A Conversation on Energy Issues

Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting my friend and first real Peak Oil influence, Dr. Jerry Unruh. Jerry and I did a bit of mountain climbing, some snowshoeing, watched An Inconvenient Truth (I also read the book while I was there) and spent a lot of time talking about Peak Oil, Global Warming, sustainability, and many other topics. I took a lot of notes as we talked, because we hit on many topics that are often discussed here and at The Oil Drum.

First of all, let me introduce Jerry. He is a Ph.D. chemist that I met 11 years ago when we both worked on butanol research and technical support for Celanese Chemicals. While I was certainly aware of Peak Oil (I had mentioned it in my graduate thesis), Jerry was the first person who convinced me that the smooth transition to biofuels that I envisioned at that time was highly questionable, and that things might not turn out so well.

Jerry is also the father of Ana Unruh Cohen, the Director of Environmental Policy at the Center for American Progress. Ana previously wrote a guest essay on Prop 87 here. Jerry makes around 300 contacts a year with government officials (congress, federal agencies, etc.) in his role as an advocate. Jerry is a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Audubon Society, Wilderness Society, American Solar Energy Society, and a supporter of Worldwatch. He is also a member of the Technical Advisory Group for Colorado Springs Utilities which is tasked with looking at renewables and demand-side management. He lives in a solar rammed earth tire house (pictures can be seen here) in the Rocky Mountains west of Colorado Springs with his wife Diana.

Jerry Showing me the Solar Panels Behind his House

Jerry is denoted in this essay as JU and I am obviously RR. If you want to discuss energy or environmental issues with Jerry (he especially likes to talk about his experiences with solar energy) he can be contacted at jerryunruh42 at msn.com.

Peak Oil

RR: Jerry, you are probably aware that you were my first major Peak Oil influence. You asked me what we were going to do when oil production peaks, and I remember naively saying “Switch to ethanol.” You laughed over that.

JU: Yeah, I remember that.

RR: So, when is world oil production going to peak?

JU: We may be at peak right now, but I would say definitely within 10 years.

RR: So, what will the world look like 30 years from now?

JU: If we used wisdom, we could potentially transition from fossil fuels. We could have more livable cities, public transports, electricity from renewable sources powering PHEVs, and household electricity being produced by a combination of solar power and stationary hydrogen. However, it is not clear that we have the wisdom, in which case I see more wars and widespread starvation.

RR: Speaking of wars, tell me your views of the Iraq War.

JU: I get so upset talking about it. I was against it before we ever went in, but look at where we are now. All of those lives lost and all of that money spent on securing oil supplies. The recently released Iraq Study Group Report suggested that this war may ultimately cost $2 trillion. $2 trillion! Do you know what could have been done with $2 trillion? You could have put solar panels on 40% of the homes in the U.S. Imagine the greenhouse gas reduction from that. Imagine the energy security. Instead, we spent it to go to war to protect our oil supplies.

RR: How do you think the U.S. will fare after peak oil?

JU: I think the Northeast is pretty well-positioned. They have many walkable cities and public transport is good. They also have good water and agricultural resources. I think the West is in a bit more trouble. I don’t know what California is going to do, because they are so car-dependent. Actually, California does pretty well with per capita energy usage. They just have too many “per capitas.”

RR: Jim Kunstler made that same case in The Long Emergency – that the Northeast was better positioned than most places, and that the West is in trouble. By the way, have you read Kunstler?

JU: No, not yet. But he is on my list.

(Incidentally, the books in Jerry’s library included Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Lester Brown’s Plan B 2.0 and Eco-Economy, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Joel Cohen’s How Many People Can the Earth Support?, Garrett Hardin’s Living Within Limits, Travis Bradford’s Solar Revolution, Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, and Paul Ehrlich’s Extinction. Jerry also informed me that he has given away several copies of Plan B 2.0 to government officials.)

RR: You also believe that some sort of hydrogen economy can supplement solar?

JU: Not a hydrogen economy as it is often presented. I don’t believe that we will drive around in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. But I believe that excess solar can be used to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen, and then that hydrogen can be used to produce supplemental electricity in a combined-cycle turbine. The electricity produced can be used to run PHEVs.

RR: I am also a big fan of the potential of PHEVs driven by wind and solar power, but hadn’t thought much about a hydrogen tie-in. That would actually be a great way to supply some electricity at night. But do you think solar is practical for everyone, given the implications of people operating their own electrical systems and having to maintain their own batteries?

JU: Ideally, you would have local distribution stations in which the solar power was fed into by the homes in the region. This would also be where the hydrogen was produced. The local stations would be responsible for maintaining the integrity of the system.

RR: I hear what you are saying, and agree that this would do wonders for both Global Warming and Peak Oil mitigation. But then I think back to the comments I made about Al Gore after we watched An Inconvenient Truth. The facts may be incontrovertible. The logic may be crystal clear. The solution may be staring us right in the face. Now, trace out the path for implementing the plan. That is the disconnect I see here. You listen to Al Gore and you think “It is obvious that something must be done.” But I look at the politics and wonder how we will get it done.

JU: There are solutions, and some are relatively clear. But again I am not sure we have the collective wisdom to make the transition.

On Biomass as an Alternative

RR: I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the potential for biomass to mitigate peak oil and global warming. On the one hand, I love the potential of biomass gasification, and I think biodiesel and potentially butanol make sense in some situations. On the other hand, I hate what we are doing with corn ethanol in this country. However, you have a different take on the biomass issue.

JU: Here is my problem with biomass. The net primary productivity of some of the most efficient ecological systems in the world is at best approximately 1% capture of solar insolation. Many areas – the forested regions of the West, for instance – are much lower at 0.2% or so. Corn is about 0.5%, but that includes fossil fuel inputs from fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, etc. Of course then if you are going to turn that biomass into biofuels, there are inputs into that process that lower the net capture. While there may be some limited applications in which such poor efficiencies are justified, in general this is a very inefficient way of capturing solar energy.

Contrast this with our solar panels, which convert approximately 15% of the sun’s energy into electricity. That is orders of magnitude better than the biomass route. We have numerous rooftops that could have solar panels setting on top of them. There are no issues with soil depletion, and we don’t have to worry about planting great swaths of monoculture crops, nor of food competing with fuel. Of course with biomass you can produce a liquid fuel instead of electricity, but there is simply no reason that we can’t adopt much higher levels of PHEVs instead of continuing to rely on the internal combustion engine as our primary means of transport. And note that this is with present commercial solar technology. Spectrolab just produced some solar cells with an efficiency of over 40%. Biomass simply can’t compete with numbers like that, and it never will.

RR: OK, there are definitely some points there that I haven’t considered. The net primary productivity argument, specifically. While I have heard passing mention of this, I have never set out to calculate the potential of biomass from first principles like net primary productivity. Sounds like something I should work on, because this would be a pretty strong argument against biomass and in favor of solar energy.

On Big Oil

RR: So, first of all I have to know if Ana (Jerry’s daughter, and a supporter of Prop 87) is ticked off at me over my Prop 87 essays.

JU: Well, she certainly wasn’t happy with the way the vote went, but I don’t think she is upset with you. In fact, she told me that she has defended you many times when people said “Why are you taking that guy seriously? He works for an oil company!” She would tell them “No, he is very serious and he cares a lot about energy policy.”

RR: You can’t imagine how often I get that reaction. A lot of people are willing to completely dismiss my opinion because I work for an oil company.

JU: No, I can believe that. The same thing frequently happened to me when I worked for a chemical company.

RR: What really bugs me is that people are so incredibly dependent on petroleum for so many things, and they loathe the companies supplying that product to them.

JU: Of course most people are unaware of the extent of their dependence on petroleum. Look at the clothes we are wearing. They came from oil. Look at the snowshoes we are wearing. They came from oil. But people feel that when ExxonMobil is making $37 billion and they are paying $3/gallon for gasoline – which should be $5/gallon in my opinion anyway – that something needs to be done about that. Those profits simply look ridiculous.

RR: But you know that our profit margins are only about average for all industries. We make about 10% on sales. Profits are high because the companies are huge.

JU: It doesn’t matter. Your profit margins could be 2% or 20%. The perception people have is that they are being cheated, and those are the consequences you will have to live with as they lobby their representatives for relief.

RR: That’s on my mind a lot, actually. I have been investing a lot of my money into energy, because I think it will do well even in a post-peak world. People will still demand energy, and it is going to be very expensive. Oil companies should do well. But what is the government going to do when gasoline is $6/gallon, and ExxonMobil makes $100 billion? There is a risk there, and I imagine government is going to be very hostile to Big Oil in a post-peak world.

JU: One of the reasons for your public relations problem is that oil companies have been too cozy with this administration. Look at Cheney’s energy task force. They wouldn’t release the proceedings. This leaves the impression that Big Oil is getting special favors and benefiting from closed-door deals.

What you really need to do is be proactive. If you guys would get behind a revenue-neutral fossil fuels tax – and I don’t mean just pay lip service to the idea – then people might start to think you were serious about dealing with issues like Peak Oil and climate change. You (personally) say the right things. Your ideals are good. But those of your industry are questionable. You could also give up some of those subsidies. Do you really need subsidies?

RR: I agree that oil companies don’t need subsidies. In fact, 4 out of the 5 CEOs who testified after Katrina said that they don’t need subsidies. But I want to point out a couple of things. First, eliminating the direct subsidies would amount to only a nickel a gallon or so. Those subsidies spread across all of the diesel and gasoline we use amount to very little per gallon. I am not defending the subsidies, I am just saying that the effect will be small and more needs to be done like a direct fossil-fuels tax. But the other thing is that oil companies have not even requested some of these subsidies. Some subsidies are put in place because congress wants the oil companies to do certain things; things like drill in a particular location. So, even though oil companies might never even take advantage of this, it gets counted as a subsidy.

JU: Again, it doesn’t matter. It would improve public perception if you were to publicly announce that you were giving up all subsidies. Besides that, $6 billion or $10 billion might not mean much to Big Oil, but if those subsidies were redirected to alternatives, it could really accelerate their market penetration. In fact, just getting rid of the oil subsidies would level the playing field for alternatives and allow them to compete head to head with oil.

Right now it appears to the public that the government is in collusion with Big Oil. If you want to change this perception, and the perception that people have of Big Oil, you need to make some serious policy changes. You can only do this by being very serious about solving some of these major issues facing us. Whitewashing will not do it.

RR: I do believe that those who think that Big Oil is going to fade away after oil production peaks are kidding themselves. They have enough cash on hand to get into any energy business that looks promising. I note that 2 of your solar panels were produced by Shell Solar.

JU: I think companies like Shell and BP – despite their recent problems – are positioning themselves to be leaders as oil production depletes. ExxonMobil just doesn’t seem to care, and could end up going the way of General Motors.

RR: Speaking of the government and Big Oil, what do you think the new Democratic congress is going to do differently?

JU: Well, first off I think there will be less pressure to drill in environmentally sensitive locations. I think we have a real shot at some climate change legislation, but I also expect Bush to start using his veto power with more regularity. I hope to see higher efficiency standards, higher CAFE standards, and more support for renewables. One wild card is the greenhouse gas case before the Supreme Court. It appears to me that the language is clear that the EPA could and should regulate GHGs. I am cautiously optimistic that the Supreme Court will vote in favor, and this could make a real impact in our fight against Global Warming.

The final section contains information that Jerry put together on their house. Again, feel free to contact Jerry for more detailed information.

Rammed Earth Tire House – Owners/Builders: Diana and Jerry Unruh
(Updated: August 31, 2006)

Structural Information

Footprint = 2350 sq ft; Actual floor space = 1950 sq ft.
950 tires (225x75x15) packed with decomposed granite from site.
Total of about 750,000 lbs of dirt used in tires and for interior adobe walls.
Framing: 2×6 studs with double studding in east and west walls and above tire shell.
Roof: Standing seam metal roof with ice and water shield underneath; 1to12 pitch.
Insulation: R-38 in ceiling; R-42 in side walls, R-26 in rear wall.
Windows: double pane with 6 operable 3.5’X2’ windows; total window area on South-facing side of house is approximately 410 sq ft.
Skylights: four operable 4’X4’, and one operable 2’X2’.
Floor: ceramic tile for heat absorption.


House is passively solar heated with energy stored in thermal mass of tire walls. About 90% of heat comes from solar. Supplemental heat is a propane gas-log stove. For supplemental heating we use about 200 gallon of propane/yr (~ equal to two-third cord of wood or about 185 units (100 cu ft) of natural gas)

Electricity (“off-the-grid”)

All electricity is from photovoltaics (1.52 kW) with energy storage in batteries (twelve 350 amp-hr; 1,050 amp-hr storage at 24 volts). The system is 24 volts with all electricity being converted to ac via a Trace 4024 inverter. All lighting is compact fluorescent bulbs. The refrigerator (main power consumer) is a 21 cu ft energy star Amana. Otherwise all electrical devices are conventional, but we turn off “phantom” loads when necessary. In order to run the 240 volt well pump we have a transformer which is wired directly to the float switch on the 500 gallon spherical cistern so that the transformer is only on when the well pump is running. Our average consumption is approximately 5.0 kWh/day. No generator -Backup is from the grid. In almost 6 years we have used only 71 kWh from the grid (most of this consumption has been around the Christmas/New Years holidays when the children and their families have been here).


Other than the supplemental heating stove, propane is used to heat water, cook, and dry clothes: Water heater – Aquastar 125X LP tankless (on demand); Range – GE profile; Clothes dryer – Frigidaire LP. Propane consumption for these three appliances is ~ 0.35 gallon/day (125 gallons/year), of which about 0.15 gallon/day is for water heating. New addition: Single point electric water heater under kitchen sink; so either electricity (~0.5 kWh/day) or propane can be used.


Our house approaches net zero energy, when electrical production is subtracted from propane consumption. Our net propane consumption is approximately 0.4 gal/day (gross is 0.923 gal/day). Our net carbon dioxide production is approximately 1.5 kg/day while the average household production in Colorado Springs is > 40kg/day. We plan to reduce heat loss from windows with translucent coverings so that net zero energy is more closely approached. Our net household energy consumption is approximately 0.75 Btu/sq ft-hr. For comparison, the maximum energy consumption for an ultra low energy commercial building designation from LEED is 3.4 Btu/sq ft-hr.
Appendix – Calculation of Heat Rate and CO2 Emissions for Colorado Springs Utilities


– Lower heating value used for propane calculations
– One gallon of propane weighs 4.3 lbs and yields 86,012 Btu
– One gallon of propane produces 12.9 lbs (= 5.86 kg) CO2
– Our gross consumption of propane is 0.92 gal/day = 79,130 Btu/day
– Our gross CO 2 production is 5.45 kg/day
– Efficiency of coal and peaking natural gas is 32% = heat rate of 10,633 Btu/kWh
– Lower heating value for natural gas is 913 Btu/cu ft & contains 1.2 g-mole/cu ft
– For coal at 32% efficiency, 1.01 kg CO2 produced/kWh = 1.01 metric ton/MWh
– For nat. gas at 32% efficiency, 0.56 kg CO2 produced/kWh = 0.56 metric ton/MWh
– Combined cycle natural gas efficiency is 45.2% = heat rate of 7,540Btu/kWh
– For combined cycle natural gas, 0.40 kg CO2 produced/KWh = 0.40 metric ton/MWh
– Heat rate and CO2 production for hydro and wind are both zero

15 thoughts on “A Conversation on Energy Issues”

  1. I’m not sure I’m buying the insolation efficiency argument against biofuels.

    Sure, they’re less efficient by an order of magnitude or so, but an acre of biomass is probably always going to be several orders of magnitude cheaper than an acre of highly-engineered silicon.

    Land area may eventually come into play with biofuels, but cost is an issue with PV right now.

  2. We had the cost/MW discussion over at The Ergosphere, in the comments of “Sustainability”.  It came out in favor of biomass, unsurprisingly.

    But that was assuming radical improvements in efficiency, going straight from the status quo to the state of the art.  The conventional biofuel cycle is around 1/10 as efficient and would cost about 10 times as much for a given use, aside from being completely unable to satisfy current demand.  Unruh is right.

    Robert, I hope you dropped a copy of “Sustainability” on him. 😉

  3. I haven’t finished the whole interview, but I have to disabuse your friend of that myth he seems to be clinging to about the war in Iraq being about oil. That is simply ridiculous, the blood-for-oil argument is completely facile, and and as someone who fought in that war and has extensively studied the strategy involved in fighting it, that argument is quite tiresome. Look at the EIA figures for where we get our oil. As of a few months ago, we get something like 5% of our oil from Iraq. The US military total consumes something like 1% of all US oil (from Amory Lovins, Winning the Oil Endgame). Perhaps you could quibble over the reserves and the potential of the oil fields there, but come on. There are a lot of easier and safer ways for the US to get its oil, and arguing that we went to Iraq over oil supplies is purely rhetoric that plays squarely into enemy propaganda to undermine our efforts and increase cynical views of the US presence there.

    As for oil supplies in general, a realist (in the political model of realists, liberals and idealists) could say that taking down the Hussein regime took out a threat to oil supplies in neighboring countries, like Saudi Arabia. However, that would play back into my assertion that Hussein was dangerous in of himself and his regime and needed to go down. Much political hay has also been made of the “missing WMD”, but people making that argument seem to have distorted memories of the lack of intel alert before 9/11, and how totally wrong the intel community was about Hussein’s WMD capabilities going into Desert Storm–they grossly underestimated the progress of his programs.

    I’ve also talked to many so-called and self-styled “liberals” against the war in Iraq who don’t seem to care a lick for liberty for anyone but themselves. Contrast with Wilson, Kennedy, Truman and Roosevelt, who felt compelled to help oppressed people around the world and end tyranny.

    At any rate, one of my reasons for being deeply involved with sustainable energy (ranked #3 I think) is because of discussions like this. Our dependancy on oil leads to cynicism about our motives and policy, and freedom from oil supplies would be one less piece of fodder for people like al Zawahiri and their information warfare campaigns against us.

    I strongly recommend reading Addicted to Oil: Strategic Implications of American Oil Policy by Thomas D. Kraemer, May 2006 from the Strategic Studies Institute. http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=705

  4. Of course with biomass you can produce a liquid fuel instead of electricity, but there is simply no reason that we can’t adopt much higher levels of PHEVs instead of continuing to rely on the internal combustion engine as our primary means of transport.

    The commonest concern cited with this approach is the cost, embodied energy, and toxcity of all the batteries required to make this shift.

    Have you or Dr. Unruh taken a good hard look at this issue? Maybe it’s a non-issue, but any time I hear someone say “there’s no reason we can’t just do X”, I have to wonder if they’ve looked at every angle.

    Frank has a valid point about the relative cost of biomass vs solar PV. Obviously I’m not talking about corn, but perhaps a polyculture of native perenial plains grasses, which can be very productive on marginal lands (but it has to be a polyculture: http://tinyurl.com/ygpubh).

    Point is, the relative economics of biomass production on one side, and the relatively high emobided energy associated with large Li-ion battery packs, may complicate the question more than Dr. Unruh is giving credit for.

  5. Your discussion was very interesting but I’d like to address the assertion that we could’ve purchased solar panels with the $2 trillion from the war. Let’s not even get into the fact that the entire annual budget of DoD even in peacetime is about $500B annually with or without the war in Iraq, and this is the lowest the budget has been with respect to GDP since before WWII. First off, solar panels are great, but certainly not a silver bullet. I doubt you could’ve gotten any kind of good deal for that many solar panels due to the silicon shortage, and I doubt you could’ve gotten $2T worth any time soon for love or money. You’d be putting a lot of that money into silicon refineries rather than getting solar panels out. Moreover, electrical production has very little to do with oil. Only a tiny fraction of oil consumed by the US goes into electrical production (~3.0%), and very little foreign material is used to make electricity here. By far the biggest electrical producer in the US is coal at about 49.9%, 19.9% nuclear, 18.6% gas, and 6.4% hydro. At best you would maybe force prices of coal down a bit, but you would have exactly no impact on our consumption of oil, which is mostly in the petro-chemical industry and for transportation. Net result–no impact on reliance on foreign energy sources.

    Solar panels cannot have meaningful impact on transportation oil consumption unless everyone was driving PHEVs, and even then, oil is a fungible resource, so all you would be doing is driving the price of oil down for other countries to afford to burn more. Even if we all did have PHEVs, you would have to store the electricity because most of them would be charging at times with little or no solar power (like in the evening and at night), if you wanted the solar to power the cars that is. Otherwise you will have to throttle up coal plants or natural gas “peakers” to make up the difference at night, which will be exacerbated by the new daytime baseline provided by solar displacing other sources which would have to make it up at night. Electrical production in this country is under very little threat from peak oil, but our transportation system is, and that cannot be directly addressed by solar panels alone. It cannot be effectively solved by federal government spending or any alternative energy ideas out there. We need to kill the daily commute, drastically cut the amount we drive, and immensely cut the weight of our vehicle fleets. I would also ask where the is the outrage for the 42,643 annual highway fatalities (51 times higher than the casualty rate in Iraq) (2003, FHWA/DOT) and $230.6B per year caused by auto accidents?

    Also, as I mentioned in my earlier post, the war-for-oil thing is a fallacy. We don’t play by 18th century rules of warfare where you keep what you conquer. Iraq’s oil production is going to the government of Iraq and sold on the open market–it doesn’t go into a dedicated tank for us, and many of the oil producers in the region opposed the war. Hardly the course of action to take if assured oil supplies was our primary motivation. Moreover, the oil supplies in Iraq are under much closer international scrutiny than it was during the UN Oil For Food program, so it’s not like we are sneaking oil out under the table. The only discussion I’ve heard about oil among US officials with regards to Iraq regard it as a vital resource for the Iraqi people, not about how we can get it.

    Finally, I wonder why helping people in their struggle against oppression is not considered worth an investment? Oil or no, the West was going to have to confront problems in that region sooner or later, and Iraq is becoming a focal point for a wide range of these issues. For further reading on this, I recommend Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. The war in Iraq is far more about globalization vs. radical Islam, or radical Islam causing their societies to be left behind than about oil. It also involves the Shia/Sunni clash that has broiled since 656AD, and of course, the situation with Israel/Palestine.

    In conclusion, while solar is nice, it does not address our addiction to oil, nor our reliance on foreign energy sources, and government spending is not going to change that. Solar may decrease our carbon emissions if it displaces coal, but it will do nothing for our hydrocarbon emissions or dependancy. The war in Iraq has very little to do with oil supplies and much more to do with a myriad of other issues that we would eventually have to confront, with or without oil involved.

  6. While solar/oil car issues may take awhile, what do you all think is the biggest hurdle in getting people to adopt solar panel energy for their home energy use? Why has it taken so long to take off and what can people/environmentally conscious companies do to accelerate acceptance?

  7. greenpeas,

    The answer to your question is cost. Solar PV is an easy, drop-in retrofit on most buildings, which is part of the reason that it is popular. It is also, unfortunately, one of the absolutely most expensive options for power generation.
    Unfortunately, the best way to offset fossil fuel energy, which is good design practice, is relatively cheap in practice, but is strongly disincentivized by the structure and culture of the building industry and of our economy generally.


    You must be new here, if you think that you’re telling this community anything particularly new about energy, the need to reduce driving, or the weaknesses of supply-side solutions generally and solar PV in particular. If you read this blog for awhile, you will realize the RR’s comment about $2T worth of solar panels was a throwaway comment about the absurdity of the situation that the current administration has gotten us into, not a specific suggestion for addressing our energy needs. Our host is quite a bit more sophisticated than that.

    I’m not even going to try to address your statements about the oil market. I could go on for pages. Better idea: spend some time reading (and not posting, at first) at http://www.theoildrum.com. Oil markets are not nearly so simple as you might suppose.

  8. No, actually greenengineer, I am not new here. I’ve posted here before and have read this blog for a long time. I generally agree with RR, except occasionally I take issue with a few things on bio-fuels. I’ve also had email correspondence directly with RR, particularly about butanol and its potential as a bio-fuel in lieu of ethanol (this was also quite some time ago). So no, I never had any notions that anything I said was particularly original on my part, but was astoundingly absent in the non-sequitur rant on the war in Iraq.

    Moreover, if you go back and read the article, it wasn’t even RR that made the solar PV comment. As far as the “absurdity of the situation”, say what you want about the administration, but I think you, and many people in this country have some fundamental misperceptions about what is going on in Iraq and the Middle East in general. Again, that wasn’t RR’s comment that I took issue with, but his guests. I may or may not have the credentials to butt heads with these guys on technical issues with petroleum (you don’t know), but I do believe I have more than a little to say about Iraq and the Middle East, particularly in the context of energy and strategic strategy. I really don’t know where you get off with the condescending remarks about doing more reading and less posting, since you don’t have a clue how much reading I’ve done or not. I understand full well that oil markets are very complex and have learned a lot from RR (and other places, like the Watt podcast, and many other places) about them. If you don’t agree with me, fine. If you have some issue with the information I posted, then let’s have it. As I said though, I get really tired of the abusive war and oil comments, and I think perhaps you should read that Strategic Institute study I recommended by CDR Kraemer. You obviously are getting testy about perceived know-it-all n00bs coming in talking smack about energy issues, and I too get very tired of people, especially people who simply have no more than an axe to grind with the current administration, suddenly becoming military and Middle Eastern experts.

    So, if you can do so without being abusive about it, lay it on me. My email address is the name I gave at gmail if you don’t want to respond here.

  9. This is directed to PowerPointSamurai:

    I am amused at your insinuation that US involvement in Iraq has — to quote your former boss, Donald Rumsfeld — “absolutely nothing to do with oil.” It reminds me of the rationalizations of white Southerners (and I am one) that the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery but was instead about “states rights.” We can always find a fancy wrapper for our less-than-nobile motives can’t we Samurai?

    I would also contend that your statement that “there are a lot of easier and safer ways for the US to get its oil” is without any grounding in reality. Where, I ask, would that be? Venezuela? Mexico? Russia? Nigeria? Maybe the Artic? In fact,many of us in the Peak Oil community see America’s involvement in the current Iraqi quagmire as proof that the current administration is convinced that, going forward, the US is going to have a very difficult time obtaining the vast quantities of oil needed to run the American economy. The fact that the Iraq debacle is looking more and more like a “no-win” situation only reinforces my feeling that time is running out for the “non-negotiable” American way of life.

    Finally, I see from your use of the word “liberal” and your lame attempt to shame those of us that disagree with you by invoking the names of Kennedy, Truman, and Roosevelt, that you favor a bi-polar world in which everyone picks one of two sides. Well I hate to tell you this, but that way of looking at the world died the day that the Berlin Wall came down. Everyone on the planet seems to get that with the exception of George Bush, Tony Blair and their respective supporters. We in the West can acknowledge that and move toward building a way of life that doesn’t rely on acquiring other people’s resources at a price to be decided by us, or we can continue to pursue our “global interests.” If we choose the latter — and you and others are free to make all the self-serving comments you want about your “true” motives — I promise you that America will end up broke and broken. That, my friend, is the choice facing you and those who think like you.

    — PeakOil Tarzan

  10. “Peak oil Tarzan”-

    It’s interesting that you try to attack my position by association with an unpopular individual and with slavery rather than actually arguing my point. This is laughably close to being a “Godwin”. Your whole first paragraph seems designed to undermine my argument by conjuring images of slavery, colonialism, and oooh, Rumsfeld. My assertion that the war has nothing to do with oil was based on the arguments I presented previously–most importantly that 17th century plunder rules do not apply in modern warfare, as well as professionally related discussions about strategy–in which oil never came up in a context other than being vital for the Iraqi economy to get started.

    As for your comments about where the oil would be easier to get than pissing off all of our current suppliers (every one in the top 10, including Canada, but with the exception of Kuwait) were opposed to the war. That does not sound like oil motivations dominated the thinking to me. Certainly maintaining better relations with Russia, or helping Canada better develop its tar sands would have a higher payoff than the war, if the war motives were dominated by oil.

    And you continue throughout your post with more of the little buzzwords, like quagmire and debacle which do not match the real conditions, and were the reason for my original post in the first place. Say what you want about the current administration, or any administration, I don’t care. Moreover, I agree that the concept of peak oil is indeed a dire and imminent threat to our way of life (or failing that, carbon emissions will do us in if we don’t peak), but I think you are off base and mislead by myths about the war, many of which I have already addressed.

    I also see that you jumped all over my use of the word liberal without understanding what I meant. You seem to assume I mean “liberal” in the abused context it is often used today, in contrast with “conservative”. There is, however, a model where you have realists (who’s motive is “what’s in it for me”), liberals (who espouse transmitting our ideals of democracy and liberty), and idealists (who include people like Ghandi, some anti-globalization protesters, etc.). In this model, “neo-cons”, like GWB allegedly is, are a hybrid between realist and liberal. Moreover, the reason I invoked Kennedy, Truman, and Roosevelt was specifically because all the presidents we today consider “liberal” fought all the wars. Wilson was an evangelist of democracy. So was FDR, Truman, and Kennedy. Gee, I hardly think I am criticizing “liberals” here, because I think they were right. Contrast with the realists (and “conservatives”) of the period who favored isolationism and allowing the Nazis to overrun Europe and the Japanese to do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted–as long as they don’t mess with us.

    As for your comment about “We in the West can acknowledge that move toward building a way of life that doesn’t rely on acquiring other people’s resources” exactly and squarely was what I was talking about in the first place with regards to liberal vs. realist and was indeed my point. I recommend you go read that link I posted from the Strategic Studies Institute, Commander Kraemer, entitled Addicted to Oil, and he says exactly that. The only reason you and I are arguing at all right now is because you have apparently bought into the cynical, realist view that we are in Iraq to plunder its resources versus my assertion that we are helping the Iraqi people, and hopefully the entire Arab world, integrate into our global society, for which they have previously either been locked out or kept themselves out, and have been left behind. So, once we set aside the resource driven cynicism, what then? Do we allow the now post-peak Middle East to slide into abject poverty and chaos, or do we try to break the cycle and help people who are willing to try?

  11. Hi PowerPointSamurai:

    My summary to what you say is that while there may be many reasons why we invaded Iraq, if Iraq didn’t have oil we wouldn’t be there. The history of U.S. meddling in the Middle East since WWII has predominately been over oil (or the Israel/Palestine conflict). A few examples. After Egypt Nationalized their oil (I’m sorry that I don’t know the year), the U.S. was instrumental in installing the Baathists and Hussein in power because we thought they would not nationalize. Of course they did it anyway. President Carter instituted the “Carter Doctrine” which basically stated that the U.S. had the right and obligation to intervene to protect oil supplies in the Middle East. Bush the Elder at least had the courtesy to tell the American public that his invasion of Iraq was to protect oil supplies. Additionally his administration had the wisdom not to proceed to Baghdad due to the probability that such a move would result in civil war. Bush the Younger clearly did not exercise (or have) the wisdom of his father and we are now in that civil war.

    I think there is sufficient information available to show that W. wanted to invade Iraq before September 11, 2001. He then used 9/11 to cynically convince the American public that the Hussein regime was involved in the attack even though there was no information to link Iraq to that deed. In fact, there was considerable information to the contrary. However, no matter what is believed about the run up to the war, the arrogance and incompetence with which the war was carried out is hardly in doubt. Your having fought in Iraq does not automatically give you a clear-eyed vision of that war. I would assert that it seems to have blinded you to the lies that this administration has perpetrated on the American public. Do keep in mind that we were the aggressor in Iraq which was obviously not the case in WWII. While Hussein was a horrible despot, there are many others in the world, and during the past 50 years we have supported many (including Hussein) because it fit U.S. presumed interests at the time.

    You further indicated that we get little oil from the Iraq (about 5% which is correct) and so it made little sense to invade. You further suggested that there are easier ways for the U.S. to get oil. Whether we wish to believe it or not, about 2/3 of the world’s oil reserves are in the Middle East with 5 countries having most of it: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and the United Arabs Emirates in that order (unless you wish to believe Iran’s recent “surge” in reserves in which case Iran would be second). The issue is not about where we are presently getting crude, but where we will be getting it in the future. U.S. crude production (not including natural gas liquids or refinery gains) is now slightly over half of what it was at the peak of production in 1970 while our consumption is double or more of what it was then. Many (most?) of our imports outside the Middle East come from fields which are in decline (hence the issue of peak oil). Finally there are still unexplored areas of Iraq which may contain as much as 100 billion barrels of oil (although http://www.oilcrisis.com disputes this). Tar sands in Canada are much touted, but the energy EROEI is only about 1.5 and that requires substantial natural gas input and does not include any environmental mitigation. If the hydrogen required to liquefy the bitumen came from the tar itself, I am quite sure the EROEI would be negative. Shale oil in Colorado is not even worth mentioning. Finally, many in the Bush Administration are oil people and know where the oil is and isn’t. There have been and still are desires that Iraqi oil to be controlled by foreign oil companies (with American oil companies having an edge). While that has not yet happened, there was just a discussion of such possibilities on NPR this morning and it is discussed in the Iraq Study Group report.

    In summary, I think there are substantial reasons to conclude that the invasion of Iraq was substantially over oil. What really angers me, is that we may spend $2 trillion on an ill conceived and ineptly executed war when that money could have been spent on truly moving us toward energy independence. It is quite amazing to me how quick we, as a nation, are to spend money on war, but how reluctant we are to do something which will lead to peace, energy independence, and true security. Whatever your views of the correctness of the war, we and the world are now less secure than we were before it was begun.


  12. Thanks for the response to PPS, Jerry. You saved me alot of typing.

    Any hope that we might get back to my original question (about embodied energy of batteries, and PV vs. biofuels)?

  13. Samurai, you and I could probably argue for hours about why the US is in Iraq and probably not cause the other to budge in his position. The point I was attempting to make with the slavery reference was simply that a person’s or a nation’s motives are often complex and — when it is politically necessary to do so — easily “spun” to avoid confronting more unpleasant realities.

    I still regard Rumfeld’s remark about the Iraq war having “nothing (and that was the word that he chose to stress — nothing) to do with oil” as one of the most ridiculous and credibilty-destroying pronouncements made by anyone is this administration. Even if you believe that this was not the Bush Administration’s primary motive for invading Iraq — and there is no point in you and I arguing this any further because we both have better things to do — to make such a statement is just plain silly. No one outside of the United States believed it then and no one outside of the US believes it now. His making such a statement only served to harden everyone’s cynicism (mine included) over this administration’s motives.

    Thank you for the reading recommendation (Thomas Kraemer) — I will certainly get it and read it. If I can return the favor, I would recommend Michael Klare’s “Blood and Oil” (don’t be put off by the title — it is not an attack on the Bush administration so much as it is a warning of the impending danger of “resource wars”) and Chalmers Johnson’s “The Sorrows of Empire.”

    Samurai, you speak repeatedly of helping to liberate the oppressed and relieve the suffering of the world’s poorest and I don’t, and would not, question your motives in that regard. What bothers me — and I hope that I’m terribly wrong about this — is that I have come to think that the quality of life and the freedoms that you and I enjoy come at the expense of some poor SOB somewhere whose land is ripped out from under him or whose environment is terribly polluted by mining or manufacturing activities that go to make all of those flat-panel TVs and shiny new cars that we all like so much. This is my beef with Friedman. The world looks less and less “flat” to me and more and more like a place where you either live on the hill or you live in the swamp. I hope sooner or later someone demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be an either/or world. Until then, I’ll be haunted every time I crack open a beer or take a fly-fishing trip to Montana.

    Despite strong differences in our world views, I am heartened by your interest in energy issues and your acknowledgement of the need to move away from a fossil fueled economy. Maybe that’s what’s most important here.

    Finally, if you have returned from service in Iraq, welcome home and best of luck to you in the future. We’re going to need all the brain power and creative thinking that we can muster to deal with the challenges facing us.

    PeakOil Tarzan

  14. Jerry Unruh writes:

    If the hydrogen required to liquefy the bitumen came from the tar itself, I am quite sure the EROEI would be negative.

    I’m absolutely certain it would be positive.  Even more hydrogen-poor feedstocks, such as coal and petroleum coke, are gasified into syngas; some IGCC plants in Japan are burning asphalt.  Rentech is re-powering an ammonia plant in Illinois to use coal.  This is proof positive that bitumen can be used to generate the required hydrogen, plus power and heat.

    Whether enough water can be found, or the projects not put out of business by GHG taxes, is another matter.  That these projects might be allowed to go forward is worrisome.

    Jerry, have you had a look at my “Sustainability” essay?

  15. “Peak Oil Tarzan”

    Sorry for the brief response–I am writing from a free Wi-fi hotspot on vacation. I’m glad you will check out CDR Kraemer’s paper “Addicted to Oil”. It’s not terribly long, it does a much more articulate job of describing what I’m trying to say about how perceived oil interests cause cynicism of our motives whenever we act or do anything, and if you are expecting a Bush admin spin-job, you will be surprised.

    I will check out the books you recommended, although I have to admit one was already on my list to read.

    As for Friedman and the people left behind in globalization, I would have to say that Friedman devoted much of the latter half of “The World is Flat” to the “half-flat” and the people left behind. He also discussed globalization vs. compassion and tradition pretty eloquently in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”. I would say overall that the guy from Malaysia is better off for you having purchased a reel for your fishing trip made there–so long as he is paid a fair wage and environmental considerations were taken in making it. That’s the real trick. The other part that I’m concerned with, as are others here, is our need to keep this going without destroying the planet, and getting away from the use of fossil fuels.

    I don’t claim to know what was going on inside Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney/Rice/Wolfowitz’s head when they made their plans and decisions about invading Iraq, but neither does anyone else but them. However, I do know what I and other people have discussed about it, what I’ve read in articles and books about these key players, etc. I haven’t completely read Dr. Unruh’s response to me yet (peak time at this place is not a good place to concentrate), but you both implied that we wouldn’t be in Iraq if it had not been for oil. That is only half true. Oil made it considerably more feasible to reconstruct the country and get a democracy built and the economy needed to sustain it. Just look at the difficulties we are facing in Afghanistan–no infrastructure or natural resources, some of the least educated people in the world, etc. These people are going to have a long, tough road to build a sustainable economy, and that is going to make a job very tough for a government–especially a democratic government to serve the people.

    I would moreover point to North Korea, which also lacks oil, which we are actively engaged in right now as well. China, Japan, and South Korea are also very actively engaged in resolving the problems there, while China is very actively opposed to military action. North Korea is poised on the brink of collapse all on its own, unlike the oppressive Hussein regime, which pinned down 80% of the population with its oil money. You might also ask why we are not involved in places like Africa, to which I would say 1) we are, 2) the challenges there are monumentally more difficult, 3) much more is yet to come.

    Also, I fear that oil interests and the oil weapon are going to completely shatter the foundation of nuclear non-proliferation. Who is going to ensure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons? What happens if we don’t? I also fear that people who are ok with Iran developing nuclear weapons assume they will act in accordance with our concept of rationalism and that deterrence will prevent them from using them. I don’t think they are taking into account the cultural perspectives and the differences between them and our Soviet rivals. I don’t recall a lot of Soviet suicide bombers running around during the Cold War.

    You mentioned that you sometimes worry that your gains come at the loss of some other poor SOB in some swamp. That is an apt visualization, since up until recently the tact for dealing with Saddam Hussein had been to buy him off or to use him as a counter-balance against Iran, while the Shia Arabs in the south fled into the swamps (which were drained and destroyed to hunt them down). That is the “real-politik” method often used with dictators–to buy them off or to use them for your purposes, while not necessarily in the best interests of your society’s values. We cannot continue to sit and turn a blind eye to the antics of people like Hussein while we improve conditions for ourselves alone. To me, getting away from oil addiction is an intrinsic part of that, but it is not the sole component.

    So I hope you can enjoy that beer while watching “Battlestar Galactica” on your flat screen, and continue what you are doing with energy. Humans have screwed a lot of stuff up over the millenia, but I am optimistic that we can get better at taking care of each other, and perhaps we can play our part in that. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Comments are closed.