Sunday, May 18, 2008

The greatest threat to America

What is the greatest threat to America? Many fear terrorism or global warming. These are serious concerns, but I do not think either of these is our greatest threat. Nor do I think that scientific illiteracy, irrationality, war, or environmental damage is the greatest threat. All of those problems are real, and all contribute to our vulnerability, but there is a far greater danger. The greatest threat is this: we are running out of cheap oil, and this has staggering implications for our way of life.

Surely, we will find it harder to supply our needs for oil. We have searched virtually the entire planet with high-tech gadgets, and are finding little additional oil. For the last 25 years we have consumed far more oil than we have discovered. Each year the amount of oil demanded goes up, but the amount of oil discovered goes down. By 2006, the rate of discovery was down to 6 billion barrels per year, but the production rate was 28 billion barrels per year. Folks, that can't go on forever. If we consume 28 billion barrels each year and find 6 billion new barrels each year, eventually we will run out, and will be left with a trickle of oil. What will then happen to our economy?

Okay, so someday we won't have as much gas. Can we just pass this problem on to the next generation? No, the problem is facing us now. The more we pump from the existing oil wells, the harder it becomes to maintain the flow out of the wells. Thus, oil fields tend to reach a peak in production, and this peak generally occurs about 40 years after the oil is discovered at that field. When enough of fields peak, the entire region reaches a peak, and oil output starts to decline. Mounting evidence indicates that worldwide oil production has reached, or nearly reached, its peak. Production rates have been flat for the last 5 years, and the output for 2007 was lower than the output for 2006. Evidence indicates world oil production will fall to less than 95% of its current production sometime before 2020--perhaps even within the next 2 years--and to less than 50% sometime between 2025 and 2050.

But world demand has increased, especially in developing countries like China and India. We are headed for oil shortages.

Okay, can we turn to other liquid fuels, such as ethanol from corn or synthetic gasoline from coal? These fuels are expensive, even though they are heavily subsidized by the government. And ethanol has the problem that large fields that formerly grew food have been converted to sources of ethanol, posing the danger of world famines. Also, synthetic fuel from coal is polluting and contributes greatly to global warming. If we were to use coal to replace our oil supplies, even our coal reserves would shortly be exhausted. So there are problems with putting other fuels in our cars.

Okay, so maybe we need to rely on something other than liquid fuels. But if this is so, what energy sources will power our future transportation needs? Obviously, we can't attach huge solar panels or windmills onto our cars, and nobody really wants to fire up the coal stove in the trunk to power her steam-driven car to work. We could install large solar cells and windmills on land to make electricity, but how do we get that power to our cars? Batteries are expensive, notoriously limited in range, and frequently wear out. And using electric to make hydrogen to power cars is inefficient. Further, we either need to compress the hydrogen to very high pressures, or cool it to a liquid at very low temperatures in order to carry enough fuel in the car to travel a reasonable range. Both processes are expensive, and create serious hazards. In addition, hydrogen molecules are so small, they tend to escape from any container we put them in. Do you really want a tank of leaky, explosive, compressed hydrogen in your car in your garage? Alternative energy sources are limited in their value to transportation.

Okay, so we may need to cut back on vacation driving. That will help for a while, but eventually we will need to make major sacrifices. And how is that going to happen? Most likely we will rely on the laws of supply and demand, and we will simply let the price of gasoline and heating oil rise until consumption falls. Prices could rise until people cannot afford things they consider necessities, such as driving to work, or maintaining the house at a comfortable temperature. How will we then live?

Okay, so times may get rough. Not very long ago, folks survived without any gas, and they seemed to be happy. Can we just go back to a simpler life? It would be nice if the solution was that easy. We forget that in the 1800's, folks either lived in dense cities and towns, where they could walk or ride the train everywhere they needed to go, or they lived in the country and owned horses for transportation. Those of us who live in suburbia will not easily be able to go back to either mode of transportation. Our suburbs are too spread out for practical pedestrian travel, and our yards are not big enough to pasture horses. We have built suburbia, not considering that it becomes almost unusable once the gas is gone.

Okay, so maybe we need to start rearranging our suburbs to be walkable. Fine, but more than just transportation is at stake. Oil is used to make plastics, and many other items we consume. Most importantly, oil is used to make fertilizer and pesticides, and to fuel our tractors. Without oil, our entire farm system is in jeopardy. This is serious. Not only will we need to cut back to a simpler life, but we may find that there is not enough food to feed everybody. In 1900, before petroleum fueled the green revolution, there were only 1.5 billion people. Now there are over 6 billion people. If farming must eventually cut back to the methods of 1900, how many people will the world be able to feed? And how will the world cut back the population level to a sustainable level? Will we rely on wars and famine, or will we find more civilized methods? Those are big questions.

The implications of all of this are serious. When we add in scientific illiteracy, decline of rationalism, and religious intolerance, we may find society unable to deal with the new problems. Society could disintegrate into superstition and wars over resources.

Through all of this there is hope. There is a chance that widespread development of nuclear fusion energy, geothermal energy, or improved solar cells could relieve some of the problem, but that is not certain. Technology has done wonders for us, but that does not prove that it could solve these future problems. Science and engineering are constrained by the laws of nature. They are not magic systems that are guaranteed to supply all of our needs. They are constrained by reality. Will reality allow us to obtain the energy we need? We have known about fusion and solar cells for a long time, but fusion is nothing more than a distant dream at this point, and solar cells still chug along at low efficiencies and high costs.

Perhaps we will find it in ourselves to develop the new technologies needed. Perhaps we will find ways to reorganize our suburbs and transportation systems, and find ways to cut back on the over-population and materialism that eats away at our natural resources. The path forward is a serious challenge to all of us.

And that is why I write that running out of cheap oil is the most serious threat to our county. Although the topic drifts from the stated intent of this site, it is of vital importance. I expect that I may be writing more about this at my site.