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ASPO-USA conference, last day

One of the helpful aspects of the ASPO-USA organization is that they post the videos and presentations that were given at their conferences. Obviously these need to be tweaked after being recorded, and so do not go up immediately but, for example, they have just posted the video of the Jeff Rubin talk on their site. I am going to conclude my summary of the conference itself with this report. I was not able to stay for the final afternoon, and so Gail has kindly furnished a summary that I will add to cover that section of the Conference. As usual I will then give a short summary of what I felt were the highlights, but which is more opinion that content – the goal of these initial posts.

Turning therefore to the Saturday morning meetings, these began with a slight change, since Terry Backer the scheduled speaker was, unfortunately, ill. Paul, one of his advisors, spoke on his behalf, noting that Connecticut – where they are from – has no indigenous coal, oil or natural gas. They had a plan for moving forward that had received support for a significant effort to insulate houses, but unfortunately even though it would have provided a number of jobs, it fell victim to the recession. They are now looking to see the potential for micro-hydro in the state.

The first session was chaired by Ted Patzek and was focused on the Gulf oil spill and the likely consequences.

I led off with a chronological review of the events that occurred through the course of the spill until the time that the well was declared dead. This covered the initial completion of the well, the kick and explosion on the rig, and the sinking of the well. I then went through the stages of the capture of oil, and the capping of the well. This also covered the assumptions that led to the location of the relief well and what was found when it hit the well. Very largely it was a summary of the posts that were written at the time, with the aid of some photos that others had posted.

After my talk, Art Berman spoke of some of the errors that culminated in the failure of the well and the consequent disaster. He began by pointing out that the energy resource of the Gulf is much larger than that of shale gas, and in the deep water is likely the last great hope of American production. From that point of view the shut down (which has nominally now been lifted. He described the number of wells in the gulf and pointed out that the Macondo well was not an exception.

In reviewing the causes of the disaster he started with the problems that arose when the initial float collar, used in the injection of the cement to hold the production casing in place, did not properly function. To get to work the crew used a pulse of high pressure down the well, and then only cemented part of the lowest section, rather than injecting sufficient cement to fill the annulus up to the level of the previous casing. Because there was a considerable washout of the reservoir, the crew then chose to use a foam cement. Tests have shown that this takes some 24 – 48 hours for this cement to set, and yet they began displacing the mud holding the oil and gas within the reservoir after only 16 hours.

Because the well was drilled with an oil-based mud (rather than the more conventional water-based) natural gas will not come out of suspension at the same depth, but rather remained in suspension in the oil until very close to the surface. At that point it would expand, so that one cu ft of gas at depth would occupy some 800 cu ft and so the onset of disaster came very suddenly.

A problem that continues to face drilling and production companies has to do with experience. There is not a large cadre of well-qualified managers, since the highly cyclic nature of the industry means that many of those who would occupy such ranks were let go in the bad years, and are now otherwise employed. Thus the onus of management is falling to people that do not have the necessary experience and knowledge.

Rick Munroe brought the debate into the larger picture of the Peak fuel debate. Ho pointed out the considerable difference between the military view of the coming crisis, in contrast with the more complacent civilian government point of view. The Energy Bulletin lists about 60 papers from various military analysts that have highlighted the coming problems of energy security and fuel availability. In contrast it was only in 2008 that the IEA began to express similar concerns. Yet, as a paper in 2008 from the U.S. Army War College noted, while these strategic shocks are predictable, they are either not prepared for, or inadequately addressed. The federal fuel emergency plans that do exist are about 30 years old, dating from the last time we had such a event.

On Sept. 28th Energy Bulletin posted a review of the Peak Oil situation by the German military. The response to the crisis, because of this lack of preparation, will not be stable, but chaotic. This instability will increase with time as economies shrink. The result will be unprecedented in its severity.

Munroe pointed out that the recent German military study is unique in several respects:

  • it not the opinion of a single officer, but rather the consensus of a team of qualified analysts.

  • it views peak oil as a major domestic threat (ie. an internal threat to the German economy and social fabric).

Munroe also mentioned an Army War College study whose title refers to oil supply problems as "a weapon of mass disruption." He also referred to the 2005 Oil Shockwave exercise which projected that if 4% of the world supply was removed from the market then prices would triple.

Yet with all this information available he was unable to find any significant interest in the topic either in Canada or the United States. There is no planning for the impact of oil shortage on the agricultural production of either country, and the GAO noted that planning on the topic ceased about 20 years ago. The two countries which seem to have done the most progressive work on planning for Liquid Fuel Emergencies are Australia and the UK. And yet a fuel crisis will, in very short time, transform into also being a food crisis. One obvious problem is that although farmers are designated as priority users in all emergency plans, recent thinking advocates rationing by price ("full price pass-through"). Net income for most North American family farmers is at record lows, and many farmers would be unable to afford emergency prices for diesel fuel. Planning for fuel emergencies is a highly complex business, and thus no-one wishes to address it.

In introducing the second session of the morning Ron Swenson said that one of the goals of ASPO-USA was to bring people together in such a way as to leave a world worth inheriting. The session was on the Laws of Energy, Technology and Scale.

Tad Patzek talked of scale, and that the critical metric is the rate of production. He sees peak oil in 2 – 3 years; peak coal soon and peak NG in 20 – 30 years. But while there is still lots of fuel underground it is the rate of production, and the scale of production that are constrained and that drive us into these peaks. If, for example, oil lies in a piggy bank, and we can’t break down the walls, then the rate at which we get money back out depends on the size of the slot in the top. But we should also remember that, on average, we leave 2/3 of the oil in the ground and only recover 1/3.

We use 100 times the amount of energy we have to eat to survive. The world eats roughly 1 Exajoule (EXJ) and we turn fuels into 39 ExJ of energy. One of the more promising techniques for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) is to inject CO2 into the field. This is already in use in the United States and might be able to increase production by 10%, but this comes at the end of field life. In total it might be possible to get up to 2.5 mbd of EOR oil (remember that Ghawar is producing in the 4-5 mbd range), but to get to that level will require lots of money and engineering expertise – and he is not sure we have enough of the latter. He anticipates that Canada may be able to grow tar sand production to 3 mbd by 2020.

In discussing future energy projections he said that many companies will list the prospects that they are considering drilling into – but for budget and other reasons will only actually work a fraction of those lists. Thus those who rely on the projections paint an unrealistic view of what the future will bring. We are, therefore, not in as good shape as most predict.

Ken Zweibel spoke about the Solar Grand Plan. Current development of solar has not developed under any of the pressures that will come when supply as seen as an “emergency need.” Yet overall production gas reached 10 GW and so he is optimistic of the future. Because the liquid fuels supply problem is so tied to transportation the we need to see how the use of solar energy can feed that market. This will require evolution of the Smart Grid, and means for solar forecasting and balancing of power. Unfortunately solar distribution varies – the Southwest gets 30% more photons that the DC area, for example. But, on the other hand, wind is like the measles.

We have gone from $30 a watt to $1.50 a watt, but this only covers the module cost. That is not all the costs since installation and maintenance must also be included and these will likely double the module costs. However while one can pay back the cost of the module in 1.5 years, it might take 15 years in energy savings to cover the whole cost of the installation.

He covered the current costs of some of the major systems that we will likely see grow to dominate the market. The costs have dropped 40% of the last four years, but to go lower they need (and deserve) the lowest interest rate for loans. And he moved on from there to discuss payback on the different systems, though he noted that many costs are based on out-dated methodologies. Cadmium telluride is a promising new candidate, and is not that polluting. And he noted that, in contrast to most conventional systems solar does not use significant water (except a little for cleaning). He pointed out that of the 17 Quads used in transportation only 3.4 Quads (quadrillion Btu’s) do the effective work of moving the object. Electric powered vehicles are thus a more viable alternative.

He said that only 15% of the Canadian tar sands could be recovered by surface mining, and that the energy costs are 15 – 50% of the recovered and useful energy. For the remainder it might be possible to get 80% of it out, but at a 40% energy cost.

On the other hand vehicles will not, in significant numbers, switch from liquid fuel to solar powered in the near future. There is also not enough lithium for batteries, so realistically the answer has to be in electrified trains. He seen the end of fossil fuels marking the beginning of a slow-down in economic growth. So the meeting slowed down for lunch.

Lunch began with a tribute to Matt Simmons. Chairman of the ASPO-USA Advisory Board and featured speaker at many of the events. A check to support the Ocean Energy Institute was presented to his daughter Abbie, on behalf of ASPO.

The noon speaker was Ralph Nader who took his quota of time, and more, to discuss Energy and Policy. He proclaimed (just having written a novel on the subject) that “only the super-rich can save us.” The main form of censorship is self-censorship. Why do we do it? It encourages a stagnant society. It builds the blocking of technological advance through the creation of mind sets. Secretary Chu advocates nuclear power and refuses to meet with opposition groups on the topic.

Mr Nader does not see a correlation between energy and economic growth. We have passed the diagnostic phase of energy future analysis, but there has been little prescription for future action and the path forward is obscure. We must mandate changes to buildings, vehicles and connect them to jobs programs. And we must make the jobs local so that they cannot be exported to China. He sees innovation as dramatically higher than it was 10 years ago. , and expects that stimulus funds will lead to innovation. But he gave the example of Evergreen Solar which had intended to stay in the US, having 800 employees here, but found that all its competition is moving to China, so they are too. Then he quoted the example of the “largest tile carpet manufacturer” in the US who has chosen to stay, and through innovation keep costs down low enough that he can remain in business.

Unfortunately as this talk drew to a close I had to leave. Gail Tverberg remained and was kind enough to supply me with her notes, which follow.

Anthony Perl, author of "Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil" and fellow of the Post Carbon Institute talked about ways to reduce oil used in transport. In his view, we have lots of technology, but not much time. Emphasis needs to be on proven, robust technologies.

One thing he talked about was electric motors to replace internal combustion engines, particularly for trains. Also expansion of the use of trains. One issue, though, is the fact that most rail track is privately owned. Perhaps some approach can be used that would allow double tracking with government somehow paying for/receiving ownership of the additional track.

Another possibility is "sky sails", which can reduce fuel use by ships by 50% to 80%. Water transport is already the most efficient mode of transport, and sails would improve it further.

He believes it will cost $1 trillion for passenger rail and $1 trillion for freights train needed changes / improvements. He also pointed out that GM used to build trains and busses, and asked why they couldn't again.

Dr. Charles Schlumberger, Principal Air Transport Specialist, Transport Division of the World Bank, pointed out that from the airline's point of view, it was the recession, and not the price of oil that was the problem. He felt this way, because he felt the airlines had pretty well hedged the price of oil. Its problem was a lack of passengers and cargo, because of the recession.

He pointed out that air transport is the catalyst for modern globalization. For example, he pointed out that without access by air, there is little chance of foreign direct investment in a country.

He also pointed out that at $80 a barrel, fuel cost exceeds personnel costs. He believes that above $80 a barrel, airlines cannot be profitable.

Regarding fuel efficiency, there have been improvements, but these are becoming smaller as the low-hanging fruit have already been found. Some additional changes may be difficult. For example, if changes are made that cause the size of engines to be bigger, these might necessitate completely redesigning the aircraft. One possibility is to use "Air Ships" or dirigibles for moving freight long distances.

Biofuels are being investigated, but progress is slow--perhaps 1% replacement of fuel by 2015. One issue is the huge land area that would be required. According to his calculations, algae would require the least land area, but even so algae would require an area the size of Ireland to replace existing airline fuel.

At this point, it looks like there is a possibility that airline use will need to be significantly scaled back, but if this happens, there will likely be big social and political impacts.

Next, Sharon Astyk, ASPO-USA board member and writer, talked about the world food situation. In 2008, there were 1 billion people who were seriously malnourished. The number is perhaps a bit lower in 2009, but not a lot. While oil prices have backed off a lot from their highs, some food prices are still not too far from their 2008 highs. She pointed out that high prices are a real issue for many, since almost half of the world's population spends 50% or more of its income on food.

Now China is buying land around the world, so as to be able to feed its people. This is likely to present problems for people who live in the area, and need the farmland themselves. Sharon also talked about there likely being an "Export Land" land for food, with countries cutting back on food exports, either as their own population grows, or if crops fail.

She talked about food insecurity being a problem even in the US. One in seven people is on food stamps; one in four children receives food stamps. Children who are hungry are likely not to do well in school.

There is a close tie between food and energy, so reduced food supply in the future is a concern. There are other related issues, like phosphorous supplies, which are already getting short. Lesser energy availability is likely to make the situation worse. There is also the issue of biofuels competition with food for land and water.

The last speaker was Brian Czech, President of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. He talked about the need for governments to scale back their expectations from everlasting growth to a steady state economy.

Editorial Notes: UPDATE (Oct 15). Made several corrections to the text describing Rick Munroe's talk, at Rick's request. Dave Summers okayed the changes. Regular followers of Energy Bulletin will be familiar with Rick Munroe's work. Read his articles here. - SO -BA.

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