A Letter to My Brother: Peak Oil in Greater Detail

This is a guest post by Alan Drake, a letter he sent to his youngest brother.

Peak Oil in Greater Detail

“Oil companies should fire all of their geologists and geophysicists and hire economists to replace them since economists are SO much better at finding oil”.
---- Old Saying in the oil patch

Here's some random facts to illustrate how inelastic supply of oil is once an oil province hits it’s “Hubbert Peak” and the super giant fields deplete...

In 1972, Texas produced more oil than ever before, up by 40 percent during the previous 10 years at relatively low prices. In the next 10 years, the price of oil increased ten fold (1000%). Drilling exploded far above any historic record. The success rate plummeted, the number of producing wells increased by only 14%, and oil production dropped back to 1962 levels in 1982.

1962-1972 Texas
Price stable, up slightly
Production +40%

1972-1982 Texas
Price +1000%
Production –28%

2002-2015 Saudi Arabia ?

The last two super giant oil fields found in the world were both found in Kazakhstan. One in the late 1980s and the other in 2000. The last field, Kashagan (expected to produce 1 million b/day at peak) is now thought likely to go into production in 2012 and full production shortly thereafter. (ANWR has about a 5% probability of being a supergiant per one estimate (USGS ?)).

13 years from discovery to production for remaining frontier areas (ANWR is estimated as 10 years from lease to first production and 16 to 20 years till peak production).
25+ years since a super giant was discovered outside Kazakhstan

10% of all the oil ever consumed was consumed in GW Bush’s first term. By some estimates, 10% of all the conventional oil left will be consumed in his second term. This is the power of exponential growth.

EROEI (Energy return on energy invested) is declining for oil production from 100:1 in 1960s (world wide) to 8:1 today. Energy used in oil production is largely oil and natural gas.

Corn ethanol has an EROEI of about 1.3:1, sugar cane ethanol 6 to 8:1 (better with manual harvesting), Canadian tar sands are about 4:1.

At Peak Coal in UK (1913), 18% of the coal produced was used for coal production. EROEI of 5.3:1 not counting the solar energy indirectly fueling the mules.

The Export Land Model is that as oil prices rise, oil exporting nations economies boom and domestic consumption rises rapidly (and domestic markets are shielded from price signals for political reasons). Oil exports thus decline much faster than oil production. In 2006, Russia was a textbook case of Export Land as production rose modestly but exports fell modestly with about a 5% spread. The Finance Minister of Russia predicts the same thing for 2007-2009. The Energy Minister of Russia warns of a production crash after 2010.

Under the partially true and partially false assumption that oil exporters will not restrain domestic oil consumption as their economies boom, and a modest decline in EROEI, world oil exports could decline by half in six years after the second year post-Peak Oil. The impact of such a drop in oil exports, or anything remotely close, would be profound !

Saudi Arabia has redeveloped all of their oil fields with horizontal wells located at the level where the rising water level is expected to one day meet the growing gas cap. This includes Ghawar which is believed to have produced 5 million b/day (~60% of Saudi production) just a few years ago. Another field redeveloped this way, Yibal in Yemen, crashed (-80% in 3 years from memory) when water met gas. Ghawar is larger (170 miles by up to 20 miles wide) and will not crash uniformly like Yibal, but large million b/day sections of Ghawar will crash sequentially and there are repeated rumors that one section of Ghawar has crashed and others are on the verge of collapse.

Saudi Aramco is making heroic efforts to redevelop once abandoned oil fields. One field, Manifa, is considered a sure bet for 900,000 b/day once refineries in SA and China are completed that can handle it’s problematic oil. The other abandoned oil fields are considered unlikely to produce the quoted volumes by experts who once worked on those fields before abandonment but they will produce some oil.

The range of responsible estimates for Saudi maximum production capacity in 2010/2012 vary by 5 million b/day. That is 6% of current total world oil production (unconventional adjusted for energy content) of ~84 million b/day. Given the short term inelasticity of demand for oil, that 5 million b/day is the delta between 80 euros/barrel and 200 euros/barrel. And that delta has profound economic, social and political implications. Thus the concentration upon any hint of the truth beneath the sands.

North Sea oil production (UK, Norway, Denmark) is dropping by –9% to –14% every year (UK will be flat in 2007 as one last oil field comes on-line and it’s production will equal declines elsewhere).

Mexico got 60% of their production (and 100% of their exports) from one field in 2004, Cantarell. Cantarell appears to be in annual decline of –20% to –25% and, with growing domestic consumption, Mexican oil exports should decline from 2+ million b/day to about 250,000 b/day by 1/1/11.

US oil production goes down by about 250,000 b/day every year. We should be flat the year that Thunder Horse finally goes into production (originally scheduled for 2005, now 2009 ?).

Canadian tar sands production is being expanded faster than the infrastructure can support, with projected unit costs doubling and tripling and project after project being delayed. Production should expand to 3 million b/day by 2015 (or 2017) from 1.25 million b/day today. 1/3rd to ½ of this new tar sand production (with low EROEI) will offset declines in Canadian conventional oil production. Resource constraints appear to limit maximum production to 5 million b/day and that level may not be sustainable long term.

Angola, the newest member of OPEC, is a bright spot in world oil production, with a realistic chance of expanding production and exports by 1 million b/day (not true for any other nation except Venezuela and perhaps Canada and Kazakhstan). Over a half million Chinese are working in Angola on a variety of projects and China got the most recent offshore oil lease.

Libya and Algeria appear to have opportunities for modest production increases.

Kuwait is now declining, but at a modest rate of perhaps 4% or 5% per year. The recently democratically elected parliament is advocating major production cuts to make the remaining oil “last 100 years”. “Oil in the ground is better than dollars in a bank”.

Iran appears to be facing an oil export squeeze as their oil production declines and population grows. They will have to depend much more upon natural gas exports. Their aggressive hydroelectric building program gives support to their need for nuclear electricity in order to reduce domestic NG use.

Indonesia is a small oil exporter by value and a small importer by volume. Brazil is debating whether to preserve a small surplus for future domestic use or become a small exporter.

Nigeria, like Iraq, is in such chaos that production forecasts are difficult, but downward pressure seems likely in both. Both have older reservoirs and the Iraqi ones appear to have been badly abused.

Light sweet crude oil has already peaked with no prospect of ever recovering. Depending on one’s definition of “Light sweet”, the peak was in 2000 or 2004. Production is already down well over 10% from the peak.

The most conservative definition of oil, crude plus condensate, has peaked in May 2005 and demand should test if this production level can be equaled in June 2007.

The Oil Drum has looked repeatedly and exhaustively at alternatives. Every approach advocated by the Bush Administration is technical nonsense. Hydrogen, corn & switchgrass ethanol are deeply flawed.

The Oil Drum has also come to the conclusion that there is no one single answer or “silver bullet” exists. Instead a variety of silver BBs will be required.

Sugar cane ethanol will be viable for some domestic demand in tropical nations, and Japan has recently signed up most of Brazil’s near term ethanol export potential (a week before Bush’s visit).

Biosource butanol is an overlooked alternative that more R&D resources should be applied to but it is decades away from 1 million b/day. Algae farm bio-diesel (using special oil rich species) is “interesting” but it is even further away than bio-butanol.

Light hydrocarbons (compressed natural gas, propane, butane) can assume a much larger role in transportation, but their availability is in question (a few years delay in Peaking after Oil). The rule of thumb is that US drilling rigs must increase by 10% every year to keep US NG production stable (we have already peaked and are well into the process of moving NG using industry abroad). NG imports from Canada seem likely to decline as tar sands and other domestic uses increase there and US LNG imports seem unlikely to increase dramatically for a variety of reasons.

None the less, a viable strategy is a dramatic reduction in the use of light hydrocarbons for electrical generation and water heating (with improved insulation offsetting increased space heating demand as NG space heating displaces heating oil) and redirecting these fuels towards transportation. Again, almost a decade may be required for a significant shift (say 5% of US transportation). One silver BB.

Venezuelan asphalt is considered a better resource than Canadian tar sands, but the US either sponsored or supported a failed coup d’etat against the democracy there. Any future development will be done with domestic or Chinese resources. And, like the tar sands, any new production will take a decade from decision to production.

Enhanced oil recovery covers a variety of techniques, and it will certainly result in more oil being produced at much higher prices. Almost all EOR methods have a low EREOI (thus their energy demands mitigate the net production gain) and they rarely have a strong effect on production rates. One could stereotype them as taking a depleted field, that was producing at, say, 5% of it’s peak production and increasing this rate to 10% or 20% of peak at first but more importantly, extending production another one, two or more decades.

The fabled East Texas oil field still produces over 1 million b/day. Unfortunately, it is 99% water.

Every field is different and the effects of tertiary recovery vary significantly. Often there is nothing worth doing at any price, or it will only “pay” if natural gas is cheap and abundant locally.

I think of Enhanced Oil Recovery not as more oil now i.e. higher production rates, but as oil for longer, slower declines in “tail end” production rates.

OTOH, the last oil production left in Prudhoe Bay will rapidly head towards zero when natural gas production starts (Prudhoe Bay uses a combined water and natural gas drive). Although it is heading towards zero already. I found this tidbit about Prudhoe Bay:

The average well production rate was about 546 barrels of oil per day in 2001, 375 barrels per day in 2002, 350 barrels per day in 2003, 317 barrels per day in 2004 and 293 barrels per day in 2005.

Coal-to-Liquids is coming, but the Hirsch report for the Dept of Energy clearly showed that even with “maximum human effort” (i.e. WW II style building, with economics and environmental effects completely ignored) it will take 20 years to build 5 million b/day. 2 to 3 million b/day in 20 years is more likely with “maximum commercial effort”. I could see CTL roughly equaling our continuing reductions in US domestic oil production (including ANWR) for basically flat US oil production.

Natural Gas-to-Liquids is a viable technology but there is little effort to build this yet. LNG shipments and other uses appear to be more attractive. Qatar has one remaining project on the drawing boards AFAIK (another canceled). Again, very high capital costs and long lead times coupled with limited resource availability.

The EROEI of oil shale is too low for it to work on a large scale. Also slower than coal-to-liquids and there is no proven technology.

And that is it for viable supply side solutions in the next decade or two, even at 200 euros/barrel.

Better fuel economy in our current vehicle fleet will work for the US for about a decade IF oil production cuts are allocated evenly world-wide AND oil exports decline at a reasonably slow rate. However, I have made the argument that the US and the poorer third world nations are the “weak sisters” in economic competition for ever scarcer oil resources. And our “non-economic” efforts appear to be failing in Iraq and elsewhere. The Chinese appear to have out “stratergized” us.

$300 billion of our $760 billion trade imbalance is due to oil imports. Multiply oil prices and our exports are unlikely to increase much and our deficit will balloon. Our oil consumption (unlike Japan, Germany, France, etc.) continues to grow today and our domestic oil production continues to fall. As prices escalate, we may end up saturating world demand for dollars and dollar based assets. As with any desirable economic good, there is a limited demand at any reasonable price for the US $. Thus Japan and the EU may be forced to make minimal oil consumption cutbacks in the early years post-Peak Oil and the US will have to make disproportionate cutbacks.

Electric vehicles and even building more conventional hybrids face resource issues in quickly scaling up production world-wide. Waiving air pollution and perhaps safety requirements and accepting many more small diesel cars may be a more realistic near term option for the US. Even so, the “natural” turn-over in the US vehicle fleet is likely too slow to keep up with post-Peak Oil supply reductions.

One of my prime arguments is that the US burns over 2 million barrels/day in long haul heavy trucks (and over 250,000 in railroads). Shifting freight from heavy trucks to electrified railroads could trade 20 BTUs of diesel for 1 BTU of electricity with auxiliary benefits for safety, road maintenance, congestion, etc. And, in a prolonged oil supply shortfall, having a non-oil transportation alternative for critical goods (and some passengers) would be an invaluable strategic asset.

That good Republican Eisenhower originally wanted tolls on the interstate highways and that is a simple way to promote the shift. The truck ROW is exempt from property taxes, so I also advocate exempting from property taxes any rail line that electrifies. Add tolls to interstates and exempt electrified rail lines from property taxes and let the free market adjust to the reduction in subsidies and a more level playing field. Other, more complex gov’t policies can work as well.

More efficient vehicles in the US is a short term fix (maybe enough for a few years, maybe not) but medium term and longer term fixes will require a change in our Urban form to a more energy efficient Urban form.

One essential piece to a more efficient Urban form is electrified Urban Rail that people, businesses and government agencies can cluster around, I have prepared a list of “on-the-shelf” Urban Rail projects that could start construction in 1 to 3 years with 90% federal funding (the same % as interstate highways). Roughly $130 to $160 billion could save roughly 4% of US oil consumption in a dozen years and more as Transit Orientated Development matured around these specific “Phase I” lines. Longer term, a repeat of the 1897-1916 effort (when the US was considerably smaller and much poorer) could build subways in the largest cities and light rail/streetcars in 500 cities and towns (as we did before with “coal, mules and sweat”).

A good model is the changes resulting from government policies from 1950 to 1970. The US trashed virtually all of the prime commercial real estate circa 1950 (downtowns) and much of the preWW II housing stock. Just do the same in reverse with a combination of gov’t policies and economic forces, and hopefully a bit quicker. Build the carrot and just let the market (post-Peak Oil) be the iron rod (it will not be a stick !)

There will be numerous auxiliary benefits where walking and transportation bicycling are viable alternatives and Urban Rail is a dominant alternative transportation mode to short range EVs. And it is the only viable large scale urban alternative 25 years post-Peak Oil. The oil that is available will be needed for specialty applications.

Best Hopes,


The assertion that light sweet crude has peaked should provide some fodder for the great analysts on TOD to comment about the overall state of the oil industry. I'd like to see a summary of the evidence supporting/refuting that claim and see where that evidence leads in terms of oil costs, refinery loading and EROI for the industry.

Oh yeah. That should also give us some of the great debates we have seen lately by our oil industry gurus.

Hydrogen, corn & switchgrass ethanol are deeply flawed.

Not as much as your post, Alan. Why don't we at least try these approaches before we declare them impractical?

Wasting time, money and energy (both physical and social) on dead ends is NOT a good strategy !

We ARE fully committed to corn ethanol today, as spring planting starts. Diesel use (corn takes more than alternatives) is up significantly in the Mississippi River Valley. Enough to add a dime premium I am told.

That is what good engineers are for, to elucidate the facts as to which projects are worthwhile and which are wastes of money. We are wasting billions on corn ethanol.

Best Hopes for Reality Based Planning,


Yes, we are making use of corn ethanol today and it:

  • provides billions of gallons to the liquid fuel supply
  • provides jobs to tens of thousands
  • reduces particulate matter pollution
  • eases our dependence on oil from unstable regions
  • reduces our obesity and diabetes rates

All for a fraction of the cost of the subsidies that the oil industry gets. I don't see how this is a waste of money.

Nobody, me and all engineers included, can foresee what breakthroughs might come from trying cellulose ethanol or hydrogen. Considering that the oil industry has had over a 150 years to get to where it is, we should spend at least another few decades supporting ethanol and hydrogen, especially considering the successes we have already achieved.

Would your business be viable without subsidies? With an energy ratio of 1.1 (1.3 if you include an animal feed by-product) it provides virtually no net additional energy. All of the other benefits are simply "make work".

Would the petroleum industry be viable without subsidies? There are a bunch of large, well-armed subsidies escorting oil tankers in the Persian Gulf every day. At least farmers don't need to be guarded.

At least farmers don't need to be guarded.


The problem will solve itself.
But not in a nice way.

you're bad.

By all means, let us either end the subsidies for the oil industry or have these subsidies reflected in the cost of oil products. Beware, however, much of these costs would be passed on to the costs of ethanol. The petroleum industry would be viable; it is just that the quantity consumed would be reduced, probably far more than the barrels of fuel being added by the entire ethanol industry.

So, really, all you have done is just identify yet another subsidy for the ethanol industry. And, by the way, the net reduction in our oil imports from ethanol is the relevant figure. Can you tell us the actual net reduction in imports that has occured from the ethanol production that occurred last year?

[corn ethanol] provides billions of gallons to the liquid fuel supply

If you fix the USDA's funky accounting, it's actually providing about a 9% increase over energy input (and maybe not even that, for highly-irrigated Nebraska corn).

9% of 5 billion gallons/year gross is about 450 million gallons/year net.  The 51¢/gallon subsidy applies to all of it, so the subsidy for each net gallon of ethanol is about $5.67.  Since ethanol has roughly 2/3 the energy of gasoline, the subsidy comes to about $8.50/gallon equivalent.

provides jobs to tens of thousands

And starves millions in the third world, as US corn prices have doubled.  Soybeans are disappearing too, as acreage gets switched to corn which will disappear into stills.  And fertilizer demand increases (because corn does not fix nitrogen), driving up costs for third-world farmers too.

reduces particulate matter pollution

Mostly on vehicles too old to have modern pollution controls, which are rapidly disappearing from the roads.

eases our dependence on oil from unstable regions

450 million out of 140 billion gallons is less than one half ounce per gallon.  Inflating tires would save more than that.  Not speeding would save at least as much.

reduces our obesity and diabetes rates

Yes, starving people have little threat of obesity and Type II diabetes.

'bout the best way to make ethanol, in my mind.... is with small scale production, at the individual farm level, production to be used by the farmer.

I see no long term, large scale viability.

Alright, one more time....

If you fix the USDA's funky accounting, it's actually providing about a 9% increase over energy input (and maybe not even that, for highly-irrigated Nebraska corn).

Nope, I am not conceding this point. Robert is very talented but he is wrong on this one. It isn't his fault, everyone doing these studies is using old data. My whole point about supporting ethanol is that it is good now, and has the potential to be a great energy source as technology develops. It makes no sense to argue against this point by quoting me data on the current average industry statistics. For instance, this corn ethanol plant added simple, existing technology such as a fluidized bed biomass incinerator and windmills to obtain an energy balance of 6 energy units per input. There is also this slightly more advanced corn ethanol plant that thinks it can get 46.67 BTUs per BTU input. He wants to build 15 more of them too. There are now over 114 ethanol plants in the US and a couple of hundred in Brazil and each new one is more efficient than the one before. Meanwhile, each oil well drilled is less efficient than the one before because the easy oil is gone. Just to finish this point, I don't like the subsidies and tariffs, it is just necessary because oil is subsidized.

And starves millions in the third world, as US corn prices have doubled.
Jeeze, the world has changed! Starvation has been replaced by obesity and diabetes. Just google global obesity and you get things like this:
More than two-thirds of the world's estimated 246 million diabetics come from less-affluent developing nations, and more must be done to curb a disease that now rivals HIV/AIDS in terms of suffering and death around the globe.
This isn't Live Aid time anymore.

Mostly on vehicles too old to have modern pollution controls, which are rapidly disappearing from the roads.

Ethanol is also carbon neutral.

450 million out of 140 billion gallons is less than one half ounce per gallon. Inflating tires would save more than that. Not speeding would save at least as much.

There are another 90 corn ethanol plants and 6 cellulose ethanol plants being built in the US. When you argue that this isn't much compared to gasoline, you are actually supporting my position. I think ethanol needs more R&D support relative to petroleum because as oil production declines, we will have a lot to make up.

Yes, starving people have little threat of obesity and Type II diabetes.
Again, you are still thinking ethiopia in the '80s. People around the world have McDonalds, Walmarts, KFC, Coca-cola. These aren't the healthiest things to have, but it beats starving. Except in a few, isolated places starvation is not an issue, and in those places where it is, it is warfare or some other acute, artificial cause, not ethanol production.

Ethanol is also carbon neutral

I resent a bit your trolling hijacking of this thread, but this much is just TOO much to let pass,

Corn Ethanol produces LARGE amounts of GHG.

Natural Gas for nitrogen fertilizer (corn is a HOG)

Diesel for planting, spraying, harvesting and hauling

Sometimes, natural gas or propane for drying

Petrochemicals for insects, herbicides

Natural Gas or coal for distillation


Methane releases from feedlots where the last ~20% of the energy recovery comes from !

About a wash with just burning oil and compressed natural gas directly in vehicles.

Remove ALL ethanol subsidies, require some oxygenated additives (ethanol, butanol, whatever) in fuels in polluted urban areas and lets invest in REAL solutions elsewhere.

Best Hopes,


I cannot let your lies go unrebutted before the staff removes your account.

My whole point about supporting ethanol is that it is good now, and has the potential to be a great energy source as technology develops.

Ethanol stinks now.  Even the best cellulosic ethanol schemes stink.  IOgen claims what, 77 gallons/ton possible?  Syntek was talking 100 gallons/ton.  If you can achieve 100 gallons/ton and you can find the 1.3 billion tons of biomass claimed in the "Billion-Ton Vision" (which will only come about with substantially different crops), you're still only talking 130 billion gallons of ethanol, packing the energy of only ~87 billion gallons of gasoline.  That's barely more than half our gasoline consumption, with NOTHING left over for:

  • Diesel.
  • Jet fuel.
  • Fossil fuel used for electric generation.

We need much better, which means we cannot spend time on half-measures like ethanol for a business-as-usual vehicle fleet.

Engineer-Poet says,
"I cannot let your lies go unrebutted before the staff removes your account."

Why should the staff remove his account?

I think corn ethanol is a boondoggle, and of all the bio-fuels alternatives, the weakest and worst one to throw our efforts behind. However, the poster in question, Keithster100 , has said nothing personally insulting, not engaged in cursing or profanity, engaged in no personal attacks, nor insulted anyone at the point of your implied threat. He/she simply posted viewpoints that do not conform to the accepted orthodoxy here. This is not grounds for removal, and would be an exercise in censorship not in keeping with the open forum and free exchange of views that we have come to expect here.

At some point, perhaps some one at “the staff” needs to re-confirm that the “open forum” is still open, and explain that posters should not be threatened with removal simply because they hold differing viewpoints.

Oh, one more time, everybody, check our bio-butanol, the great 4 carbon alcohol that holds sooooo much more promise than ethanol. :-)

Roger Conner Jr.
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

Well said. Keithster100 and I are about the only ones here that take on the conventional wisdom of TOD with regard to ethanol. I admire his (her) persistence. It's not easy to be in the minority and have have your ideas trashed all the time. Why don't I just leave? Because TOD is an excellent site that addresses what I think is the main problem of the 21st century. Besides, it is easy and fun to poke holes in the flawed conventional wisdom so often expressed here. Alan's post is no exception. Notice that the EROEI for electricity production was not mentioned. If I recall it is something like .3. Was it omitted because it would make ethanol look like a bonanza? Ethanol's EROEI of 1.3 would be considered a bonanza if it were MROMI (money return on money invested). Wall Street would have a field day and indeed it has.

The high EROEI on oil compared to alternatives is a deeply flawed argument. Stealing from the earths oil bank is of course more profitable that going out and working for energy. But stealing's days are numbered. As ethanol opponents love to talk about flaws and unsustainability, I think it is safe to say that the whole point of Peak Oil is that oil production is deeply flawed and unsustainable. This should not come as a surprise as IMO most things in this world are deeply flawed and unsustainable including each of our lives. But the world goes on anyway. The dinosaurs were deeply flawed and unsustainable but here we are. So what if ethanol is deeply flawed and unsustainable? You have to work with what you got or give up. The conventional wisdom at the oil drum is despair because there are no perfect solutions. So it has always been and so it will always be, at least on this earth.


As I said in the opening line of my post in defense of Keithster100's right to speak his position, and make even more clear on down in a later post, I am afraid I cannot share your enthusiasm for ethanol, in particular ethanol from corn. However I do think that there are people who have come to various conclusions on this, and they have committed no offense to TOD by simply voicing their viewpoints. I suffer likewise by being a supporter of solar and wind to hydrogen, which I think is, at the end of the day, the one truly sustainable fuel we will be able to come up with, and is carbon clean.

On ethanol, I would have nothing against it whatsoever if I were not worried about the consumption of valued resources in it's production (topsoil, water, and most importantly, natural gas), and troubled by the "food vs. fuel" issue. Some of these issues can be mitigated to some extent (the growing of the imput crop in areas that do not have to be irrigated but will produce by natural rainfall, careful contour and conservation farming, and alternative cropping and strip cropping between hedges, in other words, something akin to "permaculture" farming to preserve topsoil)

The issue of natural gas consumption to me makes ethanol extremely problematical. Even the corn growers themselves confess their absolute relience on inexpensive natural gas, having gone to Washington to testify to this. If some of the crop can cleanly be used to replace nat gas consumption in the distilling process, or in the production of fertilizer, this would go a long way to making the option more acceptable. The use of coal to complete the distilling, as is actually being discussed in some cases, is to be a horrendous backtracking on the so called "clean fuel" that ethanol promises to be, and would to my mind be the nail in the coffin that would end it.

I have another problem: I have become more and more convinced that bio-butanol shows much more promise than ethanol. If you are not familiar with it, do a google, but here are some links to get you started:


Bio butanol is an alcohol, but of 4 carbon structure. Thus, it has a heat content comparable to gasoline, and is far less corrosive, requiring no change in infrastructure to distribute. It has in testing been run in autos with absolutely no modification, as a one to one replacement to gasoline. It will mix with gasoline, or with ethanol. As a finished product, it is a magnificant fuel. It can be produced from any plant that will produce ethanol, including corn, but sugar beets are the chosen imput crop, yielding higher return than corn for the cost of production.

Dupont Corp., in a partnership with British Petroleum, is building a facility to produce bio butanol in the U.K market. If this project goes well, I would not be surprised to see many of the proposed ethanol production plants in the U.S become butanol plants.

I have long wanted to do a post depicting a bio butanl study here on TOD, but in honesty, I don't think it would be well recieved here. I think that sugar beets could be grown and barged on the Mississippi/Ohio/Missouri River system basin, and then the butanol liquid fuel hauled by barges out to various distribution points on the river and intracoastal water way, creating a "homeland security" civil defense fuel, and a fuel for market that could be widely distributed as a "backbone" liquid fuel in America. The buzz now is with bio butanol, and the limits are: (a) how much fertilizer per ton of liquid fuel and (b) what would the yield of liquid fuel be per dollar and ton of imput crop. These would decide the issue. If the fertilzer consumption is too high, then we are back to the same problem we have with ethanol, albeit with a much better finished product, that being natural gas consumption for fertilier. The yield will determine everything, and we are awaiting Dupont/BP's results with eagerness.

Roger Conner Jr.
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

You will note that I wrote:

Biosource butanol is an overlooked alternative that more R&D resources should be applied to but it is decades away from 1 million b/day

Best Hopes for "decade" instead of "decades",


(Rassafracker... I had a big response written and then lost it by closing the wrong tab.)

Butanol appears to yield roughly the same product volume as ethanol, but has superior energy yield (93,000 BTU/gallon compared to about 78,000, if memory serves).  But it's nowhere near a solution for the same reason as ethanol:

  • The problem isn't the fuel production, it's the internal combustion engines it feeds.  Neither ethanol nor butanol nor BTL diesel addresses this.
  • One of the oxidation products of butanol is butyric acid (if you thought MTBE smelled bad....)

There's no security in a system which is guaranteed not to work.  In contrast, the PHEV is guaranteed TO work, and for a fairly small price.  The electric path for the PHEV bypasses all of the issues with liquid-fuel conversion efficiency and engine losses.  A PHEV can run most of its mileage on wind or even solar power at a price many individuals can afford.  In a world of silver BB's, the PHEV is a silver buckshot pellet.

I have often called limited access highways and very busy streets "auto sewers" because of the way that they repel people. With the lingering aroma of butyric acid .... :-)

This increases my support of butanol. What better way to get people out of their cars than with a stink bomb !

And if someone truly MUST drive to live, minor nasal surgery may be all that is required.

Best Hopes for Butanol !


it would make ethanol look like a bonanza ?

Trading 20 BTUs of diesel or gasoline for 1 BTU of electricity is a REAL bonanza ! Even if a good % of the electricity comes from natural gas with a conversion efficiency of 0.6 and coal with a conversion % of 0.35, the #s still look like a bonanza to me !

And when New York City can start on just 22% of one of the two most important Urban Rail projects in the nation, and it is limited to building 22% because federal matching is only 1/3rd (with 80% federal matching it could build ~90% with the same local monies); then ethanol subsidies look like obscene waste.


Bit of background; The 4 track Lexington subway is operating over capacity at 600,000 pax/day. (in context, these few miles of subway carry about as pax miles as Amtrak). Lack of capacity and over crowding discourages ridership. 2nd Avenue parallels Lexington, mainly to the east. It would attract many current Lexington riders and new riders as well since it would be closer to them. A less crowded Lexington subway would attract more riders from the west.

The 2nd Avenue subway will be built with 2 tracks as an economy measure, which will limit it's capacity and express service for centuries (that's what tracks 3 & 4 are used for).

Best Hopes,


Dear Engineer-Poet,

I have a lot of respect for your work here on the Oil Drum.
And for you opinions on the Peak-oil matters.

But surely we now know that there is no silver bullit in solving our energy problems. I think that the debate now states that we are going to need every option:
-Coal to liquids
-Biomass in every way. So that includes Wood/Cane/Corn/Algea Ethanol, biodiesels etc.

I think that for the open discussion it would be better to say that Ethanol is merely a limited option instead of stating that it is nothing. If it was nothing, it couldn't be done like it is done in Brasil.

Roger From the Netherlands

In a mild decline post-Peak Oil, a strong effort on the following "would be enough" for the US.

Build nothing but small diesel cars (perhaps with some very small gasoline cars) Push compressed natural gas for speciality transportation.

Maximum effort (take traffic lanes from cars, special green lights for bikes first, required free bicycle parking EVERYWHERE, taking from car parking) to push transportation bicycling.

Tax car parking and gasoline/diesel to EU levels. Raise airline taxes.

Electrify our freight railroads and toll all interstate highways at high levels.

Build as much Urban Rail as possible as fast as feasible.

Require solar water heating in new construction and push retrofits. Require much higher levels of insulation in new construction and push retrofits. Also push solar space heating.

Keep wind on it's current growth curve.

A different (and I would argue better) set of options.

Best Hopes,



I like you're idea of the electified lightweight railsystem.
I think that electification of our transport system is the way to go. Because that allows us to deversify in the energy sources used to transport (more ways to produce electric power than oil and nat.gas alone).

Besides the conservation as you propose, are you aware of the following alternative for personilized transport?:
Very nice option for urban transport!!

Oh, and I don't think that compressed natural gas is any good for transport. This resource will deplete very rapidly any time now and we are going to need it for heating homes and fertilizer and oil-sands..

Roger From the Netherlands

I have a jaundiced view of new technologies that "will save the day". I have seen new technologies stumble and fail in the real world.

Example: Westinghouse built elevated, light weight electric mini-buses in downtown Miami. In theory, great almost revolutionary idea ! In practice, very high costs and quite limited passenger appeal. Truly a white elephant.

The time scale to develop, scale up, build and operate prototypes is so high that we will be deep into post-Peak Oil before they can make even a marginal difference.

I am NOT against further R&D, but we need to be realistic with our plans. Take what we know works today and can be conservatively estimated for tomorrow (wind turbines will be xx% more cost effective in 2015 than today; if XX < 25%) and plan from there. If a solar PV breakthrough appears, modify plans accordingly BUT DO NOT COUNT ON A BREAKTHROUGH !!

Insulation works. Solar hot water heating works. Electric railroads work. Urban Rail works. Wind Turbines work. Pumped storage works. HV DC transmission works. Small diesel cars work IF pollution and/or safety standards are loosened. Transit Orientated Development works.

Best Hopes for Reality Based Planning,


Brazil's climate is uniquely suitable for sugar cane; the USA cannot duplicate its accomplishment any more than the Netherlands can.  However, this may be a good thing.  Brazil is busy converting rainforest into cane plantations and soybean fields.  The deforestation and climate change are altering rainfall patterns in the Amazon basin.  When it's too dry for cane, not even Brazil will be a "Brazil" any longer.

Brazil's accomplishment is only impressive in relative terms.  It only produces 0.85 barrels/capita/year, which is a large fraction of a very small gasoline consumption.  Even if the entire OECD did just as well, it wouldn't get us very far; our problem is downstream.

Ethanol (and bio-alcohols in general) is not a limited option so much as a limiting option.  Turning a ton of biomass into 100 gallons of ethanol yields 7.8 million BTU of fuel, and perhaps 2 million BTU of useful work.  Do that, and the biomass is gone; invest in the infrastructure to do that, and you have trouble taking better paths.  But if you carbonize the biomass (8 million BTU/ton of charcoal) and run it through direct-carbon fuel cells, you can get 6.4 million BTU of electricity out (plus heat and chemical energy from the carbonization process).  Storing charcoal is also cheaper and easier than any sort of alcohol.

The choice between ethanol and butanol is like a heart patient choosing between steak and barbecue.  What we need is to hit the salad bar instead!


Just as I said before: there is no silver bullit. And Ethanol is not going to save the American Way of Life (or the Dutch way for that matter). So we need every option that is available. And Ethanol is one of them. Maybe you're right about the US being not suitable for Corn/Cane Ethanol. But then again, as I stated before, we should not look at any option as being the only one.

You're right about the salad bar; we need to downscale our energy comsumption fast. And to deversify our ways of producing energy. And again, Ethanol is just one of them. It will never "save" us, but you cannot deny it's (limiting/limited) use in some areas in the world.

Other places will use Geothermal (Iceland), wood to liquids (Scandinavia/Canada) Coal to liquids (US and China). Others will just try to please Putin for a while (Europe).

We in the Netherlands are trying to secure our future by ever increasing our trading in depleting energy stocks.

Roger From the Netherlands

Ethanol is already driving up all corn related prices and it can only get worse. For those who eat corn related foods, this represents an additional expense; for those on the margin this may push them ove the edge. Our corn based industrialized agricultural economy is already an obscene way to furnish our food supply. Ethanol just feeds the problem. This way we continue to have a corn based industrialized food supply, but we get to pay more. So no, I don't think we should be exercising this particular option.

There are two ways to make progress on the liquid fuel supply problem. We are only looking at the supply side. But we are not looking at the way we grow our crops and provide our food in the first place. We should look at moving away from massive reliance on corn for whatever purpose and focus more on those crops and methods which require lower levels of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, thus reducing fossil fuel use. Ethanol is just another way of perpetuating an a system that is already deeply flawed.

If we were just cutting into the corn supply to provide ethanol, maybe I wouldn't be so concerned. But this has and will result in less of other things like soy beans and vegetables. Why would any sane farmer out there grow vegetables with all the subsidies for the other crops like corn?

I kind of disagree with you.

"and windmills to obtain an energy balance of 6 energy units per input"
- so because renewable energy is used the EROEI goes up? Well, what if you sold that electricity on the open market? We yould use that electricity for other things than to run a ethanol plant, right?

"this slightly more advanced corn ethanol plant that thinks it can get 46.67 BTUs per BTU input. He wants to build 15 more of them too."
- but it only starts production of its "closed loop" this february. I am really interested to see if that closed loop holds 10 years or so... moreover, they use the bio-gas from the manure to do the distilling process. I find that is a bit the same problem as above. How about selling that gas at the open market? I also notice the word "want". We will see what happens in reality...

It looks as if the PROCESS of ethanol is the same, with an EROEI of 1.5-2.5, and that you can increase this by adding renewable energy on site.

But people would probably like to use that clean renewable energy directly for other things...


I've been waiting for you to post something with a little substance now for a while. This post definitely qualifies and is more than just your standard "ethanol is great" type post. In fact, I think it fair to say this is your best post yet.

The links on the two ethanol plants are good industry pieces. Typically, they are long on cheerleading and short on some of the specifics (but they are informative nonetheless). Are you aware of or have you read more technical information on those particular plants or their processes? Linking to the scientific details would be of great value here in pushing the debate (read: your agenda) forward. Given the corn plant biology, it seems difficult to accept a conclusion that corn can best sugar cane as an ethanol source without a more rigorous analysis.

Have you thought about the available land/food or fuel issue?

Alan, please don't bother to feed the ethanol troll...it is a waste of time. Thanks for a great post...nice use of "euros" instead of dollars.

He might be a troll but it is important for his points to be responded to. Otherwise there is a good chance that someone stumbling into this thread would come away with the impression that ethanol is the silver bullet solution to our oil problems. Given that The Oil Drum actively solicits new readers, we can't assume that readers of this thread have any background knowledge on the subject so what they see here may become the entire base of knowledge of the subject upon which they base their opinions and political pressure/voting.

EngineerAU said,
"He might be a troll but it is important for his points to be responded to."

If he is a troll, he is a dilligent one, having posted here since March, 2006 (over a year), with posts on and off ever since. Keithster100 is certainly not a newcomer.

In his bio, he gives the following manifesto,
"Peak oil will result in high employment, less reliance on foreign oil (I live in the US), a better environment and increased innovation. I signed up to debate the gloom and doomers. You give us peak oil believers a bad name."

Gee, and to think I have been called an optimist here at TOD. I can't hold a candle to Keithster100! :-)

The point is many people have read the work of Robert Rapier, and the studies of Pimentel and Patzek, and even posts by humble little posters (like me, but I do not attribute to myself any real persuasive weight, such as the folks listed above carry) who have argued that ethanol, given the effort and resourses expended on it, may actually be very harmful to America, in that it consumes valuable time, money, natural gas, and influence that could much better be spent elsewhere, and have come to a differing conclusion.

Keithster100 seems to be one of them. We cannot assume that he is unaware of the "anti-ethanol" arguments, and the involved nature of this debate if he has been reading TOD and posting here for over a year!

I have been in agreement with Rapier and think that the work of Pimentel and Patzek are correct in their essentials, and do not see ethanol as a viable solution (I do think the industry is valuable when put in it's proper perspective, as a source of a valuable fuel additive, replacing more harmful ones, but will never produce enough given the resources consumed to materially alter our energy situation for the better, and I am consumed about the food vs. fuel problem along with the consumption of natural gas, our last great natural endowment of clean fuel, in the ethanol process.

However, these are complex arguments, and viewpoints even among vary even among technically well trained people.

The same is true for example of hydrogen. My friend Alan dismisses it out of hand as "deeply flawed" and in fact makes the wide ranging statement,

"Every approach advocated by the Bush Administration is technical nonsense. Hydrogen, corn & switchgrass ethanol are deeply flawed."

I differ in some details with Alan, but it does not cause me to be hostile to my fellow fan of old Mercedes Diesels, electric trains, and river cities (his darling, New Orleans LA, mine, Louisville KY :-), and it is interesting to see the varieties of viewpoint on some of these issues.

The Oil Drum folks have been not friendly, and often very unfriendly to both hydrogen and ethanol. Pimentel and Patzek agree with TOD posters on ethanol, but are much more friendly to hydrogen (a view I myself agree with)
While Kiethster100, unswayed by Robert Rapier and Pimentel/Patzek and others, seems both ethanol and hydrogen friendly.

Research and effort will of course continue in all these areas, as well as in thin film solar, wind, nuclear fission and fusion, cold fusion, methane recapture, algae as biofuel, hybrid and plug hybrid and electric drivetrains for cars and trucks, hydraulic drivetrains, compressed air and thermal energy storage, advanced thermal heating and stirling cycle engines, advanced design of buildings including passive solar and daylighting, earth bermed and underground buildings, ground coupled heat pumps......gee, quite a little assortment of "silver bb's" to work with, and the biggest, sheer re-arrangement of business and communiy structures to reduce waste!

I am not as optimistic as Keithster100 in his manifesto listed above, but I do think that for the educated and prepared, the period ahead does not have to mean economic collapse and a return to a primitive culture. It could, but it doesn't have to. And for those who are positioned correctly, it actually could be quite a period of opportunity. Freedom from the slavery to our "monofuel" petroleum energy base was going to have to happen, peak now or peak later. We might as well get it on now! In fact, we should have, for a 100 or more good reasons, gotten it on decades ago!

Roger Conner Jr.
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

EngineerAU, I'm one of those "New Guys" without any energy background, but I do find the discussions here intriguing and educational. I'm a retired aerospace engr/statistician, so other than the jargon specific to this industry I don't have any trouble following the arguments. Just my impression from lurking here for the past few weeks - there are a lot of very concerned people here with a lot of competing ideas, all of which seem to me to be worth discussing. I hope y'all can solve this issue so that I don't have to start raising tomatoes in my car ( or some other "biomass" ) :)

Have a nice day.

Having read extensively on this topic for about 2 years now, I also think hydrogen, corn and biomass ethanol are all deeply flawed. What counts is the net additional energy available to society from a particular fuel.

Hydrogen is a bust because it is an energy sink. It is not clear whether Bush had any idea what he was talking about when he was talking about the "hydrogen economy".

Switching energy forms inceases entropy. For instance with corn ethanol, which is made by converting oil and coal energy into ethanol energy, all of the energy gain from sunlight is lost to entropy. Hydrogen, grain, corn and biomass ethanol, tar sands, Venezuelan heavy oil, oil shales, CTL and GTL multiply entropy and thus are poor options. It is better to use the coal and natural gas in its original form.

As regards corn ethanol, it would be cheaper and easier to simply give the money (subsidies) to the corn farmers.

The focus much switch rapidly from trying to find supply side solutions to enabling demand side solutions. Eg replacing income taxes with carbon taxes would generate solutions very quickly. There would be no need to centrally plan solutions such as suggested in this article.

I suggest an intial world wide carbon tax of USD100 per ton CO2, recalculated by the UN into a rate per ton of coal, barrel of oil or cubic foot of natural gas, each graded by type (eg Antracite vs Lignite, or Arab light vs Alberta Syncrude). Each government, by agreement at UN level, forced to impose the tax (or suffer severe trade sanctions) and remain free to impose other taxes, although the initial strong suggestion would be that this tax replaces payroll and income taxes. The initial rate of 100 would be reviewed annually to take account of a wide variety of variables, including the supply of the various energy sources, the state of global warming and the amount of taxes raised).

It is better to use the coal and natural gas in its original form.
Yes, I agree that there are costs to using one form of energy to make another but the automobile infrastructure is built to handle liquid fuels. It would make sense to use the energy in its native form but some amount of driving is necessary. Ethanol is one option that is useable right now.

The focus much switch rapidly from trying to find supply side solutions to enabling demand side solutions. Eg replacing income taxes with carbon taxes would generate solutions very quickly.

I like your aversion to central planning and I too support some kind of tax (though not implemented via the UN-too corrupt). I do think some government support of new technologies is helpful in addition to demand-side solutions.

Re. Saildogs: "I suggest an intial world wide carbon tax of USD100 per ton CO2"

There are 2 obvious issues for me here:

- As with most consumption taxes this one is highly regressive. (Chance of seeing this as a "problem" varies inversly with the income of the person being asked, most rich folks would prefer the tax bill be paid by the poor)

- Basing Gov't income on CO2 production incetivises Gov't to support policies which increase CO2 over other greener alternatives.

An alternative would be a tradeable CO2 ration system. Each person is given so many CO2 credits at the start of the year, they can be "paid" at the time of purchase of fossil fuels, or bought and sold as desired by the holder on an exchange market.

Countries, or groups of countries deciding to develop a common market, could set the annual ration level each year to insure compliance with Kyoto, or whatever simillar agreements or policies...

No, you missed the obvious thing:  rebate the tax to individuals on a per-taxpayer basis (perhaps with some allowances for e.g. children or special needs).  Since the rich use more, they pay more and subsidize the poor but everyone has the same incentive to save.  It's revenue-neutral, so the government has no reason to fudge the tax rate on fiscal grounds.  Further, as usage falls, so does the rebate.  Rebates would also apply to sequestered carbon.  When net carbon emissions go to zero, voila! the subsidy disappears too.

if ultimately the subsidy disappears, then what will be the incentive for people or businesses to maintain low carbon emissions? will habit alone compel them? it seems like there will be some maximally profitable rate of carbon emissions when you take into account the factors of the subsidy, which declines at a certain rate, and the $100 tax on each ton of CO2, or whatever the figure was. you could even write a mathematical formula and find out what that optimal rate of carbon emissions happens to be, and if the 'wisdom of crowds' guy is to be trusted, then the bulk of the populace will tend in the aggregate to emit carbon at that rate; though of course the data will be somewhat skewed for various reasons, and there will be outliers. to influence society to produce an environmentally sound amount of carbon dioxide, then, we'll be able to determine the mathematically best, if not politically best, dollar amount of the tax on each ton of carbon, and we could resort to other measures, such as, perhaps, a graduated tax on heavy producers.

The incentive remains as long as there's a carbon tax.  When sequestration equals emissions, all the tax goes from emitters to sequesterers (assuming the rates are the same).

The primary shortcoming I see with your approach is that, while it does provide incentive for reduction it does not insure it. We know with high confidence that oil demand, for example, is relativly inflexible in response to price compared to other goods, so this would seem to make planning a reduction system based on price difficult.

Having been raised the son of a Gov't tax accountant and hearing the stories around the supper table for years and years I can say with some confidence that tax schemes as a way of engineering behaviour "suck". Which is to say that the ability of the Gov't to craft tax regs that actually result in the desired behaviour changes is poor to none in many cases.

Take all the money issues out of the hands of Gov't, leave them with the task of setting the CO2 release level (as a result of an accountable democratic process) and leave it to the private market to determine what prices are necessary to achive that.

The primary shortcoming I see with your approach is that, while it does provide incentive for reduction it does not insure it.

That's not a bug, that's a feature.  Not everybody can reduce emissions at some arbitrary rate determined by law, but some can do it quite rapidly (and in ways that no legislator can anticipate).  A carbon tax rewards every productive response, and only the productive responses.

We know with high confidence that oil demand, for example, is relativly inflexible in response to price compared to other goods

That's only true in the short term.  Over a period of years, especially with guaranteed high prices, people respond by changing their vehicles and housing and commuting patterns.  It happened in the 70's after the OPEC price shocks despite the consequent recession and less income to deal with it; if the tax money was recycled as income, people would have the money to invest in measures to save.

The problems with cap and trade are cheating, accounting, monitoring, measuring and reporting. It will take years to agree on and implement. Then more years to fine tune.

Taxes are easy and visible; and if based on coal, oil and natural gas, will flow completely through the economy affecting everything. Some countries could abandon their income tax systems which are highly regressive and damage the incentive to work hard.

Taxes also internalise the costs of using fossil fuels very effectively.

The UN set limit would be the minimum and individual countries could decide to charge more; or they could charge other taxes on top. In addition taxing coal, oil and gas, will be extremely easy and the costs of collection extremely low. You could fire all those expensive accountants (like me). The UN would also have a monitoring and auditing function as well.

It will be very challenging to emit less CO2. Taxes could be raised until the world is emitting a "safe" level of CO2. Taxes could be stabilized at that level.

Hi Sail,

Thanks and could you fill this in a little?

Who imposes the tax? Who pays? What is done with the collected proceeds? How is this different than an income tax on individuals? (Could you possibly explain this part further?)

Are you taxing corporations (including manufacturers? Goods coming into the country? Or...?)

How do you deal with "offshore" corps?

Subsidies? (Yes? No?)

What does this tax look like from the point of the "consumer"? How does it differ from a sales tax?

Do you feel this would directly address some items I see as priorities, for example,
1) Immediate conservation measures to prolong time ("Drive easy", etc.
2) Conversion of the purification and transport of water to a renewable-based electric supply. (Water for ag and drinking - i.e., deal with maintaining water supply as a high priority).
3) Re-localization of agriculture?

If so, could you describe how this might work?

Who imposes the tax? Who pays? What is done with the collected proceeds? How is this different than an income tax on individuals? (Could you possibly explain this part further?)

Governments would impose carbon taxes, just like they impose other taxes. I've seen carbon tax proposals where the proceeds would be distributed back to the population, and others where e.g. income taxes are reduced correspondingly to make it revenue neutral etc.

The general idea with carbon taxes, or other environmental taxes is to tax environmentally damaging activities (making them more expensive and thus less attractive) rather than honest work itself (income taxes).

Are you taxing corporations (including manufacturers? Goods coming into the country? Or...?)

IMHO the simplest way would be to tax at the source, e.g. fossil fuel producers/importers. The taxes would then trickle down to the consumers as higher prices for products/services whose manufacture has produced CO2 emissions.

How do you deal with "offshore" corps?

Either as part of some bilateral or multilateral agreement ("post-Kyoto"?), or by imposing import duties based on CO2 emissions.

Subsidies? (Yes? No?)

Hopefully not, but with politics being the way it is..

What does this tax look like from the point of the "consumer"? How does it differ from a sales tax?

A sales tax is a fixed percentage added to the price of a product/service. A carbon tax would vary depending on how much CO2 was emitted during the production/transportation/etc. of the product/service in question.

Do you feel this would directly address some items I see as priorities, for example,
1) Immediate conservation measures to prolong time ("Drive easy", etc.

A CO2 tax would make fossil fuels more expensive, leading to less demand over time. E.g. get a condo, take the subway to work would become relatively more attractive vs. living in suburbia and commuting in your SUV. Etc.

2) Conversion of the purification and transport of water to a renewable-based electric supply. (Water for ag and drinking - i.e., deal with maintaining water supply as a high priority).

A CO2 tax would make fossil fuels more expensive, making renewable electricity more competitive vs. electricity produced from coal or NG.

3) Re-localization of agriculture?

At the risk of sounding really repetitive, if "re-localized" agriculture would cause less CO2 emissions than current industrial agriculture, then yes a CO2 tax would make re-localized agriculture more attractive.

Hi jbl,

Thanks for your response. Perhaps it's just hard for me to picture (still, the need to do something is so urgent, I'm willing to look a little foolish for the sake of clarity!)

re: "IMHO the simplest way would be to tax at the source, e.g. fossil fuel producers/importers."

So, this would be like...taxing all imports of oil? So, oil imported to the US is higher priced than oil imported elsewhere?

Would this mean that even the last of US manufacturing goes offshore? Or, would it have any other unintended consequences you might foresee?

So, now the oil companies, which receive subsidies, would no longer have their subsidies, but instead be taxed?

And, in regard to tax on CO2 emissions, as opposed to tax on FF imports - do you think it's possible to accurately ascertain the amount generated? Who would keep track of all this?

So, this would be like...taxing all imports of oil? So, oil imported to the US is higher priced than oil imported elsewhere?

Well, I don't think the US will be the first country to introduce anything like this. But yes, a carbon tax would make oil and other fossil fuels more expensive. Then again, that's the entire point. If the tax is revenue neutral, i.e. compensated by a corresponding reduction in say income taxes, then the tax relatively to the status quo punishes those who cause more CO2 emissions than the average, and rewards those who produce less emissions.

Would this mean that even the last of US manufacturing goes offshore?

Probably not. Certainly there are other factors in offshoring than the price of fossil fuels. Also, as I mentioned in my previous post, one could impose CO2 import duties on products imported from countries that have not signed some carbon tax agreement.

So, now the oil companies, which receive subsidies, would no longer have their subsidies, but instead be taxed?

Wouldn't that be swell? I'm sure you don't need much imagination to see that the oil industry and their lackeys will fight anything like this tooth and nail.

And, in regard to tax on CO2 emissions, as opposed to tax on FF imports - do you think it's possible to accurately ascertain the amount generated? Who would keep track of all this?

Yes, that's the main reason why I think it would be better to tax at the source (i.e. producers/importers). Compared to the number of actual emitters, there are very few importers/producers of fossil fuels. Of course, if you want to impose CO2 based import duties on products from countries who have not agreed to tax CO2, then I imagine that would imply a lot of bureocracy.

Hi j,

Thanks for responding, even though later, (and I don't know if you'll see this at all.)

I'd like to explore these ideas further. I'm encouraging people to write up, w. references, ideas like yours and ask the editors if they'll post.

Everyone is saying we need action. To me, a well-thought out plan, that we can discuss openly is a good first step. Urgently required.

So, I'm wondering if you'd write this up?

The only thing to be added to this article is that we actually cannot afford to continue with our carbon based transport system for global warming reasons, no matter how much oil there remains to be burnt.

One of the real problems not discussed here enough are sea level rises from global warming. I have posted this before but received little response at the end of long threads.

Scientist predicts disastrous sea level rise

.....If we get warming of two or three degrees Celsius, then I would expect that both West Antarctica and parts of Greenland would end up in the ocean, and the last time we had an ice sheet disintegrate, sea level went up at a rate of 5 metres in a century, or one metre every 20 years.
That is a real disaster, and that's what we have to avoid....

KERRY O'BRIEN (ABC TV): You said just a couple of weeks ago that there should be a moratorium on building coal fired power plants until the technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions is available. But you must know that that's politically unacceptable in many countries China, America, Australia for that matter, because of coal industry jobs and impact on the economy.

JAMES HANSEN: Well, it's going to be realized within the next 10 years or so that we have no choice. We're going to have to bulldoze the old style coal fired power plants. We can burn coal, provided we capture the CO2 and sequester it, and we're working on technology that would allow
us to do that and we should have been working a little harder but, nevertheless, we will have, within five to 10 years, we will have that technology. In the meantime, we should be emphasizing energy efficiency so that we don't need new old style coal fired power plants. We're just
not doing that.

For those who still have not read Hansen's papers, this is compulsory reading:

James proposes a fail safe sequestration of CO2 in deep ocean sediments as onshore CO2 dumps are too dangerous. We still remember that 1,000s of people died in Cameroon from a bursting CO2 bubble in mountain lake Nyos:

We in TOD know the second half of oil and gas will require a dramatic increase in drilling rigs just to reduce steep decline rates. So where will all the drilling rigs come from to do that deep ocean sequestration of CO2, at a gigantic scale all around the world? Stark choices will have to be made.

In Australia, governments started to dream of "clean coal". These are all distractions from the above proposal to go for rail electrification and for a cleaner energy future as proposed here by Mark Diesendorf from the The Institute for Environmental Studies at UNSW in Sydney:

While your CO2 induced climate change concern is not noted in Alan's letter, I suspect he his well aware of it, as am I.

From my own point of view, which might relate to Alan's (although I will let him speak for himself about it should he care to), by way of suggesting at why he doesn't make more light of such a concern, allow me to recite a passage from J.R.R.Tolkien's The Return of the King:

"Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule."

What I mean by this is that I imagine Alan is doing what he believes it is in him to do that he is best at -- not mastering all the tides assailing us; only trying his damndest to uproot those "evils" he is most familiar with.

For my part I respect his efforts and will not think to reproach him for any lapse in not mentioning GW and sea level rises. It is indeed serious, but it's still a ways out there. His abiding train transportation solutions are but one piece of a larger puzzle that needs sorting out if we are to ever get serious about arresting your expressed concern.

That's my 2¢.

Trading 20 BTUs of diesel for 1 BTU of electricity is a solution for both PO & GW.

Creating low energy, walkable & bicycling Transit (as in Urban Rail) Orientated Development is a solution for both PO & GW.

Wind Turbines are both a Peak Natural Gas & GW solution.

Coal-to-Liquids is a PO solution with terrible GW implications. Yet, like my brother, I believe that it is coming. The US will likely chose to destroy the world's environment (see Hirsch Report) before giving up their way of life.

I am trying the promote the dual (PO & GW) solutions and remain largely silent on the "bad" solutions. Push that which is good, and ignore that which is bad.

I believe that a positive message is the best approach.

Best Hopes,


Thank You for the poetic tribute :-) My goals are large enough without trying to solve every aspect of every problem.

Matt, the situation is probably even worse than Hansen says. From Science magazine, probably the top scientific journal in the world (top 2 anyway), last year:


A central feature of this long baseline is this: At no time in at least the past 10 million years has the atmospheric concentration of CO2 exceeded the present value of 380 ppmv. At this time in the Miocene, there were no major ice sheets in Greenland, sea level was several meters higher than today's (envision a very skinny Florida), and temperatures were several degrees higher. A more recent point of reference, and the subject of two papers in this issue, is the Eemian: the previous interglacial, about 130,000 to 120,000 years ago. This was a warm climate, comparable to our Holocene, during which sea levels were several meters higher than today's, even though CO2 concentrations remained much lower than today's postindustrial level.

What this is saying is that our present CO2 level is already higher than it ever got between the last several ice ages, and at that time Florida was almost covered. The implication is that current CO2 levels are already enough to cause several meters of sea level rise. The tipping point has been passed. The next 10 years are not key, it was the last 10, or the 10 before that. We needed to solve this problem back in the 80s or 90s. Today is too late.

Hanson isn't considering geo-engineering.  Rather than let the ice caps inundate our coasts and islands, I bet we'll try to compensate by turning away some sunlight.  I'd much rather have a risk of some consequences than the certainty of e.g. the Great Barrier Reef dying completely.

This is rediculous.

If in 150 years since the industrial revolution we even managed to double the concentration of CO2, it's over now.

OIL is running out, and with it the major source of transportation fuel, and all the CO2 which is trapped as oil. I believe this problem will solve itself, by moving from oil based fuels to alternative stored energy systems(hydrogen/batteries..WHATEVER), by not doing anything and a mass die-off(no people, therefore trees reclaim their previous lands), or by some bio/algea oil situation (which is either sustainable and thus carbon neutral or unsustainable and we all die again!)

It is simply a do or die situation, that is to say that the solution to the situation will be difficult, costly, and people will likely die, but better a few die than 99% of everyone.(fyi what was the world population in 1600's? because after coal/oil/easy resources are gone we are back there, 400 years of 'progress' lost, and do believe me it will be lost by the rules of thermodynamics)

I think it is all over. If oil exports decline 50% over 6 years starting now, next year or any year, the Western economies will collapse like the USSR experience (read Orlov).

With global warming, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is already much higher than it has ever been. The oceans take a long time to warm up, and so we have yet to see the effects of CO2 released years ago, let alone current or future CO2.

In short we are cooked, we are just waiting for it all to happen. Humans will never agree on what to do. They do not even agree that there is PO or GW, so there is no chance of us agreeing to limit our incomes, even for a minute. People would prefer to die gazing at all their stuff; rather than surviving in simpler circumstances.

Global population in 1600 was around 700 million to 800 million total. And much of that population lived in feudal serfdom.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett

Though nothing stopped feudal units from playing a role in the capitalist system: for example, eastern European feudal lords provided the cheap grain that the Low Countries used to supply their traders & craftsmen.

While we're in the realm of "science fiction" in relation to finding alternatives for oil and mitigating the worst effects of burining fossile fuels, perhaps we should also consider banning war while we're at it?

We should hold an international conference, perhaps inside the Green Zone, in sunny Baghdad. Here the United States should have the vision, imagination and courage to take the lead and announce that it plans to unilaterally slash military expenditure by 90% over the next ten years. I believe other nations would be forced to follow the American lead and cut their military expenditure too.

The resulting savings will be invested in research into alternative energy sources, re-building the American
public transport system... Also one could invest massively in Palestine; build schools, hospitals, decent housing, new water and sewage plants... Turn the prison into a paradise and while we're at it pull out of Iraq, but use half the money wasted on the occupation to rebuild the country.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is, that given the challanges we face, and the need for massive investment in mega projects to mitigate Peak Oil, we can simply no longer afford war. It's just way too expensive and criminally wasteful of precious resources which are badly needed elsewhere.

Perhaps we need to dare to think boldly and imaginatively. To question deeply held assumptions about the way we live. As we appear to be entering an era of energy scarcity rather than abundance, surely we will be forced to re-think and change our priorities and use our resources more intelligently. One place where we could start is the absurd, insane, and irrational, area of profligate, staggering, waste, we choose to call "defense".

I suppose I think this is kind of practical test for our civilization and institutions. If we can't even manage this change in our priorities, when the absurdity, wastefullness and collosal destructiveness of war, is literally staring us in the face, then how on earth are ever going to deal with the far smaller challange of Peak Oil?

Oh, dear. Sorry. The last sentence should have read.

"How on earth are we ever going to deal with the far larger challenge of Peak Oil?"

Kind of pulls the rug out from under the climax of the Sunday sermon.

Well, you can edit your own posts even after they're published, you know. :)

As a point of reference, IIRC US military expenditure is about as much as the rest of the world combined. The next largest spender (Russia or was it China) spends about 1/10 of what the US spends. Such disproportionate spending suggests that the US is in an arms race only with itself, driven by lobbyists associated with the military-industrial complex and nationalistic fervor, rather than any kind of realistic strategic threat assessment.

Of course, while the US military can easily crush any opposing military force, actually holding on to occupied territory while bringing about meaningful social change has time and again proven a tougher nut, as so aptly demonstrated with the current foreign policy adventure in Iraq.

Thank you, Alan, for sharing this.

I've been writing to my older brother, trying to encourage him to understand what lies ahead. The first and hardest hurdle is just getting him to accept this PO idea and its looming if not already imminent reality. Harder for me then putting the information at hand together (of which you've done an exceptionally fine job), is trying to envision and propose a commendably decent way of trying to bridge this mess.

On this score, your continual efforts at such a challenging task are greatly appreciated. My hat is off to you.

And best hopes always too.

I guess that I am fortunate in that my brother already gets a lot of this.

If I were asked to choose a book to give to a peak oil neophyte, I might actually choose a book that isn't strictly peak oil based at all. "Plan B 2.0" by Lester Brown also covers some of the other resource issues that we will face (over-fishing the oceans, over logging the forests, and so forth), and in my mind it helps to see them all together as a part of one problem rather than try and view oil as one specific problem. This is important in that viewing oil separately from all of the other resource issues leads many people to try and think of technical fixes of one sort or another. If you view them all together, it is much clearer why a technical fix fo some sort just isn't going to cut it.

One minor quibble, Alan,

I'm no expert on Saudi reservoirs, but I believe from the many technical discussions here that there is no gas cap in Ghawar, as it is purposely kept below the bubble point by injecting water, to maintain pressure.

Yes, and there may be some other minor errors as well. I wrote this from memory and from the heart. Only after I finished, did I realize that this should be shared with others.

It is not a typical TOD research article.

I also edited out personal and private references.

So please take it for what it is, (although noting errors is worth doing so they are not repeated).

Best Hopes,


Forget about switching everything to nuclear.

The price of uranium was about $7.10/lb. in 2000 and now is was about $100/lb US.


I would recommend a hybrid or diesel car. Diesel got better miles per gallon than a gasoline engine and the engine lasted a lot longer.

Hybrids are a dead-end in my opinion. Batteries are heavy, and the Prius contains 100lbs of copper and 50lbs of nickel. Both are facing depletion issues as well, not as well researched as crude oil but we'd find out about them quick if copper and nickel demand soared due to hybrid construction.

Here's a better solution -- a simple diesel-powered automobile. No electricity, no hybrid, just a plain old car with the same power/weight ratio as the Volkswagen Beetle, which, I may point out, was a big consumer hit in the era of giant cars and cheap gas.

Available for sale in 2009


Please note this paragraph from my letter:

Electric vehicles and even building more conventional hybrids face resource issues in quickly scaling up production world-wide. Waiving air pollution and perhaps safety requirements and accepting many more small diesel cars may be a more realistic near term option for the US. Even so, the “natural” turn-over in the US vehicle fleet is likely too slow to keep up with post-Peak Oil supply reductions

Best Hopes,


Please note that the NiMH battery technology is rapidly giving way to Li-ion (the oceans provide a limitless supply of lithium once the price gets high enough) and aluminum can be substituted for copper (it's already widely used in induction motor armatures).

We've created carbon nanotubes which are more conductive than copper (as if we'll ever run out of carbon!), but I don't expect the price to be reasonable in the required time frame.  That's the answer to long-term depletion, though; once you can make something out of carbon at a reasonable price, you have the better part of a trillion tons of usable building material just in the atmosphere.

And then there's the granddaddy of the NiMH battery, the Nickel-Iron battery. Invented by T. Edison, it has a bit less power storage density than other rechargables, but is delightfully low-tech and long lasting.

Also, it does not have the environmental EOL issues that lead-acid and cadmium and probably nanotubes will have.

The problem will solve itself.
But not in a nice way.

Ni-Fe doesn't help with the nickel shortage.

On the other hand, if someone could get sodium-sulfur debugged, the limits are beyond view from here.

I think copper consumption in vehicles is rather insignificant next to building construction (plumbing and electrical).

I think copper consumption in vehicles is rather insignificant next to building construction (plumbing and electrical).

Regarding your comment, you factual analysis of the situation regarding the price of uranium is flawed.

The US purchased a great deal (majority irrc) of the soviet nuclear weapons material, this huge movement of reactor usable material into the civilian power market has distorted the price and stopped uranium exploration(circa early 1990's).

Furthermore you would be best off posting a graph of the price of uranium instead of cherry-picking two ideal points on the graph and making misrepresentative claims.

In addition nuclear reactors do not require much fuel per year, allowing for much much higher prices of fuel(which for reactors is not even a major operating expense, even at 100$/lb or even 1000$/lb ).

One final note, nuclear reactions put out about a million to a billion times more energy than chemical reactions. (wiki qutoes it at 100's of Mev so 100 000 000 for nuclear and 10's of ev for chemical so 10) puts me comfortably near 10 million times more energy is released from a nuclear reaction than chemical. Therefore 10 million times less fuel need be used, or the same amount of fuel, and 10 million times the energy generated!(not possible, but i had to flush out the explanation)

A thoughtful approach, to reach out in one letter. Some suggestions:

- the letter is slightly tainted with polemics which I think detracts from an honest appraisal of how the US has dug itself into a corner wrt energy, especially oil.
- perhaps a bit more on the re-engineering of cities which a rail emphasis brings, from walking to daily commerce to employment. Moving from auto to rail as a principal means of transport is rather broad in scope, one which I favor but also realize that the scope of the changes is rather large and many Americans are not prepared to understand the breadth of change needed.
- perhaps addressing the limits of wind/solar as the natural question would be that those are the two biggest "BBs" for the future.

(This is sort of connected to the thread.)

Do you know of any peak oil primers in Japanese? I'm having a hard time explaining this to my wife and her family and I don't have a place to point them to research it on their own.

I've tried searching for it myself but there doesn't seem to be much (plus my Japanese isn't a good as I'd like it to be). All I can find are simple blog like entries that are out of date and are not for the beginner.

My in laws are very non-technical people and speak no English. My wife wants to trust me, but just doesn't really believe me. (I must admit my explanations have been wanting).


Hi Rethin,

I'm happy to hear of your efforts. A somewhat obvious suggestion, but...the "Peak Oil Primer" at www.energybulletin.net is good (I imagine others here agree - you can always ask them!).

My guess is that you're in a better position there to find someone to translate it and make it available to "Energy Bulletin". (Perhaps this can be your "good deed for the cause"?) Perhaps you can write to them?

I'd also suggest writing to ASPO (www.peakoil.net) and the Post-Carbon Institute www.postcarbon.org) and see if they have any Japanese translations in the works, or perhaps you could collaborate with them in bringing this about. I imagine the "Oil Depletion Protocol" people must be interested in translating those materials, also.

(and if none of these work, please feel free to contact me and I'll try to help, as well.)

Thanks for the reply.

Actually getting something translated into Japanese (and any language I assume) is pretty simple. Just mail it to one of many translating services along with a check and wait six weeks.

I did find one guy who assembled a bunch of peak oil info and translated it into Japanese. He even took a pdf of his booklet and posted it online. But overall awareness of PO is very low here.

I don't understand Japanese, but have come across this pdf:


There was a link to it on the Japanese Wikipedia page for PO.

Thanks, I have seen that.

But that document is a bit too detailed/technical for my mother-in-law.

I guess I'm looking more for a Japanese Kunstler.

Hey James, any plans on a Japanese version?

This Fate of Humanity site (warning in Power Point or PDF) claims to have a Japanese version.

I don't know any Japanese so I can't tell you if it's true. The English version is quite good for people who are capable of sitting through a long lecture. Not good for sufferers of ADHD.

As for a lay person explanation, perhaps your relatives have a favorite drink. Ask them to picture themselves drinking down through a glass of this stuff at their favorite restaurant. At some point they are going to realize the drink is running out and they are going to expect some external being (a waiter) to come and refill their glass.

Now ask them to think of Planet Earth as a glass, filled with oil. When it runs out, what external being is going to come around to refill that glass? How hard can that concept be to grasp?

(Maybe I'm being too optimistic about the intellectual capabilities of my species mates.)


That's exactly what I was looking for. The Japanese version is exactly true to the english version (in the bit I checked).

A good primer. Not only is there no single silver bullet -- I don't think there is any evidence for the existence of a combination of bullets that will allow us to maintain our current way of life.

The basis for denial is religion: technology is the god. Technology has solved all problems before -- it will provide a solution this time. The archangels are all economists and preach that it is only necessary to pour lots of money on problems in order for the technology god to take notice and provide.

There is no understanding of the negative side of science which shows us constraints and limits as well as possibilities. When thermodynamics showed the impossibility of a perpetual motion machine, this did not stop the optimists. The finiteness and invariance of the speed of light did not stop the space travelers right away. Even mathematics showed some of the fundamental limits of computing as well as its own limits back in the 30s.

There is no stress on the negative results of science and its application to technology -- only on the positive. But the earth sciences are showing us a whole host of constraints that we are facing. These are not exact and precise limits such as we expect in physics, but they are limits nevertheless.

How far we'll have to scale back is, to me, the big question. What is a sustainable way of life and population for humanity? How can we get there? That's the most important and interesting research agenda I can imagine.

Regarding the limitations of science and technology, Arthur C. Clarke had this to say:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The first two can work both ways: Is it impossible for a biofuel infrastructure to ever rival a fossil fuel one? Is it impossible for oil to peak before replacements are ready?
The last one however suggests that the techno-economists are little more than believers in magic.

Well, we are working on 2, aren't we?

How far we'll have to scale back is, to me, the big question. What is a sustainable way of life and population for humanity? How can we get there? That's the most important and interesting research agenda I can imagine.

Indeed, those are the really thorny questions, aren't they?

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett


interesting article. A few random points.

Re "no silver bullet". There was a couple of 2004 articles, that subsequently were quite widely cited in mainstream media, where Socolow, Pacala et al. presented a similar argument to yours (from a GW perspective, PO was not mentioned). I.e. there is no single silver bullet that can solve GW, but there are many smaller ones (called stabilization wedges) which together can do it. See http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/305/5686/968 (requires Science subscription to read beyond the abstract) and http://www.princeton.edu/~cmi/resources/CMI_Resources_new_files/Environ_... (free for all).

One "stabilization wedge" mentioned in the articles above is energy efficient buildings. I read somewhere (sorry, forgot reference) that this is one of the most cost effective ways of increasing energy efficiency. Simple things like thicker insulation, roof mounted solar water heaters (much cheaper than PV cells), or slightly more advanced on a conceptual level but still no high tech like convection driven ventilation, heat adsorbing inner walls with big south-facing windows, or for cooling trees providing shading etc etc. However building tend to have long life times, so this is one thing that ought to be started immediately to have any measurable effect in the medium term. I think it would fit nicely together with the urban renewal enabled by the electrified urban rail you propose.

Re. Indonesia, Plan B 2.0 by Lester Brown mentions that Indonesia has enough geothermal resources to supply all the energy they need and then some for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately they chose the other road, i.e. developing their oil resources and trying to kickstart industrial development by heavily subsidizing oil products. With oil prices rising the state is under increasing financial pressure, but plans to reduce the oil subsidy has already resulted in riots. Between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.

Hi Alan,
Good summary of PeakOil 'stuff.'
You (and others) have frequently mentioned pumped storage as a means of making intermittent energy sources more practical. I have googled around a bit and only found one site I think in Michigan associated with a nuke plant that used pumped storage (not to say there aren't others). I wonder if you have done any BackOfEnvelope calculations on the infrastructure costs etc for how pumped storage on a large scale might work. Particularly of concern are issues like:
Arid areas where there are now large wind farms (Wyoming) where does the water come from?
Flat areas where there are wind farms or could be wind farms. Where does one pump the water to? In this case, it seems that infrastructure of building pumped storage would be prohibitive (building mountains). In the arid area issue, infrastructure for getting (and keeping) water might be a problem.
I haven't studied this in detail but am interested to know the thinking of someone who has possibly fleshed out more of the details.

One of my prime arguments is that the US burns over 2 million barrels/day in long haul heavy trucks (and over 250,000 in railroads). Shifting freight from heavy trucks to electrified railroads could trade 20 BTUs of diesel for 1 BTU of electricity with auxiliary benefits for safety, road maintenance, congestion, etc. And, in a prolonged oil supply shortfall, having a non-oil transportation alternative for critical goods (and some passengers) would be an invaluable strategic asset.

Alan, I'm a trucker and inasmuch as this is a great plan, just how much effort on a national scale do you believe it would take to build all the railroads you envision here?? What is your estimate on the cost?? And do we have the time?? Many places I go are probably served by a railroad but any increase would put quite a burden upon them IMHO.. And not to mention all the tracks that were ripped up over the past two decades and returned to their rightful owners or made into bike trails..

ET & Reno, I will and try and post something tomorrow in response. Too late tonight !

Best Hopes,