Why oil (and helium) are still underpriced

[ED: by Prof. Goose]This is a guest post by Marty Sereno, Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD.

Economists often like to argue that the prices set by markets are simply right. In this way of thinking, it doesn't make sense to ever say that oil is ever overpriced or underpriced. The problem with this for human civilization is that capitalism is an optimization method that finds optimal behavior a short time into the future. Unfortunately, as we all witness the slow depletion of an obviously finite resource absolutely central to the operation of modern human industrial society, it is obvious to many that we need to pursue strategies that might not have an immediate payoff. Optimizing for results with a longer look-ahead window isn't rocket science, and it isn't unprecedented. The whole field of molecular biology was founded by decades of research paid for by taxes with no immediate payoff in sight. Capitalism had nothing to do with it.

To make an impact on the general public and to help them better deal with rogue economists and cornucopians, I think we should remind them of basic facts about the energy density and convenience of fossil fuels that used to be patently obvious to virtually everybody in 1900, but which have now been forgotten by all but a few engineers over the past 100 years in modern industrial cultures.

A useful, easy-to-remember aphorism is: ONE BARREL of oil is equivalent to ONE YEAR of very hard labor by a human. I tried it out on my scientific colleages here at UCSD, and to a person, they were astonished.

A barrel of oil contains 42 gallons. It can be made into about 20 gallons of gasoline (give or take, depending on the grade of the oil). Each gallon of gasoline contains about 36 kilowatt-hours of chemical energy (kilowatt-hours are the number of kilowatts, a measure of power, times the number of hours, yielding a measure of energy). An efficient internal combustion engine turns about one quarter of that energy into useful work, with the rest lost as heat. One horsepower is equivalent to about 3/4 of a kilowatt. However, one human working hard continuously can only put out about 1/10 to 1/5 of a kilowatt (compare the power output of a human to a one-horsepower horse). A recent article in Bicycling on the Tour de France showed that the average power output (during the several hours per day of the race) of a top-finishing bike racer, Floyd Landis, was 0.23 kilowatts, or about 1/3 horsepower, continuous. In a 75 minute time trial, the same cyclist was able to put out 0.38 kilowatts continuously -- a full 1/2 horsepower!

The 20 gallons of gasoline made from one barrel of oil contains about 180 useful kilowatt-hours. If we divide that by say, 1/8 of a kilowatt -- a generous continuous output for a fit person -- we get 1440 hours of hard human work. Let's assume that a person can put out this 1/8 of a kilowatt for 6 hours per day. That is, half of the output of a top Tour de France cyclist for a continuous 6 hours (not counting breaks) per day. This means that you would need 240 days to get 180 kilowatt-hours (or more, if you are a dimmer bulb), which is minimally equivalent to one year of 5-days-a-week very hard labor by a fit human. This boils down conveniently to: ONE BARREL of oil = ONE YEAR of hard human labor.

This calculation makes sense when you compare digging a foundation or grading a road by hand, Roman empire style, to doing the same thing with an oil-powered bulldozer, roadgrader, and backhoe. A barrel of oil currently costs $57. I think this price *waaaay* underestimates its true worth to us humans. Even in the poorest third world country, you currently have to pay a human more than that to do hard labor for a year. In the US, the minium legal wage is over $10,000 a year.

The hope is that scientists will help us to avoid the "garden show that never ends" -- and the construction methods of the Roman empire -- by inventing some new, convenient source of energy before fossil fuels are depleted. The problem with many of these alternatives is that they all now rely crucially on depleting fossil fuels and resources. Determining whether it is actually possible to manufacture, say, photoelectric cells using only renewable energy sources at every stage (mining, steel-making, furnaces for growing large silicon crystals, saw blades and saws to cut the ingots into wafers, transportation, assembly, installation, servicing) is a topic for another day. Here, let's just consider how resource limitations color the prospects for thermonuclear fusion for generating electricity.

The recent revival of the fusion research project, ITER, suggests that there may still be hope that we will be able to maintain energy-indulgent ways. However, current approaches to fusion are based on magnetically-confined plasmas. The enormous confinement fields needed are generated by superconducting magnets that are similar to those found in high-field MRI machines, but even more powerful, and arranged into a torus (doughnut) instead of a cylinder. All high-field superconducting magnets contain metal wires bathed in large amounts of liquid helium, the only substance that won't freeze at the temperatures required for low temperature superconductivity to appear. A little over 1/4 of all helium produced is used for cryogenics.

Helium is only found in useful concentrations in the 'fossil' gases emitted by relatively a small number of oil and natural gas wells with especially impermeable caps (in the US, mainly in Texas). The helium was trapped and concentrated there after it was generated by radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in the crust and mantle. Helium is on a depletion curve closely related to that of natural gas (data here and here). In 1996, the US helium reserve was privatised and is now in the process of being sold off (The Impact of the Selling of the Federal Helium Reserve, 2000, Openbook here). Helium production appears to have already peaked in the US. After helium boils out of the huge refrigerated thermos bottles around a superconducting magnet, it escapes into the atmosphere and then diffuses into space, where it is lost forever. Helium is an element and cannot be synthesized. The amount generated by a hypothetical working fusion reactor is negligible. After 20 years of high temperature superconductors, no one has come up with one that is both strong enough and capable of carrying enough current. Such a thing may not exist.

Tokamak-style fusion is predicted to become practical in a few decades. But by then, we may near to past the world peak in helium. Helium demand will soar and helium price will soar, too, but it will be too late. Perhaps it really is true that fusion is the power source of the future, and it always will be, as the joke goes. The New Scientist had an article this month (summary here) about ITER, explaining that new approaches to plasma stabilization just might solve some of the chronic problems that have made continuous confinement difficult. But the inconvenient facts about helium did not appear. Perhaps as yet hypothetical superstrong permanent magnets will save the day (although a permanent magnet fusion project was recently cancelled by NSF). Or perhaps a strong high-temperature superconductor will be found. Perhaps.

Economists often say they care little about energy considerations because markets and prices will motivate the discoveries that can solve any possible problem. Scientists, by contrast, try to find out how the world actually is. The world is not infinitely pliable. It may or may not be possible to manufacture strong high-temperature superconductors. It's an empirical question -- not something that will automatically be solved just by increasing the price of strong magnetic fields.

If us scientists fail to come up with a convenient portable energy source for digging up fields and house foundations (and unused pavement!), at least we can continue to discuss this with them -- while we each sweat out our 1/8 of kilowatt. To put off that day, we should all stop acting like spoiled kids and start planning further into the future now.

Martin Sereno
Professor, Cognitive Science
University of California, San Diego
(B.S. Geology)

I'm a working physicist (not in fusion, admittedly) and I think you're worrying too much.

For one thing, high temperature superconductors are starting to hit the market in a big way. These superconduct at liquid nitrogen temperatures so there's not much need for helium. Companies like American Superconductor are producing hundreds of kilometers a year and are ramping up production still further.

Also cryocoolers, essentially electronic refrigerators, allow you to keep your helium bath at 4K or below without any boiloff at all (and for any experiments can eliminate the need for helium entirely). This isn't in real common use yet but the price and performance of cryocoolers is improving fast. (For some reason they're very common in Japan, though.) Even at current cryocooler and helium prices, a lot of physicists are considering moving to cryocoolers since helium is a pain to work with for various reasons. If helium got even a little more expensive you'd see a pretty big shift. We designed an experiment recently and had a really hard time deciding between helium and cryocoolers. (We went with helium, because our experiment is extremely vibration sensitive, but that's not going to apply to most people.)

vinc -

And exactly how much energy do these cryocoolers consume per hour? If your power plant is using NG to generate your electricity, then you're still on a depletion curve. If NG becomes difficult to get hold of, then you're looking at another problem, but that one too, is related to resource depletion.

One of the points made is that the inputs for many of our materials are fossil energy - steel alloys, stainless, magnets, ceramics, silicon...  The question posed is: Can these materials be manufactured without NG. I think it is a very valid question. Heating with electricity has typically consumed more energy than heating with NG in manufacturing.

Replacing NG with electricity actually consumes more NG at the electricity generating end, and throws a very large load on the grid - that's why manufacturers have a special electric meter (called a demand meter) when they use large amounts of electricity. You get billed at the highest rate of consumption - if it's 10kw an hour for 2 minutes, then you get billed as if you are drawing 10kw an hour for everything you use. It definitely affects the bottom line, and it's there to discourage pulling a lot of juice.

These are the things a lot of us are thinking about and discussing - energy inputs and how to offset them or find alternative sources that are workable. The fossil fuel train is slowing down - we have to get off if we are to continue our journey forward.

It's going to take roughly the same amount of power to liquefy the helium at a central  plant as it will to run a cryocooler at the point of use.  Plus, you're eliminating all the trips made by the helium tanker.
Less power, I think. With a cryocooler you're just maintaining a constant temperature. Whereas when you liquefy it you have to do all the work of bringing helium from room temperature to 4 K, not to mention purifying it...

At any rate, a cryocooler that would have been much more than sufficient for our experiment would have used about 5 kW, which is comparable to central air conditioning for a large home in summer. A fusion plant would be a heck of a lot larger than our experiment, of course, so I'm not sure what their total consumption would be.

Well, presumably the key issue would be the EROEI of fusion.  The energy for the cryocooler is included in the "EI" part.  So the goal remains the same - to get fusion to the point where it's a (controllable) energy source not a sink.
An important property of a superconductor is its critical current density (i.e. the maximum current density it can carry while still remaining a superconductor). This is a particular problem for superconducting magnets since the critical current density decreases in the presence of a magnetic field. While high temperature superconductors exist (~110K) they don't have the critical current densities needed for magnets producing 13 Tesla fields where as for low temperature metal superconductors (e.g. Nb3Sn) it is just about possible. People are talking about using high temperature superconductors in Maglev trains some time in the future but the field strengths would be a lot lower than a tokamak. It should also be noted that because of all this the generally held notion that if we could get a viable fusion reactor working it would be perfectly safe is probably wrong. A full scale tokamak that produced useful amounts of energy would be huge (football stadium size) and hense the associated magnetic field would not only have a very large field strength but would encompass a massive volume. Playing around with the equation E = B^2.V/(2mu) you should be able to convince yourself that the energy stored in the field would be enormous and therefore a magnet coolant failure could be catastrophic.
The existing limits on current density in HTS superconductors are not fundamental, and I suspect they'll improve by quite a bit. (Typical high-Tc wire these days, due to manufacturing limitations, is actually made mostly of silver and other metals, with only a little bit of superconducting material. The other stuff is added for mechanical strength.)

I'm actually not a big fan of fusion research, but for other reasons...

Experiments at Purdue with sonofusion looks promising. Unlike tokomats the strong magnetic fields are not needed. Unlike claimed cold fusion experiments no precious metals are needed. Hot fusion research is a lost cause. They have had over 50 years of experiments behind them and have only produced arguments for more government grants.
While it's abundantly clear that Prof. Sereno dislikes economists and distrusts markets, what exactly is it that he's advocating? Is government's track record any better? As anyone who has read Mr. Kunstler's books knows, in the U.S. it was the government that gave us highways and freeways, subsidies for suburban housing development, urban "renewal" schemes, and single-use zoning. It was the government that destoyed our walkable urban landscape and enabled the construction of the "edge cities" that will make it particularly difficult for the U.S. to transition to a post-peak future.

Let's not single out the market -- there is plenty of blame to go around.

This is something I've been thinking about on-and-off. While I think capitalism and markets have many good features, it doesn't appear that long range planning is one of them. Markets do not seem to be interested in developments past the next few years. I am concerned that this problem will get even worse (because I suspect that the post-peak era will be inflationary, and high interest rates reduce the time window with which a net-present value calculation looks forward).

On the other hand, I completely share your low opinion of the foresight of government in many cases. Obviously, an institution that operates on a 2 year or 4 year election cycle has very little incentive to take a long view. The funding of basic research is the exception, not the rule.

I share Prof Serreno's sense that the human race is acting in an obviously foolish manner when looked at on a decades-centuries time scale. We cannot possibly continue to grow exponentially on a finite world, and I think it's going to end in tears in my lifetime, and certainly in my kids and grandkids.

So the question is what kind of societal institutions could we create that would take a longer view. How do we learn to think about the seventh generation, in addition to this fiscal year and the next election.

It appears to me that if we are to stop governing ourselves like greedy kindergarteners, we need to add some kind of institution to the governmental system of checks and balances which has, as it's explicit mission, taking care of long term resource/environment/sustainability issues. I can imagine something a bit like the Supreme Court with the President making lifetime appointments of people with a range of appropriate qualifications for thinking about long term issues. Such a 7th Generation Council would need to have real power (eg the right to veto legislation), in order to do any good.

 stuart, you state above:

"I suspect that the post-peak era will be inflationary, and high interest rates reduce the time window with which a net-present value calculation looks forward"

now...that's what you'd think...increased scarcity of various commodities...same or more demand...prices go through the roof...bingo..inflation

i would have thought the same thing...but..the bond market is saying the opposite..no matter how much mr. greenspan and his minions push up short term rates..the only interest mechanism they control..long term rates have stubbornly stayed the same...and that in the face of fed funds increasing from 1% to 4%

now, you could argue that long term rates are being artificially depressed, because all those foreign governments like china , japan and saudi arabia are recycling their foreign exchange profits by buying the long bond...and that very well may be the case...

but i've been thinking..(if i can anthropomorphise a bit)...maybe the bond market is trying to tell us something..and they have been doing it for several years now...maybe what we're facing is deflationary recession ( or depression, if that's your flavor)

as alan g. said ...it's a conundrum

Yes - I don't understand the yield curve either. And I'm by no means certain at this point of the issue of the post peak era being inflationary - I need to work a lot harder on it (so much to research, so little time...)
Try Conquer the Crash by Robert R Prechter, or The Dollar Crisis by Richard Duncan (not the same Richard Duncan associated with Olduvai theory). Both explain the deflation angle, but from different perspectives.
If you take a look at who is buying long-term treasuries you can clearly see that achieving high capital yelds is not among their greatest motivations. I doubt that for some of them it is motivation at all.

I've been thinking of why the Chinese are so willingful to grant us such a generous line of credit in spite of the obviuos tensions between our countries. Besides the obvious motivation of keeping WalMartism, and thus their own economy alive I suspect that they plan to use the dollar card to keep us under control. It is logical - it would be much cheaper and safer for them to beat us on the financial markets than to confront us on the military front.

yes, i agree totally on the chinese intentions..i have thought for some time that the chinese are playing us for the dupes that we are...of course they need us to buy that lawn furniture now...and if the american consumerators don't buy...who will??...the japanese economy has been in a deflationary funk since 1990 and the europeans with imbedded 10% unemployment (yeah, socialism...rah,rah,rah) are not the market of their dreams ,either...so they keep buying the bond to keep us afloat until...when??...how much longer do they put up with his excellency (the W-meister) going over there and insulting them before they say...o.k. dufus that's about enough?
If you borrow 10k from your banker, and you run into difficulty repaying the loan, you have a problem. If you borrow 10 billion (or 100b), and you have a problem paying it back, your banker has a problem. There is simply nothing the Asian bankers can do with their dollars that can hurt us, whether they dump them for Euros (pumping up the Euro, causing our European friends to squeal, and helping us export to Europe), buy gold (which we export) or burn them. Eventually dollars must be exchanged to the US for goods and services - there is nothing else they can be used for. (The current practice of buying paper, stocks and bonds, simply puts off the return of our wandering dollars.) No doubt they see their side of the conundrum quite clearly.
Pretty soon the one-child policy will present younger Chinese workers with their own problem: how to care for their two ageing parents, and without any help from SS. There will come a time when they become net importers of finished goods, certainly including food and health products, and will convert their dollars into goods and services, completing the trade of goods that is one-sided today. When this period begins the inflation we exported to Asia will return along with our dollars to the US.
This is a very interesting way of thinking about our borrowing.

Just as a thought experiment, what exactly is to keep us from repudiating that mountain of debt, once they decide they want to start spending those dollars in a big way?

Nothing. Of course, the Chinese might be required to sell thermonuclear weapons to the Iraqi insurgency to pay for their oil if we default on the money we owe them.
There is no conundrum. An inverted yield curve indicates recession ahead. So a flat one indicates the US is on the verge of it, never mind the ridiculous +4% 3Q growth statements. Those are fantasy statistics.
Yes, you're right. The challenge for this generation is to invent such an institution. Of course we once had governments that took a long view -- they were called hereditary monarchies. And unless we figure out something better soon we could revert to monarchies once the post-oil dust settles.

What you have in mind is, I think, less a U.S.-style Supreme Court and more a U.K.-style House of Lords. Ideally, the Lords are supposed to insure the long-term view is heard. Of course, the problem with Lords is that membersip was largely due to accident of birth (not counting the ecclesiastical Lords).

So, shall we prose amending the U.S. consitituion by transforming the Senate into such a 7th generation council? What powers do you all think this Senate should have, and how will its powers be balanced? How will its members be selected, and how long should they serve in office?

Well, the UK house of Lords is not terribly focussed, and too powerless to have a huge effect on anything except occasionally. However, it's a useful model to keep in mind.

Another model is the Federal Reserve, where we have a piece of the government which exists fairly autonomously for a special function (managing the money supply), just as the Supreme Court has it's special function (interpreting the constitution). We (hopefully, most of the time) appoint highly talented economist/finance types to the Federal Reserve Board, and (hopefully, most of the time) highly qualified laywers/judges to the Supreme Court. We generally appoint roughly the right kind of people (political disagreements aside), just because we are aware of the specialized function of these institutions, and the importance of their doing a good job, and we get upset if less-than-stellar folks are proposed (as President Bush found out the hard way with the Mier's nomination).

The Supreme Court has lifetime appointments, as does the House of Lords, but the Federal Reserve has fixed terms. My gut feel is lifetime appointments is better (because doing the right thing for the long term sometimes involves having to do unpopular things in the short term).

Perhaps a more important question might be what kind of qualifications would we want for the members of a 7th generation council. I am of course tempted to say "eminent scientists!", since so many of these long term issues are complex and scientific, and parsing the science and deciding how much accord to give it is critical. But I also think most scientists have lived their lives entirely inside academia and have a dangerously limited view of how the rest of the world works.

I would keep it smaller than the senate, but bigger than the Supreme Court. Maybe 24 people. Enough that it can represent a diverse group of expertises, but small enough to be cohesive.

Maybe have a council with assigned seats for three groups: eminent scientists, retired business leaders and economists, and religious leaders. President proposes, Senate confirms. 7th generation council can veto legislation with a 2/3 vote. Can propose new legislation to the lower houses. Can hold hearings and subpoena people.

I think just having an institution with a name and a mission that said "Long Term" all over it, and some real power would make a huge difference. When they held hearings about world population projections for 2100, the media would have to cover it. It would put the rest of the century on the political agenda, instead of leaving it completely up to chance.

I'd tend to agree with most of what you propose, except having economists included. What would they bring to the table in a debate over anything really long term that wouldn't be relatively self-evident?
Maybe have a council with assigned seats for three groups: eminent scientists, retired business leaders and economists, and religious leaders.
Religious leaders?  Are you nuts?  Aside from the First Amendment issues, religious leaders have no particular expertise and a high fraction of pathological dogmatists (fundamentalists, "liberation theologists", etc.).

I'm all for listening to on-point criticism whatever the source, but giving religion a binding vote is dangerous to government and corrupting to religion.

Generally a good idea, though the economists and religious leaders proposals make me a little nervous (BTW I don't see much of a difference between those two)

I would rather pick 50% scientists (ones having as versatile background as possible) and 50% of retired businessmen. Generally in society women are the keepers of the long-term so maybe women should be preferred for the job.  

My concern is: how do you prevent the inevitable war between this institution and just about anybody else?

The real trick is in the human resources angle. Our government would work just fine if we had people in it that cared about the long term angle, or at least thought about it occasionally.
THere are a lot of porblems in trying to create such a body. First, granting power to such a group takes power from others, and they will generally resist. Certainly a constitutional amendment would be needed, never easy. The general public does not like the electoral college, but to change it would require the support of at least some of the small states that have out of proportion clout, so it will never happen.
Second, would it help to veto something? You really need dictatorial powers to divert large resources to something else, particularly when the budget is already drowning. There would be enormous resistance whether you cut other programs or raised taxes.
Third, it might not be needed. Remember that no planning was used to prepare for WWII, yet gm shifted from cars to tanks on a dime. (GM maybe not a good example - seems they cant shift from suv's to prius type care in time to stave off bankruptcy.) The market will move resources all by itself as soon as prices rise.
the Federal Reserve is not part of the government.  it is a privately controlled bank.  the head of this bank is appointed by the government of course, but this is a relatively meaningless gesture between the elites.  i highly encourage those who are ignorant of our banking history and monetary policy to invest in a history lesson and order The Money Masters.

"If the American peole ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks...will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered...The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs."
-Thomas Jefferson

or if you don't want to shell out $25 for the dvd, you can go here to download a digital copy available at the Internet Archive.  The Archive is a great site for doing research and education, and has a wealth of information.  
High quality DVDRip (1.36GB) available here (to preview and decide if you want to buy the DVD of course): http://www.mininova.org/tor/59867
We should perhaps clearly identify the source of the problem below. Our people (all of you and me) demanded suburbs and freeways. Our government simply provided the mechanisms to facilitate their creation. We still demand those today.

Whether we are in the public or private arena an increasing number of people chasing a decreasing sum of resources bodes ill for us all. People demand. More people demand more. Few Peak Oilers want to really address the REAL issue. Those that do have no actionable solutions.


"It was the government that destoyed our walkable urban landscape and enabled the construction of the "edge cities" that will make it particularly difficult for the U.S. to transition to a post-peak future."

Yes, we are a democracy and often the government gives us what we want. The rails-to-roads story is, of course, much more complicated than that. As it's not entirely germane to TOD I won't delve into it. Here's a good place to start.

As to peak oil having "no actionable solutions": I can't prove you're wrong, Ammond, but I hope you're wrong. I don't relish simply sitting around waiting for the big die-off.

I believe the interstate highway system was started in the 50's as a means for transporting military goods in the event of another war.  The people didn't demand it.  I'm not saying it was a bad idea either.  An interstate highway system is a boon and would be even if we were to move to another type of ground based transit.
From Charles Wilson, head of General Motors who was nominated by Eisenhower to be Secretary of Defense in 1953:
During the hearings, when asked if as secretary of defense he could make a decision adverse to the interests of General Motors, Wilson answered affirmatively but added that he could not conceive of such a situation "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa."
And it's still true except GM's power is in decline and other corporatations have replaced them. Wilson later did become secretary of the Defense Department.

In the fifties when our suburban nightmare was being created, these peak oil issues were very remote and starting then, as especially now, there was little difference between private interests and those of our elected government.

Yes, the people have "demanded" these SUV's and McMansions but they've been pushed a bit by the power of advertising that creates that demand.

Marketers figured out what Freud and others were telling them, that people by and large are pretty malleable. When you combine that "insight" with the Age of Television and throw in cheap fossil fuels, you get the horrible mess that we see all around us today. Yes, there's pleny of blame to go around.
It is true that it was the government that gave us suburbs, highways, and decimated our rail-based mass transit in this country.  However, it wasn't just stupidity or lack of foresight amongst those that put these policies into place.  In some cases, suburbs these were a result of other very important policies that the US govt created.  Especially, the GI bill, this allowed young families to move out of the cities and inner ring of old suburbs and build new Levittowns, without a center to the town or any way to get around other than driving.

Also, at least in the case of the Philadelphia light rail system, it was bought out by GM in the 1950's.  They then ripped up much of the rail network and bought GM buses to replace the trolley cars.

I don't think most companies really look 10-20 years down the road in any serious manner.  Those plans all seem to be pie in the sky, unrealistic projections.  They seem for the most part to only be interested in the next quarters earnings.  This is how we wound up with a company like Enron.  They weren't looking to build the business over the next twenty years, but just wanted to pump up the stock enough for the next three months so they could make a huge profit for themselves.

Suburbia is the logical result of unrestricted capitalism and consumerism. I view is as a long-term deal trading growth against sustainability.

There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.
Henry Ford

Suburbia is:

  1. Most cost-effective to build. Development of land and infrastrucure in an uniform manner using cheap, less labor intensive materials (wood) is the easiest and cheapest path to go.
  2. Most consumerist oriented. One word: economy of scale. Suburbia allowed the large big-box stores and the wide spreadness of car culture which by itself became another major growing businesses driving others behind.

I guess nobody ever though when making the assumptions allowing Suburbia that someday energy will become expensive. Or more probably they thought the same most people think even now: "We'll think of something when the time comes".
In some cases, suburbs these were a result of other very important policies that the US govt created.  Especially, the GI bill, this allowed young families to move out of the cities and inner ring of old suburbs and build new Levittowns

This, for those of us who trace our thinking about cities to Jane Jacobs is one of the great early sins. There was no reason why the G.I. Bill, the FHA, the VA and other federal programs couldn't have been dedicated to builing cities instead of suburbs, except for the fact that the U.S. government wanted to build suburbs, not cities. Why is this? With reference to Dave's point about advertising, imagine the marketing dollars that General Motors poured into this.

Professor Sereno is certainly cognitive of human nature when he observes the tendency to "fish" for any and all means to continue our lifestyle/mobility.   Right now, things don't pencil out, as the beancounters would say.   We use term"Fossils Overshoot", meaning we are already on borrowed time insofar as developing replacement energy sources faster than fossils depletion now accumulating.

Mao said two steps forward, one back; his countrymen now in that mode- they are heavily investing Wal-Mart cashflow into railway expansion...  We should do likewise, even as the Prof. Serenos strive for the technofix breakthroughs to keep those cars coming into the hands of each and every "consumer" on earth, at puberty.   The prof. mentioned oil barrel equivalent; here is another one- rule of thumb for electric streetcar was that it had the utilty of 200 autos.    Granted, this on a corridor about 1/4 mile wide, residential to a city commercial area.

But we include for the great tarbaby debacle discussion the use of all types of railway, trunk lines, branch and regional interurban electric network.  Like the USA had thru the first half of the 20th Century, when America was energy independent.  Then Ike signed the Defense Highway act in 1956, and we went global on fuel.   And systematically dismanteled the Railways, except for the very heavy and consolidated trunk carriers we see today.

What China knows about railways is this:  Rail is the SECOND DIMENSION SURFACE TRANSPORT LOGISTICS PLATFORM.  This means railway can stand alone as a self-contained transport network, with in-house maintenance and operations abilities, great fuel efficiency, and apolitical- fixes what's broke without taking a poll.

Readers and Professors wishing to follow China's strategic approach to economic viability and SOCIETAL COHESION in worst case, can begin with researching their locale's rail footprint.   See old Thomas Bros. Maps, Power Comapany &County records for right-of way maps and track geometry and layout for downtown warehousing, etc.

The best way to organize this thinking process is to see the statute:  In 1838 the US Congress mandated ALL Railroads as "Post Roads".    Networking the localized economy, with federally secured fuel efficient transport.  See the Association For The Study Of Peak Oil & Gas (peakoil.net) Newsletter 42, article 374 for a talking points guideline.    

The problem with ANY idea of localization or village economy or gold or silver or generators or enclaves or sustainable commune is this:  Bad boys with guns will come and carry away the goodies after they kill the men and rape the women.   This is why we need to take steps at the infrastructure level to maintain the UNION, the Federal integrity of the Nation, bound together with straps of iron and bronze (See Daniel 4 V.15)- railways are crucial and requisite to maintaining USA territorial integrity thru the Oil Interregnum!    How do you stand, Ladies & Gentlemen?

How do I stand? Well, I agree with your analysis: a cache is no solution. A compound in the desert with a fence and a bunker with shelves stacked with cans of food will be useless, because the fence is the same thing as one of the cans: a metal enclosure which means "There is food inside me!" The SMALLEST useful ambition on a sinking vessel is to get to a lifeboat; the smallest useful ambition in our position is to be a citizen of a State which can survive. I am glad that we think alike so far; but we probably diverge at this point. I have no objection to rail infrastructure, but you may draw your ideological line in the sand well short of white nationalist ecofascism. (Short, perhaps, of the smallest useful ambition.)
I agree with Southsider1 and don't think that Professor Sereno's analysis is so surprising or profound. Following this logic, one gram of uranium must produce the energy of thousands of people. Microsoft Excel does the calculating work of dozens. So what?

However, his calculation actually underestimates the energy capacity of a barrel of oil. Depending on the configuration, a refinery can produce a wide range of outputs. Some will produce the 20 gallons of gasoline and some much less. The 20 barrel figure is probably fairly reasonable for a modern facility. The API cites 19.4 gallons per barrel as typical of the average US refinery. However, the refinery would not only produce gasoline. The API goes on to say that the barrel of oil would also yield:

Distillate: 9.7 gallons
Kerosene-type jet fuel: 4.3
Fuel oil: 2.0
Liquefied gases: 1.9
Still gas: 1.9
Coke: 1.9
Asphalt: 1.4
Petrochemical feedstock: 1.1
Lubricants: 0.5
Kerosene: 0.2
Other: 0.4

I would guess that the energy content of these products is greater than that of the 19.4 gallons of gasoline, so the barrel would yield two plus years of human effort.

There is a common misunderstanding in how a refinery creates products. Oil is not one consistent raw input that can be used in whatever way a refinery desires. It is a mixture of different varieties of hydrocarbon. During the first stage of refining, these are separated through distillation. Later processes (cracking, etc.) can then actually change the individual components into specific products, but not without limitations. It is not possible to produce only gasoline from a barrel of oil. In theory, much more than 50% could be produced through use of very expensive equipment, but it does make economic sense as the byproducts are worth more on their own than they would be as feedstock for more gasoline.

I think that the point that the article leads to is that in order to discover the real value of a depletable resource as oil we should be looking at the alternatives. If renewables are not able to catch up and we are not going to persue nuclear energy then we should be falling back on our own power.
I have been participation in a conversation on an Australian professor of Economics at this blog
Some of the comments make interesting reading.

However he has further posted a presentation that he gave and it makes this, to me, very startling claim.

"The economic cost of a 50 per cent reduction in fossil fuel use over 30 years would be around 3 per cent of GDP (about one year's economic growth)"

Is this an example of economists not understanding the energy density and versatility of oil.  I cannot fathom how he came to this conclusion.

Full presentation is here
He has replied to my comments and posted a list of his arguments which I have not read yet.

I have to quote this from the above
Terje Says:

December 2nd, 2005 at 1:26 pm
Enders point is important.

It is not about the size of reserves. It is about the rate at which reserves can be tapped.

It is like having an extremely large water tank that only has a very, very small tap. Standing around the tap a large enough group of people could still die of thirst even if the tank was still half full.

The thesis of Peak Oil is more about the size of the tap than the size of the tank.
"more about the size of the tap than the size of the tank" is a pretty good description of the peak light oil problem. We are still pumping out the Kern field and it was discovered in 1894!

I suggest Professor Sereno might want to walk over to the Economics department at UCSD and see what they think of his ideas about markets. He could do worse than chat with James D. Hamilton, who also writes the excellent Econbrowser blog that we often cite here.  His page on energy issues has some great analyses, particularly the 3 part series on Peak Oil and futures market prices (part 1, part 2, part 3).
Economists often like to argue that the prices set by markets are simply right. In this way of thinking, it doesn't make sense to ever say that oil is ever overpriced or underpriced.

Oh, but this is wrong. I just heard Lord Browne of BP say so on National PUblic Radio. He said oil is too expensive and will soon drop to $40/barrel.

On the other hand, Marc Jaccard, a professor of energy economics at Simon Fraser University (School of Resource and Environmental Management) says that fossil fuels will remain the world's main source of energy for at least another 100 years.  His book is here.

Quoting from yesterday's Globe and Mail article Jaccard said "the cost of gasoline may actually trend downward over the next 50 years, even as we exhaust our highly valued supplies of conventional oil."  He expectst that future gasoline will come from clean coal technology, adding that the world has about 1,000 years of coal.

Jaccard was the chairman and CEO of the British Columbia Utilities Commission during the 1990's.

Confusing.  One expert says this, another says that.  I think I'm  gonna have a nervous breakdown.

Dr. Sereno wrote:
A useful, easy-to-remember aphorism is: ONE BARREL of oil is equivalent to ONE YEAR of very hard labor by a human. I tried it out on my scientific colleages here at UCSD, and to a person, they were astonished.
I dislike this comparison immensely, for a number of reasons:
  • It's factually inaccurate.  A barrel of crude is roughly 6.1 GJ, or 946 24-hour days at 1/10 horsepower.

  • It is a grossly misleading comparison.  One human being with an axe and saw can harvest many times their effort's worth of firewood.  I'll bet that one human being with a scythe cutting switchgrass would be far more productive, and it wouldn't be all that difficult to power a reaper with a grass-burning engine.  What value to you assign to a human being rolling steel and drawing wire to build a wind turbine?
It may be easy to remember, but as an insight into the energy future of humanity the calculation is essentially worthless.
I wouldn't be so quick to condemn that comparison showing how even a  small amount of fossil fuel energy is equivalent to a huge amount of human muscle energy.  Whenever I do strenous physical work, such as splitting wood or digging a large hole with a shovel, I am painfully reminded of this simple fact. It never ceases to amaze me what tough SOBs our early ancestors must have been to clear acres of dense forest with an axe or to manually saw enough wood to build a house or barn.  They must have pushed themselves to the point of exhaustion almost every day of their working life.

Now what you choose to do with your muscle work is another matter, but it still doesn't change the fact that almost any physical work you do using your own muscles can be done much faster and easier with a power tool of one kind or another. It is a great effort multiplier.

I am also not impressed with the argument that if we didn't have all this fossil fuel power, the human race would never have expanded to the dangerous point that it has.  While that is probably true, it begs the question: do we really need to live like medieval peasants in order to survive?

Okay, fine.  Let's try some other comparisons:

  • A 1 kW wind turbine at 30% capacity factor yields a barrel-equivalent in 235 days (78 days if you assume 33% conversion efficiency of oil to electricity).

  • A 123-watt solar panel producing for 6 hours/day yields a barrel-equivalent of electricity in 765 days on the same efficiency basis; twenty square meters of panels would produce a barrel-equivalent of electricity in roughly 38 days.

  • An acre of corn yielding 2.5 dry tons of corn stover per year at 15.8 mmBTU/ton produces 6.8 barrels-equivalent per year.

  • An acre of Miscanthus or switchgrass producing 10 tons/year makes 27 bbl-equivalent.

How long do you think it would take one person with baling twine and a scythe to harvest an acre of grass?  I can't see it taking even a week, and that's with hand tools.

All the calculation shows is how good humans are at leveraging other power supplies.  Before the internal combustion engine, it was coal- or wood-fired steam; before that, it was draft animals and wind.  Coincidentally or not, the peak of oil coincides with advances in both chemical energy conversion (fossil and renewable) as well as solar and wind energy equipment.  If the best grass is 2% efficient converting sunlight to biomass, and an ox is 10% efficient converting grass to work, that's 0.2%.  A  PV panel at 12.9% is 64 times as good.

The "barrel-is-a-year-of-labor" is less enlightening than any of the comparisons I've made above, and it's biased toward doomsaying.  That's why I dismiss it.

E-P, I appreciate your engineering perspective on this, but I do think you should lighten up a little.  For me, a non-engineer, the comparisons that Professor Sereno made certainly brought home how much energy is stored in a single barrel of oil, and how unbelievably inexpensive that energy is.  And we're burning 84 million barrels of that every day.  
What your examples show me is that alternative energy systems don't produce a great deal of energy for their size or the amount of effort required.  Mind you, I think they are a good thing and should be vigorously persued, but we must realize that they have some inherent limitations in that regard.

It is, of course, all the result of energy density. It's really hard to beat liquid fossil fuel as a highly concentrated source of energy. And because it's so concentrated, the capital equipment for utilizing it (e.g., engines, heaters, etc) is far less expensive than the capital equipment for utilizing alternative energy sources. (Compare the size and cost of a 100 kw diesel generator with that of a 100 kw windmill or solar collector.)

This capital investment problem is going to be the greatest obstacle associated with the widespread implementation of alternative energy. Ultimately, we will have no choice, but it is going to be financially very painful.

I've read this exchange with some interest.  As an engineer, I find the comparison appealing (would like the accuracy verified), but I had to think about why.  For one, it is something that the uninitiated can relate to, and useful to illustrate the energy in oil.  

For another, it illustrates to me that we should not HAVE to go back to all hand labor - a point I've made before.  With comparatively little oil we can do a lot of work.  So I suppose it also illustrates the opportunity for conservation.  It just does not seem like we should have to be using so much.

The comparison I had seen previously was a gallon of gasoline to man-hours. I think it was 500?  If a gallon of gas can move a 5000lb vehicle 15mi - how long would it take you do it?  

I also find these comparisons fascinating.  It brings to mind an advertisement appearing in some of the major magazines like Life and Look in the late 1950s.

It was by one of the oil companies and it was advertising how great their gasoline was. It showed an ocean liner and a tiny one-gallon can of gasoline. It stated quite dramatically that there is enough energy in 'our' gasoline (presumably as opposed to Brand X gas) to lift this huge ocean liner one foot off the ground.  Most people would find this quite unbelievable.

But when you put pencil to paper, you will see that the claim is accurate. A gallon of gasoline has roughly 125,000 BTU. One BTU is equivalent to 778 ft-lbs, so a gallon of gas has an energy content of 97.3 million ft-lbs. A medium size ocean liner would be on the order of 45,000 tons or 90 million lbs. Hence, lifting it one foot would require 90 million foot-lbs of energy. Of course, the ad is assuming 100% efficiency in the lifting process, but I think it makes the point.

You may recall that fuzzy math showed a very similar result.  I get about a pint per day, or 336 days per barrel.

This oilcast transcript published today (or the recorded interview) should be read by all concerned with PO. It is an interview with a Mexican oilfield engineer discussing the fall of Mexican oil production, with special focus on Cantarell field which could lose over 10% production next year (more than 200,000 b/d) with subsequent declines up to 20% annually. Another example why price of oil is too low.


There is a problem with the marketplace factoring in long term term issues as Stuart asserts. As well as this sustainablility  factor, the marketplace does not consider human/social factors very well. In the 70's I heard a talk by an Ivy League engineer and he used the term Humanitarian Engineering. His point was we needed this human factor in decisions about all (new) technology. Later I heard a 90 y/o great grandfather in a nursing home lament the demise of his family because of the machine that laid and repaired railroad ties, replacing the crew of 50 men(many from his family) in a county in the hills of Kentucky where this was the only jobs.[ Obviously the kind of physical work you could compare to the energy in oil.] Not different  also from the Walmarts' crippling the small towns of U.S.A. I sometimes think we have become too complex and need to become smaller systems to function reasonably.
If we were able to perfect fusion technology or another means of creating abundant electrical energy what effect would it have on the Market economy?  What effect would it have politically?  What effect would it have on the oil industry?  
It is my speculation that any technological discovery that would provide cheep abundant energy would be suppressed because of the political and economic ramifications.    I do not feel that the major power players in the world would want such technology to be made available to all nations because it would level the playing field and severely disrupt the status quo.

What would you do if you were the leader of x nation and had the technology to provide all the people in the world with cheep abundant energy?? How could such technology proliferate without being suppressed?

Im not fishing for conspiracy theories here, but I would not rule them out entirely.  I can afford to speculate because I have no credibility to maintain.

any thoughts?

We are already living in an era of cheap and abundant energy.

I think an invention providing even cheaper and more abundant energy would bring a little more of the same kind of change provided by oil and the electrical grid. Lots and lots of money will be made by using the cheap power to provide gods and services.

The power production part of the economy is critical but it is not the biggest part and "capitalism" would cheerfully bankrupt old power producers if more profit kan be made elsewhere.

Tokamak-style fusion generates helium from the hydrogen being fused. Not a lot, but quite possibly enough. ITER estimates (in their FAQ) that a 1000 MW fusion power plant would need about 13 tons of helium on hand, and would produce about 0.2 tons per year in normal operation. So helium-sustainability is possible; it's just a matter of keeping leakage below 1.5% per year (and/or reducing the quantity needed).
According to my grandparents the changes farmers have lived trough during the last 70 years are quite unbelievable. My grandfather told me that in 1939 for example, they finished cutting the grass on August 13, after 2 months of hard work. (No wonder it was traditionally celebrated with a special porridge). The crew would usually consist of the man in the house and often hired hands cutting, and his wife and other women collecting the grass, and hanging it up to dry in the wind. Children would help out from the age of 7 I think. This was very hard work. (I wouldn't be surprised if the average woman of those days was a lot stronger than the average man of today.)
Now this work, on the same farm, is done with one tractor in about a week. In the old days I think they usually worked 10-hour days, now it is more common with about 12-16 hrs during the short period.

If we assume 4 adults and 4 children working, 4 children equalling 1 adult, we get 5men*10hrs*60days*0.1kW=300kWh
If we only allow the tractor to use 300kWh of energy:
300kWh/(7days*12hrs)=3.6kW=4.8hp average output, a lot lower than a normal tractor.

In reality the tractor uses about 250 liters of diesel for this job.
Using the conversion factor from the Board of Transportation Statisticsfor Diesel motor fuel we get:
(250l*38,657,950 j/l)/(3,600,000 j/kwh)=2684kWh, appr. 2700kwh With an efficiency of 35% this would mean 945kWh useful work.

This gives a more reasonable average power output from the tractor of 11.2kW, or 15hp.

Still seems low, I guess something must be wrong with my information (completely anecdotal, stored in memory for some years) or assumptions. More effort could have been put into researching, for example the materials for the handtools of before WW2 would be a few hundred grams of steel for the blades and the rest locally crafted from wood, while the tractor with equipment would probably be about 4000kg of steel and plastics.

Usually when something is done in agriculture by a human it is with simple tols, but most machines are heavy, with a lot of fast rotating parts. Much energy is used to move all the steel around. The point I am trying to make is that comparing human power to machine power is not that straightforward, and in reality you usually get a lot more work done with 1kWh of human energy output than with 1kWh of machine energy output. Unless ofcourse, you are employing people to rub their hands together in order to heat your home with the heat from the friction.