Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Gentlemen, Starch Your Engines!

This helpful chart comes from Policy Pete by way of Mobjectivist.

We often hear that oil shale is tantalizingly close to being economically feasible. The carefree utopia that awaits us when we develop our potato reserves is less often discussed. In both cases, water intensity is a serious issue. Potatoes typically require about 20 inches of water per season, while oil-shale processing requires three to five barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. On the bright side, few or no pesticides are used in the production of shale oil, whereas in 1996, 1,275,000 pounds of pesticides were applied to potatoes in Idaho's Red River Valley alone.

Then again, potato power would almost certainly involve less air pollution than traditional oil-shale processing; in theory, Estonia's oil-shale problems are far worse than ours would be, but we have to consider the possibility that the "urgent need" for shale oil will be used as a justification for ignoring or overturning applicable air-quality regulations.

When you consider Shell's exciting new in situ process - which is supposed to represent an improvement over the traditional methods - potatoes almost start to look attractive:

The company proposes to electrically heat a 1,000 foot-thick section of the Green River Formation to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, then keep it that hot for three years....Imagine a ten-acre production plot, 2,000 feet on a side. Inside that area, the company would drill up to 200 closely spaced wells. After those wells are lined with steel casing, 1,000 foot-long electric heaters would be inserted in preparation for the "bake"....

Although Shell's method avoids many of the negative impacts of mining oil shale, it requires a mind-boggling amount of electricity. To produce 100,000 barrels a day would require raising the temperature of 700,000,000,000 pounds of shale by 700 degrees F. How much power would be needed? A gigabunch — in rough numbers, about $500,000,000 per year. The least expensive source for electricity is a coal-fired power plant. How much coal, how many power plants? To produce 100,000 barrels per day, the RAND Corporation recently estimated that Shell will need to construct the largest power plant in Colorado history, large enough to serve a city of 500,000. This power plant, costing about $3 billion, would consume five million tons of coal each year, producing ten million tons of greenhouse gases, some of which would still be in the atmosphere a century from now. To double production, you’d need two power plants. One million barrels a day would require ten new power plants, five new coal mines.
Absolutely nightmarish, if true. But to Orrin Hatch, it's a beautiful dream:
"Utah has more recoverable oil in oil sands than the entire U.S. reserve," Hatch said. "That's a significant number, but it is overshadowed by the fact that the largest recoverable hydrocarbon resource in the world rests within the borders of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming in the form of oil shale."
To the pure in heart, all things are pure. Hatch tends to use Alberta's tar sands as proof that Utah's oil shale is viable, despite the fact that they're different things and require different types of processing (oil shale development is worse, though tar sands are ghastly in their own right). This is typical; enthusiasm for oil shale seems most intense among cornucopian wingnuts who prefer weird analogies and sentimental flights of fancy to inconvenient facts. Instapundit is, as usual, a good example:
Long term strategic plan for the United States: Get the price of oil up high enough that oil shale competes with Middle East oil. Then put Middle East oil producers out of business, or just let them run out of oil. Oil-funded islamoterror then goes out of business, too, and the Middle East goes back to being an unimportant backwater.
Indeed. What could be easier, save for pwning those Red Chinese l4m3rz with our m4d cold-fusion sk1llz? Insty's brilliant strategy reminds me of Monty Python's instructions on how to rid the world of disease:
Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvellous cure for something, and then, when the medical profession really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there'll never be any diseases ever again.
Arguments like Instapundit's are simply an application of slope-browed belligerence to the problems of the moment. And I mean "of the moment" very literally, given that the situations he expects oil shale to remedy may have changed dramatically by the time oil shale is even remotely viable. (Besides which, the terrorist-funding Saudis have diversified their investments nicely. I suspect they'll land on their feet, if not ours.)

I seem to have digressed somewhat, so let's get back to those potatoes for a moment. It'd be crazy to assume that potato power could keep us in the style to which we're accustomed, let alone allow for the growth demanded by our increasingly cancerous civilization. But for some reason, it's considered rational - in some circles - to stake our future on the even more intractable, unfeasible, and uneconomical problem of oil shale. That'd be sad, if we were courting nothing more uncomfortable than disappointed expectations. But given the amount of subsidies we're likely to hand out, and the environmental damage we're likely to do, and the time we're likely to waste, quite a bit more hangs in the balance.


Anonymous said...

Okay, first I'm just completely terrified. 700 degrees? For three years?! And this is actually being promoted?!

Second, potatoes can also be used as weapons, such as in the popular-with-adolescent-boys PVC pipe potato launcher. This might make potatoes an easier sell to those geniuses at Instapundit and in Hatch's office.

Third, maybe we should actually leave the stone age and stop burning things. We've got people talking about nanotechnology and suits that can perform surgeries on battlefields and we can't move to an energy source that doesn't involve lighting a match? I'm confused!! But then we have leadership who are still back in the cold war and religious fanatics who are back in the dark ages, so I ought not be confused at all.

God help us, Phila.

@whut said...

I've taken to calling Glenn Reynolds nanopundit for his strange association with nanotechnology thinktanks. I doubt he really understands anything abut this stuff, but does it to make himself appear more intelligent to his readers.

Anonymous said...


Is that it? I hoped he'd just read too much science fiction, and that it evidence of almost endearing geekhood.

On a more pessimistic note, it perfectly fits the wingnut mindset..."winning" arguments by invoking a mythical future in which all your enemies will look foolish.


Michael Hoag said...

Hmm yes, the confluence of conservative "thought" and "technology" is a very strange place.

"terraforming zoo planets" has become a favorite catchphrase for my fiance and I. It's taken from a "tech central station" post about how eliminating environmental regulation is the "Ultimate Environmentalism." And that the rate of progress would allow us to terraform zoo planets in the near future which would make our current worries about the environment irrelevant.

Thats how they brush aside any concern about "burning things." In other words, conservatives are completely insane.

Phila said...


Are you serious?! That's the sickest, scariest thing I've heard in a while!

Dacelo said...

Potatoes are ridiculously easy to grow, and require far less water than the oil shale recovery process probably does. In a traditional crop rotation, as a root, potatoes are at the end of the rotation, meaning they require the least amount of nutrients, before replenishing via green manure (alfalfa, for instance). The traditional rotation of wheat, corn and soy requires prodigious input of fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers, -icides, and fuel for the huge machinery. Including potatoes as a major crop, and using manual labor to maintain it would not be terribly difficult. Even flaccid Americans could get the hang of it. It doesn't even require any fancy hybrid seed. Just plant a fraction of last year's spuds.

As a side note. Mindfully.org has a post which implies that the cancer associated with french fries is due to the roundup residue, not the potatoes.