Saturday, November 16, 2013



The what is energy, the question is not who, when, where, or why, but how.

This is a quick and dirty primer on our energy situation. It is simplified, but I have tried to cover the most important concepts and explain them and their relationships compared to one another and to society. I believe the energy issue is somewhat complex, but it is THE critical ‘issue’ for our globalized, growth based, consumer society and that will become painfully obvious in short order. We need to have informed awareness about the problem if we expect solutions.

This is not politically suggestive, nor does it propose solutions on how to deal with the energy issue, I leave that up to you. This is strictly observational.


“It takes money to make money” – Energy Return on Investment / Energy Return on Energy Invested is fairly straightforward. In the first years of commercial oil production, it took one barrel of oil energy equivalent to produce one hundred barrels of CRUDE oil. Now days it is between ten and twenty to one and getting worse. The difference is that EROI focuses on the monetary investment where as EROEI focuses primarily on the actual physical energy required (usually measured in btu’s).

EROI or EROEI, in a sense, represent the profitability of oil extraction, or the economically recoverable amount of oil (or any finite resource) that can be extracted.

>ECONOMICS (Supply & Demand)

“I can’t afford it.”
“Well then I can’t afford to produce it.”

This is the cycle that plays out as the EROI number goes down and the economy struggles to grow with the high costs of energy. As the costs get higher, the oil industry can invest in more production and so ‘excess’ energy is once again delivered to the economy. But soon the abundance drives the price back down and the oil industry can no longer afford to discover and drill for more.

At some point this imbalance could level out, but always with energy availability in over all decline. As the Super Giant fields around the world that still provide the vast majority of the worlds Crude oil continue to decline.

The economy depends on a growing and cheap supply of energy to feed the machines of modern industrial society. The problem is that the supply is getting smaller and less productive.


The different types of fossil energy sources vary, but they can be broken down into Gas and Oil. Each have their own subtypes but are the primary differentiators when it comes to their use in our civilization.

The “Low Hanging Fruit” applies to all energy exploits. People go after the mother load that is easiest to get to. But also there is the issue of Energy Density. As some resources are mined, such as coal, the resource contains less of the material that makes it energy useful, and more of the material that does not. In short, it doesn’t burn as hot.

So as we expand our reach for fossil energy, we are forced to resort to lesser and lesser quality sources of energy that are more and more costlier to extract and refine.


Knowing the different types of oil is a prerequisite to understanding their uses.

Conventional Crude Oil is the black gooey stuff we all think of, but it is ‘fully matured’ and energy dense, where as the ‘Oil’ like substances coming from Fracking are not always fully ‘cured’ and require expensive treatment to make them available as gasoline or other useful oil based byproducts.

The process of Hydraulic Fracturing (I am lumping Tar Sands in with these fuel types even though it is strip mined) (Fracking) produces Gases like Methane and Butane as well as ‘tight oil’ and gas that is trapped in rocks and must be blasted out. There is quite a bit of energy available around the world with this method and resource types. However it still only buys us a few decades, and that is if the economy can continue to adsorb the increasing costs of the energy.

Our primary uses for Crude and some types of the Fracked oil is transportation, as well as other things like plastics and pesticides.

Our primary use for gas (Methane, Propane, Butane, and many others) is in some small and larger vehicles as well as fertilizer, cooking and heating and producing electricity.
It does not contribute to transportation in any significant way and our infrastructure isn’t set up for it.

Though we have a ‘lot’ of natural gas in the US, Natural gas does not have the kind of global market like Crude oil and therefore is primarily subject to local costs. Although there have been talks about building more Natural gas ports. But Natural gas is expensive to transport due to it needing to be very cold and under very high pressure.

We are setup to run on highly energy dense, combustible liquid fuel, or Gasoline.


Alternative energies such as wind and solar have the potential to provide energy for a few decades longer, but only in limited areas, and subject to sunlight and wind variations. We would have had to divert all of our efforts for building our infrastructure around that type of energy decades ago.

It is highly unlikely we will reach that level of renewable capability before the costs of energy make it impossible. Developing these technologies requires that the fossil fuel dependent backbone of the global economy continue to be greased with cheap, abundant energy.


Climate Change forces us to look at the humanity side of the coin. And it doesn’t tell a pretty story. The climate changes naturally, the Sun has warm and ‘cool’ phases, we can see it in the data. But the data also tells another story. A story of rapid acceleration of many recent data points that do not occur in the available historical data, ever.

Humans are certainly impacting the climate, but whether or not we are causing the damage, Climate Change is still a game changing issue, not merely for our convenience, but for the survival of almost every multi-cellular life form on this planet (which includes humans).

The newer methods of extraction and fossil sources not only prove more expensive and of less quality, but they contribute more of the chemicals that scientists tell us are the main culprits of our environmental and climate impact.

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