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Production v Reserves is the Key

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Message Tom deSabla

I much enjoyed Carl Henn’s 2-10 letter “America’s bleak energy future,” and I agree that Roy Innis was incorrect to equate the total amount of oil, gas and coal we may have in the ground with the ability to supply our energy needs for a hundred years. In fact, what we have in the ground doesn’t even mean we can supply our energy needs for one day! Mr. Henn explained that, since demand has constantly risen, static estimates of national reserves based current usage rates are fatally flawed. While this is a valuable observation, there is another overlooked aspect to the energy debate - the huge difference between reserves and actual daily production.

This difference has been finessed in political energy discussions, but it is crucial to clearly define and understand. First off, there is a difference between estimated reserves of something, and proven reserves. “Proven reserves” can only be established by a systematic program of drilling in order to define the extent and grade of the resource. Estimated resources are just that – estimated. You can’t just tote up reserves from land that has never been drilled. 

Now, assuming that we’re talking about actual proven reserves, we must now conceive the huge difference between billions of barrels of oil in the ground or trillions of tons of coal – and the ability to bring actual daily production on line. For perspective, we consume over 20 million barrels per day of oil and oil equivalents, and we produce only 7+ million bpd. Saudi Arabia’s daily production is only running about 8 million bpd now. As you can see, we would need the equivalent of nearly TWO Saudi Arabia’s of new production to become independent of foreign oil. Again, that’s actual daily production we would need to replace – not just reserves. 

Most of the world’s large oil fields are in relatively poor countries or offshore where exploration would quite naturally lag behind more advanced nations like ours. Also, the people are more appreciative, less snooty, and want the jobs – you know, like Americans used to be back in the 40’s and 50’s. Also, large resources require huge infrastructure to harvest, and that’s for easy-to-get-at resources in giant mega-fields like Ghawar. Scattered smaller fields need relatively more space. We don’t have any Ghawar’s anymore; we used up our easy oil back in the 50’s and 60’s. With deep offshore stuff like Chevron’s Jack wells, 2-3 million bpd would be miraculous –when they create the technology to recover that oil.  

As for shale oil, it must be heated to release the kerogen, which must then be refined to make usable product. Of course, what does it take to heat it and refine it? Why more energy, of course, which could have been put to other uses. Any more than 1 or 2 million bpd of shale oil production would amount to strip mining large areas of the western U.S. Coal is very interesting, because reserves are better defined, and can be utilized easier than shale. However, again, we may have the coal, but to make up 14 million barrels per day of production would require turning half the country into a giant coal mine and coal-to-liquid refinery complex.  

Should we do just that - or is Henn right when he says that fossil fuels can’t be our energy future? Yes and no. What matters more than anything is that freeing up energy resource discovery and production should be given a higher priority in our national political dialogue. I do not mean that we should have more government control of the energy market; I mean we should have less - much less. For example, many people say, “drill in ANWR” but they forget that half of Alaska, including ANWR, is owned by the federal government. If ANWR were private land, it’d already be producing whatever was there. 

The more we free up markets to compete, the cheaper energy will get. Let coal to liquid compete with crude, geothermal, nuclear, solar and wind. Maybe fossil fuels can’t be our long-term future, but they are all we have to sustain us till we get to that long-term future. What will it look like? Houses will be heated mostly by geothermal, since that is almost free, and only needs energy to run the pumps. Cars and everything else will be electric, fueled by nuclear power, so we will need to start building modern accident-proof nuclear plants, and an all-electric infrastructure to use the electricity. Solar can be a supplement, adding daytime power, radiant heating floors, and solar hot water heaters.  

What about hydrogen fuel cells, you ask? Well, hydrogen is great, but requires energy to produce it, and unlike nuclear power plants, hydrogen fuel cells emit water vapor – the primary greenhouse gas. Oh well, as we libertarians are fond of saying, it’s a world of tradeoffs. Let hydrogen compete too. Here’s the point - when the day dawns where we don’t have enough oil to meet our daily demand of 20 million barrels, even if we’re only short by a half a million barrels, at that point it won’t matter very much how much energy is left sitting in the ground – now will it?

The idea of energy “independence” is pointless. In a time of peak oil and falling world production since 2005, we’ll be very lucky to get the energy we need from the whole world without wrecking our economy. Pretending that we’re going to get it from within the U.S., with a disparity of 14 million barrels per day of production to make up, is pure demagoguery.


Economic survival is the real issue.

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Libertarian commentator/analyst and talk show host. Deep liberal roots flowering into a pretty good understanding of the world as it truly is. Guitarist/musician; son of a government worker; black sheep-of-the-family type guy who survived his wild, (more...)
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