Alice Friedemann: When The Trucks Stop Running
Alice Friedemann is a transportation expert sounding the alarm on the unsustainable nature of our modern trucking system, which is critical for delivering goods where they need to be, when they need to be, in our just-in-time economy.
The world's trucking fleet is remarkably dependent on petroleum and, for a number of reasons she outlines in this interview, is not feasibly able to shift over to electricity or other alternative fuels.
To warn of the risks and consequences of a collapse in trucking, she founded EnergySkeptic.com and authored the book When The Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation. And while unlikely, her projected aftermath of a sudden complete shutdown of the trucking fleet is sobering, revealing just how dependent we are:
Within a week, in roughly this order, grocery stores would be out of dairy and other items that are delivered many times a day. And by the week, the shelves would be empty.
Hospitals, pharmacies, factories, and many other businesses also get several deliveries a day, and they’d be running out of stuff the first day.
And the second day, there’s be panic and hoarding. And restaurants, pharmacies would close. ATM’s would be out of money. Construction would stop. There’d be increasing layoffs. Increasing enormous amounts of trash not getting picked up, 685,000 tons a day. Service stations would be closed. Very few people would be working. And the livestock would start to be hungry from lack of feed deliveries.
Then within two weeks, clean water supplies would run out. Within four weeks to eight weeks, there wouldn’t be coal delivered to power plants and electricity would start shutting down. And when that happened, about a quarter of our pipelines use electricity, and so natural gas plants wouldn’t be fed natural gas and they’d start shutting down.
It’s a big interdependent system. That’s part of the problem. It’s like Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. A plant needs about 20 different elements to grow, and you take one away and the plant can grow less or stop growing.
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Alice Friedemann: When The Trucks Stop Running
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Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson, and it is August 16th, 2016.
Hey, can we talk energy again? I know the price of oil has a lot of people confused about where we really are in the energy story. But price is hiding the true story. I’ve often said that we’re so immersed in energy on a daily basis, it’s really difficult to detect just how much it does for us. It’s like water to a fish.
So, we’re surrounded by energy each day, energy slaves really, silently doing our bidding, whether we’re aware of them or not. And these slaves give us the easiest possible daily lives compared to people of times past.
Some say we live like kings, but that doesn’t really go far enough. Henry VIII may’ve had complete mastery over his many wives, but even he could not click a mouse, buy a plane ticket, and be halfway around the world the next day. You and I can do that.
So, we really live like ancient Greek gods, able to command the forces of nature and get ourselves from point a to point b really quickly if we choose. So, let’s not take this moment in human history lightly. Let’s have gratitude for the immense abundance in our lives, and let’s also be clear about where we really stand in this story.
To gain that perspective, we could do no better than to focus on the lowly truck, the true workhorse of modern times. And to help us bring that breed of stock vehicle into focus for us is Alice Friedman, the creator of EnergySkeptic.com and the author of the new book When Trucks Stop Running, Energy and the Future of Transportation.
And she really knows trucks and transportation through a 22-year career in American President Lines, where she developed computer systems to keep cargo seamlessly moving around the globe and just in time between ships, rail, trucks, and customers.
Alice Friedman: Good to be here.
Chris Martenson: So, where should we start in this story? I’m thinking how about we start with the really big picture. We kind of live in an exponentially defined world, don’t we? And I’d like to start there. What does that really mean? Why is that important?
Alice Friedman: Well, I know your listeners are familiar with exponential growth, but I think it’s an important part of the puzzle to remind everyone about to understand the crisis we’re in.
Garrett Hardin once wrote that if you had two grams of gold growing at five percent compound rates for 2000 years, we’d have 800 trillion gold in planet Earth right now. When you hear there’s 100 years left of oil at current rates of consumption, that’s not true if we use five percent more oil every year. It will only last for 36 years.
So, it’s really astounding that oil consumption doubled every ten years from 1900 to the 1970’s. That means every ten years as much oil was consumed as all the previously consumed oil. At that rate, even if the planet was a giant gas tank, oil would run out in 340 years.
This clearly can’t end well. We’ve been consuming more oil than we’ve found for five decades, and last year we only found 12 billion barrels, which is a third of what we consume every year.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, and it’s gotten even worse than that. The most recent statistic is we’re closing on two point six gigabarrels of finds for the trailing 12 months, so really just out of 31 billion consumed so less than a tenth. And most people are really still unaware of this. So you have these startling statistics that I love.
Exponential growth is really critical to understand. And we look at…here’s a number that really worries me, as well, is that three billion. That’s the number of people who are projected to be in the middle class by 2025. So, less than ten years from now, starting from one billion in the year 2000. So this extraordinary herd of people, of course wanting to come into the middle class, defined by having a car, a house, much higher levels of consumption.
And all of those take resources, and of course oil is the master resource in this particular story. Most people still don’t get that. So just how do we get…Alice, how do you go about telling/getting people more aware of this water that we swim in, the oil that surrounds us so daily?
Alice Friedman: Well, the information is out there. There was a really interesting United Nations report that came out this month. 200 pages, mind you, but it’s full of interesting graphs and charts about how from 1970 to 2010 we used 78 billion tons of stuff, up from 22 billion tons 40 years ago.
And they say that to accommodate everyone and the billions more expected by 2050, we’re going to have to triple that again, which is just insane. The people who deny limits to growth say we’ll just miniaturize and use less material and get more efficient.
But the UN report flatly states that in fact the opposite is happening. We’re using more material and getting less GDP out of it while dramatically increasing our damage and pollution of ecosystems.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, now this is something I…this is such an important point to get across, and the ecological destruction is something that causes a lot of grief. And that’s really hard for me to look at personally.
I think one way to get straight to the heart for a lot of people, though, is to say look, our current way of life is defined by the way we have things organized. So, the way we currently have things organized…and this should be obvious. Here’s why it’s obvious to me. I go places and I watch what’s happening.
So, whether I’m in Lima, Peru or Dallas, Texas or anywhere on the globe, I see cars. I see lots of cars. I see internal combustion engines. I have a very sharp eye looking out for hybrids and pure electric vehicles, and they are still by my eye confirming what the statistics say; far less than one percent of the vehicles on the road. So we are still heavily addicted to petroleum for transport at this point.
Alice Friedman: Yes, and I don’t see that changing, because the vehicles that matter the most, that make civilization possible, are trucks, locomotives, and ships, and they all run on diesel fuel. And as much as I love cars, they’re not absolutely essential. And we’ve got trillions of dollars invested in them.
And the diesel engines are as much responsible for civilization as the fuel itself, according to Vaclav Smil. He thinks diesel engines are more important than computers as far as the levels we’ve reached.
And they last 40 years. Those can’t be replaced overnight. Even the most optimistic person has to surely admit that there’s going to be some hardship even if you do believe that there’s a solution.
Chris Martenson: Now, before we get to that, let me unpack this. So, the idea that the diesel engine is possibly more important to our current lives than computers; a lot of people aren’t really going to have a frame of reference for that.
We talk to people. I’ve talked to people who actually think gasoline comes out of the nozzle at the gas station. That’s literally where it comes from. They haven't mentally connected the supply chain to go all the way back. But it’s easy to…I’m not blaming people. It’s easy to not notice when you pick jeans off the rack at Walmart for twelve dollars. They just magically showed up.
But you have the background to know how they showed up. Help us understand what the global transportation system really involves at this point in time.
Alice Friedman: Well, I worked in transportation many years, as you mentioned earlier. And the goal was to try to move goods from point a to b just in time, as quickly as possible, and as seamlessly as possible.
So you might have…but it’s so complicated. Let’s just take a supply chain where you have hundreds of trucks arriving with bits and pieces where they’re assembled in China. And then fewer trucks can take it to the port, load it onto the ship with other kinds of trucks, including cranes, shipped over. And then even if it goes on a railroad when it gets off, the containers get off, they’re going to need to go by truck to their final destination.
So, even though ships and rail are orders of magnitude more energy efficient, you still need trucks because you have four million miles of roads in the US. But you only have 95,000 miles of rail and 25,000 miles of ocean, navigable rivers and lakes to deliver goods on.
Chris Martenson: So trucks are critical; A for moving it all, but B for the last mile, because I don’t happen to live on a canal myself.
Alice Friedman: Yeah, and they’re also logging, mining, constructing, lifting, digging, planting crops, harvesting crops. There’s hundreds of kids of different trucks keeping civilization going.
Chris Martenson: All right. So, let’s do this by trying to poke some holes in this whole idea. I had a number of people recently send me a very happy story about electric trucks now running in Sweden. So, of course, when I click on the links and follow the story, I found something different than what was being implied by people, which was hey, look we now have electric trucks. That part’s been solved.
But what I discovered was the story was referring to a two kilometer stretch of electrified road, two kilometers. And it’s not unlike the trolley overhead wires of the 1930’s. There’s some wires up there, and the trucks make contact with the wires, and they have an electric engine. This is great, but it’s two kilometers out of many tens of millions of kilometers of global roadway. So, in a percentage term, I wouldn’t even dare to calculate it.
By these numbers, it seems to me is what Sweden’s doing is they’re really running an experiment, and possibly a quite good one to run, but a tiny experiment, none the less. So would it be unfair for me to say we’re nowhere in the electrified truck story yet?
Alice Friedman: Yes. In fact, California’s ahead of Sweden. The Port of Los Angeles and Sand Pedro lowered emissions is further along and a mile stretch of catenary wires, overhead wires, for trucks.
And I recently found…using information published by CALSTART and other entities that are doing this; I worked out that if you electrified that 23 mile stretch of roadway to keep 10,000 drayage trucks moving between the port and inland warehouses, it would take almost one percent of all of California’s electricity generation.
And then you’ve got 7600 more 23 miles to electrify the rest of the 175,000 miles of roads. I mean, that’s just clearly not doable. And you’re assuming that trade along that path will continue. You’re putting a lot of money, it’s very expensive, whereas perhaps someday you’ll wish you’d done that in the Central Valley to deliver food to the cities along the coast.
Chris Martenson: Twenty-three miles would require one percent of current electricity production?
Alice Friedman: In California, yeah.
Chris Martenson: In California, yeah. And that’s just because this is a pretty heavily traveled 23-mile chunk here, I guess. But that’s just to show that these trucks are actually consuming a lot of energy doing what they’re doing, right?
Alice Friedman: Yes, and they have to go up some steep grades, which further drains the…takes more energy.
Chris Martenson: All right. So. here’s the idea I’ve been running into a lot. And this is what I think gets to the heart of it. So there’s two big pieces we need to discuss. One is where we really are in the energy story so, I’m going to start there. Let’s complete that.
But then the second piece I want to get to is what really is involved in trying to get to an energy transition. And both of those pieces are really hinted at by that one percent of total electricity consumption…production being consumed for a 23-mile stretch.
But let’s unpack this a little bit. In the last few years, Alice, you’re aware, peak oil has been declared dead multiple times by the mainstream press. Where do you stand on peak oil at this point in time?
Alice Friedman: Well, I think it’s interesting that people have forgotten and even denied it. Because apparently they didn’t hear former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger speak at a Senate hearing way back in 2006, where he said “by about 2010 we should see a significant increase in oil production as a result of investment activity now underway. There is a danger that any easing of the price of crude oil will once again dispel the recognition that there is a finite limit to conventional oil.”
Also, many people who study this predicted decades ago that one of the signs of peaking would be price swings, because there is this inevitable cycle of scarcity, putting more money in, maybe going too far, and the price drops from that. Or, it goes so high that you have a depression and demand drops as businesses fold.
And more and more of the middle class is driven into poverty. I know people who can’t afford to have a car anymore. So, this cycle – we’re in the low part of the cycle, but inevitably, there’ll be some scarcities again to remind people.
Chris Martenson: Now, this is something I’ve been sort of beating my drum around. and talking with people like Arthur Berman and Gail Tverberg and other people who study this. Increasingly, we’re seeing mainstream analysts come online with us, which is looking ahead a few years and noting that the trillion and a half dollars of delayed first investment decisions, F.I.D.’s or FID’s, delayed FID’s, for the big oil companies is going to have a real impact on downstream production at some point.
Because not only are we not maintaining infield drilling nor are we exploring and finding and bringing onto line new production of oil, all of those things got delayed because all the oil that’s left is really expensive. Deep water, Orinoco Belt, heavy oil, tar sands, even shale is very expensive on average, starting at a minimum of 60 a barrel and progressing as high as 120 or more depending on what we’re talking about. So the era of cheap oil is over in terms of finding it and getting it to market. Whether it’s high or low in the market is subject to other forces.
But this idea of evermore expensive oil is really hiding a much more important argument, which is about the energy return we get out of that oil. How do we begin to understand the…how do you go about explaining to people the energy return on energy invested?
I’m always fascinated to hear how people convey this, because to me it’s the most important idea out there. If I had just one that I needed to arm myself with, it would be this one.
Alice Friedman: No, I agree. That should be the focus of scientists, to truly determine that and use it as a basis for where we would best spend our money on projects to soften the hard landing ahead.
But the problem has always been, since the concept was first invented partly at Stanford in the early 1970’s and by Charles Hall, is everyone disagrees on the boundaries. So you end up with quite a wide range, and there have been attempts to standardize how studies are done to get around that problem. But it’s still not agreed upon, and it makes it confusing for people who don’t specialize in it to make any sense of the results.
But obviously that’s what’s the most important. If it takes more energy to make something than you get out of it, then it’s dead in the water. It’s an energy sink.
Chris Martenson: Like hydrogen. Most people still will tell me that hydrogen’s the way of the future, and I say well, it’s an energy sink. That’s great. Where does the primary energy source come from? Fossil fuels have been this extraordinary, once in a species bequeathment. It’s been astonishing.
As you mentioned, because of the exponential doubling times, we are chewing through… Every time we double our use of something, be it oil, fossil fuels in the form of natural gas or coal, we’re actually in that period consuming as much in that doubling period as was consumed in all of history prior.
So anybody can work out, children can work out, that that’s a finite substance that’s being chewed into exponentially – runs out. Even if it isn’t being chewed into exponentially, it’s finite. It runs out.
So whether or not we really understand the micro story at the micro level, the macro story has to be indisputably that oil finds today are smaller, deeper, and more difficult to get to than they were just 50 years ago.
Alice Friedman: Yeah. That’s another part of what people need to understand, is that we get 60 percent of our oil from just 500 really large oil fields that we found over 50 years ago. And the ones of those that are in decline are declining on average at six percent. And that will accelerate to nine percent a year.
And other fields decline much faster. Giants are the slowest. This means by 2030, oil could be declining at nine percent a year, and we’d have to replace half to two-thirds of our oil. I just don’t see how unconventional oil can make up the difference.
One scientist looked at a crash program to ramp up tar sands and concluded that they would peak in about 2040 at just a quarter of what America consumes today. Arctic oil, which we don’t know how to get, would take decades of development before a single drop was produced. And the tight fracked oil that’s bumped the numbers up a bit since conventional oil peaked in 2005, is expected to peak by 2020. And it will decline quite rapidly after that.
Chris Martenson: Yes, and this all seems really…well, for the people like us who look at the numbers, this is fairly obvious. And so, what’s less obvious though is, any individual, any company, any country that really wants to end up in a more favorable place in the future has to run a strategy. And the strategy…there’s lots of complicated ones. But they always boil down to this simple thing, you know where you’re going and how you're going to get there. That’s a strategy. It’s a vision and the resources you have to get there.
Now I want to turn part b of the story which is about how we get there. So, here’s what I’m concerned about, Alice. We’re busy selling F-150s and SUVs because, why, car companies make money doing that and gas is currently cheap. So that’s the total decision factor. But we clearly have a finite amount of fossil fuels to use, and we’re using them perpetuating the status quo, which is what the F-150 and SUVs represent to me. Just a continuation of business as usual.
But if we only have so much energy in the ground, it makes sense to me that strategically we ought to be using some dedicated portion of that to build out to whatever the new energy future’s going to be. So insert your favorite fantasy over here, people.
So do you want a whole electrified future and the electricity comes from wind and solar and we have a smart grid and there’s distributed cogeneration? Beautiful future. I love it. But let’s be clear that it’s going to take a lot of energy to get there. And it’ll take time, and it’ll take money. So time, cost, scale, all of those things get involved.
How big is this challenge really, Alice? I mean, are we going to get there with market forces like some people think? Or would it require something far more dedicated, we should say, like a national program that would rival any of the largest national programs that have ever been run?
Alice Friedman: Well, I’m afraid that in my book, When Trucks Stop Running, I don’t see a solution to keeping trucks running on biofuels, coal, natural gas, hydrogen, or electricity.
I don’t see how you can scale electricity up. Part of that is because you’re going to mainly need to have energy storage batteries in order to capture excessive wind and solar, which will be the main sources of power for times when there’s not enough wind or solar to go around. Europe has looked at this, and they estimate you’d need six to 30 days of energy stored if you had a national grid encompassing all of Europe, the Mediterranean, and North America.
Now energy storage batteries are critical, because they are very few places to put pumped hydro and compressed air energy storage. Charles Barnhart at Stanford University found there simply isn’t enough material in the world to store four to 12 hours of global electricity for all batteries but sodium sulfur. However, at this stage, and I used the Department of Energy Handbook, a sodium sulfur battery that could store one day of US electricity would weight 450 million tons, cover 923 square miles, and cost 41 trillion dollars.
So, we’re a long way from the energy storage devices that we would need. And then it’s such a complicated topic. It’s at least ten hours to explain how the electric grid works and why it would be hard to have a renewable grid, which Europe and especially Germany have researched extensively.
And the materials to make alternative energy are staggering. Just one two megawatt turbine, wind turbine, needs 1300 tons of concrete, 300 tons of steel, 48 tons of iron, 24 tons of fiberglass, four tons of copper, and so on. And you need about a million of them to provide half our power. And then after 20 years, you’d have to replace them all over again.
So, I don’t see how it can happen for many, many more reasons I can’t really go into.
Chris Martenson: Well, that does being to get us a sense really of the scale involved. And I’ve run the numbers for my audience, and they are silly. We’re installing something crazy good, several thousand windmills a day across the world, but we would have to run that up to 38,000 windmills per day, per day, in order to begin to meet the sustainable energy goals of the UN just by 2030. So it’s…
Alice Friedman: And remember…yeah.
Chris Martenson: It’s an astonishing number. And it’s just like really? Where would they all come from, and how would we install them that quickly? It’s a staggering sort of a piece. And that’s assuming that the wind blows and it’s not intermittent and that you have some storage devices.
And by the way, I trunked over to the DARPA site, because they are investing in alternative battery technologies. And it’s a really nice list. They’ve got Quinone, ion reduction batteries, flow batteries with Vanadium. They’re doing compressed air.
They have all these really creative things, but when I was looking at the award amounts, Alice, they were anywhere from fifty thousand dollars to three million dollars, which I consider to be chump change when we’re talking about what you just described, batteries that are best measured in the millions of tons and tens of square miles.
It feels like we’re just not really serious about this yet from a resource standpoint or a political priority standpoint.
Alice Friedman: If you can’t run trucks on electricity, what’s the point? That is the nub of the problem that we face. This is a liquid fuels transportation crisis. And electricity does absolutely nothing to solve that problem. If you can’t electrify trucks, then game over.
Chris Martenson: So how much of the transportation fuel is used by trucks? What’s the number?
Alice Friedman: It’s only 20 percent. And so we can get by for a long time by rationing and distributing it to agriculture. I’m sure the military will want to grab some of that. And whatever’s leftover can go to other important services. But at some point, it’s going to be hard to keep trucks running.
And I think the best thing to do is to assume we’re going back to the age of wood, which was our energy resource for most of human history. And if a miracle happens, great.
But fusion is really they only thing that could replace oil, and that is nowhere in sight. It is a mess. They’re talking about closing the Lawrence Livermore facility down.
I don’t see…and Robert Hirsch, who wrote a peak oil study for the Department of Energy in 2005, said you’d want to plan 20 years ahead of time. But oil peaked ten years ago, conventional oil, which provides 90 percent of our oil. We don’t have the time. We can hope a miracle happens, but we should be preparing to go back to the past.
Chris Martenson: Well, now that’s a…I happen to agree that the correct moment to have really begun to take a different turn was during that April 1977 speech by Carter. I think he had it right. That would’ve been a great time to go hey, we’re really going to have to do things differently.
So, when I really talk about what I want to do with a timescale cost to try and talk to people or, if I could, convince them about something, it would be that we’re not going to continue on the same trajectory we are, meaning we’re not just going to have a future that’s just larger and more of the same because we figured out how to electrify the grid and store electricity. Because when you really run the numbers, the time, the scale, the cost says we’re not getting there.
So, what I’d love to do is get people to that point, which is not a hopeless point. Well, it’s hopeless if you want the future to look like today only bigger. That’s a hopeless point. Sorry. If you have that dream, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
But we still are going to be existing in the future. So this is where the conversation gets interesting, because I think there are lots of things that individuals can do, should do, to both be responsive to the predicament as it exists. So to me that means using less energy today if you can and figuring out how to do that. And, by the way, almost everybody can.
But secondarily is to become more resilient and to really understand what’s likely to unfold. So, in that energy constrained future, from the transportation standpoint, I would guess you would say we’ll have fewer trucks moving from point a to point b. What would that really mean to somebody’s daily life?
Alice Friedman: Well, the oil is so essential that it’s going to also…it already has caused probably peaked food because nearly all of the food we eat…Nature Magazine two years ago has a story about how nearly all the food we eat that provides our calories peaked before 2010, and most of them around 2006. That means achieving sustainability will be far harder than anyone thought.
And some of the food items that have already peaked are fish, meat, milk, eggs, dairy, wheat, corn, rice, and soy, as well as cropland, irrigated areas, peat, and nitrogen fertilizers. And it’s interesting that those peaked around the same time conventional oil peaked.
So, obviously I think people should learn how to grow their own food in their backyard or a nearby community garden. The younger you are, the better it would be to move to a sustainable region of your country. Charles Hall and John Day wrote a book about just that recently that came out this year on where the most sustainable regions of the country would be.
Chris Martenson: Totally agree with all of that. And I would go further for people who have investments, a lot of people do. You’ve got your 401k or you’re tied into a pension of some kind. You’re a teacher. You’re a fireman, somebody hoping for a pension or maybe a corporation. Or let’s say you run an endowment for a college or for a non-profit of some form.
Well, all of the returns that we’ve come to expect out of our financial portfolios are based on the idea of growth. And so, this is a really interesting thought experiment, Alice. When I run this with people who do manage money, I usually get blank stares. It’s kind of like dogs listening to white noise. They tip their heads sideways and they don’t understand what I’m saying.
Because, from my perspective, when we look at the roll of energy in being the master resource that fosters all economic growth, if we take the energy away in term of as a growth driver, we’re only left with productivity. But productivity is hard to come by when you’re in a long emergency or in crisis, or otherwise not flush with all the surplus energy that funds the investments that allow us to improve our productivity.
Some will, of course, always be happening. We’ll get better things. But this idea that we’re going to have growth in our financial claims on things, which is just…financial things are just claims on real stuff, which would be all the things you can see and touch. The idea that we’re going to have that sustained growth really needs to be challenged, because so many people’s hopes and dreams are riding on that personally.
But also as a nation, I think we have this collective delusion, if I can use that word, which is that well, when or if, Chris, we finally see oil become pinched in the way you think it’s going to be pinched, then we’ll start to get serious about it and we’ll do X, Y, and Z.
And my point would be that an energy constrained moment in history is an incredibly poor time to try and begin doing things differently. I can’t solve that at the big level, so I do shows like this and I talk to individuals, Alice, where I say well, that’s why you need to get started on doing this yourself. Don’t wait. Because you can take control of this. And by the way, if you do, I’ve got a garden and I love it. It’s a big source of joy and quality of life for me.
So, these are all changes that people can make that I think will improve their quality of life. At the same time, they’re being responsive to what is clearly an approaching emergency that I think has actually already started.
And we would detect it, if we had the right lenses on, in stubborn unemployment, in declining opportunities for whole broad classes of people, the wild gyrations in the energy industry. These are all to me signs that actually I talked about years ago when I put The Crash Course together. This feels reasonably like we’re in the wheelhouse of what the predictions would be for this period of time.
So yeah, I would tell people very broadly, you’ve got to examine everything that you assume and take for granted. Take a good, hard look at it and don’t take anything for granted anymore.
Alice Friedman: Oh, I so agree with that. You know, I feel sorry for all the people who lost money in the 2008 crash, and now they’re invest
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