Wednesday, August 4, 2010

America’s delusions of energy independence

If rhetoric could move mountains I’d like to see the Rocky Mountains moved to northern Michigan so I could view the magnificence of Lake Superior from the top of Long’s Peak. Unfortunately I’m not expecting to see that day.

Such is the case with the rhetoric concerning “energy independence”. Politicians and the media are now spewing considerable rhetoric concerning energy independence, although that is not necessarily new.

Jon Stewart had a recent skit about “energy independence” programs that U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon on have proposed. During that time, U.S. dependence on foreign oil has increased significantly to the point where we’re now importing over 50% of the liquid hydrocarbons we consume.

The public is on the “energy independence” bandwagon. The “Drill Baby Drill” crowd likes the idea that if we only open every conceivable acre of U.S. territory to oil drilling, the U.S. will be energy independent. The environmental crowd likes the idea that wind and solar can replace oil, natural gas and coal to power everything in the United States, including our extensive transportation system. I personally think both positions are delusional.

The problem I see with our current situation is that the vast majority of people, including pretty well all politicians and the media, don’t understand why oil is so valuable and why it is not easily replaceable.A major aspect of oil that makes it such a great energy source is that the Energy Profit Ratio for oil can be extremely high, particularly for the large fields we have historically relied upon; fields such as Ghawar, Prudhoe Bay, the Black Giant, Cantarell, Burgan, Ekofisk, Samotlor and many others.

Energy Profit Ratio (EPR) is the ratio of the energy content of a fuel relative to the energy needed to obtain the fuel.

EPR = energy content of fuel/energy needed to obtain fuel

The higher the EPR value is for a fuel, the higher the net energy yield and the more valuable the fuel is because more of the energy can be used for other purposes. Conventional oil, coal and natural gas have high EPR values relative to other energy sources, which makes them extremely valuable. Table I provides some reported EPR values. (EPR is called by some EROI-Energy Return On [energy] Investment.)

Table 1: Energy Profit Ratio Values

Fuel Source Energy Profit Ratio* 

1970 U.S. oil production 30 

Today’s U.S. oil production 15 

Oil sands oil production 3 

Corn ethanol 1-1.5 

Hydrogen from Water 

The true value of energy is the net energyHome construction fails to lift recovery

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