Burn: An Energy Journal "Hunting for Oil, Risks, and Rewards"

Sun, 04/22/2012 - 9:00pm

Pictured: Alex Chadwick

This Earth Day special coincides with the two-year anniversary of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the worst in U.S. History.

AM 1370 continues the series BURN: An Energy Journal, which explores our energy future through the intimate stories of visionaries of research, maverick inventors, industry insiders, and concerned citizens. This month's episode, Hunting for Oil, Risks, and Rewards, airs Sunday, April 22 at 9 p.m. on AM 1370/FM-HD 91.5-2.Alex Chadwick hosts.

What became of all the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? And what’s the future of offshore drilling? Segments will include a profile of the work of social scientist Dr. Steven Picou from the University of South Alabama who has been listening to the human stories of those hardest hit in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: fisherman and charter boat captains and business owners. Picou first developed what he calls "peer listening training" after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, only to see a similar fate befall his own Gulf Coast home. And Alex Chadwick will tell the story of a very rich oil field that lay overlooked for decades in central Utah, and was then essentially given away by Chevron. It has produced about a billion dollars of high-grade oil since its discovery eight years ago.


Gulf Oil Spill -- Burn: An Energy Journal

TO: Alex Chadwick, et. al.,

RE: Burn: An Energy Journal

Thank you for addressing this absolutely critical family of issues! I have mixed feelings about the first episode, which I have now heard twice. My concerns are that the listener is left without any sense that there's a problem, or anything that should compel them to do anything. We are left with the feeling that:

1. Everything's OK
2. Next time, just do nothing
3. Go ahead and eat Gulf seafood
4. More big oil discoveries are coming any day now... and our hero's, the brave and hard-working little guys are going to save us
5. Even if we don't find enough oil, some new technology will save us. Don't worry, and don't do anything -- other people (and they're really crafty and smart, really!) are working on it, and they will solve the problem.
6. In fact, the most worrisome part for me is that THE PROBLEM(S) are never defined, and never addressed.

The enormity of these issues: When we toss Climate Change, Peak Oil, and Overpopulation into the same big bowl, we get a really nasty salad that no one wants to taste, and very few want to even try to address. I hope you can stay on the task, and get to the bottom of this in future broadcasts. So far, you've only scratched the very surface, and the essential oil of the matter lies much deeper than that.

Here are a few more specific comments:

While I believe it is effective to have a non-scientist narrate and ask the questions -- to appeal to all the non-science listeners -- I also believe a number of important questions were either not asked, or were edited out. From a science point of view it was very poor investigative journalism. Comforting, calming, perhaps mind-numbing, but this falls WAY short on the investigative journalism scale.

Regarding the Gulf oil spill, listeners are left with the impression that all the anxiety, worry, and risk taken in the aftermath was just a warm blanket, and that we really need not worry at all. A few animals were killed, but in the end, all is well, really, no problem. The best thing to do is -- nothing.

There were no questions asked (or at least reported) on a wide range of related topics, including those about all those lighter, more toxic elements that just "disappeared" through evaporation -- what became of those? How about all the surfactants and emulsifiers dumped into the Gulf to break up the oil into smaller droplets -- what are the effect of all those chemicals dumped into the water? When the algae and bacteria are feeding on all that lovely food we injected into their environment, what are the effects of such a bloom? In fresh water we get such blooms when nutrients (often in the form of farm manure runoff) get into lakes, and the enormous bloom of microbes depleted the water of oxygen, and kills off many other species, producing fish kills, and a dead zone that can take months or years to recover. We are left with the feeling that all we did was open the doors to a wonderful bounty, a marine feast, and that all we have to do is sit pretty, and do nothing. Really? I think there are a LOT of other questions here.

Then we are told to go ahead and eat lots of seafood and shellfish from the Gulf, as there seems to be no problem or risk...except the one professor who found evidence of toxic effects in crabs, but that was not explored much at all. Sure would have been nice to explore that controversy in a bit more depth.

Then we hear all about the great news of a large discovery of oil. We are left imagining that the next big discovery could be right around the corner, and as long as those tough little wildcats are out there drilling enough holes, we have nothing to worry about -- there's no coming energy crisis coming, and we can go ahead and buy that gas-guzzling Hummer and keep driving our long commutes to work and play -- no need to insulate our homes and businesses, or change our lifestyles in any way -- everything's fine.

Of course, we have to be pretty good at connecting the dots about all of the big oil and gas companies pulling out of oil exploration on continental North America. Why would they all go invest their money elsewhere? Could it be that they know pretty darned well that there are no huge oil finds left here? Yes -- it could be that, exactly.

Then we look at the price of gas and oil, and the global supplies -- are we running out of oil (right now)? We are told that no, we're not, but we are running out of the easy oil. Truth is, we are scraping the bottom of the barrel and are now trying to refine the gunk left over, like tar sands and heavier, dirtier crude oil and kerogen, which takes more energy, pollutes far more, and has devastating consequences for the environment where the extraction and refinement take place. We're also forced to go further off shore, and deeper and deeper. All to fuel our gluttonous over-consumption.

Another question might be if we did find a huge reserve of oil should we even burn it -- or would we be better to leave it in the ground? We will, of course, burn it, because we are addicted to oil, and we will act like the addicts we are. Still, the question has merit.

A few other points for discussion:

1. Discoveries of 100 Billion barrels undersea -- really? How about asking exactly how they define "discovery"? Is it actually there (confirmed with direct sampling), or are there statistical models that say it must be? The definitions of "reserves", "confirmed reserves" "proven reserves" and other terms actually have very different meanings in the petroleum industry than in common usage! And then there's the little question of just exactly how will we get those reserves to the surface for refinement and consumption -- and back to the question of whether we SHOULD. We are discussing an industry that so closely guards information about its reserves and production that it warrants a branch of the United States government tasked with managing that information (READ: EIA), and that tells me we can be certain that the information they guard and peddle is highly political, and probably in need of outside confirmation.

2. Future forecasts of 100 mbd consumption to meet demand* -- REALLY? Where will that come from? Is there any evidence that all the oil fields on Earth -- some 70% or more of which are already past their production peak -- could possibly supply that volume of oil? Many experts say there is no way we can even increase production at a rate that will keep up with the declining production from all the oil fields that are already past their peak, and have been foundering for years. Relevant examples would be US and Libya, where oil production peaked 40 years ago, and we have seen a steady decline since 1971. This is not due to stringent environmental regulations, or lack of investment in exploration -- hundreds of billions have been spent looking for large oil reserves, and they simply aren't there. Thus the small-scale operators are taking the risks to find the smaller oil fields that are left.

* and that future demand is a calculation by sociologists and economists based on future population and consumption trends. BTW: do you know how the EIA defines the proven reserves of oil available to meet this predicted future demand? It's truly fascinating how they do that! They do some calculations about how many people we expect to have, and how much energy they are expected to consume, and publish that number as our "proven" reserves. Indeed, it has nothing to do with the actual volume of oil or natural gas in the ground -- whatever we want it to be -- THAT's the number! Check it out, but you will probably need an industry insider to spill the beans like Erin Brockavich to get at the answer.

3. Can higher prices be a good strategy to incentify efficiency, innovation, and lifestyle change? Would be nice to look into this more! Perhaps that is what is needed, but you'd have to describe the problem first, and the need for personal involvement and responsibility to act second.

Thank you kindly,

Brad Vietje
Newbury, VT

I am not merely an energy activist with a keyboard. I have changed all aspects of my life in order to address climate change and the world peak in energy production. While I am trained as a biologist, and formerly worked as a neurobiologist at the UVM College of Medicine, I now own and operate a solar and renewable energy company in northern Vermont, and have recently completed a high-efficiency straw bale home. Our goal is to make all our energy on-site, and to use as little petroleum as possible. We're not there yet, but we're working on it.

Thank you for your comment

You sound very passionate about all this! I have reached out to the show producers about your post. Although we aired this program we do not produce it. Burn: An Energy Journal was created by SoundVision Productions and distributed by American Public Media. You may wish to contact them through the website: http://BurnAnEnergyJ... or on Facebook: https://www.facebook... Good Luck!