Toward Energy Literacy

Posted on April 17, 2012
Posted By: Tam Hunt
"Energy literacy" and "peak oil literacy" should be requirements for pundits -- and for citizens more generally. I've followed these issues for many years now and it still amazes me how poor the knowledge of energy issues is among even the chattering classes and punditry.

A recent MSNBC show allowed a guest to state, without challenge, that US oil production is now at an all-time high. No one, including the host and three other guests, objected to this statement. Many articles in various media outlets are now trumpeting the new "oil boom" in the US.

The fact is that US oil production is a bit more than half of what it was at its peak in the early 1970s. It is not even close to an all-time high. This is not a small discrepancy in facts. It's about as important a fact as any fact a pundit should know when it comes to discussions about our current and future energy needs.

Figure 1. US crude oil production, 1860-2010 (source: EIA).

The US peaked in oil production long ago, and the globe seems to be at a peak now. The idea of "peak oil" -- that a maximum production level is reached for any and all oil fields, followed by a steady bell-curve decline -- was made famous when M. King Hubbert, a Shell geologist, accurately predicted in 1956 that the US would hit its peak in oil production in 1970.

Even the major Alaskan North Slope oil fields didn't do much to slow the US decline. It's generally been a steady downward slope for the US since our peak -- until the last couple of years, as the chart above shows.

Figure 2. Alaskan oil production, 1980-2010 (source: EIA).

The big news recently is, however, that the national decline in oil production has been halted and we've seen a recent uptick in production. The recent bump upwards in oil production is being hailed by breathless pundits and politicians as a prelude to complete energy independence. This is pure hyperbole, as the first two figures show graphically.

We produce less than six million barrels of oil per day and we consume about nineteen, a difference of about thirteen million barrels per day. Even when we add in liquid fuels from domestic natural gas production and biofuels, we still import about 40 percent of our petroleum.

The increase in US production in the last few years has been due largely to an increase in onshore production in the lower 48, which is itself due largely to an increase in drilling rigs. Rigs are up 60 percent in 2011 when compared to 2010, the highest since 1987. We are, by increasing drilling, generally taking oil out of the ground faster, but not actually increasing the amount of oil we'll ultimately produce from existing fields. The resource is finite and the pump rate doesn't change this fact.

Looking to the future, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects increased domestic oil production primarily from increases in "tight oil," but not much from increased offshore oil. Tight oil is oil from shale, tracking the increase in natural gas production from shale gas, known as "fracking." Fracking is opening up some new resources, with serious environmental consequences. But even with increased production from tight oil fracking, EIA projects that the US will be pumping 6.1 million barrels per day by 2035, about the same as we're pumping today. Clearly, fracking is not going to make us energy independent, though it may significantly extend the declining tail of domestic production.

The increase in domestic oil and gas production is good for the economy in many ways, if not the environment. But the problem, even from a purely economic point of view, is that these new sources of oil are facing serious headwinds in the form of declining oil production from traditional fields, which still comprise the lion's share of oil production.

The global picture: running faster to stay in the same place

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is the West's energy watchdog, formed after the oil shocks of the 1970s. Its mission is to try and prevent similar oil shocks from happening again. It's the international equivalent of the EIA. As such, it is considered the authority on international energy statistics and policy recommendations. Its annual World Energy Outlook is eagerly awaited each year.

IEA finally started listening to the peak-oil crowd in 2008 and completed a supply-side analysis of the world's 800 biggest oil fields. In previous analyses, IEA had projected oil and other fossil fuel demand based on economic modeling and had simply assumed (literally) that supplies would meet this projected demand. The 2008 analysis used a slightly different approach. Rather than simply assuming supplies would meet demand, IEA looked at the 800 largest oil fields and calculated their rate of decline. They found that these fields were declining far faster than previously assumed, about 7 percent per year rather than the previous estimate of 3.5 percent per year.

This may not sound like a large difference but when we project into the future we see that many millions of barrels of new oil production are required to offset the declines in existing fields. In fact, IEA projected that 64 million barrels per day would have to come online by 2030 in order to make up for the decline in production from existing fields and to meet increased demand. This is equivalent to the entire production from nine and a half Saudi Arabias. The enormity of this task should be readily apparent.

Figure 3. EIA and IEA projection of future oil supply and demand (2008).

Gas prices and politics

Given the global oil supply picture, it is no surprise to many people that gas prices are back at record highs, even exceeding the seasonal highs of the last super price spike in 2007 and 2008 when gas and oil prices hit their all-time highs. Many observers fear that a similar, or even higher, price spike will occur this summer. Current price increases are due to a number of factors, including tensions over Iran and Syria. But current highs are due primarily to an ongoing tightness between supply and demand on a global scale.

Discussions about US energy policy are perhaps the most caricatured discussions of any policy area. Politicians, those in office and those running for office, know full well that no short-term policy is going to have any impact on current gas prices. New Gingrich's pledge to bring prices back to $2.50 a gallon (down from about $4 now nation-wide) is blatant pandering.

Gingrich knows that oil is traded on a global market, so prices for West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the primary US type of oil, are determined by the consumption of oil in many countries, far more than by the amount of US drilling. I already mentioned that US oil supplies are half of their historic peak back in the 1970s, so any suggestion that US oil production will be able to return back to where it was at its peak, or even to reach a level that would have a significant impact on gas prices, is a pipe dream.

WTI crude prices are currently at about $110 a barrel, still well short of the record of $147 reached in summer of 2008 or the inflation-adjusted high of about $200 a barrel reached in 1981 in the wake of the Iranian revolution. This summer may, however, test new highs as the global economy recovers.

Much of Europe and Asia relies on the Brent crude oil price, which is produced in the North Sea and acts as a price benchmark for Europe and other parts of the world, just like WTI does for North America. Brent crude reached an all-time high, at $126 a barrel, in late February of 2012. Reaching a record high in February all but guarantees that Europe will see far higher prices by summer and will face significant economic woes as a result. This is not good news as Europe attempts to fix other economic problems.

Many politicians and pundits are calling for allowing more offshore drilling in the US as a way to bring down prices. This is also a pipe dream, according to the EIA itself. It simply won't result in very much new oil, compared to global totals, and thus won't have much of an impact on US or global prices. In fact, the EIA projected that allowing drilling in all US offshore locations would, literally, result in a price decline of only three cents per gallon of gas by 2030.

We seem to be at a global peak in oil production and we're running faster and faster to stay in the same place -- let alone to meet new demand as the global economy heats up.

Some good news

There is some good news from the point of view of energy dependency. The US has seen a marked decrease in fossil fuel imports due to the recession and an increasingly efficient economy, as well as the recent increase in production of oil and natural gas discussed above. Our net energy imports are lower, on a net basis, than they have been for about ten years. We now import about 46% of our petroleum needs, down from about 60% a decade ago. EIA projects that this figure will fall to 36% by 2035. This seems very optimistic to me given our knowledge about decline rates from existing oil fields, but, as always, time will tell.

Figure 4. Historical and projected US oil supply and demand, millions of barrels per day, including, natural gas liquids, biofuels and other non-petroleum liquids (Source: EIA 2012 Annual Energy Outlook).

The picture is still better when we look at all US energy imports. We import, on a net basis, about 22% of our energy and this is projected to decline to 13% by 2035.

Figure 5. US energy imports total, quadrillion BTUs (Source: EIA 2012 Annual Energy Outlook).

Half of all US oil imports come from the Western hemisphere (Canada and Mexico, primarily). One quarter comes from Africa and the remaining quarter from the Persian Gulf and other regions.

The bottom line, however, is that the US will still be a substantial importer of energy even in 2035, and particularly of oil, under our current energy policies. I've written before about the geopolitics associated with net fossil fuel exports. The US is looking at a future in which not only is the world beholden to backwards nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but also to nations like Russia, which is now the world's biggest oil producer. Russia is also by far the world's biggest net hydrocarbon exporter and its power will grow as the world's remaining fossil fuels continue to decline.

Figure 6. Net hydrocarbon exports of selected countries in 2010 (million tons of oil equivalent) (source: EIA).

What to do?

It is indeed surprising and encouraging (from the point of view of energy supplies, if not with respect to climate change or the environment more generally) that the US has increased its oil production at this time, while we're in the declining tail of the bell curve. But this reversal in the long-term trend is very likely to be temporary and not replicable in other places around the world. Moreover, as mentioned above, this increase is largely due to a dramatic increase in the number of drilling rigs, which is simply pulling more oil out of the ground, earlier, and not adding to long-term supplies.

So what happened to peak oil? The short answer: we're in the global peak now, as evidenced by record-high Brent crude prices, WTI prices well over $100 a barrel even while global consumption is still shy of its peak in 2008, and the fact that total global production has barely budged for almost ten years even as demand has increased.

Recent increases in US production show that massively increasing the number of rigs, as well as new technologies like fracking, can help extend the tail, and perhaps keep us on an "undulating plateau" of production for a little longer. But the inexorable decline of the existing large fields, which produce the lion's share of global oil, is the more important underlying factor.

Even the leading energy agencies are finally coming clean on peak oil. The IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol, stated bluntly in 2009 that "we have to leave oil before oil leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day."

Birol stated in the same 2009 interview, presciently, as we can see now: "[Tightness in oil supply] will be especially important because the global economy will still be very fragile, very vulnerable. Many people think there will be a recovery in a few years' time but it will be a slow recovery and a fragile recovery and we will have the risk that the recovery will be strangled with higher oil prices."

We are now faced with dramatically high prices yet again and if they remain high or go even higher it seems all but certain that the US and the world will soon dip back into recession.

This is the discussion we should be having in the US presidential election, instead of the inanity we are witnessing instead. We need to rely on facts that aren't cherry-picked to support a narrow point of view or a political point.

How do we get off oil and other fossil fuels? By working vigorously now to become more energy efficient, conserve more, build massive amounts of renewable energy (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, etc.) and over the next few decades shift to using electricity to transport people and goods. Energy efficiency and conservation alone can do far more than increased oil production -- as recent history has amply demonstrated.

For this transformation away from fossil fuels to happen, we need to educate ourselves on energy. It's time to learn a new vocabulary and to pay attention to what may seem like arcane facts. These arcane facts are going to become extremely important in the coming years.

Authored By:
Tam Hunt is a Lecturer in renewable energy law and policy at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at UC Santa Barbara.

Other Posts by: Tam Hunt

The Saudi Problem - July 19, 2012

Related Posts

Opportunity (Almost) Lost By Steven Ferrigno


April, 20 2012

Ferdinand E. Banks says

Excellent article. I've heard most of it before, and some of it is in my new book, but so what. Articles like this need to be published every week until the TV audience and their political masters get the message - assuming that that is humanly possible.

On this awful day in Sweden - climate wise - I paid a vist to the economics building, and looked at the latest or next latest copy of Fortune. They have some numbers about this-and-that, such as replacing motor fuel with electricity, running vehicles on natural gas, etc. I wonder why we have to get our information on this topic from Fortune, because if my memory serves me right, their reporters know as much about energy as I do about brain surgery. But in any case, those numbers were interesting. What they told me was that things are liable to get worse before they get better,

April, 20 2012

Tam Hunt says

Thanks Fred!

April, 24 2012

bill payne says

Energy difficulties may cause economic problems?

The Energy Dilemma

We're suspicious that large-scale wind and solar generation of electricity may be a scam.

Using solar to power today's loads may not work out. Electric clothes dryer is an example.

Solar battery charging appears to work in New Mexico for gate openers and LEDs.

Direct solar electricity powering of water pumping works too, if scaled properly and solar panels track sun.

Here's some of the latest in the liberal art 'educated energy confrontations in New Mexico.

Liberal arts educated PRC commissioner Jason Marks may have ruined some weekends?

Bench Request Order pdf.

April, 25 2012

bill payne says

Home and Garden Show in Albuquerque Saturday April 21, 2012 had LOTS of solar generation of electricity vendors. ______

Person manning booth said that the electricity produced by the solar system NOT CONSUMED BY THE HOME is sold.

Information verification phone call Wednesday April 25, 2012. Volunteered information that the meter spins backward. :-)

Listen to conversation Michael Spiller of Sunsmiths about 'spinning backward.'

Sunday April 17, 2011 09:17

Sunsmiths Ltd. Co.

Hello Mr Spiller,

From your experience with wind and solar generation of electricity, I would appreciate comments.

April, 25 2012

bill payne says

From: To: Sent: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 6:37:07 PM Subject: Clarification need.

Hello Travis,

Thanks for phone call.

I am confused.

Two meters, one regular and one REC, I was led to believe were required for home solar generation of electricty.

And all of the home generated electricity went into the grid recorded by the REC meter, I was led to believe too.

Home electricity used was recored by the conventional meter.

You seemed to imply that there is a second program where only one meter was required. And in this program electrcity generated was used by the home with only excess electricity put into the grid. At about $.05/kWh return from PNM I thought you said,

Explanation would be appreciated.

Regards, bill

April, 25 2012

bill payne says

Helllo Mr Hunt.

Uranium production appears missing from your intersting post.

Tuesday April 3, 2012 06:00

The US produces only 7% of the uranium it consumes, Byron King reported.

Written material has the problem that it is written by authors. And they cannot be trusted. Especially MSM.

Five new generators are on track for completion this decade, including two reactors approved just a few weeks ago (the first new reactor approvals in the US in over 30 years). Those will add to the 104 reactors that are already in operation around the country and already produce 20% of the nation’s power. Those reactors will eat up 19,724 tonnes of U3O8 this year, which represents 29% of global uranium demand. If that seems like a large amount, it is! The US produces more nuclear power than any other country on earth, which means it consumes more uranium that any other nation. However, decades of declining domestic production have left the US producing only 4% of the world’s uranium.

With so little homegrown uranium, the United States has to import more than 80% of the uranium it needs to fuel its reactors. Thankfully, for 18 years a deal with Russia has filled that gap. The “Megatons to Megawatts” agreement, whereby Russia downblends highly enriched uranium from nuclear warheads to create reactor fuel, has provided the US with a steady, inexpensive source of uranium since 1993. The problem is that the program is coming to an end next year.

The Upside to a Natural Gas Downturn Marin Katusa, for The Daily Reckoning Monday April 2, 2012 Regards, bill

April, 25 2012

bill payne says

Friday April 13, 2012 06:33

Electricity production, not nuclear weapons, is at issue?

Reports suggest that America's second demand will be the export of Iran's stockpile of medium-enriched uranium.

Any thoughts, Mr Hunt?

April, 26 2012

bill payne says

Recently, thanks to the shale oil story, scammy rig operators are promising returns as high as 14% PER MONTH.

Retired people, supplementing their Social Security payments with interest income, are tempted. At today’s rate, the pensioner gets less than $2,000 on his $100,000 of savings. He is desperate for more. Even to the point of listening to shysters and investing with fraudsters.

Natural Gas May 2012 contract $ / million BTUs Floor 1.91 Friday April 20, 2012.

Drillers report that they cannot make a profit if natural gas is less than $5/ MM BTU.

Then how do they make money? Listen up, liberal arts 'educated'. Phone call received Tuesday April 17, 2012

April, 26 2012

Ferdinand E. Banks says

Interesting, Bill Payne, and important, but I'll clue you in on the uranium bottom line. Work will eventually be accelerated on the breeder. Card-carrying physicists have assured me that breeders cannot be constructed, and moreover the Dean of Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology called me hopeless for failing freshman physics twice and expelled me from his seat of learning. But while I might be dumb, I'm not that dumb. My students are told to read history. That's where the answers here are.

April, 28 2012

bill payne says

Hello Fred,

What you and I read is second hand information. MSM stuff. But it is interesting.

Author of the Energy Dilemma emails.

From: "Melvin Davidson" To: Sent: Friday, April 27, 2012 2:39:19 PM Subject: Re: More Clarification needed


I think all one has to do to feed power back into the grid from a solar panel array is to produce power at a slightly higher voltage than the grid is delivering to the house. Then the house automatically gets its power from the solar panels first, and the surplus is fed into the grid. The power company wants to have a voltage limiter in the line, of course, and may have special meters that turn both ways. In principle, I don't see why the ordinary meter wouldn't turn both ways as installed.

That's how the charging system in your car works. A fully charged "12"VDC battery has roughly 12.85 volts available, and the alternator normally delivers about 14.2VDC. The car's other electrical stuff takes its power (current times voltage) from the alternator and the rest of the power is available to keep the battery charged. As the car's electrical load increases, the alternator's output voltage will drop automatically because of internal alternator wiring resistance. If the dropped voltage falls below the battery's voltage, then the battery helps support the car's load. Of course, if that condition continues for long, the battery loses all its stored energy and dies.

We can watch this on our boat with an "E" meter the displays voltage, amperage, and the product of the two; volt-amps (watts).


From: "John Sobolewski" To: Sent: Friday, April 27, 2012 4:12:16 PM Subject: RE: More Clarification needed

If designed properly, all meters should run forward or backwards, depending which way the power is flowing, but that is not the real issue. The real issue is wheter the readout pointers (the ones a meter reader uses) are designed to go forward AND backwards or just forward. For some meters it is the latter as a safety precaution to prevent households from turning it back and thus reduce their bill just like some used car delaers used to turn the odometer back. Another question is whether the utility will send you cash if the readout indicates your panels produced more power than what you consumed. I believe all this is still evolving. To me the problem is that the government is holding a gun at the heads of utilities to force them to use "green power" which cannot compete with today's conventional power plants. That reminds me when the government held guns at the heads of banks, forcing them to come with no down payment or interest only mortgages to ensure they had the "right mix of racial minority mortgages" and ensure that Fannie May and Freddy Mack would buy their mortgages. Without those mortgage "gimmicks" minories could not afford the more conventional mortgages the banks offered. This caused the housing bubble. While some pundits blame the banks and greedy Wall Street for offering those silly mortgages, I blame the government since the banks had no choice with a gun at their heads.

Let;s try to find out.

This is us.

And this is me

Google 'ryan crocker j orlin grabbe'

April, 30 2012

Don Hirschberg says

My request toward energy literacy is quite modest. When gasoline is meant, use "gasoline" not "gas."

May, 01 2012

Jim Beyer says

I can never understand any of Bill Payne's posts. At the least, he should learn to embed links:

How to embed Links

May, 01 2012

Jerry Watson says

Bill, FYI

Solar PV cells produces DC power and the grid is AC. Grid tied solar use a device, the inverter, to chop up the DC by selectively directing flows to produce a quasi AC current. This AC voltage can be transformed (by a step up Transformer) to match grid voltage. All of the parts are designed to do this function it is not all that simple. It has to be in synch with the grid and produce a ever so slightly higher voltage to support current flow while not subjecting the transformer to large reactive currents.

Here is a quick car alternator 101 course, first modern cars employ alternators not DC generators like cars of old. The alternator is designed for its purpose. It is a three-phase device with six diodes to rectify the AC produced to DC. The rotor design is rather complex having multiple poles of a shape supporting its function of producing a relatively smooth DC after the diodes in the stator. The output voltage is a controlled function. The voltage regulator varies field rotor current to maintain alternator output at the variable RPM of the IC engine. This is one reason why the alternator is superior to the former simpler speed dependent DC generator. It has a fairly constant output voltage with the rotor and output current varying with RPM and Demand. At full engine speed the alternator still matches demand large or small by controlling rotor current to meet the desired output voltage.

It has nothing to do with wiring resistance. As long as the device is operated within its design limits wiring resistance are only IR losses and the resulting heat. Unless the boat is an antique, after using the starter the Alternator output current may be high for several minutes as the battery recharges and then on a long run at speed the current will drop way off to just meet demand while maintaining voltage. The old DC generators worked very differently and unless someone wants a short course on it, I will leave it at that.

FYI modern power plant generators are alternators, even though massive in scale the generator design is simplier than the one in your car. The rotors are typically a single symetrical winding producing a sinlge magnetic field. The stator windings are simple also and directly output the three phase power. The field strenght is controlled by rotor current just like your car. The controls themsleves are much more complex do the cost of the generator and the need to protect it, regulate reactive power, control voltage ,and be stable while electrically connected to hundred of other generators.

May, 02 2012

Jim Beyer says

Does anyone know if the very old DC transmission systems had only one wire? That is, the DC voltage (110, 10,000, or whatever) was on the line and ground was simply ground?

May, 02 2012

Don Hirschberg says

This talk of DC has me reminiscing - going off topic and somewhat off competence, (I'm a Chemical Engineer.).

When I was a child Commonwealth Edison offered a menu of voltages of DC to customers in downtown Chicago. A network of freight tunnels ran deep below the area and small electric trains that supplied almost everything to the major buildings, coal, raw material, paper, huge Christmas trees,etc. Utility lines and power lines also ran through these tunnels. The tunnel company also sold cool air before widespread refrigerated air. I think all elevators were operated with DC motors. Factories used large DC motors to drive long jack shafts with each machine having a takeoff. Electroplaters bought the voltage they wanted. Some stores (famously Marshall Field) and parcel services ran battery operated delivery trucks and were charged directly off purchased DC. The trolly buses ran on rubber tires and used two overhead conductors. The street cars used one overhead conductor. DC was still thought important enough that we had to learn the characteristics of various DC motor windings – in high school physics. It was all soon to go and DC users had to buy motor generators.

May, 04 2012

Len Gould says

Does anyone here thing power electronics might eventually get so cheap that substation transformers might eventually have built-in phase-balancing electronics on the output so that it would no longer matter which phase any individual or group of distributed generating sources were connected?

May, 07 2012

Michael Keller says

The government ban gasoline exports? Sound like another way to unleash the unintended consequences that always accompany ham-fisted and poorly thought out government attempts to manage the economy.

If quickly reducing the price of gasoline is the objective, then the following could be implemented immediately:

(1) Get rid of mandates for ethanol fuel blends. Instant 10% increase in fuel mileage. As an added bonus, the price of corn (and lots of products that use corn) drops since we are no longer using our food supply to fuel our vehicles.

(2) Get rid of boutique fuel blends that place undue constraints on refinery gasoline production, with little, if any, affect on air pollution. The supply of gasoline would increase and that leads to reductions in the price at the pump.

Longer range, increase our own supplies by stopping bureaucrats from handcuffing our own domestic production.

Lest one go into hysterics over air pollution, rely on the ever more efficient vehicles to improve air quality, instead of bureaucratic regulations chasing ever more elusive and expensive fractional percentage improvements.

July, 12 2012

tony knight says

Add your comments:

Please log in to leave a comment!
back to top

Receive Energy Central eNews & Updates


Best Practices in Recruiting Participants for Energy Management Programs

Wednesday Apr 23, 2014 - 12:00 PM Eastern - Virtual Event

The key to success for energy management programs, whether demand response or energy efficiency, is getting customers enrolled. This free webcast will feature Pepco Holdings, Inc. (PHI) discussing the marketing tactics and tools that have contributed to the success of more...

A New Approach to Substation Security and NERC compliance

Tuesday Apr 29, 2014 - 1:00 PM Eastern - Fremont

High profile intrusions and physical attacks against substations have spurred a lot of discussion about physical security resulting in a FERC directive, for NERC to propose new physical security standards from NERC. A holistic approach to security has been proven more...

Asset Intelligence - Using analytics to increase reliability and manage total cost of asset ownership

Tuesday Apr 29, 2014 - 12:00 PM Eastern - Virtual Event

The growing use of asset monitoring and management technologies is creating a new paradigm in asset management. This new model expands the use of existing data to arrive at a significantly deeper and more precise assessment of the utility operation's more...

Maximizing Workforce Management to Improve Customer Experience and Increase Operational Efficiency

Wednesday Apr 30, 2014 - 12:00 PM Eastern - Virtual Event

The webinar will focus on: How to apply the key tenets of Workforce Management to existing or new practices; Application of effectiveness measures for each process of Workforce Management; and Lessons learned during a Workforce Management practice optimization project (processes more...


Get your event listing in front of more than 100,000 industry professionals by posting on EnergyCentral's Event Center.

Sponsored Content