Tuesday, January 17

A Peak Oil Elevator Conversation

This past Friday I had my second class along the path to a professional certificate in the Sustainable Practices Program at CU Boulder. One of the assignments was to write a quick elevator conversation imagining that someone sees you reading a magazine article about sustainability while waiting for an elevator. Of course, I chose peak oil as my "sustainability issue" and drafted up a quick conversation. I wasn't entirely happy with it, even though I mirthfully ended the write up with: "Argument won by the fifth floor." We were hypothetically supposed to be going ot the tenth floor.

In my original elevator conversation I tried to ask questions, but I didn't give the other person much opportunity to respond. I think I did repeat my main message—that the evidence for peak oil is everywhere—by pointing out easy to see indicators such as the dogged pursuit of unconventional extraction methods and sources. While I know I'm not the best face to face conversationalist/arguer, I decided I would share my final rewrite of my peak oil elevator conversation here, just for fun.

Stranger [pointing to my magazine]: So what do you think about peak oil?

Me: The evidence is apparent. Political policy and the global economy point to a rising cost for oil and other fossil fuels. Those rising costs permeate all facets of society.

Stranger: Nice conspiracy theory!

Me: I thought so at first too. But if you look at the evidence you begin to see some startling patterns. Why is the price of a barrel of oil averaging significantly higher than in past years as we begin tapping into unconventional sources? Why are we exploring those unconventional and more expensive methods for extraction if the cheaper, conventional methods still exist?

Stranger: But the tar sands and and Bakken formation oil booms are good for the economy.

Me: The energy return on investment isn't good for the economy. It takes almost as much energy to extract those unconventional sources, such as the oil sands, the Bakken fracking, deep water wells and the like, as they provide. When it takes more than a barrel of oil to produce a barrel of oil we are working at a loss. Of course someone will still be benefiting from the process...for a time. But in the long run the pursuit of tar sands is futile. The firms pursuing those expensive techniques are doing so in hopes that oil prices will remain high, or go higher, to justify the exorbitant costs associated with those unconventional operations. Do you think the firms making those high risk decisions are basing them on the reality of peak oil, or because they're just naturally reckless?

Stranger: But these methods will help us become less dependent on foreign oil.

Me: Not completely. In 2009 the US consumed over 18 million barrels of oil a day. Bakken is estimated to yield only 2 million barrels a day. And the Alberta tar sands are technically a foreign source regardless of their yield. Regardless, our consumption continually increases while our ability to produce oil ourselves continues to decline. Because, let's face it, the US passed its production peak back in the '70s, as predicted by M. King Hubbert. We have long lost the ability to meet our own needs without seriously cutting back our consumption.

And think about this: as sources of fossil fuels become more scare, competition for those sources is going to become more heated. China and India are growing at an alarming rate, and even as their demand for oil rises, so does ours. How do we decide who gets the dwindling supplies of oil?

Stranger [quickly, as the door opens]: This is my floor...

Me [calling after]: Have a nice day!

Would my "elevator conversation" be effective? I don't know. I've had few opportunities to talk about peak oil in face to face conversations. I no longer worry about being a conspiracy theorist. I do see evidence everywhere. And its not just quacks warning about the implications of the issue.

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