Ask the Right Questions About World Oil Supply

blog oil rigs

The oil derricks shown at left against a smoggy sky are located in……..go on, you’ll never guess– Southern California. And they could have been located outside Philadelphia, along the Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or in the Caspian Sea of Central Asia. Oil derricks are everywhere, just not in your back yard yet. We are in a great and conflicted discussion about how and whether to tap the undersea oil reserves off our own coasts, and enduring a humiliating and damaging spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

I have noted in past posts that our reserves of oil, natural gas and coal are estimated to last us, globally, for at least 250 years. Is that comforting? For maximum comfort, stop reading here. Don’t go on and ruin a good mood.

One of the “right questions” to ask about world fossil fuel supplies is: when do we START running out of fossil fuels? When does world daily demand outstrip world daily production? When does demand begin to bring about stupid foreign policy behaviors designed to secure a supply of oil, gas and coal against future scarcity? When do the suppliers of oil begin to manipulate and torture (acceptable in economic circles, not so much in terror suspects) the consumers of oil by raising prices to punitive levels and controlling supplies to create artificial scarcities for their own purposes? When are we faced with the datum that we have used well over half  of the original deposit of oil in the earth’s crust, and from here on the picture is going to get more and more difficult as we face slowly, almost imperceptibly dwindling supplies?

  Probably you’ve stopped reading  before now. If you’re not reading this, lucky you. The questions listed above are some of the many good ones that need answering as we contemplate the future of fossil fuels as our energy supply.  We write these posts for ordinary people like ourselves, and we aren’t really up to the detailed math anyway. So here are some answers for ordinary people, and some opinions based on reasonable thinking. And here’s a wiki link to some straight talk about those hard questions.

   Even if the hard data on fossil fuel reserves globally was not widely available (it is, but say it was a secret), we could make an observation or two about the behaviors of those powerful custodians of our welfare in recent years. Foreign policy in America is complex, but no one except a 9-11 consipiracy theorist (which puts Michael Moore and Rand Paul in the same cozy little bed, what a happy thought) could deny that oil drives much of American foreign policy for the last 20 years. OPEC (Oil Producing and Exporting Countries) has been staging artificial scarcities and fixing the price of oil for some years now, exerting an influence over world affairs out of proportion to the size and influence of the member countries. Remember, if you’re over 40, the Great Gas Crunches of the early 70s. And the equipoise of world daily oil consumption and production? We’re there. We consume more than we produce. By just 50,000 barrels a day as of late 2008. Think we’ve reduced our consumption since then?

So the information that we’ve got “lots of time, hundreds of years” to solve the energy equation and escape our deepening bondage to oil and the forces that control its supply is deceptive. Seventy five years of clear oil reserves, 250 years of coal reserves don’t seem as reassuring as they did. We’re already displaying scarcity behaviors. Our own American oil companies and financial investment industries manipulate the price and availability of oil for their own purposes. Hard to deny, then, that we’re in twilight, or at least the late afternoon, of the fossil fuel era. Won’t trouble you in your lifetime? All shortsighted, self-absorbed people get the hell out of the discussion right now. Goofy will begin your Disneyworld tour at five minutes before the hour. This is the Gotterdamerung of oil, the long retreat. Those who stay awake and keep watching “won’t get fooled again.”  This is a time for serious people, both expert and ordinary, to do lots of thinking and a bit of talking about where we’re going as consumers of energy.

 Renewables, including solar pv, solar thermal, wind and fuel cells, are a long, long, long payoff. Add two more ‘longs’ to that statement. We had a comment from a reader lately which quoted a conservative think tank to the effect that the numbers on renewables in the short term are laughable. The numbers said what the correspondent wanted them to, but they didn’t lie. Renewables is a long haul. And the owner of the first solar pv system in your neighborhood is sure to get laughed at for the huge investment and slow payoff. But those individuals and nations that are already acknowledging the slow decline of fossil fuels as a viable energy source are the far-sighted ones. Even their mistakes do them prouder than the smokestack economies and Drill, Baby Drillers. It will take daring, not denial, to secure an energy future for ordinary people like us as fossil fuels continue, year after year, to grow just a tiny little bit more scarce, and a measurable amount more expensive.

Mexican Power Crisis— A Modest Proposal

blog mexico power plant

The photo at left shows Laguna Verde, the site of Mexico’s two nuclear reactors presently generating almost 5% of its electric power. Mexico has some oil and natural gas reserves, and has always been a net energy exporter. If you sense an irony in building a nuke plant in a place named Laguna Verde (Green Cove), don’t make a big thing of it. They haven’t had an environment-threatening accident since commissioning in1989, and recently Mexico announced its intention to convert the two reactors to operate on low-enriched uranium, greatly reducing its output of nuclear waste and reducing the possibility that waste from the plant could be used to manufacture a weapon.

  Apart from the nukes at Laguna Verde, Mexico generates the bulk of its power from, you’ll never guess,  hydro-electric. Mexico has only two fossil fuel plants, each generating about the same power as the Laguna Verde plant. Total generating capacity in 2007 was calculated at 50 megawatts.US capacity is estimated at just over 1 MILLION megawatts). The economy of Mexico is centered around agriculture, light industry and tourism. Any jokes about the drug trade at this point would be in very poor taste. Mexico struggles; Mexico survives; Mexico finds it very difficult to live in the shadow of the world’s largest consumer economy. Mexico needs a break.

Hence my modest proposal. The power utility in Mexico is government-owned.  Mexican energy policy is already more progressive than that of  the privately owned power utilities in the US, by quite a bit. Mexico’s power consumption is estimated to grow by 6% per year for the foreseeable future (US power consumption is estimated to grow by half that much). The Vicente Fox administration, recently replaced by the slightly more conservative Calderon administration in 2009, has outlined ambitious programs for exploiting the wind and wave potential of Mexico’s climate for power generation.

Why not make Mexico a solar test bed for the skeptics of the world? Mexico’s governmental power rests heavily in the centralized administration of the Presidency. The initiatives for massive solar projects would not be held up by, for instance, wounded bellowing from oil-addicted naysayers whose last names rhyme with McConnell and Palin and Cheney. The problem, as is so often the problem, is money.

Mexico is relatively poor. Mexico is also beset by a thriving drug industry that operates within and without its system of laws and enforcement agencies. Mexico is Colombia ten years ago, in one sense. If the Chinese, Saudis, Venezuelans and other cash-rich groups want to foster the next emerging superstate on the globe, why not Mexico? The credit of the nation is not perfect; a credit crisis in 1994 was embarrassing; the recent US recession has prostrated Mexico’s GDP for reasons that are widely discussed in the media. For good or bad, Mexico’s economy is tied to that of the US.

What if Mexico had an energy surplus, a power distribution system that was spread over the country via solar PV farms and wind farms to permit the growth of local industry (and yes, i’m no fool, the possible relocation of more manufacturing jobs from US companies, to the detriment of the US job situation, already strained) and entrepreneurship by local and foreign interests?

What if Mexico could offer solar power constructed near the site of any proposed manufacturing facility, creating a national grid with flexibility and extra capacity to accommodate new growth? What if solar electric power came to the countryside and permitted the campesinos to farm more aggressively and operate light industry for export? what if every small city in Mexico had a solar plant to cogenerate along with the national grid and produce revenue and a bit of energy independence, leading to a more decentrialized economy?

What if? I don’t know where the money will come from. But the world has money, and the world’s creditors should be taking another look at a society that already has progressive energy policies, a workforce proven in its desire to earn higher wages (that’s why they cross that river, Bob), and a centralized government in which things can get done without undue wrangling from a stubborn obstructionist ox-brained unlettered shrill-messaged war-friendly faux-religious opposition. Unlike any other society bordering Mexico, in any way at all, certainly.

Mexico is ready for alternative energy. The US is mired in denial and old-time religions centered around oil. The Mexican people are already motivated to pursue economic improvement, even to the point of moving to the US and sending their meager wages back home to loved ones. Mexico deserves a chance. An alternative energy boom in Mexico could take on the excitement of another gold rush, and the result can only strengthen a state that needs every advantage to deal with its internal problems.