Magazine article Alternatives Journal

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

Magazine article Alternatives Journal

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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