Oil Built Our Infrastructure Back When it was Cheap & Abundant

Most of our infrastructure was built many decades ago, when the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) of oil was 100:1, and now it’s down to roughly 30:1 in the gulf, and much less elsewhere (at 10:1 civilization collapses).

What that means is that for every barrel, 100 more could be obtained.

The roads, bridges, energy pipelines, energy refineries, clean water pipelines, sewage treatment plants, harbors, railroads, power plants — you name it — are all falling apart.  The material to build them was mined, fabricated, and transported to the construction site when oil was extremely cheap and plentiful.

Additional oil is expended defending all of the infrastructure (and billions of combustion engines in cars, tractors, chainsaws) from pirates, terrorists, and other (potential) enemies with our vast navy, air force, and armies, which uses 2% of the United States fuel.

I don’t see any evidence that there’s enough oil to mine, fabricate, deliver, and maintain a combination of new energy resources such as an expanded electric grid, solar, wind, biofuel, or nuclear, and these resources certainly don’t have the enough energy to mine, fabricate, and deliver new materials to replace themselves.  (since all of these begin rusting the day they’re born, their lifetimes are typically 30 years or less).

Much of our infrastructure is a total waste, as Bent Flyvbjerg points out in “Mega delusional: The curse of the megaproject“.  Global spending on megaprojects such as the Olympic facilities in Brazil & Russia, defense, Information Systems, and so on is $6 to 9 trillion a year. What drives this enthusiasm in the face of repeated failure?

  • The rapture engineers and technologists get from building large and innovative projects that push the limits
  • Politicians love constructing monuments to themselves and their causes and these grand schemes are media magnets that give politicians more exposure.
  • Businesses make money, and lots of jobs are created for unions, contractors, engineers, architects, consultants, construction and transportation workers, bankers, investors, landowners, lawyers and developers
  • If it doesn’t work out, the taxpayer pays.
  • The public is tricked into approval by all the job creation, new services, and perhaps environmental benefits.  But this only happens if the project is done right.  Conventional megaprojects have terrible records in both cost and benefit.
  • Psychological factors keep the illusions flowing, such as uniqueness bias in terms of technology and design where managers to see their projects as firsts, so they don’t bother to learn from other projects.
  • Also there can be a lock-in at an early stage.   Former California State Assembly member Willie Brown described the cost overruns on the San Francisco Transbay Terminal as:  “The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
  • A false sense of control is common and ignorance of potential “black swans” can bring on failure.
  • Last but far not least is the optimism bias which plagues cost estimates.
  • Reverse evolution: The projects that get chosen look the best on paper by underestimating costs and overestimating benefits.

The consequences are huge: they can damage a national economy.

The truly optimistic might even say that one day the word megaproject will no longer be synonymous with unexpected costs and questionable benefits.

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