The Icebergs Ahead
Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch
by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
January 31, 2007, Vol. 6, Number 2
The State of the Union address presented President George W. Bush with the only scheduled opportunity he’ll have in 2007 to articulate a new energy agenda for this nation. Word dribbled out in advance of his speech that the President would unveil several ambitious energy proposals, including at least one specifically to lower the volume of greenhouse gases discharged by U.S. sources. As a result of this build-up, there were many viewers–I among them–who expected Bush to seize the moment and outline an energy initiative that would move this nation toward a more secure and environmentally responsible direction.
But like the protagonist in “Casey at the Bat,” George W. Bush struck out when it counted. Instead of announcing a bold plan to shrink America’s supersized energy appetite and shift to low-carbon sources of fuel and power, Bush offered up a potpourri of uninspiring platitudes along with an alternative fuels proposal that is richly deserving of the term “crackpot.” In so doing, he screwed up a room-service opportunity to rescue his energy legacy from winding up in the same dumpster that contains all his other policy failures.
Consider Bush’s proposal to mandate the production of 35 billion gallons of alternative and renewable fuel per year by 2017. The United States produced about 5.4 billion gallons of ethanol in 2006, constituting more than 80% of the renewable fuel market. The proposed increase amounts to about 29 billion gallons, more than five times current production levels. Even if every ear of corn harvested in 2006 had been distilled into ethanol, it still would not have been sufficient to reach the President’s 2017 target.
Moreover, the energy return on grain ethanol is marginally positive, meaning that it takes almost as much energy to plant the crop and convert it into alcohol as is yielded by burning it in an automobile engine. And while growing switchgrass and other cellulosic sources is not as energy-intensive as corn is, their fuel yield is substantially lower. At this point deriving motor fuel from cellulosic sources is simply not viable from an economic perspective. Bush tries to wave this problem away by professing his faith in technological progress, but his incantations cannot overcome the laws of physics or basic chemistry.
Unbeknownst to the general public, ethanol’s profitability is more dependent on the price of natural gas than that of corn, because production facilities burn quite a lot of it during the distillation process. If the industry continues to grow at current rates, natural gas supplies in North America will be exhausted well before 2017. Under the President’s proposal, the depletion of natural gas would actually accelerate, unless the new biofuels production facilities use coal instead of natural gas for heating. But biofuels producers that rely on coal for process heat would forfeit any legitimate claim to being an environmentally responsible alternative to gasoline.
Of all the energy-related icebergs that lie directly in the path of America’s energy future, shrinking natural gas availability shapes up as the first that will cause the ship of state to take evasive action. Yet President Bush said nothing about this country’s dependence on that extremely valuable energy source, which accounts for more than 20% of the total energy consumed here. At present rates of consumption, both the United States and Canada will exhaust proven reserves of natural gas on this continent in less than 10 years.
The president could have used the three minutes devoted to energy to rally his countrymen to scale back their energy use, which, when compared with a crash biofuels program, would be a comparatively inexpensive undertaking with a high probability of success. But no, Bush decided to bank the remnants of his legacy on building biofuels plants all across the country, irrespective of the availability of corn or natural gas. This is madness. While listening to that part of his speech, it was all too easy to imagine the whole of America aboard the Titanic, gazing at a cocksure Captain Bush taunting the icebergs ahead with cries of “bring it on.”
The United States needs to expand bioenergy production, but such investments will surely founder without a very aggressive effort to save energy through conservation and efficiency. It may even be possible to derive 25% of the fuel used for transportation fuel from bioenergy sources, but only if we cut consumption by at least one-half. But did Bush even mention conservation and efficiency? Not even once.
Sadly, the Capitol was the scene of an excellent speech on energy that week, but it was delivered to an empty House chamber one day after the State of the Union address. The speaker was Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican who founded the Peak Oil Caucus several years ago. Bartlett used the occasion to commemorate a remarkably prescient speech given by Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1957. Admiral Rickover, whom Bartlett described as “the father of the nuclear submarine,” was concerned even then about the sustainability of the American project given its growing dependence on fossil fuels.
“Fuel that has been burned is gone forever,” Rickover said 50 years ago. “Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are nonrenewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves.”
In his speech, Bartlett talked about his trip to China with eight other members of Congress. During his travels he met with several top officials and talked freely and candidly with them about energy. “They began every discussion of energy by talking about post-oil,” Bartlett said. “Hyman Rickover 50 years ago understood that one day we would be talking about post-oil. The Chinese are talking about post-oil.”
Unfortunately, we’re not, and by burrowing our heads in the sand we diminish ourselves as well as our children’s prospects in a post-oil world.
While Bartlett refrained from criticizing President Bush’s energy policies, his references to Rickover’s 1957 address cleverly draws attention to the current vacuum in energy leadership. As long as it exists, it will continue to suck the air out of informed public discussions on energy, no matter how badly needed they may be. Yes, we need more people like Rep. Bartlett speaking truth to power, but we also need more people in the room listening to him.
Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch is a RENEW Wisconsin initiative tracking the supply demand equation for these fossil fuels, and analyzing its effects on prices, consumption levels, and the development of energy conservation strategies and renewable energy alternatives. For more information on the global and national petroleum and natural gas supply picture, visit “The End of Cheap Oil” section in RENEW Wisconsin’s web site. These commentaries are also posted on the Madison Peak Oil Group’s blog.