by Alice Friedemann, August 23, 2014.
You can’t understand the predicament we’re in until you can “see” the oil we’re swimming in.
What follows is a life cycle of a very simple object, the pencil. I’ve reworded, added to, and shortened Read’s I Pencil, My Family Tree below. Fossil fuel energy input ACTIONS and OBJECTS are in BOLD CAPITALS:
“My family tree begins with … a cedar tree from Oregon. Now contemplate the antecedents — all the people, numberless skills, and fabrication:
All the SAWS and TRUCKS and ROPE and countless OTHER GEAR to HARVESTand CART cedar logs to the RAILROAD siding. The MINING of ore, MAKING of STEEL, and its REFINEMENT into SAWS, AXES, and MOTORS.
The growing of HEMP, LUBRICATED with OIL, DIRT REMOVED, COMBED, COMPRESSED, SPUN into yard, BRAIDED into ROPE
BUILD LOGGING CAMPS (BEDS, MESS HALLS). SHOP for, DELIVER, and COOK FOOD to feed the working men. Not to mention the untold thousands of persons who had a hand in every cup of COFFEE the loggers drank!
The LOGS are SHIPPED to a MILL in California. Can you imagine how many people were needed to MAKE FLAT CARS and RAILS and RAILROAD ENGINES, to CONSTRUCT and INSTALL the COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS required?
Consider the mill work. The cedar logs are CUT into small, pencil-length slats less than a quarter inch thick. These are KILN-DRIED and then TINTED. The slats are WAXED and KILN-DRIED again. How many skills went into the making of the TINT and the KILNS, into SUPPLYING the HEAT, the LIGHT and POWER, the BELTS, MOTORS, and all the OTHER THINGS a MILL requires? Plus the SWEEPERS and the MEN who POURED the CONCRETE for the DAM of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company HYDRO-ELECTRIC PLANT which supplies the mill’s POWER!
Don’t overlook the WORKERS and OIL BURNED by the RAILROAD LOCOMOTIVE to TRANSPORT 60 TRAIN-CARS of SLATS ACROSS the nation.
Once in the PENCIL FACTORY—worth millions of dollars in MACHINERY and BUILDING—each slat has 8 GROOVES CUT into them by a GROOVE-CUTTING MACHINE, after which the LEAD-LAYING MACHINE PLACES a piece of LEAD in every other slat, APPLIES GLUE and PLACES another SLAT on top–—a lead sandwich, so to speak. Seven brothers and I are mechanically carved from this “wood-clinched” sandwich.
My “lead” itself—it contains no lead at all—is complex. The GRAPHITE is MINED in Sri Lanka. Consider these MINERS and those who MAKE their many TOOLS and the makers of the PAPER SACKS in which the graphite is SHIPPED and those who make the STRING that ties the sacks and the MEN who LIFT them aboard SHIPS and the MEN who MAKE the SHIPS. Even the LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS along the way assisted in my birth—and the HARBOR PILOTS.
The graphite is mixed with CLAY FROM Mississippi in which AMMONIUM HYDROXIDE is used in the REFINING process. Then WETTING AGENTS and animal fats are CHEMICALLY REACTED with sulfuric acid. After PASSING THROUGH NUMEROUS MACHINES, the mixture finally appears as endless extrusions—as from a sausage grinder-cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT. To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are then TREATED with a hot mixture which includes CANDELILLA WAX from Mexico, PARAFFIN WAX, and HYDROGENATED NATURAL FATS.
My cedar RECEIVES 6 coats of LACQUER. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the GROWERS of CASTOR BEANS and the REFINERS of CASTOR OIL are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!
Observe the LABELING, a film FORMED by APPLYING HEAT to CARBON BLACK mixed with RESINS. How do you make resins and what is carbon black?
My bit of metal—the ferrule—is BRASS. Think of all the PERSONS who MINE ZINC and COPPER and those who have the skills to MAKE shiny SHEET BRASS from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black NICKEL. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story would take pages to explain.
Then there’s my crowning glory, the ERASER, inelegantly referred to in the trade as “the plug,” the part man uses to erase the errors he makes with me. An ingredient called “factice” is what does the erasing. It is a rubber-like product made by reacting rape-seed oil from Indonesia with sulfur chloride. Then, too, there are numerous VULCANIZING and ACCELERATING AGENTS. The PUMICE comes from Italy; and the pigment which gives “the plug” its color is CADMIUM SULFIDE.
Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?
Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Now, you may say that I go too far in relating the picker of a coffee berry in far off Brazil and food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Sri Lanka and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field—paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on.”
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)
When it comes to replacing fossil fuels with another kind of energy, you want to be sure you aren’t merely building a fancy Rube Goldberg contraption that churns out less power over its lifetime than the energy contained within the fossil fuels you used to build it.
There are decades-old scientific methods to figure this out, such “Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI), embodied energy, net energy, etc.
The problems with LCA and EROEI
This is insane! There are infinite regressions since every object has its own LCA and EROEI.
LCA & EROEI studies are bound to miss some steps. Reed’s pencil story left out the design, marketing, packaging, sales, distribution, supply chains between the United States and Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, and the final ride the pencil takes on a garbage.
Every step in a process subtracts from the ultimate energy output and lowers the EROEI. Oil is pure concentrated sunshine brewed for free. Just drill, refine, and cheaply pipeline the oil to customers. Building alternative energy resources takes dozens to hundreds of steps, hundreds to thousands of components, and vast amounts of energy burned by all the transportation required to procure minerals and components from all over the world.
A report that chased down the energy in the infinite regressions would take a lifetime and be over a hundred thousand pages long. So boundaries have to be set, which leads to never-ending fights between scientists. On average, industry-sponsored scientists tend to use very narrow boundaries to come up with positive results, and systems ecologists — the experts and inventors of EROEI methodology — use wider boundaries, energy rather than financial data whenever possible (since commodity prices rise and fall constantly), and come up with lower or negative results.
For example, the studies that showed corn ethanol had a very small positive EROEI of 1.2 managed to do so by just looking at just the energy used within the biorefinery. Other scientists said that’s rubbish, what about the energy to make the tractor that planted the corn, the energy to plant, harvest, and deliver the corn to the biorefinery, the energy used by trucks, trains, and barges to deliver the ethanol, and so on.
Worse yet, there are many different LCA tables to choose from, so scientists also accuse each other of cherry-picking data that supports the result they want to come up with, or argue the data is out-of-date.
Alternative energy resources must be sustainable and renewable
What’s the point of making biofuels if unsustainable amounts of fresh water, topsoil, and phosphorous are used, or windmills and solar PV if they depend on scarce, energy-intensive rare earth metals, with most reserves in other countries that we’d have to fight over like we do oil now?
Nor do most analyses consider the environmental harm done. Making pencils mowed down forests, contaminated the air, and polluted rivers.
Nevertheless, these studies are valuable no matter what the results, because you can see all the oiliness from start to end, and the more studies you read, the more you can see what boundaries were set, and decide for yourself which scientists wrote the most complete and fair study.
Civilization needs energy resources with an EROEI of at least 12
Charles A. S. Hall, who founded EROEI methodology, initially thought an EROEI of at least 3 was needed to keep civilization as we know it operating. After three decades of research, he recently co-authored a paper that makes the case an EROEI of at least 12-14 is needed (Lambert).
Lambert, Jessica G., Hall Charles A. S. et al. 2014. Energy, EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy 64:153–167
Lambert, J. Hall, Charles, et al. Nov 2012. . EROI of Global Energy Resources Preliminary Status and Trends. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry