Drill baby drill! …doesn’t appear to be working

Expectedly, the Alaskan Department of Revenue predicts further ongoing declines in proceeds from Alaskan oil. According to ADR figures,

“Alaska North Slope oil output is expected to drop 5 percent in the coming fiscal year as its oilfields age, and average prices of its crude oil are expected to fall, causing a dip in income for the state…”

This news isn’t surprising to those of us who study geology, because Alaskan oil production has been sliding steadily downward for more than a decade already. The reason has nothing to do with hippies. Alaskan oil, just like every other petroleum deposit on our planet, is finite in volume and can only be brought to the surface at a finite rate. The typical sequence of events at any oil field follows from discovery to exploratory drilling, then to extraction on an increasingly efficient and massive scale, then to maximization of delivery rate, then to decline as the subsurface stocks dwindle. Politics are irrelevant to this process; pull up oil for long enough in one place and eventually you start to hear a giant sucking sound. Pull up oil for long enough on one planet and a similar result ensues.

US petroleum production peaked long before we discovered oil under the Alaskan North Slope, and not even those gigantic deposits of crude could put our production back on top. Today the total US annual production of oil is down to around what it was just after we won WWII, except now the curve is not going optimistically upwards, it’s going permanently downwards. Ken Deffeyes talks about this process in great detail in his book Hubbert’s Peak, and I won’t repeat all the technicals here, but suffice to say that where American led, the world now follows. Global petroleum production is now at its high oil mark, never to rise again. Politics are irrelevant. Geology is now the decider.

peakoil_us

The numbers I show in that graph came from the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, a treasure trove of data for anyone interested in energy. Looking at the diagram, it should become painfully clear to anyone considering a run on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil that such a course wouldn’t help us very much. ANWR oil wouldn’t go to the US alone, it would go into the general global market, it would amount on that diagram to a blip roughly the height of a single data point, and if we started drilling for ANWR oil today it wouldn’t hit our gas tanks until 2019 at the earliest. Based on industrial history it takes about a decade to bring oil from a newly opened field to market, and there’s not really any way to shorten that timeframe. So, ANWR isn’t the answer, and neither is anywhere else delusionals want us to “Drill baby drill!” The oil just isn’t there anymore, and we need to think about putting aside our training wheels and learning to ride on something a bit more grownup.

That’s how I tend to think of fossil fuels: as training wheels. Yes, fossil fuels are childish, filthy and polluting, but to our agrarian grandparents they were a fabulous one-time boost up from squalor to high technology. In an age when lamps were lit with whale blubber, fuel from rocks was quite an advancement… and quite a bridge, to a bigger and more technologically adult future. We’ve learned to ride far and fast on the kid’s bike, but now it’s time for a more impressive set of wheels… ones that don’t run on rock-grease. Fortunately there are plenty of options, including natural gas, bio-methane, biodiesel, increasing efficiency, shifting from 18-wheelers to trains, electric transport in urban sectors, and ultimately hydrogen fuel spawned from solar and aeolian electricity.

All of which is well and good, but what about Alaska? Royalties from oil and gas production fill state coffers there up to about the 80% mark. Without that income the state’s future as a rip-roaring, sharp-shooting haven for self-made, rugged individualists on the oil dole starts to become cloudy. Thankfully, governor Sarah Palin appears happy to accept (after initially rejecting) taking federal stimulus money to temporarily make up the shortfall.

“Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, speaking at a news conference in Juneau on Friday, said she planned to cope with the revenue declines by substituting federal stimulus money for about $250 million in state operations spending.”

Because nothing says “freedom from big government spending” like frontier welfare.

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~ by Planetologist on April 16, 2009.

9 Responses to “Drill baby drill! …doesn’t appear to be working”

  1. And how are orbital microwave laser platforms not MADE ENTIRELY OF WIN!!!!

    I want one of my own.

  2. You left out Space Solar Power. Granted it’s going to take some cleverness to avoid messing up our planet while freeing ourselves of the need for Terrestrial energy, but using the Moon for most of the material, and with careful planning and technology, it will certainly be possible.

    • Well, I have to tell you… as much as I love the idea of using high technology, I think applications like space-solar power should probably be avoided. I know it sounds great to have clean, photovoltaic collectors beaming sustainable solar power to Earth, but don’t forget that very few modifications would separate such harmless technologies from having orbital microwave laser platforms capable of flash-vaporizing cities one block at a time. I think we should just put that idea back where we found it, and back away slowly.

      • [V]ery few modifications would separate such harmless technologies from having orbital microwave laser platforms capable of flash-vaporizing cities one block at a time. I think we should just put that idea back where we found it, and back away slowly.

        Actually, it would require a lot of modifications. Anyway, anybody wanting to target a city from orbit just needs a big rock. Here’s my question (no offense): do you seriously think this would be a danger, or is this just a rationalization for opposing the idea? I’m not trying to be hostile here, but a discussion of the actual relative dangers would be a waste of time if the real reasons for opposition are otherwise.

      • No, no… my objection is purely from the precautionary point of view. I’m not an aerospace engineer, so I can’t comment with professional acumen regarding how difficult or easy it would be to turn a harmless microwave power beam into a harmful microwave death beam. However, terawatts of power focused into a beam of electromagnetic radiation effectively constitutes a weapon, or can be used as such. I’d be cautious to deploy that sort of thing, unless there were some very strong, very convincing rigorous arguments that could be presented showing little to no potential for weaponization. Straight up, that’s the whole of my objection.

      • OK, it’s actually pretty simple. There’s a formula for how tightly you can focus an electromagnetic beam (microwave, light, or even gamma). As I heard it: Dd=2πrλ, where “D” and “d” are the sending and receiving antenna diameters, “r” is the distance between them, and “λ” is the wavelength of the EM energy being sent.

        A sending antenna will be tuned to the rough wavelength it’s going to send. Given the advantages of using the shortest wavelength the antenna can send, it won’t be able to be retuned to a much shorter one without being rebuilt from scratch.

        If we assume a sending antenna in GeoSynchronous orbit, “r” is roughly 3.57×10**7 meters. Let’s assume “λ” is 3 cm. (corresponding to about 10GHz), that’s 3×10**-2 meters. “2πrλ” will be about 6.73×10**6 meters**2 for “Dd”. That is, the product of the sending and receiving antennas (in kilometers) will be about 7.5. If the sending antenna is 2.5 Km in diameter, it won’t be able to focus its beam on a circle smaller than about 3 Km.

        The beam, as designed, will probably contain no more than about 10 KWatts/M**2, about 10-20 times the energy in sunlight at solar zenith. This corresponds to about 50 GWatts total for one receiving antenna (rectenna, actually).

        I’ve used different figures than the Wiki article, but their section on safety says pretty much what I have, with less detail:

        The microwave beam intensity at ground level in the center of the beam would be designed and physically built into the system; simply, the transmitter would be too far away and too small to be able to increase the intensity to unsafe death ray levels, even in principle. In addition, a design constraint is that the microwave beam must not be so intense as to injure wildlife, particularly birds. Experiments with deliberate microwave irradiation at reasonable levels have failed to show negative effects even over multiple generations.

      • Huh. Interesting… so this model you’re talking about is closer to being some kind of concentrating lens, with a fairly low level of focusing magnification… about an order of magnitude, it sounds like. That’s not as bad as a laser, but you have to admit that would be a pretty heavy dose of energy to anyone who walks through the beam at ground level. The question would be whether the beam would transmit in a wavelength that could couple with surface materials, such as rocks, water, or biomass. At a wavelength range where biomass and water are transparent, there’s very little danger to people or wildlife…. which is no doubt the reason behind choosing a 3 cm band.

        I’m still a little skeptical about this application, because 10x solar is a lot of energy, and I still think it wouldn’t be difficult to weaponize that. Imagine 10x solar intensity in the visible range… that might be enough to blind, and would make a very effective weapon of terror: no deaths, but you tie up your enemy with taking care of half their population suddenly going blind all at once. A beam diameter of several km would make that a pretty effective weapon, because that scale would make the thing easy to aim at individual cities. And what about the totally prosaic scenario of the thing getting somehow out of position in orbit, due to a space-junk impact or similar, and the beam spinning off randomly across the landscape?

        Let’s say that technically, for engineering reasons, it’s really hard to use a microwave power beam at 3 cm wavelength as a weapon. That’s good, but that alone wouldn’t necessarily ensure against someone intentionally using the same platform to deliver a different wavelength range, by building a different – or an adjustable – monochromator into the assembly before launch. A tunable beam might not be so harmless. That’s not by itself a sufficient reason to abandon the technology, but it would probably require the adoption of some sort of international inspection process to prevent weaponization by antagonist states.

        I agree that orbital solar power would be a great thing, if it were to prove safe… and of course if it ended up being cost-effective in comparison to simply using photovoltaic arrays on the surface. I tend to expect that in practice it’s always going to be more efficient for ground-based applications to generate PV at the surface, because you minimize transduction and transmission loss, and the capital investment per unit is tiny compared against an orbital device. One of the chief advantages of PV is its scalability, making it adaptable to different magnitudes of power demand.

        But anyway, insofar as the safety of something like this is concerned, I try to apply the China test. At one time it would have been called the USSR test. Would you feel equally confidant if the first world power to develop and deploy this technology ends up being China, and not the US or the EU? 😉

      • [S]o this model you’re talking about is closer to being some kind of concentrating lens, with a fairly low level of focusing magnification… about an order of magnitude, it sounds like. That’s not as bad as a laser, but you have to admit that would be a pretty heavy dose of energy to anyone who walks through the beam at ground level. […] At a wavelength range where biomass and water are transparent, there’s very little danger to people or wildlife…. which is no doubt the reason behind choosing a 3 cm band.

        Functionally, yes, although it’s actually solar panels (or CSP) feeding a really big antenna. I actually chose the wavelengh based on my guess of what technology will be capable of with phased array antennas in 10-20 years. The model in the Wiki article I linked uses a longer wavelength. It also uses a much smaller power level (at the rectenna).

        [… T]hat alone wouldn’t necessarily ensure against someone intentionally using the same platform to deliver a different wavelength range, by building a different – or an adjustable – monochromator into the assembly before launch

        We’re talking about a phased-array antenna here. The resonators would be built into the antenna elements, and would be working at (or close to) their maximum frequency. Nor would an antenna kilometers across be launched, it would have to be built in place.

        I agree that orbital solar power would be a great thing, if it were to prove safe… and of course if it ended up being cost-effective in comparison to simply using photovoltaic arrays on the surface. I tend to expect that in practice it’s always going to be more efficient for ground-based applications to generate PV at the surface, because you minimize transduction and transmission loss, and the capital investment per unit is tiny compared against an orbital device. One of the chief advantages of PV is its scalability, making it adaptable to different magnitudes of power demand.

        Actually at the moment CSP (Concentrating Solar Power, see Wiki) is probably a more cost-effective choice. However, if we’re to replace our entire fossil-fired power generation with solar, the amount of surface given over to this could prove unacceptable. This especially if the rest of the world is going to match our standard of living. (Which, in the long run, would probably solve problems of population growth and perhaps most terrorism.)

        I try to apply the China test. At one time it would have been called the USSR test. Would you feel equally confidant if the first world power to develop and deploy this technology ends up being China, and not the US or the EU?

        Yes, which is just as well ’cause it probably will be.

        BTW, do you know why I can’t post links on the oxygenic photosynthesis thread? I’ve tried 4 times, and even sent a test without a link (which seems to have gone into your moderation queue). But comments with links just vanish.

      • Hmm… I’m not sure about your linking issues. I got the comment the other day from you, on the oxygen thread, and approved it right away. I haven’t seen (at this end) any of the other comments you mention. Weird.

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