Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Age of Oil: Opportunity or Endgame?

A couple of years ago I read a book on the rise and fall of several periods of Chinese history. Some emperor would fight a few wars, unite a few more provinces than the last emperor, and his heirs would thrive for a few generations.

But the collapse of a dynasty often followed a similar pattern. As the population grew during the good times, the amount of tilled acreage per family dropped while taxes kept rising since the wealthy demanded more and more to keep up appearances. Sooner or later, corruption grew, more demands were placed on peasants and the emperor found himself unable to control events as easily as before.

Of course discontent would grow, generals or talented peasants would take advantage of the discontent and rebellions would flourish, forcing the emperor to impose harsh crackdowns. Meanwhile, people on the borders would notice the lack of troops in the usual places and would encroach on Chinese territory. And the encroachments would give an emperor an opportunity to use foreigners as a distraction while perhaps gaining some more territory and more taxes with it.

But eventually the emperor's army would find itself overextended with rebellions and external enemies. Throw in a famine or an epidemic along with a war that doesn't go well and collapse would soon follow. China of course never fully collapsed during these troubled periods but they sometimes could lose as much as 10-50% of their population. Suddenly, after all the troubles, there would be more acreage per family available and the period of rise would begin anew.

Such rises and falls of course are not unique to the Chinese. But about four to five hundred years ago the pattern began to change, particularly in Europe and later in the United States. First the British and Europeans found coal and better ways to burn it and use it. And Americans discovered an entire continent of virgin forests that provided firewood for over two hundred years. In the middle of the 19th century, American industry exploded with the growing use of coal and the discovery of oil.

Oil meant energy. Oil meant every acre of a 160 acre farm could be used for food and profit. Acreage for horses was no longer necessary. Oil also meant kerosene and light for longer days. It eventually meant fuel for farm tractors, industries, electrical power plants and so on.

In his book, Feeding the Fire, Mark E. Eberhart covers some of the history of coal and oil and reminds us that the British, Europeans and the United States might have had a very different history if coal and oil had not been available in such abundance for the last three hundred years. The subtitle of Eberhart's book is: The Lost History & Uncertain Future of Mankind's Energy Addiction. Offhand, it sounds like the kind of book others have written on Peak Oil, climate change, environmental concerns, the need for abundant alternative energy and so on in the early 21st century. There is some of that in Eberhart's book but he sounds more like someone in the corporate world who's reluctantly and gently sounding the alarm and providing deep background. Actually, despite some reservations I have about the book, I found Eberhart's approach refreshing since he provides a host of material I have not seen before. I don't agree with some things he says but I have learned a lot. On page 183, he writes:

Crude oil is a mixture of hydrocarbon molecules. You might think of these as strands of hairy pearls, where the pearls are carbon atoms and their hair is made of hydrogen atoms. Each pearl in the strand has two hairs, except the ones on the end, which have three. This molecular jewelry comes in different lengths, from a strand with one carbon pearl, which is methane, to strands with thirty or more carbon atoms. The number of carbon atoms controls the properties of the molecule. For example, if the strand has fewer than five carbon atoms, the molecule is a gas at room temperature; five to eighteen, a liquid; and nineteen or more a solid. The most volatile components of crude are called naphthas, which are used as solvents and dry-cleaning fluids and are characterized by strands of five to seven carbon atoms. Gasoline is the component of crude with strings of 7 to 11 [carbon] atoms in length. Kerosene is the portion containing strands of 12 to 15; diesel, 15 to 17; and lubricating oils are made of hydrocarbon chains of more than 17 carbon atoms. The 20-atom-plus range is where paraffin, tar and asphalt are found.

Eberhart explains that one of the things that so quickly made oil so efficient to use is that the heavier oils can be 'cracked' by baking heavy crude at high temperature under high pressure (not unlike how the shorter carbon chains are created in hot pressures found deep underground. Of course light sweet crude doesn't require as much treatment (or 'cracking') as sour heavy crude. So part of today's energy picture requires that people understand that throughout the world, the volume of heavy crude going through the refinery process (requiring additional processes, time and equipment not necessary for light sweet crude) is growing.

What I want to emphasize is that these processes are energy intensive and expensive. Expensive in terms of cost and expensive in terms of lower net energy. Sour heavy crude, however, is still preferable in many ways to coal. And the production of coal is rising dramatically, particularly if we take China into account. Regardless of what one thinks about climate change, pollution, peak oil or the environment, we have already entered a different age and it's already a harsher reality, largely because the United States for the last thirty years has failed to act. There is still time but we can no longer afford illusions.

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