In this post, I’m going to continue with the theme of my most recent entry and provide you with some additional considerations about oil consumption here in the United States. While few of the facts to be cited will surprise anyone very much, I doubt many are considered very often, if at all. I believe this overview is critical to our understanding of Peak Oil’s importance. We obviously can’t and won’t address fundamental issues of which we remain contentedly unaware.
It is when we become more fully cognizant of just how vital the use of oil is to just about every single one of our economic activities that it also becomes obvious what a powerful and pervasive impact Peak Oil will have on just about everything we do and everything we plan to continue doing. (I’ll be exploring these specific issues in much greater detail in the weeks to come.)
Changes are inevitable … big changes. With no plans in place, those changes are going to be incredibly disruptive. But as I take pains to suggest, so too will these looming changes present us with incredible opportunities….
But as of now, the United States has no plans to deal with Peak Oil.
Understanding where we are is a key step in making plans for where we want to be. Doing what we’ve always done is not going to be a viable option for much longer. We’re bumping up against an immoveable barrier to our continued prosperity unless we summon the individual and collective wisdom, courage, and ingenuity to chart a different course. It is fraught with both uncertainty and unparalleled opportunity.
We may not be prepared to hear this, but there’s no getting around it: it is all up to us. Relying on Someone/Anyone Else is not going to work this time around.
Oil provides energy in ways unlike any other source we have. It is an incredibly powerful and efficient resource. Without it, economic development here and across the planet would have never attained its current levels and scope. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States gets 40 percent of its total energy from oil and another 25% or so from coal and natural gas. Those are much higher percentages than any other nation. We’re wedded to oil like no one else, and the separation will not be easy. But we’re not going to have much of a choice in the not-too-distant future.
This quote (by Michael Brownlee of Denver’s Boulder County Transition Team), premised on an estimate that our nation uses one cubic mile of oil per year, provides us with a stunning portrayal of just how efficient oil is as compared to other energy sources:
[One cubic mile of oil] “equals the same amount of energy provided by 52 nuclear power plants generating energy being built every year for 50 years or 104 operating coal-fired electrical plants built every year for 50 years or 32,000 wind turbines built every year for 50 years and in continuous operation or 91,250,000 solar panels built every year for 50 years.” 
Think about that for a moment. How on earth (literally) do we produce energy sources of those magnitudes to replace this finite resource that has served as the lifeblood of world-wide economic and industrial development for these past 150 years?
There’s no doubt that we must continue development of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind, but the plain truth is that as presently developed they cannot possible duplicate or even remotely approximate the energy derived from oil.
Currently, the oil and gas industry produces between 80 and 90 million barrels of oil per day for worldwide consumption. But every year, anywhere from 4% to 7% of that oil (depending on the source cited) is lost to a simple and undeniable truth about any finite resource: depletion. Simple path math will tell you that if a supply of something is declining naturally and inexorably, then in order to maintain at least the same level of supply, you have to produce more just to stay even.
So far we’ve done a good job of maintaining that steady state, but it’s just not going to last. The many little fields of oil we continue to find, and those not-so-easy, not-so-cheap to find and produce oil sources we discover in the remote corners of the world will not keep pace with increasing demand. The math does not work, and when you consider the ever-increasing world population, the numbers are not comforting to those who continue to hope for business and development and prosperity as usual.
We’re certainly free to remain blissfully unaware or unconcerned, but that’s only going to make the inevitable that much more painful.
A greater truth, and one I don’t believe gets nearly the attention it deserves, is that for all the energy that we could potentially derive from those alternative sources, our entire infrastructure and way of life has been built around the availability of, access to, and use of abundant amounts of relatively inexpensive and just as relatively available oil. That option is running out, as prior posts have tried to make clear.
We have designed our lifestyles, our economic and industrial development, and our communities around cheap, easily-produced oil. Our everyday world is premised on that continuing supply (together with natural gas) to produce and transport food, to fuel our transportation, build and heat or cool our buildings, purify our water, treat our waste, and build, well, just about everything we use. (And a related issue I’m not even touching right now: we have an old infrastructure, one that will not repair or update itself for free.)
No amount of alternative energy sources as presently developed can provide us the same quality and quantity of those basic needs. We may fervently want or hope that the square pegs of alternative energy sources fit neatly into the round holes of continuing-on-with-life-as-we-know-it, but magical thinking inevitably runs into reality.
And the reality is that the foundations of all we do and have and use are built with oil, and when declining supply begins to travel the same road as increasing demand, we’re going to have a monumental problem on our hands, and one that will not be solved in just a few months or a few years. All the legislation and hand-wringing in the world won’t create an entirely new infrastructure reliant on energy sources not named oil in any period of time one would consider “short.”
A more unfortunate truth is that our political and economic system—indeed, our entire societal attitudes about growth, prosperity, and entitlement—are simply not fashioned to deal with what must be done … yet.
Any false hopes that we can instantly create new technologies to effect seamless transition are at their very best hopelessly naïve. Foolish is a better description. So we do have to begin thinking differently, and planning, and then doing.
“[T]he cold, hard, inconvenient truth is that trillions of dollars have been invested in the existing energy infrastructure, which provides consumers with electricity, gasoline, jet fuel, and myriad other commodities. Changing that infrastructure—nearly all of which has been built upon fossil fuels—to a system based on renewable and alternative energy will take decades.” 
An inconvenient truth indeed….
Next: The World Of Transportation
: America’s Perfect Storm: Transition to Survival After Peak Oil Hits – Frosty Wooldridge http://neighbors.denverpost.com/blog.php/2008/11/25/america%E2%80%99s-perfect-storm-transition-to-survival-after-peak-oil-hits/
: From the book Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence by Robert Bryce (p.44); publisher: PublicAffairs (Perseus Books Group)