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What my congressman does (and does not) know about energy

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble.
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

--Mark Twain

Last week I participated in an energy forum sponsored by a congressional candidate from my district. In preparation I thought it would be useful to understand the positions of his opponent, the incumbent, on energy issues. Fortunately, the incumbent had done a lengthy interview with our local National Public Radio station earlier in the summer.

I confess that my expectations about energy literacy among most people are quite low. And, I wouldn't expect most members of Congress to understand energy very well either unless they serve on committees that deal with energy issues. But my congressman, Fred Upton of Michigan, is the ranking Republican member on the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. So, I expected that he would have a pretty good handle on basic information about energy, at least in the United States.

With pen and yellow pad in hand I clicked on the interview ready to take a few notes. On the first pass I thought perhaps Upton had just misspoken on some points. But as I listened again, I realized that he was confidently spouting obviously erroneous information. Here is a man who is central to energy policy in the United States speaking glibly on a broad range of energy issues who in at least two instances got important basic facts wrong and in other cases was either misinformed or misleading. If his understanding of energy issues is a proxy for those in Congress who are well-informed on energy issues, then it's no wonder federal energy policy is in the state it's in.

Here are two instances in which he was just plain wrong. He could have discovered the correct information with a few searches on the Internet and some simple calculations.

  • On oil consumption in the United States: "Our use here in the United States is about 10 million barrels a day."

    The Facts: Average daily consumption of total crude oil and petroleum products in the United States for June 2008 was 19,552,867 barrels per day. You can calculate this using numbers from U. S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), a part of the U. S. Department of Energy. (The math is 586,586,000 barrels divided by 30 days.) I would have accepted 19, 19.5, or 20 million as close enough for radio. But 10 million is so far off that I have to believe that Upton simply has the wrong information or made up a number. How can the go-to guy in the House of Representatives on energy for the Republicans not know this piece of basic information cold?

  • On exports to the United States from the Canadian tar sands: "We need to bring in oil from tar sands up in Canada. They're producing a million barrels a day, and yet, we stop it at the border. It can't come down."

    The Facts: Some 99 percent of all Canadian crude oil exports go to the United States. About 43 percent of all crude oil production in Canada comes from the tar sands. Considerable amounts of refined and upgraded products are also exported to the United States. This information is available on the website of the National Energy Board of Canada. Moreover, an extensive pipeline network links the Canadian petroleum infrastructure to the United States. The pipelines carry both crude oil and upgraded and refined petroleum products. To see how extensive these connections are, check out pipeline maps from the major pipeline companies: Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, and TransCanada. Note that an Enbridge pipeline reaches right up to Fort McMurray which is the epicenter of Canadian tar sands activity and connects it with a major crossborder pipeline.

    It stands to reason that some Canadian products from the oil sands are indeed flowing into the United States. But more broadly, the implication that there is some impediment to Canadian hydrocarbons crossing the U. S. border is complete nonsense. In addition, the Oil & Gas Journal reports extensive investments are currently being made in pipeline and refining capacity in both the United States and Canada to handle increased production from the tar sands. What could my congressman possibly mean when he says that oil from the tar sands is being stopped at the border?

    Perhaps even more troubling is his assumption that oil resources in other countries are subject to whatever call the United States wishes to make on them. What if the Canadians were to decide to export more of their oil to Asia? Or, what if they decided they needed more oil for domestic use as is occurring in many of the world's largest exporting countries? Would Upton suggest that we take it by force?

In other instances he appeared to be either misinformed or misleading. I'm inclined to think that he believes what he says, and that means that he is not being cynical, but truly doesn't understand energy issues.

  • On wind power for Michigan: "Wind and solar I'm all for. But, you know, you're not going to reserve the whole state of Missouri to build these wind farms."

    The Facts: It's not clear why Upton believes Michigan would have to import wind energy from Missouri when Michigan has some of the best wind resources in the world. According a wind map of the state prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Michigan has huge Class 5 (excellent) and Class 6 (outstanding) wind resources along its extensive shorelines. A draft report prepared for the Michigan Public Service Commission shows estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of 16.5 gigawatts of onshore wind capacity and almost 45 gigawatts of offshore capacity. The entire state of Michigan currently has generating capacity of about 30 gigawatts. A study from the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center suggests that in the central part of Lake Michigan the wind resource could be 182 gigawatts, six times the state's current generating capacity. With these resources Michigan could become a substantial power exporter.

    Upton is right when he says the national grid would have to be upgraded and expanded to accommodate transfer of power from exporters of wind-generated electricity to those needing the power. But his remark about Missouri makes it clear that he doesn't understand the wind potential of his own state nor that wind is a highly decentralized power source that can be tapped on much smaller scales than the huge wind farms he implies are necessary.

  • On oil shale: "The reserves in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming exceed a trillion barrels of what's expected down there. And, that's more than what Saudi Arabia has."

  • The Facts: The trillion barrels number that Upton cites comes from estimates of the total resource. But for economic and technical reasons only a fraction of the total resource could ever be exploited. The U. S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) believes that the amount of liquid fuel available from oil shale in the United States is closer 400 billion barrels. What Upton doesn't know or doesn't say is that oil shale, in fact, contains no oil. It is rock impregnated with kerogen, a waxy substance that is better characterized as immature oil. If the rock had been buried sufficiently far underground, higher temperatures and pressures might have cooked it until it had become oil or natural gas.

    What this means is that the "cooking" has to be done by us humans. That requires huge amounts of energy which have to come from somewhere. One of the big problems with oil shale is that it may end up taking more energy to get it out of the ground and transform it than it yields, even with new technologies. So, the question is, why not use the energy that would be used to process oil shale in our vehicles, homes and industries directly instead? We'd actually save energy by doing so as long as it takes more energy to extract and process kerogen from shale.

    Finally, the statement that there is more oil in America's oil shale than under Saudi Arabia is misleading. The absolute size of the total resource may be larger, but oil from oil shale must be manufactured using unproven, energy-intensive processes. In fact, there are no commercial oil shale processing plants in operation. Saudi oil, which is some of the very highest quality in the world, is simply pumped out of the ground at the rate of 10 million barrels a day ready to be refined into the products we want. In fact, because of the difficulties related to processing oil shale, the EIA is projecting that even in the best case scenario, oil shale in the United States will yield only about 140,000 barrels of oil products a day by 2030. That represents just 0.6 percent of the total expected consumption of liquid fuels in that year of 22.8 million barrels per day for the entire United States.

    Perhaps an analogy will help illustrate the problem. If you were to receive an inheritance of $1 million with the stipulation that you could only draw out $100 a week, you might be a millionaire, but you would never be able to live like one. It is doubtful that the huge inheritance of oil shale the United States contains will ever produce oil at a rate that will allow Americans to live like Saudi princes or even produce it at more than a tiny fraction of the rate that the average Saudi or American citizen currently requires.

  • On greenhouse gas emissions related to nuclear power: "They have no emissions. No greenhouse gas emissions at all."

    The Facts: Upton might claim that he meant only the operation of the reactor causes no emissions. But he keeps repeating this claim throughout the interview. Of course, uranium mining and processing are exceedingly energy intensive with much of that energy coming from oil, particularly diesel. In addition, the construction of a nuclear power plant releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, especially from the enormous volumes of concrete used in making the containment building and other facilities. It's true that the emissions are considerably less than those of fossil fuel plants over their lifetime, but the emissions are not zero. Solar- and wind-generated electricity has carbon emissions much closer to zero; but even solar panels and windmills must currently be manufactured, deployed and serviced using some fossil fuel energy.

  • On the French nuclear program: "The French, 90 percent of their power comes from nuclear power."

    The Facts: Nuclear advocates often tout the French nuclear program as a big success story. It is true that the French get most of their electricity from nuclear power--78 percent, not the 90 percent claimed by Upton in his interview. And, it is true that the French have not experienced headline-grabbing accidents such as those that occurred at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl. What Upton doesn't say is that French civilian nuclear power has been entirely controlled by the French government. Electricity generation in France has long been a public trust. And, even though the country's government electricity monopoly, Électricité de France, has recently floated shares to the public, the government still retains 85 percent ownership.

    Part of the success of the French nuclear program can be attributed to the fact that the French government chose what it believed to be the safest reactor design available, deployed it throughout the country, and was able to apply lessons learned in operating that design to the safe and efficient operation of its entire reactor fleet. In the United States, a public-private partnership in the nuclear industry spawned many reactor designs with differing operational trajectories which meant that lessons and insights gained from one type of reactor were difficult to apply to other reactor designs. The French nuclear power industry has been operated on behalf of the citizens of France, while the American nuclear power industry has been operated on behalf of its shareholders. Theoretically, the privately owned nuclear utilities should have outperformed their government-owned equivalents. In practice, they have not.

    Would that Upton's newfound love for all things French extended to another government-run success: the French system of universal health care which the World Health Organization rated as the best in the world in its last assessment of health systems. But that's another story.

Editorial Notes: I would hate to have Kurt Cobb critique any presentation on energy that I might give! On the other hand, if Kurt's rigorous critiques were the norm, our energy policies would be much more intelligent. -BA

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