Energy-fight unmentionables

April 23, 2012
Before entering political fights over energy, representatives of the oil and gas industry should check their engineering weapons at the door. This should be a rule.

Before entering political fights over energy, representatives of the oil and gas industry should check their engineering weapons at the door. This should be a rule.

Although physical concepts like energy density and power density matter greatly to decisions about this eminently important subject, they mean little to many people. They lack political punch.

Worse, discussions about them inevitably reduce to quantitative relationships like British thermal units per gallon and watts per square foot.

In politics, that kind of thing, especially when fitted out with numbers, can be deadly.

And entropy? Don't even mention it. The aim of politics is to build audiences, not shrink them.

Most people don't understand entropy. Or energy density. Or power density.

Most people lack professional reasons to understand energy fundamentals. They focus on other matters. Many of them no doubt do so brilliantly in specialties that call for no more knowledge about energy than where to plug in the cell-phone charger.

The arena

Another rule for fighting over energy policy, therefore, is never to assume the contest occurs in a public arena full of morons. It doesn't. It occurs in an arena full of distraction.

Yet another rule for fights over energy policy, one that anyone in the oil and gas business should find compelling, is never to avoid one.

Well-managed activist groups aim to run oil, gas, and coal out of energy markets. They haven't succeeded practically—and won't. But they have succeeded politically.

They have persuaded governments in much of the developed world to spend lavishly on carbon-free energy sources. The US government proposes to take the extra step of complementing subsidies for alternatives with increased taxation of oil, gas, and coal.

The intent of such an approach is not to supplement supplies of oil and gas with alternatives, which would be reasonable. It is rather to displace oil and gas with energy from wind, solar, and other carbon-free sources except hydrogen. Because the George W. Bush administration liked hydrogen, not much is heard about it anymore.

If you work in the oil and gas business, therefore, you must understand that many practitioners of modern energy politics wish you did something else for a living. They dedicate themselves to leading you from the (oily) darkness to the (green) light.

So, if you like what you do and consider your work important, you mustn't avoid the fight. People on the other side want your job to go away.

They won't succeed directly with that ambition. But they can entice the government to waste so much money on so relatively little carbon-free energy that the fiscal distress becomes economic catastrophe and everybody's job comes under threat.

European governments chose this route. Now they're changing course as fast as they can.

But how, you ask, is an oil and gas professional supposed to wage this fight without the accustomed weapons of engineering?

Easy. Just tell the energy story without physics and math.

Point out that energy has value to the extent it helps people perform work. To do that, energy has to be available in sufficient amounts without occupying a lot of space.

Oil, gas, and coal exist naturally in useful concentrations.

For politically popular fuels like wind, solar, and biofuels, nature isn't so accommodating. Getting sufficient amounts of energy from those sources into usefully limited space requires work—and extra cost.

Yes, technology can lower the delivered costs of energy from those sources by, for example, increasing the efficiencies of wind turbines, grain stills, and solar panels.

But technology can't do much about diffusion. Political will can't, either, notwithstanding the often senseless bluster of politicians.

Worthy goal

Lowering costs embedded in the natural disadvantages of nonfossil, nonnuclear energy sources is a goal worth pursuing. But success won't happen within an election cycle or two. And it won't result from an unsustainable gush of public money from a massively indebted government.

Thermodynamic laws explain the challenge's largely ignored dimensions. But they're best not mentioned in a political fight.

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About the Author

Bob Tippee | Editor

Bob Tippee has been chief editor of Oil & Gas Journal since January 1999 and a member of the Journal staff since October 1977. Before joining the magazine, he worked as a reporter at the Tulsa World and served for four years as an officer in the US Air Force. A native of St. Louis, he holds a degree in journalism from the University of Tulsa.