Oil Ain’t What it Used To Be

So there I was, being bemused about why BBC radio has a programme called Archive on 4 and another called the Archive Hour, when I caught an episode called Driven on Archive on 4.

Whichever series it was, wasn’t, isn’t or might be, the episode was about driverless cars. Mainly the sociological aspect of driverless cars. Will we take to them? Will they change us? Can we cope with the idea of not being in control?

Not, you’ll notice, are driverless cars economically feasible? As in, how likely is it that a society that today can barely afford to fill potholes will tomorrow be able to maintain the level of complexity-investment needed to build and operate fleets of autonomous vehicles?

During the programme, a voice from archive-land intoned that there are (or were – it could have been an old voice) 5.5 trillion barrels of oil still out there. One assumes they brought this up to head off any carping from dreary sceptics wishing to know whether the BBC had thought about the laws of thermodynamics before editing-together 58 minutes of speculation about our glorious autonomous future.

Anyway. Oil. Not a problem. Billions of BTUs at our service.

Or not. There’s a school of thought that says that oil ain’t what it used to be. Yes, it’s basically the self-same stuff that comes in styles ranging from too-light-for-vehicles to too-heavy-for-anything. But what today’s oil will do for you just isn’t as good as what yesterday’s did.

Yesterday’s oil – think fields in pre-WWII Texas or the 1950s Middle East – virtually jumped into your lap and rubbed its head under your chin. It was wonderfully eager and absolutely able to turn itself into interstate highways, space programmes, suburbs, the Internet and everything else we’ve come to think of as the foundations of a dazzlingly bright future full of .… oh, I don’t know .… full of self-driving cars.

But today’s oil. Oh dear. Today’s oil is a curmudgeonly stick-in-the-sand. You have to pour so much money into getting it to come out to play that there’s barely enough money/energy left over to keep patching up the systems we’ve got, let alone put a Tesla in everyone’s cooking pot (or was that a chicken?).

The ‘fracking miracle’, for example, is all about it being a fracking miracle that outlets like the BBC never mention how the only folk making money out of tight oil are Wall Street bankers whose loans keep drillers afloat so they in turn can pan-handle for investors’ cash to spend on extracting for $55 dollars a barrel what they can sell for only $50.

Today’s oil is also a bit pants as a transport fuel. Fracked oil is too light. So, to ‘Goldilocks’ it, you have to mix it with stuff from elsewhere. More expense. Still-fewer net BTUs left over to keep the economy from resetting to a lower level of complexity. ‘Lower level of complexity’ being shorthand for most people being unable to afford a lifestyle where self-driving cars had either purpose or meaning.

There’s still a reasonable supply of conventional, Mark 1 civilisation-building goop left but that’s been getting less and less every year since 2005. Also, more and more of it stays in its country of origin. That means less energy for UK PLC and its autonomous dreams. And less income for the producing countries to spend on importing our war machinery – sorry, defence equipment.

What was that, Sooty? We could make the autonomous cars electric? Well we could, Sooty. But do you think the people promoting self-driving cars do much systems thinking?

What do they think about the likelihood that running Bitcoin, for example – an entirely digital phenomenon – already uses as much electricity as the whole of Ecuador?

If simply mining imaginary coins takes the same amount of juice as running the world’s 64th largest economy, how much will it take to run the control systems for tens of thousands of autonomous cars? And that’s merely powering the central software: you’ll still need to power all the roadside hardware, the plethora of cameras, sensors and processors in the cars, and all the rest of it. And we haven’t included building and running the cars yet.

No-one’s asking what the point is of doing all driving this. The best the BBC archive could manage was a bit of wishy washy guff about freedom to travel. The main point of mass motoring was to turn oil – basically a smelly, flammable substance with useful chemical applications – into food, housing, supermarkets, hospitals, universities, containerloads of plastic dreck from China and so on .… aka civilisation …. on a scale never before conceived let alone achieved.

Take away oil and you take away most of the point of having cars. I’ll bet that there are a thousand more-efficient ways of turning sunlight into civilisation than perpetuating the massively energy-hungry automobile system.

Tell you what, Sooty, maybe you could sprinkle some oofle dust on our policymakers to help them think more imaginatively. What’s that? You haven’t got any left because Elon Musk already took it all for his Mars programme?

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All that and Cold War II

Obama-and-Putin-on=Phones

Was that all it took? A bit of a dust-up on the Black Sea and now the cold war is on again.

The dynamics are rather different this time. There’s no Iron Curtain and it’s more of a joint enterprise than a genuine stand off.

But everyone’s happy by the look of things. The War on Terror outlived its usefulness. It lost its power to terrify the citizenry of the US and Europe. And while it achieved much useful erosion of voters’ rights and expectations, the project needed a new impetus and focus.

Militarily, the WoT only delivered insurgencies in dusty places. No justification for grand weapons programmes. And too much influence for the spooky side of the business–the NSA, GCHQ and the rest.

What the people behind the people we elect to lead us here in the West want is a proper bogeyman. Right on our doorstep. Bristling with weaponry. And with convincing form.

Putin has been building that form for years–with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Western media, of course. Now the time has arrived for everyone to cash in their chips, pack away the WoT and move on to CW2.

As a plot, it has everything going for it. It sandwiches the EU (henceforth to be known by its US name, the “fucktheEU”) between Uncle Sam and Big Boris. It’s a perfect cover-up for a further carving-up of Europe’s plum assets and plump citizenry. Big military spending comes back into fashion even though lights are going out and shops are shutting on the reverse slope of Hubbert’s peak. The list goes on.

No wonder Putin and Obama spend so much time on the phone to each other these days. There’s a hell of a lot to organise.

The organisers gratefully acknowledge the unstinting cooperation of all major US and EU media organisations in making Cold War II possible.

Taking the fracking Mickey

Fog, mist or hazy darkness. An energy system that has passed its sell-by date and is slowly evanescing into darkness.

You have to hand it to Dr Chris Cornelius. Calling his offshore fracking business Nebula Resources betrays a wry sense of humour if ever there was one.

Of Nebula’s plans to explore for tight gas in the Irish Sea, Dr Cornelius said:

“We’re very comfortable that the resource is there and the numbers are absolutely ginormous. Is any of that exploitable? That’s the billion dollar question and we won’t know that for many years.”

Quadranting has to assume that the resource being referred to is gas rather than the credulity of investors. After all, Wall Street has successfully strip-mined the latter in the US. Fortunes have been made in the shale gas business. But all too often it was from flipping leases and selling derivatives based on nebulous expectations, rather than selling gas at a profit.

Of course, a big rise in gas prices could easily turn tight offshore gas into a viable game for the frackers. Good for them. But, if you’re a customer, that’s the economics of ‘let them eat cake’.

In space, nebulae form when suns burn through virtually all their fuel. These stars finally eject their outer layers in a bright shell of gas, which lasts a few ten thousands of years before diffusing into the surrounding vastness. In another five billion years, it will happen to our own sun.

Right now, it’s a pretty close analogy to the experience of the oil and gas industry. As it burns through the last of the cheap reserves, fracking and arc tic exploration become the last, bright, hope of holding everything together.

But going after ever harder, deeper and more difficult resources is really just the final flourish of a burnt-out system. Dr Cornelius is clearly a smart guy. If he’d wanted to suggest that offshore fracking is really is hot stuff after all, he could easily have named his company Corona (after the superheated plasma surrounding the sun).

But as it’s called Nebula, I guess we’re being invited to draw our own conclusions.

Syria – the problem and the pretext

The on-going kerfuffle over Syria is as much about gas as about anything else. Not sarin or some other weaponised chemical cocktail. No, we are talking about good old natural gas.

Syria is the focal point of rival plans to pipe natural gas into Europe. Plan A would pipe gas from Russia via Iran. Plan B would pipe it from the Persian Gulf. Assuming that only one pipeline gets built, its backers can hold Europe to ransom over energy supplies for years to come.

The Gulf gas exporters need a stable, friendly Syria through which to pipe their gas. Should Syria remain pro-Russian, or break down into a collection of warring fiefdoms, the Gulf pipeline would be pretty much a non-starter. Without it, Qatar and the other regional exporters have to liquefy their gas and export it by tanker. That is expensive and vulnerable to Iran’s potential to disrupt shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.

For Russia, anything less than a West-backed military occupation of Syria is a win. Russia can still pipe gas directly across its Western border with Europe. Blocking the gulf routes would be a bonus, though. That would give it a near-monopoly on the European market. And, as extra icing on the cake the option of a Mediterranean outlet to the increasingly energy-desperate southern European periphery.

Hence the outbreak of brinksmanship over chemical weapons.

In today’s world, 100,000 deaths from explosive chemicals is a problem. 1,000 deaths from poisonous chemical gas is a pretext. Unexpectedly for the US administration, the thing the gas attack was supposed to be the pretext for – an escalating US-led military involvement in Syria – has not happened.

Putin’s assessment of public opinion in the West turned out to be very astute. Apart from France, which gets three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear energy and needs US support to secure its North African nuclear fuel supply route, no one in Europe had any appetite to go adventuring into another Middle Eastern military morass. Germany is trying to get off the fossil energy hook as fast as possible, while the UK Government has perhaps recognised that Royal Wootton Bassett was, in its understated way, a watershed for Britain’s electorate.

As for the US, the Big Lie that it is foisting on its citizenry, about fracking its way to energy independence, has backfired in this instance. Why go to war over a right of way for energy on the far side of the world if you are being told you have 100 years of bounty under your own soil?

Of course, this is not the end of the Syrian civil war, nor of the widening spider’s web of political, ethnic, economic and religious cracks across the Middle East, nor of the deepening energy predicament undermining Europe’s status quo.

The main change is that, after last week’s Russian-American manoeuvrings, Europe finds itself a choice of devils to sup with. The questions being: which one and how long a spoon will we need?

An evening of hypocrisy and moral cowardice in front of the gas fire

“It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of this little world don’t amount to a hill of beans to all these crazy people” – Collapsablanca

It’s Friday night and what John Michael Greer often calls ‘the predicament’ is in full swing over at the QuadRanting place.

Ma and Pa QuadRanting are sipping a chilled New Zealand white and nibbling pistachios. QuadRanting Jnr is watching YouTube on his tablet. He’s got headphones on but his helpless giggles keep cutting across Monty Don on BBC2, who’s looking ravishing in HD against the backdrop of a French millionaire’s recreation of a XVIIth century potager.

As it’s Friday, we’ve got the coal-effect gas fire on in addition to the central heating. And the wood/coal stove in the kitchen is still alight too – although to be fair, the stove is the only heater we use during daylight hours.

Cables and pipes radiate out from this cosy little scene to the Great Unsustainability Support Machine. For the avoidance of doubt on that subject, my role in the drama is to toggle my attention between Mr Don on the telly and the coffee table edition of the Post Carbon Institute’s “Energy – Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth“, which is open on my lap.

A bit of context here. QuadRanting’s gross income puts us narrowly into the highest/luckiest/most spoilt or whatever you want to call it quintile of UK earners. It was not ever thus, though. No silver spoons in our family. Nevertheless, the chain of lucky accidents that began with where and when I was born has borne me blindly along, atop a rising tide of pillaged common natural inheritance, to the point half a century later where I’ve washed up amidst the most materially-privileged 2% or 3% of humanity.

One wonders what my great-grandfather – a Sierra Leone-born black slave in Ghana who bought his freedom from his local owner by joining first the British army in Accra and later the Navy, which brought him to England after a decade spent patrolling the Caribbean – would have thought of where his lineage was headed.

Fluke

Great-granddad was a fluke of history. Timing and chance as much as character and determination got him from up country Ghana to the East End of London, from where his children and grandchildren headed west and south to leafy middle class suburbs.

Of course the lifestyle now enjoyed by his descendants was equally a fluke of history. Seventeen years after he was born, the modern oil age began in Pennsylvania. Thirty years after he landed in London, Spindletop inaugurated the explosive draw-down of the Earth’s energy inheritance that brought us to where we are today.

Which is at or near some kind of epochal peak in human history. For I’m in complete agreement with the PCI, and James Howard Kunstler, Nicole Foss, JMG, Tullet Prebon, the New Economics Foundation and many others, that the curtain has come down on the era of turbocharged growth bookended by my great-grandfather and his great-great-grandchildren.

What’s left to us is weak growth. For a while anyway. And even that can’t last for long as declining net energy sucks us on to its inexorable glide path. Stasis isn’t an option either. It’s as if the laws of thermodynamics are having their revenge: we can’t win; we can’t break even, and we can’t get out of the game. The PCI’s coffee table tome bleakly exposes the incredible cost of maintaining the gigantism that underpins high-energy civilisation. That civilisation is a precondition of my way of life, as described up top, (which is materially affluent by UK standards but decidedly average by American ones).

One obvious question is what am I going to do about this? Well, nothing, obviously. But surely one should do something when one realises that humanity is skipping, twirling and limping up a deadly cul-de-sac?

My dear fellow, welcome to the predicament.

Around six years ago, when I was beginning my mental journey into the ramifications of peak oil, I saw a clip of Michael Ruppert urging an audience of college kids to get out of (or stop going further into) debt. We’d been paying down our mortgage faster than necessary anyway – because it seemed vaguely like a good thing to do. Peak oil awareness sank sharp teeth into the backside of our good intentions, so we boosted our efforts and got out 10 years early.

Backyard chickens

We already lived in a small country town but, even so, we put chickens in the garden for eggs and the table, and started growing more of our own fruit and veg. Resilience and community matter: we got stuck in and helped to prevent half the town’s small number of allotment gardens going under houses. I could go on.

According to chaos theory, any of those gestures could have been the butterfly’s wing-beat that set off a chain reaction that culminated in a hurricane that would sweep away all the rotten, fossil-fueled overgrowth threatening the planet. Quite a violent image, of course, and only really a charming little fantasy (though a surprisingly popular one).

What has actually happened? Six years on, another 400 million humans have been born. Complexity and energy-dependency have risen massively everywhere. The financial breakdown predicted and chronicled for the past five years at The Automatic Earth has already taken one massive lurch forward with the financial crisis and is now coasting on something of a false flat before the next great spasm.

Our civilisation is doing what all civilisations do: outgrowing its resource base and morphing into something else through a phase of unstable contraction. But as JMG and a few others keep trying to point out, it’s quite likely that the process will take hundreds of years to work itself out. Along the way, there are bound to be some pretty impressive moments – after all, ours is by an order of magnitude the hugest civilisation to reach this point.

Such a moment could hit us in the next six months, in a couple of years or not for another decade or more. Like markets that can behave irrationally for longer than investors can remain solvent, collapse can easily take its own sweet time. Much as I’d love to be the brave little boy holding his finger in the dyke until the cavalry arrives (gaily blowing mixed metaphors on their burnished bagpipes), realistically nothing I do will change anything, even though I kept on doing whatever it was for years.

The energy-waste economy

There’s you could call the Paradox of the Inflection Point. It’s about being the first to walk away from over-consumption. Phrases like “we all need to make do with less” abound in the peak oil-o-sphere and they are no less true for being endlessly repeated. But we need to remember a couple of things about overconsumption. One is that it is merely the flip side of overproduction. Focusing on consumption makes us feel as though we’re in control but the truth is that the most of the impetus is “push” from the production side. As long as small fraction of stuff makes a buck, the rest can go straight to landfill as long as there’s surplus energy to market the next ship load of waste

Walking away from over consumption (bearing in mind that even a modest Western lifestyle would overload the planet if every human lived it) solves nothing at an individual level. My individual decision to be more slowly wasteful than someone else has no measurable impact on the tar sands operation, or the rate of coal fired power station construction or the sales of new cars in the UK. It cannot affect the decision of a Brazilian rancher to clear x more hectares of forest because the touch-points between her and me are utterly tenuous.

I could go off grid, I could starve, I could die. It wouldn’t make an iota of difference to the big picture. In the 50-odd years since I was born, I’ve gone from being one two-and-a-half-billionth part of the human machine to one seven-billionth. I live like a king. I consume as much energy as 200 pre-industrial workers. Yet if my existence blinked out tomorrow, the future trajectory of history wouldn’t deviate by a micron.

Involuntary simplicity

The paradox is that if voluntary simplicity really did have societal, as opposed to individual or small-group, effects, then collapse would happen all the sooner. The involuntary simplicity being forced on nations from Greece to the UK and US, because oil is now too expensive to waste, is promoting descent at an increasingly smart pace.

So I sit in our comfortable, well-insulated, warm home with fast broadband. It is cold outside. The economy has begun its long term contraction. The great pensions collapse of the late 20-teens is gathering pace behind closed doors. We know what is happening and why. Surely I should be trying to do something. Make sacrifices. Cut back. Or get out and warn people that the world they’ve believed in for a lifetime is coming to an end.

What’s stopping me? Is it hypocrisy? Moral cowardice? Or is that there is really not a lot to be done. We’re in extreme overshoot as a species. Collapse is coming – probably catabolically. It cannot be avoided or realistically pre-empted. So I’m going to cross that bridge when it comes to me.

As it surely will.

Every story paints a picture

Oliver Valves sounds like a minor character from a Goon Show episode  In fact, it’s a manufacturing firm in Cheshire.

The Telegraph asked the boss for his thoughts on yesterday’s budget statement. He liked less corporation tax and more help for exporters.

Then he got on to energy:

“While the Prime Minister is talking rubbish about wind farms, I’m also really pleased the Chancellor is talking of shale gas. If you drill part of Lancashire, you can have enough gas and oil coming out of shale extraction to run Britain for the next 65 years, so why are we mucking about with wind farms?”

Lordy. And he has the cheek to accuse the PM of talking rubbish.

At first I thought these were the opinions of yet another all-round business person whose natural over-optimism had been stimulated by the tall tales told by the shale fairy.

Then I checked out his business and realised he is simply talking his book. Oliver Valves sells stuff to the oil and gas industry.

Shale is the perfect pitch for suppliers. Rapidly-depleting wells lead to frenzy of drilling and piping as gas companies run faster and faster just to maintain production. Crap economics for the producers but great business for their supply chain while it lasts.

By all means give shale gas in Lancashire a try. But don’t make us laugh by trying to pretend that punching a couple of holes will put Britain straight for 65 years. More like 6.5 years – even if Lancashire and many other places get punctured like pin cushions.

Still, if there’s a prize for summing up the shale gas canard in 100 words or less, the Telegraph piece should make it on to the short-list.

Sadly for all of us in advanced industrial countries, the high oil and gas prices that make shale economic in the short term are slowly killing demand for oil and gas. In turn, that is slowly killing our iteration of high tech industrialisation.

You’d think we’d be trying all the options. Wind farms included. But hell no. It looks as though we’ll ride the technologies we know all the way to the bitter end.

Final scene from Dr Srangelove

The Permanent Low Growth Disconnect

Pundits popped up on Radio 4 this morning to drop passing mentions of the UK’s permanent low growth outlook into their previews of the Autumn Statement.

Their hints bobbed across the breakfast airwaves as we digested the news that George Osborne will have to ‘extend austerity’ for another year to 2018.

I guess many people took away the thought that that means it will take even longer for things to turn round.

But that’s not what they said. When you cut the drug of hope with the talc of the truth lurking in that word ‘permanent’, the actual implication is that things won’t get better at all. Come 2018, we could find ourselves exchanging austerity for something more astringent.

We’re being softened up. The future won’t be the happy, shiny place we allowed ourselves to believe it would be. Or the one ‘they’ promised us if you took the politicians’ mantra of endless growth as a pledge they could somehow deliver.

Writing this at my PC in a warm room, central heating working and electricity flowing, streaming classical music over a 20MB web link, there’s no obvious connection between my blissful life and the bad news on the radio.

But the roll-over from increasing to decreasing net energy is not an abstraction. It’s real and it’s starting to trash the easy economic dogmas of the past 70 years.

UK industry hit by costs and ‘dying’ supply chain” reports today’s Telegraph business section. Yup. Not merely ‘inefficient’ or ‘under-invested’ but on the way to the knacker’s yard.

This is what happens to a highly technology-dependent society when its most important input – cheap fuel – goes away.

Life doesn’t suddenly change. Chaos doesn’t erupt. Hairline cracks appear. Then big ones. And even some of those – like the pensions breakdown – can be papered over for a long time.

But it gets clearer and clearer that we turned a corner five to 10 years ago. “Where’s the demand gone?” muttered one of Radio 4’s pundits this morning. That’s the connection. Welcome to the century of unaffordability.