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Peak Oil Matters

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


Archive for February, 2010

Another brief “interruption” to the flow of planned posts:

Touching on a theme I raised previously (with similar observations from Ferdinand E. Banks as cited in that post), I recently came across two other articles (one by the always-informative Kurt Cobb) discussing concerns about increased domestic demand from oil-exporting nations. (See the references to those articles at the end of this post.)

Texas petroleum geologist Jeffrey Brown, noted for his Export Land Model theory, is featured in both articles, and he raises salient points that bear directly on the supply of readily available and relatively inexpensive oil we’ll likely have in the years to come. That supply is eventually going to be curtailed, as I’ve been discussing since this blog began. What that means to all of us is the primary purpose of Peak Oil Matters.

The two referenced items remind us that: (a) the consequences of Peak Oil aren’t solely the result of decreased production, (b) technology isn’t the magic answer.

As oil-exporting nations use the profits generated from their production and sale to grow their own economies and strengthen their industries and infrastructure—while raising the standards of living of their own citizens—they must necessarily increase the amount of oil they retain for themselves. It is, after all, their oil. (And they function with fossil fuel-based infrastructures just as the rest of us do.) Seems fairly straightforward….

What we tend to overlook, and what these two articles make clear, is that as oil production begins its inexorable decline (as it already has in many instances), and as this domestic use increases, the amount of oil available to the rest of us decreases even more drastically than it does based on a straight oil production decline. If the Export Land Model theory is correct, then we may be facing the challenges of Peak Oil even sooner than we anticipate. Existing technology isn’t going to overcome this accelerated decline.

And if that is true, then we’d better get moving on planning and implementing some new strategies quickly.

Referenced articles: ; Do Texas and the North Sea foretell the future of oil production? 
02/25/2010 by Scitizen (Kurt Cobb); Another Take On Peak Oil: Exports, Not Production, Indicate Crisis by Zoe Macintosh on February 25, 2010

I’ve been very clear in stating that while I do believe Peak Oil is imminent (which doesn’t necessarily mean next week!), there’s no doubt that we still have billions of barrels available to us in the years to come. Our energy base is not falling off a cliff tomorrow.

Having said that, we must nonetheless start planning now for what happens when fossil fuel availability is significantly diminished and prohibitively expensive. While we still have a ready and adequate supply of oil and gas, we need to utilize those still-abundant levels of energy to begin the transition away from fossil fuel dependency. The reality is beyond dispute: our entire infrastructure developed, was built, and has since been maintained with coal, oil, and gas in mind. Until very recently, there had never been any considerations or concerns that we might actually have to completely re-vamp the transportation, power grid, communications, utility, food production, and/or other systems that comprise our basic infrastructure. We’re going to need lots of energy to make that happen.

When you stop for a moment and consider all the highways, the aqueducts, the power and electric grid systems (poles, wires, etc.), the schools, the hospitals, the bridges, the sewers, the farms, the waste treatment facilities and all the other components of our infrastructure, the amount of fossil fuels needed to design, build, repair, maintain, and renovate all of those elements are beyond staggering! Dealing with the impending reality that the fossil fuels which served at the heart of our infrastructure will no longer be available—thus requiring that the repairs, maintenance, renovations, re-design, delivery, and functioning of these complex components will necessitate something other than fossil fuels—means that the transition over to alternative energy sources or brand new design features will take years (read: decades.) We can’t wait until we’re up to our eyeballs in Peak Oil’s impact to start figuring out what to do. We’re too close as it is.

Our great dilemma then rears its head: We do not yet have the alternatives energies in place to effect an orderly and efficient transition. It’s going to take many, many years, much trial and error, and incredible amounts of research, design, production, and delivery implementation in order to achieve seamless transitions away from fossil fuels—assuming those efforts to identify efficient alternative energies prove successful! What are we supposed to do once the existing fossil fuel resources are not so plentiful ever again?

Disasters … or Opportunities?

In my last post, I cited the American Society for Civil Engineers’ 2009 report on the disastrous condition of 15 different infrastructure systems, and the assessment that we need several trillion dollars to bring them into some semblance of acceptable condition. Those systems do not exist in their only little cost-free vacuums, either. For example, when roadways or bridges become impassable for lack of timely funding to repair them, then the products and supplies needed for other elements of the infrastructure are undeliverable as planned, and those delays lead to other problems which create other issues that then lead to….

According to the International Energy Agency, if we continue to rely on fossil fuels, then some $26 trillion dollars in new investments are needed from now through 2030 to continue exploration for new resource fields and to utilize whatever new extraction technologies might be required to meet production and demand expectations. Does anyone doubt that a comparable amount will be needed to re-design, re-build, and/or re-configure our infrastructure so that its development, construction, repair, and maintenance are properly achieved without fossil fuels at the ready?

If we haven’t figured it out yet, then we need to recognize and appreciate the direct connection between a properly functioning infrastructure and the overall health of our industry and economy—and by extension the well-being of the citizens of this nation. A few tweaks and some tinkering here and there isn’t going to get it done. That’s a waste of time and resources, and we don’t have a lot to spare as it is.

The wonderful New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has stated that “We’ve become stupid about this.” Stupid can’t be a strategy any more than denial or delusion, and we’ve already got way too many people adopting those approaches.

I don’t pretend than any of this is pleasant to consider, but we are indeed presented with incredible opportunities to design an almost entirely new way of living, producing, and prospering. There are no elements of our cultural or industrial society that cannot (and will not) be impacted, and so the challenge is rife with the potential for great harm, or great opportunities. But success won’t happen if only some of us are on board.

So what choices do we make? What choices do our business and political leaders make on our behalf? Do we attempt to preserve a way of life that is inevitably subject to the reality of natural resource depletion; or we do we begin the lengthy, uncertain, and challenging path of finally moving away from fossil fuel dependence? There are no guarantees that we escape harm regardless of the choice made. We’re going to be affected and impacted regardless. And neither choice is free. But one is surely and at best only a short-term solution (and yes, decades are short-term in this regard).

Despite the amazing depths of foolishness (the kindest word I could manage) exhibited by those who have decided that ALL scientific assessments are completely wrong (a hoaxy-socalisty-changey thing, I guess), climate change is also going to impact us. Peak Oil is not going to help. We’re going to have to make fundamental, extensive changes in what we do to try and ward off the harm and destruction global warming will dump at our feet (even if that might be decades away as well). We need to start implementing those changes now, while fossil fuels remain plentiful.

These are not separate crises. We’ll need an extraordinary amount of wisdom and insight to make certain that fixing one problem doesn’t make the other worse … and we’ll need a fair amount of luck to try and make that work. We’re not going to come up with perfect solutions in the next couple of weeks, but we’re guaranteed to come up with none if we don’t recognize what we’re facing.

Despite the somber portrayal, I remain convinced that this is all about opportunity. The challenge of Peak Oil affords us a chance to determine and define growth and progress in new ways—and for many decades more than what continued reliance on fossil fuels will get us. Change is always difficult, more so now in the midst of great economic and financial uncertainty. Expectations about growth and prosperity along a comfortable and familiar path are understandably preferred. But they are now growing increasingly unrealistic, and the sooner we all understand this, the better off we’ll all be and the sooner we can begin to move in a necessarily different direction.

We have before us a great challenge, to be sure. Just contemplating the magnitude of what we have to undertake is overwhelming.  Designing and then undertaking all that is then required to actually implement this new vision is a feat well beyond our capacity to fully envision at this moment. But that does not make it impossible.

There’s no getting around it: we need to build a twenty-first century infrastructure. The one we have will not endure if it remains reliant on fossil fuels. We’re well past the stage where crossing fingers and toes is the answer. Our communication systems; food production; industrial development, production, and delivery; power grids; all that we consider transportation; water and sewer services, and all the other components that make up the infrastructure foundation that has brought us to this moment will have to be re-fashioned. All the pretending otherwise, denying, or ignoring isn’t going to change that. Those who’ve chosen some combination of these strategies must find the courage to look again.

A world of 6, 7, 8, 10 billion people simply cannot survive or hope to maintain (let alone enhance) economic growth and prosperity unless it embraces the changes contemplated here.

We have a choice, of course. But really, we have no choice. It’s up to us to recognize this and act, or fail. The opportunities are there.

Next: Part III

“Imagine … an America with rebuilt, healthy, dynamic metropolitan areas, and gleaming new port facilities, and networks of  high-speed rail, an America with electric vehicles and a smart grid and energy generated by the power of the sun and wind and  water and the ocean’s waves. Imagine if the children of today’s toddlers had access to world-class public schools all across the  nation and a higher education system that is both first-rate and affordable.

 “Imagine if we set out seriously to do all this.

 “Imagine.” [1]

An excellent vision for the future, both short and long term. So how will we get there?

Just enduring each day in the midst of this great recession has been a struggle for most of us in these last couple of years. Given what I and others have attempted to share about the challenges of Peak Oil (to say nothing of the potential harm climate change will cause us all), summoning a noble vision for the future is a great first step. But how we manage to realize this in the face of our economic struggles and the added burden of decreasing access to affordable oil is an entirely different matter.

If we are to prosper in the days ahead, there’s a foundation we require in re-building and re-creating success, growth, and prosperity—a subject I’ve already begun discussing (here and here). For starters, a sound highway system (bridges included), clean water, adequate sewage treatment, a ready supply of affordable electricity and utility services—among other essential elements of a sound infrastructure we can depend on—are every bit as necessary in the days to come as they have been in the past.

But with the onset of Peak Oil, the challenge not just to sustain the levels of growth we’ve become accustomed to, but to enhance our standards of living upon recovery, is going to require enormous sums of money to repair and in many cases rebuild and reinvent the infrastructure that has supported us to date and which must support us going forward.

If those lifestyles are to continue, (recognizing as we must that standards of living and our economic ways of life on the other side of this recession will likely be very different than what was when we entered it), then we’re going to have to make our infrastructure sustainable—with no guarantees that we will power up enough, or any, alternative energy sources in time. But it’s foolish in the extreme for us to ignore the many warning signs that oil production is struggling now just to keep up with decreased demand during this recession, (let alone what will be once we regain our economic footing), and just blithely expect magic technology to rescue us so that we can continue on unaffected by the realities of diminishing oil production and supply. We have choices; it’s just that none of them are especially easy.

It’s unpleasant to think about having to add one more major financial challenge to our already-filled plates, as I’ve discussed previously. Peak Oil’s onset alone may prove to be an overwhelming burden. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling as though I’m not up to the task of adding nebulous infrastructure concerns to what we have to deal with. Aren’t those things usually left to government … or someone else?

It’s easy, especially in these difficult economic and political circumstances, to ignore infrastructure concerns—even the most basic maintenance and repair issues. (Who has the stomach to request more money for that?) But as much as we think we cannot afford the vast sums needed to address existing maintenance issues and the transition away from fossil fuels, infrastructure spending is an absolutely essential investment. It is the foundation upon which we’ve built our industrial and economic existence, and it will be as we transition away from reliance on fossil fuel.

Facing a future of decreasing energy supplies, we will have less and less available to maintain the systems that support our ways of life. More critical decisions about financial resource allocations will confront us soon enough. But we cannot afford a piecemeal approach, or deal with infrastructure considerations solely when emergencies arise. Ignoring the need to address current infrastructure shortcomings puts us all at risk personally and economically.

(Two simple examples: Bridge collapses are not consequence-free; and our ability to compete in the world marketplace suffers when our transport or utility systems are not up to the demands of production and supply.)

Failure to plan for an efficient transition away from oil dependency is just as damaging. Competitors in other nations are already leaving us in the dust when it comes to devoting resources to infrastructure upgrades. As far as I know, they have no plans to wait for us to catch up.

We may give very little thought to these ramifications, but in the real world they carry stiff penalties that affect all of us. When our national economy is not competing effectively, where else do the adverse consequences trickle down but to all of us … farmers, big business, small business, entrepreneurs, student, families? We’re all in this together.

Unfortunately, we may pushing the envelope in terms of how much longer we can put off dealing with infrastructure concerns.  In 2009, the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our national infrastructure an overall grade of “D.” (The scores: Aviation D; Bridges C; Dams D; Drinking Water D-; Energy D+; Hazardous Waste D; Inland Waterways D-; Levees D-; Public Parks and Recreation C-; Rail C-; Roads D-; Schools D; Solid Waste C+; Transit D; and Wastewater D-.)

Not particularly impressive. We’re in for a long wait if we think those problems are just going to go away—that MO cannot be a strategy.

According to the ASCE, we have a maintenance deficit of $2.2 trillion dollars over just the next five years. That begs two questions: Where does that money come from? And what happens if we don’t start dealing with the problems reflected by those scores? “Can’t afford it” likewise cannot be a strategy.

We need to start thinking long-term. As mentioned above, competitor nations are leaving us behind when it comes to infrastructure investment and planning. China is reportedly building a network of more than 40 high-speed rail lines. Our next one will be our first. There are many more examples of what other nations are doing and planning, even in the midst of this global economic downturn, to prepare themselves for recovery.

One problem is clear:

“…. right now there are not enough people at the higher echelons of government trying to figure out the best ways to raise the  enormous amounts of money that will be required, and the most responsible ways of spending that money. And there are not  enough leaders explaining to the public how heavy this lift will be, and why it is so necessary, and what sacrifices will be  required to get the job properly done.” [2]

What the hell are we waiting for? How much more evidence do we really need?

Next: Part II


[1]; What the Future May Hold By BOB HERBERT
[2]; Falling Further Behind By BOB HERBERT

I spent some time on Friday catching up on my readings for the week, and came across several terrific articles that just happened to tie in quite nicely with the themes discussed in a series of posts I recently concluded.

I think it’s worthwhile to give those articles a little extra publicity. They will help provide readers with a broader perspective on what will or has to happen with Peak Oil looming on the horizon.

First up is a very nice piece by David Roberts, addressing points recently made by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. For those who think technology is going to save the day, Roberts presents a thoughtful essay on why technological innovation alone is not the answer.

As I have discussed, the solutions are going to come about and succeed only if we all contribute. What will happen in the wake of Peak Oil is not a problem we can pass on to our business and political leaders and then wait patiently for them to decide and do for us.

This is about as succinct and accurate a statement of what will have to be as you’ll find (from David Roberts):

“The point is that the way we live together now, the way we govern ourselves, the way we arrange our physical spaces and our commerce, the way we do economics and measure prosperity—all these have to be changed in creative ways if we want to achieve the goal of sustainable prosperity. All these changes require … wait for it … innovation. Innovations in the way we think, interact, and structure our lives require just as much imagination, intelligence, persistence, and funding as innovations in technology.”

What also cannot be overlooked, despite the fact that events across the waters tend to be removed from our immediate consideration, are geopolitical factors that will indeed play a role in the continuing availability of oil to meet all our needs.

In the second part of his discussion, Professor Ferdinand E. Banks discusses not only some basic facts about decreasing oil production; of greater significance are the OPEC strategies he highlights. Like many other nations, countries in the Middle East have their own ambitions and economic objectives, many if not most of which will require oil to realize. The more oil the exporting nations decide to keep for themselves as they seek to meet their industrial and societal aims, the less the rest of us have to use.

It’s their oil, and if they decide they need it more than they need the petrodollars provided by exports, there won’t be a hell of a lot any of us can do about it. The shortsighted “drill, baby, drill” strategy isn’t going to help much over the next decade if that scenario plays out, as is likely.

A related political component is one raised in an informative article from The Economist.

Although most knowledgeable experts legitimately question the feasibility of Iraq’s stated goals of quintupling their oil production in these next few years, any successes that nation achieves by significantly expanding their production capabilities will have a measureable impact on OPEC politics and production quotas. If it influences or affects OPEC, it influences and affects us.

The article does a much better job of cogently explaining the prime issues than I could in attempting a summary. I’ll recommend that you read it to help you understand what impact successful Iraq oil production will have on the dicey politics of oil.

Last up: a warning from two major international investment institutions that oil prices are likely to rise soon; and a related piece from The Oil Drum’s Gail Tverberg on what happens to households and businesses in the wake of those higher prices.

Peak Oil is not just about the amount of oil in the ground. For those of us who hope to inform and educate others about the likely consequences of Peak Oil, these recommended articles offer vital details on the factors that do play just as important a role as do the billions (or trillions) of barrels of oil that may still lie beneath our feet.

We don’t have the luxury of cherry-picking which Peak Oil element we get to address. They’re all related, and the convergence of some or all of these factors (economic, geopolitical, technical, production, etc.) can only have adverse effects on our economy and living standards. We can pretend otherwise, but that accomplishes little here in the real world.

The more we incorporate these broader and related perspectives in our understanding of Peak Oil and the necessity for planning now on how to deal with its impact, the better served we’ll all be when reality intrudes

Sources: – Why Bill Gates is wrong by David Roberts (Published Feb 17 2010 by Grist) About Oil (Part 2): OPEC’S STRATEGY; Contributed By : Ferdinand E. Banks Published : 15th Feb 2010, Iran and the politics of oil – Crude diplomacy; Feb 18th 2010 | BASRA AND UMM QASR From The Economist Oil: Looking for the Wrong Symptoms? Posted by Gail the Actuary on February 18, 2010 and Bank of America see looming oil crunch By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard; February 18, 2010

Every challenge we face now or will likely face with the onset of Peak Oil is a problem, unless we choose to view it for what it might actually be: an opportunity. Every product or service or method that relies upon oil is an opportunity to re-design or re-invent its successor. Easy? Of course not. But is the measure of “easy” the deciding factor in how we choose our future?

The truths, unpleasant though they may be, are the truths: inexpensive, readily available oil is slowly but surely becoming less readily available, more expensive, and harder to come by. We can wish for all the magic technology in the world, ignore every single environmental consequence, ignore all the geopolitical and geological realities, pretend that oil will still be ours for the asking as often and for as much as we want, or hope that Someone Else is going to rescue us, but delusion and denial will only take us so far. The sooner we accept the evidence before us, the sooner we plan intelligently on how to deal with what Peak Oil might mean to all of us.

I’m no different than most: I don’t want to have to do without; I don’t want to give up ambitions or expectations; I don’t want to have to make do with less or different, and I have no great desire to devote time and effort and planning and doing to embrace changes to my lifestyle. I like how my life has been—recession notwithstanding—and once we’re over this hump, I definitely prefer life to return to how it once was and to continue along on the business-as-usual and life-as-we-know-it path, waiting for the next great consumer product or technology that will make my life easier and more fun.

But the problem is that a future without the abundance of oil we’ve relied upon is going to happen regardless of my wishes and preferences, as it will for you. We can either choose to play a role in how it unfolds, or we can let events overtake us. We can decide to just enjoy what we can in the moment, while hoping that the overtaking will prove to be farther out than we realize, or that it won’t be as painful, or that someone/anyone is going to come to the rescue in ways that won’t require us to do much of anything except reap the fruits of someone else’s labors and vision. Nice thought … wholly unrealistic.

We have some key decisions to address soon. Where will we commit our financial and industrial resources? Are we going to dedicate public and private funds to a continuing search for more crude oil in costlier, harder-to-find-and-harder-to-extract locations? Do we allocate those funds to greater promotion of unconventional sources such as oil shale and tar sands?

Or do we choose a different path with the future in mind by directing our investments and efforts and skills toward a different energy base? There are no guarantees, and committing to that path will not provide us with quick or easy solutions. Relinquishing our ties to what once was and still is will not be a painless choice. But a longer term perspective on our future mandates that we consider these choices seriously, and soon. Waiting until we’re certain that Peak Oil is upon us is much too late.

Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote a terrific (as usual) op-ed earlier this month (here) discussing once again the “sorry state” of our neglected infrastructure and the continuing decline of our standard of living. A monumental overhaul is needed, and it is indeed unfortunate that too few in positions to actually do anything about it have the courage and understanding to appreciate it. 

Herbert stated:

“Neither the politicians nor much of the mainstream media are spelling out the severity of these enormous structural problems  or the sense of urgency needed to address them. Living standards are sinking in the United States, and there is no coherent  vision or plan for reversing that ominous trend over the long term….

“I was also struck by the pervasive sense that if we don’t get our act together then the glory days of the go-go American  economic empire will fade like the triumphs of an aging Hollywood star. One of the participants [at a Brookings  Institution/Lazard-sponsored conference] raised the very real possibility of Americans having to get used to living in an  economy ‘that won’t be number one,’ an economy that perhaps is more like Germany’s….

Lumping that assessment in with the challenges that Peak Oil will impose upon us is not exactly a vision for the future we’d all like to share in. But we are not limited to the options of either complete denial or complete catastrophe.

Adapting to changes, taking the steps needed to rebuild what we must, and then create what we can is not an endeavor restricted to a handful of our business and political leaders. We all have a stake in our future. If we’re all invested in designing and then implementing new standards of living and producing, the benefits are enhanced tenfold. Having a say in where we go and what we achieve is preferable to remaining a passive observer.

Hebert continues:

“A new, saner, more sustainable economy will have to be more export-oriented, powered by cleaner fuels, bolstered by  innovation that comes from a renewed focus on research and development, and committed to delivering a better-educated,  more highly skilled work force.

 “Mr. Katz [who made the suggestions above] believes this is doable, but by no means easy. The nation’s infrastructure, he  said, will have to ‘shift from 20th-century models of transport and energy transmission to rapid bus, ubiquitous broadband,  congestion pricing, smart grid, high-speed rail and intelligent transport.’”

What tremendous opportunities for all of us! For all the turmoil and problems we face, there are solutions. Our ingenuity, our skills, our courage, our sense of community and well-being, and our individual and collective desires for a better future are resources we already possess to help us chart a new and yes, an even better course for our future. It’s up to us … all of us, together.

How great will it be to live in a country that has resolved the problems of unemployment; that has resurrected our economic and financial well-being; that has established new standards of living for all of us; that has opened up new opportunities for its citizens and businesses; that has repaired and re-built our infrastructure in ways that will allow for unlimited successes in the future—new and varied as that all may be? How exhilarating will it be to recognize that our technologies and our creativity have now taken us to a place where we are now fashioning an entirely new system of economic and industrial prosperity?

Is there anything inherently wrong with developing new values and news ways of life? Is there a rule that suggest that success and prosperity can be measured and valued only based on standards from the past?

Business as usual is not an option now. It will unlikely be one for a long while to come. Peak Oil won’t help as we re-build. Do we really want that to be our ultimate aim: to just settle back to the way things once were while much of the world passes us by economically and technologically, or do we really want more and better? We’re going to have to learn to look at progress and success in different and more creative ways. What we have now is not sustainable forever, not if we plan to rely on fossil fuels as the engine for our industrial and economic growth. And yes, none of this will be free, and much of it will require direct and significant involvement of our federal government, to the horror and dismay of those who think that “tax cuts” are the solution to everything. This challenge is far too great to think that we can set aside government entirely and leave it all to the “markets.” Every institution will have a key role to play, as will each of us.

What kind of a future do we want for ourselves?

Make no mistake: A move toward renewable sources of energy might very well lead to a future decidedly less than what we’ve come to expect or demand. That has to be acknowledged—reluctantly to be sure. Others have noted that we could be facing a simpler future where the local community and small businesses are the prime influences in our lives, and where technological gizmos of all kinds are simply no longer part of the equation of daily living. At first glance that is hardly an appealing goal for any of us to strive for. That seems a long step back.

One writer noted simply, yet eloquently, that his vision is “the right of all citizens to live larger lives….the right to live life more fully and engage more expansively the elemental possibilities of human existence.” [1] Not such a bad goal….We’ll have a lot of avenues open to us to reach it, so we’re not necessarily consigned to a future of less.

Do we just decide in the face of this recession, and our financial struggles, and terrible unemployment, and a crumbling infrastructure, and the most uncivil political discourse most of us can ever remember, and the fears that Peak Oil might easily spawn, that we’re content treading water, with an occasional burst of creativity and economic well-being; or do we really want to stretch out our future in ways we might not be able to fully envision now? Are we really that content with how things have been? Is our endless quest for profits and … more really that gratifying? Is more of the same really what we all want from life?

How many of us here don’t want a better and more prosperous and satisfying future for ourselves and our children? Who doesn’t want to play a role in the restoration of America as the undeniable leading nation on Earth? We have that much potential once again … we’ll just do so without a short-sighted reliance on oil and a mind-numbing belief that saying “no” to every progressive idea is an actual strategy. Fearing change is no longer an option.

We can hope that our business leaders and our federal government will somehow finance, design, and implement some kind of World War II/Apollo moon project energy-transitioning crash program without any input or effort on our part, but I wouldn’t be placing too many bets on that. Any transition away from our dependency on oil is going to take a lot of effort, commitment, and time. We can only hope that supplies are not so restricted in that intervening period that we fall further behind economically and politically. Every day we wait is another day lost on the path of designing a more technologically advanced society that is not built on an eroding foundation of fossil fuels. Taking the difficult steps now will simply avoid even more difficult steps later.

The future is indeed ours to create, much as we may think we have no say. Which path do we choose?

Next: The (Peak) Oil World We Live in


[1] Future of the American Dream By William Greider; May 6, 2009, (from an article excerpted from Mr. Greider’s book, Come Home, America. Copyright © 2009)

and Is Running Out, By Bob Herbert, February 6, 2010

I came across this very nice piece at The Oil Drum today, written by David Murphy (here). His discussion about energy transitions is well worth considering (and happens to be a nice corollary to issues I raised in my last post, among others). It’s a terrific summary of significant changes in the history of mankind’s progress, and offers meaningful objectives for all of us to contemplate as we move away from fossil fuel dependency.

Waiting for magic technology to save the day will guarantee a wait, but not necessarily anything else.

I’ve noticed more general discussion about the topic of Peak Oil in recent weeks—helped in no small part by Sir Richard Branson and the Peak Oil report issued by a British group in which he played a key role—although it still remains well below the mainstream media radar.

The net result is that the majority of our population continues to remain unaware of Peak Oil, let alone understand or appreciate the potential challenges we’ll face once it is fully upon us. The louder voices continue to be those who deny it, based on motivations that remain at best puzzling. Casting proponents of Peak Oil as doom-mongers has been an effective strategy—again, for reasons I find perplexing. (I’ll explore this particular topic in a later post.)

So are we ready for Peak Oil? The answer seems quite clear: no, we are not ready, not by a long shot.

The explanations and information are there for the taking. The problem, as I suggested in my last post, as have others, is that too many of us simply do not think that we have to do without. Either we refuse to believe in limits, or cannot bear to consider the possibility of having to permanently scale back on our demands and expectations.

Our advertising and our media constantly exhort us to seek/get/buy/have more. It’s what we do, and it is by and large what our industries are designed for: provide us with more/more easily/more inexpensively/and better. No complaints there … it’s the essence of growth and progress, but it has taken on a life of its own. We do not permit ourselves the opportunity to step back and consider anything other than how to get more to make life easier today. On principle that’s not an entirely inappropriate expectation.

But too often, when limitations are suggested or imposed, particularly those arising from forces and factors beyond our immediate control, there is an outcry that something must somehow be done by someone in some way so as to address the shortfall. Why there is a shortage or lack of something at normal costs—how it relates to societal interests—is rarely considered.

The oil price hike in the last year or two is a prime example. The right complained that President Obama wasn’t doing enough to lower gasoline prices (while he’s at, I wouldn’t mind if he lowered the price of our daughters’ college tuition, the costs of meals at my favorite restaurant, and ticket prices at Fenway Park), and similar uninformed voices made their case for “drill, baby, drill” with almost no appreciation for the long term implications. Short-sightedness is now a thriving enterprise in some circles!

Peak Oil isn’t designed to cater to those needs. As the coach of “my” New England Patriots is fond of saying: “It is what it is.” And what Peak Oil is—however it manifests itself—is a legitimate “threat” to the ways of life we’ve come to insist upon and simply expect: that we can have as much as we want, whenever we want it, without considering anything else.

As has been noted, oil plays an essential role in almost everything that touches our everyday lives. From the food we eat to the means by which we transport ourselves, our goods, and our services, to what we grow, build, have, own, need, and do, oil is almost always an important element. But the painful truth now and soon is that the ready supply of oil and gas that we almost always take for granted (the occasional price spike notwithstanding) is on its way to becoming not-so-ready. Thinking that we’ll just implement a few crash programs to straighten out that potential mess is a nice thought, but we simply do not have the means to make that happen—not the technological capabilities, not the personnel, not the industries, not the leadership … yet. Clearly, we do not have enough time to do it all with effortless ease and minimal disruptions.

So when Peak Oil happens, what happens? Who must sacrifice? What must be sacrificed? What do we start trimming back on in our homes, our communities, and our businesses? Where exactly will the dominoes tumble?

Few ask those questions; few provide answers. We need more people to ask the questions, and more than just the occasional informed voice to explain what will happen and what must be done.

So for those who prefer to think that whatever changes might result from Peak Oil’s impact won’t be all that significant, consider only for a moment how much we depend on oil and gas for so much of what is in our world, and then try to imagine that anything other than major changes are in the offing once the supply is restricted for any number of reasons! Can’t be done….

For those who view Peak Oil as just another bump in the road to greater prosperity and successes because that’s how it’s always been for us, consider that it’s always been that way for us precisely because of oil! The great cities we’ve built, the lifestyles we’ve fashioned, the industries we’ve created, the toys we own and use … all of that came about because we had inexpensive and plentiful oil at our disposal to make almost all of that happen. Denying that flies in the face of the world we live in.

The false hopes about technology coming to the rescue, and/or human ingenuity and creativity as the answers cannot be counted on. Yes, of course that will be essential to the future we do create, but to just sit back and insist that technology and ingenuity are guaranteed to save the day is a risk we cannot afford to take!

The simplistic arguments that a sharp drop in production and/or price increases means we’ll just find alternatives are wonderful-sounding statements, but empty. What are the specifics? Where does the research money come from? How quickly will these as-yet-undiscovered technologies be created, tested, mass-produced, and then delivered effectively? Who supplies the needed personnel and infrastructure for these magical inventions? If it is such a simple realization for these deniers, why not just produce it all today and save ourselves the effort later on? (Why haven’t they just produced all of this technology already, in anticipation? If they’re that good, then they should have planned for this need.) Deniers of Peak Oil too often make it sound that technological solutions don’t require much more than a flip of the switch, but in the real world, that’s not going to be how it works.

The not-so-clever arguments by oil industry officials (no bias there!) who dispute Peak Oil (Rex W. Tillerson, chief executive of Exxon Mobil: “We’re going to be very forthright in not accepting something that is not completely scientifically proven.” [1]) are just as superficially satisfying as those who blindly proclaim that of course we’ll develop the right technologies somewhere down the road—and just in the nick of time to boot! It would be wonderful if those proclamations and predictions were correct, but can we really afford to leave our entire future to chance? (And regarding the above quote, how many things are ever “completely” scientifically proven? Are all of the processes that Mr. Tillerson’s company utilizes “completely scientifically proven”?)

Making the perfect the enemy of the good may appease shareholders, but it is no more a strategy than crossing our fingers and hoping we’ll find that the entire center of the Earth is one giant pool of oil that will be available early next week. These disingenuous arguments serve short-term interests only, and at some point, short-term demands a reckoning.

This same official also stated that “We don’t oppose alternative energy sources and the development of those. But to hang the future of the country’s energy on those alternatives alone belies reality of their size and scale.” [2] No one is saying this move away from our dependency on oil is going to be a small scale, simple undertaking! So when exactly should we begin: when the “size and scale” magically shrink down to an acceptable and non-profit-interfering level? When might that be? And how much more disruption will we be obliged to endure in the interim?

No nation on Earth possess the technological expertise or capabilities of the United States; yet for all that skill, our oil production peaked nearly four decades ago, and no magic technology has stemmed that tide or located massive quantities of new oil. The fact-free declarations of the deniers too often run headlong into the realities of oil supply, production, and exploration. We need a better approach.

Should we just wait and panic when Peak Oil happens, or do we owe it to ourselves to start planning and transitioning now? Everyone has a stake in how this all plays out….

Of course no one wants to willingly give up a pleasant life now (or, as is the case with the millions struggling through this Recession, give up the hope of better days to come). But when we don’t have the same measure of easily obtained and inexpensive, plentiful oil at our beck and call, we are going to have to do a lot of things differently. Pretending otherwise is a tremendous disservice to all of us and makes it that much harder to cooperatively implement the changes and adaptations needed.

And how daunting must it be for industries of all kinds and sizes to consider that the easy and cheap oil they rely upon to work their machinery or expand their capabilities or transport their personnel and goods and services and all the other roles that oil/gas plays in the everyday business world will soon not be available as much, as often, and as inexpensively? It almost invites complete economic paralysis, but we’re better than that. We’ll have to demonstrate this soon enough. That means we have to understand, plan, and then do.

Yes, having to undertake the changes we’ll likely be obliged to is a daunting prospect. It’s senseless to imagine otherwise. Our lifestyles, industries, infrastructure, recreations, consumptions, production, and transportation will all be affected to varying degrees when we’re confronted with the reality of Peak Oil. But I still believe it’s just as foolish to think that we don’t have the abilities and skill and talent and will to do what must be done to adapt and transition away from our excessive dependency on fossil fuels. (My optimism does not ignore the truth that we’ve got a lot of work to do, and rather quickly.)

This is our opportunity!

Consider this: If I and other proponents are wrong, then all we’ll have done is conserve more resources, advanced technologies and alternative resources sooner than we might otherwise have done, and probably enhanced a sense of community many of us lament has been lost in our thousand-miles-per-hour society. Worse things will happen to us.

It’s nothing more than human nature for people to want to initially disregard or deny any impending, adverse lifestyle or economic changes. And if we do recognize this likelihood, our first tendencies are to consider what we’re going to lose rather than potentially gain or improve. When that becomes your starting point, who wants to continue down that road? It promises not much more than added sacrifice and hardship; and thank you, sir, we’ve had quite enough already.

Change of this potential magnitude is understandably too much for most of us to consider right now, especially absent concrete objectives and plans for how to deal with the onset of Peak Oil. There’s too much still unknown, and the likely disruptions and insufficient preparation/adaptation time is too much to expect most to handle. Better the devil you know. Unfortunately, that’s not going to help.

We have a voice in how this will all play out. Will we choose to use it or not?

Next: Part V


[1] – Exxon Mobil Says Transition From Oil Is Century Away By Joe Carroll; May 27, 2009 (Bloomberg)
[2] April 8, 2009; Oil Giants Loath to Follow Obama’s Green Lead By JAD MOUAWAD

It remains my hope that with the right level of effort, commitment, vision, understanding, and action (BIG “ifs” of course), we can effect a reasonably non-disruptive transition away from our excessive fossil fuel dependency. It won’t be perfect or struggle-free, but we can take steps to make it easier. At this point, “easier” may be the best we can hope for.

I recognize that there are criticisms and ridicule leveled against the “doomers”—Peak Oil proponents who assert that we are heading for catastrophe. It’s difficult to gain an appreciation for how much of our lives are predicated on the availability of easily obtained and relatively inexpensive oil and gas, and then consider with nothing but sunny optimism how much of our lives will thus of course be impacted when easy and inexpensive are no longer options. I admitted in my last post on this topic that it is a challenge. The fear that we as a society will choose to do nothing but hope for the best leaves us with little leeway to predict anything but ominous outcomes when Peak Oil’s full weight falls upon us.

I vehemently disagree with the snarky, uninformed deniers who smugly claim that this “doom scenario” is in some bizarre manner a source of enjoyment for us. Those kinds of comments do more to tell a tale about an author’s integrity and character than they do about people like me who are trying to inform. It’s almost unimaginable to consider that there are people who absolutely deny we’re going to face challenges of oil supply and production in the face of clearly articulated facts.

Output from the world’s oilfields is declining faster than had been anticipated; the oil industry itself is relying on fields past their prime, with less skilled help than is needed; more projects are being scuttled for economic reasons and lack of investment funding, and the industry’s own infrastructure is in need of great repair.

Finding oil and gas to replace the world’s fast dwindling reserves is increasingly risky as rigs probe areas once seen as too difficult or too dangerous, and costs are rocketing, which could imperil future supply.
The cost of discovering each new barrel of oil and gas has risen three-fold over the last decade as technology has pushed the frontiers of exploration into ever more remote areas.
As old fields run dry, oil companies are drilling wells in some of the most inhospitable regions, where political, physical, geological, geographical, technical and contractual risks are high…. [1]

(Although the article claims that such efforts are a “remarkable success”, the fact remains we are finding less than we are using every year, as has been the case for many years now.)

When Peak Oil will occur, or what specific factors bring it about, really won’t matter in the end. What does matter is the outcome: less availability, more expensive, more difficult to provide, with demand increasing significantly in developing parts of the world. Bad math….

I’m hard-pressed to understand what Peak Oil and global warming deniers hope to honorably achieve by sowing confusion and doubt where none clearly exists. What fear motivates them to do so, and how callous are they about consequences to all of us? Denial is a powerful tool, but to what end?

For all my optimism, I think we’re too late in the game to effect a completely trouble-free move away from dependency on oil. Changing our habits, our infrastructure, and our economic and industrial way of life is an immense undertaking—one that realistically requires at least a decade or two to have everything in place. We do not have that much time, but we have some.

The sooner we collectively agree on new courses of action (now there’s a gigantic “if” and hope!), the sooner we provide ourselves with the best chance of creating some measure of prosperity and success in a world no longer shaped and fed by unlimited amounts of oil. We have our work cut out for us as it is.

The biggest “if” is how soon we are all willing to engage. If the answer is anything other than “now”, then we will encounter tremendous difficulties as we move away from a fossil fuel resource that simply will not be available to us in the quantities, at the prices, and with the ease we have come to expect.

The vital components of this successful transition depend first and foremost on essential individual traits—characteristics that likewise define our culture and provide guideposts for our future. And in this regard, I am not as optimistic as I’d like to be, but I remain hopeful and still convinced of mankind’s ability to do the right things for the right reasons. We’ve adapted before, and in spectacular fashion. No reason to doubt our capabilities now, but we need to get moving.

The attitudes we bring to this process, the beliefs we’ll continue to hold (and perhaps of more critical importance, the ones we’ll change), will likely make the difference between a “successful” transition to fossil-free ways of life and one of great, unnecessary hardship. What we choose to do now will of course make a difference, as will choosing to do nothing—an admittedly easier path.

We are a nation that does not accept limits on what we can do and be and achieve. In many respects that may be our most beneficial characteristic. But so too can it serve to hamper us when change away from business and life as usual is mandated due to circumstances well beyond our control. Peak Oil is one of those circumstances. We can prepare for it, but we cannot control it.

Ultimately peak oil will not be a geological crisis, not an economic crisis, not a political crisis. Inevitably peak oil will be a global philosophical and psychological crisis. [2]

Our economy and society were first constructed and have been sustained on certain key assumptions and expectations. There is a sense of entitlement many of us carry, one that says that the gratifications we seek and successes we demand are to be fulfilled ceaselessly—preferably with little effort on our part. The “drill, baby, drill” knuckleheaded clamor is only one of many indications that our general approach to gratification is at times one of: “Do, get, have, and then think (maybe). Consequences be damned.” Not particularly admirable or beneficial….

If one were to choose a single word to characterize [what it means to be a 21st-century American], it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors. [3]

It’s a remarkably short-term focus that carries distressingly long-term implications.

The hard work of prior generations is not viewed with the same levels of respect it clearly deserves. It’s almost as though our attitude is that that’s what they should have done for us, so that we can now live lives of comfort, pleasure, and fulfillment for whatever needs we feel compelled to gratify in the moment. Prosperity is a reward for effort and commitment and skill and patience. It is not the right so many seem to think it is, and it is most definitely not a continuing guarantee. We are in some ways a lazy society getting lazier by the minute. We want everything fast, quick, cheap, and easy, and we have little appreciation for the hard work that was once our defining trait. That can change! I’m convinced of that; just as I am certain that it must change.

The risk is clear:

Generations that have been trained to want or expect easy, quick, automated abundance will find themselves having to adapt instead to a regime in which everything takes longer and requires more effort; in which there will often not be enough fuel or food to go around. [4]

What happens then? 

I’ll leave you with that thought for now.

To be continued….

[1]: exploration costs rocket as risks rise; Thu, Feb 11 2010 By Christopher Johnson
[3]: Andrew Bacevich from his book: The Limits of Power: The End Of American Exceptionalism, (Metropolitan Books, 2008) as quoted by columnist Rod Dreher: oil is coming, and we’re unready, August 17, 2008
[4]: Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines by Richard Heinberg, p. 127; New Society Publishers, 2007

The Wall Street Journal today posted an online article indicating that Peak Oil will soon have a serious impact on the United Kingdom’s economy, based on a newly-released report by the Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES).

I found it a bit surprising that a media outlet not exactly given to supporting the business-disrupting Peak Oil concept would permit anyone the opportunity to suggest this as forcefully as did the author of that piece. We can only hope other prominent media begin offering a voice to those of us who are working diligently to spread awareness and information.

Granted, we who believe that we’ll soon be facing the challenges of ongoing oil supply and production constraints don’t have at our disposal a huge supply of snarky and dismissive declarations. This is a shortcoming we’re not likely to overcome. The best we can do is to offer facts—disappointing though that may be.

Nothing I’ve learned about the subject leads me to believe Peak Oil suffers any prejudices or grudges; so if it’s going to strike in the UK (see the summary published by the Energy Bulletin here, with a link therein to the ITPOES report), it’s a safe assumption that it’s going to be affecting many other nations.

The report is offering a time frame of no more than five years before Peak Oil’s impact. That is not nearly enough time for us to make the changes we need to make to effect an orderly transition away from fossil fuel dependency. We’ll have to make do with the tools and options we have available now and expand as quickly as possible.

The sooner we start, the better off we can only hope we’ll be. Short-term focus isn’t going to be of much help.

In the words of Ian Marchant, a member of Industry Taskforce:

We can have a debate about which year this problem will hit us, but I would rather have a debate about how we avoid it becoming a problem. [1]

We need to get busy.



I mentioned in a recent post (here) that we need to develop different attitudes and beliefs about the onset and impact of Peak Oil. A better understanding of the challenges likely to be faced will be a deciding factor in how effectively we transition away from fossil fuel dependency. It’s going to take a while as it is.

I suppose it’s nothing more than human nature to focus efforts and attention on the problems at hand, and we certainly have enough of them to deal with right now … more than enough! For most of us, just getting by from day-to-day has become a vastly more complex struggle than we could have imagined just a few short years ago. Hope for immediate improvement is tough to come by these days.

Headlines routinely announce the same set of stressful economic and unemployment factors that weigh us all down, and the skirmishes in Congress between feckless Democrats and mindless Republicans who continue to engage in fact-free proclamations while refusing to agree to anything (even their own suggestions! See this great Steve Benen/Rachel Maddow piece) serve to discourage and dishearten more of us by the minute. It’s easy to lament what once was and to legitimately question whether we’ll ever participate in prosperity again.

I can’t imagine there’s a single person who welcomes the news that Peak Oil is likely to impose even more hardships on us if we don’t grab the reins immediately and start planning and doing. It is understandably much easier to ignore or deny it and hope it either goes away or gets “fixed” somehow without any input from us.

For most, Peak Oil remains some vague concept having to do with international supplies or off-shore production of oil, or the Middle East, or something along those lines. We’re “safer” in assuming that someone else is handling that for us. As long as we can drive down the street and put gas in our tanks before we go grocery shopping, and encounter no problems getting what we want and need there, we’re pretty well set for now. Since no one is telling us that Peak Oil is going to strike in the next couple of weeks, we’ll take a pass on adding that concern to already overflowing plates of worries and stresses. Who can blame anyone for thinking this way?

Problems that are likely to unfold over the course of many months and years require a special level and blend of understanding, courage, and capabilities that most of us—and many of our leaders—simply do not possess in abundance. No blame for that … it’s just how it is. Unfortunately, given the wide swath that oil cuts across our industrial, economic, agricultural, transportation, and cultural foundations, we run the risk of being blindsided from several directions simultaneously if we don’t begin giving Peak Oil the consideration it mandates—at least for societies hoping to sustain themselves.

Now there are the expected deniers who issue their platitudes about ingenuity and technology and zillions of barrels of oil here and there which I guess are going to magically appear just in the nick of time, but this cottage industry of obfuscation, misdirection, and disingenuous arguments serve no purpose in the long-range planning we will have to undertake to convert our ways of life away from oil dependency. The seeds of doubt and confusion they sow appear to have no purpose beyond ensuring that monies continue to be spent on business as usual. That’s all fine and well in the short term, and more power to them, but we’re going to pay a price. How steep that price turns out to be will depend on how soon and how effectively all of us start taking steps now to chart a different course by dealing with Peak Oil.

Let’s be clear: Oil and oil production will be with us for years to come—but not forever; and not even that much longer when you get right down to it. We’re not running out of oil soon, or for many years. I don’t argue that we are, nor do any Peak Oil advocates with whom I’m familiar. But we’re going to soon have less available for all the things we’ve come to expect and rely upon, and what we do have will get more expensive, it will take longer to get from there to here, and it will take a lot more effort to make all that happen.

Expecting that we’re all going to click our heels once or twice and then magically—happily—transport ourselves and our entire infrastructure into a world where lack of readily available oil is “no big deal” is one hell of a dream to hang our hopes on.

I’d love to be wrong! Despite the attacks that suggest we peak oil “doomers” thrive on the negativity (like most of their arguments, that one is likewise free of any supporting evidence, but it does make for a great and dismissive sound bite), none of us want to endure hardships any more than anyone else! I love my lifestyle … the terrific summer home by the ocean, the nice cars, the traveling! What person in his or her right mind wants to give that up? The problem is that circumstances well beyond my control are going to impose some changes on that lifestyle, and yours too.

Do you want to be ahead of that curve with some say in how this all plays out, or are you going to cross fingers and toes and just hope … for some thing, some solution, some alternative that will be handled and managed by someone else? It is a choice; not a good one, but it is a choice.

Is it going to be easy, or quick?


Anyone expecting/praying/whatever-ing for a couple of minutes worth of tinkering as being all that’s necessary to fix this problem is in for a hellacious surprise. This is not a challenge that’s going to be solved soon, effortlessly, or by someone else. That truth is not by anyone’s definition the preferred option. It’s just the truth. We can pass along responsibility for doing our part, we can designate others to play our role in planning and then making the changes to our ways of life (traveling, working, producing, transporting, farming, living, consuming, driving, repairing, supplying, building, and all the other aspects of our lives that currently require oil in some capacity or other), but that will just add potential and unnecessary woes. The plates are full.

As this blog progresses I’ll be providing much more detail on how and why Peak Oil will have such a pervasive effect on all of us (given the singular importance of oil to basically everything we do), but the sooner we recognize that a collective effort is our best course of action, the sooner and cleaner will be our transition. Collective means just that: you, me, neighbors, family, friends, local businesses, local government, bigger businesses, bigger governments. No one gets a free pass.

And no one gets a guarantee that by making the changes we need to make we “succeed” in ensuring a prosperous life will be ours as we’ve grown accustomed to expect. The material prosperity we enjoyed not too long ago is not promised us forever. No one wants to hear that message, I know. It’s just another truth we need to come to terms with. (It’s a challenge not to make this all sound so over-the-top depressing that we all just want to jump into the nearest lake. I recognize that and admittedly struggle.)

But I remain an optimist. If we do the things we’ll need to do—consider, plan, research, envision, change—we can create a future that is every bit as rewarding and fulfilling as the ones we’ll leave behind, and maybe even a better one. But it doesn’t happen if we don’t make it happen. There’s a great satisfaction in playing a role in your own success and prosperity, and this challenge is no different. That is my hope….

There’s no reason why our ingenuity and our creativity and our will and our desire and our efforts and our technological savvy won’t provide us with successes and comforts and happiness. But we’ll give ourselves a chance at that—in ways we probably cannot envision right now—only if we start paying attention to an issue that gets far too little of it given the prominent role it plays in your life and mine. Peak Oil is not going to go away.

Access to readily available and regularly supplied inexpensive oil is going to become an issue that affects everyone. It’s just not an option for us much longer. We’re going to have to step out and do things differently.

Let’s start recognizing the challenge for what it, and begin thinking and planning for Peak Oil’s arrival and impact. It’s going to show up anyway … might as well be as ready as we can be.

Next: Part III