Sunday, September 19, 2010

Robert Hirsch and The Impending World Energy Mess

Here’s an interesting two-part interview of Robert Hirsch: Part 1; Part 2.

The interview promotes the book that Hirsch is a co-author of with Roger Bezdek and Robert Wendling: The Impending World Energy Mess

Hirsch's interview raises a number of points relevant to my recent posts on peak oil, and, has some interesting things to say about whether or not the government is cognizant of the impending problems that this will cause in the USA, including transport fuel rationing.

Oil Problems Dead Ahead

Hirsch expects that global oil production will decline at a rate of about 2-4% per year, and, that this would be very difficult to deal with along with a declining GDP:

In the book we look at two decline rates: 2 % and 4 % a year. Clearly the smaller the decline rate is, the less difficult it will be to deal with. 4 % is really catastrophic. 2 % is going to be less difficult but still very difficult

In our 2005 report, we worked on a world wide “crash program”, which is the best that you can possibly do. You can’t go faster than that, so it’s a limiting case. With a worldwide crash program, it’s going to take you more than ten years to catch up, because the problem is running away from you ! If you’re in a race with another person, and that other person gets a head start, even if you manage to run faster than him, it may take a very long time to catch up.

Growth Domestic Product will decline every year for over a decade, and could easily be down 20 or 30 % over this period of time
Incidently, the significant correlation between GDP and oil consumption was recently explored by David Murphy at the oil drum: EROI, Insidious Feedbacks, and the End of Economic Growth.

Of course, for a large oil importer, like the USA, the rate of decline of importable oil may be much faster than this, as demonstrated by the export-land model, because the oil-producers will increasingly use their own oil (

More from Hirsch's interview:

Let’s say I want to make unconventional liquids out of coal or gas, and that I do it as fast as I can. You know, worldwide crash program. Look at what happened in South Africa during the apartheid. They had a big problem with the embargo on oil products. They had one coal-to-liquid plant. They decided to build another one right next to it. They had the people there, they had no permitting problem, environmental issues, or anything like this. It took them three years to build something that produced a 100 000 barrels a day (b/d). That was a crash program for them.
And you cannot go faster than that. It took them three years.
On the worldwide scale, you have to do the same thing everywhere simultaneously, and not for a mere 100 000 b/d, but for multiple millions barrels per day, per year ! That is the problem running away from you. Here is the key point. Oil is not like this (he shows his I-phone): this is tiny, it can change fast, you can make big changes in one year or two years. Energy is huge, there’s no way to do it otherwise, there’s just no way. It’s inevitably big.
That 3-year period for South Africa to build the coal-to-liquid plant, even when highly motivated, is reminiscent of my estimate that converting refinery plants to perform hydrocracking, to mitigate a diesel shortage, would take about 2½ to 5 years (

This is why I think that once the USA finds that it can’t import oil, and, realizes that this is not a short-term thing, it will be too late to build or alter its petroleum refining infrastructure, without having to resort to rationing.  

Is the Government Ignorant or Intentionally Ignoring?

What has puzzled me for a few years now is why the government and media have been so silent about this impending problem?

Hirch comments on the government’s reaction after the 2005 release of the now-classic
 PEAKING OF WORLD OIL PRODUCTION: IMPACTS, MITIGATION, & RISK MANAGEMENT aka "The Hirch Report," authored by Hirch and the same two co-authors Bezdek and Wendling as the present book:

After the work we did on the 2005 study and the follow-up of 2006, the Department of Energy headquarters completely cut off all support for oil peaking and decline analysis. The people that I was working with at the National Energy Technology Laboratory were good people, they saw the problem, they saw how difficult the consequences would be – you know, the potential for huge damage – yet they were told : « No more work, no more discussion. »
Hirch acknowledges that Secretary of Energy, Stephen Chu, is aware of peak oil:

But I think he does not have a broad view of energy. He’s also an ideologue : he is academic in his approach of those matters. And that’s a big difference with people who have spent time in the industry, who had to make things happen, who are aware of the underlying reality.

In the book that we are about to publish, we spend 60 % on oil, and then we look at the other sources of energy: coal, nuclear, renewables. We make very strong arguments that wind, solar cells and biomass will never amount to hardly anything. A lot of people are misguided because they think: let’s just go to wind and everything will be fine.

And Robert Gates, Department of Defense is aware of peak oil:

The DoDUS Secretary of Energy, who wrote the foreword of our book. Schlesinger has continuously served as an adviser to the DoD.

In 2005, Robert Gates took part in a war game named « Oil Shockwaves », with a number of other very high senior people involved in the administration, both Democrats and Republicans. What they did is they looked at a severe cut off of world oil production, something like five percent.
That sound promising; people in high places are aware But why no official response or call to action?  Here is Hirch’s take:

I think in the case of the United States, that there are people inside the government that understand the problem. I don’t think it’s a huge number of people. And one might say that there is a conspiracy to keep it quiet.
I was not surprised, because if you spend some time looking at peak oil, if you’re a reasonably intelligent person, you see that catastrophic things are going to happen to the world. We’re talking about major damage, major change in our civilization. Chaos, economic disaster, wars, all kinds of things that are, as I say, very complicated, non-linear.

Really bad things. People don’t like to talk about bad things.
I think that Hirch is probably right.  Talking about really bad things is not going to get you votes.  Happy thoughts only now....

The Government will probably react to the crisis that oil shortages will bring with a “crash program,” but is unwilling to do much until then. 
That is why I think that we have to take matters into your own hands, and prepare as best you can for the coming hard times ahead. 

Here's Robert Hirsch et al.'s follow-up work from 2006 that he mentioned in the above quote, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, And Risk Management

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