114. EROEI AS A POLITICAL NUMBER
When talk turns to the EROEI of mining coal, the EROEI advocates want to show that coal mining is becoming increasingly unfeasible, so they try to make EI (Energy Invested) as large as they can. For example, in the case of strip mining, they stress that mining companies are supposed to put the overburden back into the hole, compact the dirt, do landscaping etc., and that the energy necessary to do that restoration must be included in EI.
Whatever your position on such restoration, it is clearly a political/regulatory requirement, not a physical requirement necessary to harvest and use the coal energy.
If we include energy inputs like this, then EROEI is not an objective, physical number. It's an advocacy number.
It may be that the EROEI of coal (or other energy sources) is decreasing not because the energy is getting harder to mine or use, but because of an ever increasing load of regulatory requirements. In that case, EROEI isn't a hard physical number at all. It's a value which depends on the regulatory climate. Which of course means that the EROEI of coal can also be instantaneously increased by eliminating regulations (i.e. eliminating the requirement to fill in overburden). EROEI loses a lot of credence as a hard physical limit, if the coal lobby can change it by making a few phone calls to the right people.
You fail to mention how incredibly undesirable the lifting of such restrictions would be. Though compared to collapse of civilization, I'll take anything.
I think that here you are using "peak oil" as a synonym for doomsaying. This will confuse a lot of people, especially those who feel that peak oil is an important issue, but not the end of the world. In other words, the sensible majority.
In this case, restoration after strip mining is a real cost. Your point is that it is in some sense optional: if economic collapse threatened, we could elect not to pay that cost immediately. In economist's terms, it is a cost which could be externalized (like most pollution, or health costs). However, just because the cost has been internalized through a political process doesn't meant that it isn't still a real cost. So, it would be desirable to plan things so that we can avoid tearing up pollution controls in order to avoid economic pain. In other words, doom may not be yawning before us, but it would be sensible to plan ahead for an optimum future.
On the other hand, it is true that doomsayers don't address this. An even better example is the silly idea that visual pollution would be an obstacle to widespread expansion of wind or solar power in the event that these forms of power were desperately needed.
So, your point is a good one, but you might want to distinguish more clearly between doomsaying and peak oil.
I have a large property, and it is being mined for sand (for use in concrete).
It's very important to me as a land-owner (and my young son, who will one day run this place) that the mining company 'restore' their portion of my land back to as reasonable state as possible.
Does this 'artificially' raise the EROEI? Yes, but in a better educated world than the previous generation (i.e. my father's) we now realise that the earth is finite - they're not making any more of it. We'd better look after it, or the doomsayers may turn out to be right after all.
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