Preparing for the end of oil

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Our civilization rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of fossil fuels. What assurance do we then have that our energy needs will continue to be supplied by fossil fuels: The answer is – in the long run – none.” –the late Admiral Hyman G. Rickover

It’s a thought-provoking speech now over 50 years old about the future of our petroleum-based global economy, given by one of the greatest mavericks in U.S. Naval history: Admiral G. Rickover, known as “The Father of the Nuclear Navy” for his work in creating a fleet of nuclear-powered fighting ships and submarines. In 1957, before an audience of physicians (of all people), Rickover expounded on what he saw as a fragile future for a human civilization based predominantly on petroleum fuels to function.

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It’s still worth reading today (and you can click here for the full text) for it poses the big question everyone in trucking – heck, anyone who relies on motorist transit, which is, of course … everyone – must answer, namely: what do we do when petroleum becomes too scarce or too costly for our vehicles? More importantly, how will that dearth of oil impact our societies?

“We live in what historians may someday call the Fossil Fuel Age,” Rickover said in his speech five decades ago. “Today coal, oil, and natural gas supply 93% of the world's energy; water power accounts for only 1%; and the labor of men and domestic animals the remaining 6%. This is a startling reversal of corresponding figures for 1850 – only a century ago – [when] fossil fuels supplied 5% of the world's energy, and men and animals 94%.”

He noted that all the fossil fuels used before 1900 would not last five years at the 1950-era rates of consumption – rates which have increased fantastically since Rickover (who died in 1986) gave his talk.

“Nowhere are these rates higher and growing faster than in the United States,” he said. “Our country, with only 6% of the world's population, uses one third of the world's total energy input; this proportion would be even greater except that we use energy more efficiently than other countries.” Those statistics still hold largely true today, with the U.S. still consuming some 25% to 30% of the world’s energy supplies.

Whether this “Golden Age,” as Rickover termed it, continues depends entirely upon our ability to keep energy supplies in balance with the needs of our growing population – because it is “possession of surplus energy,” he stressed, that is a requisite for any kind of civilization.

“For if man possesses merely the energy of his own muscles, he must expend all his strength - mental and physical - to obtain the bare necessities of life,” Rickover noted. “Surplus energy provides … the freedom from toil without which there can be no art, music, literature, or learning. There is no need to belabor the point. What lifted man – one of the weaker mammals – above the animal world was that he could devise, with his brain, ways to increase the energy at his disposal, and use the leisure so gained to cultivate his mind and spirit. Where man must rely solely on the energy of his own body, he can sustain only the most meager existence.”

A reduction of per capita energy consumption, by contrast, always in the past led to a decline in civilization and a reversion to a more primitive way of life, said Rickover. “For example, exhaustion of wood fuel is believed to have been the primary reason for the fall of the Mayan Civilization on this continent and of the decline of once flourishing civilizations in Asia,” he said. “India and China once had large forests, as did much of the Middle East. Deforestation not only lessened the energy base but had a further disastrous effect: lacking plant cover, soil washed away, and with soil erosion the nutritional base was reduced as well.”

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Rickover’s point, bluntly stated, is that the Earth’s resources are finite, and that fossil fuels (as many termed petroleum back then) are not renewable in the classic sense.

“In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations,” he explained. “They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot. Fuel that has been burned is gone forever. Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves.”

In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect, said Rickover (seen aboive at left with President Jimmy Carter): the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.

“Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank,” he stated. “A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare.”

Harsh words indeed – but Rickover was long known as a four-star Admiral that let the chips fall where they may. Born to a Jewish family in 1900 in an area of Poland then under Russian jurisdiction, his relations emigrated to the U.S. in 1905 to flee anti-Semitic pogroms launched with the blessing of Tsar Nicholas II; eventually wound up living in Chicago. (A trail my own grandfather and his family followed almost exactly – down to the city and year – when they fled the Ukraine for the same reasons).

As luck would have it, Rickover won a coveted appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy after high school, graduated in 1922, and eventually volunteered for submarine duty at the then-considered advanced age of 29; serving on two subs from 1929-1933. During World War II, he served as head of the electrical section of the bureau of ships –winning the Legion of Merit for his work – and became adapt at running large development programs, finding and hiring technical people, and working with private industry.

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Yet he wasn’t an easy person to work with. Time magazine – who put him on the cover in 1957 as their “man of the Year” – described Rickover as “sharp-tongued; spurring his men to exhaustion, ripping through red tape, driving contractors into rages. He went on making enemies, but by the end of the war he had won the rank of captain. He had also won a reputation as a man who gets things done.”

Other descriptives (most none too positive) followed: Hyperactive, political, blunt, confrontational, insulting, flamboyant, and an unexcelled workaholic who was always demanding of others – without regard for rank or position – as well as himself. Moreover, he had "little tolerance for mediocrity, none for stupidity," according to recollections of friends. "If a man is dumb," said a Chicago friend, "Rickover thinks he ought to be dead."

Yet this is also the man that figured out a way to get efficient and safe nuclear reactors onto ships and submarines as a source of power – reactors that, in the 1950s, were the size of city blocks. His obsessive fixation on safety and quality control also gave the U.S. nuclear Navy a vastly superior safety record to then-Soviet Russian one.

In short, this was a man worth listening to – and his take on the future of oil-based societies was a dim one, to say the least.

“Estimates of fossil fuel reserves vary to an astonishing degree … in part … because the results differ greatly if cost of extraction is disregarded or if in calculating how long reserves will last, population growth is not taken into consideration; or, equally important, not enough weight is given to increased fuel consumption required to process inferior or substitute metals,” Rickover said.

“But the most significant distinction between optimistic and pessimistic fuel reserve statistics is that the optimists generally speak of the immediate future – the next twenty-five years or so – while the pessimists think in terms of a century from now,” he explained. “A century or even two is a short span in the history of a great people. It seems sensible to me to take a long view, even if this involves facing unpleasant facts.”

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Back then in the 1950s, the “unpleasant fact” about petroleum reserves was that they would likely run out at some time between the years 2000 and 2050, if then-present standards of living and population growth rates were taken into account. “Oil and natural gas will disappear first; coal, last,” Rickover said. “There will be coal left in the earth, of course. But it will be so difficult to mine that energy costs would rise to economically intolerable heights, so that it would then become necessary either to discover new energy sources or to lower standards of living drastically.”

Of course, here we are in 2009 … and none of that has happened. Some would say that greatly discounts Rickover’s view. On the contrary, though, I think his view – if not his forecast date – is still right on the mark.

“For more than one hundred years we have stoked ever growing numbers of machines with coal; for fifty years we have pumped gas and oil into our factories, cars, trucks, tractors, ships, planes, and homes without giving a thought to the future,” he said. “Occasionally the voice of a Cassandra has been raised only to be quickly silenced when a lucky discovery revised estimates of our oil reserves upward, or a new coalfield was found in some remote spot. Fewer such lucky discoveries can be expected in the future, especially in industrialized countries where extensive mapping of resources has been done.”

Yet in Rickover’s view the “popularizers” of scientific news would have us believe that there is no cause for anxiety, that reserves will last thousands of years, and that before they run out science will have produced miracles.

“Our past history and security have given us the sentimental belief that the things we fear will never really happen – that everything turns out right in the end,” Rickover said back then. “But prudent men will reject these tranquilizers and prefer to face the facts so that they can plan intelligently for the needs of their posterity.”

I like that image – “prudent men rejecting these tranquilizers, preferring to face the facts.” Quite a statement from quite an individual.

Yet it also seems to me we are finally being prudent; that the $4 gasoline and $5 diesel jolt of last summer is making an impact. Truckers like J.B. Hunt are planning to use significant amounts of algae-based biodiesel; big fleets such as Coca-Cola and AT&T are committing to buy all-electric commercial trucks; compressed natural gas and propane are broadening their appeal as vehicle fuels.

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In fact, I think we’re starting to make some serious headway in terms of strengthening the alternatives to petroleum fuels. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with another passage from another great figure in history; one made in a much darker time in the face of much more serious odds, but one that sums up the need – in any human endeavor – of staying on a tough but necessary path in order to reach a better future:

"I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government; I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering … You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - Victory in spite of all terrors - Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival. Let that be realized." –Winston S. Churchill

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