What Do You Know About Energy?

Paul Donahue

September 2008

Energy is the basis of all life on Earth and is the lifeblood of our society and economy. What do you know of it and our use of it?

Our society has grown to today’s tremendous proportions because of the availability of relatively cheap and abundant fossil fuels. What are the three types of fossil fuels in most common usage? ANSWER: The three types of fossil fuels in most common usage are oil, natural gas and coal. Peat is a fourth type of fossil fuel, but it is much less commonly used. Peat, a sort of pre-coal, becomes coal when it undergoes several changes as a result of bacterial decay, compaction, heat, and time.

Why are they called fossil fuels? ANSWER: They are called fossil fuels because they are fuels derived from ancient plant and animal remains.

What country consumes the most oil? ANSWER: The United States.

What percentage of the world’s oil supply is consumed by the U.S.? ANSWER: The United States, with about 5% of the world's population, is responsible for about 25% of the world's oil consumption.

How much oil does the U.S. consume each day? ANSWER: The U.S. consumes about 21 million barrels of oil per day.

What percentage of the oil consumed by the U.S. is imported? ANSWER: The United States imports more than 65% of the oil it consumes.

What countries are the three largest suppliers of oil to the U.S.? ANSWER: In descending order of importance they are Canada (a recent arrival in the number one position because of the Alberta tar sands or oil sands), Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

What percentage of the energy consumed by the U.S. comes from oil? ANSWER: About 40% of the energy consumed by the United States comes from oil.

What percentage of the energy we use in the United States comes from sustainable sources, such as wind and solar? ANSWER: Renewable energy resources provide just over 6% of the total energy used in the U.S. today. Of this amount, over 70% comes from hydropower.

How much oil does the U.S. military consume each day? ANSWER: The U.S. military is the largest consumer of oil in the world - about 300,000 barrels per day, more than the entire nation of Sweden. In Iraq the U.S. military uses the equivalent of about 16 gallons of oil per soldier per day. In 2007, the oil companies Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total, BP, and Chevron were paid $4.1 billion by the Department of Defense, with Shell leading the way at $2.1 billion.

What is the phenomenon of peak oil and how does it threaten life as we know it? ANSWER: Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. Whether or not peak oil will occur is not in doubt - the only question is in its timing. Given that our society is based almost completely on relatively cheap and abundant oil, the consequences of peak oil are potentially catastrophic.

Have we already passed peak oil? ANSWER: Some analysts believe that peak oil occurred a couple of years ago and that now we are in a plateau phase before the inevitable decline begins. Other analysts believe that peak oil is still lies a few years in the future. In any case, the outlook is grim.

Is the discovery of new oilfields keeping apace with the rate at which we are using oil or with the growth in world demand for oil? ANSWER: No, in both cases. The size of new oil discoveries has been declining for some time. On average, oil companies have discovered a little less oil each year since 1961. Through this same period the world demand for oil has steadily increased

The U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a report examining the likely consequences of the impending global peak in oil production. Have you heard of this report and what is its most alarming conclusion? ANSWER: The report titled Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management, commonly known as the Hirsch Report, was released in February 2005. The report's Executive Summary begins with the following paragraph, “The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.” Note the use of the word “unprecedented” twice in the same paragraph. Also note the time frame. For their “viable mitigation options” the authors assume a "crash program rate of implementation." The full report is available online at http://www.netl.doe.gov/publications/others/pdf/Hirsch042506.pdf.

World demand for oil is increasing. What country is experiencing the greatest rise in demand? ANSWER: Due to its rapid industrialization and growing middle class, China is experiencing the greatest rise in demand for oil. Industrializing countries such as India and Brazil are also experiencing significant growth in demand.

Which three countries have the world’s largest remaining reserves of oil? ANSWER: In terms of so-called conventional oil, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq have the world’s largest remaining reserves. If so-called unconventional oil is included, such as the Alberta tar sands or oil sands, Canada and Venezuela are very large players.

Plastic is everywhere in our modern society. From what substance is plastic made? ANSWER: Oil.

Nitrogen fertilizers are responsible for a large percentage of world food production. What substance is used as the feedstock for these fertilizers? ANSWER: Natural gas.

If oil production has peaked or will peak in the near future, what is the future of natural gas? ANSWER: The world peak in natural gas production lies only a decade or so behind that of oil.

Which three countries have the world’s largest remaining reserves of natural gas? ANSWER: Russia, Iran and Qatar have the world’s largest remaining reserves of natural gas.

What are tar sands? ANSWER: Tar sands or oil sands are naturally occurring mixtures of sand or clay, water and an extremely dense and viscous form of petroleum called bitumen. They are found in large amounts in many countries throughout the world, but are found in extremely large quantities in Canada and Venezuela. Alberta is currently experiencing a huge boom in tar sands development, so much so that it has pushed Canada into the position of number one foreign supplier of oil to the U.S. Unfortunately, producing oil from tar sands requires vast quantities of water and is responsible for the emission of vast quantities of greenhouse gases. For this reason the Alberta project has been called the “environmental crime of the century”.

What African countries currently experiencing serious civil conflict have significant reserves of oil? ANSWER: Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia, all experiencing serious civil conflict, have significant reserves of oil. Nigeria is our fifth most important foreign oil supplier.

What is AFRICOM and how does it relate to oil? ANSWER: AFRICOM is the United States Africa Command, a new Unified Combatant Command of the U.S. Department of Defense, to be responsible for U.S. military operations in and military relations with 53 African nations. It joins CENTCOM, responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia, SOUTHCOM, responsible for South America and other Unified Combatant Commands. AFRICOM is supposed to be operational by late September 2008. With African countries holding a significant amount of the world’s remaining oil reserves and growing civil unrest in some of the more important oil nations, AFRICOM would seem to be a clear signal that the Pentagon is planning on having to fight future oil wars on the African continent.

How much does the U.S. spend to protect and control the world’s supply of oil? ANSWER: The U.S. spends about $150 billion per year to protect our access to oil and control the world’s supply.

The Bush administration has nothing but negative things to say about Hugo Chavez, the left-leaning president of Venezuela. They have also been in involved in unsuccessful coup attempts and meddled in equally unsuccessful electoral campaigns attempting to unseat him. Why do they lavish so much more attention on him than on other left-leaning Latin American leaders? ANSWER: Because Venezuela is our fourth most important foreign oil supplier. Among Chavez’ first acts as president was halting the planned privatization of the oil sector, and he has since used Venezuela’s oil shipments to the U.S. as a bargaining chip with this country.

What is “clean coal” technology and is it really clean? ANSWER: Clean coal is a term used to describe methods and technologies intended to reduce the environmental impact of using coal as an energy source. These efforts can include chemically washing minerals and impurities from the coal, coal gasification, treating the flue gases with steam to remove sulfur dioxide, and other proposed technologies to capture the carbon dioxide from the flue gas. Coal industry groups claim that clean coal technology is a solution to global warming. Many environmental groups, however, oppose the concept, calling “clean coal” an oxymoron because emissions and wastes are not avoided, but are simply transferred from one waste stream to another.

U.S. politicians talk of switching from gasoline to ethanol as a path to greater energy independence? What are the problems with the production of ethanol for fuel? ANSWER: There are several problems with the production of ethanol for fuel. First of all, there are minimal savings, if any in either oil use or greenhouse gas emissions as it takes almost as much energy (supplied by oil) to produce a gallon of ethanol as the energy that gallon of ethanol will ultimately yield. Second, the production of ethanol for fuel requires a lot of land. University of Minnesota researchers report that if all corn currently grown in the U.S. were used to make ethanol it would displace only 12% of current U.S. gasoline consumption. To meet the current demand for ethanol, farmers in the U.S. are removing acreage from the Conservation Reserve Program to plant the land to corn, and in tropical countries the demand is driving deforestation. Third, if farm land is devoted to ethanol production, it is not producing the food needed to feed a hungry world. The amount of grain needed to make enough ethanol to fill a 25-gallon SUV fuel tank would feed one person for a full year. Fourth, the demand for ethanol is one of the prime reasons for the worldwide rise in food prices, contributing greatly to the growing world food crisis.

Many U.S. politicians have advocated the opening up of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil development as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil supplies. If we were to do this, at current rates of consumption, how long would the oil from ANWR last us? ANSWER: If ANWR has 10 billion barrels of oil, and our current consumption is 21 million barrels per day, then the ANWR reserves represent a bit less than 16 months worth of oil…and that’s if all the oil were sold in the U.S. and not exported overseas, something the oil companies could easily do.

Many people talk about hydrogen as an important energy source of the future. Is this true? Where would the hydrogen come from and how would it be produced? ANSWER: Hydrogen is made by splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen-hydrogen bond is strong and the process requires lots of energy. From the Second Law of Thermodynamics we learn that it takes more energy to split a molecule of water into hydrogen and oxygen than the amount of energy you will get from burning that hydrogen. Therefore, it’s more appropriate to think of hydrogen as a battery than as an energy source. If renewable energy is used to split the water molecules, then hydrogen fuel could be a good thing. If fossil fuels are used instead, then from the point of view of greenhouse gas emissions, we would be better off just burning the fossil fuel directly. Regardless of the type of energy used, about 20-30% of the energy is lost in the transition. So, if natural gas or electricity is being used, in terms of energy efficiency we would be better off just using those sources directly for our power.

At present, what sustainable energy source would be most capable of providing a significant percentage of our electrical energy? ANSWER: Wind power and solar power are both quite viable sources of energy. At present, wind power probably has the edge.

This article was first published in the Fall 2008 issue of The Maine Woods.