Randy Udall and the energy that has made us all gods

A hopeful vision beyond fossil fuels

by Allen Best

Randy Udall offered a dark view of civilization’s future. That did not make him a dark or difficult individual. He didn’t scowl; he smiled. He was fun, even sparkling in a rough-hewn sort of way, and always, always interesting.

“We’re living like gods right now,” he would say in his lectures, which he delivered to scores, perhaps hundreds of audiences in Colorado and beyond, usually accompanied by PowerPoints that were among the most powerful I have ever seen.

In sometimes laugh-out-loud ways, he would then demonstrate how remarkable our modern times have been because of the abundance of fossil fuels and their liberal use. In one, a nude Lance Armstrong bicycled, his legs in rapid motion, to produce the energy needed to keep an ordinary light bulb lit.

In another, he had us imagining 60 oarsmen rowing furiously on the Nile River to give the empress Cleopatra a pleasant repast. It was the energy equivalent to six horses, which is now manifested in an ordinary lawnmower. And then he would show a woman, unloading groceries from a sport-utility vehicle, with six times more power yet at her fingertips than existed anywhere on the planet just 200 years ago. Even ordinary soccer moms, he would say, live extraordinary lives.

“In an energy sense, we’re not living like royalty. We’re not living like Cleopatra. We’re living like gods.”

Udall didn’t think this could continue. Even if oil and gas supplies existed to meet the expanding needs of a world population sprinting toward 9 billion at mid-century, we couldn’t afford to burn them as we have during the last half-century. The dangers of greenhouse gases were too great.

 Randy Udall
Randy Udall

More imminently, though, he believed he saw a civilization pressing down on the gas pedal to go 90 mph even as the gas tank neared empty. In 2005, he co-founded the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA, enlisting Denver’s then mayor, John Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, in endorsing the first convention.

One of Udall’s slides was about energy expended in gain of energy. In Texas, at the famed Spindletop oil patch in 1901, one unit of energy produced something like 100 units of energy. In other words, it took a barrel of oil to get 100 barrels. From that, it’s retreated to a one to 10 ratio. And in Alberta, with the bitumen extraction, it’s even less: one to 4 or 5.

“Eventually, you always have to get the calculator out with this stuff,” he would say.

In recent years, with the prodigious bounty of oil and natural gas being extracted from shale and other tight-sand formations, Udall’s message of depletion looked less compelling. He didn’t retreat. Rather, he retooled his message. He acknowledged the remarkable innovations of hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling, even extolled the pioneering spirit of people like the late Neil McMurray, the original developer of Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline, and George Mitchell, whose innovations in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the Barnett shale in Texas were heralded this past week upon his death.

But Udall stuck to his guns about the folly of ever more fantastic efforts to extract fossil fuels. “We’ve chained ourselves to the drilling rig and thrown away the key,” he said in an essay published in late February and echoed in a talk I heard him give in March.

Distilling the big issues

We first met, as best I recall, in summer 2004. I had been commissioned to write a major series about global warming and mountain towns and ski areas. I was told I needed to speak with Randy. We spent most of the day at or near his office in Carbondale.

He laid out the theory, the math, and a scenario of a sharply ruptured life and economic patterns. The modern travel and leisure industry, including ski areas, depends upon peripatetic travel and extravagant energy use. He saw the constraints of fossil fuels yielding a far more localized and careful existence. People wouldn’t be flying into Aspen on private jets and maybe not driving from Denver.

In successive years, I stayed in touch with him. Occasionally, I tapped his expertise for stories, such as when I wrote about the oil/tar sands of Alberta and the parallels to Colorado’s oil shale deposits. “We need to leave that stuff in the ground if we want to have a habitable climate,” he wrote to me, and I closed the story with that statement.

I wasn’t special, nor were we particularly close. My point is that I think there were many like me, people who drew upon his knowledge and inquired as to his thinking. His influence was broad and, at times, national.

Since his body was found at about 10,000 feet elevation in the Wind River Range of Wyoming in late June, the apparent victim of a heart attack or stroke, various eulogies  have made much of his connection to the wild. It was a pertinent fact that he was found, his hiking poles still strapped to his wrists, but also off-trail. Both were metaphors for his life.

“I did not know he was about to head into the Wind River Range on a solo hike. But had I known, I would not have argued with him,” wrote Ed Marston, former publisher of High Country News, of shared time just a few weeks before Udall’s death. “I knew he needed wild country and isolation the way we need food and water. It is a mark of Randy’s humanity that he could worship wilderness and yet care deeply about the rest of us—people who had allowed ourselves to become slaves to the seeming comfort delivered by a massive and unending flow of fossil fuels.”

The Aspen Skiing Co.’s Auden Schendler was a close confidante and a frequent companion in outdoor adventures.

“He once skied the entire 200-plus mile John Muir trail in a week with his brother Mark,” wrote Schendler in a piece for Climate Progress. “To hike with him was to be completely brutalized beyond exhaustion, into a new place. It required the kind of effort Randy and the rest of us are now putting into the climate struggle.”

Udall was a “public intellectual rather than a specialist,” wrote Marston. “He saw connections where others saw compartments. Speaking to environmentalists here, or to our small rural electric utility, or to coal miners, he emphasized that life was not about classes of enemies but about a common problem to be solved. Life, Randy told us, was not about good guys and bad guys, but about a human dilemma we shared.”

Many others also commented on this bigger picture that Randy assembled. “His calling card was energy expert, but if you ever heard his talks, they were less BTUs and kilowatts than Lewis and Clark, the Wright brothers, American Indians, the American mind, American folly and the possibility of American redemption,” wrote Mark Harvey in an essay published in the Denver Post and Aspen Times.

From a nest of big thinkers

Udall had a strong foundation for understanding the ungainly impulses of the supposed American exceptionalism. On his mother’s side, ancestors could be traced to the early settlement of Colorado, including Estes Park. His paternal lineage extended to the Mormon colonization of the mid-19th century, including both scoundrels and saints. His father, Morris Udall and his uncle Stewart Udall had been involved in several of the giant development initiatives of the mid-20th century, the Central Arizona Project, a monstrous diversion from the Colorado River, and the law that created the interstate highway system. Both were also key figures in major conservation initiatives of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Wilderness Act of 1964, and his father was a seminal figure in protection of Alaskan wildlands.

I suspect that being literally in the lap of these big thinkers gave Randy a certain confidence to think boldly. His power did not come from either wealth or degrees from prestigious schools. He was, according to several accounts, largely self-taught, and his abilities included not just a mastery of the accessible metaphor and a flair for rhetoric, but also skills in plumbing and auto mechanics. Last November, I happen to know that he installed a transmission in his daughter’s car. “Just cheap, I guess,” he explained.

Marston said that Udall “wore no institution’s collar.” He was independent in other ways, too. My first understanding of that independence came in 2005, when I was asked to put together an environmental panel for a conference held at Keystone, Colo. I asked Randy to give the energy component, not yet fully understanding his credentials—nor his ways. The other panelists seated themselves at the front, as all good panelists do, but there was no Udall to be seen. Only when I wrapped up my introduction did he emerge from the shadows. Then he mesmerized the audience. Ninety percent of the questions in the Q&A period were directed at him.

At another conference, this one in Aspen, I heard him challenge Jim Rogers, then the chief executive of Duke Energy, a giant among utilities. Rogers had been nearly sainted as a progressive utility CEO by articles in the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere, but Udall turned the tables. “How can you sleep at night?” he asked Rogers bluntly after mention of the company’s plans to build a coal-fired power plant.

That was Randy: afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted.

Not everybody was favorably impressed. Jeremy Boak, a Harvard grad who runs the oil research program at the Colorado School of Mines, sparred with Udall on several occasions. “I too found Randy interesting and engaging to talk to in person, although I found his simplifications deeply political and generally technically misguided,” wrote Boak in response to one eulogy.

Udall told me he became interested in energy in 1987, and I suspect it was directly a result of Amory Lovins. Later, he worked for several years at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which Lovins had founded. Then, when former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling and others created the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, he became the founding director.

During his time at CORE, Aspen and Pitkin County adopted what was arguably the first tax on carbon in the United States. Through the renewable energy mitigation program, those with lavish energy budgets, such as required for outdoor swimming pools or heated driveways, had the choice of installing renewable energy themselves or paying an in-lieu fee. Many other mountain jurisdictions have aped such fee structures. Schendler also credited him with a green-power pricing program, to allow utilities to bring clean power online.

Early on, he had also identified methane as an even more immediate threat to civilization than carbon dioxide. With that in mind, he persuaded his directors at CORE to allow him to pay for a methane capture at a coal mine near Price, Utah. He was thinking of cause-and-effect and outside the box of Colorado.  So what if Aspen paid to fix a problem in Utah? It was all the same atmosphere. Later, he was the essential glue among the Aspen Skiing Co., Holy Cross Energy, and methane-developer Tom Vessels that resulted in the first methane-capture project at the Elk Creek Mine near Paonia.

A contrarian thinker

“Randy was a contrarian thinker. He worked problems from all angles, refusing to succumb to groupthink and revisiting old assumptions whenever new information came to light,” wrote Steve Andrews, Udall’s co-founder of the peak oil group.

“Because of this uncompromising truth-seeking and refusal to toe a party line, he held the respect of many people and groups that would not normally sit in the same room much less at the same table. On any given day, his inbox might field emails from climate scientists, exploration geologists, energy historians, economists, utility operators, environmental groups, and—maybe his favorite—the people actually steering the drilling rigs,” wrote Andrews in a eulogy co-authored with Sally Odland and John Theobald.

“He admired the immense brainpower and ingenuity of petroleum geologists and engineers to find and extract fossil fuels, and he understood exactly how much we rely on them to support the American Dream. All the while, he looked for concrete ways to move houses off energy ‘life support,’ individuals to a lower carbon budget and his country towards renewable energy flows.

“There was always solid research behind Randy’s picturesque quips. When he threw out one-liners like ‘Oil shale has less energy content than pig manure,’ you could be sure he had calculated the per-ton BTUs of both. If he noted that ‘Energy extraction is now the dominant land use in America,’ you knew he had run down comparative numbers on acres leased for drilling versus agricultural acreage.”

Udall, they added, dismissed the current talk of the U.S. having once again become an energy superpower as just so much misleading boosterism. “The pore throats in shale rocks are 20,000 times smaller than a human hair. On these rocks, we’ve bet our energy future,” he said.

That’s a dark view of technological prowess, and maybe Boak, the professor at the School of Mines, is right that it’s too dark. Look at the incremental development of drilling techniques in just the last decade. Instead of running out of natural gas, we’re awash in it. The United States alone is producing more oil than anytime in decades. The side-effects of drilling are another matter. But the point is that dark views didn’t see this coming. Maybe further technological increments will ultimately save our goose.

Or not.

In 1940, as Hitler’s forces raced across Europe, invading Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium, Winston Churchill was inducted as prime minister of the British Empire. At his induction, he delivered a brief speech in which he said he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

There was a bit of that in Udall, too. He saw sharp cliffs of energy limits and energy impacts and he made us understand the nature of those limits.

But there was something else in his message, in the way he conducted his life. He had hope. That was his personal energy. It was manifested in myriad small ways: trying to engineer the triangulated deal to reduce coal-mine methane emissions in Colorado, the steady and mostly patient efforts to focus attention on energy efficiency, his willingness to offer briefs words of encouragement.

I think that’s why so many people who had dealings with Randy have been driven to speak out since his death in June, to offer testimony of how they had been touched. He had big thoughts and he inspired. He offered hope.

Allen Best

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