great promise.

      This thing is that the scale of production is so unbelievably far from making a dent that it's not clear it's worth pouring money into it.  I did some estimates a few months back, and for example algae-based biofuels in the most optimistic projections of the industry itself might produce in 20 years around 1/100th of the liquid fuels we use today.  I think biofuels are fine as long as they're not competing for land with food crops and don't require fossil fuel inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, etc.) to produce.  (That's why algae-based fuels are the best of this bunch, but they can't scale.)  Also, the analyses I've seen indicate that due to our climate (i.e. non-tropical) we can't really get a good Energy-return on Energy Invested for the biofuel crops that will grow here.

      contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 04:32:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, scale is a problem. (0+ / 0-)

        That's why it really only makes sense to use biofuels for heavy-duty transport and air traffic.

        Biomethane from anaerobic digesters is pretty damn cool, though, as it produces other, useful by-products, such as compost, organic liquid fertilizers, and organic solid fertilizers.  In fact, it's a recipe against soil depletion.

        "A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle" - Mohammed Nabbous, R.I.P.

        by Lawrence on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 06:08:08 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  New EPA rules... (0+ / 0-)

      ...are likely to require capturing the methane.  Should I be sleeping more easily at night if those rules go final?

      “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” -- FDR, 1936

      by SolarMom on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 08:04:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  We need to expand Americas energy portfolio (0+ / 0-)

    and break the 30 yr energy policy gridlock in DC.

    Barath, since 06-07 we're at a significant peak or plateau when it comes to Crude oil production. I have seen nothing that suggests peak liquid fuel production.

    FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 05:21:36 PM PST

    •  Hmm... (0+ / 0-)

      Liquid fuel production hasn't been going up much, and it seems likely that we're only a few years away from peaking in that too (if for no other reason than conventional fields are depleting steadily).  The UK report is on liquid fuels (as are many others).  And then there's also the net exports question which Jeffrey Brown has written a lot about...

      contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 05:34:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I just like being accurate (0+ / 0-)

        Yeah sure liquids look like they'll peak, its bound to happen. Thats just not what you said in the diary.

        Heres another inaccuracy

         

        Demand isn't rising for electricity.

        Demand is up over 2 years. and if you use a 3 year rolling average there was no dip in electrical demand in the period from 2008 to 2009.

        Annual Energy Outlook 2010: With Projections to 2035 - CiteSeer
        Total electricity demand increases by 30 percent in
        the Reference case (an average of 1.0 percent per
        year), from 3,873 billion kilowatthours in 2008 to
        5,021 billion kilowatthours in 2035 (Figure 59). The
        largest percentage increase is in the commercial sec-
        tor (42 percent),

        Compare this
        http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com/...

        TO this

        http://38.96.246.204/...

        The situation is bad enough, lets be accurate.

        FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

        by Roger Fox on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 07:21:56 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Details (0+ / 0-)
          Demand is up over 2 years.

          I'm thinking on longer timescales it's been mostly flat.  You're right on a shorter timescale / smaller variation.  (We are coming out of a deep recession, so that's bound to happen.)

          I said we're in the time period of peak liquid fuels, not that it has happened.  Trying to time the peak is not worthwhile because it'll only be obvious in retrospect, after nothing can be done about it.

          contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

          by barath on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 09:00:04 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Actually, four or five decades of wishful thinking (0+ / 0-)

    about solar and wind has done nothing except to entrench and enrich the gas industry.

    The so called called "peak oil" scare is a claim that actually makes people believe that they must do anything - including kill people in other countries - to have oil since they will die, starve, freeze, etc without it.

    This is not in my view, helpful rhetoric.

    Jimmy Carter's energy policy was, in fact, terrible, since it consisted largely of his policy of giving us all "moral examples," this while kissing up to the Shah of Iran and placing a rather blind eye to the "human rights" record of SAVAK.    This policy has lead to more than 3 decades of horror in Iran which followed, um, three decades of horror.

    The worst energy policy of Jimmy Carter however was to remove the United States from the plutonium recycling technology that, um, the United States invented, under the leadership of one of the greatest chemists ever to have lived, Glenn Seaborg.

    We do not need oil; we do not need gas, and we certainly don't need biofuels - another Jimmy Carter "spinning the wheels" policy.   We certainly don't need to turn Northern China into a giant lanthanide pit mine to placate the insatiable and far less clean than advertised wind industry.

    We don't need more point source pollution as represented by solar cells.   Fifty years of cheering has not made them anything but a rich kid's toy that has never, ever, not for even one second, lived up to all the extravagant and ridiculous claims of what it "could" do.

    There is one, and only one, truly sustainable form of energy - although I doubt that it can support 7 billion people living at an American standard of living - which includes the ridiculous notion that we "need" cars.    (We don't need cars quite as much as we need, um, the very thing that cars destroy, that would be something called "air."

    The only acceptable form of energy is the one that people love to hate with huge dollops of fear, ignorance and superstition, nuclear energy.

    I know, I know, I know...Chernobyl, Fukushima, blah, blah, blah, blah...

    Somehow the rhetoric has been that only nuclear energy need be perfect, but...

    There are zero forms of energy that can meet the standards arbitrarily set for nuclear energy with respect to waste, with respect to safety, with respect to sustainability, with respect to ameliorating the risk of war and other violence.   None.  Zero.

    If nuclear energy killed as many people in the last 50 years as will die in the next two days from coal, oil, biomass and gas, the chorus of anti-nukes would be millions of times louder, since the only risks that anti-nukes care about is radiation.   Their calculation is that one death from nuclear activities is more important than millions of deaths from other energy related effects.

    This is not only absurd, but it is also immoral.

    Now, I do not expect that nuclear energy will be permitted to do what it might have done to have helped save humanity, but this is a statement that humanity will get only what it deserves.

    I voted for Jimmy Carter twice, but I do not regard his energy ideas as anything but an incredible failure.   Many of them did nothing more than to generate complacency and wishful thinking.   Some, the Iran policy and the nuclear fuel cycle policy, resulted in enormous tragedy.

    As for Joe Romm, he ought to spend the rest of his days in Snowmass/Aspen with his pal Amory looking for snow.   He's a blathering, boring, bourgeois brat who has not a single useful thing to say.   When he was working at the EPA the world set a record for the single largest yearly increase in the concentration of dangerous fossil waste in the atmosphere ever.     He's in Michael Brown territory, but somehow, like Brown, seems not have grasped that he ought to be ashamed of the fact that he took government paychecks to produce, um, nothing or worse than nothing.

    •  Hmm. (0+ / 0-)

      I agree with some of what you've said and disagree with some.  But I guess I realized posting this today that I don't have the energy to have debates about this stuff any more.

      So I'm going to stop posting analysis / big picture stuff as I was saying to James upthread.

      contraposition.org - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Tue Jan 24, 2012 at 08:56:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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