The Solar Age of Sail
Captain Michael Kellick
Copyright © 2009 by Michael Kellick
All Rights Reserved
Introduction: Sailing on a Sea of Oil
A hundred-something foot tall Douglas fir tree is felled in the forest of British Columbia using a chainsaw that runs on gasoline, then a diesel powered truck hauls this huge log to the waterfront where it can be stacked by a diesel loader onto a barge and towed by a diesel tugboat to some distant port. There the log is transferred to a diesel-electric train for shipment to a lumber mill where it will be crafted into a mast or planks using electricity generated by natural gas, coal, or nuclear energy – all systems maintained by our petroleum-based infrastructure. Again the lumber is transported by truck, this time to a shipyard where it will join thousands of other pieces being assembled into a graceful sailing ship. And every single piece of this new ship is connected to oil – either made of oil like the Dacron sails and plastic navigation systems and wiring, or carried by oil burning ships across the oceans from Europe and Asia - or both. Even the food which fills the shiny new galley is the product of intensive oil use, from the farm machinery and the petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to the plastic packages the food is wrapped in and the semi trucks which bring these groceries hundreds of miles to the market. Shipwrights and sailors may arrive by gasoline fueled automobiles and schoolchildren on their happy field trip probably traveled in a big yellow bus but nobody walked down to the harbor today. Remove oil from this long process and you have no ship or anyone to sail in it. But oil will go away someday, perhaps very soon.
About four years ago worldwide oil production reached a supply plateau, resulting in a long peak in oil production. Geologists and engineers across the globe continually look hard to find new sources of petroleum and devise increasingly clever ways to extract it to offset the decline of older oil fields but we are losing the battle. Each year consumers use about 2% more oil than the previous year and every year all the world’s oil fields deliver about 3% less of this precious liquid and this gap will likely widen. We needn’t run out of oil to feel the pains of scarcity but since we have already arrived at the peak of production the best we can do now is intelligently manage the crash.
To be clear, we are not running out of oil tomorrow or next week. What we are beginning to run out of is cheap and easy oil. The world’s great petroleum fields are surrendering their yields three times faster than we can find new ones to replace them, all the while pumping at maximum capacity. The theory behind this understanding is called Peak Oil. We are at the peak of production. There will never be as much oil as we have presently, only greater demand for it. The choices we make right now can help determine whether we have a gradual decline in oil availability or a sharp and sudden scarcity. Most importantly, we need to plan for a future that is independent of petroleum, a task that won’t be easy since alternative energy sources can do little to alleviate our need for oil as the major source of transportation energy. There is no solar airplane or wind powered locomotive.
What part, then, will tall ships play in the days ahead?
Peak Oil is getting more and more attention in the mainstream media. If you google “peak oil” you’ll get over 13 million hits. In the appendix to this report there are articles from Time Magazine, Newsweek, Reuters, Salon.com, The Financial Times and National Geographic. A number of well written books are also available and will likewise be listed at the end of this essay. There is no government cover-up to keep Peak Oil a secret and a number of Peak Oil committees and task forces are already formed in cities across the U.S., Britain and Australia. They know it’s time to get to work.
It is incumbent upon us here on this bank and shoal of time to assess the effects of Peak Oil on the tall ship industry and to prepare our ships and our crews to withstand the severe financial pressures that will attend increasing fuel costs until these ships and their highly skilled sailors can provide essential transportation in the post petroleum future.
How We Arrived Here
Everything we touch or buy or eat is connected to oil. Oil defined the twentieth century, for it fueled economic, industrial and population growth unsurpassed in human history both in its rapidity and its magnitude. Manufacturing, and especially transportation, rely heavily on it. And when it came to world wars the countries that won did so because the losers ran out of oil. Petroleum is an incredibly versatile and potent energy source. Airplanes, ships, trains and trucks all use petroleum fuel. It is inexpensive, easy to transport, has a very high energy output and is supported by a worldwide delivery infrastructure. All plastics are made of oil. So are herbicides and pesticides. Oil’s cousin, natural gas, is used to make all commercial fertilizers. The machines that spread each of them around and harvest the crops and deliver them to market all run on petroleum fuel. Every calorie of food energy we eat cost ten calories of oil energy to produce and ship and package and deliver. Now we can have Australian citrus on the shelves in Los Angeles and Alaskan halibut in the fish markets of Argentina.
Before petroleum humans used coal for many of the same purposes as oil today. Heating and metallurgy and transportation were the major duties of coal energy. The world’s largest coal fields were discovered in the United States, allowing Americans to keep apace of other industrial nations. Coal had its limitations of course. It was dirty, difficult and dangerous to produce, unsuitable for cooking, and heavy to haul around. Nevertheless, it replaced most of the energy demands that had for all of human history been met with wood. And then we found oil. Petroleum Man was born.
Not only do the United States still possess the largest coal reserves in the world but they also had the largest known oil fields during the first half of the 20th century. For a long while America pumped more oil out of the ground every day than Saudi Arabia. Texas and Oklahoma were filled with oil. Pennsylvania, Louisiana and California had significant reserves also and Alaska proved to be plentiful too. As America prospered on oil exports and manufacturing her great economic engine ran at full throttle. Wars only ratified the abundance of natural resources on this continent. America supplied all the oil her allies needed to slake their thirsty wars. German and Japanese soldiers fought no less bravely than our own, or less intelligently. They lost because they were denied access to oil. Even as the Nazis lost in St. Petersburg and therefore did not succeed in acquiring the Baku oil fields in Azerbaijan, oil tankers bound to Tokyo from Malaysia were routinely torpedoed by the American navy. The Germans were forced to extract petroleum from coal, and while atomic bombs were falling the Japanese air force was out of fuel.
At the end of WWII the United States could no longer produce all the oil necessary to keep up with the economic expansion of the post war boom, and by 1946 oil imports began to supplement what was being produced at home. Soon after, discoveries of huge reserves in Saudi Arabia and western Asia, especially Iran and Iraq, would produce a profound shift in geopolitics. As America grew and her cities overflowed into hundred mile swaths of suburban housing her demand for oil likewise increased. Around 1956 an American petroleum geologist working for Shell Oil named M. King Hubbert told his colleagues that it was all going to end some day and that he knew when. This unwelcome news got Hubbert little respect in the oil business then but fourteen years later his prediction came true. The peak of production in the United States occurred in 1970, just as Hubbert said it would, and before the end of the decade his message would become a very ugly reality - the U.S. economy had become reliant upon foreign oil.
This uncomfortable truth played out just a few years later when the U.S. backed Israel in a 1973 conflict against the Islamic nations of Egypt and Syria. The major oil players in the region cut us off and there were severe shortages of gasoline and other petroleum fuels. Rationing, odd and even days according to your license plate, long lines, brawls at the pumps, lowering the speed limit to 55 mph and price ascendancy are all familiar scenes to those who endured that recession. A little international diplomacy later and the supply returned, although the prices would never again fall below a dollar a gallon, shocking for its day. Then it happened again in 1979 when Iranians overthrew their leader. Alaska couldn’t even save us and to add insult to injury, California crude was awash on the beaches of Santa Barbara after a major offshore spill. What a decade.
Meanwhile, a new president had moved into 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue and he understood what Hubbert had said. Jimmy Carter knew about energy and conservation so he regulated government thermostats to use less heating and air conditioning. He even put a solar panel on the roof of the White House. He also set our nation on a course that explains why we have soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan three decades since. Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, revealed to him that future world power will be held by whichever nation controls the Caspian basin’s oil and natural gas reserves. On this advice Carter backed forces in Afghanistan hostile to the Soviet Union in a deliberate effort to drain the Soviet economy with a war and get a U.S. foothold in the region. We’re still there.
Carter’s environmental outlook did not have the same resonance in the Reagan years however, and the White House solar panel was thrown on the scrap heap along with the memories of gas shortages. The Alaskan pipeline was flowing now and bigger cars would get folks deeper and deeper into the suburbs. Not even Reagan’s massive military buildup or continued support to Afghanistan would topple the Soviet Empire, however, and strategic missile systems were just a sideshow compared to the plan he used to break the back of the Soviet economy. Reagan colluded with the Saudis to flood the world oil market and thereby lower the value of oil that Russia was selling to Europe in order to fund its arms race against America. Trying to do more with less is an unsustainable formula, as we shall see in our own regard, and a few years later people were starving in Moscow from a disintegrated national economy. The cold war was over. Or, did it just get colder…
Hubbert predicted the world oil peak would occur around the year 2000. He probably would have been right on the money again but the presidential energy initiatives were fairly successful. So it was 2005-08 instead, and ever since that day or that week or that month – whichever the experts want to choose – there has been a slow but steady decline in the amount of oil coming out of the ground despite new discoveries and new technologies. All the cheap and easy petroleum has already been extracted. From now on worldwide oil production will fall every year even as demand continues to rise. China and India have emerging economies and they’re all gonna want cars just like us. This ever widening gap between rising demand and decreasing supply has created what Vice President Dick Cheney famously called, “…a war that will not end in our lifetime” in the Caspian region.
To gain a little perspective on the present situation let’s look at a few statistics. Every day about 80 million barrels of oil are sucked out of the earth. The United States produce about 5 million of those barrels along with 3 million barrels of biofuels and import an additional 12 million to meet our 20 million barrel per day habit. That means one out of every four gallons of fuel in the whole world is used here in America. And even though we only have five percent of the world’s people we drive 30 percent of the world’s automobiles. Hmmmm….
Since 60% of our oil comes from imports we should know who’s doing us this service. Canada is number one, and second and third place are tied between Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Venezuela and Nigeria follow next and then a lot of others in small but significant measure. Last April Iran announced the discovery of several new oil fields, one having over nine billion barrels of oil. If that oil could be pumped out as fast as the world uses it we would burn through it in three months. What happens if any of these major suppliers has a war or a natural disaster or a political overthrow? Just remember the oil price shocks of 1973 and 1979. Prices quadrupled and that was when imports were cut by a mere five percent.
All this goes to show just how very vulnerable we are. Every steep increase in oil prices since 1940 has resulted in a recession. The present worldwide economic contraction was not caused by the burst of the housing bubble or by unscrupulous credit lending. They greatly exacerbated the initial cause. When oil reached $147 per barrel in July 2008 it slowed the American economy enough to set everything else in motion. And while the recession has lowered the demand for oil and caused prices to fall back down for now it has also deprived the oil companies of research and development capital. That means they can’t try as hard to bring us as much as we’re used to having, and it won’t be there when we need it. Think about Brazil: A new field discovered offshore promises another 4-6 billion barrels of oil which will yield a mere 1 billion actually. The only problem is that it’s in 4,000 ft of water and below another 35,000 feet of rock. Is this oil any good or does it contain a lot of sulfur and other undesirable elements? We’ll know when the oil starts to flow, in about ten years. Imagine the cost of that operation.
Why Alternative Energy Can’t Save Us
Energy is used mostly to make things, move things and house people. Manufacturing industries use vast amounts of electricity provided by natural gas, coal, and nuclear power plants. Making food is also in this category and agriculture is quite energy intensive. Transportation uses petroleum exclusively because no other energy source is as suitable for transportation as oil. It’s what makes planes fly through the air and cargo ships motor across oceans and cars drive on the Autobahn and trains go choo-choo. Housing people in work places and homes requires heat, light, air conditioning and power for office machines, computers, televisions and blow dryers.
Most of the oil in the world is used for transportation and there is no ready replacement for it. Geothermal is impossible, solar is still impractical, nuclear is illegal except for the navy, hydrogen and biofuels are cruel hoaxes and that leaves only wind power. But we’ll get to that in the next section. It is very important to realize that petroleum is the single element that connects every alternative energy source. Before a wind turbine sends its first amp of electricity onto the grid it must first be manufactured and delivered and then installed. Oil made all that happen. The same goes for a solar panel farm in the Arizona desert or a nuclear power plant in Georgia. Until transportation can become independent of oil all other energy systems will be subject to whatever constraints the oil industry is facing.
Tremendous advances have been made in bringing alternative energy sources into service and we must never lose hope of our long range ability to make even more progress. We can and we must. Clear air and clean rivers are ample justification to move away from coal and natural gas toward renewable energy sources but the big picture is sobering – it might not happen in time.
Each energy source has its limitations, of course. Coal is very dirty. Natural gas will peak and decline also and, like coal, is causing the earth to warm up. Nuclear power has serious security and waste issues. Wind and solar have limited geography and intermittency. There are enough potential wind and solar energy regions in the U.S. to alleviate much of our present use of coal and natural gas in generating electricity. That’s the good news. The other news is, there is no way yet to get the electricity to the people who will use it and the new infrastructure will take decades to build. Furthermore, photovoltaic panels require gallium and indium which are becoming scarce also. Hydrogen uses more energy than it delivers and so do biofuels. The worst thing about ethanol is that cars and people must compete for the same food.
Peak Oil doomsayers like myself often look at these energy challenges and wonder if there is enough petroleum left to rebuild our energy systems. If the decline slope of the peak is too sharp then the world’s economies will crash so hard we might not be able to help ourselves in time. If we ride a plateau of oil availability, however, we may be able to suffer slow price increases for several more years and mitigate the damage that a sudden drop-off would cause. Either way, the best course of action now is simply to use less oil. Drive less. Shop less. Avoid stores with shelves heavily stocked with food and goods carried from far away. That includes Trader Joes and especially Wal-Mart. Conserving this oil to implement new energy solutions is the future’s best use of it. Educate yourself, too. There is a ton of Peak Oil news online now in the mainstream press. Learning how to grow your own food and fix your home might prove very handy in times ahead. And don’t forget to get your boat ready - your sailboat that is.
The Solar Age of Sail
In 1790 Lady Washington was the first U.S. ship to touch Hawaii and her modern descendant of the same name may be the last. If Peak Oil prophecy proves to be even half true then sailing ships will come back into service as a major means of transportation in the post petroleum era. But long before that day dawns we will have to overcome a drastic transition away from using oil the way we do now and reconstruct our cities and our economy for a life similar to those in the golden days of sail.
Imagine that our present economic situation is not, in fact, temporary. We do not know how long our tall ships can survive a steady decline in revenues based on their present business models. It’s time to think about using these ships for purposes different than those for which they were built. To stay in business our ships’ organizations will either diversify or die. Any asset so singularly tied to a specific economic sector is in jeopardy. By becoming adaptable and flexible these valuable ships may remain active provided they are not married to one particular use. For example, motor driven fishing vessels will drop like flies when fuel goes out of reach but tall ships may help bring food to people.
If the decline in usual business is not countered by new, diverse methods to employ these ships they may fall victim to decay from disuse. Sailors and craftsmen would then necessarily wander elsewhere to find work and the demise will accelerate. This lull in ship employment is critical and temporary, for the same forces that caused them to become inactive will ensure their future need of service. We cannot allow our ships or crews to disappear during this slack time. They will prove invaluable soon after.
Oil may crash or it may slowly taper off but two things are certain: it will go away and we will need wind transportation more than ever when it does. We can plan now for where and how we will be building new sailing ships in the decades ahead. Some basic requirements worth considering are seaside locales with close proximity to alternative energy, agriculture and railway lines. The seaside is an obvious locality but an independent energy system is also recommended. Food is the fuel of the future and probably one of the most valuable cargoes ships will carry along the coasts. These agro-shipbuilding centers may also be fuel depots for vessels equipped to run on biogas and biodiesel. A nearby railway can support the new shipbuilding industry also since trains will likely form a valuable transportation link in times of fuel scarcity.
Let us never forget that it is our star, the sun, which provided all the energy humans will ever need. The sun makes our food grow and creates the winds driving turbines and sailing ships alike. And it was the sun which, over millennia, made wood fuel and the raw materials for coal and oil, thereby enabling humans to travel beyond the sky and break their bond with the Earth. Our star, the sun, gave humans the power to challenge the gods.
Truly then, we are at the dawn of the solar age of sail.
The choice is always ours. Then let me choose
The longest Art, the hard Promethean way
Cherishingly to tend and feed and fan
That inward fire, whose small precarious flame,
Kindled or quenched, creates
The noble or ignoble men we are,
The world we live in and our very fates.
Our bright or muddy star.
Many are curious about monitoring the effects of Peak Oil, partly to test the thesis and also to gauge the speed in which its effects may be felt here in the U.S.. Here are a few issues you’ll be hearing more about: The A, B, C’s of Peak Oil.
A is for Airlines
The cost of operating an airline, to take a hundred tons of aluminum and titanium and fill it with humans and fly across continents and oceans, sometimes faster than sound, is based largely on fuel. Seventy-five percent of airline cost is jet fuel. In 2008 U.S. airlines parked 11% of their fleets in the Arizona desert where they will remain until being mined for scrap. Follow the fate of airlines and you’ll have a more comprehensive grasp on how Peak Oil affects more than the price you pay at the pump.
B is for Britain
England has one quarter of America’s population in an area one third the size of Texas but they didn’t build as many suburbs there. Even though their food is grown closer to where it is bought and eaten their fuel challenges are still significant. Fuel riots erupted a year before 9/11 and today those folks would be charged as terrorists. The 20 year North Sea oil boom is over and Britons are adjusting to a post petroleum future, as evidenced in their network of Transition Towns spreading across the sceptered isle and even to Australia. We must imagine ourselves making similar changes to our lifestyle and follow their solutions.
C is for Cantarell
The second largest oil field ever discovered is dying. Mexico’s Cantarell produced 43% less oil in 2008 than it did the year before and when it goes into depletion the Mexican economy may fail. They have no replacements to equal it. Then again, Mexicans are more likely to survive a global oil crash than we are because of their more traditional farming methods. Can’t you just see U.S. citizens tearing down the border fence to escape into Mexico?
What will be the role of tall ships in a post petroleum era?
Where are the tall ships located?
What resources are necessary beside wood and canvas and steel?
How will Art help the transition?
Will starving non-profit organizations be forced to sell their ships for purposes more essential than Education Sails?
Who will buy and operate them?
What will happen to our sailors?
How can organizations get out of debt before the crash?
Can Cap & Trade offsets provide income for tall ship organizations?
What are the phases of decline?
What modern innovations will improve vessels’ sailing qualities?
Will large commercial ships convert to wind power before the crash?
How much fuel do tall ships use?
Can these vessels’ engines be modified?
Can fishing provide transitional revenue?
Are Government subsidies available for assistance and research of alternative fuel industries?
How much tonnage are ASTA ships now capable of carrying?
What seaside locations have both agriculture and railway systems nearby?
Which alternative energy plans will provide enough power to build new ships?
Will tall ship sailors be competing for employment with displaced merchant mariners?
Can ASTA create a tall ship academy for training large numbers of sailors?
Crossing the Rubicon – Michael C. Ruppert
Beyond Oil – Kenneth Deffeyes
The Long Emergency – James Howard Kunstler
Powerdown – Richard Heinberg
Soil Not Oil – Vandana Shiva
Twilight in the Desert – Matthew Simmons
The End of Oil – Paul Roberts
Collapse – Jared Diamond
The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil
End of Suburbia
Matthew Simmons Interview – The Agenda with Steve Paikin, March 2009
Farm for the Future
The Future of Food
http://www.peakoil.net/ (ASPO International)
Government Web Sources
http://www.iea.org/ (International Energy Agency)
(GAO Government Report to Congressional Requesters)
(U.S. Department of Energy)
(James L. Baker III Institute Study)