Friday, May 18, 2007

Facing the Music

Previously I wrote about broad issues that must be tackled to mitigate the oncoming crises. No mitigation effort that serious has ever taken place in the history of mankind nor do I expect it to happen this time. Instead, we are about to face the music for our collective foolishness and these trials may begin as soon as this summer.

GliderGuider over at TOD Canada has authored a new piece called Peak Oil, Carrying Capacity and Overshoot: Population, the Elephant in the Room. This is one of those rare pieces outside the Dieoff website that dares to try to grapple with the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, as the responses demonstrate, there are still people who believe this problem can be solved and proceed to act in that manner. This was followed by Ecological Footprint, Energy Consumption, and the Looming Collapse by Professor Francois Cellier. Both posts were attacked with absolutely no useful quantitative rebuttals and only emotional rhetoric hinged upon faith-based solutions.

Today we are seeing the crisis a bit closer to home. According to a televised NBC report, barges carrying finished gasoline or gasoline components have been diverted from the east coast to the south to avert spot shortages. And Memorial Day driving has not even begun yet. A government report states that the Minimum Operating Level (MOL) for the gasoline system in the US is 185 million barrels. To understand the MOL, imagine a pipeline 1000 feet long. If you put a gallon of gasoline in one end, it's not going to come out the other end. It will just sit in the pipeline. Instead, the pipeline must be pressurized and filled with gasoline. The pipe might contain 1000 gallons of gasoline, so that when you push one gallon in one end, one gallon can come out the other end. But there is still 1000 gallons in between. That 1000 gallons is the MOL for that pipeline.

Now jump from this hypothetical example to the real world where we have thousands of miles of pipelines crisscrossing the entire country. We need 185 million barrels of gasoline as MOL to keep the national pipeline system pressurized and working. But the MOL gets counted as part of national inventories even though you cannot directly use it without shutting down the pipeline and draining it by hand. This is why the current inventory number of 195 million barrels is worrisome - 185 million of that is MOL, and that leaves just 10 million barrels as real cushion in the system. And how much do we use daily? Well, according to the EIA, for the week ending May 11, 2007, we used 9.4 million barrels per day of gasoline. This means that after we take out MOL, that the US has barely one day's worth of spare supply on hand just as we enter the main driving season. And most people have no clue about what is going on, so consequently they think this will pass shortly and will go off on their annual vacations. This summer may get interesting. All it will take is one single hurricane approaching US landfall to spur a massive auto-based evacuation and then people will find they don't have the fuel to evacuate. The oil companies are in for a gigantic nightmare if motorists are stranded on the highway as a Cat 4 or Cat 5 storm zeroes in on them. And if people die because of this, the public anger is going to be amazing to behold, even if it is misplaced.

Finally, we see another poor nation begin to slide out of the modern age, out of the petroleum age, and into some form of the past. Senegal is experiencing severe shortages of diesel and may have to impose "unprecedented power cuts" (i.e. blackouts). Note that Senegal already has 10 hours of blackout time per day anyway so what could be worse than this? Try maybe no power at all.

As Jeffrey Brown is fond of noting, forced energy conservation is moving up the wealth chain. It started with the poorest nations but it is coming to a neighborhood near you, and perhaps sooner than you think. Or, as Matt Savinar is fond of saying, "The future is here now. It's just not widespread yet."

We're about out of time, people. If you haven't made some preparations by now, things could get very ugly very fast. And even if we muddle through this summer, there is no guarantee that things are going to get better next fall or next year.

No comments: