Archive for August, 2008

Oil on the Brain

Posted on August 19, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Summer is a time for vacations and reading lists. Certainly if you live in a hot and humid climate as I do (Houston), the thought of not escaping at least for a few days with a pile of books to a place with cool breezes would be soul-crushing. This summer, one of the stops on my itinerary was Portland, Oregon, a city that offers not only one of the best book stores in the world – Powell’s Books – but also the chance to experience lows in the 50s without having to wait until Halloween.

On the flight back to Houston, which clocks in at four hours on a good day (and this was not to be a good day), I finally admitted to myself that I have a new obsession. My reading on the flight was James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, a grim portrait of the hardships that modern civilization might face as production rates for fossil fuels enter a sharp decline “sooner than we think.” I had just finished reading his novel World Made By Hand, a fascinating piece of speculative fiction created as an outgrowth of The Long Emergency. In my carry-on bag were several purchases from Powell’s, including Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which quite literally envisions the Earth without humans; Oil, Upton Sinclair’s tale of social injustice and corruption in the early years of the oil industry in southern California that inspired the recent movie There Will Be Blood; and finally the journalistic wide-angle snapshot of the petroleum supply chain that gives title to my new obsession, Lisa Margonelli’s Oil On the Brain. Yes, I have oil on the brain, and it seems to be sticking to all of my thoughts.

As our flight approached Houston’s Intercontinental Airport, we entered into a holding pattern above the city, waiting for an opening in the heavy thunderstorms that were drenching the city so that we could make our landing. After a short while, the pilot announced that the flight was being diverted to Beaumont, Texas, as we were almost out of fuel. I spent quite a bit of time chewing on the symbolism of running out of fuel above the world’s energy capital, Houston, and needing to top-off in the city whose Spindletop oil well gave birth to the modern petroleum industry, Beaumont. The question on my mind at that moment was how much longer will we as a society be able to figuratively top-off in Beaumont every time we need more fuel?

Rice’s late Nobel Laureate, Professor Richard Smalley, wrote in an article published in 2005 that “at some point, almost certainly within this decade, we will peak in the amount of oil that is produced worldwide. Even though there will be massive amounts of oil produced for the rest of the century, the volume will never again reach the amount produced at its peak. This year, 2005, might very well end up being the historic date of that global peak.”[1] Earlier this summer, Houston energy investment banker Matthew R. Simmons, Chairman of Simmons & Company and author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, told an audience in Maine that he believes that global oil production peaked in May 2005, which coincidentally was the exact month that his book was published. Simmons captures the gravity of this message by sharing a quote from a late Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai who observed “my grandfather rode on a camel, my father rode in a car, I ride in a jet, my children will ride in cars, and my grandchildren will ride on camels.”[2]

If only this were an oil problem, I might not be quite so worried. Automobile fleets can transition to hybrids, then plug-in hybrids, and finally to all-electric sources; natural materials can be employed as substitutes in the making of certain plastics; etc. However, our prospects for natural gas, coal, and even uranium are all troubling. Consider for a moment the fact that some experts believe that Chinese production of coal will peak in the middle of the next decade, followed by a sharp decline. What happens to a world economy that has exported its manufacturing infrastructure and acumen to a country that will soon have to rely heavily on coal imports in order to power its factories (remembering that shipping the coal requires oil, which will be about a decade post-peak by that point)?

Let me state the obvious by saying that the operating system of our society is fossil fuels. We already know what happens when this operating system crashes temporarily. In the fall of 2005, when my family and I joined 2.5 million of our fellow Houstonians attempting to flee then Category-5 Hurricane Rita in the largest urban evacuation in U.S. history, we collectively sucked gas pumps dry across virtually all of southeast Texas. Many of us lacked the fuel for the grueling bumper-to-bumper 24-hour drive to Dallas (a trip that usually takes 4 hours), and had to return to Houston, hoping that the storm would veer away at the last minute (it did, much to the chagrin of our neighboring cities to the east). We felt trapped and powerless. And who can forget how quickly New York City descended into chaos in 1977 during the famed blackout? While that electricity outage was not caused by a lack of fossil fuels, it does illustrate how an interruption in the fossil fuel operating system can trigger a social collapse. Fortunately, in both instances, the fossil fuel operating system was quickly rebooted, and modern life returned to normal. In the coming years, crashes may become more frequent, and reboots more challenging.

As a campus sustainability professional, I’ve been grappling (somewhat unsuccessfully) with how to prepare my campus for this changeover in operating systems. We know the fossil fuel operating system will eventually start crashing (perhaps sooner rather than later), but we also know that the upgrade, which I’ll call the renewable energy operating system, is still in development and not even close to being ready for a complete and economical replacement of the fossil fuel operating system at this time. So we’re in limbo, and we’re at risk.

This challenge is not as easy as just switching power purchases from coal to wind sources. Here in Texas, we have the option to choose our power provider, and thus the option to choose how our power is generated. But even if my university were to purchase only wind power, the actual electrons entering our campus grid would probably be from the nearby coal-fired power plant. In fact, despite being the national leader in wind power production, most of the Texas power mix is still generated from a blend of natural gas and coal-fired sources, along with some nuclear, and a 2-3% contribution from wind. As that fossil fuel operating system becomes unstable, the state’s entire power grid will be vulnerable. And I say the state’s grid because Texas for the most part is an island when it comes to the national power grid. What’s generated in Texas stays in Texas.

Thinking beyond the campus, I believe that broadly speaking we should be minimizing our exposure to the fossil fuel operating system, diversifying our energy inputs so that the entire system does not crash when one source declines, developing our renewable energy operating system as quickly as possible, preparing for a rapid switch-over once the new operating system is ready to be launched, and where applicable designing for cross-compatibility of operating systems as a transitional strategy. If the decline of fossil fuels is gentle enough, and the development of renewable energy rapid enough, the modern world might not even take notice. However, if the converse is true, and if we have not appropriately re-organized our society and re-adjusted our lifestyles, we could be facing the end of modern life as we know it.

As our plane sat on the tarmac in Beaumont during our refueling stop, a violent storm cell moved across the airport, rocking our plane back and forth with high winds. As soon as the storm passed, the pilot was cleared for take-off, and subsequently flew right into the storm, resulting in the most harrowing ten minutes of in-flight turbulence that I have ever experienced before we finally reached the clearing skies above Houston. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the flight itself was a metaphor for the bumpy ride that we’re to encounter as we transition from our fossil fuel operating system to one based on renewable energy sources. Will we make it?

As if that flight didn’t provide enough symbolic fodder for my wandering mind, as we drove away from the airport we encountered a surprising message on an electronic highway message board on U.S. 59: “Tropical storm in Gulf: Fill-up gas tanks”. Oil on the brain indeed.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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