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Unhappy returns: for decades, we have been getting less and less oil for the energy invested in finding and extracting it. Surely it's time to address the problem.

FOR NEARLY 50 YEARS, Charles A. Hall, a 68-year-old New-Englandborn professor with a gift for plain speaking, has been obsessed with an idea called energy return on energy invested (EROI). Every plant, animal and human civilization lives by EROI.

The concept isn't rocket science. Whenever a salmon, bear or conifer (or Dow Jones company) spends more energy on an activity than it gets back, death follows. In the corporate world, wasted energy builds debt and then things fall apart.

Believe or not, fish taught Hall everything he knows about EROI. In the 1970s, the ecologist started off by studying 21 species offish in North Carolina's New Hope Creek. The fish spent a lot of energy to migrate upstream.

This great swim guaranteed their offspring a rich nursery where the young wouldn't have to spend so many calories trying to find food. In fact, parents of all species behave much like these temperate fish.

The biologist then studied why tiny Pacific salmon smolts would bother migrating all the way to Alaska and the Aleutians instead of hanging around at the mouth of the Fraser River for a free meal. Energy gains once again figured in the answer. Higher densities of zooplankton that moved up the coast toward Alaska during the season insured higher energy returns and faster growth.

The fish taught Hall that everything in life is about energy gains or energy losses. Ironically, management of the world's fisheries demonstrated the point too. As ships, nets and quantity of oil burned grew, the protein returns per unit of energy invested shrank. Hall found the same principle applied to the oil patch. The more industry drilled, the less it got back.

"Politicians who say, 'Drill, baby, drill' have their heads up their asses," says Hall. "You don't get more oil by drilling more. You just get less efficient returns. You only get more oil by drilling thoughtfully."

But Halls EROI work (and that of colleagues) unsettled the energy status quo. "We never got any money to do this," he reflects. "It all happened on weekends or pro bono. No government agency is interested in the information. Most science, to be honest, promises some form of candy. EROI doesn't do that."

In a new analysis published in the journal Sustainability Hall spells out how steep the decline in energy returns has become in the oil industry. The trend almost looks as dismal as catches for the wild-salmon fishery.

In 1919, companies got marvelous hKUl returns for finding oil at a ratio of 300 to one. (It simple terms, it took only one barrel to find 300 more, yielding perhaps the greatest energy surplus and capital gains in human history.) Today that EROI has dropped to as low as five or three to one.

The energy returns for producing oil are plummeting too. In 1919, they hovered around 20 to one. Today, they have declined to 10 to one. "Society is now living on old oilfields and we're spending more energy to find less and less energy," says Hall. Meanwhile, North America has built a society dependent on energy returns higher than 10 to one.

Given such startling declines, industry has turned to extreme fossil fuels such as bitumen and shale gas. These difficult resources not only deliver less energy but spend more water, land and capital, too.

So maybe it's time that energy regulators and economists add a new tool to their impoverished kits and publish the real EROI on extreme fossil fuels as well green renewables.

We might not like the numbers, but they could guide us to saner energy investments.


Andrew Nikiforuk's latest book, The Empire of the Beetle, looks at the charismatic power of swarming pine beetles.
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Author:Nikiforuk's, Andrew
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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