Sunday, September 30, 2012

Energy transition: We need to do it fast and we're way behind

This is the fifth of a six-part series introducing readers of The Christian Science Monitor to concepts useful in understanding the Resource Insights blog. Selected posts from Resource Insights are now appearing regularly on the Monitor's Energy Voices blog. To read the previous installments of this series click on the following: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

No doubt you've heard people speak of an energy transition from a fossil fuel-based society to one based on renewable energy--energy which by its very nature cannot run out. Here's the short answer to why we need do it fast: climate change and fossil fuel depletion. And, here's the short answer to why we're way behind: History suggests that it can take up to 50 years to replace an existing energy infrastructure, and we don't have that long.

Perhaps the most important thing that people don't realize about building a renewable energy infrastructure is that most of the energy for building it will have to come from fossil fuels. Currently, 84 percent of all the energy consumed worldwide is produced using fossil fuels--oil, natural gas and coal. Fossil fuels are therefore providing the lion's share of power to the factories that make solar cells, wind turbines, geothermal equipment, hydroelectric generators, wave energy converters, and underwater tidal energy turbines. Right now we are producing at or close to the maximum amount of energy we've ever produced from fossil fuels. But the emerging plateau in world oil production, concerns about the sustainability of coal production, and questionable claims about natural gas supplies are warnings that fossil fuels may not remain plentiful long enough to underwrite an uneven and loitering transition to a renewable energy society.

This is what's been dubbed the rate-of-conversion problem. In a nutshell, is our rate of conversion away from fossil fuels fast enough so as to avoid an unexpected drop in total energy available to society? Will we be far enough along in that conversion when fossil fuel supplies begin to decline so that we won't be forced into an energy austerity that could undermine the stability of our society?

The answer can't be known. But the numbers are not reassuring. Based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it would take more than 70 years to replace the world's current electrical generating capacity with renewables including hydroelectric, wind, solar, tidal, wave, geothermal, biomass and waste at the rate of installation seen from 2005 through 2009, the last years for which such data is available. And, that's if worldwide generating capacity--which has been expanding at a 4 percent clip per year--is instead held steady.

This also doesn't take into account the amount of energy actually produced versus what is called nameplate capacity. Nameplate capacity is what a wind generator could generate if it operated at maximum capacity 100 percent of the time. But in practice, the turbines are only spinning when the wind blows and then not always at the maximum speed. This so-called capacity factor was just 27 percent for wind farms in the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2011 (PDF). For solar photovoltaic the number was 8.3 percent. Even hydroelectric stations ran at only about 35 percent of capacity. This compares to about 42 percent for conventional coal, 61 percent for natural gas, and 60 percent for nuclear power stations (PDF). The contrast is starker using U.S. numbers: 72 percent for coal and 91 percent for nuclear using 2008 figures, though natural gas was only 11 percent, probably because these were primarily plants that only come on to meet peak demand and so don't run very often. (PDF)

What this means is that installing two to three times our current nameplate capacity in the form of renewables may be required to replace existing fossil-fueled plants. So, the transition period would actually turn out to be longer than what I've calculated, perhaps 140 to 210 years using 2005 to 2009 installation figures. Of course, installations of such renewables as wind and solar are accelerating. So, that would tend to shorten this longer transition period--as would leaving existing nuclear power capacity intact. But would we be able to shorten the transition period enough to head off declines in total energy production and prevent additional serious damage to the climate?

Of course, some would say that we need to expand nuclear power generation rapidly to meet these challenges. Whether you support such an expansion or not, there are three key problems. First, building enough nuclear power stations to replace fossil fuel-fired plants would be the largest construction project ever undertaken and require the use of enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Making the necessary concrete alone would be a large new contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. That means that the initial phase of a nuclear transition would actually increase the rate of fossil fuel emissions. The savings on fuel and emissions wouldn't come until much later.

Second, after the Fukushima disaster, there doesn't seem to be much appetite for such a buildout. I'll be very surprised if nuclear power generation even maintains its current level in the next 20 years as Japan and Germany abandon nuclear power. Third, the timeline for such a buildout would be measured in decades, partly because of the sheer logistics involved and partly because of the brake that regulatory approvals put on such projects. Even new, cheaper and easier-to-build designs may not help if they cannot achieve the necessary regulatory approvals promptly. The history of such approvals is not encouraging. The safest thing a nuclear regulatory agency can do is say no.

I haven't even touched on replacing the fuels which power our transportation system and provide heat for our buildings and industrial processes. Transportation offers an extraordinary challenge since 80 percent of all transportation fuel worldwide is still derived from petroleum. In the United States the number is 93 percent. Despite billions of dollars spent and decades of research, we still have no good substitutes that scale to the size necessary to replace petroleum for transportation fuel.

Biofuels offer little hope. Already the ethanol bubble has burst. Biofuels--today mainly ethanol and biodiesel--compete with food. There is simply not a limitless supply of suitable farmland, and so there will be competition with the demand for food until we find substitutes for the industry's main feedstocks, namely corn, sugar and soybeans.

Beyond this the problem of scale is simply unsolvable. To supply the entire U.S. car fleet--assuming it could run on ethanol--we'd have to plant 1.8 billion acres in corn for ethanol continuously. There are only about 440 million acres in the United States in cultivation now. And, it's worth noting that current methods of corn cultivation require the copious use of herbicides and pesticides made from oil; tractors and other vehicles that run on oil to plow, harvest and spray the fields as well as transport the crop; and natural gas-derived nitrogen fertilizers to boost growth and replenish depleted soil. Fossil fuels are currently integral to growing corn, and I cannot see the wisdom of growing organic corn for anything but food.

As for heat for buildings, certainly we could insulate and seal our existing buildings better. And, this points the way to achieving an energy transition within the time we need to achieve it. Since it will probably be impossible to scale renewable energy fast enough to a level sufficient to produce the amount of energy we use today, the one absolute necessity to a successful energy transition is reducing consumption drastically. No politician dares to say anything remotely approaching this. And yet, it would be the cheapest, fastest way to address the twin crises of fossil fuel depletion and climate change.

Now, when I say reduce, I mean on the order of 80 percent over the next 20 to 30 years. For Americans this may seem impossible until they contemplate that the average European lives on half the energy of the average American. So often we hope for technological breakthroughs that will give us all the clean energy we desire. But we ought to focus equally, if not more, on using our prowess to find ways to reduce our energy consumption drastically. This is actually the much easier road. When we are made conscious of our energy use, we can change our behavior quickly to modify it without compromising the quality of our lives. As more homes and businesses are given the means to monitor their energy use, the people in them will change to lower their consumption and costs.

Already we know how to build so-called passive design structures which can lower energy use by 80 percent. And, we desperately need to figure out how to apply these techniques cheaply and economically to existing homes and businesses. In transportation we need to stop thinking that cars equal transportation and instead realize that cars provide the service of transportation which can be obtained in a number of ways, many of which use much less energy.

We may also need to speed the energy transition in electric power generation using so-called feed-in tariffs. These tariffs--which harness the ingenuity of countless small producers--have enabled Germany to expand solar, wind and other alternatives so that they generate 25 percent of its electricity today. Germany, not a particularly sunny place, is currently the world's top generator of solar electricity.

Of course, per person energy consumption in poor countries is only a small fraction of that in rich countries. We cannot expect the world's poor to reduce their energy use by 80 percent. Instead, we must help them to move quickly beyond fossil fuels to renewable energy.

By simultaneously reducing consumption and encouraging a rapid buildout of renewable energy, it is possible that we could mitigate the problem of declining fossil fuel supplies before it becomes so acute that it would cripple that very buildout. And, we could address climate change at the same time. Certainly, there are difficult problems to be solved with renewable energy, storage being the key one. Most renewable energy comes in the form of electricity, and since there is often a mismatch between the time we produce that electricity and the time we need it, we will have to master storage.

But we will need a lot less storage if we focus on reducing consumption. This is the one strategy which will allow us to overcome the rate-of-conversion problem and achieve an energy transition in far less time than we have in the past.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Global oil exports in decline since 2006: What will importing nations do?

This is the fourth of a six-part series introducing readers of The Christian Science Monitor to concepts useful in understanding the Resource Insights blog. Selected posts from Resource Insights are now appearing regularly on the Monitor's Energy Voices blog. To read the previous installments of this series click on the following: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

It is with trepidation that independent petroleum geologist Jeffrey Brown has watched global oil exports decline since 2006. With all the controversy in the past several years over whether worldwide oil production can rise to quench the world's growing thirst for petroleum, almost no one thought to ask what was happening to the level of oil exports. And yet, each year a dwindling global pool of exports has been generating ever greater competition among importing nations and has become a largely unheralded force behind record high oil prices.

Even though the trend in oil exports has been evident in the data for some time, the analyst community was caught by surprise when a Citigroup report released earlier this month forecast an end to oil exports in 2030 from Saudi Arabia, currently the world's largest oil exporter.

Brown, as you might expect, wasn't surprised at all. His own forecasting model, which he calls the Export Land Model, has been predicting more or less the same thing for some time. He doesn't think the Saudis will actually let exports to go all the way to zero because they'll probably want at least some revenue from exports. But "one to two million barrels per day of exports [from Saudi Arabia] between 2030 and 2040 will not be a big deal in the world," said Brown, who runs a joint venture exploration program based in Ft. Worth.

Brown estimates that worldwide net exports of petroleum liquids--a number that includes both crude oil and refined products such as gasoline and diesel--declined from 45.6 million barrels per day (mbpd) in 2006 to 43.7 mbpd in 2011. He uses the net exports number because importers such as the United States export some of their imported crude back into world markets in the form of refined products such as gasoline and diesel. Even so, the United States remains the world's largest net importer of petroleum products.

The decline in global net exports may seem small for now. But it is persistent and comes in the face of growing demand among the rapidly expanding economies of Asia, particularly China and India. And the trendlines, if they were to continue, would mean that China and India alone would consume all the world's available petroleum exports by around 2030. Something's bound to give before then, but it's not clear exactly what.

Brown focuses on a key number which he calls cumulative net exports (CNE). It's the total expected volume of exports from oil-exporting countries over the entire period from now until global exports are presumed to drop to zero around 2060. It's based on the trajectory established in the data from 2005 through 2011. Though the timetable is likely to change, when he looks at CNE alongside the current rate of decline for exports, it's clear that the world's remaining exports are "front-loaded." The largest portion will be delivered in the years immediately following the export peak. It's why "we've experienced something close to business as usual" since the apparent export peak in 2006, he said.

In analyzing the production and export history of former oil-exporting countries, Brown has discovered a disconcerting pattern. "A rough, but fairly consistent rule of thumb is that [after an exporting country's oil production peaks] half of post-peak CNE tend to be shipped about one-third of the way into the net export decline period, which suggests that post-2005 global CNE would be about half gone around the year 2024," he explained. Think about this for a minute. Brown forecasts that half of all the oil exports that will ever be shipped from now on will have been shipped by 2024. That tells him that the economic pain associated with the loss of global exports is likely to become very acute in the not-too-distant future.

If this happens, the world will be forced to adjust. But that adjustment is likely to be rather wrenching for some. Already, consumers in the United States, for instance, have actually partly accommodated rising demand in Asia by reducing U.S. consumption of oil products from 20.8 mbpd in 2005 to 18.8 mbpd in 2011. But the cutback has been largely a matter of necessity for those who have lost jobs or experienced wage cuts and for businesses which are struggling in a weak economy.

As Brown began to think about the export issue back in 2006, he made two observations which seem obvious once you hear them: First, if the economy of an oil-exporting country grows, that country typically will use more oil to support that growth. Second, once total production peaks and starts to decline in an oil-exporting country, exports almost always decline much faster than total production. This is because exports are typically being squeezed from two sides. Production is falling making less oil available for exports, and consumption is rising with the same effect. (Declining net exports can also occur if domestic consumption is rising faster than production which is what happened in the United States, causing the country to become a net importer for the first time way back in 1948.)

The two observations above led Brown to develop what he dubbed the Export Land Model. It was a simple model that seemed to explain a lot. Here's how he set up his first case: Brown assumed that a hypothetical oil exporter--which he designated as Export Land--had reached its peak in oil production. He assumed that domestic users in Export Land consumed half of all the oil the country produced. He then assumed a 5 percent annual decline in the rate of oil production and a 2.5 percent annual increase in domestic consumption. The results astonished and troubled him. In just nine years oil exports from Export Land went to zero.


He then tried the model out on two real world examples, the United Kingdom and Indonesia. Both countries were consuming about 50 to 60 percent of their own oil production at the time their production peaked, close to Brown's hypothetical case. But the U.K. had a higher production decline rate, -7.8 percent per year and a very modest 0.2 percent annual growth in oil consumption. Indonesia had a lower production decline rate than the hypothetical case, -3.9 percent, but a higher yearly increase in domestic oil consumption, 4.1 percent. Despite these differences, the results were quite similar to the hypothetical case. From its 1997 peak in oil production, Indonesia's net exports took only seven years to fall to zero. From the U.K.'s oil production peak in 2000, it took only six years for net exports to approach zero.


Country/Prod. or Exports
Peak Production Year
Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Year 4
Year 5
Year 6
Year 7
Annual Decline Rate
UK Production
2,909
2,667
2,476
2,463
2,257
2,028
1,809
1,636
-7.8%
UK Net Exports
1,180
963
772
763
534
262
3
-152
-55.7%
Indonesia Production
1,580
1,557
1,520
1,408
1,456
1,387
1,289
1,176
-3.9%
Indonesia Net Exports
657
531
539
384
300
249
105
-34
-28.9%
All production and net export figures in thousands of barrels

After modelling these two real world examples, Brown and his colleague Sam Foucher began tracking petroleum exporting nations with more than 100,000 barrels per day of exports (based on 2005 data). These 33 countries represented 99 percent of the globe's net exports at the time. Strangely, no official energy agency calculates global net exports. So, Brown and Foucher have had to compile data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, and the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, a widely cited annual survey produced by oil giant BP. By the end of last year, three of the original 33 countries--Vietnam, Malaysia and Argentina--had dropped off the list and become net importers.

"We're losing one major exporter per year," Brown said. He expects that rate of loss to continue. He added that as a group, oil production in the 33 countries he tracks has hit a plateau, bouncing between 61 and 63 million barrels per day since 2005. If total production from exporting nations starts to fall, look for an acceleration in the decline of net exports. (Total worldwide oil production also appears to have been on a bumpy plateau since 2005.)

Brown said importers around the world are already being forced to respond to an ongoing decline in net exports. "We are on our way to energy independence," he joked. "Just not in the way that we expected." The United States and other developed countries are now being outbid by the developing world for oil and ending up with a declining share of a declining supply of exports. "While the recent rise in U.S. production will help, it will not save us," he added. That's because the rise is too modest to put much of a dent in imports which have declined primarily because Americans have simply cut back their consumption of gasoline and other petroleum products in the face of high prices.


Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Tar sands, oil shale, and heavy oil: Why the conventional wisdom about unconventional oil is likely to be wrong

This is the third of a six-part series introducing readers of The Christian Science Monitor to concepts useful in understanding the Resource Insights blog. Selected posts from Resource Insights are now appearing regularly on the Monitor's Energy Voices blog. To read the previous installments of this series click on the following: Part 1, Part 2

In the old days, that is before 2010, the oil industry used to regale the public with tales of plenty that revolved around what is commonly called "conventional oil." Conventional oil refers to oil in a liquid state occurring naturally and coming from a well on land or water. It's what most people think of when they think of oil. And, this category of oil is relatively easy to extract and refine using longstanding conventional techniques. The industry assured us that there was plenty of conventional oil in the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere to supply us for decades to come.

Then in its 2010 World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency announced that the peak in the rate of production of conventional oil had already arrived, probably in 2006. There was some good news, however. Production of so-called "unconventional oil" would grow considerably over the coming decades and allow total oil production to rise. This unconventional oil includes oil derived from the Canadian tar sands, from heavy oil deposits in Venezuela and elsewhere, and from so-called oil shale. It also includes oil products obtained from coal through coal-to-liquids technology and those obtained from natural gas using gas-to-liquids technology. Some people include tight oil (often mistakenly referred to as shale oil) as part of the unconventional mix, though once out of the ground it is typically refined in the same way as conventional oil.

Signal qualities of unconventional oil are that it is expensive and difficult to extract and refine. This has so far meant that in most cases only high oil prices can justify its extraction. And, this means that it is going to be hard for unconventional oil to make up for the decline in the rate of conventional oil production. And, rate is the key metric. As I am obliged to remind people again and again, it is the rate of oil production which matters much more than the size of the resource. The global economy is entirely dependent on continuous flows of energy and raw materials. Oil is absolutely central because it provides one-third of the world's energy and more than 80 percent of its transportation fuel. Very few things of consequence move in the world economy without the assistance of oil.

When we think of conventional oil, we can picture gushers which are evidence of highly pressurized underground reservoirs that send oil to the surface without any pumping. Nowadays, blowout preventers have eliminated gushers except in the case of an accident such as the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. As oil is produced from a well, the pressure declines and eventually the remaining oil must be pumped to the surface. The general category for this type of oil is light sweet crude. "Light" means it flows and flows quite readily. "Sweet" means it contains little sulfur, and this makes it compatible with conventional refineries which are designed to process low-sulfur oils. (Sulfur, you may recall, is routinely removed from motor fuels to help prevent acid rain which occurs when sulfur from vehicle exhaust and other sources mixes with moisture in the atmosphere to form sulfuric acid.)

Now, unconventional oil can be entirely different. Tar sands, for example, are a mixture of sand and bitumen, a thick, gooey hydrocarbon that is often used to make asphalt. The bitumen is separated from the sand using hot water. Essentially, the bitumen moves to the top and is skimmed off. This is obviously water-intensive; but it is also energy-intensive since the sands must first be mined and transported to a separation facility. Then, enormous separators filled with water heated using natural gas start the separation process. That process is repeated to get up to 90 percent of the bitumen out of the sand.

But we don't yet have oil. The bitumen must be put through another energy-intensive "upgrading" process that typically strips the hydrogen off natural gas molecules and makes them available to the bitumen under great pressure and heat using the proper catalysts. Finally, the sulfur must be removed. Then, and only then, do you get something that resembles what we call oil. In fact, it is referred to as syncrude--short for synthetic crude--because it is not naturally occurring and must be manufactured.

As you might intuit, ramping up tar sands production has been easier said than done. Energy writer Chris Nelder noted the gap between projected and actual production: "Let's remember that tar sands production was projected to grow from 1 mbpd [million barrels per day] in 2006 to 2.8 mbpd in 2012, but actual production is currently just 1.6 mbpd," he wrote citing a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers forecast from 2006. Promises of 5 mbpd by 2030 ought to be taken with a grain of salt. And, 5 mbpd needs to be put in the context of a world that according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is projected in 2030 to consume 108 mbpd of so-called "total liquids" (which include not only oil, but biofuels and natural gas plant liquids such propane and butane.) I have my doubts that we will reach either 5 mbpd from tar sands production or 108 mbpd in worldwide production of liquid fuels given the difficulties of producing unconventional oil.

Perhaps the most egregious exaggerations are saved for deposits of so-called oil shale. I say "so-called" in this case because oil shale is neither shale, nor does it contain oil. The designation was created to attract investors. Oil shale is, in fact, organic marlstone containing kerogen, a waxy hydrocarbon. Like tar sands, it must be extensively processed to yield what we call oil.

Writers and analysts abound who will cite astronomical figures for oil contained in America's oil shale deposits which are found in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. An article in The New American claims that there are 3 trillion barrels of oil contained in the oil shale of those three states, nearly twice the known reserves of oil worldwide. Of course, it isn't oil; it's kerogen, which the author doesn't appear to understand. The article cites testimony from a representative of the General Accountability Office, the nonpartisan research arm of the U.S. Congress. The witness says half that number may be "recoverable." As I am obliged time and again to remind people, recoverable isn't the same as economically recoverable. It is possible to recover rocks from the Moon. But we would never think of transporting rocks from the Moon to the Earth to make roadway aggregates.

So, just how much oil from oil shale is currently available for purchase on world markets? The answer is none. There are some pilot projects which produce small quantities for research purposes, but that is all. Here it is important to review the difference between "resources" and "reserves." The writer of the articles above refers to 3 trillion barrels of reserves. But, reserves are what can be produced at today's prices from known fields using existing technology. By that definition the oil reserves of America's oil shale fields are exactly zero.

Resources, on the other hand, refer to the amount of something thought to be in the ground based on rather sketchy evidence. By that definition there is still no oil contained in America's oil shale. What's thought to be there are 3 trillion barrels of kerogen imbedded in rock, which, as I said, must go through extensive processing before it can become oil. Since the early 1980s oil companies have tried to commercialize the production of oil from this kerogen-rich rock, but have so far been unsuccessful. So complex and difficult is the task of extracting and processing kerogen that the EIA has estimated that even under its high oil price scenario, the United States will produce no more than 140,000 barrels per day of oil from oil shale by 2030. That's a drop in the bucket compared to the country's projected needs of about 15 million barrels per day.

Heavy oil, on the other hand, is actually being extracted in many places around the world. While the resource base for heavy oil is actually much larger than for conventional oil, typically a much lower percentage of any reservoir can be extracted. Historically, the recoveries from conventional oil reservoirs have averaged around 35 percent. The percentage for heavy oil can be as low as 5 percent though many reservoirs yield a considerably higher percentage. The point is that while people can quote large numbers for heavy oil resources, these need to be paired with an awareness that we simply cannot get nearly as great a percentage of those resources out of the ground economically as we have conventional oil.

Heavy oil is what you probably imagine it to be: a highly viscous hydrocarbon-rich liquid that flows only with difficulty. Though it can in some cases simply be pumped from the ground, often it is heated with steam or by other means to make it flow better. That, of course, increases the cost of extraction over conventional crude. And, heavy oil operations face a double handicap. Not only is heavy oil more expensive and difficult to extract, but it commands a lower market price than conventional crude because it is more difficult to refine. For example, Canadian Heavy Crude Oil futures contracts traded in New York sell at around a $10 to $20 discount to the U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate, a high-quality conventional crude. (Prices are actually quoted as the difference in price between the Canadian and U.S. oil, in this case a negative number.)

There is yet another impediment to heavy oil production which has nothing to do with physics or economics. By far the largest deposits are located in Venezuela. But the current administration has mismanaged the government-owned oil company, PetrĂ³leos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA), which dominates oil development in the country. President Hugo Chavez's government has used revenues from PDVSA to fund social welfare programs to address the needs of the country's many poor. But this has led to a lack of investment in Venezuela's oil infrastructure and a consequent fall in oil production.

Thus, for various reasons the all-important rate of production for heavy oil may not over time be able to do much to fill the gap left by the continuing decline in the rate of conventional oil production.

Transforming coal into liquid fuels suitable for vehicles also falls into the unconventional category. The Germans perfected this process during World War II when they lost access to oil. But for now, only South Africa produces an appreciable amount. Here's what I wrote previously about coal-to-liquids production:

Turning coal into liquid fuels for vehicles is now done mostly in South Africa, a holdover from the days of apartheid when the South African government feared an oil embargo could leave the country without fuel for transportation. Turning coal into gasoline and diesel is extremely dirty and extremely expensive. But South Africa paid for the equipment to do so long ago and now must simply pay for domestic coal to supply its coal-to-liquids refineries.

As for processing natural gas into liquid fuels using gas-to-liquids technology, it is capital-intensive and currently only suitable for turning what is called "stranded gas"--natural gas that would otherwise be flared into the atmosphere--primarily into diesel.

I should say a few words about tight oil because it is often mistakenly referred to as shale oil, even though that term is more properly interchangeable with oil shale. Tight oil does indeed come from deep shale deposits, and it is released through hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the same process that is causing so much controversy when it is used to release natural gas from deep shale. Tight oil does not really fall into the unconventional category since it produces oil that is suitable for conventional refining.

While hydraulic fracturing is not new, the particular form of it used to make tight oil deposits flow has only been in widespread use since 1998. This form has made previously uneconomic deposits of oil in such places as North Dakota profitable to extract. U.S. oil production has risen recently as a result. But the EIA projects that production of such oil in the United States will top out in 2030 and then decline even as overall U.S. oil production hits a secondary peak earlier in about 2020 and then starts to decline. (The United States hit its all-time oil production peak in 1970.) Total "recoverable" resources of tight oil in the United States--remember, they're not necessary economically recoverable--are put at 24 billion barrels, or the equivalent of 288 days of world supply. Based on what we know today, tight oil production will not do much to overcome the loss of other conventional oil production worldwide.

Finally, there is the seemingly esoteric question of Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Simply stated, it takes energy to get energy. More than a century of cheap energy has made us forget this critical fact. As we exploit ever more difficult-to-get energy resources, we are obliged to spend ever increasing amounts of energy to get them. When the EROI of a seeming energy resource reaches one--that is, when it takes one unit of energy to obtain one unit of energy--that resource ceases to be a source of energy.

The United States is thought to operate at an EROI for all energy sources of about 40 to 1. It is hard to imagine running the country entirely on fuels such as oil from tar sands which has an EROI between 5.2 and 5.8 to 1. For oil shale there is little to go on since there are no commercial-scale operations. But available estimates tell us something about why this resource has never been successfully commercialized. Reported EROI ratios are between 1.5 to 1 and 4 to 1. Compare this to between 12 to 1 and 18 to 1 for oil imported into the United States.

As we as a species continue to exploit energy resources that are more and more energy-intensive to extract, we will find out the true meaning of "net energy." That is the energy left over after we find, extract, refine, and deliver energy to its user. Net energy is what everything in society except the energy industry runs on. Right now in the United States, if the 40 to 1 ratio for EROI is correct, then about 2.5 percent of our energy is spent getting energy. That leaves plenty for all the other things we want to do.

But if we come to rely on an array of low EROI fuels, we may soon find that vast portions of our economy must now be occupied with energy gathering. A drop to a 10 to 1 average EROI implies that 10 percent of the economy would be devoted to energy extraction. That's four times the current size of the energy sector in the United States. A drop to 5 to 1 implies that 20 percent of the economy would be involved in energy extraction. This progression is called the "net energy cliff", and it augurs enormous changes in the way we structure our economy and our lives if it comes to pass.

Those changes are, in fact, already happening as we realize that unconventional oil won't be cheap. It's unlikely to be plentiful either because unconventional oil will be challenging to produce at the same high rates we've been producing conventional oil. And, the low EROI of unconventional oil should tell us that we cannot count on it to provide as much energy to society as we are used to from much higher quality fuels.

All of the foregoing flies in the face of the (wildly misleading) conventional wisdom about unconventional oil. But if we are to make intelligent policy and personal decisions about energy, we will be better prepared if we work with the available evidence rather than relying on the oil industry's pronouncements of wonders yet to come.


Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Has OPEC misled us about the size of its oil reserves? Does it matter?

This is the second of a six-part series introducing readers of The Christian Science Monitor to concepts useful in understanding the Resource Insights blog. Selected posts from Resource Insights will begin to appear on the Monitor's Energy Voices blog this week. Click here to read the first part of this series.

Has OPEC misled us about the size of its oil reserves? The short answer is probably. The long answer is that currently, there is no way to know for sure.

The next question we should ask is: Does it matter? The answer is most definitely yes. OPEC, short for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, currently claims that its 12 members hold 81.3 percent of the world's oil reserves. And, with few exceptions the world believes them. Trouble is these reserves "are not verified by independent auditors," according to a study (PDF) done by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. OPEC reserves are simply self-reported by each country. Essentially, OPEC's members are asking us to take their word for it. But should we?

It ought to give us pause that the reserve numbers OPEC countries release are used in major reports produced by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA); the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), a consortium of 28 of the world's oil importing nations; oil giant BP which annually publishes the widely cited BP Statistical Review of World Energy; and myriad other organizations. Reports from the two agencies cited above and BP are frequently consulted by governments, industry, banks and investors around the world for policy formulation, long-term planning, and lending and investment decisions. Yet these groups seem blissfully unaware of the caveats surrounding the numbers in those reports and by extension surrounding more than 80 percent of the world's oil reserves.

Keep in mind as we go along that the sometimes astronomical numbers thrown around for world oil reserves by the uninformed or by those who intend to mislead us either have no basis in fact or actually refer to "resources." Resources are only an estimate of oil thought to be in the ground based on rather sketchy evidence. And, most of that oil will never be recoverable. Reserves, however, are what can be produced at today's prices from known fields using existing technology. It turns out that reserves are only a tiny fraction of so-called resources.

Now here's the caveat from the International Energy Agency in its World Energy Outlook 2010:

Definitions of reserves and resources, and the methodologies for estimating them, vary considerably around the world, leading to confusion and inconsistencies. In addition, there is often a lack of transparency in the way reserves are reported: many national oil companies in both OPEC and non-OPEC countries do not use external auditors of reserves and do not publish detailed results.

"National oil companies" refers to government-owned companies which typically control all oil development within a country.

The BP Statistical Review of World Energy for 2012 provides this explanatory note under a table listing oil reserves by country:

The estimates in this table have been compiled using a combination of primary official sources, third-party data from the OPEC Secretariat, World Oil, Oil & Gas Journal and an independent estimate of Russian and Chinese reserves based on information in the public domain. Canadian oil sands 'under active development' are an official estimate. Venezuelan Orinoco Belt reserves are based on the OPEC Secretariat and government announcements.

The key words are "OPEC Secretariat" which refers to the OPEC staff located in an office in Vienna. That office is where BP presumably gets its information about OPEC reserves. The EIA lists the OPEC Annual Statistical Bulletin put out by--you guessed it--the OPEC Secretariat. Alas, the Annual Statistical Bulletin tells us under the heading "Questions on data" that "[a]lthough comments are welcome, OPEC regrets that it is unable to answer all enquiries concerning the data in the ASB." In other words, trust us. So, information about OPEC reserves comes either from the OPEC offices in Vienna or from member countries. Some analysts may adjust those figures based on the few shreds of evidence that are available outside of official government pronouncements. But, in reality, there are almost no hard facts when it comes to OPEC reserves.

Strangely, many of these countries say that a detailed audit of their fields by independent observers is out of the question because oil reserves are a state secret. And, yet those countries report their reserves to OPEC which publishes them for all to see. So, are oil reserves in many OPEC countries a state secret or not? Apparently, what's secret is the field-by-field data that would tell us whether the reserves claimed by these countries are actually there. Are there reasons to believe that if we saw this data it would contradict the official overall number provided by some countries? In a word, yes.

First, OPEC allocates production levels among its members. It does this to control the flow of oil to world markets and thus to manipulate the price. OPEC bases production quotas for its members in part on the size of each member's reserves. When this policy was first established in the 1980s, reported reserves for several OPEC members jumped between roughly 40 and 200 percent within one year--not always the same year--as each country jockeyed for a higher production quota. Based on EIA data, here's what it looked like:

CountryReserves in Barrels (Year)Reserves in Barrels (Year)Percentage Increase
Iran48.8 billion (1987) 92.9 billion (1988)90.4%
Iraq47.1 billion (1987)100 billion (1988)112.3%
Kuwait66.7 billion (1984)92.7 billion (1985)39.0%
Saudi Arabia172.6 billion (1989)257.6 billion (1990)49.3%
United Arab Emirates33.1 billion (1987)98.1 billion (1988)196.4%
Venezuela25.0 billion (1987)56.3 billion (1988)125.2%


Not every country participated in the free-for-all. But the countries with the largest exports participated with a vengeance. There was no drilling program in any of these countries that could have explained such jumps in reserves.

The competition continues to this day. In October 2010 Iraq announced an increase in its oil reserves from 115 billion barrels to 143.1 billion barrels. No attempt was made to hide the reason for the increase: "Falah al-Amri, the head of the country’s State Oil Marketing Company, suggested that future quota calculations might have been a factor in the revision." A week later Iran raised its reserves number from 136.6 billion barrels to 150.3 billion barrels, presumably in order to maintain its position within the OPEC production quota system. These numbers have been dutifully included in the latest statistical compilations of both EIA and BP, as if the two hadn't gotten the memo that Iraq's and Iran's increases were reported merely for quota reasons and not because of any particular discoveries.

Perhaps even more astounding is that some OPEC members don't even take the oil reserves reporting game seriously any more. Logic dictates that there should be at least small adjustments up or down in reserves each year as new fields are developed and old ones decline. The world of geology simply cannot yield precisely the new reserves needed to replace exactly the amount of oil extracted from existing fields each year.

And yet, the United Arab Emirates has been reporting 97.8 billion barrels of oil reserves every year since 1997. Kuwait has been reporting 104 billion barrels each year since 2008. Iraq shows long periods from 1980 onward when reserves don't change, the latest running from 2004 to 2011 during which reserves supposedly held absolutely steady at 115 billion barrels. Algeria has reported 12.2 billion barrels from 2008 onward. At least Saudi Arabia has demonstrated a certain sensitivity to appearances and has adjusted its reserves number slightly from year to year. And yet, that number has remained within a narrow range of 260 to 267 billion barrels from 1991 to the present. All of these numbers suggest that depletion from existing fields is taking absolutely no toll on OPEC's reserves. Even if that's true, we have no way of verifying it.

The second reason to doubt OPEC's official oil reserve numbers is that two insiders have told us not to trust those numbers. The now deceased A. M. Samsam Bakhtiari, an executive for the National Iranian Oil Company, told the Oil & Gas Journal all the way back in 2003 the following: "I know from experience how 'reserves' are estimated in major Middle Eastern (and OPEC) countries...And the methods used are usually far from scientific, as the basic knowledge for such a complex exercise is not at hand." He estimated that Iranian reserves were about 37 billion barrels, not the 90 billion that were being cited at the time.

Back in 2007 Sadad al-Husseini, former executive vice president for exploration and production at Saudi Aramco, the state oil company that controls all oil development in Saudi Arabia, told a conference in London that world oil reserves had been inflated by 300 billion barrels. That number almost matches the increases in OPEC members' reserves for quota reasons in the 1980s, and it represented about a quarter of all reported reserves in 2007. As a result, to this day al-Husseini remains skeptical of claims that world oil production will rise much from here.

Another piece of evidence that casts doubt on OPEC members' reserve claims came to light in 2005. That year Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, an industry newsletter with worldwide reach, obtained internal documents from the state-owned Kuwait Oil Co. The documents revealed that Kuwaiti reserves were only half the official number, 48 billion barrels versus 99 billion. Since then policymakers and the public seemed to have ignored the entire incident. The BP Statistical Review lists Kuwait's reserves as 101.5 billion barrels as of 2011. The EIA shows them as 104 billion. Skepticism apparently is taking an extended holiday at BP and EIA.

Measuring oil reserves remains something of an art. Even large publicly traded oil companies with armies of petroleum geologists and engineers who operate under strict U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules for estimating reserves--even these companies don't always get it right. In 2004 Royal Dutch Shell had to lower its reserves number by 20 percent, a huge and costly blunder for such a sophisticated company. If Shell can bungle its reserves estimate, then how much more likely are OPEC countries which are subject to virtually no public scrutiny to bungle or perhaps manipulate theirs.

I said in a previous piece that the rate of production is the key metric when evaluating the success of the world's oil production and delivery system. But sustained production of oil depends on the size and quality of reserves. If the world does indeed have 300 billion fewer barrels of reserves than it thinks it does, that has implications for how long the current rate of production can be maintained. (It has been stuck between 71 and 76 million barrels per day since 2005.) And, that is why the mystery surrounding OPEC's reserves, which supposedly constitute 80 percent of the world's reserves, is so disturbing. Even more disturbing is how much this mystery is ignored or perhaps not understood by policymakers, industry and the public.

We shouldn't be the least bit exultant over claims that we have more oil reserves than we've ever had before. First, we are using up that oil at a faster rate than ever before. Second, much of what is currently parading as reserves may not be. Third, the plateau in worldwide oil production since 2005 is actually consistent with a smaller reserve base.

Given all this I think we can safely say that when it comes to the official statistics on oil reserves, there is likely to be less than meets the eye. And that begs the question: Does it really make sense for the world to chart its energy future based on such dubious information?


Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Why the oil industry doesn't want you to remember the last 14 years

This is the first of a six-part series introducing readers of The Christian Science Monitor to concepts useful in understanding the Resource Insights blog. Selected posts from Resource Insights will begin to appear on the Monitor's Energy Voices blog starting this month.

What were the prices of oil and gasoline in 1998? Do you remember? Without looking them up (or looking below this line), make your best guess.

I've been taking an informal poll to find out what people remember about oil and gasoline prices in that year. So far, only one person has correctly characterized prices back then. Most guesses have clustered around $2.50 to $3 a gallon for gasoline (in the United States). Only one person could come up with a crude oil price which she guessed was around $55 a barrel. The answers show a vague recollection that oil and gasoline were cheaper than they are today. But just how much cheaper has been lost down the memory hole.

Okay, I know the suspense is killing you. Here's how gasoline and oil fared in 1998. The nationwide average price of a gallon of gasoline in the United States in December of that year was 95 cents. The closing price for a barrel of crude oil sold on the New York Mercantile Exchange on December 31 was $12.05. Just three weeks earlier the price of oil had hit its nadir for the year at $10.72. Oil had started the year above $17 and steadily slid as the Asian financial crisis slowed the world economy and reduced oil demand. Gasoline prices dropped only a little during the year starting from the January average of $1.09 a gallon.

Why does the oil industry want you to forget this? Because after a 10-fold increase in the price of crude oil and a fourfold increase in the price of gasoline, the industry is once again trying to sell the same story of continued abundance that they were selling back in the late 1990s. But the manyfold increase in oil prices ought to make everyone doubt an industry which has repeatedly told us that huge supplies are just around the corner, and prices are headed for a crash.

Perhaps the best example of the oil industry's "Wrong Way Corrigans" is industry mouthpiece Daniel Yergin, head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a prominent energy consulting firm. For a long time Yergin has been a frequent guest on prominent television news programs and a source for many print journalists. He is a darling of the media on energy issues, a media which is too polite to confront him with his abysmal record of predictions in the oil market. He was wrong in his public pronouncements every step of the way from the 1998 low in oil prices right up to the all-time highs of 2008, frequently predicting a large buildup of new supply and crashing prices. (One wonders why clients of CERA continue to buy the company's research when it has been so wrong for so long. But that's a story for another time.) Only at the end of 2008 did oil prices finally crash and then only because the world economy was headed into the worst economic decline since the Great Depression. But as soon as the economy revived even tepidly, prices rose back to $80 a barrel and then above $100 which is about where they are today.

The reason for high prices is actually quite obvious. Crude oil production worldwide has been stuck between 71 and 76 million barrels per day since 2005 (calculated on a monthly basis). Oil volumes have been tracing out a troubling bumpy plateau that many fear will mark the all-time peak in world production. These numbers are reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy, and are widely considered to be the most reliable available. They reflect total production of "crude oil including lease condensate" (which is the definition of crude oil) from all sources worldwide.

Oil production has stalled despite the huge incentive that record high prices are providing for oil exploration and development. And, despite enormous spending by oil companies on exploration and drilling worldwide, we have only just kept production on a plateau for the last seven years. These high prices and enormous capital spending were the reasons given by Daniel Yergin for the expected buildup of production volumes. So what went wrong?

The simple answer is that we've exhausted the easy-to-get oil and are now left with mostly the hard-to-get oil. It only makes sense that the early oil pioneers harvested the easy oil first. Why go after the hard stuff at that point? We've since learned how to extract oil that is much harder to develop. This includes deposits far offshore and deep below the seabed as well as those locked in the Canadian Tar Sands, deposits that must undergo expensive and energy-intensive processing to convert what is really bitumen, a goopy, thick hydrocarbon, into what we call oil.

And, this leads me to a crucial concept which I find myself repeating over and over again in response to all the foolish Daniel Yergins of the world: The critical factor in the oil markets and a global economy dependent on large, continuous supplies of oil is the rate of production. The rate is the key, not the size of the world's reserves. It is the size of the tap, not the size of the tank that matters.

Let me offer another analogy to help explain. If you inherit a million dollars with the stipulation that you can only withdraw $500 a month, you may be a millionaire, but you will never live like one. That is increasingly the situation we face with oil. There may be huge resources of tight oil (often mistakenly referred to as shale oil) and of oil-like substances such as tar sands. But the expense, the necessary energy and increasingly, the amount of water required to extract and process them is so great that we have been unable to lift the worldwide rate of production significantly above its current plateau for a sustained period during the last seven years. Even with all our vaunted new technology, we have only just barely been able to replace the capacity lost each year to the inexorable decline in the rate of production from existing oil fields.

Recently, the head of a company well placed to judge trends in the worldwide rate of oil production said he believes that the all-time peak is in. Core Laboratories CEO Dave Demshur told attendees at the Denver Oil & Gas Conference last month that "[t]he maximum yearly oil production of the planet is taking place now." Core provides well analysis and reservoir management to oil and gas companies in practically every major oil region of the world. Demshur's statement is an unusual admission from an industry insider with access to information that spans the entire industry.

The truth is we won't know for sure that we've passed the peak in world oil production until long after it occurs. It may be a decade after the event before oil production turns down definitively and the peak becomes obvious for all to see.

Just to clarify, here's what peak oil does NOT mean:

  • Peak oil does not mean we are running out of oil. This is a canard used by the oil industry to confuse the public. Nobody who understands world peak oil production ever says that it means we are running out. In fact, we won't run out of oil for a very, very long time. At the peak the rate of production will cease to rise, probably trace a plateau for a time, and finally begin a possibly slow and bumpy decline. That means we'll have less and less oil available each year. As oil becomes more and more expensive, we will use less, and we will ultimately reserve it for critical purposes for which we cannot find good oil substitutes.

  • Peak oil does not mean that we won't find any more oil. We are finding oil every day. We're just not finding enough and putting it into production fast enough to grow production in the face of declining flows from existing fields.

  • Peak oil does not mean the immediate collapse of modern civilization. However, if we stand still and do little to address oil depletion, peak oil will likely result in immense difficulties.

The industry and its paid spokespersons try to dazzle the public with talking points that include the notion that we have more oil reserves than we've ever had. That is questionable, and I'll explore that claim in a later piece. But again, I emphasize that reserves are not the salient point. It is and always will be the rate of production that matters more. If oil production stopped for a sufficiently long period--enough to drain all aboveground supplies--modern civilization as we know it would collapse. The amount of reserves would not matter since the rate of production would have dropped to zero.

What matters is how much we can produce for continuous input into the world economy. As you might intuit, we've built a financial system and physical infrastructure premised on continuous and rising levels of oil consumption. That's why peak oil matters so much, and why flat oil production has been a large contributing factor to the unstable world economy in recent years.

To further illustrate the importance of rate, consider the following: Half of all oil consumed since the beginning of the oil age has been consumed since 1985. We consumed exponentially larger amounts nearly every year until 2005 when a number of factors conspired to constrain supplies. We frequently hear about multi-billion barrel discoveries and think (wrongly) that oil must surely be plentiful as a result. So, here's another question to ponder: How long does one billion barrels of oil last the world at current rates of consumption? If you guessed something close to 12 days, you have a sense of the enormous challenges humans face in extracting finite resources at ever higher rates. Just multiply those multi-billion barrel discoveries by 12 to find out how many days the oil age might be extended by each discovery. You'll find the answer is, "not many."

Perhaps it will seem puzzling that experts inside the industry--with a few notable exceptions--cannot grasp that the rate of production is the central issue. The best explanation I can offer is to quote author Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

And, here is where we get to the motivations behind the sunny optimism of the oil industry. If the public understood that oil supplies might be nearing an irreversible decline, it would demand the deployment of alternative fuels and efficiency measures to soften the blow in order to give us time for a transition to a society based on something other than oil. That would ultimately reduce demand for oil products and eventually end our dependence on oil. Oil companies might get stuck with significant inventories in the ground that they cannot sell, at least not at the prices or in the quantities they would like.

The more immediate problem for oil company executives is that their companies may soon find it impossible to replace all their oil reserves. Oil companies strive to replace at least 100 percent of what they produce so that their reserves don't fall. If investors come to believe that a failure to replace reserves will be ongoing year after year, they will mark down oil company share prices significantly. In fact, it's already happened, and it's likely to happen with more frequency as more companies struggle to reach 100 percent replacement. Such share price declines would, of course, make a lot of oil executives significantly poorer as the value of their stock and stock options plummet. Essentially, oil companies would be recognized as self-liquidating businesses.

All of this the oil industry wants you to ignore as it undertakes yet another public relations campaign to convince the world that supplies will only grow from here. Naturally, with prices near $100 a barrel, the public needs reassurance. The campaign is designed to lull both the public and policymakers into a somnolent surrender to a business-as-usual future that will leave us unprepared for the momentous challenges ahead.

Oil is the central commodity of the modern age. As of 2011 it provided one-third of the world's energy and the basis for countless petrochemicals necessary to the functioning of modern society. Oil's role in transportation remains critical; 80 percent of the world's road, rail, air and sea transportation fuel is derived from petroleum, and in the United States the number is 93 percent. Good substitutes for oil in transportation are still hard to come by.

No one can know exactly when world oil production will peak--not me, not the world's oil companies, not any government agency. The dangers we face if we are unprepared are potentially quite severe. With worldwide oil production essentially flat for the last seven years, the sensible thing to do would be to get ready now as quickly as we can.

Given what's at stake for oil company managements, it should be obvious why they are telling us not to worry. Given the publicly available production data, the persistently high price of oil, and the failure of oil companies to expand worldwide production even after enormous expenditures and effort, it should also be obvious why we shouldn't fall for the industry's beguiling but wildly misleading tale.


Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Resource Insights to be featured regularly on The Christian Science Monitor; What it means for current RI readers

Starting next week posts from Resource Insights will be regularly featured in The Christian Science Monitor on its new "Energy Voices" blog. The highly respected Monitor has a century-long tradition of reasoned, thoughtful journalism which has earned it seven Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards. Its global reach--it stations writers in 11 countries--will bring a large new audience in contact with my work. Most of these new readers, however, will not have the background on energy and resource issues that I have been presuming my current readers do. If I provide no preparation for these new readers, it will be as if they are entering a theater in the middle of a play without knowing any of the preceding action.

Therefore, in an effort to introduce key concepts and ideas to this new audience, I am undertaking a six-part series that will in most cases revisit ground I've already covered. The first installment of that series will be posted this evening to allow ample preparation time for next week's debut of the Monitor's "Energy Voices" blog. While those of you who have been reading me for a relatively short time may find this series a useful refresher, others who are longtime readers may find it occasionally elementary.

I ask current readers to indulge me for the time being because I feel it is critical that this vast new audience be introduced to concepts and ideas that will allow it to catch up quickly. When the series is complete, I will resume my search for new perspectives on the themes of resource depletion, climate change and related topics, hopeful that new readers at The Christian Science Monitor will be able to follow my thinking as readily as longtime readers do now.

Thanks to all of you who read my work regularly. I consistently find your comments and emails thought-provoking and gratifying. Over the next few weeks I ask you to join me in welcoming the readers of The Christian Science Monitor to Resource Insights.