Peak Oil in the Congressional record: Overview

Peak Oil in the Congressional record: Overview

by Alice Friedemann, June 11, 2015

Even the most ardent techno-optimists and economists admit there are limited supplies of fossil fuels, but they insist we don’t need to worry for a long time. It appears they have succeeded in convincing the government and most people they are right, because there are only two documents about planning for peak oil that I’m aware of at the federal level.

  1. Hirsch, R. L., et al. February 2005. Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, mitigation, & risk management. Department of Energy.
  2. GAO. 2007. Crude oil. Uncertainty about future oil supply makes it important to develop a strategy for addressing a peak and Decline in Oil Production. U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Many cities now have sustainable task forces, but only a few cities had peak oil task forces 10 years ago (San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Bellingham). Now in 2016, there are roughly 50,000 people around the world following collapse related issues (peak everything, limits to growth, exponential use or resources, exponential growth of populatoin, etc).

Congress is very aware of our energy situation (see posts under Experts/GOVERNMENT).  But the military and government officials don’t call the crisis “peak oil” very often.  But if you search the U.S. Government Publishing Office for “energy dependence”, “energy security” or “energy crisis”  you” get tens of thousands of results.

But you won’t get any energy returned on invested, EROI, and only 2 on energy returned on energy invested, EROEI (not worth looking at). Nearly all of the “net energy balance” results are about ethanol having a positive net energy balance.  It would appear that Congress is completely unaware of the concept of EROI or EROEI except for one harsh attack of Patzek and Pimentel’s peer-reviewed research that found ethanol to have a negative net energy, called “Scapegoating of ethanol” by Senator Grassley of Iowa, the #1 ethanol producing state by a long shot.

So ethanol, hydrogen, fuel cells, you name it — they all sound good, because no rational basis for comparing them based on energy return is ever used as a basis for evaluating the best options.  Vehicles continue to get lousy mileage, which is not entirely the car makers fault — they’ve made fuel efficient vehicles for years, but Americans have preferred to buy gas guzzlers, and congress hasn’t forced industry or citizens to do otherwise for decades.  Even the Cafe standards President Obama finally enacted after 30 years haven’t helped, as soon as gasoline prices went down in 2014, Americans went back to buying gas guzzling SUVs and light trucks, driving the average fuel efficiency down!

The vested interests of each state (i.e. coal, ethanol, oil, etc) and their counterpart private company CEO’s and think tanks are invited to speak at House and Senate hearings. Of course they praise “drill-baby-drill”, ethanol, and other so-called solutions to the limit.  It’s reached the point where the phrase “energy independence” is being shouted by congressmen and “experts” in the congressional record.

When energy efficiency rears its ugly head, Congress is overwhelmed by opposition from industries if it would increase their costs.  So although there are grants being given for energy efficiency in transportation, buildings, and so on, it is is not enough, and it is taking far too much time.  Worse yet, most planning is based on reducing greenhouse gases, which can increase energy use because the “solutions” are expensive (i.e. tier IV) and yet don’t reduce fossil energy consumption.  A speed limit of 55 mph would reduce pollutants and conserve oil, but political leaders are afraid to do anything that would potentially lose votes.

One theme that runs through just about every energy session are the many oil companies, think tank experts, and senators from oil producing states saying they can solve the energy crisis by drilling on federal land.  Fracking companies promise energy independence with fewer regulations.

To straighten the confusion out, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is sometimes brought in.  They write long reports with great recommendations, and specify the most productive research that needs to be done.  Four or five years later they revisit the project only to find that few did their homework.  For example, check out the 2014 follow up (“Reducing the Fuel Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Medium- and Heavy-Duty Vehicles”) of the 2010 “Technologies and Approaches to Reducing the Fuel Consumption of Medium- and Heavy-Duty Vehicles”.  Or the 2013 follow up “An Evaluation of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Marine and Hydrokinetic Resource Assessments” of a previous report.

You could consider Department of Energy and National Laboratory research on ethanol, wind, solar, and so on as “planning”.  But what if they’re researching “solutions” that have a negative net energy balance?  Only a few Energy Returned on Invested (EROI) papers have been published, mainly funded by private businesses such as the National Corn Growers Associations in non-peer-reviewed journals. So we don’t know if the subsidies for ethanol, solar, wind, and so on are worthwhile, or if they’re corporate welfare.  Especially since private companies don’t have to reveal cost and performance data, despite government subsidies, though they often will release their very best, most favorable data from their best sites (i.e. class 4+ wind turbines, 7.5+ DNI solar sites).  That means scientists have to use models that guess at what real values might be, instead of the actual data to guess what the EROI might be. The only exception I can think of is Prieto & Hall’s Spain’s Solar Revolution, where the data was made public by the government of Spain. So they were able to get the solar PV data of Europe’s sunniest country, with accurate measures of generated energy from over 50,000 installations using several years of real-life data from optimized, efficient, multi-megawatt and well-oriented facilities.

You have to wonder why the construction of renewables plummets when subsidies are ended. That implies the high EROI figures of wind and solar proponents may be too high, since if the EROI were really as high as claimed, these installations would be very profitable.

Congress also keeps confusing the liquid transportation fuel energy crisis with electricity.  Electricity does nothing to solve the energy crisis, because ships, locomotives, and heavy-duty trucks run on diesel or gasoline fuel.  Amory Lovins and others point this out in their testimony quite often. Trucks don’t run on electricity and due to the laws of physics, probably never will.

Peak Coal and Peak Natural Gas loom too. But plans to cope with declining fossil fuels aren’t being made, instead, the opposite is true. Most government, industry, and think-tank documents worry about how to cope with endless growth and increasing road congestion. Many discuss reducing greenhouse gases.

But only a handful care about energy efficiency, and they appear to have had no effect given no increase in miles per gallon in transportation, nearly entirely dependent on oil, in the vehicles that matter most, the medium and heavy duty diesel combustion engines that do the actual work of society.

There is a huge risk we’ll be caught with our pants down, that oil will decline sooner and faster than anticipated because the warnings from many geologists studying this issue are being ignored. And also from non-geological factors, such as war in the Middle East (where most of the remaining oil lies), exports decreasing from oil producing nations due to their growing populations and need for very-energy intensive water desalination plants, lack of water for Enhanced Oil Recovery, attacks on refineries and supertankers (especially in choke points), cyber-attack, the Alaska pipeline turning into a giant popsicle (as Waldman writes about in “Rust“), and so on.

Europe has shown that per capita use of energy can be cut in half with no reduction in lifestyle – in fact, their citizens live longer and have better health care and education than the United States.

Letting the Market decide how to spend finite amounts of fossil fuels will be seen in the future as the biggest waste of wealth in all of human history, and limits the time we have to explore the universe from microorganisms to dark matter.

The problem isn’t “running out of oil”, it is the rate of flow, the slowing down of amounts of oil available to society at a time when population is growing to 11 billion people. The flow will slow because the remaining oil is remote, nasty, gunky, deep and takes more energy and time to extract and refine, lowering its rate of flow and EROI.

There are many reasons why peak oil isn’t being talked about by political, economic, and scientific leaders that I discuss at my website, If peak oil is being planned for, it’s probably classified information within DOD, Homeland, and national security departments, treated as a disaster probably solved with the national guard and other security forces to maintain order and prevent mass migrations.  Let’s hope the main plan is like the one made in 1980 to ration remaining oil to the most important sectors, such as agriculture (plant, harvest, distribute, cook food) and not by price so that the 1% can continue happily motoring…which is what the Market would prefer…

If renewables won’t work, then Congress is certainly not making the proper plans to go back to the 16th century and the age of wood (which will be used up in less than half a year in some states). 

If the goal is to stretch out oil to make the transition less harsh, and hope that a miracle happens, such as fusion power, then we ought to be conserving oil and importing it so we have some left here when exports stop.  We should be training far more young people in organic agriculture, insulating homes and buildings, letting most roads go back to gravel, reduce just-in-time delivery which wastes a tremendous amount of fuel, light-weight vehicles, and so on.

Above all, we should be cleaning up mining and nuclear waste with the remaining energy to lessen the suffering of thousands of future generations, and getting rid of nuclear missiles since the odds of nuclear war will increase enormously as poverty and war over the remaining resources cause military coups, ignorant dictators are elected or take over (i.e. Donald Trump-like demagogues).

Although peak oil is mentioned specifically in some hearings (2014: 7 documents: 7 denials, 1 affirmation, 2013: 7 documents: 6 denials, 2 affirmations of peak oil), a better way to see what our leaders know, or don’t know, is looking at posts in energy dependence, energy independence, and energy policy; and all of the military posts, since they are the department of government most on top of what the implications are and most likely to have plans for action, which I’m almost certain are classified.


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