Guest post by Charles E. Cook, Deputy Director, Energy Institute, The University of Texas at Austin
Last week, Tad Patzek, chairman of the Petroleum Engineering Department at The University of Texas at Austin, met with the Austin Chapter of the Sierra Club on the anniversary of the BP Macondo oil spill. Patzek makes a passionate and eloquent case for viewing the Earth’s remaining liquid petroleum resources as a bridge to the renewable resources we want to embrace. He also challenged his audience to be smarter about how they use oil and other fossil fuels – everything from changing lifestyles to recognizing that the future of America’s sprawling suburbs depends on alternatives to our gas-guzzling automobiles. Patzek also warns that tragedies like BP Macondo explosion and spill demand much greater care in drilling for oil and gas in even deeper waters around the world. His remarks follow…
“For full disclosure l need to tell you that I am Chairman of the first-ranked petroleum engineering department in the country, and I am very proud of it. I have not come here to bash oil, because hydrocarbons, oil and natural gas, as well as coal, have underwritten both the industrial revolution and the scientific revolution that have produced the wind turbines and solar photovoltaics, as well as all components of the electric cars we all like so much. Without fossil fuels, all modern renewable energy sources would be dead before arrival.
“Because the real production rate of liquid petroleum is peaking and the imaginary additions are unlikely to make up for the rate deficit, the world, but especially the developed countries, and above all the U.S., will face the inevitable shortages of liquid transportation fuels. For the completely unprepared U.S., such shortages may be economically devastating. The U.S. is running out of time to move much of its transportation off the cars and trucks and onto rails that will guide electric trains of different kinds, not just the sexy and prohibitively costly “bullet trains.”
“Everybody gathered here – despite our own best personal efforts – will gulp today four gallons of hydrocarbons; and tomorrow another four gallons, and then four gallons each day thereafter. Please try to drink four gallons of water in a day to see how much liquid this really is. We all need to go on a miracle hydrocarbon diet.
“In my mind, it is irresponsible to bash hydrocarbons, while deriving from them most everything we are today. It is also totally irresponsible to waste hydrocarbons wantonly as we do every day, here in Austin, and everywhere across our beautiful country. These hydrocarbons are absolutely needed to underwrite moving to any other energy source to one degree or another. They are also needed to underwrite an economic recovery, if there is to be one in the U.S., in the years to come.
“Hopefully, I will not be disturb you if I tell you that wind power has delivered 6 days of electricity in the U.S.; biomass burning with electricity cogeneration, 5 days; geothermal sources, 1 day; and solar photovoltaics a little more than 1 hour. The remaining 354 days of electricity that might one day charge our electric cars come from coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and hydropower (in that order). In addition, our freedom from foreign and domestic crude oil, when satisfied by domestic biofuels, may last for up to 10 days per year of driving the U.S. transportation systems. Then we’ll all be walking for the remaining 355 days.
“So the real question is not how many more wind turbines and solar cells we will install in order to change nothing in our lifestyles, but how we change our lifestyles for real.
“Texas already leads the U.S. in wind power, with name plate capacity of almost 10 gigawatts, more than thrice that of California. On average, wind power generates in Texas over 3 gigawatts of electricity, twice the 1.6 gigawatts generated by the Fayette Power Project. This is a huge achievement, but I do not see too many elected officials clamoring to build those transmission lines to deliver the much needed – and wasted – wind electricity to Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. I also do not see mass demonstrations and outbursts of legislative fervor in favor of a train link between Dripping Springs, downtown and Georgetown. While Austin has made a huge progress in building the more energy-efficient houses, most single family homes here are woefully inadequate when it comes to energy efficiency. Where are the requirements for each new home to have a rainwater tank? Where do we think we will get all the water needed to keep Austin green and happy? How about growing more local food and buying it as well?
“My challenge to Austin and to Texas is to observe the first anniversary of the Macondo tragedy not by bashing crude oil we all gulp ad nauseam every day, but by striving to gulp a little less oil, and do more with the oil we gulp. We need to wake up to the fact that we all are co-conspirators here and we all share blame for this horrific accident, not just the big bad oil companies. After all, it is we, who indulge in the crude oil drinking binges every day, not just the oil industry employees.
“So what are the two main lessons from the Macondo well tragedy? One is that we need to be a lot more careful in how we drill and produce oil and gas reservoirs in the most difficult and inhospitable environment on Earth — the deep ocean. The second lesson is that we have to snap out of our stupor and realize that the time of cheap gasoline and sprawling suburbs accessible only by car is coming to an inevitable end, no matter what anyone says. This second lesson has not been learned yet.
Full Coverage from National Geographic: The Gulf Oil Spill, One Year Later