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Energy Tomorrow

November 11, 2008

I’ve started seeing commercials for this website EnergyTomorrow.org, produced by API, the American Petroleum Institute. The commercials are, seemingly, supposed to reassure the American consumer/taxpayer/middle-class citizen that the so-called “energy crisis” isn’t as bad as it might seem and that with a calm, reasoned approach America will make its way out unscathed. The commercial went like this:

Where on Earth could we ever find enough oil and natural gas to power more than 60 million cars and heat 160 million households for 60 years? Right here in America.

Log on to learn more.

(Video available here.  It’s top-left.)

I’m not shocked at the blatant ignorance of facts, the delusional vision of the future, or anything else on the list of things that might irritate me when it comes to energy and the environment. In fact, although I don’t have the statistics in front of me, I’m almost sure their figures and projections are spot on. In fact, I don’t think this commercial lies to anyone, nor do I feel it’s totally ignorant.

But I am shocked. What I find shocking is the projection of sixty years and the fact that this group, the American Petroleum Institute, doesn’t seem to have any problem with accepting that number. The reason I find it shocking is simply because 60 years is just not a long time. It’s less than a human lifetime. It’s just over half a century. Sixty years, while it isn’t necessarily “short term,” is anything but long. Sixty years ago we just got done fighting the Germans, and we still can’t shut up about that. Sixty years is a blink when you consider all of history. And hell, just look at the United States: sixty years is roughly a quarter of its age. As far as empires go, the U.S. is like… a tween. And a sixty-year-old is like… a toddler.

So what I will say is that the commercials are honest and not maliciously misleading. I’ll follow that up, however, by countering and saying that they are quite possibly fueled by the self-interests of those producing them, and that while they might not be blatantly deceiving, they are still misleading.

Upon visiting their website, I was greeted with this:

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Rhetoric: We can’t drill our way out of this problem because the United States only has three percent of the world’s oil reserves.

Reality: America has vast resources of oil and natural gas – enough oil to power more than 60 million cars for the next six decades and enough natural gas to heat 60 million homes for 160 years, according to government estimates. We may have considerably more resources, since the government conducted their last true inventory in the early 1980s using old data from now-outdated seismic equipment.

To help encourage informed and effective conversations about energy, API has compiled some of the most frequently heard claims and proposals, along with the realities that need to be considered when evaluating them.

(They have a list of other issues on their “Energy Rhetoric vs Reality” page1.)

Immediately I was taken aback: Were they really going to try using the don’t believe the rhetoric angle when they, themselves, are using misleading rhetoric? Rhetoric is something I only recently have felt comfortable saying I have a grasp on, but I noticed the hypocrisy immediately.

If rhetoric is the art using language effectively to make a point, or to get oneself across, then it should be acceptable to question rhetoric when we feel it misleads or conveys an idea that isn’t entirely true. On the website, API question the rhetoric of (mostly) skeptics and environmentalists. But, when you study the statistics they present, it’s easy—very, very easy—to notice that there is some spin on what they’re showing, too. (I’m not saying I question their motives. While I would trust an independent study more, it wouldn’t matter if the information was still spun.)

Where I noticed it was in the numbers. The above ad gives us a peek: Why 60 million cars? Why 160 million households? Why 60 years? The “We can’t drill our way out…” question exposes this even more: “America has vast resources of oil and natural gas – enough oil to power more than 65 million cars for the next six decades and enough natural gas to heat 60 million homes for 160 years, according to government estimates.” Why now 65 million cars? Why now 60 million homes? Why now 160 years?

While I can’t answer these questions with certainty, I think it comes down to a balancing act. How can they effectively present true figures in a way that doesn’t seem dismally pessimistic? One way is by choosing a moderate chunk of time and a moderate chunk of cars and homes and saying, “Look! We can do it!” instead of facing the uglier side of reality that says if rates of consumption continue to grow, and the amount of resources continue to shrink, it will all be gone in relatively little time. There aren’t only 60-65 million cars in the United States; there are actually about 200 million registered drivers and somewhere around 250 million motor vehicles2. And there aren’t only 60 million homes, either, but over 100 million3.

These numbers sound big until you realize they’re only a fraction of the whole. It’s like when we’re told there are x billion barrels of oil in y place, but not told we consume that oil at z barrels/day and it will be gone in n days. If there is 116.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil in U.S. territory, that’s a whole lot of oil. But if we keep consuming oil at (or around) 20 million barrels/day, it will only last about 15 years, not 604.

In actuality, though, oil consumption in the United States has fallen ever-so-slightly in the last year or two5. Globally, however, demand still rises6. With this information we can realize some new things.

First of all, this points to an inevitable reduction in energy use. If they want the resources to last a considerable amount of time, either they only fuel part of the population, or they give everybody something less than the maximum. But if everyone has all they want and are going ahead full-steam, which is an entirely possible situation, or if rates of consumption in the U.S. start rising again, like they historically have, all of this wonderful energystuff will be gone significantly sooner than projected.

Second, I think it points to the possibility of global trade. If consumption in the U.S. continues to reduce, which is also a possible situation, while it continues to rise in other parts of the world, it’s been said that American companies might start to export their product. While this might provide some boost to the American economy, it will reduce the amount of domestic energy matter we can use at home. Without going much deeper into it, this also scratches the surface of a long list of other economic issues to consider. The most obvious might be, What happens if oil becomes so expensive as supplies decrease that it no longer makes economic sense to use?

So in the end, what is it I’m saying? Quite simply, be wary. Question everything, trust no one, do your own research. If a commercial from the oil industry tells you we’ll be fine with what we have for a long time, look at the numbers for yourself. Look at what they’re telling you, but also at what they aren’t. Put it all in perspective of the bigger picture however you can, because it’s important.

Notes and Links

  1. Energy Rhetoric vs Reality at energytomorrow.org
  2. Licensed Drivers and Vehicle Registrations at infoplease.com
  3. USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau at census.gov
  4. Simple math! 116 billion barrels ÷ 20 million barrels/day = 5800 days
    5800 days ÷ 365 days/year = 15.9 years
  5. EIA – Short-Term Energy Outlook, U.S. Petroleum at eia.doe.gov
  6. EIA – Short-Term Energy Outlook, Global Petroleum at eia.doe.gov
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