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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Oil and climate change in the age of energy scarcity

As energy scarcity returns to civilization, we are being forced—often painfully—to become conscious once again of the energy flows in our daily life, Cobb writes. 

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The industry campaign relies on the clever and deceptive move to redefine what oil is. “Oil” is now supposed to include natural gas plant liquids (which as you might guess come from natural gas wells and include propane, butane, ethane and pentane), biofuels which include ethanol and biodiesel, and refinery processing gain (which merely measures the well-known scientific fact that the volume of refined products from crude always exceeds the volume of crude oil input). Back in the land of reality worldwide production of crude oil proper, which is defined as crude oil including lease condensate, has been flat since 2005. But, that doesn’t work well with the abundance narrative. So the industry has persuaded government agencies and especially the media to accept this redefinition without them really understanding it.

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Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.

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The campaign also depends on ignoring inconvenient statistical trends. For example, U.S. coal production has been flat since 1998. But the more interesting news is that the total energy content from that coal has been dropping. We are now exploiting coal that is lower and lower in quality. And, the boom in U.S. natural gas production that was supposed to go on for a century has already stalled. Natural gas production in the United States has been flat for over a year.

While the basis for the claim of renewed abundance and energy independence is not borne out by the evidence (see hereherehere and here), the purpose of the campaign is two-fold: 1) To persuade policymakers and the public to open more public lands to fossil fuel exploration while relaxing environmental regulations and 2) to convince both groups that because energy abundance is returning soon, no changes in the current structure of energy production and distribution need to be made. In other words, the technical-corporate-financial energy elite that currently controls the bulk of the world's energy supply should remain intact and in charge.

Constraints experienced in oil supplies in the 1970s gave a foretaste of how the public might become more engaged in shaping our energy future. Many alternative energy projects involving solar and wind became the responsibility of the household and the individual business owner. The return of cheap energy in the 1980s and 1990s, however, reinforced the power of the energy elite as public awareness of energy plummeted along with energy prices. Since then, wind and solar energy have been increasingly concentrated in the hands of utilities as the energy elite sought to put these forms of energy under its dominion.


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