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Monitor Board of Contributors: In praise of crude oil and high prices

  • In this photo taken May 18, 2011, shows a wind turbine near Arlington, Ore. The wind energy industry demanded Monday that the Bonneville Power Administration fix problems that have forced the shut-off of Northwest wind generators while hydroelectric dams fill the grid with power produced from a heavy spring runoff. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

    In this photo taken May 18, 2011, shows a wind turbine near Arlington, Ore. The wind energy industry demanded Monday that the Bonneville Power Administration fix problems that have forced the shut-off of Northwest wind generators while hydroelectric dams fill the grid with power produced from a heavy spring runoff. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

  • FILE - Floodwaters are released from the Gravins Point hydroelectric dam on the Missouri River, near Yankton, S.D. Renewable energy is growing fast around the world and will be the second biggest source of electricity, after coal, by 2016, according to a five-year outlook published Wednesday, June 26, 2013, by the International Energy Agency. (AP Photo/Robert Ray, File)

    FILE - Floodwaters are released from the Gravins Point hydroelectric dam on the Missouri River, near Yankton, S.D. Renewable energy is growing fast around the world and will be the second biggest source of electricity, after coal, by 2016, according to a five-year outlook published Wednesday, June 26, 2013, by the International Energy Agency. (AP Photo/Robert Ray, File)

  • Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora tar sands mine in the Boreal forest north of Fort McMurray.

    Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora tar sands mine in the Boreal forest north of Fort McMurray.

  • In this image provided by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement shows the aftermath of the fire aboard Hercules 265 gas well seen Thursday morning July 25, 2013 during an overflight observation. The drilling rig that caught fire after a natural gas blowout in the Gulf of Mexico appears stable now that the fire is out, and there was no sign of any oil sheen on a fly-over Thursday morning, a rig company executive said. (AP Photo/Bureau of Safety aqnd Environmental Enforcement)

    In this image provided by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement shows the aftermath of the fire aboard Hercules 265 gas well seen Thursday morning July 25, 2013 during an overflight observation. The drilling rig that caught fire after a natural gas blowout in the Gulf of Mexico appears stable now that the fire is out, and there was no sign of any oil sheen on a fly-over Thursday morning, a rig company executive said. (AP Photo/Bureau of Safety aqnd Environmental Enforcement)

  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

    I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

  • FILE - In this Monday Nov. 21, 2011 file photo, provided by the Cyprus Press and Information office, the Noble Energy company's offshore oil and gas rig is seen some 115 miles (185 kilometers) off Cyprus' south coast. Cyprus said Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, its plan to turn itself into a regional energy hub remains on track, despite new findings showing that an offshore gas field is noticeably smaller than initially estimated. The small Mediterranean island nation, which earlier this year became the fifth country that uses the euro to receive outside financial assistance, is aiming to build a multibillion euro facility by 2019-20 to liquefy excess gas supply for export to Europe and beyond. (AP Photo/Cyprus Press and Information Office, File)

    FILE - In this Monday Nov. 21, 2011 file photo, provided by the Cyprus Press and Information office, the Noble Energy company's offshore oil and gas rig is seen some 115 miles (185 kilometers) off Cyprus' south coast. Cyprus said Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, its plan to turn itself into a regional energy hub remains on track, despite new findings showing that an offshore gas field is noticeably smaller than initially estimated. The small Mediterranean island nation, which earlier this year became the fifth country that uses the euro to receive outside financial assistance, is aiming to build a multibillion euro facility by 2019-20 to liquefy excess gas supply for export to Europe and beyond. (AP Photo/Cyprus Press and Information Office, File)

  • In this image provided by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement shows the aftermath of the fire aboard Hercules 265 gas well seen Thursday morning July 25, 2013 during an overflight observation. The drilling rig that caught fire after a natural gas blowout in the Gulf of Mexico appears stable now that the fire is out, and there was no sign of any oil sheen on a fly-over Thursday morning, a rig company executive said. (AP Photo/Bureau of Safety aqnd Environmental Enforcement)

    In this image provided by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement shows the aftermath of the fire aboard Hercules 265 gas well seen Thursday morning July 25, 2013 during an overflight observation. The drilling rig that caught fire after a natural gas blowout in the Gulf of Mexico appears stable now that the fire is out, and there was no sign of any oil sheen on a fly-over Thursday morning, a rig company executive said. (AP Photo/Bureau of Safety aqnd Environmental Enforcement)

  • FILE - Floodwaters are released from the Gravins Point hydroelectric dam on the Missouri River, near Yankton, S.D. Renewable energy is growing fast around the world and will be the second biggest source of electricity, after coal, by 2016, according to a five-year outlook published Wednesday, June 26, 2013, by the International Energy Agency. (AP Photo/Robert Ray, File)

    FILE - Floodwaters are released from the Gravins Point hydroelectric dam on the Missouri River, near Yankton, S.D. Renewable energy is growing fast around the world and will be the second biggest source of electricity, after coal, by 2016, according to a five-year outlook published Wednesday, June 26, 2013, by the International Energy Agency. (AP Photo/Robert Ray, File)

  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

    I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

  • Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora tar sands mine in the Boreal forest north of Fort McMurray.

    Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora tar sands mine in the Boreal forest north of Fort McMurray.

  • FILE - In this Monday Nov. 21, 2011 file photo, provided by the Cyprus Press and Information office, the Noble Energy company's offshore oil and gas rig is seen some 115 miles (185 kilometers) off Cyprus' south coast. Cyprus said Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, its plan to turn itself into a regional energy hub remains on track, despite new findings showing that an offshore gas field is noticeably smaller than initially estimated. The small Mediterranean island nation, which earlier this year became the fifth country that uses the euro to receive outside financial assistance, is aiming to build a multibillion euro facility by 2019-20 to liquefy excess gas supply for export to Europe and beyond. (AP Photo/Cyprus Press and Information Office, File)

    FILE - In this Monday Nov. 21, 2011 file photo, provided by the Cyprus Press and Information office, the Noble Energy company's offshore oil and gas rig is seen some 115 miles (185 kilometers) off Cyprus' south coast. Cyprus said Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, its plan to turn itself into a regional energy hub remains on track, despite new findings showing that an offshore gas field is noticeably smaller than initially estimated. The small Mediterranean island nation, which earlier this year became the fifth country that uses the euro to receive outside financial assistance, is aiming to build a multibillion euro facility by 2019-20 to liquefy excess gas supply for export to Europe and beyond. (AP Photo/Cyprus Press and Information Office, File)

  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

    I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

  • In this photo taken May 18, 2011, shows a wind turbine near Arlington, Ore. The wind energy industry demanded Monday that the Bonneville Power Administration fix problems that have forced the shut-off of Northwest wind generators while hydroelectric dams fill the grid with power produced from a heavy spring runoff. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

    In this photo taken May 18, 2011, shows a wind turbine near Arlington, Ore. The wind energy industry demanded Monday that the Bonneville Power Administration fix problems that have forced the shut-off of Northwest wind generators while hydroelectric dams fill the grid with power produced from a heavy spring runoff. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

  • FILE - In this July 20, 2013 file photo, a plant that produces ethanol is next to a cornfield near Coon Rapids, Iowa.  For decades, a presidential candidate’s chances in Iowa were wounded if not doomed unless he embraced federal support for ethanol, a now flourishing component to Iowa’s economy in this corn-growing state. That immutable rule collapsed resoundingly early in the last campaign when five of the six top Republican candidates largely renounced a decades-old ethanol tax credit. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

    FILE - In this July 20, 2013 file photo, a plant that produces ethanol is next to a cornfield near Coon Rapids, Iowa. For decades, a presidential candidate’s chances in Iowa were wounded if not doomed unless he embraced federal support for ethanol, a now flourishing component to Iowa’s economy in this corn-growing state. That immutable rule collapsed resoundingly early in the last campaign when five of the six top Republican candidates largely renounced a decades-old ethanol tax credit. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

    I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

    I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

  • In this photo taken May 18, 2011, shows a wind turbine near Arlington, Ore. The wind energy industry demanded Monday that the Bonneville Power Administration fix problems that have forced the shut-off of Northwest wind generators while hydroelectric dams fill the grid with power produced from a heavy spring runoff. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
  • FILE - Floodwaters are released from the Gravins Point hydroelectric dam on the Missouri River, near Yankton, S.D. Renewable energy is growing fast around the world and will be the second biggest source of electricity, after coal, by 2016, according to a five-year outlook published Wednesday, June 26, 2013, by the International Energy Agency. (AP Photo/Robert Ray, File)
  • Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora tar sands mine in the Boreal forest north of Fort McMurray.
  • In this image provided by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement shows the aftermath of the fire aboard Hercules 265 gas well seen Thursday morning July 25, 2013 during an overflight observation. The drilling rig that caught fire after a natural gas blowout in the Gulf of Mexico appears stable now that the fire is out, and there was no sign of any oil sheen on a fly-over Thursday morning, a rig company executive said. (AP Photo/Bureau of Safety aqnd Environmental Enforcement)
  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives
  • FILE - In this Monday Nov. 21, 2011 file photo, provided by the Cyprus Press and Information office, the Noble Energy company's offshore oil and gas rig is seen some 115 miles (185 kilometers) off Cyprus' south coast. Cyprus said Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, its plan to turn itself into a regional energy hub remains on track, despite new findings showing that an offshore gas field is noticeably smaller than initially estimated. The small Mediterranean island nation, which earlier this year became the fifth country that uses the euro to receive outside financial assistance, is aiming to build a multibillion euro facility by 2019-20 to liquefy excess gas supply for export to Europe and beyond. (AP Photo/Cyprus Press and Information Office, File)
  • In this image provided by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement shows the aftermath of the fire aboard Hercules 265 gas well seen Thursday morning July 25, 2013 during an overflight observation. The drilling rig that caught fire after a natural gas blowout in the Gulf of Mexico appears stable now that the fire is out, and there was no sign of any oil sheen on a fly-over Thursday morning, a rig company executive said. (AP Photo/Bureau of Safety aqnd Environmental Enforcement)
  • FILE - Floodwaters are released from the Gravins Point hydroelectric dam on the Missouri River, near Yankton, S.D. Renewable energy is growing fast around the world and will be the second biggest source of electricity, after coal, by 2016, according to a five-year outlook published Wednesday, June 26, 2013, by the International Energy Agency. (AP Photo/Robert Ray, File)
  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives
  • Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora tar sands mine in the Boreal forest north of Fort McMurray.
  • FILE - In this Monday Nov. 21, 2011 file photo, provided by the Cyprus Press and Information office, the Noble Energy company's offshore oil and gas rig is seen some 115 miles (185 kilometers) off Cyprus' south coast. Cyprus said Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, its plan to turn itself into a regional energy hub remains on track, despite new findings showing that an offshore gas field is noticeably smaller than initially estimated. The small Mediterranean island nation, which earlier this year became the fifth country that uses the euro to receive outside financial assistance, is aiming to build a multibillion euro facility by 2019-20 to liquefy excess gas supply for export to Europe and beyond. (AP Photo/Cyprus Press and Information Office, File)
  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives
  • In this photo taken May 18, 2011, shows a wind turbine near Arlington, Ore. The wind energy industry demanded Monday that the Bonneville Power Administration fix problems that have forced the shut-off of Northwest wind generators while hydroelectric dams fill the grid with power produced from a heavy spring runoff. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
  • FILE - In this July 20, 2013 file photo, a plant that produces ethanol is next to a cornfield near Coon Rapids, Iowa.  For decades, a presidential candidate’s chances in Iowa were wounded if not doomed unless he embraced federal support for ethanol, a now flourishing component to Iowa’s economy in this corn-growing state. That immutable rule collapsed resoundingly early in the last campaign when five of the six top Republican candidates largely renounced a decades-old ethanol tax credit. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives
  •  I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives

I never thought I’d say this, but given the possibility of a future with bitumen as a fuel source, crude oil looks pretty good. And while I am at it, I would like the price of energy to reflect its real-world value, which could amount to conservatives who idolize Ayn Rand having their way in the energy markets. Have I got your attention?

In case you haven’t heard, Canada has enough oil deposits to rewrite the market rules for conventional energy, except that harvesting it is a bear because it is all tangled up in sand, gravel and rock. This form of oil is known as “heavy” crude oil and is difficult to refine and transport. It also has more negative environmental impact than traditional “sweet” or “light” crude that comes out of the ground as a liquid. By any name: bitumen, heavy oil, tar sands or oil shale, these have become the energy sources of last resort only considered because of decreasing conventional oil supply, tremendous price jumps and Canadian government support.

So why would someone who cares about our environmental future do anything to promote a conventional fossil fuel? Because of the following acronym: EROI, Energy Returned on (energy) Investment.

This is not a financial measurement, but rather one concerned with energy efficiency. In the language of EROI the amount of energy produced is measured and compared to the amount of energy needed to get it up and running, infrastructure, mining and exploration costs, and sometimes even decommissioning costs in the case of nuclear. What comes out is a ratio of energy out: energy in. A ratio of 1:1 means you have broken even; below that, you are on a fool’s errand.

These numbers are tricky to obtain and exist in a range of values for each fuel type. Nonetheless, there are some roughly accepted values that we can think about. Coal has one of the highest EROI values at 40:1. Domestic crude is 10:1. Tar sands is about 4:1. In layman’s terms, for every one unit of energy you invest to harvest coal, you get 40 in return. These numbers are familiar to those of us in the environmental field, and often confused with the financial term ROI, Return On (monetary) Investment.

Due to government investment practices in the energy sector, they tend not to be too closely related. Neither EROI nor ROI tend to take environmental harm into account, but even in a crude sense the EROI measurement is a useful tool and should be integrated into the consideration process from the beginning as it tends to not bend to the actions of lobbyists, politicians and industry giants.

If we are a capitalist economy, the energy source that yields the highest financial return should be the one that is most energy efficient, in an ideal world. However, this is a place where democracy and capitalism do not mix well. Take the case of corn-based ethanol, which has an EROI of less than 1:1. What is the possible benefit of using more gasoline to make it than you get out of it?

Because Iowa, a major corn production state, is the only state in front of New Hampshire in the presidential nominating contests, and I haven’t seen a serious politician yet go there without promising to continue the program. Enter the Randian economists to take all of the subsidies, tax breaks and government goodies away and you might have an energy market that consists of coal, light crude, hydro-electric, wind, natural gas and solar in high sun areas. Gone would be anything with an EROI under 5:1 – namely nuclear, heavy crude, corn ethanol and some biofuels.

Yet you could argue that just using the amount of energy returned is not really a fair measure either. How about the energy and money spent to clean up after environmental damage? Those numbers have not been figured into any of the calculations of energy analysts, and they should. If we take all the environmental damage a gallon of gasoline causes, we would spend $14 per gallon at the pump, which would surely reshape the American way of life. You can see why there is argument and passion on both sides of this debate.

What I am illustrating here is that our energy future is not a simple choice between what is cheapest versus what is best for the environment. Governments play God by choosing what to subsidize, how much and for how long. There is not an energy source out there that does not have government involvement in it. My hope is that by educating people we can make better choices and ask better questions to guide us to a better future.

(Ayn Whytemare of Concord teaches environmental science at NHTI and owns a certified organic plant business, Found Well Farm, in Pembroke.)

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