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Monday, November 30, 2009

Geologists: Energy's future in for big change

From an article by Joe Knight in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram:

"This is the age of oil, but the age of oil is about to end," said Lori Snyder of UW-Eau Claire's geology department.

In 1950, the U.S. did not import any oil. Today, we still like our cars, and we have to import 60 percent of the oil we use to support our driving habit, she said.

Vehicles may have gotten a smaller and more fuel efficient since the 1950s, but our appetite for energy - the majority of it coming from fossil fuels - is huge. Today the average American uses three times the amount of energy we used in 1950, Snyder said.

Snyder and J. Brian Mahoney, also of the geology department, discussed the future of fossil fuels and energy Tuesday night for an "Ask A Scientist" program at UW-Eau Claire.

An audience of mixed ages attended, and many asked questions of the scientists, but the answers they received painted a less-than-reassuring picture of our energy future.

Fossil fuel basically is solar energy trapped by plants and bugs - sometimes millions of years ago - that never completely decomposed. We have extracted the fuels and used it to power our cars, heat our homes and generate our electricity, but supplies are becoming scarce, the geologists said.

Oil supplies in the U.S. peaked in the 1970s, Mahoney said. World supplies of oil that is readily accessible are peaking now, he said.

There are some alternative sources of oil, such as sand tars in Alberta, Canada, which are being mined, but they require a substantial amount of energy to extract and are costly to the environment, Mahoney said.

We still have an abundance of coal in the U.S. - enough to meet our electrical needs for 200 to 250 years, Snyder said. Unfortunately, coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel for emissions. We're already altering the composition of the atmosphere, and continuing at the current rate or increasing emissions brings about more questions about climate change and what life on Earth might be like in 100 years, Mahoney said.

"It's taking us to a place we don't really understand," he said.

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