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Climate change policy: Oil's tipping point has passed

Posted on 1 February 2012 by John Hartz

This is a reprint of a news release written by Sandra Hines and posted on the website of the University of Washington on Jan 26, 2012.


Stop wrangling over global warming and instead reduce fossil-fuel use for the sake of the global economy.

That’s the message from two scientists, one from the University of Washington and one from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who say in the current issue of the journal Nature (Jan. 26) that the economic pain of a flattening oil supply will trump the environment as a reason to curb the use of fossil fuels.

“Given our fossil-fuel dependent economies, this is more urgent and has a shorter time frame than global climate change,” says James W. Murray, UW professor of oceanography, who wrote the Nature commentary with David King, director of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

The “tipping point” for oil supply appears to have occurred around 2005, says Murray, who compared world crude oil production with world prices going back to 1998. Before 2005, supply of regular crude oil was elastic and increased in response to price increases. Since then, production appears to have hit a wall at 75 million barrels per day in spite of price increases of 15 percent each year.

“As a result, prices swing wildly in response to small changes in demand,” the co-authors wrote. “Others have remarked on this step change in the economies of oil around the year 2005, but the point needs to be lodged more firmly in the minds of policy makers.”


Oil Production Graphics 

J Murray, U of Washington/D King, U of Oxford/Nature
Source: US Energy Information Administration Annual Energy Outlook 2011

For those who argue that oil reserves have been increasing, that more crude oil will be available in the future, the co-authors wrote: “The true volume of global proved reserves is clouded by secrecy; forecasts by state oil companies are not audited and appear to be exaggerated. More importantly, reserves often take 6 - 10 years to drill and develop before they become part of the supply, by which time older fields have become depleted.” Production at oil fields around the world is declining between 4.5 percent and 6.7 percent per year, they wrote.

“For the economy, it’s production that matters, not how much oil might be in the ground,” Murray says. In the U.S., for example, production as a percentage of total reserves went from 9 percent to 6 percent in the last 30 years.

“We’ve already gotten the easy oil, the oil that can be produced cheaply,” he says. “It used to be we’d drill a well and the oil would flow out, now we have to go through all these complicated and expensive procedures to produce the oil.”

The same is true of alternative sources such as tar sands or “fracking” for shale gas, Murray says, where supplies may be exaggerated and production is expensive. Take the promise of shale gas and oil: A New York Times investigative piece last June reported that “the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells.”

Production at shale gas wells can drop 60 to 90 percent in the first year of operation, according to a world expert on shale gas who was one of the sources for the commentary piece. Murray and King built their commentary using data and information from more than 15 international and U.S. government reports, peer-reviewed journal articles, reports from groups such as the National Research Council and Brookings Institution and association findings.

Stagnant oil supplies and volatile prices take a toll on the world economy. Of the 11 recessions in the U.S. since World War II, ten were preceded by a spike in oil prices, the commentary noted.

Photo of James Murray

“Historically, there has been a tight link between oil production and global economic growth,” the co-authors wrote. “If oil production can’t grow, the implication is that the economy can’t grow either.”

Calculations from the International Monetary Fund, for example, say that to achieve a 4 percent growth in the global economy in the next five years, oil production must increase about 3 percent a year.

“Yet to achieve that will require either an heroic increase in oil production, ... increased efficiency of oil use, more energy-efficient growth or rapid substitution of other fuel sources,” according to the commentary.

“Economists and politicians continually debate policies that will lead to a return to economic growth. But because they have failed to recognize that the high price of energy is a central problem, they haven’t identified the necessary solutions: weaning society off fossil fuel.”

The commentary concludes: “This will be a decades-long transformation and we need to start immediately. Emphasizing the short-term economic imperative from oil prices must be enough to push governments into action now.”

Reference:

Nature Commentary: “Climate policy: Oil's tipping point has passed”, James Murray1 & David King

Nature, Volume 481, Pages: 433–435, 26 January 2012, doi:10.1038/481433a

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Comments 51 to 75 out of 75:

  1. JP40 - interesting but a/ has anyone built a working economic fusion plant for the tech yet? b/ what would the cost of that power be if it worked? (A question that I know requires details of the fusion reactor as well the transport scheme). A working technology that is also cost efficient would be of interest but you can surely see why say windmills and fission are more interest at the moment.
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  2. Agnostic wrote: "That claim is nonsense. The economy can and will grow if energy provided by oil can be replaced by energy produced from an alternative source at a competitive price."

    As a related curiosa fact, in Amsterdam over the past few years they been installing recharge points, tapping into the city power grid, along the streets where people lives and park their cars over night. They also been, and I assume the still are in progress of, replacing the old power grid network. So in a sense, preparation are made for the day no oil will be available anymore.
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  3. JP40 wrote: "The only short-term solution I see to get us off oil is Helium-3. This gas isotope can power fusion reactors that actually work. a Ton of it could power a major city for several months. The only problem is that [...] "


    Those are not small technical challenging problems. So why not look at more realistic, cheaper solution, which are more readily available and technological both well understood and proven workable like fission?
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  4. John Russel wrote: "There are many people who believe that the unrest in the Middle East since the beginning of last year was/is largely a response to rising food prices. This was certainly the cause of food riots in the Far east in 2007"

    I don't see the ethic in using crop land for fuel production when people still starve around the world. To add to this, the heavy use of pesticide which come with an agriculture not aimed for food production. We humans already put a lot of pressure on the wild life with our agriculture for food production and we do not need to put even more pressure on it for fuel production as other alternative exists which does not have such high impact on the environment.
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  5. batsvensson@57:
    1. Please verify your "the heavy use of pesticide which come with an agrictulre not aimed for food production".
    2 Please do not ignore DDG. This is a superb byproduct of making ethanol.
    3. As a farmer, the cost of fuel to my operation is tremendous. It affects each and every aspect of production.
    4. At this time, there are no alternatives to diesel as a driver of horse power to achieve production goal.

    The days of easily accessable oil are becoming short. The main price impetus to oil is the rising standard of living through out the world. The price of oil will continue to go up as that standard continues to rise. This will affect not only food, but all products one uses to substain life as we know it.

    As a farmer, I can tell you that we don't use one ounce more of pesticide than we need to use. Economics dictates this.

    Oil is used mainly for production/transportain needs of the masses. Very little is used for electricity production. At present, there are no economic alternatives to oil. This will change, as the price of oil continues to rise, but it will come with a culture and economic shock as well.
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  6. 58, Camburn,
    This will change, as the price of oil continues to rise, but it will come with a culture and economic shock as well.
    An interesting observation. As an alternative to such shock, might I suggest investing heavily in the technology and infrastructure needed to supplant oil, but as a reasoned and concerted effort now, due to foresight, rather than as a frantic and haphazard effort later, due to extreme price pressures?

    Just say'n.
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  7. Sphaerica@59:
    Note the "at present there are no economic alternatives."

    The economics of the current rise in price of oil has slowed economic growth worldwide. To invest in an alternative tech, you have to have the potential profits to do so.

    When I look at a tractor, I see no medium with current, and even projected battery tech, that will do the work of FF.

    The cost of FF on a farm, transportation business ec is a huge component. It would be great to see an alternative, but as of right now, there just isn't. So, there is nothing to invest in.
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  8. Cambrn: "The cost of FF on a farm, transportation business ec is a huge component. It would be great to see an alternative, but as of right now, there just isn't. So, there is nothing to invest in."

    Transpose that about a hundred years ago or so:
    "The cost of horses on a farm, transportation business, etc, is a huge component. It would be great to se an alternative, but as of right now, there just isn't. So there is nothing to invest in." Meanwhile Mr Benz and Mr Ford were hard at work. I'm sure there were people to say that they did not have economically viable alternatives either...
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  9. Philippe@61:
    The internal combustion engine was used on farms in the late 1800's.

    The power was there, the engineering was not but came very shortly thereafter.

    Right now, there is no alternative power, so the engineering can't even adapt to that.
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  10. Phillippe:
    IF you know of anything on the horizon, I am all ears to learn.
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  11. Do your own homework
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  12. The first major impact of a significant increase in oil price is probably famine in Africa.

    I'd suggest that it is non-trivial for Africa to switch from oil-dependent farming.
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  13. 60, Camburn,
    Note the "at present there are no economic alternatives."

    Bullsh*t. There are no "economic alternatives" because we continue to invest more and more in the existing infrastructure and comparatively ignore other "uneconomical" potentialities. We keep things that way with our behaviors.

    Hybrid cars have been feasible and economical for a decade. Only the lack of true massive-scale production keeps their costs high. Our dependence on a rickety and failing fossil fuel infrastructure is primarily hampered by our continued investment in that same, dead-end infrastructure.

    The denial crowd has done a wonderful job of keeping the lack of "economic alternatives" a reality, and on our current course they will continue to do so for several decades until (as you say) the necessary transition comes with a cultural and economic shock.

    It stuns me that you are unable to see this or, despite your own admission of the problem, to use your foresight to move past it.
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  14. Sphaerica:
    I was talking about large HP needs.

    When it comes to cars, I am 100% behind you. I have a couple of friends that have a hybrid. Yes, in winter they don't work too well, but for 70% of the year, they work very well. My next car purchase will be a hybrid.

    I have a hard time understanding why anyone wouldn't buy a hybrid for transportation needs of a few people. And the costs are not high in comparison to many alternatives.

    The practicality when it comes to large HP needs tho is that many times the large HP needs don't shut off for days and pontentially weeks at a time. There is no time to recharge, and the price of having batteries large enough to supply the power over extended periods of time just does not compute.
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  15. 67, Camburn,

    Then with limited fossil fuel resources that is all the more reason to preserve those reserves for the situations where it is difficult to find other power sources (e.g. high HP and jet fuel).

    So why do we squander it by driving SUV's with one person in them to the store to buy one loaf of bread?

    Why do we use fossil fuel to generate electricity for light and power in homes and buildings?

    Why does our entire power infrastructure revolve around fossil fuels with no visible effort to make the necessary transition?

    We have three hugely compelling reasons to stop this:

    1) FF are a limited resource which will cause economic upheaval when they begin to run short (and many say that time has arrived, as the above post explains).

    2) FF are generating greenhouse gases which will inevitably cause economic, behavioral and physical harm, for which the only solution will come from a new, viable power source that not only replaces fossil fuels but also would provide the accompanying energy that will be required to adapt to climate change.

    3) FF are dramatically changing the pH of the oceans, which will result in a lack of food availability in the greatest farm this planet knows (the oceans)... and the chances of finding a viable solution to that growing problem, no matter what power source is discovered, is virtually zero, so every day's delay is another step towards disaster.

    So why do people continue to find every reason they can to deny climate change, ocean acidification, and the inevitable economic downside of a fossil fuel economy, when a three-barreled gun is staring us in the face?
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  16. Sphaerica@68:
    I don't know why anyone needs to drive a tank for mundane tasks. And I sure don't know why anyone would drive to get one loaf of bread.
    I also have a hard time with that....as we make our own bread, have our own garden, etc.

    2. I am very concerned with ocean PH. I think that is the largest downside risk to higher levels of CO2. That is also the most demonstrateable risk....it just can't be ignored.

    3. Temperature records are a very poor metric to use concerning climate. A desert can have a temp of 110F and have less heat content of the air than a Mississippi swamp at 75F and 90%SH. I have always maintained...forget temperature, it doesn't demonstrate anything. Even the "Texas Heatwave" of last year had less heat content than the normal climate there because the air was dry.

    4. Mediation:
    a. I have been a staunch supporter of nuclear for over 30 years. I find it senseless that we have NOT invested and directed investment to this precious resource.
    b. Solar is great where practical and competitive. In North Dakota, USA, it will never work.
    c. North Dakota has wind. However, there are drawbacks to wind which I am learning. I live approx 14 miles from an approx 180MEG wind farm. Through my co-op, I own part of it. It is not working out very well, unfortunately. And when the geese get done flying through it, makes me sick......so I have become not too keen on wind anymore.

    I don't think anyone denies climate change, as the evidence of climate change is certain. Where you will find the arguement is the sensativity of climate to CO2, and that is very debateable.

    You will also see folks deny the effects of the sun who are ardent AGW supporters. That should never happen, but I read it all the time. There is too much literature out there showing hydrological effects from sun variations over wide drainage areas. This gets back to clouds and sun. There is an established relationship there that can not be denied as it is evident in drainage basin studies.

    From a moral perspective, FF should be saved as much as possible. Plastics, high HP needs etc are well met by FF. They really do enhance our lives.

    How do we achieve reductions in FF use?

    1. Educate people without the constant "fear" factor.
    2. Stop government meddling. Remember, the light bulb, the telephone, so many things that we use daily were invented by private industry. That industry did not have to worry about a government funded institution owning the pattent.
    3. Get fed/state/local spending under control so that people, at least in the USA, have the resources to make "smart" decissions. The current projections show that an economic breakdown is only a few years away, which will completely hault an orderly transition.

    Just a few ideas.

    Moderator:
    I looked for a different thread as this has moved a bit off topic and didn't find one. I don't want to get banned again as I feel I have a perspective to offer this forum that at times I feel it lacks. Please delete my note to you before allowing this to be posted or delete the post at our discretion.
    Thank you.
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  17. Camburn,

    As far as I know, this discussion is "on topic" given that the original post is about climate change policy and the availability of oil.

    ...the arguement is the sensativity of climate to CO2, and that is very debateable.
    Actually, no, with every passing day there is more and more evidence that they have climate sensitivity right. We are also learning by viewing the effects of merely minor climate change on today's world that even a lower climate sensitivity may be very, very dangerous. You point here is invalid.
    You will also see folks deny the effects of the sun who are ardent AGW supporters.
    This is B.S. Prove it, or withdraw the assertion.

    [It's also meaningless in the current discussion, and I have no idea why you'd throw it in. What difference does it make that you perceive some segment of people to believe somethign that is false? How does that change the equation?]
    Educate people without the constant "fear" factor
    This is foolish. Why not? AGW is not a fantasy conjured up to trick/frighten people into doing what's good for them. It's reality. The fact that you don't understand and accept it doesn't mean that other people shouldn't be educated.
    Stop government meddling.
    This is also foolish. The free market is not an omniscient god that always gets it right. Quite to the contrary, prior to "government meddling" beginning at the turn of the century the USA went through frequent economic upheavals/depressions, egregious social and moral failures (slaves, Native Americans, child labor, etc.), and questionable business practices. Our society today works as well as it does for a reason, and a return to the hey day of letting the rich and powerful do anything they want, driven purely by the profit motive, is a recipe for disaster.

    This is the Tea Party fantasy that capitalism, having won the cold war, is some all-powerful force for truth, justice and the American way. That sort of simplistic and ill-founded idealism is going to hurt us.

    The bottom line here is the true price of FF use is not embedded in the price at the pump. There are obvious, foreseeable, and hard-to-pay costs that defeat capitalism because you don't have to pay them until long after the initial transaction has taken place.

    If you have some sort of solution to this other than government involvement, I'd love to hear it, but just letting the free market manage the problem is like hoping that fresh air and clean water will cure you of cancer.
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  18. Sphaerica@70:
    (-snip1. Climate sensativity to increased CO2. What some are percieving as related to CO2 sensativity is climatic response to solar changes. Maybe I am bullheaded...have been called that by dear friends at times, but as presented, I do not feel confident that a credible number for sensativity has been achieved IMHO.

    a. Recent research by Dr. Svalgaard shows that TSI has been virtually constant for the past 120 years, and potentially longer.
    b. Basin studies of discharge rates etc show that there is a direct connection to solar activity and hydrological functions.
    1. I have no clue as to why this happens, I am concerned with the periodicity of when it happens and the effects it will/does have on food production variables.
    2. The connection between solar and large basin discharge indicates a function between solar and clouds. I have no idea if Dr. Svensmark is right or wrong, but I do think he is onto something at least.
    c. There are studies that show a connection between solar and jet stream paths.

    When I said solar, I was not talking pure TSI, as that variable is not very variable. Dr. Svalgaard has a link that provides very valuable research:
    Dr. Svalgaard research page
    -)

    We have a difference of philosophy. I live near EERC:
    EERC Website

    I also have a friend who is working on a Hydrogen Fuel Cell there. This work is/was exciting to me as it could provide a potential source of replacement for diesel consumeing engines. His research money came predominely from private sources till 3 years ago. Then some stimulus grants were awarded. The private money started to dry up, as the companies funding his research wanted the rights to it. Now the stimulus money is drying up and the private money is not replacing it. A complicated issue. His team thought they were close so many times, but have not been able to overcome the last hurdles yet. Soon I hope......soon.
    Ya see, I can put up a wind generator, produce H and not have to buy FF fuels, when and if, a H fuel cell is feasable.
    A pipe dream? I hope not.

    Solutions continued:
    I am also working on getting a wind generator co-op formed. You can make N fertilizer from H. There is lots of water presently in my area, wind area 4 as far as wind, below an escarpment so the geese don't fly through here often etc. Harness the water/wind and make N without using CH4 as a base feed stock. This is not a pipedream, as the U of Minn has a small scale experiment of this nature working right now. The funding for this has come from farmers who pay the Corn Growers Assn....private funding once again. The expertise in designing this came from education, but the funding came from private.

    As far as unfettered capitalism, that does not work either.
    I think one of the greatest Presidents of the 20th Century was Theodore Roosevelt. I am sure you know of his accomplishments against great odds.

    I have provided a solution that showed private funding to be very important.

    As far as the Tea Party, the function of that bunch is to show how fast spending has grown on the local/state/federal level with very little production to show for it. They do have their points and exercise their right to expand on them. I agree with a few, I disagree with as many.
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    Response:

    [DB] OT snipped.

  19. Sphaerica:
    Fear factor

    Think about this for a minute:

    My father is a very active 86 year old man. When he sees an article, (he reads everything he can get his hands on as of yet) that mentions AGW and weather extremes, he just shoots back with this
    "Those young folks sure do not understand climate do they?"

    He will then go on to expand the weather extremes that he lived through. By using his life's experiences, he shows that climate has always been variable. He will also mention paleo climate, at least locally. He is a well read man...

    By extension, when he talks to other folks in his age group, they nod in agreement. Then they talk to their children/grandchildren. See how this is working?

    Folks talk about the Dust Bowl days of the 30's and blame farming. The farming practices of the time certainly did contribute to the dust, but a lot of dust was uprooted native grasses as well. My dad talks about watching a meadow slowly disappearing before his eyes. This was untilled soils. The static electricity developed by the dry strong steady wind burnt the grass, exposeing the roots, and just blew it away.

    No matter who one thinks, elders have knowledge to share. One must take that knowledge into perspective when addressing AGW.
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  20. 72, Camburn,
    "Those young folks sure do not understand climate do they?"
    A perfect example of what I term the "arrogant ignorant." Those people have been in this country since its inception. They're the same people who said "if man had been meant to fly, God would have given him wings" and any number of other fallacies.

    Perhaps if his son explained to him how climate differs from weather, and that the science is a whole lot more intricate, detailed and well-considered than he understands or gives credit, then maybe he'd be a little more open minded.

    But your demonstration of your father's "when I was a kid" sort of ignorance means nothing. It sounds like he wouldn't believe in climate change whether he was told it was catastrophic or harmless. So what's your point? That there are people who are so arrogant, and so ignorant, that nothing will convince them? That's obvious.

    But for the intelligent, rational people -- and those who are young enough to realize that this is going to directly affect them, unlike your father who will never see how bad things can get -- the truth is the truth. You admonitions about "fear" are, from my point of view, a simple expression of your own wish that there were nothing wrong, and your own annoyance at being reminded that, no matter what you want to believe, something is wrong.

    I'm curious... what does your father say about ocean pH? And how do you respond?
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  21. Sphaerica@73:
    My father is far from ignorant nor arrogant. Believe it or not, he is VERY concerned about the lowering of PH of the oceans. He sees this as a incontrovertible issue.

    As for myself, to get a feeling for the future, I study the past. I make decissions based on paleo records of climate concerning my growing region. When studying the paleo, I try to incorporate current happenings to get an idea of what the near term climate may/will be.

    This is detracting from CO2 and plants tho. If you can find a more appropriate thread, the discussion could continue.

    Thank you.
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  22. Camburn writes: "Educate people without the constant 'fear' factor."

    and: "The current projections show that an economic breakdown is only a few years away"

    Might I suggest that you read up on the concept of psychological projection.

    Last I checked, absolutely no one has been claiming the equivalent of; 'global warming will cause an economic breakdown in just a few years'. So who is the real 'fear monger' here?
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  23. scaddenp- If sufficient manufacturing infrastructure was built on moon, it is easily conceivable that a rail-gun or coil-gun could launch simple capsules all the way to earth. They would only need a heat-shield, parachutes, and a landing area.
    - an He-3 reactor uses an electrostatic field to confine the plasma, since the particles are charged. Gerald Kulcinski, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has built one in his lab. The reason that an industrial scale reactor has never been built is that the only He-3 on earth comes from decaying Tritium i.e. old H-bombs.
    -Also, I was mistaken when I said that all the known He-3 on the moon would power the global power grid for 1000 years. It would only power the US for that long, and since the US is about 1/4th of the global power supply, the real figure would be 250 years. But, you will frequently see in blogs that the He-3 on the moon is only about a meter deep. This comes from the Apollo core samples only going to down to 1M, and there is no reason to think that it all stops there.
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  24. All interesting but still doesnt address the question of would be the cost per kWh of the energy, even when considering just the mining cost alone. The bigger objection is that Kulcinski's reactor is not a demonstration of viability - it needs 3 orders of magnitude more energy than it produces. It shows He3-He3 fusion is possible but not yet that it is practical. I dont think you could regard this as "short term" solution at all. Long term, maybe.

    Getting off oil isnt really quite so much of the problem. (The price you will pay for it by the end of 2012 will help). Getting off coal is and I think fusion is going to have come a long way very very fast to be competitive in price with that.
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  25. Getting off coal and oil electricity is what I meant.
    The main issue with efficiency is efficiently transfering the high-energy protons to electric current. Of course, if less than 1 percent of the money that goes into Tritium-Deuterium fusion, those issues would be solved much quicker than with only 1 colege professor and 5 graduate student working on them. Here is a link to a page you might want to read. http://www.thespacereview.com/article/536/1
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