Sunday, July 17, 2016

some reflections on the twilight of the oil age - part 2.


cassandralegacy |  Let’s acknowledge it, the situation we are in, as depicted summarily in Part 1, is complex.  As many commentators like to state, there is still plenty of oil, coal, and gas left "in the ground".  Since 2014, debates have been raging, concerning the assumed “oil glut”, concerning how low oil prices may go down, how high prices may rebound as demand possibly picks up and the “glut” vanishes, and, in the face of all this, what may or may not happen regarding “renewables”.  However, in my view, the situation is not impossible to analyse rigorously, away from what may appear as common sense but that may not withstand scrutiny.  For example, Part 1 data have indicated,that most of what’s left in terms of fossil fuels is likely to stay where it is, underground, without this requiring the implementation of  difficult to agree upon resource management policies, simply because this is what thermodynamics dictates.
We can now venture a little bit further if we keep firmly in mind that the globalised industrial world (GIW), and by extension all of us, do not “live” on fossil resources but on net energy delivered by the global energy system; and if we also keep in mind that, in this matter, oil-derived transport fuels are the key since, without them, none of the other fossil and nuclear resources can be mobilised and the GIW itself can’t function.
In my experience, most often, when faced with such a broad spectrum of conflicting views, especially involving matters pertaining to physics and the social sciences, the lack of agreement is indicative that the core questions are not well formulated.  Physicist David Bohm liked to stress: “In scientific enquiries, a crucial step is to ask the right question.  Indeed each question contains presuppositions, largely implicit.  If these presuppositions are wrong or confused, the question itself is wrong, in the sense that to try to answer it has no meaning.  One has thus to enquire into the appropriateness of the question.”
Here it is important, in terms of system analysis, to differentiate between the global energy industry (say, GEI) and the GIW. The GEI bears the brunt of thermodynamics directly, and within the GEI, the oil industry (OI) is key since, as seen in Part 1, it is the first to reach the thermodynamics limit of resource extraction and, since it conditions the viability of the GEI’s other components – in their present state and within the remaining timeframe, they can’t survive the OI’s eventual collapse.  On the other hand, the GIW is impacted by thermodynamic decline with a lag, in the main because it is buffered by debt – so that by the time the impact of the thermodynamic collapse of the OI becomes undeniable it’s too late to do much about it.
At the micro level, debt can be "good" - e.g. a company borrows to expand and then reimburses its debt, etc…  At the macro level, it can be, and has now become, lethal, as the global debt can no longer be reimbursed (I estimate the energy equivalent of current global debt, from states, businesses, and households to be in the order of some 10,700EJ, while current world energy use is in the order of 554EJ; it is no longer doable to “mind the gap”).