Monday, March 19, 2012

Saving Apple Pie for the Future

I live in this very well-defined little world where most of the people I meet or at least those who care to talk to me about such things also believe that we have reached the End of the Age of Cheap Energy. We may not agree what to do about it, and we certainly have different reactions, but most of the people I know would never suggest that we are under a moral obligation to pump whatever oil might still be in the ground and use it all ourselves.

So, it was with a great deal of surprise today that I actually had someone tell me - in not so many words - that enough oil to last the next two hundred years has been discovered here on American controlled soil, and that it's a crime not to go and get it.

First, I think any reports that claim we have 200 years of oil left are misleading. We use 20 million barrels per day. There are two major oil fields. The first is not an oil field, but a shale oil field, and as we all know, it's much more costly and difficult to extract oil from shale than from, say, an oil gusher in South Texas. In fact, the Bakken oil fields aren't "newly" discovered. It was discovered in 1951, but because it was so hard to get the oil out, it was left untapped until now ... when we've run out of other options.

The other is in ANWR. According to a 1987 report, there is a 95% chance that it is a super field, which would contain 500 billion barrels of oil. So, now it's time for some math.

The US used 20 million barrels of oil per day ... in 2003. It's probably more now, but we'll go with that number.

20 million barrels/day x 365/days in a year = 7.3 billion (or 7,300,000,000 - lots of zeroes) barrels/year.

500 billion barrels in ANWR ÷ 7.3 billion barrels/year = 68 years of oil in ANWR.

The Bakken oil field could produce 24 billion barrels, which is enough for about three years.

So, between the two oil fields, we have about 71 years of oil left - if no other discoveries are made.

Remember the Bakken oil field is not a new discovery. Neither is ANWR. In fact, the land area that constitutes the United States of America is, quite possibly, the most explored land mass on the globe. In short, we know where all of the oil is, but even if we started setting up the infracstructure we would need to extract it all, we'd still only have seventy-one - not two hundred years of oil, at our current rate of usage (oh, and the wrench in the works is that our usage is increasing at an estimated 2% per year - so, really, we don't even have that long).

But let's pretend for a moment that we do have two hundred years of oil left. The question is, should we use it all, just because we can?

I say no. Absolutely not. I don't want to be the generation that is remembered for using up this amazing resource. If we conserved what's left, just what's left here on US soil, we could still have an amazing lifesytle - even one that's very similar to what we know today ... with one, very important change.

I found this graph to be very enlightening. According to the graph (which is a little old, admittedly), we use somewhere in the neighborhood of 13,000,000 barrels of oil per day for transportation. 9,000,000 of those barrels are motor transportation, i.e. cars and trucks (with 2,000,000 barrels/day going to jet fuel).

So, let's cut out the transportation. Let's revamp the train system to move goods across the country, and why not take advantage of that canal I think we helped build, or at least helped fund, that goes through Panama, and move some stuff by water?

Let's localize our lives a bit more so that we can bike or walk, or carpool or something other than having millions of us alone in our cars driving twenty miles - one-way - to make a quick trip to the grocery store for the milk we forgot. I mean, do we really "need" that milk that badly at that moment? Is it something we could get later, when we're going to be out anyway?

Here's a startling figure. Ready? There are 300 million people in the US. If we all waste one gallon of gasoline, per day, doing something like going to the grocery store when we don't really need to, we've wasted, squandered, burned-through SEVEN MILLION barrels of oil (one barrel of crude yields about 42 gallons of gasoline).

If we cut the 13,000,000 barrels per day we waste use on transportation, we'd be down to 12,000,000 barrels per day, effectively cutting our usage in half, and doubling the number of years' supply we have.

Just that one thing.

But I know it's asking too much, because we don't want to give up our cars. They are too much of how we identify ourselves, as Americans. Cars are as much a part of our American identity as ... well, as the proverbial "apple pie." I just wonder if we really want that to be our legacy.

I guess I'm just not comfortable with telling my future kinfolk that a Sunday drive in my SUV was more important than their ability to have even a tiny taste of the sort of pampered lifestyle we enjoy today. I'm not comfortable with the whole "to heck with the future. Drill, Baby, Drill!" attitude that was completely and blatantly obvious in the conversation I had.

I don't think we have two hundred years left, but let's, for just a second, pretend we do and play a little game. It's the 200-years-isn't-that-much time game. In fact, it's conceivable that in 200 years, there will a person alive who knew someone who knew *me*. You know that theory that says there are only 6° of separation between you and any other person on earth? Well this is that theory, only it's one person separating you from another person 200 years into the future.

To illustrate this point, I made a chart.

1967 – Year I was born
1988 - Year my daughter was born (21)
2007 – Year my granddaughter was born (40)

The numbers in parentheses are my age.

Now, let's make some fiction, and we'll imagine that every twenty-one years, another of my heirs is born. In 2049, I will be 82 years old, and I will have a great-great granddaughter. We'll call her Lillith. We'll pretend that, not only, will I still be active and lucid, but that she spends a lot of time at great-great Grandma's house (where she plays with the chickens and ducks in the backyard ;). And, let's assume, that I die when she's ten. Eleven years later, her daughter will be born. It will be 2070.

2091 – Lillith’s granddaughter (42)
2112 – Lillith’s great granddaughter (63)
2133 – Lillith’s great-great granddaughter (84)

My great-great granddaughter will live to be 94 years old, and she will be just as active and lucid as I was. She'll meet her great-great granddaughter, named Betsy, who will be born in 2133.

Betsy loves stories, and her favorite story is Lillith's account of visiting her Great-great Grandma Wendy, who lived on a suburban homestead and had chickens and ducks and spoke a pidgin language she made up called "Fremanglish", which Lillith taught to her children, and so Betsy also learned to speak it.

As Betsy grows older, she learns to share the stories she heard as a child with her children and grandchildren, and they all grow up learning Fremanglish, too.

And in 2217, when Betsy is 84 years old, she, too, becomes a great-great grandmother, and tells her great-great grandchildre the stories of Wendy and Lillith and calls them all her les petite kinderen - even the ones who aren't so small.

In two hundred years, I will have lived and died, but I will have met the generation that will be alive when the oil runs out.

How can I tell my great-great granddaughter that my generation couldn't conceive of giving up one little piece of their comfy lives so that she could be more comfortable in her waning years, and pass on our family legacy to her great-great granddaughter?

That we have 200 years of oil left is not likely, and even if we do, it's not our God-given right to use it all before we die. We can't take it with us, for sure, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't leave some behind when we go.

If nothing else, leave some for Betsy so that, perhaps, when the ships come into Portland from the tropics, she might know what a banana tastes like, and perhaps, be able to purchase some cinnamon and sugar with which to make apple pie.


  1. I just don't want anyone touching ANWR so that maybe some day if AK needs it independently...they'll have it. Rainy day for when my great grandkids might be around for secession..;-)

  2. This is such a good way to think about it. I find that I get frustrated with the mindset that everyone should have ever possible comfort, and they should have it right now. Comforts are nice, of course - I'll be the first to admit that I like mine - but when you never deny yourself anything, there's not enough left to go around. Perhaps putting it in these terms - thinking of our descendents and leaving something for them to enjoy and make use of - could help to position it in a way where more people are willing to get on board.

  3. I'd say even your 71 years is overly optimistic.

    It's not just US oil consumption that matters, it's world consumption. The oil companies aren't going to sell only to Americans just because they like them - if the Chinese (or Europeans, or New Zealanders) offer them a better price, they'll export the stuff without a second thought.

    Given how these companies work, they'll sell it as fast as they can extract it to whoever offers the best price.

    But it's an interesting exercise to run the numbers and show people just how far off their wild-ass guesses are!

  4. ...but CANADIAN oil sands for American use. That's what the natural has mafia is pushing. It drives me crazy! Foreign oil is foreign oil no matter where it's from. "Why are we not spending that money to develop actual sustainable energy?" I yell at the tv whenever I see those ads.
    In other news, I just finished your book. It was really great, thank you so much for not recommending that we build bunkers and stock up on ammunition.

  5. These are great thoughts! I often am concerned about my babies, and wonder if they will be able to make it in a world with less oil (i hope so, since I am trying to live that life now), but thinking so far down the line, that isn't something I have thought of. And as someone who has a husband that doesn't quite agree with my need for less, I might bring up this point to him :-)

    In something completely unrelated (or maybe it is very related in a round about way), I am wondering about how long it takes for you to dry your clothes on the line in the spring and winter? I live in Maine as well, and always dry during the summer and fall, where the sun seems to be able to dry quickly (i have one in cloth diapers), i'm just wondering what kind of time commitment per load I am looking at. ie, does my husband need to make me a second clothesline so I can dry more than a couple loads at one time?? For some reason I have the need to do laundry just about every day. I blame it on a no paper household - yes even toilet paper...and a husband who works two jobs :-) Thanks!

  6. Heather - In the late spring, summer and early fall, I use the line outside, exclusively (except underclothes). It's usually sunny enough and windy enough that the clothes dry fairly quickly - depending on the moisture in the air, it can be between 3 hours and all day. Sometimes, if I know it isn't going to rain and I get the clothes on the line too late in the day, I'll just leave them out overnight and take them down in the morning - after they've had a chance to dry from the dew bath they had overnight ;).

    I have one line. It's about 20', but it's on a pulley, which makes it almost two lines. In short, I can hang clothes on both the bottom half and part of the top half, which gives me, probably, 30' of line space (short clothes go on the top line :).

    All of our underclothes are put inside. I have a line stretched over the washer and one that I can hook up and take down over the bathtub. In the winter, I can put things like shirts on hangers and hang them over the bathtub. The clothes dried here take a day or so to dry, depending on the moisture content in the air (like when it's cool outside, but not cold, and it's raining, and we don't have a fire in the woodstove, the clothes take longer to dry).

    Also, during the winter, we use a drying rack inside in front of the woodstove. It takes a good 12 hours or more for the clothes on the drying rack to dry - again, depending on the moisture content in the air, the thickness of the clothes, and where they are on the drying rack (i.e. clothes on the side facing the woodstove dry faster).

    I guess the short answer is, depends on the weather ;).

  7. Thank you! I am just trying to figure out when I need to get my laundry done - especially since it is back into the low 40's again this week :-) Clearly it is EARLY in the morning :-) I prefer to do a lot of laundry on one day, but when hanging the clothes to dry I need to do wash throughout the week. Not a horrible thing considering when I only wash a couple of loads of laundry in a day I actually put it away :-)