Randy Udall: An energy hero's journey

Energy analyst Chris Nelder remembers his friend and mentor, who died two weeks ago at the age of 61.
Written by Chris Nelder, Contributor

"Everyday miracles we take for granted -- bananas in the grocery store; you can walk into a Whole Foods and buy snow crabs from Alaska -- I mean it’s just. ... It’s this kind of stuff I think that has really changed the way we think and the way we view the world.

The most powerful woman 2000 years ago was Cleopatra, and her idea of a good time was to row up and down the Nile, having 60 men -- with some encouragement from the whip and the lash -- pull her up and down the Nile. Well, you yoke 60 men to some oars and you can generate six horsepower: about what we have in a lawnmower. A typical driver has 200 horsepower at their command. There was no engine on the planet 200 years ago much larger than 30 horsepower. And now every American has access to an engine that is six times larger than that you could have found on the surface of the globe 200 years ago. We’re climbing up the heat ladder. ...

We’re living like gods right now. And our challenge is to figure out how to return to earth, how to become mortal again. In an energy sense, we’re not living like royalty. We’re not living like Cleopatra. We’re living like gods. And this life has made us sort of insane. ...

Living like gods, we have no experience with going sailing off a depletion cliff. We have no cultural strength or wisdom that would really guide us in this moment. What do we do? How do you deal with this when production and drilling dissipate like this, and go in different directions? And when half of the natural gas that will be consumed in the U.S. today comes from wells that are less than three years old?"

-- From Randy Udall’s presentation at the 2006 Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference

Randy Udall had a unique talent for expressing complex realities and befuddling data in a simple, tangible way that anyone could understand; for being able to step back from the immediate issues of the day and put them in a larger, clarifying perspective.

So when I learned last week that he had died on a solo backpacking trip in the Wyoming wilderness, it was a crushing loss. Randy was one of my heroes: a wonderful man who was a hugely important and helpful friend, mentor, sounding board, and teacher to me over the past several years. He was a gifted writer and a compelling speaker. It’s hard to believe we’ll have no more of his words.

He certainly contributed much to mine. It was Randy who, preferring to be credited anonymously as “a perspicacious friend,” said this in my article on "energy independence" in February 2012: “The masses (and the cheerleaders) love this story because it is one of Abundance and Manifest Destiny in this Exceptional Country of ours.” That phrase expressed beautifully what the shale mania is really all about. A student of human nature, Randy had an unerring ability to detect the emotional underpinnings of our rhetoric about energy and our destiny, and bring it back to earth.

He never doubted that the engines of human activity were redlining, and that we had entered a period of extreme, even existential challenges where “the politics of energy has to surrender to the physics of energy.” He had no doubt that peak oil was a real and a serious issue we would have to confront in the very near future, as the decline of a handful of mature giant oil fields eventually overwhelmed new additions from the thousands of new wells being drilled every year. And he put his shoulder to the wheel in response, co-founding the U.S. chapter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), and co-hosting its first conferences.

Over the past several years, I was lucky to exchange emails every few days with Randy and some other fellow energy geeks. (Some of them wrote this touching tribute.) In a kind of ongoing workshop, we passed around data and charts and observations, working through arcane details, trying to detect the reality of our energy situation amidst a growing crescendo of industry propaganda. Randy always had the best lines though. Here are a few excerpts from an email he wrote to a fellow analyst on March 24 this year:

  • Global exports of oil -- oil available for purchase by importers, including the United States -- are falling. This is the biggest overlooked energy story in the world.
  • Energy independence? The United States is importing $4 to $5 billion of crude oil every week.
  • It is taking 800 rigs to do in Texas what the Kuwaitis are doing with 35. [Fellow analyst] Richard Nehring points out it will take 5,000 wells in the United States to produce 1 billion barrels, an increment the Saudis do with 50 wells.
  • The [U.S. Energy Information Association's] estimates of tight oil are equal to about four years of U.S. consumption -- just 30 billion barrels. That's huge on the one hand, but in a country that's already produced 200 billion barrels, [it’s] hardly a revolution, particularly since Americansare consuming our body weight in the stuff every eight days.

Randy had a remarkable, intuitive grasp of energy data, and an ability to visualize and convey it in a memorable, concrete way. When a fresh assessment of the Green River Formation, a large deposit of kerogen oil shale under Colorado and Utah, was released late last year, it got the usual breathless coverage in the mainstream press: “An American Oil Find That Holds More Than All of OPEC,” gushed ABC News. After reviewing the report, Randy quipped that the best parts of the shale “had less than half the energy content of dried pig shit.” Such startling observations often sent me scrambling in search of data to prove or disprove what he had said. I don’t recall ever proving him significantly wrong, but I did learn a good deal from those exercises. And it was fun to fire back to him a small spreadsheet summarizing my research -- showing, for example, that the best oil shales actually had more like one-quarter to one-third the energy content of dried pig shit. I don’t remember now how many barrels of oil per ton there are in those shales, but I’ll never forget that it’s less than the energy in pig shit.

Randy’s gift for perspective showed up in little gems like these:

  • On the difference between unconventional resources in the ground and production: "Suppose you owned $100 million dollars, but the bank would only allow you to withdraw $100,000/year. You would be rich … sort of."
  • "Four million Chinese will enter a coal mine this morning, and 100 of them will die within the week."
  • "The coal train leaving the Powder River basin [in Wyoming] every day is about 150 miles long."
  • On the things to be concerned about peaking: "Energy, courage, and time. Kind of a haiku of where we’re at right now."
  • "From the localized 'London fog' of coal smoke, up through the larger problem of acid rain, up to climate change, which is clearly a global issue. Are we at the point where all of these problems are global, not national, and we have to think of ourselves as citizens of the Earth?"
  • "We use 100,000 barrels of oil a minute. A $4 billion investment gives you a seven-minute solution."
  • "Half the oil ever produced has been consumed since 1983."
  • "Texas oil production peaked in 1972, and it’s no accident that that’s the last time we visited the Moon."
  • "Cars are breeding five times faster than humans. The total mass of cars exceeds mass of humanity by 3 to 1."

Randy worked tirelessly to counter the propaganda in hopes it would help humanity avoid running headlong off the energy cliff. “The level of energy ignorance in this country hampers efforts to develop sensible energy policy,” he wrote to a colleague in 2008, and so he resolved to teach the public about their energy reality.

But he also knew that the challenge was bigger than that. “Better information is key -- but peak oil is so incredibly counter to American myths that people literally don't want to hear it, particularly with gasoline at $2 gallon,” he wrote to another analyst four months later. “Energy is an IQ test that humans are predisposed to fail,” he liked to say.

With ironic sympathy for our efforts to counter a fresh round of "energy independence" rhetoric, he wrote to our email group two months ago: “Clone Nelder/Hughes, issue 10 new versions, have them stand facing into fresh 20-knot breeze and piss into the wind.”

Yet, despite his dedication to somehow motivate a sensible energy policy, Randy forced himself to keep open ears and an open mind, studiously avoiding the lures of tribal allegiances, and was as quick to critique the overoptimistic proclamations of the clean energy tribe as those of the fossil fuel tribe. Neither Al Gore nor Dick Cheney escaped his withering commentary.

He constantly exhorted his fellow peakists to recognize the astonishing recent growth in tight oil and shale gas production, to appreciate its speed, and to not underestimate its future potential. “The moral of the story: energy ‘experts’ must be open to new information and many energy forecasts tend to be confounded by new, unpredictable, black swan events,” he cautioned a group of fellow peak oil analysts in 2009. “Humility is in order.”

He never failed to recognize the incredible achievements of the American oil industry, and its can-do attitude. “The Paradise Spell is both a blessing and a curse,” he observed at the 2006 ASPO conference. “It is part of our genius: a willingness to take risks, to invent, to be ingenious, to start companies, to do that stuff.”

But he also knew that our appetites for energy are boundless. We will have to learn to restrain them somehow. “Strengthening building codes, encouraging Energy Star programs, etc., are good, but our politicians today are no smarter about energy than they were in the 70s. Our can-do attitude isn’t going to help; we need to start thinking about can’t-do,” he observed at the 2007 ASPO conference. “We need to stop thinking of the world as America’s piñata with resources just waiting for us to appropriate them. ... We’re going to have to adjust our attitude of entitlement.”

For Randy, peak oil wasn’t a single event, but a journey into the unknowable future, and he often emphasized that metaphor. “We want to know what 2018 looks like, what 2020 looks like, but all we can do is make the journey and try to enjoy the trip,” he said at the 2009 ASPO conference.

Or as he put it in his remarks at the 2006 conference:

This journey we’ve been on over the last 100 years, I would argue, has been one of the great adventures of all time. We’ve gone way up the heat ladder. We’ve climbed Mount Everest. We’ve driven cars on the Moon. It’s astounding to think where we’ve come from in just a century. And I’m a mountaineer. I know that going down is the dangerous part. If you have come back down the heat ladder -- if you’ve been living as a god and now have to live as a mortal. That’s a narrow path. ... What is the best way down? We don’t know. ... That is the work we’re engaged in: To try to understand how to come down. ... My hope is that if we’re bright, and if we can reboot the cultural software all of us have inherited, we’ve got a chance. ...

As we talk to people, I think we need to have an enormous compassion for how difficult our message is: That conservation now is the most patriotic thing any of us can do. We need not to be so shrill, I would suggest. We’re not running out of fossil fuels. Peak oil is probably not ‘the end of suburbia.’ It presents enormous challenges to the United States; probably the biggest ones we’ve faced in two or three generations. But we’re a talented people. And no one knows the future. Let’s be humble about the future. No one knows how this plays out: Does it play out over three years or over 30? We have resources, we have wealth, we have brilliance, we have ingenuity. We’ve got cards to play if we’re smart about it.

Even while grappling with this most serious of issues and an onslaught of industry propaganda, Randy kept his sense of humor. As oil’s historic price spike in 2008 was building momentum in 2007, BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward opined to Dow Jones Newswires that “the biggest source of new oil will come from increasing recovery, as BP has done in Alaska.”Randy shot back in an op-ed for ASPO: “Oh really. If increased recovery is our last best hope, we are in deep pasture paddies.”

Although he had the same charisma and political acumen that propelled his father, brother and cousin to Congress, and his uncle to Secretary of the Interior, Randy was self-effacing, preferring a walk-on part in the war to a lead role in a cage. He took his work seriously, but not himself. I’ll never forget one hot afternoon in Sacramento, Calif., at the 2009 ASPO conference, where the attendees were standing around a hotel pool during a networking break, gazing longingly at the water, wiping away perspiration while trying to maintain a business-like demeanor. Suddenly, Randy dove into the pool, fully clothed, did a few laps, and climbed out smiling.

That was Randy: Engaged, working for progress, but always connected with the natural world. Mark Sundeen related a conversation he had with Randy in an excellent 2008 profile of the Udalls in Outside magazine: " 'When was the last time a U.S. president slept on the ground?’ he [Randy] asked. ‘Probably Roosevelt and Muir, 100 years ago. That's telling, in a way. They debate this stupid shit, and a lot of it's because they haven't been for a hike in the woods.’ "

So it’s fitting that that’s precisely how Randy ended his journey. In a wonderful July 4 elegy at Think Progress, Randy’s longtime friend Auden Schendler wrote: “Randy appears to have died very quickly, of perhaps a heart attack or stroke, mid-stride, outward-bound on a flat high bench, off trail in the Wind River Range, his favorite place on earth. Just as we ought to be, he was girded for battle. He had his pack on his back, hiking poles in hand, certainly feeling the lightness and joy we all feel heading out on a new journey.”

Randy loved the wilderness with all his heart, and devoted his life to enjoying as well as protecting it. So I think he must have been pleased to breathe his final breath there. As he wrote in a November 2010 article in the Aspen Times Weekly about a carpenter who had disappeared in the mountains of Colorado: “We're lucky to live in these mountains, I thought, and some of us to die here, too.”

Bon voyage, my friend. It was an honor to hike this trail with you. I will carry your passion and your wisdom with me as I soldier on to the next peak, whenever and wherever it may be.

(Photos courtesy of Dan Bihn)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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