About six months ago I heard the term Peak Oil in a conversation. “Whats Peak Oil?” I asked innocently. The two guys exchanged an understanding look, and one quickly produced a home burnt CDROM, which he handed to me with barely a word of explanation.
Later that evening I listened to that CD. It was a radio interview on Coast to Coast AM with a young lawyer named Matt Savinar. What this guy had to say is still dominating my thoughts now after 6 months of reading and tossing it around in my head. I have been trying to write something on the subject for weeks now, but every time I sit down to do that, I find it very difficult to find the words. I am so used to relating nice stories and pretty pictures via this weblog it is with sadness that I am about to write something you really won't want to hear.
Right now I am tempted to use a line like “The world as we know it, is about to end”, or “Society is heading for a cliff that we cannot see or avoid”, but I don't want to sound like an alarmist. So instead I will simply present some facts which, after much thought and months of personal research, have forced me to accept some big changes in my vision of our future.
First of all let me be clear that Peak Oil is NOT about running out of oil. The planet will never run out of oil completely, it will simply not be able to produce it at anywhere near the rate we, the human race, want (need) to consume it to survive at our present and future numbers. Peak oil is about running out of cheap, easily accessible oil.
Every oil field ever discovered follows the same pattern in production throughout its life. When oil is first discovered (or suspected as is usually the case) it takes a lot of initial investment, energy and time to get the first barrel of usable oil from it. Then as the oil flows production will increase rapidly until approximately half the oil has been extracted. Then production decreases at about the same rate until it is no longer economically viable to continue extracting. The result of this when graphed is a typical bell curve. In the oil industry this is known as Hubbert's Peak.
In 1956 Dr. M. King Hubbert, a Geophysicist, used this method to predict the peak of US oil production. He knew that peak oil production must follow about 40 years after the peak of oil discovery (as it does for pretty much every oil-field ever tapped). Oil discovery in the US had peaked in 1930, so production should peak around 1970. Pretty basic logic really. He was not taken seriously and was scoffed at. By the mid 1970's pretty much everyone had to agree that US oil production had indeed peaked (and has been in steady decline ever since), and that Hubbert's prediction had been remarkably accurate.
The same method can be used to predict the peak of oil production for any individual oil-field, country, or indeed, the world as a whole.
World oil discovery peaked in the mid 1960's. We currently burn more than four barrels of oil for every new barrel discovered. Obviously this cannot continue for long.
UK North Sea oil production began in the early 1970's, peaked in 1999, and is now declining at -6% per year. Although no really knows for sure, the Middle East is estimated to have peaked in 1997. Iraq has around 11% of the earths remaining oil reserves (and has the greatest potential for further exploration and increased production). Saudi Arabia has around 25% of the planets remaining reserves. If Saudi Arabia has peaked, then certainly, the world has peaked.
But to look just at oil production is only seeing half the picture. The other half is demand. Demand for oil world wide is skyrocketing. Growing economies need an ever increasing supply of energy. Skyrocketing world populations (made possible by cheap fossil fuels) need and ever increasing supply of energy. Our supply is about to begin declining. Forever.
About now you might be thinking, we'll just have to tighten our belts and conserve a bit. No more big cars, we'll get one of those electric hybrid cars or move closer to work. That is to grossly underestimate the problem. We rely on cheap oil for far more than just transport. We eat fossil fuels. Approximately 10 calories of fossil fuel energy is required to produce 1 calorie of food eaten in the US. I guess its about the same here in New Zealand or in any other “developed” country. The average piece of food on my table traveled over 2000km to get there. Then theres the oil based pesticides and the fertilizers that are based on natural gas (which is also about to peak). The oil powered irrigation, the oil powered tractors that prepare the ground, apply the pesticides and fertilizers, and the oil powered harvesters that bring the crops to the oil powered transport that will take it to the oil powered factory.... you get the picture. The one factor that has allowed human population to explode from a mere 1 billion in 1804, to 3 billion in 1959 and on to the staggering 6.3 billion of us here today, is cheap, abundant fossil fuel energy.
"Between 1950 and 1984, as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture around the globe, world grain production increased by 250%. That is a tremendous increase in the amount of food energy available for human consumption. This additional energy did not come from an increase in incipient sunlight, nor did it result from introducing agriculture to new vistas of land. The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers (natural gas), pesticides (oil), and hydrocarbon fueled irrigation." - Eating Fossil Fuels by Dale Allen Pfeiffer
Apart from running our cars, and our food supply, oil is the base ingredient for many other things that we depend on. Plastics for example are all oil based. For a real insight on just how many materials we use everyday that are oil-based I recommend reading “The Long Fingers of Petroleum”.
In a nutshell we, as a species, are about to experience a major shock. Our population has overshot our environments ability to sustain us.
We have no viable alternatives in sight. Sure, there are lots of interesting, technically and theoretically possible alternative energy supplies but none that come remotely close to meeting our need for oil. I can't imagine a airliner flying on solar or wind power. Don't even start me on hydrogen economy. Its a myth. Hydrogen is not a source of energy, it is a means of energy storage. You need to input energy from another source to build a hydrogen fuel cell. Whats more, it stores energy at a net loss. You need to input around 1.3 units of energy to get 1 unit back. Bio-desil would require too much land to grow the raw ingredients, leaving no room to grow our food. Name your favorite alternative. It just can't come close to oil; and even if it could, we would need to replace an entire infrastructure, and bring it online, very very quickly. And even if we could do that, it would be like a drug addict replacing one drug with another (until we deplete another resource), when what we really need to do is break the addiction.
For me, after all the research I've done into this over the past six months (just trying to find a way out, a hole in the inescapable truth), the only question left is when. When will we start to see the effects of peak oil and the inevitable decline (read crash) that follows? I think we are already seeing them. The military activity in the Middle East is the obvious example, not to mention the price of oil which is at an all time high. The Scientists are saying it, the environmentalists are saying it, only the economists (and therefore the politicians) don't get it. It just doesn't fit their “supply will always meet demand” mentality. By the time they get it, and the markets begin to react (violently) it will be too late. Like a tidal wave. If you can see it coming, you're already dead. I honestly think all we can do is be aware, make others aware, get informed and prepare. Learn to grow your own food, and decrease your dependency on fossil fuels wherever you can. We're going back to the lifestyle we were meant to be living, and its going to be a very rocky road.
I would like to hear what you have to say about this. To me this information came as a shock, and has been difficult for deal with personally. The more I find out, the worse it gets. It has been very difficult for me to even write this post. It will even harder for me to post it. But I will, because I cannot in good conscience keep it to myself, and I want to generate some discussion about it here. So please, comments and questions (even flames) are welcome...
Some further reading on the subject: