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Sunday, October 28, 2007


This is Marzipan.

She greets you with her happiest smile.

Marzipan lives in the Sovereign Republic of Urzgyztan Puddelia, which for obvious reasons we’ll refer to by its acronym based on the native dialect: SPUD. Ironically, in SPUD they grow no potatoes, just goats, who grow fat on the rich SPUD prairie grass.

Marzipan's pet goat, Fatty.

SPUD being a Third World country, Marzipan has some problems that the rest of us aren’t dealing with…yet. Global warming has been a big one, of course. Being a small tropical island in the Ural Sea, SPUD has already been hit with rising ocean levels, and Marzipan has been forced to move her hut inland several times.

On the bright side, you can bodysurf off the porch!

But while there’s now plenty of sea water, there isn’t nearly as much DRINKING water – they’ve been experiencing a severe drought there for six years, to the point that they may soon have to shut down the fountain in front of the SPUD Hilton Magnifico.

Rooms from $3,000 per night, with AAA discount.

This could severely impact their tourist industry, which consists mostly of sheiks from Dubai and ExxonMobil executives. Did I mention that SPUD has 3 large oil fields? Representatives from Schlumberger, Halliburton and Kellogg Brown & Root showed up in Marzipan’s village in 1974, the year after the OPEC oil crisis, with a nice man from the World Bank.

The visitors cleverly wore blackface to blend in with the locals.
(The fifth guy is John Perkins.)

They made a deal with the chieftain of SPUD (now referred to as Supreme Dictator for Life, no acronym) to load money to SPUD to build an electrical grid, highways, oil pipelines, and a number of other necessities that would make life better for all SPUDlians. Even though, at that time, there were no cars in SPUD other than the Rolls Royce that the Chieftain got as a gift from Henry Kissinger, and many curious SPUDlians got fried trying to tightrope walk on the new high-voltage lines (tightrope walking being the only SPUD Olympic sport).

Fried SPUD’s – a tragic mass grave

In the end, though, it was mainly the big corporations that got the money that the World Bank loaned to SPUD, though a fair bit went to the Supreme Dictator for Life, who now spends most of the year in the Bahamas. SPUD fell deeply into debt, and the World Bank came to the rescue by showing SPUD how to sell off its water and electrical utilities to private multinational corporations. So now Marzipan pays Bechtel for every glass of water she drinks, and can’t actually afford electricity.

Current cost: 7 gloops, the SPUD national currency. 9 gloops without the dirt.

Marzipan wouldn’t mind this so much, except that SPUD is primarily a Roman Catholic country (with small Kurdish and Druid minorities in the south and east), so birth control is a cultural no-no. Marzipan actually got to touch the PopeMobile when the Pontiff visited in 1996, and she took his message to heart by having unprotected sex with her husband every night. As a result, she now has chlamydia, HIV, and 7 children between the ages of 10 and 1.

Mama’s, don’t let your babies grow up to be altar boys

Marzipan and her husband pray regularly for Marzipan to be cured of her diseases, which clearly God visited upon her for her wickedness – it’s not like she could have gotten them from her husband! Unfortunately, prayer is her only hope, because they can’t afford antibiotics or anti-retroviral drugs. Marzipan is happy, though, because every day as she does the laundry in the ocean, she gets to watch the Norwegian ospreys gambol in the surf.

Gamboling is illegal where prohibited by law.

Norwegian ospreys are the national bird of SPUD, and also its main source of meat. Unfortunately, the oil companies had to bulldoze the rainforest that was the osprey’s habitat, and now the ospreys are getting scarce – actually there are only 5 left, after her husband shot one yesterday for dinner. They’re not entirely sure what they’re going to eat after that, because the delicious SPUD salmon stocks collapsed four years ago, and nobody’s actually seen a fish off the coast since last summer. But they’re confident that God will provide.

God – now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Google, Inc.

They have had one comfort in life, though: their car. Once the oil fields got going, and the refineries were built, it was announced that many SPUDlians would be needed to fill the jobs that had not already been taken by the experienced oil field workers brought in from America, Canada, France, Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan. They weren’t really fun jobs, mostly involving dangerous work, but the good news was, all new employees would be issued their own car so they could make the 40 mile commute to the Black Zone, as the walled-off enclave containing the oil-fields is known. This is Marzipan’s family car:

Stylish, and excellent for towing your hut.

Marzipan’s husband loves this car, and has kept it in tip-top shape all these years, even though he had to carve a new set of whitewalls, by hand, out of the island’s last rubber trees. Lately, though, gasoline has been getting more and more expensive – 28 gloops per gallon as of last Wednesday – and Marzipan’s husband overheard some visiting Saudi Aramco executives say that global oil production peaked at 85 million barrels per day in 2006 – last year! – and is now declining.

Turns out everybody was a little too optimistic about the date

Unfortunately world oil DEMAND is at 88 million barrels per day and rising. The Saudi Aramco executive said that the old Saudi Arabian fields are pretty much waterlogged and couldn’t pump much more, so countries like SPUD would have to start making up the difference. But since SPUD is already at maximum production, the only thing they could do was to stop letting SPUDlians have any of SPUD's oil, so they could sell all of it, and make more money for the country, or at least for the Supreme Dictator for Life, who approved the plan from the Bahamas.

Just a little summer hideaway, with cottages for the wives

So now SPUD is no longer on the list of countries whose citizens get to have oil, but Marzipan and her husband feel good knowing that they’re contributing an extra .000001% to the 12 million barrels a day of oil and gas that America imports to stay strong – they hope to move there one day, when their ship comes in, assuming the sea level hasn’t risen so far that the ship runs over their hut. In the meantime, Marzipan’s husband has had to move to the refinery, because he can no longer commute, so Marzipan has to take care of the kids by herself.

Marzipan has lost her happiest smile now.

She’s not alone, though. A nice woman from Save the Children came by and helped a little with food for the kids, but couldn’t help Marzipan with why she was having so many kids. The people from Planned Parenthood came by, but couldn’t help with the fact that the ospreys will be gone by next Thursday – they said they don’t do deforestation. The wild folks from Rainforest Action Network dropped in, but couldn’t help with the peak oil problem. Some very depressed analysts from ASPO visited to talk, but couldn’t help with the rising sea levels. Marzipan asked the cheerful people from the Cooler Heads Coalition about that, and they gave her some pamphlets, but unfortunately the kids were hungry and ate them.

Meanwhile, it’s snack time in the Bahamas

After they were gone, Marzipan got to thinking, and decided that all these different groups – who referred to themselves as NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) – really meant well, but couldn’t help her very much because they all treated her like she had just one problem, when the fact is she has a lot of different problems, and they’re all related. So Marzipan sent me a letter asking if I could suggest to you that the NGO’s all get together, like the world's nations did at the UN, and maybe together they could be as big as Schlumberger and Halliburton and KBR and Bechtel and the World Bank and ExxonMobil and all the rest of them put together, and make the world different, instead of just trying to prop up the world the way it is now. She even had an idea for the name of this new super-organization: UNGO.

No goats or ospreys were harmed in the making of this photo.

Big bonus: in Marzipan’s native dialect, UNGO means love.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Modest Proposal

This is Spindletop – the first gusher in Texas. 1901.


Wheeeeeeee! We're rich! Now how do you get this black stuff off?

Back in the good old days, you could trip over a rock in Texas and hit oil. In fact, for every barrel of oil you put into drilling, you got 100 barrels back out of the earth. They have a name for that, actually – EROI. No, not Excited Republicans Overthrowing Iran. It stands for Energy Return on Investment. Here’s a chart that tells you all about it.

EROI chart

EROI bubble chart courtesy of Charles Hall & Don Ho

Okay, it’s a little messy, but what it shows is that, here in North America, we started out with that 100 to 1 ratio. Trouble is, we dug up all the good stuff right away, and ever since we’ve been getting to the dirtier, sludgier oil, which means it’s harder to get it out of the ground, and it takes more energy to make it into gasoline to fill up our SUV’s. So by the 1970’s, EROI was down to around 30 to 1, and nowadays it’s down to somewhere around 18 to 1, or less.


The 1970’s: EROI was plummeting, but damn, we looked good.

But we aren’t waiting to run out of the stuff we commonly think of as “oil” before we look around for alternatives. That would be silly. Why, if we did that, the price of oil would skyrocket, and we might be caught with our automotive pants down when that oily oil runs out! Fortunately we always take action when serious problems loom.

tar sands

Time for Earth to visit the Hair Club for Planets.

So what alternatives are we exploring? Well, think of it as moving up the calendar. That oily oil took about 400 million years to cook. So there’s not likely to be much more of that by the time we use up what we can actually get to, sometime this century. So now we’re moving on to the stuff that’s a little less cooked. Like the Alberta oil sands.

tar sands

No, really. We can put the forest back when we're done.

Now technically, this isn’t oil. It’s tar. And it’s all stuck to sand and worms and all that gross stuff underground, so getting it out is a chore. Usually they heat it with steam or natural gas, though they did contemplate actually setting off some nuclear bombs in Alberta to warm it up. (The Russians tried it over at their place, and discovered the little radioactive glitch in that plan. On the other hand, they didn’t have to turn on their headlights anymore, because all of their cars glowed in the dark.)

Glowing car

The new 1986 Chernobyl GT!

The problem, of course, is that all that digging, and steaming, and processing of the tar and sand and what-not – called bitumen – uses up lots of energy (along with most of the Athabasca River). In fact, it uses up so much energy that nobody thinks the EROI of the tar sands is more than 4 to 1, and a lot of people think it’s less than 1 to 1, meaning it takes more energy to dig the stuff up than you get from burning it. How could anybody make money from that?

Taxpayer in a barrel

The taxpayer that lays the golden eggs.

Yup. Taxpayer subsidies. But we haven’t finished moving up the calendar yet. When you start to mine what’s called shale oil, you’re talking about kerogen, which is organic matter that hasn’t even had enough time to turn into tar. So you can guess for yourself what the EROI might be to turn that into oily oil. But we certainly haven’t stopped our trip up the calendar – in fact, we’re so desperate for gasoline substitutes that we’re making it out of stuff that’s growing right now.


Remember when this was food?

Ethanol is really just corn likker, hillbilly moonshine, but The Dukes of Hazzard never had it so good: ethanol gets subsidized by the taxpayer (that’s you) three times by the time it gets to the pump. So the farmers and ethanol-makers are getting a good profit out of it – too bad the EROI is less than 1 to 1 – that means the more tax dollars you pay, the less energy we’ve got to work with!

The Boston Tea Party

Outraged Americans throwing barrels of ethanol into Boston Harbor last week.

But there’s good news here. Thanks to NAFTA, a sudden shortage of American corn down in Mexico has caused tortilla riots by hungry Mexicans. And now that the price of corn has tripled, that’s not likely to change much, because when it comes down to it, what do you care more about: getting to work in the morning or some guy named Jose who might go to bed without supper? In fact, if you think about it, it’s a double win – we get to keep driving, and Jose is too weak to ford the Rio Grande and take grape-picking jobs away from hard-working Americans!

The Grapes of Wrath

Henry Fonda, the last white man to pick a grape

But why not make it a triple win? If we can keep the price of corn going up, it’s entirely likely that the folks down in Mexico will start to starve to death. And that’s when we call in Exxon.

Rex Tillerson – CEO of Exxon

Rex Tillerson – CEO of Exxon, denying everything

After all, if we can make oil out of kerogen, and corn, why not dead Mexicans? Organic matter is organic matter, and Maria will be much easier to fit into a heating unit than a triceratops. And think what this new source of energy will do to boost prosperity for you, the taxpayer!

Taxpayer in a barrel


Okay, admittedly, it won’t make you richer. But it will make the people who run the oil companies richer – they’re the ones who are moving into tar sands, shale oil, and other alternative energies like coal and nuclear. (Not so much wind, solar, wave, tidal or geothermal, because, really, those are sissy energies.) But this has the advantage of maybe turning this into a quadruple win – four-fecta! Because when you can’t afford gasoline or ethanol or whatever to get to work anymore, you’ll probably starve to death too! And – be honest now – don’t you have a few more oil-producing pounds on you than Jose or Maria? We all have to make sacrifices for the good of the economy, and everybody’s gotta go sometime. So why not go in style…

Hummer limo

…in Rex Tillerson’s gas tank!