Saturday, March 13, 2010

Aftermath World Without Oil

On Thursday March 11th, 2010 the National Geographic channel premiered Aftermath World Without Oil a show which, unfortunately, you'll probably be seeing in reruns for years. I say unfortunately because it's filled with omissions (sometimes glaring omissions) and downright incorrect assertions.

I realize that even if the Earth is one huge balloon filled with petroleum eventually we're gunn'a suck it all out and turn it into asphalt, plastic and pollution. So it makes sense to take a look at what'll happen.

Over a period of decades petroleum will becomes harder to find and more expensive to pull from the ground. The phenomenon may have already started so I want some ideas from experts on what to expect. Hence my interest in what the show's producers had found during their research for the program. Unfortunately it appears their "research" was limited to confirming their preconceived notions.

Yes, I knew the "Peak Oil" process would take decades and the program planed to portray all underground oil disappearing overnight. OK, as someone pointed out, they needed dramatic effect to garner eyeballs for the ratings race. I was willing to grant them a "willing suspension of disbelief" on that one. And when they opened the show with animation of empty 'oil caves' I chalked it up to the difficulty of showing empty porous rock on television.

I began watching the show with an open mind hoping to gain useful information so it wasn't until about half way through it that I realized a show about mankind's supposed future desperate search for energy hadn't mentioned nuclear power plants, hydroelectric or natural gas as it portrayed America struggling through a freezing winter without heating oil.

Most places natural gas is the cheapest way to heat buildings. Some areas (particularly in the Northeast) use heating oil, but given no heating oil and a lack of infrastructure to deliver natural gas wouldn't nuclear power plants producing electricity for space heaters provide at least a partial answer? And what about hydroelectricity from them dams in Canada? True Canada would (in this scenario) be without oil too, but they might have a few Megawatts, or maybe even a Gigawatt or two to spare. Especially if the price was right.

And we all recall that Washington and Oregon State helped California through its electricity crisis in 2000 – 2001 with their hydroelectricity.

Also, Hoover Dam already provides electricity to Nevada, Arizona and 12 cites in California. Who knows how much more juice they could pump through the lines if the casinos turned off their outdoor lighting.

The resulting super high electricity prices caused by the oil shortage would ensure people used only what electricity they absolutely had to have.

Would hydroelectricity solve all the problems put forth by the producers of Aftermath World Without Oil? No, but it should have been mentioned as one of the alleviating factors.

Another alleviating factor is natural gas. Utilities use natural gas to produce electricity now and many are constructing more natural gas plants all over the country. "Forgetting them as a source of electricity is a major fumble.

However nuclear energy is also undocumented in this documentary and that turns it from "documentary" to propaganda. Entire cities are now powered by nuclear power. Even more cities would and could be powered by existing nuclear power plants if the use of electricity was rationed via high price (a natural economic consequence) so that more cities could muddle through until alternatives are ramped up. Sorry guys, your failure to highlight the huge role nuclear energy would play in a scenario such as yours destroys your credibility.

One point the show did make was that it takes a football sized plot of land to grow enough food for a person for one year. While few families would have enough front and back yards to put to the plow to produce that much produce every carrot would help.

While the voiceover talks about food shortages and starvation the screen shows a man on a bicycle, with a small sack of groceries, riding past plants that might be dandelions, Purslane, Burdock" or Miner's Lettuce. Would Polk salad and Lambsquarter solve the hunger problem after an oil shortage disrupted big agriculture (no fuel for farm machinery) and national transportation? No. But it would help. A factor not factored into the Aftermath World Without Oil's storyline.

While acknowledging the United States of America is built to use cars and trucks (true) it talks about cattle dying on farms for want of feed (they show pictures of a feedlot") ignoring or maybe ignorant of the fact that most cattle spend most of their lives on ranches and are only shipped to feedlots for final fattening, selling and eventual butchering. True those cattle trapped in feedlots at the time of this fictitious event could starve, but being close to cities and hungry people probably wouldn't last that long.

So how would cows on ranches get to hungry people in cities? Cattle drives!

Yes a sudden end to oil would lead to tremendous social and economic disruptions in first world countries, but it would also lead to new careers as things settled down.

Unfortunately the producers of Aftermath World Without Oil are intent on showing us a possible future that doesn’t include nuclear power or hydroelectric power and those omissions tip the scales from reliable information to questionable presentation for me.

The only useful to me information here was the line in an online promo for the show about recycled aluminum cans saving enough energy to run a TV for three hours.

And the claim that it takes a football sized plot of land to grow enough food for a person for one year.

But given the myopic tunnel vision of the shows producer's I'm not even sure of those factoids.

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