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September 10, 2006

A Serious Plan for Oil Independence

(Posted by John.)

In my last post, I mentioned that the recent "find" by Chevron in the Gulf of Mexico seems better timed to influence Washington politics, and that I expected some Congressperson to start (continue?) talking about drilling our way to oil independence.  The idea that we can drill our way to independence, or even keep America's oil production from further declines for any serious period of time, is hallucinatory.  Any serious plan for oil independence has to have, at it's foundation, a plan for using less oil.  Period.

Fortunately, the journal Science has recently published such a plan, and it's one that should be treated very, very seriously.

I haven't read the study, sadly, because my University cut off my access to online journals due to some silly technicality about me "not attending this institution anymore."  However, James Fraser at The Energy Blog has a basic rundown of the plan, which involves much more than just oil - it's a comprehensive plan to de-carbonize the entire US economy.  Some details:

  • By far the largest share of oil (and CO2) savings would come from electrifying transport wherever possible.  Trains would be electrified (as is near-universal in Europe) and cars would be plug-in hybrids or fully electric cars.  This would eliminate approximately 2/3 of transportation-related oil consumption in the US.  The biggest untouched slice of the pie would presumably be air travel, for which there is no electric substitute.  (Yet.)

  • This switch (from petroleum to electrons) requires a major investment in electrical generation and transmission.  New generation would be either renewables (hydro, solar, wind) or nuclear.  Much as I am loath to admit it (being pretty anti-nuclear) powering light-duty cars and trucks is an excellent role for nuclear.

  • Where electrical substitution is impossible, petroleum would be replaced with synthetic fuels using Fisher-Tropsch chemistry, a more efficient (though currently uneconomical) process than current fermentation methods.

  • The total price tag is estimated to be $170-$200 billion a year for 30 years.

Now, before you balk at that price tag, the lower estimate is about what Bush has raised US defense spending above Clinton-era levels.  For those extra billions, the US has lost the aura of invincibility it had after the Kosovo War.  If you accept Joe Stiglitz' estimates for the total costs of the Iraq war, they come to about half of this plan - and this plan promises something the Iraq War was supposed to deliver, namely cheaper gas prices.

While it's an impressive long-term plan, what's most important is that the biggest, fastest, and cheapest savings (the low-hanging fruit, as it were) comes from plug-in hybrids.  The authors state that this alone would replace 80% of gasoline use.  If my math is right, and if I'm reading Jim's summary right (two possible sources of error) that could be as much as a 40% chunk of US total petroleum consumption substituted away for electricity.  Much, though not most, of that can be had without building any new power plants.

This is the most important thing to take away from this and any other plan:  any pundit, politician, or other author who talks about reducing oil use without mentioning some form of electrification is just wasting your time.  If they're a public servant, they're wasting your money, too.  Even people who don't drive plug-ins will benefit from the lowered demand in the market, though that's admittedly speculative.  Chinese and Indian demand has grown so quickly lately that it would probably pay for everyone to get a plug-in soon.

Now we just need somebody to make the bloody things.

September 10, 2006 | Permalink


clearly there are people that don't want the 9/11 motives known.
ABC's movie just lied saying that bin laden said the attacks would continue "until you convert to Islam"
this movie is very ugly propaganda

what bin Laden has said has been crystal clear.

"We swore that America wouldn't live in security until we live it truly in Palestine. This showed the reality of America, which puts Israel's interest above its own people's interest. America won't get out of this crisis until it gets out of the Arabian Peninsula, and until it stops its support of Israel." -Osama bin Laden, October 2001

"... the Mujahideen saw the black gang of thugs in the White House hiding the truth, and their stupid and foolish leader, who is elected and supported by his people, denying reality and proclaiming that we (the Mujahideen) were striking them because we were jealous of them (the Americans), whereas the reality is that we are striking them because of their evil and injustice in the whole of the Islamic World, especially in Iraq and Palestine and their occupation of the Land of the Two Holy Sanctuaries." -Osama Bin Laden , February 14 , 2003

No one should be suppressing the facts.

What motivated the 9/11 hijackers?
The video shows the 9/11 Commission Hearing where the question "What motivated them to do it?" was finally asked. See FBI Special Agent Fitzgerald explain the motive. This testimony was kept out of the 9/11 Commission Report and no recommendation was given to address the main motive for the 9/11 attacks.

Posted by: Tom Murphy | Sep 10, 2006 11:07:14 PM

Wait a minute - I remember seeing some question about how long nuclear power could be sustained given uranium mining - this sort of thing. Propaganda, or a serious worry?

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | Sep 10, 2006 11:10:41 PM

The cost is going to be between $4-7 billion a year for the next thirty years, on average? Um, that's next to nothing. Hell, didn't we give the oil companies about $5 billion in subsidies last year? And does that price tag reflect just costs or savings and other benefits from using less oil? (I'm sorry if that is staring me right in the face--I'm very, very tired from work).

Posted by: Brian | Sep 10, 2006 11:54:27 PM

Brian: The way I read it, it was at least $170 billion a year, for 30 years. That came to just over $5 trillion. I'd love to be wrong - and remember, I haven't read the article - but the price tag is much higher than current subsidies. That said, I don't believe it's factoring in savings, which would reduce the price tag wherever they were found.

Phoenician: Excellent handle. Also, I don't honestly know how seriously to take those concerns. People I trust tell me they're BS and we've got plenty, but I also keep seeing more and more of those kinds of reports. What I think is clear is that nuclear can't, on it's own, save the day.

Posted by: John | Sep 11, 2006 12:00:14 AM

Well, Phoenie (can I call you Phoenie?), yes, that is a strong reason why nuclear fission power alone is not a long term sustainable power source. However, the argument of those such as James Lovelock is that sustainable technologies for electricity without GHG production have been left too late, and nuclear power is needed to bridge the gap.

If there is a 40 year gap to bridge, then 6 years of 100% global electricity demand is 40 years of 15% of global electricity demand. The kicker there, of course, is that substantial improved energy efficiency per use is required just to keep the reins on the growth in energy using activities.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Sep 11, 2006 12:21:31 AM


One little nit to pick, at least from what I understand.

"If you accept Joe Stiglitz' estimates for the total costs of the Iraq war, they come to about half of this plan - and this plan promises something the Iraq War was supposed to deliver, namely cheaper gas prices."

Simply changing the end of the sentence to "less money being spent on transporation" would be more accurate. Because, quite frankly, if the price of gasoline drops below the price of electricity due to a greatly diminished demand, more people will use gas to power their hybrid vehicles instead of plugging it into the wall while they sleep. Admittedly, it will help extend the oil reserves by an order of magnitude until that happens, but gasoline use will still be there. (Doubly true for non-urban areas, if you're 50 miles away from a handy wall socket and an empty battery. Then could you imagine the price of gasoline at those obscure hole-in-the-wall stations? Even European prices would seem cheap by comparison.)

And yet, for purely practical political reasons, I do not see any of this actually happening on a large scale. After all, would you want to be the politician known for eliminating an entire industry? Political suicide is written all over this one, and the industry would spend triple their tax break on lobbying in order to reverse the process.

Posted by: Off Colfax | Sep 11, 2006 12:51:11 AM

The problem has been forseen for years, but nothing has been done to solve it. Bush could have been a hero with a genuine legacy if he had set up a national effort to overcome our dependence on oil. But his friends and he are rich from oil, so he predictably never made an effort. If we had had a real president during this period, we would have been well on our way to energy independence by now.

I've been visiting websites of young companies which have new technologies in work. For instance one is working on a technology that will generate electricty by reclaiming waste heat that now escapes into the atmosphere. Just by reclaiming this energy on a significant level in this country will eliminiate the need to build more power plants, thus reducing the need for that extra energy. Efforts like these will be our salvation. Our only problem is getting the leadership we need to nourish these efforts.

Posted by: jimbo | Sep 11, 2006 12:51:39 AM

Phoenician--I'd say that report is more propaganda than reality; the nuclear industry had a lot of plants that were never built because of environmental opposition. I don't think they would have been willing, or currently willing, to build new plants without an adequate supply of uranium. Six year supply? It wouldn't be economical to run a plant for just six years.

I would also throw a big chunk of that money to developing nuclear fusion--of which we have a 400 year supply--the limiting factor being the requirement of lithium in the process. Much less waste and more power than nuclear fission. China is working on a prototype. We, along with six other industrial nations have a prototype designed but no one has agreed on where it will be built.
How sad we throw away our money on war. We could be much farther along on the path of energy independence.

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Sep 11, 2006 12:52:08 AM

I agree on the fusion thing.. That would be the ideal dream for power generation, hopefully we can see it within our lifetimes.

..and they finally did decide on thelocation for our western fusion prototype. We're going to put it in Frnace.

Posted by: david b | Sep 11, 2006 8:21:45 AM

Steve, note that ...

First, nuclear power only presently delivers around 17% of global electricity supply, so that "6 years supply of 100%" is 35 years at 17%.

Second, on top of all the usual cautions about estimates of available reserves, note also that the specific claim is not about total supply of uranium. Its about the supply that is sufficiently rich to meet some net energy yield criterion, given the energy inputs required to refine and enrich uranium. However, net energy yield estimates are a rich source of controversy - consider the range of -10% to +76% in estimates of the net energy yield of corn-starch ethanol.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Sep 11, 2006 9:09:17 AM

"Brian: The way I read it, it was at least $170 billion a year, for 30 years. That came to just over $5 trillion. I'd love to be wrong - and remember, I haven't read the article - but the price tag is much higher than current subsidies. That said, I don't believe it's factoring in savings, which would reduce the price tag wherever they were found."

Well, that would be a gigantic difference. But once I get some time later tonight, I will read the information myself.

Posted by: Brian | Sep 11, 2006 5:24:34 PM

The problem with all of this is that it assumes government can control everything. With electrical grids that's probably true. But government can't tell consumers what they can and can't buy. Plug in hybrids actually have to be more attractive to consumers than the gas-burning cars.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Sep 13, 2006 1:30:41 PM

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