My new research project with Pete Pirolli will be based on the following hypothesis: Diversity of people and information in social networks will lead users to be better at information discovery and sensemaking tasks. This is proving to be quite tricky to set up properly. But we have decided that our “tasks” will be in the form of questions about US energy policy, and our “measures” will be a scaled rating of how accurate and justified people’s responses are. Of course, we’ll also take measures of users’ social networks and look at correlations between some yet-to-be-defined social network metrics and task performance.
Energy policy has technical components, but it is timely, interesting, and relevant to lots of people right now. In order to come up with the right set of questions, Pete and I have been doing a bit of investigation on the latest energy policy/global warming info. I really wrote this out for myself to keep track of what I’ve already covered; and you’ll see that much of this stuff is pretty basic. But perhaps someone will find this interesting or useful.
World oil production peaked in 2005. US oil production peaked in 1970 and has declined by more than 40% since then. Today, we’re getting only ~5 million barrels of oil per day from US land, compared to Saudi Arabia’s 8.7 million daily barrels (their 2007 average).
But, the US consumes 20-21 million barrels of oil per day. This is about 25% of world’s oil production, which was 73 million barrels per day in 2007. In fact, you can see the downward trend since 2005 in the plot below. Personally, the upward trend from 2002 to 2005 is even more crazy! Whatever were we (as a world, as a country) doing? I wonder if this is more from policy decisions, or changing behaviors that increased demand? Maybe a combo.
Pickens says that 70% of US oil gets imported from “foreign nations,” and the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) reports that 20% comes from the Middle East. I’m not sure exactly which foreign nations Pickens was including with this quote, but after downloading the raw numbers of oil production by all the world’s countries from the Energy Information Administration (US Dept of Energy group), I learned that many more countries are producing than I was expecting. Their report includes 37 nations plus a category of “other.” Some of these countries (Sudan, Gabon, Syria, Denmark, Australia) produce less than 1/2 million barrels per day.
Since all 37 countries were too many to plot, I took the grand yearly average across all countries for the past 10 years, and plotted only countries whose 10-year average exceeded that grand average. If that’s too confusing: these are basically the top producing countries (stacked in alphabetical order).
Even though the US is still (currently) well above average in production (2007 average was 1.9 million barrels per day), the US only has only 2% of the world’s oil reserves and our resources are quickly declining. I wish I had more numbers on these other countries’ reserves (to plot next to their current production)…Instead, I see that Russia’s production (dark green above) has actually increased in the past few years along with Saudi Arabia’s (purple above). Additionally worldwide, we (as a world!) have very little excess oil reserve at the end of the day (production nearly exactly equals consumption), with a margin of ~2 million barrels (source: NRDC).
As one more way of looking at this data, below I plotted oil production distribution from groups of countries like OPEC and the Persian Gulf next to the US, UK, Canada, Mexico, Russia, etc. If you’re a stickler for data, you’re going to hate me because you can obviously see that total production here is greater than worldwide production (just ignore this; it’s because some countries are counted twice for being a part of OPEC and existing in the Persian Gulf.) Instead, you get a very real sense of what big contributors the Persian Gulf and the OPEC countries are collectively. The US is the tiny orange line.
40% of oil used in the US is by passenger vehicles (=8 million barrels per day), 24% by industry, 12% by commercial and freight trucks, 7% by aircraft, and 6% in residential and commercial buildings (source: NRDC). I was, perhaps naively, surprised that such a large percentage came from passenger vehicles! I would have thought industry or food transportation would account for more. Additionally, most of our electricity comes from coal-based and nonrenewable fossil fuels (less than 5% from solar, wind, and geothermal).
Gas prices are going up because demand is going up (but the supply isn’t, or possibly can’t). One of the reasons demand in the US is going up is because our vehicles are not very efficient…and we like to drive a lot. In fact, fuel economy basically peaked ~1987 and has been going down ever since (largely due to the SUV’s popularity and outdated manufacturing standards). However, we were incentivized to become more fuel efficient in the 1980s because the war between Iraq and Iran removed large amounts of oil from circulation. Gas prices in 1981 were ~$3.00/gallon (in today’s dollars). And the US response then was to try to reduce our reliance on foreign oil, which materialized as better fuel economy. (Read: it’s possible!) Which brought oil prices down (somewhat unfortunately), because that provided just the right environment for our practices and expectations today.
Another reason demand is going up, is because demand in China is growing even faster than US demand (their demand is growing at ~10% per year). Private car sales have been increasing at 15-20% per year in China and car prices are coming down. However, CSM Worldwide is predicting a slower rate of growth in the coming years (source)…but still, all the cars that *have* been sold will still be on the road! Gas subsidies in China (and in 45 other countries, esp. Asia and the Middle East) mean cheaper costs for individuals, which lead to expectations for a certain way of life…Apparently analysts disagree over what will happen to prices worldwide even if these countries lift their subsidies. Since a number of countries are reducing subsidies now, including China, or considering reducing them in the coming months (source), we’ll have to see what happens, but the concern is that people’s expectations and way of life won’t drastically change their behavior.
Whether we continue to cycle up and down in the cost/demand of oil may depend on how much oil reserves are left. The last estimate on oil reserves I can remember was something like 60 years (which I probably shouldn’t even put in here because it’s probably inaccurate, because it almost surely will vary depending on a number of factors). Some are arguing for drilling off the US coast and under the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, to recover an estimated 16 billion barrels of oil. But there are a number of problems with drilling domestically aside from environmental disruption. Our refinery capacity could not process all the oil we recover**. This oil will join the world’s oil supply–and not come immediately to Americans anyway! (And if China’s, or Asia’s, demand is greater than ours, they will get a larger proportion of it!) Plus, the estimated amount of oil that would be profitable (after refining, shipping, etc.) is only 3.2 billion barrels. If somehow the US got all that oil, that would only last us for 6 months! (source: NRDC)
**Even though refinery capacity influences the cost of gas, refinery owners make a better profit when capacity is tight–meaning, they are not incentivized to build more refineries! So even if we got more could produce more oil, prices wouldn’t necessarily go down. BTW, refinery costs come to about 15% of what we pay at the pump: or 60 cents per $4.00 gallon of gas.
If we raised vehicle fuel economy to 40 mpg, we could reduce passenger vehicle oil demand by ~30% by 2020 (then would be ~4 million barrels per day). Last year, average fuel economy was 20 mpg (about the same as a 1908 Model T!). Seriously? We must be able to better than that!
Alright, I’m going to end this post by listing the various alternate energy sources that I’ve become aware of. Next, I’d like to collect the pros and cons of each of these sources, so feel free to help me on that!
- solar thermal power plants
- wind power
- natural gas
I’m very open to learning more about this stuff. Correct me if you find errors or inconsistencies or would like to add something. Also, I have thing for raw data over opinion, although this post certainly has my opinion in it, too. I’ll write again as I dig up more stuff.