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Oil is still there but harder to extract

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Drivers cringe as they watch the numbers roll higher on the gas pump meter. They feel even worse as they see news stories projecting gas at $4 or even $5 as the weather warms. No problem, says candidate Newt Gingrich with a promise to return the price to $2.50 if elected president. This is the same Newt who, while beating the war drums for an attack on Iran, said “that with all the various sources of oil we have in the United States, we could literally replace the Iranian oil.” But a record number of U.S. oil rigs are currently busy, attracted by oil’s high price. As a result we would struggle to add many new crude oil barrels to our 5 million or so annual production — let alone replace Iran’s 2.2 million barrel annual exports.

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The fact is that oil and gasoline prices may never look back, as we gradually enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability, especially with oil. There is still a lot of oil in the earth’s outer crust, but it is much harder to extract. Therefore the slow rate at which we can produce it won’t match the demands of 70 million new people/year, along with the growing aspirations of billions in the less developed world. Oil is not just for transportation but also for the hundreds of products like plastics, rubber, medicine, fertilizer, pesticides, etc, made from petroleum feed stocks.

So far, humans have burned a little over one trillion barrels of this highly concentrated energy fuel. Geologist’s estimates of total original oil in place on earth range from 2 trillion barrels to 4-5 trillion, depending on how much effort, energy, and money we want to spend to recover it. Our first trillion was the easiest. The rest is deep beneath the ocean floor, under Arctic ice flows, in very low grade deposits like the oil sands in Alberta and the Orinoco Basin of Venezuela, or in the even lower grade toxic oil shales of the Green River Basin in Colorado and Utah.

In recent years, world crude oil production has stabilized at a little over 70 million barrels/day(mb/d). In the meantime, General Motors is selling more Buicks in China than they do in the US. And the rest of Asia is leaving the rickshaw for the automobile.

In its annual Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency(IEA) forecasts no significant increase in world oil production in coming decades. The IEA states, “The cost of bringing oil to market rises as oil companies are forced to turn to more difficult and costly sources to replace lost capacity and meet rising demand. Production of crude oil will remain at current levels before declining slightly to around 68 mb/d by 2035. To compensate for declining crude oil production at existing fields, 47 mb/d of gross capacity additions are required, twice the current total oil production of all OPEC cou tries in the Middle East.”

We are producing substitute biofuels, but 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop provides just 7 percent of our gasoline demand. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of personal cars and trucks are now at the food table, with part of their diet biofuels made from the fruit of the plant. We can attempt to make cellulose biofuels from non-food biomass like grasses and corn stover, the residue stalks and leaves left after the harvest. But nature’s law requires some residue to stay on the land, protecting the soil from erosion by wind and water. And every ton of decaying corn stover offers ten pounds of nitrogen, two pounds of phosphorous, and forty five pounds of potassium to the soil.

Congress in 2007 passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, requiring 100 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel in 2010 and 250 million gallons in 2011. We struggled to make 5 million gallons in each of those years as there is no effective production process for cellulosic biofuel. The same shortfall will occur on the 500 million gallon legislative mandate for 2012. The Laws of Physics and Nature are not easily repealed.

We’ve been spoiled by the surplus energy available from fossil fuels deposited over millions of years. We have spent much of that fossil fuel inheritance, and we are now facing substantial sacrifices to deal with a new energy reality. We’re not hearing much about that or other substantive issues as candidates attack each other during this election season.

ROLF WESTGARD, who has home in Deerwood, recently taught the class “Peak Oil and Peak Water” for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program.

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