Tuesday, April 13, 2010

While DoE is complacent, DoD worries about Peak Oil

Last Sunday the Guardian carried a review of a recent report by the United States Joint Forces Command in which, hidden on page 29, lies the statement:
By 2012, surplus oil production could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 mbd.
The report bases this conclusion, in part, on the poor discovery rate that has been achieved in finding new oilfields to replace those that are beginning to run out of oil. Looking at the alternative sources of energy, it is not convinced that they provide a viable short-term alternative, given the rising levels of capital cost required for their installation at considerable scale, and thus notes and concludes that:
A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. . . . . .Fossil fuels will very likely remain the predominant energy source going forward.
It also notes that if the energy problems drive the world into another Depression, that this might lead, as it has in the past, to the rise of totalitarian regimes that sought prosperity by “ruthless conquest.”

The caveat that I have between these two statements is that, grim as they are, they don’t really recognize the totality of the problem. Simplistically energy has two major uses, one is the creation of electric power, and the other is to provide the motive fuels for transportation. The two uses are disparate, and while oil can be used to generate power, in large measure this has been left to coal and natural gas, while oil has been transformed into the various liquids that power cars, trains and aircraft. At the moment there is not a significant volume of world transport that uses coal and natural gas to drive their vehicles. Nor realistically, apart from the campaign by Boone Pickens, is there much move to change the situation.

As some influential parties in Britain perhaps begin to understand that world oil supplies are finite, and beginning to run short, this does not yet appear to affect the Departments either in the UK or the US whose job it is to be concerned and to find ways of answering the problem.

Gail Tverberg’s review of Secretary Chu’s remarks at the Energy Conference in Washington last week, identified that there is no concern in the Department of Energy over coming shortages, and thus the Department can:
a) rely on the market to solve any problems
b) continue to be more concerned about addressing the climate change issue and
c) invest in longer term research which might provide answers in a decade or so.

The Department of Defense does not live in such a world. And it has heard rumblings of concern from earlier reports by the JASON group about rising costs, given that the Department can purchase up to 101 million barrels of fuel a year, and 145 million barrels of total petroleum products as noted by a recent Congressional Research Service Report. When the price of fuel rises, then the officers in charge have to re-adjust their budgets to cope, sometimes at the cost of the overall objectives. New technologies take years, even decades, to implement, and thus answers cannot be left to “blue sky” thinking alone. And older technologies may not be able to muster enough of an answer to meet the demand. I have seen nothing that yet convinces me that the world will be able to produce more than 90 mbd of crude oil and associated fossil liquids. Thus the projection that the world will need over 118 mbd by 2030 reinforces the implication that we’d better start looking for serious answers with a lot more intensity than we have to date.

There is at least some signs that people are beginning to pay attention, recognizing that there is a risk that there may not be enough jet fuel, the Air Force has begun to check out new fuel sources. Next week is Earth Week, and the Green Hornet, an F/A-18 Super Hornet, will be flown with a mixture of 50% regular fuel and 50% biofuel from camelina. The Navy is intent on moving the program forward.
The 'Green Hornet' initiative supports Mabus' energy reform targets, which will increase warfighting capability by reducing reliance on fossil fuels from unstable locations and reducing volatility associated with long fuel supply transport lines. The secretary's energy reform targets include:

- By 2016, the Navy will sail a "Great Green Fleet" composed of nuclear ships, surface combatants with hybrid electric power systems using biofuel and aircraft flying on only biofuels.

- By 2020, at least half of the DoN's shore-based energy requirements will come from alternative sources and half of total DoN energy consumption will come from alternative sources.

"[The flight] will demonstrate that our systems can work on biofuel," Mabus said in his remarks at a recent energy forum at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md. "After it is successful, and we are absolutely confident that it will be; we will move to expand biofuel testing to our marine gas turbine engines and to the engines of our tactical vehicles."

The problem may be in ensuring an adequate supply. As I noted in the earlier review of camelina, it is not getting rave reviews from the farmers that will have to grow it, nor from the State Agricultural Departments that must approve farmers growing either it or canola.
Oregon officials in 2005 restricted canola-for-oil production in the valley to protect the valley's high-value vegetable seed crops. Officials recently announced they are going to renew the prohibitions.
"I would like to grow canola, but the state interferes with that, too," Van Leeuwen said.

Fears are canola will attract insect pests common to canola and brassica crops and that canola will cross pollinate with cauliflower and broccoli, lowering seed purity and eventually driving vegetable seed contractors out of the valley.

There has, however, been a recent MOU between the UDSA and Navy and the Commercial Airlines Alternate Fuels Initiative to examine the potential of camelina as a crop, though there are already some concerns
Preliminary results from Sidney, Mont., suggest that current camelina varieties use about as much water as spring wheat, so growers would still need to leave land fallow in alternate years to build up water or accept possible yield losses for wheat grown in rotation. However, with appropriate breeding and selection for uniform, desirable agronomic and oil quality characteristics, camelina has potential to be a good oil seed crop for planting during fallow years.

In the face of potential problems for any solution, it would appear wiser for those who should be looking to solve this problem to take their collective heads out of the sand and start to be a bit more constructive in their thinking.

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