Thoughts On the Shale Gas Revolution

We have seen a lot of predictions that the “tight oil” revolution will change everything about America. The shale gas and shale oil and the fracking and the horizontal drilling will make USA energy independent. It will lead to a resurgence in US manufacturing. It will change the balance of power in many regions throughout the world. There is enough to last 100 years.

The CEO of NRG said that many people will go off the electric grid in a few years. They will stay on the gas grid, using the gas for heating and some electricity generation. He says that people will get most of their electricity from solar, and use gas to fill the gap.

I am not against all of this, but I think we need to be careful about some of these predictions. Maybe there is not enough shale gas to last 100 years. Some people are saying that we do not need to invest in solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal or wave power because gas and oil will still fulfill all our energy needs.

The issue I have with all of this is I think a lot of people in the energy industry did not see this coming. And given that shale wells run out a lot more quickly than conventional, we should be worried.

This occurred to me while seeing a couple of stories a few times in the past few weeks.

Charif Souki, chairman, CEO and president of Cheniere Energy Inc. was the highest paid executive in Houston in 2013, taking home $142 million dollars, mostly in stock awards. Chenire Energy is coming on like gangbusters because they are preparing the first terminal in the USA to export natural gas. It is actually a bi-directional terminal, although most articles will refer to it as an export terminal. They got this export terminal up and running just in time for the shale revolution because they originally built it as an import terminal. According to a press release on the DOE site, they will “retrofit an existing LNG import terminal in Louisiana so that it can also be used for exports.” If a cheap gas company didn’t see all this cheap gas coming, will they be able to predict when it will end?

The other event was the bankruptcy of Energy Future Holdings (articles in Bloomberg here, here, here and here, article in New Yorker here, article in Washington Post here). It was the biggest private equity deal, and now it is one of the biggest bankruptcies. They produce a lot of their energy from coal and nuclear. They thought gas would stay expensive. But gas got cheap, and when it did, it brought the price of other types of generation down as well. They could not pay off the debt, and the rest is legal and financial history. It looks like the trial will be take several months.

Image from Wikimedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use

A Comment About Engineering Schools

I didn’t think anybody paid any attention to this site, but I might be wrong.

I got a comment on my Contact Page about a site called Electrical Engineering Schools. I guess it is a guide to electrical engineering schools. I found a way to move the comment, so I moved it to this post.

I was sent a link to a page called Electricity 101. It has sites about electricity, including some about utilities. I am always looking for more sites about energy.

Image from University of Illinois website, assumed allowed under Fair Use. Plus, as someone who was an Illinois taxpayer for a couple of decades, I did help pay for it.

Peak Oil: Ambient Echo 002

I posted a week or so ago that there were a lot of articles debunking the concept of “peak oil“, and they all showed up at the same time. I wrote why I thought peak oil is still an issue.

Now, going through articles on The Drumbeat, we get two articles joining the debunking of the debunking of peak oil. “Watts Up, Vaclav? Putting Peak Oil and the Renewables Transition in Context” spends more time talking about the transition from oil to renewables than about peak oil. The author, energy analyst Chris Nelder, looks at some works of Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. One of Smil’s “peak oil isn’t happening” articles that Nelder looks at was published by the American Enterprise Institute. It seems like conservatism in this country is really more about sucking up to the wealthy and big business than freedom for individuals.

Dangerous Times As Energy Sources Get Costlier To Extract” by Stephen Leeb (in Forbes of all places) is pretty much all about peak oil. He talks about energy return on investment,” or EROI. As I wrote in my post: We are spending more money to get the same amount of oil. He also introduced a new acronym: RROI, or resource return on investment. It’s a new acronym, but not really a new concept. He points out that oil drilling requires water. Food production requires both water and oil (in the form of refined products). Electricity, mining and manufacturing all depend on water, oil, and in some cases each other. So if oil drilling starts using more water, it could start a price spiral.

I think RROI will be mentioned more in the future. I have noticed over the past few weeks The Drumbeat is including more articles on peak water, and today I read one on peak soil. Maybe the “peak X” meme is overdone, but the basic concepts are valid: We are running out of stuff to make our stuff.

Image from Wikipedia, assumed allowed under Fair Use.

Some Useful Technology

In some of my “Technology Is Useless” posts, I have mentioned Groupon quite a few times. A big part of this is that until recently I lived in Chicago. I knew quite a few of the people who were at Groupon, and joined from a firm called Obtiva.

Obtiva was a consulting firm that Groupon bought. They pretty much built Groupon. By the time Groupon bought them, Groupon was about half of Obtiva’s business. Most of them joined Groupon. That was about two years ago or so. I know of at least one person who decided to go off on his own rather than go to Groupon. He makes iPhone apps, which may be a subject of a later post.

From what I have been able to infer, a lot of them are now leaving Groupon. The rats are leaving the ship.

Since I keep kicking all these guys around, I should be fair and point out that at least one guy is making technology that is causing the patented Technology Uselessness Meter go a little in the positive direction, and actually play a role in a lot of the issues that I think technology should be used for.

One of them joind a firm called TempoDB. It is a time series database. I thought you could just analyze time series data with a regular database, but I guess there are cases where you need something customized for the task. So I learned at least one new thing this week.

There is nothing to stop this stuff from being used by the useless startups that I have been yacking about. But (as I am writing this) the first two customers on their list deal with energy: Wattvision and sMeasure.

I have to concede I have never heard of a time series database. It looks like it might be a new category of NoSQL, in addition to the document, graph, key-value and object databases. According to their Jobs page they use HBase and Hadoop under the hood. I think Hadoop is kind of in its own category in NoSQL.

If all that NoSQL stuff is meaningless to you, don’t worry about it. I just felt that instead of only pointing out all the bad and dumb stuff I see, I should also point out something that I think is good.

The Death Of Peak Oil and Coincidence

One of the websites I try to keep up with is The Oil Drum, particularly the category called “The Drumbeat”  which every few days has links to energy news.

My job takes priority, so I got behind, and took a few weekends to catch up.

I noticed that in late April, there seemed to be a lot of articles declaring the “Peak Oil is dead” or “The End of Peak Oil”. The basic idea is that the world is nowhere near to running out of oil (or at least easily recoverable oil; does that distinction really matter?). Thanks to new technology, we are now able to access hydrocarbons that were unreachable a few years ago: tight oil and shale gas thanks to horizontal drilling and fracking, the tar sands in Canada (fracking and steam), and oil way way  farther out in the deep ocean than drillers have gone (3-D seismic imaging and faster computers).

But I think their arguments are really arguments confirming peak oil, and arguments for finding other sources of energy. A lot of this new oil is of lower quality; it has more sulpher and is harder to refine. The Canadian oil sands are not really even oil. It is more like sludge. As for the oil in the deep ocean, the new technology simply finds the oil. I do not think there is any way to actually drill it. That oil is not only farther from shore, but also under more layers of rock than oil close to shore.

Some of this technology is not very new. It is simply feasible now that oil is more than $65/barrel.

And there is higher production in the US. But global production is flat. Granted, there is some decrease in demand. But it is interesting that neither the higher prices nor the technology have been able to produce higher output.

So let’s restate the anti-peak oil thesis: Peak Oil theory is false because we are spending more money to get the same amount of oil.

That sounds like Peak Oil to me.

As I stated, all these articles seemed to pop up in mid to late April. Matthew Yglesias also noticed the trend. Is this a PR campaign by the fossil fuel industry or some fracking consortium?

One of the podcasts I have been listening to recently is The Atomic Show with Rod Adams. I downloaded all the episodes from the very beginning. I think they started in 2006. I think I am up to 2010 now. (I think everyone should read The Oil Drum and everyone should listen to The Atomic Show.)

He says there is a lot of disinformation about nuclear power. He thinks that there has been a concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry to spread lies about nuclear power, especially amongst environmentalists. In 2009 or so, he said that he knows he probably sounds like a conspiracy nutcase saying that, but he believed it.

After all the dark money in the 2012 election, he does not sound like a nut.

Part of me wonders if this sudden wave of “Don’t worry, be happy, we will always have oil” articles is some sort of stealth PR offensive by the fossil fuel industry. I do not know how the media industry works. Perhaps all these writers know each other, and talk amongst each other, and all decided to talk about this at roughly the same time. That is possible.

But I was not able to detect some catalyst to this wave. There was no new record high in the benchmark price. There was no new discovery. The oil companies released their annual energy outlooks a few months ago. There was just a bunch of “nothing to see here” articles all at the same time. It is a bit strange.

Excluding the US, rest-of-world crude production in 2H2012 was not higher than in 2005

Thoughts On Menus, Startups and Social Media

(My job has kept me pretty busy, so here are some more random thoughts on the “technology is useless” theme that have been kicking around in my head.)

So I found a post by a VC who wants to change menus in restaurants (see this article and the original post). His name is Dave McClure; I have never heard of him. I could not find what VC firm he is with. He says that it is a huge opportunity. Okay.

But then he says that menus have “problems”. He goes on and on about “problems”. I guess this is a “first world problem”.

Doesn’t agriculture have a lot of problems? What about the distribution of water? What about crop yields? I would call those problems.

I know that ultimately VCs are out to make money and not save the world. Fine. But don’t say you are solving “problems” when you ignore things that are real problems.

My main beef is that the VCs/entreprenuers/startup crowd all like to think that they are smarter than everybody else. That they are “makers” and “doers”. And they think that we are all to take them so seriously. And not point out that they are spinning their wheels while natural resources are getting more expensive. Some of them wind up creating jobs. But some of those jobs are doing really dumb things. Like social media.

I honestly think that we might reach a point where we cannot assume that when we flip the switch that the lights will come on. In many countries, that is already the case. I do not see a whole lot of companies at these incubators solving these problems. I don’t expect two guys with nothing more that a table, two chairs and a couple of laptops to find a new way to drill for oil or desalinate water. I just don’t understand why so many people think just because they are in a startup they worth paying attention to.

There are a lot of smart people in these companies. But there are different types of intelligence. I sometimes wonder whether they really think about what the technology is doing. A lot of it is just marketing. The funny thing is that a lot of people go into technology and software because they don’t want to be some damn salesman.

I (kinda-sorta) know a guy who runs a firm that does analytics on social media to help companies with marketing. We were acquaintences in college about 15 years ago. I was at a hack night at his company, and he introduced himself to me. We did not recognize each other at the time, but later I realized we had met long long ago. I admit, I do not know what he did during the intervening years. Maybe he did something scientific and what I would consider useful.

He has a CS degree from one of the best engineering schools in the world. This guy probably could help design a desalination plant or a nuclear reactor. Instead he is figuring out how to get people to buy more junk. Granted, they deal with a lot of data. Very high throughput.  But is that really the best contribution he could make to society? I have not been in Texas long, but I have heard that in the summer there are serious water issues. This state does catch fire. I think there might be brownouts in the summer time. Is the usual social/local/mobile app business really the best use of all that brainpower?

VCs will say they are out to make money. Energy and climate change are not their responsibility. If that is your response, then fine. I say you have better make a LOT of money. Because if the real problems are not addressed, you will need a lot more than you think.

Tweets by GOP on Science, Oil, Technology

A few days ago some GOP nutcase in Texas tweeted about oil and gas (see articles here  and here).

In addition to saying a few wacky things, it seems like a good time to write up some of the notes I have been accumulating.

The main tweet that got attention was “The best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas come out.”

Unless you happen to be George W Bush, who poked a lot of holes in West Texas and managed to not find any oil.

He also made a few cracks about liberals and environmentalists being against science and technology. And human progress.

Let’s start with human progress. A lot of conservatives think that atheists should have fewer rights than Christians. And that other races should have less rights than white people. And that woman should have less rights than men. And that homosexuals should have less rights than straight people. And of course that actual people (human beings) should have less rights than paper people (corporations). Liberals think that the powerless should have the same rights as the powerful. That all people should have the right to vote. That everyone should have a say in their lives and their community. I like all the things that oil allows us to do, but “finding more places to drill more oil” is a pretty narrow definition of human progress.

But then again, conservatives seem to love narrow definitions.

He thinks that liberals and environmentalists hate technology? What about solar panels? They may not be much good at night, but they have come a long way in the past decade. And who has been for them? Liberals and environmentalists. And a lot of liberals are for nuclear power. Listen to “The Atomic Show” with Rod Adams. He has had quite a few pro-nuclear liberals on his show. I would say if you are pro-nuclear, you are pro-science. He’s a Navy man from the southeast, but he sounds pretty liberal to me sometimes. He thinks that we should build more nuclear power plants because he has been to poor countries and seen how people live without electricity. He also thinks it is the best solution for climate change.

Yes, climate change. That thing that a lot of conservatives say is not happening. (I love the fact that a scientist funded by the Koch Brothers to refute climate change came to the conclusion that it is happening. Recently, Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House requested hearings on climate change, but were denied by the Renutlican leadership. If conservatives love science, what’s the problem?

Conservatives have been wrong/lying about evolution for a long long long time. And let’s not forget about all the comments about sexual assault and pregnancy that were spoken by Republicans in the 2012 election. (I am thinking of the original comments, and the douibling down by many others in the conservative community.)

The only science and technology that conservatives seem to love is science and technology that helps the fossil fuel industries.

A lot of conservatives seem to think that oil, gas and coal are the only worthwhile forms of energy. I also see this in the media. A lot of people are still part of the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd. That is fine, as long as there is something left to drill. But for how long will that be the case? Yes, the earth is still producing oil,but we are using it faster than the earth is making it.

The DBD crowd says it makes no sense to drill out in the middle of the ocean when we have plenty of oil on federal land. I say: Go ahead, drill on that federal land. You will wind up back in the middle of the ocean in a few decades. If the DBD crowd isn’t thinking about non-fossil fuel energy sources now, why would they starting thinking about it in their Alternative Yellowstone Derrick Future?

Even with all the advances in shale oil and fracking, I still only see predictions about our oil and gas supply for about 150 years. The nuclear industry says we have enough uranium for 6,500 years. Apparently there is a lot of uranium in sea water. I am not a math genius, but 6,500 is a lot more than 150. Plus, I don’t think we should use oil and gas for cars or electricity. Let’s save them for fertilizer and plastic. I guess on a finite planet, eventually everything goes to zero. But some things are much closer to zero than others.

I don’t think we should put too much faith in fracking. People say that thanks to fracking, the peak oil debate is over. That might be a hasty conclusion. The depletion rates for these wells are pretty high. And they have high environmental costs. A lot of pro-oil people say that we will never hit peak oil because “technology and the market will find new ways to get more oil.”

I have two responses to that. First off, we cannot be so sure that there will always be new ways of extracting oil which get discovered when we need them to. A lot of the people raving about fracking did not see it coming ten years ago. If fracking and horizontal drilling were not around today, all that oil would still be in the ground, and our oil supplies would be in decline. Where would we be then? We may reach a point where the market does not find a way. This is related to a post by Tom Murphy, an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. He has a post on his blog “Do The Math” detailing a conversation he had with an economics professor about the fact that there are real physical limits to the amount of energy this planet can produce.

Secondly, there may very well be limits oil extraction. There may be technological limits, and there may be societal limits. Fracking and the Canadian tar sands are pretty controversial. Even if the petroleum industry finds more ways to extract oil, we may be reaching the limit of society’s tolerance for the environmental costs of oil extraction.

Image from Disney movie John Carter. Copyright owned by Disney, assumed allowed under fair use. John Carter is the name of my representative.

New Category and New Energy Pages

I will start a new category for the blog called “Ambient Echo”. Sometimes I read something that mirrors something that I wrote, and I would like to occasionally publish links to those pages. One reason I am doing this is I have a text file with notes for posts that is getting very long. This might help clean it out.

I am also going to change the “Energy” page, and make it multiple pages. I have been bookmarking a lot of energy sites, and I have not put all of them on the “Energy” page here. I think I could split them into multiple pages instead of having one page.


A Few Good Quotes

Here are a couple of good quotes I have found on the web lately.

The first is from the comments on Paul Krugman’s blog, posted when Marco Rubio talked about the age of the earth, man:

I think we’re missing an important point here. Conservatives present evolution/geology and creationism/earth age as different “theories’ when they’re nothing of the sort. Creationism, earth age, and a whole series of other phenomena are beliefs, i.e., they are completely unverifiable and irrefutable. Science is something else: it’s a method of inquiry that relies on hypothesis testing, the collection of verifiable data, and replicability. Its results are joined in theories that rely on and must conform to the results of inquiry. Scientific theories are tested against the accumulated data of multiple investigations and, while scientists may develop competing theories, those theories compete on the basis of which best describes the data. One does not “believe” in science, one demonstrates the veracity and applicability of the evidence or contests one or the other (did the CERN electron really travel faster than the speed of light?).

Religion in whatever form is a ritual and belief system–science is not. The conservative strategy thus attempts to equate the two very different ways of viewing the world, elevating their belief system to the status of scientific investigation. It’s a subtle trick, but a trick nonetheless.

Here is another from Crooks And Liars (also from the comments):

One of the recurrent memes among conservatives is that they’re the grownups, the ones who realize that bills must be paid, that you can’t coast on credit card debt forever, and that liberals just want free stuff, without ever having to pay for it. And yet it’s conservatives who—apparently—think that the cheap-energy-and-abundant-resources party will last forever, without the bills ever coming due. It’s conservatives who constantly invoke magical thinking and who simply deny any “inconvenient truth” they don’t want to accept—evolution, overpopulation, peak oil, peak metals, climate change, desertification, vanishing water tables… Hell, conservatives denied for decades that cigarettes are bad for you (did Rush Limbaugh ever come around on that?). How have they gotten away with this for so long?



Are Attitudes Toward Startups Changing?

I have written a few posts in which I stated that a lot of what is going on in technology today is useless because instead of looking at peak oil and climate change people are working on ridiculous, me-too start-ups. (Nobody will care about your iPad app if we cannot keep the lights on.)

I saw a couple of articles that are somewhat related to this idea. One is there are startups using “crowdfunding” for start-ups revolved around hardware that the supposedly smart VCs would not fund. Granted, the gadgets are small. I doubt anyone will ever fund a thorium reactor via Kickstart. The article does not mention energy but I did like it. I still say the VCs are not as smart as they think they are.

Another article dealt with the Facebook fallout. Paul Graham of YCombinator wrote a letter to his portfolio companies telling them that funding will dry up since Facebook’s falling price is putting a chill on the markets, so the companies need to hunker down. And it looks like Facebook’s revenue is not looking too good these days (see articles here, here and here). I cannot claim that I predicted these events, but I think it’s funny that our supposed betters in California and Wall Street all seem surprised by this. I have a hard time taking them seriously.

Image from Wikipedia