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Peak Oil Matters

A fresh perspective on the concept of peak oil and the challenges we face


Archive for January, 2010

An interesting news item this past week concerning Royal Shell’s Athabasca Valley oil sands project. I spoke about the Athabasca tar sands in my January 20 post (here).

As reported by the Financial Times and in its lengthy Q & A session with Royal Dutch Shell chief executive Peter Voser, that company’s planned expansion of its existing tar sands project has been “clearly scaled down.” The previously-planned quintupling of growth (in stages) from the Athabasca project will now proceed “very much slower”.

At current trading prices, the profit margin is apparently too thin for Royal Dutch Shell to proceed. The Times referenced the development project as being a “costly distraction” for Royal Dutch Shell, and an increase to an eventual 255,000 barrels of oil per day is about all that can now be expected, rather than the 770,000 barrels per day originally envisioned by the expansion.

It’s hard to see this as anything but a blow to those who continue to claim that these tar sands and oil shale are the key, great solutions to the continuing decline in the availability of conventional oil resources worldwide. Merely mentioning “trillions of barrels of oil” underground doesn’t get it from there to here for free, or easily, or quickly—if at all.

Sources: forced into oil sands U-turn. Created: 27 January 2010 Updated: 28 January 2010 Written by: Daniel O’Sullivan  – Shell’s CEO Peter Voser interview transcript: on Canada’s oil sands, jobs, acquisitions, US gas, Iraq, Nigeria, Copenhagen and more.  January 26, 2010 by Ed Crook

Before I continue on with the planned topic for my next post, there were a few items of note this past week that caught my attention.

First up is the World Economic Forum held this week in Davos, Switzerland. The statements and attitudes expressed by some participants (most notably from the head of the Saudi state oil firm Saudi Aramco) are indicative of a fundamental problem—and challenge—that will have to be addressed if we are to successfully counter the adverse effects of Peak Oil. I will soon be devoting a series of posts to the broader implications and considerations of those attitudes, but it’s worthwhile to take a look at the dismissive view by some in the energy/oil industry.

The chief executive of France-based Total, one of Europe’s major oil companies, like several other oil executives, has a realistic perspective about oil development and production in the face of (1) increasing demand from China, India, and other developing nations, (2) depletion of existing oil reserves, and (3) the lack of adequate discoveries of new oil. “The problem of peak oil remains,” Thierry Desmarest told his Forum audience. He has predicted that we’ll reach Peak Oil within ten years.

Other industry officials don’t seem to share those beliefs, yet their statements seem designed to cast aside all concerns about Peak Oil without … well, without providing any facts in support of their contrary positions.

“The concern about peak oil is behind us,” Saudi Aramco chief executive Khalid Al Falih told that same session on energy supplies.

I suppose the head of Saudi’s state oil firm can’t really be expected to say anything else (a “Duh!” moment if ever there was), but his flippant dismissal of Peak Oil is notably lacking in factual support other than the usual bromide about there being trillions of barrels of oil still underground. I’ve not disputed that in any of my prior posts.

But to castigate the Obama Administration (while taking care not to do so directly) for its “rhetoric” about the need for energy independence as being “unachievable and misleading to the public” does us all a tremendous disservice. I’m not sure how much we should lament the fact that honest discussions about the costs of our oil dependence make it more difficult for oil producers to seek investments and political support for their oil explorations. That is not the main problem we’ll be facing.

The more telling issue, and one that is routinely ignored by those who dispute Peak Oil as I’ve stated before, is that they never get around to explaining exactly how all that oil in the ground is going to get from there to here. The physical efforts of extraction, the refining needed, the environmental degradation, the amount of energy required to produce these “vast” resources, the incredible costs, the impact of inevitable delays on increasing demand, and the many related problems rarely get spelled out for the general public.

“There is too much rhetoric in the public domain about moving away from oil,” Al Falih stated. “There are plenty of resources out there.” I’m not sure what that’s all supposed to mean, but they are a perfectly suitable set of empty statements if your goal is to avoid discussion when you don’t have much beyond a lot of optimism to back you up. (And I’m all for optimism, but I don’t have quite as much faith in the magic of future technology as do some.)

The end result is that we hear sound bites such as “trillions of barrels of oil remain” and are left wondering what the fuss is all about. The loudest voices get most of the airplay. Is there a reason why the explanations of just how difficult and complex oil production will be going forward (and/or many decades this will all take, among many other equally relevant issues) get glossed over by those who advocate that we have enough oil to last us close to forever?

Instead, we get comforting assurances with all the proper buzz words, and soothing pats on the head. Facts every now and then would be nice. To be fair, Falih did state that “… most of what remains is more difficult and complex (to exploit) … [but] there’s no doubt we can do a lot more than the 95,100 (million barrels) that are projected in the next few decades.” How? Thierry Desmarest has indicated that it would be a “struggle” to meet that objective, so who to believe?

The unfortunate yet understandable truth is that the vast majority of us are far too consumed by life’s many daily challenges to spend much time on such apparently nebulous and distant problems like oil production and supply, so we leave it to “others” to take care of it. And those others all too often have vested interests in maintaining the status quo so as to guard against the government being placed in charge of “change” of any kind, or to protect profits—not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that … I’m all for capitalism. No doubt there are other reasons—some legitimate and some suspect.

But short-sighted perspectives are short-sighted for a reason, and there’s a cost.

The mere fact of uttering the platitude about having “plenty of oil” is not, as some appear to hope, the beginning and the end of discussions about the future of oil supply and demand. We will all be better served if we begin conducting more informed conversations about the topic.

Let’s not make Peak Oil quite the surprise it seems destined to be.

Sources: say don’t worry about peak oil
Davos: Thu, 28 Jan 2010 Chief: Plentiful Supply Trumps ‘Peak Oil’
by  Andrew Critchlow Dow Jones Newswires 1/28/2010 confident of continued growth
Thursday, 28 January 2010 bigs to Obama: Get real. Posted by Adam Lashinsky, Senior Editor at Large January 28, 2010

Before moving to my next scheduled post (“Shifting Gears”) I thought it worthwhile to offer some commentary on a January 25th news/financial item I came across today (See  – Exxon Mobil Rejuvenates Mature Oil Field by Eric Fox) regarding Exxon Mobil’s decision to invest some $700 million for an enhanced oil recovery project at the Hawkins Field near Dallas, Texas. It’s been in production for some seventy years, and has produced a reported 800 million barrels of oil over that time.

I’ve raised the following theme in several prior posts, and another nice post earlier this week by Kurt Cobb echoes this theme. (See – Sunday, January 24, 2010, Days of world consumption: A warning label for oil and gas discoveries):

Those who dispute the concept of Peak Oil by touting “significant” new discoveries of oil or by uttering similar pronouncements about already-discovered resources (such as the tar sands and oil shale) conveniently omit key facts on a regular basis. The years it will likely take to bring these supposed resources to fruition, the hundreds of millions and even ten billions of dollars required to do so, the energy output and effort necessary to successfully produce these finds, and a truthful explanation about what the eventual totals represent are among the more important facts that tend to get glossed over, if they are mentioned at all.

The uninformed reader is thus left thinking that “x” millions of barrels of newly-discovered or additionally-produced oil is a magnificent bit of news that potentially solves all of our future energy needs. Who needs to worry about Peak Oil when XYZ Corp. just discovered 63 million or 300 million or 1.2 billion barrels of oil?!

Today’s referenced article states that “Another cherished myth of the peak oil crowd may have fallen by the wayside, as Exxon Mobil has figured out how to pump another 40 million barrels out of an oil field discovered more than 70 years ago, and at a stunningly low price.”

Just a few pesky facts that perhaps should be considered (they are indeed annoying when you are trying to ignore evidence to make a point!):

(1) No mention is made of how long this will take, but it’s safe to assume it won’t happen quickly. Best guess is at least a year or two (I’m ever the optimist!)

(2) While touting a relatively low cost of $17.50 per barrel, the article does nonetheless speculate that that may not be all: “Of course it’s possible that Exxon Mobil was only disclosing part of its cost. Perhaps this is only the capital cost to construct the pipelines and injection equipment to bring the nitrogen to the field.” Of course!

(3) The articles states that there is another 900 million barrels of oil likely to be recovered “using a future technology.” We’re supposed to just count on this as a given? What future technology? When?

(4) More great news! A company by the name of Rex Energy is injecting “alkaline surfactant polymer” into its mature oil field in the Illinois Basin to produce almost the same amount of oil as Exxon Mobil will extract via similar enhanced techniques at its Hawkins Field. Wow!

(5) If in fact these two companies succeed at producing their respective 40 million or so barrels of oil at breakfast-time tomorrow, it would have ALL been consumed before breakfast the next day!

We’re supposed to be thrilled with this? More than a billion dollars and untold amounts of effort and energy expenditures for this? This is another refutation of Peak Oil?

The potential of more than 2.5 trillion barrels of synthetic crude oil from oil shale is nothing short of fantastic! (Nearly two-thirds of that amount is located principally in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan; and the larger Green River Formation of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.) With annual worldwide oil consumption of approximately 30 billion barrels of oil, it would seem that oil shale’s astonishing numbers drive yet another nail in the coffin of Peak Oil theory.

A couple of trillion barrels of oil from shale formations will hold us in good stead for more than a few lifetimes! (In a report issued several years ago, the RAND Corporation estimated that the Green River Formation alone could provide a quarter of this country’s current oil needs for 400 years! Amazing! [1]) It’s every bit as awe-inspiring a number as are the potential tar sands resources in Alberta.

Of course, there are two sides to every story, and like the tar sands of Alberta, there’s an enormous gap between what may rest beneath the ground and what we’ll be able to extract, refine, and eventually use over the course of many, many decades. Like its unconventional oil companion to the north, oil shale is not likely to be the solution to our energy concerns in the next several decades. If it ever is, it may be too late in any event.

Geologists and the United States Geological Survey estimate there are approximately 4.3 billion barrels of technologically recoverable oil in the Bakken region. We may possess the capabilities of extracting that much oil, but the costs going in and the consequences of attempting to extract and produce oil from shale are different matters entirely, so what may be “technologically recoverable” is by no means the same as “economically feasible.” And let’s also take note that 4.3 billion barrels of oil is about 7 or 8 months’ worth of oil consumption here in America, and the best hope is that all of that would be extracted over the course of no more than twenty years. Not particularly impressive.

The other formations appear to hold not much more promise, although the more optimistic estimates suggest we might see as much as 130 billion barrels of oil from them … eventually. (One expert directly involved with Shell Oil’s production efforts suggested back in 2005 that by 2030 we might see 5 million barrels per day from the formations out West. [2] Five million bpd doesn’t mean all that much now; it will mean much less a couple of decades into the future.)

Oil shale is, as acclaimed energy expert Chris Nelder has stated: “the oil of the future … and it always will be.”

The truth is that after nearly fifty years of attempts to develop oil shale into a satisfactory oil substitute, only a few hundred million barrels of oil have been produced, if that. In other words, we’ve probably managed to supply about a week’s worth of worldwide oil demand as a result of all that effort and money over nearly half a century. Trillions of barrels of oil! stops sounding so impressive when reality intrudes.

A recent and significant increase in production (see a detailed explanation here: Bakken Shale – Has it Moved the Oil Needle? by Gail the Actuary, November 2, 2009) does not change the basic fact that no company has yet made the full-scale commercial production of oil shale economically feasible—with no guarantees that we’ll ever see that outcome. The research and testing of commercial capabilities are not adequate to the task after decades of effort, nor do we have in place the proper facilities that would be needed to handle production demands. They won’t pop out of the ground fully-formed any time soon.

Best estimates are that establishing those essential commercial components is at least another decade away. By then we’ll be well on our way to decreasing supply trying to match increasing demand. That’s bad math.

Part of the reason is that like tar sands, oil shale is not easily extracted. Oil shale is not oil. It’s kerogen, a solid, not-yet-fully matured version of the fossil fuel. More specifically, it’s the organic matter within the oil shale, and in order for the oil to flow free of the shale and be pumped to the surface, it must be heated to more than 700 degrees for a couple of years (while surrounded by a three-foot wall of ice)! This is the “in situ” procedure. The other primary means of obtaining kerogen (usually buried thousands of feet below ground, by the way) is the “retorting” procedure: mining the oil shale and then heating the kerogen above-ground.

Either option represents the investment of a LOT of energy. It’s also important to appreciate that oil derived from kerogen requires further refining before it can be used for transportation purposes … more effort and expense after extraction.

And I won’t touch on the significant amounts of water required to help extract oil shale (and in regions of this country where water is a limited resource to begin with) nor am I discussing in this post the environmental degradation and pollution that results from mining this resource. I also omit any discussion about the impact of such massive undertakings on the local communities involved. I can omit discussion here, but we cannot ignore those considerations.

These pesky little details seem to get overlooked by those who dispute Peak Oil’s imminent approach.

At what point do we decide that the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars we seemingly have at the ready to invest in oil-related energy exploration and production ought to be devoted to resources not quite so limiting? Like the oil from tar sands, oil from oil shale is not anywhere near as productive or efficient an energy source as conventional crude oil … not even close, actually.

We’re just postponing the inevitable, and it seems we should be seriously considering alternatives (not that they are a panacea, either, since we need a lot of oil to research, extract, produce, process, and transport almost every other form of energy). They will at the very least represent a much better long-term solution than oil, shale, and tar. How difficult do we want to make the transition away from oil-based energy?

We have some choices to consider….

Next: Shifting Gears


[1] Oil Shale Development in the United States: Prospects and Policy Issues by James T. Bartis, Tom LaTourrette, Lloyd Dixon, D.J. Peterson, Gary Cecchine; Copyright 2005 RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA

As was also reported in today’s Energy Bulletin (see the link in my Blogroll), Canada’s new Energy Minister has indicated a shift in his country’s previous policy advocating essentially unlimited growth in the tar sands projects.

Ron Liepert has stated that Canada

needs to examine ways to moderate the pace of oil sands development … [and he] wants to make sure future oil sands development does not again overstretch the capacity of the province’s infrastructure.

An interesting political development….I’ll keep you posted

You can read the entire article here:

Looks like Shell Oil’s stockholders are not unanimously in favor of the company’s investment in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.

As noted in this article (

A coalition of institutional investors has forced a resolution onto the agenda calling for the Anglo-Dutch group’s audit  committee to undertake a special review of the risks attached to the carbon-heavy oil production at Athabasca in Alberta

Good to know that profits aren’t always investors’ most important concern. Kudos to this group

There are estimates suggesting that the tar sands of Alberta, Canada may contain more than 1.5 trillion barrels of synthetic crude oil in an area roughly the size of New York State. Given that the citizens of this planet consume about 30 billion barrels of oil per year, it seems that Peak Oil is another fallacy consigned to the proverbial dust bins of history. At that annual consumption rate, 1.5 trillion barrels will last a good long while! It’s an awe-inspiring number to say the least….

Of course, what the deniers of Peak Oil neglect to mention (facts can be so annoying!) is that perhaps 10% of that total will ultimately be produced, and that will take many decades if not centuries. This estimated reserve nonetheless represents the second largest resource on the planet, exceeded only by Saudi Arabia. But it is, sad for the deniers, not the solution to our energy woes.

Canada is already the United States’ leading supplier of oil, and about half of that comes from the tar sands in Athabasca Valley. The tar sands (some prefer the more benign term “oil sands,” as if we’re discussing beach sand that one just scoops up with a shovel and then wrings the oil out) are actually a mix of ingredients including bitumen, which is a dense congregation of heavy hydrocarbons (think paving material). At room temps bitumen is so thick that it does not flow, and fifteen or twenty degrees cooler than that, it’s as hard as a hockey puck.

One does not require any technical expertise to realize that converting thousands of tons of hockey pucks each day to liquid oil is a wee bit energy-intensive. And when the facts about extraction are made known (forests are first leveled, then tons of earth are excavated, then the bitumen from those tons of earth are heated to several hundred degrees by a high-pressure steam process known as Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage to liquefy the tar sands—all produced via natural gas at levels which some suggest are enough to heat 3 million homes per day—resulting in carcinogen-laced waste water left in nearby “tailings ponds” which currently cover an area greater than 50 square miles!), it quickly becomes clear that we have some energy-related and environmental issues of considerable magnitude.

It’s been stated that every barrel of synthetic crude produced originated from more than two tons of tar sands dug up and separated by the above-referenced steam process, which itself requires two barrels of fresh water for every barrel of oil produced. Think about that for a moment … this is what we have to do to obtain oil?

Leaks from the tailings ponds and resultant contamination of ground water are of immense concern to the residents of the area, and the significantly greater incidents of cancers among residents have been sources of dispute for years. Thousands of birds and animals have reportedly died from exposure to these contaminant-laden ponds. One Canadian report suggests that for all the efforts to contain those ponds, several million gallons of the polluted water leaks out every day. Not a single one of the tailings ponds have been reclaimed in accordance with the licenses granted. Once the mining stops, what happens when the ponds are left completely untreated and unattended?

(And I’m not even discussing the greenhouse gas emissions caused by this incredibly energy-intensive process, which are estimated to be anywhere from 15% – 40% per barrel higher than conventional oil production. I’m also skipping any discussion of the huge investments in specialized oil refineries needed to process synthetic crude, and the pollution potentials arising from the pipeline networks for transporting that fuel from Alberta to the Great Lakes region of both Canada and the United States.)

The deniers, as they are so skilled at doing, tend to gloss over those pesky truths and instead issue their pronouncements about the trillions of barrels of oil at the ready. They also conveniently neglect to inform that the current rates of oil production from tar sands aren’t even enough to keep pace with annual depletion rates from conventional oil fields. Omitting those facts makes it seem as though we just have all of these billions or trillions of barrels of “extra” oil just waiting for someone to lay claim. The truth is far different.

After thirty years of investments to the tune of several hundred billion dollars and thirty years of production efforts, the Canadian tar sands are producing less than 1.5 million barrels of oil per day … that’s it! In fact, Canada’s energy forecast was recently trimmed, pushing out the estimated higher rates of production by several more years. This past November, the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) released a study showing tar sands production increasing to 4.5 million b/d by 2030 and growing toward a peak of 5.3 million b/d in 2041. Actual production in 2008 was 1.3 million b/d. [1] It seems we have a ways to go….

Even the most optimistic boosters of the tar sands expect no more than 3 million barrels of synthetic crude oil per day in the next 15 – 20 years, and with worldwide consumption rates of approximately 85 million barrels per day, 3 million won’t make much of a dent. It will make even less of a difference once increased demand, depletion rates, and an inability to keep pace via new discoveries are all factored into the mix. Facts truly are annoying at times!

Worse for advocates of tar sands as the solution to end all solutions, the current recession and price volatility in the oil markets have adversely impacted Canadian investments as well. It’s been reported that projects which were expected to deliver more than a million and a half barrels of this synthetic crude per day were cancelled or placed on hold indefinitely [2]

Our industrial needs dictate that we get all the oil we can. But at some point, we need to ask: At what cost? Let’s hope we have the collective wisdom to ask it a day too soon rather than a day too late.

Next: An Intro’ To Oil Shale


[1] Canadian Oil Sands Misses Unrealistic Projection – Issues Another
Published Mon, 12/14/2009 by ASPO-USA
[2] Extreme oil: Scraping the bottom of Earth’s barrel 02 December 2009 by David Strahan

Following up once more on my January 11th post about China’s increasing demand for oil (, some more information courtesy of Tom Whipple and today’s Energy Bulletin:

China ended 2009 with oil imports averaging some 5 million b/d in December for the first time ever. Chinese demand is  expected to remain strong in 2010….Evidence abounds that China now is growing at an extraordinary pace

The Chinese Expressway system is growing in length so fast that it will likely surpass the US Interstate Highway system in two  years…Between the rapid growth of private passenger transportation, and the remaining diesel powered railroads, Chinese  transportation is probably almost as oil dependent as US transportation

Source: – Peak oil review – Jan 18 by Tom Whipple, ASPO-USA

On the heels of my post earlier this week regarding automobiles ( and the impact on Peak Oil resulting from the increasing worldwide demand (notably in China and India), a recent article from the Financial Times notes the following:

China yesterday underlined the power shift from western car markets to Asia as data confirmed car sales in the country shot up  last year and the government said it expected a strong 2010.

Car sales rose by nearly 53 per cent to 10.3m while total vehicle sales – including buses, trucks and the small commercial vans  that powered much of last year’s growth – rose 46.2 per cent to 13.6m units.

This allowed China to coast past the US and become the leading global auto market, several years ahead of expectation. US  cars and light truck sales last year were 10.4m.

More demand for oil … and it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Just one of the many little facts about oil usage we ought to keep in mind.

Source:  – China vehicle sales underline power shift By Patti Waldmeir, January 12

In my first few posts, I have tried to paint a simple, straightforward portrait of what I believe to be Peak Oil’s fundamental aspects.

The framework I have set forth to date will serve as the underpinnings for my future discussions.

I stated at the outset two primary considerations:

  • If we don’t understand the challenges, we cannot possibly expect to meet them successfully; and
  • This is all up to us—not “industry,” not our “leaders,” not the media, not government, not just undefined “others.” All of  us have a stake in the future we create, and all of us share the responsibility of creating that future by the choices we make now

I understand there are those who deny Peak Oil’s inevitability if not its actual existence, just as there are those who deny global warming (setting aside an astonishing amount of supporting factual data in the process). The reasons for denying the obvious fascinate me. So too does it trouble me because of the consequences of ignorance and neglect.

The unwillingness or inability of some to look at the facts—and then seemingly proclaim existence in an alternative universe where those facts don’t matter—is a curious psychological exercise. There’s also no question that some deny facts because their motivations are purely selfish and short-term: they can inflict damage on others who think differently, regardless of consequences to us all. In and of itself that seems to be a victory they find worth pursuing. “Success” takes on a different hue when considered in this light. The lack of integrity in this approach speaks for itself, but we’re all going to pay a price … deniers, too.

There’s also little doubt that those suspicious of Peak Oil are simply confused by the conflicting and at times complex information submitted. It’s hard to blame those struggling just to get by every day with a failure to devote attention to some nebulous concept that doesn’t directly impact their lives today. And how do the uninformed ascertain on their own what’s valid and what is not? The loudest voices oft-times seem the logical source in which to place trust, and there’s precious little time to consider the motivations of those loudest voices.

I understand that in the midst of this ongoing economic calamity we remain mired in, any change that is not considered an immediate return to business-as-usual and life-as-we-once-knew-it is a path easily avoided. I also understand that just enduring the economic stresses we’re now confronted with is itself a monumental undertaking, and to suggest that we have more to do is a message not easily or well-received. This is an issue I’ve touched upon in an earlier post (see, but it bears repeating and expansion.

I am just as “guilty” as the next for wanting life to return to its abundant, prosperous, and promising ways … yesterday. I don’t want to hear about hardship or sacrifices or changes or transitions or lack or anything of the kind. Like just about everyone else, I want to wake up tomorrow and have this economic crisis behind me and nothing but clear sky and smooth sailing ahead for years to come.

This is America. We’re supposed to be a great nation; we’re supposed to grow endlessly and expansively; we’re supposed to succeed. But by what rule are we to define success and growth and prosperity by the measurements of the recent past, particularly where those yardsticks have turned out to be illusory and misguided to begin with?

Why can’t we summon our individual and collective will to return this country to the sense of greatness we feel is our birthright, but in ways different and better than ever? Is that not an admirable objective? Are we so beaten down now that the false and fleeting successes of the past, sure to last but for a brief moment in the days to come, are the best (or only) courses we can summon forth? Are we just simply going to take a few small steps forward, suffer more indignities of all kind, endure them, and then repeat this vicious and deflating cycle over and over. Have we lost all hope?

We’ve suffered through an incredibly difficult period in these past few years, and there is no clear indication that we are out of the woods yet. The challenging work of gathering the right information we need, considering the impact of those facts, deciding on what the alternatives might be, and then implementing our best choices over the course of the many years it will take to transition from our oil-based industry is, on its best days, unpleasant to consider right now!

It’s safe to say that we all feel as though we’ve had enough! We’re tired and we just simply want someone else—be it the President or frankly, anyone else, to just fix it and fix it now. We just don’t have the capabilities or the wherewithal (so we think) to contemplate what must be done over a lengthy period of time in dealing with a potential problem years in the making and years away from fully manifesting itself. That’s why we have other people! “Keep me out of it, don’t burden me with details and consequences and to-do lists … just tell me when it’s all over, and tell me soon.” Hard to argue with that!

But the reality is that we have no plans for how to deal with Peak Oil. It’s distressing to write that, it’s distressing to read it I’m sure, and it’s most disheartening to realize it’s the truth.

We take comfort, if that’s the right word, in our realization that Peak Oil, like global warming, is not a problem that’s going to land fully formed on our doorsteps next Tuesday; so we think we can set it aside until some undetermined date in the future after we’ve dealt with all of today’s problems. Perfectly understandable. Perfectly inappropriate.

We are forced to carry on living in an illusion that we have so much time to adapt to post-oil that we don’t even need to be  talking or thinking much about what a world without plentiful oil would look like. Reality has become too dangerous [1]

How do we manage our fears and concerns? If mismanaged, we cannot possibly hope to take all of the steps we’ll need to take, and somewhere down the road we’re going to be staring into the face of an enormous, life-altering challenge we’re hopelessly unprepared for. We can’t let that be one of the options.

If we don’t start taking little steps now, we’ll be left with the need to take giant leaps a few short years from now. Hoping that the government will run a World War II-Apollo Moon Program-type crash course in recharging America is a nice idea to salve our fears, but if that’s the sole strategy, then Houston, we have a problem.

I do not believe that Washington’s failure to even acknowledge Peak Oil is because our leaders are unaware. I think it’s a political calculation. Who wants to be the bearer of bad news? Who wants to be the bearer of really bad news atop all of the other bad news we’ve been dealing with for the past few years?

It’s understandable that giving voice to Peak Oil’s potential hardships will require that our government then actually do something about it now, and I daresay President Obama’s plate is full and then some. (It’s unfortunate that it will only be much later when we begin to fully appreciate the reasons for the changes he sought to bring to this nation, and the vision he’s trying to put forth.) Our less-than-courageous Congress and the stunning intractability of the Right are seemingly insurmountable hurdles … so “let’s just set this Peak Oil thing aside for the time being.”

Better yet, Can’t we just this one last time have someone else fix it? No.

We can no longer afford to comfort ourselves with the hope and belief that someone else is going to fix this problem or that magic technology cooked overnight is going to save the day. No technological solutions are imminent, and every change we’ll need to make is going to take time and money … lots of both. There will be no satisfaction in outcries later on of “Why didn’t someone do something back then?”

Back then is now, and the someone is us.

No one wants to have to change their behaviors in the face of Peak Oil! But that is the option. Nothing else happens without that first step.

We have an incredible opportunity before us: a chance to return to (and create) levels of prosperity and growth perhaps unprecedented yet again in the annals of our amazing history. But the truth is that whatever prosperity and success we fashion for ourselves is going to have to be of a different magnitude and quality than what we’ve ever achieved before. It won’t be the first time we’ve been called on to do so.

I readily acknowledge that for all the talk of great opportunities that I firmly believe in, we’re talking about a revolution: in education, in our culture, in industry, in business, in politics, in economics, in our expectations, in our definitions of success, and in our relative place in the world. Everything is going to have to change in one manner or another, but if we keep in mind that this is all for the good, then we stand a better chance at succeeding. We have to decide if change is a good thing or just automatically a bad thing.

What kind of a better world to we want to create, and then live in?

Next: A First Look At Oil Sands


Madeleine Bunting –, Tuesday 10 November 2009