Sunday, May 25, 2014

The great imaginary California oil boom: Over before it started

It turns out that the oil industry has been pulling our collective leg.

The pending 96 percent reduction in estimated deep shale oil resources in California revealed last week in the Los Angeles Times calls into question the oil industry's premise of a decades-long revival in U.S. oil production and the already implausible predictions of American energy independence. The reduction also appears to bolster the view of long-time skeptics that the U.S. shale oil boom--now centered in North Dakota and Texas--will likely be short-lived, petering out by the end of this decade. (I've been expressing my skepticism in writing about resource claims made for both shale gas and oil since 2008.)

California has been abuzz for the past couple of years about the prospect of vast new oil wealth supposedly ready for the taking in the Monterey Shale thousands of feet below the state. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) had previously estimated that 15.4 billion barrels were technically recoverable, basing the number on a report from a contractor who relied heavily on oil industry presentations rather than independent data.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Our shadow, the Borg, and the ruthlessness of efficiency

During my graduate school days--which featured 1,000 pages plus of assigned reading in history each week--I used to fall asleep watching late-night reruns of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" after returning home from evening trips to the gym. (Given the circumstances, you'll understand that curling up to a good book was not my way of unwinding back then.)

Starfleet meets its shadow

Recently, I've taken another look at some of those episodes that I mostly dozed through in the mid-1990s as well as episodes of other Star Trek spinoffs. What stands out is how much the Borg, a collectivist race of ruthlessly efficient drones seeking perfection (as they define it), fit perfectly as the shadow side of the United Federation of Planets, presumably the good guys.

What comes into relief through this fictional contest is that it really represents an unconscious internal struggle in our modern culture; the Borg are the shadow side of our post-Enlightenment society.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Taxing the sun: The Koch brothers find a tax they like

We hear so much from the fossil fuel lobby that the free market should determine our energy future--that government shouldn't favor one technology or fuel over another. When implemented, this view typically favors the incumbents which in this case are fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Very convenient.

But does the industry believe its own rhetoric? The Koch brothers, the much-maligned fossil fuel titans, were in the news last week after their legislative stalking horse, the innocuously named American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), was discovered pushing legislation in the states that would establish fees (read: taxes) for hooking solar panels to the existing grid. (Yes, I know it's not exactly a tax because the utilities who are also lobbying for it collect it. Again, very convenient.)

Now these are the same Koch brothers who say they hate taxes and anything that looks like a tax and certainly anyone who wants to raise taxes. But taxing solar panel owners is essentially what they are doing in an attempt to make increasingly competitive electricity from solar less competitive with fossil fuels.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Could NAFTA force the Keystone XL pipeline on the United States?

As the Obama administration puts off once again any decision on authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline, there are whispers of another intriguing possibility. If the U.S. government fails to approve the pipeline soon or rejects it outright, the Canadians may challenge the delay or rejection under the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed by both countries. This move opens up a politically attractive option not previously available to the Obama administration, something I'll discuss below.

I've been wondering about how NAFTA might affect any decision. Under its provisions, Canada is obliged to maintain the same ratio of exports to total production of oil and natural gas as prevailed in the previous 36 months regardless of the situation, that is, emergency or no. The pain of any voluntary restriction by Canada must be borne in proportion to its current consumption. Each party to the treaty would be obliged to suffer the same percentage decline in oil or gas deliveries from Canadian production.

So, what if Canada decides to expand oil production from the tar sands and export that oil to Asia? Would that production be included in total Canadian production for the purposes of the treaty? Could the United States proceed against Canada for reducing the proportion that the United States is receiving from total production?