could it get worse?

Granville–Paris Express wreck at Montparnasse Station Paris, October 22, 1895For example, here’s what long-time friend and mentor Alabama Senator Hank Sanders had to say about the election in his “Senate Sketches” newspaper article:

I desperately called on my dear mother. Across the chasm of her death nearly 20 years ago, she reminded me of what she said to me and to her many children nearly sixty years ago. I felt her spirit moving within me. I was strengthened. Now, I can go on.

I will share with you why I called upon my mother on this occasion. However, before I share the why, I want to share with you what she said so many years ago. At the time, we were nine children, a mother and a father living in a three-room house. Mind you, not a three-bedroom house, but a three-room house – a kitchen, a middle room and a front room.

When things got real bad, our mother would call us together in the front room. We had only one chair in the whole house. She would sit in the chair and make us children sit on the floor in front of her. She would go quiet until she had our full attention. Then she would say: “Children, things are always kind of bad with this big po’ family and all. But they are real bad now.” She would go quiet for a long moment, causing us to focus even more intently. Then she would continue: “But don’t y’all worry. I am at my best when things get bad.” It was powerful. It forged our strength. It prepared us to engage struggle. It lifted our spirits. It gave us hope. Even today, this memory brings tears to my eyes, trembling to my being, and hope to my heart.

I called upon my mother on Wednesday morning when I heard that Businessman Donald Trump was now President-Elect Trump. I went really deep inside myself. I could sense the hard times coming. I had to call on my dear deceased mother to help me through the moment.

Hank goes on to enumerate. But we get the picture, eh? The Bad seen from the perspective of millions of Americans on the far Left-Out side of the political spectrum.

Of course, many (yes, too many) other millions who could also be fairly described as left-out actually voted for businessman Trump. It’s like another whole level of Bad.

But understandable, since the alternative would have been a vote for Business-As-Usual Empire-building, including risk of nuclear war with Russia, at the expense of 99% of our millions on whatever side and to whom whatever promises were made.

Deplorable, eh? However, one piece of bad news I’ve come across in the last week or so, supposedly having nothing to do with politics, puts all that electoral badness in deep shade. Folks, here is the really Bad News:

The U.S. Geological Survey says it has found the largest continuous oil and gas deposit ever discovered in the United States.

On Tuesday, the USGS announced that a swath of West Texas known as the Wolfcamp shale contains 20 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. . . . As NPR’s Jeff Brady reported, the amount of oil in the Wolfcamp shale formation is nearly three times the amount of petroleum products used by the entire country in a year.

Why is this bad news? The answer comes only in the last paragraph of the article:

Producing and using the newly discovered oil and gas will also contribute to climate change, since both oil and gas emit greenhouse gases when they are extracted and burned using current technology. The U.S. has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide 26 to 28 percent by 2025 under the Paris climate agreement, which went into effect earlier this month.

That this part of the news is tacked on at the very end of the article is another level of bad news. By that placement the writer (or editor) is telling us this is the least important aspect of the news.

So we have very bad news presented as mostly good news. That bias is obvious in the opening paragraph saying the newly discovered oil & gas resources are “nearly three times the amount of petroleum products used by the entire country in a year.” A more realistic wording might be something like “despite being the largest petroleum discovery ever, the Wolfcamp shale would provide only about three years of total U.S. petroleum consumption.”

But the saddest and baddest part is an apparent total lack of awareness of the realities of our Energy Situation: Our entire civilization was built on incredibly cheap, easy-to-get oil (and natural gas). In the mid-20th century it took burning as little as one barrel of oil to get 80-100 more barrels out of the ground. And for most of the 20th century we could count on always getting more next year than we had this year, driving ever-increasing economic growth.

But all that’s over now.

Shale oil requires fracking, which causes serious environmental damage (a cost not included in corporate accounting), and has an Energy Returned on Energy Invested ratio not of 80:1 but maybe 8:1 – and often costs way more to get out of the ground, recently averaging around $60-$70 a barrel, than the market will bear. I just checked the market, and see that I can buy a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude for $45.58. And the sidebar articles on that NPR story are about Bust arriving at the shale-oil Boom towns of North Dakota and Montana.

Further, world crude production has basically plateau’d since 2005. The economic “growth” reported since then being mainly produced by cutting interest rates to near zero, creating an enormous tower of unpayable debt.

I put The Situation this way: The beginning is near.

That is, the beginning of a return to a realistic outlook on How Things Work, no longer imagining that never-ending “growth” on a finite planet could be possible, and realizing that the fossil fuels were a one-time gift we have basically squandered by treating that magical gift as though it was just another “resource” subject to market supply & demand etc.

What am I talking about? Consider that the energy contained in a barrel of oil enables us to get physical work done today that would take a typically fit adult human at least ten full-time work years to accomplish. At minimum wage, we would have to pay that human at least $150,000. But we allow that barrel of oil to be sold on a commodity market for $45.58.

It is insane.






Image: Granville–Paris Express wreck at Montparnasse Station Paris, October 22, 1895 (public domain) via
Jim Allen

Jim Allen

Jim Allen at 80 is living happily ever after with his lovely wife Judy Collins in the faraway tiny rural sweet home Our Town of Fredonia, Alabama, because, well, “Why not?”* In Fredonia, he is a member of the Fredonia town council, founding board member of the Fredonia Heritage Association and editor/publisher of the Free Fredonia Times. In former lives he more or less successfully impersonated a college English teacher (prepared by his background as dump truck driver, missile guidance technician, and math major) while publishing poetry in leading literary quarterlies, then moving on as ag publications editor for Extension at Auburn, freelance “communications consultant,” co-founder of the Vine & Fig Tree Community, nonviolent peace-with-justice activist, Alabama New South Coalition board member, founding board member and president of the Alabama Sustainable Ag Network, and invited speaker on environmental and energy issues. He blogs now and then at The Slowdown Dirty Truth. *Tolstoy, “Ivan the Fool”