The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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The Energy Crisis
P. E. Hodgson - 08/15/08

Oil can also be extracted from tar sands. There are enormous deposits in Northern Canada, estimated to be able to yield at least 170 billion barrels compared with about 260 billion barrels in Saudi Arabia. Venezuela also has substantial reserves. The oil is extracted by boiling water, and is an expensive and very polluting process. It costs about $25 to extract a barrel of oil, so the process is economic as long as it remains less than that from oil wells, as is the case at present.

Oil in the form of ethanol can be extracted from sugar cane and from maize. Already there are large plantations growing crops for this purpose; Brazil plans to plant 120 million hectares and an African consortium 380 million hectares. This takes up valuable agricultural land, however, leading to food shortages, and is also highly polluting. It is, therefore, unwise to rely on oil, even from vegetable sources, for our future energy supplies.

Natural Gas

Sometimes associated with oil and sometimes on its own, gas is an attractive energy source. It comes out of the ground easily and can be transported over large distances either by pipeline or less conveniently in liquid form by road, rail, and ship. It is widely used for domestic heating and cooking. It is one of the cheapest and safest energy sources, so many gas power stations are now being built. These power stations can be brought into action rapidly and so are useful when dealing with fluctuating demand. Natural gas is also the safest energy source, with an average of half a death per thousand megawatt years.

The contribution of natural gas to world energy consumption has risen from 170 million tons of oil equivalent in 1950 to 2020 million tons in 2000. A large gas field in Siberia now supplies around 20 percent of western European gas. Gas consumption in Britain is rising rapidly and with it the price. The calculated lifetime is about sixty years, but as in the case of coal and oil this is likely to be an underestimate. Ultimately gas production will fall, like that of oil.

The Renewable Energy Sources

Recognition of the pollution caused by fossil fuel power stations has led to strong advocacy of what are sometimes termed the “benign renewables.” This label is somewhat misleading, as statistics show that they are by no means benign. The word “renewable” implies that they do not rely on sources that are limited in amount; they rely on the practically inexhaustible sun. In all cases the energy available is enormous, but it is thinly spread and therefore costly to concentrate. It is regrettable that this renders most of them uneconomical for large-scale energy generation, except for hydropower where nature does the concentrating for us. They have many attractive and valuable features, but the laws of physics are inexorable.


Hydropower (hydro for short) is a well-established and reliable source that supplies most of the electrical power in mountainous countries like Norway and Switzerland. It is however limited worldwide by the number of suitable mountains and cannot ever supply more than about three per cent of the world’s energy needs. There are untapped sources in remote areas, but the electricity produced there has to be transported over long distances and the power lines are exposed to attacks by guerillas.

Hydropower is relatively safe, with a death rate of about four per thousand megawatt years. The dams that hold back the water seem so solid that even this hazard is surprising. However, it sometimes happens, especially with earthen dams, that water starts to trickle through small channels, gradually weakening the dam until it collapses. A wall of water then surges down the valley, obliterating everything in its path. If people are living there, a large number could be drowned. In the period 1969–1986 there have been more than eight dam collapses, with an average death toll of more than 200 people. In one case, about 2500 people were killed.

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