Sunday, October 5, 2008

And the Beat Goes On

McCain made it to the debate after all. Palin did better than many (including myself) expected and with her folksy charm and engaging smile may have a brilliant future ahead of her . . . as a game show host. Congress passed a $700 billion dollar bail-out/rescue/recovery bill despite strong reservations from many House Republicans. California has asked for help in meeting it's payroll obligations. I fail to see why intelligent people don't connect the dots . . . Even without global climate change, peak oil and a weak economy are bringing us to the brink of another Great Depression. And yet, optimisim reigns.

But the Titanic is not, after all, unsinkable. Matt Simmons tells it like it is:

Matt Simmons is as perplexed as anyone that it has fallen to him to take on OPEC, Exxon, the Saudis, and all the other misguided defenders of conventional wisdom in the oil patch. Why should one investment banker with a penchant for research be required to point out what he regards as the obvious - that from here on out, oil supplies can't meet demand, and if we don't act soon to solve this crisis, World War III could be looming?

Why should a man who scorns most environmentalists have to argue that locally grown produce and wind power are the way of the future? Why should a lifelong Republican need to be the one to point out that his party's new mantra - "Drill, baby, drill!" - won't really fix anything and that his party's presidential candidate is clueless about energy? That the spike in oil prices earlier this year wasn't a temporary market anomaly and the recent retreat in prices is just a misleading calm before a calamitous storm? That we're headed toward $500-a-barrel oil?
Indeed, Simmons isn't the obvious candidate to be the bearer of bad news about oil. He's spent his career working in the business, has lived in Houston for decades, and is such an industry insider that he helped edit the Bush campaign's comprehensive energy plan in the 2000 election - the document that was ultimately more or less rubber-stamped by Vice President Dick Cheney's infamous secret Energy Task Force. Over the past 35 years, his boutique investment bank, Simmons & Co., has helped finance and shape much of the country's existing oil-services business. With profits gushing, you might expect him to be celebrating.
During a trip to Saudi Arabia in February 2003 with his friend Herbert Hunt (yes, the son of H.L. Hunt who, with his brother Bunker, almost cornered the silver market in 1980), Simmons had become suspicious of the Saudis' claims about the vastness of their oil supply. In his four decades of working in the oil and gas industry, everyone he had ever talked to had taken it as gospel that the Saudis had enough oil to bail the world out when other supplies ran short. If that wasn't true, Simmons believed, the era of cheap oil was over. Demand for crude was on the rise worldwide, and supplies were getting tighter all the time. If the Saudis were pushing up against the limits of their oil production, the world needed to know.

In his typically analytical fashion, Simmons went hunting for data. He found it in the form of hundreds of technical papers submitted by Saudi oil geologists to the Society of Petroleum Engineers over the past 50 years. Simmons spent the month of August 2003 sitting on his porch in Maine and grinding his way through the minutiae of technical accounts of, for instance, reservoir pressure and water-cut percentages, trying to piece together the challenges that the Saudi geologists had encountered in managing their precious oilfields. In the end, his conclusion was clear. "I finished reading the last paper on a Sunday afternoon," says Simmons, "and I sat back and I thought, Holy crap, this is unbelievable. I've just discovered the biggest energy illusion ever in the world. We're in big trouble. I'm going to write a book."

And so he did. But writing the book didn't exhaust his passion. Today he is more convinced than ever that we've reached peak oil. If he's right, current world oil production- 86 million barrels a day- is about as high as we're going to go.

No one disputes that oil production will top out some day. It is, after all, a finite resource. The argument is about how far off the peak is. As Simmons and others point out, many of the world's largest oilfields - Prudhoe Bay, the North Sea - have already gone into decline. The most optimistic estimate for the average depletion rate of the world's currently producing oilfields is between 4% and 5% annually, or about four million barrels per day at our current rate of production. That means that each year we must find enough new oil to first replace those four million barrels of lost daily production before we even add enough to meet new demand. This is all the more worrisome because world oil discovery of new reserves has been slowing since the mid-20th century.
Simmons believes that a radical change in the way we live is inevitable. "We should basically be going back to creating a village economy, so that we really reduce the energy intensity of how we live," he says. "We need bigtime conservation, not feel-good conservation. Make things where they're used. You'll end long-distance commuting, and we have the tools to do that now with webcams. Grow food locally. Grow food in your backyard. If they're not commuting, people will have time to do that."
The day after the CNBC interview, Simmons and Hart drove up to the University of Maine to visit the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center (AEWC), a 60,000-square-foot structural testing facility. The lab's director, Habib Dagher, is one of the world's leading experts in composite materials. He's working with Simmons and Hart to develop new windmill-blade technology.

The AEWC guys gave a presentation showing how the project could be ready by 2020. Simmons then donned a hardhat and safety glasses and got a tour of the testing floor. As it happens, the lab had already been hired by a large wind-power company to fatigue-test a prototype for a 55-meter turbine blade. A ten-meter segment of the blade was locked in a device called a hydraulic actuator - what looked like two massive steel vise grips - receiving 38,000 pounds of pressure up and down every second. "This is really incredible," Simmons announced. "I'm going to come back up here with two or three investor types I know."

On the way out, I asked Simmons if seeing the lab made his virtual institute feel more real. "Oh, yeah, very impressive," he said. "But we need to compress the time frame - 2020 is way too far out. That plan is fine assuming that we go along like we are now, and everything is okay in the world. But it's not going to be okay. We're going to need this stuff much sooner."

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