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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Modest Proposal

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

Spindletop




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.

Disco





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.

Corn





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




Really?












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!

9 Comments:

Blogger Stew McEachern said...

Sounds like North Americans are being had as usual by our glorious politicians and Esso.In the Canadian case they are one and the same.

October 22, 2007 at 1:50 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Couldn't have done any better!

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