In yesterday’s Keene Sentinel guest editorial, YES: Press for more domestic oil, Andrew Morriss consistently misreports oil production figures. Saudi Arabia: 8.1 billion barrels/day; Russia: 10.4 billion; America: 7.9 billion; Iran: 3.7 billion. Those numbers struck me as wrong by orders of magnitude. So I consulted my favorite online scientific fact-checking tool: WolframAlpha.
Q: What is 7.9 billion barrels of oil in dollars? A: $1.05 trillion.
In other words, if we were to convert our daily production to dollars we could pay off the national debt in 15 days. (Real answer: 41 years.)
Q: What is 7.9 billion barrels in gallons? A: 330 billion gallons.
In other words, America’s daily oil production is 4 times the volume of oil transported worldwide in a year. (Real answer: 2.5 times the volume of one of the largest supertankers.)
Q: What is the energy equivalent of 7.9 billion barrels of oil in BTU? A: 45 quadrillion BTU.
In other words, America’s daily oil production is almost half of the total energy consumed by the US in 2001. (Real answer: 1/1000 of that amount.)
What Andrew Morriss meant to write — four times — was million, not billion. Doing that once might be a typo. Doing it four times makes me question his energy literacy.
Now to be fair, most of us — myself included — are not engineers or scientists. We don’t regularly deal with large numbers, and we don’t intuitively grasp relationships among the quantities, prices, and energy content of the various sources that might power our civilization. But we can’t afford to be illiterate (and innumerate) on the topic of energy. The future of the economy, the environment, and of world politics all hinge on our ability to reason about those relationships. Fortunately there is now a tool that can help us all do that more effectively. WolframAlpha isn’t just a boutique search engine. It’s a compendium of scientific knowledge mated to a scientific calculator that understands questions in plain English. And it frames the answers in ways that make sense to everybody. I commend it to Andrew Morriss, to fact-checkers at the Sentinel, and to readers. For more examples of how WolframAlpha can help us reason about energy, see http://delicious.com/judell/energyliteracy.