Skip to content

Peak Oil Matters

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


Archive for June, 2010

A recent New York Times article described an upcoming BP effort (the same BP of Gulf of Mexico fame) to proceed with plans to drill for oil in a previously-identified oil field three miles off the coast of Alaska, in the Beaufort Sea. While the article nicely details some of the now-expected shenanigans which provided the necessary “authorizations” for BP to drill (not the least of which is the fact that back in 2007, BP apparently drafted its own environmental review, which the Bush Administration was all-too-content to accept), what struck me as most noteworthy was the following:

“BP is moving ahead with a controversial and potentially record-setting project to drill two miles under the sea and then six to eight miles horizontally to reach what is believed to be a 100-million-barrel reservoir of oil under federal waters.”

Let’s think about this for a moment.

BP is planning to drill two miles beneath the sea—in the barely hospitable Arctic region, mind you—and then another 6 to 8 miles horizontally (still in the Arctic), so they can gain access to a 100-million-barrel reservoir of oil. Let those details sink in.

As I noted in a prior post, as did Kurt Cobb (here), one of the exasperating features of peak oil reporting is the oversight/failure/neglect to explain some of the most salient facts about reservoirs being sought or tapped for oil production. This otherwise very informative NYT article is guilty of the same.

If BP is 100% successful at this Liberty Field, and they produced all 100 million barrels by breakfast next Monday, we will have found enough oil to get the planet through an early lunch on Tuesday – a grand total of about 28 HOURS. Not 28 days, not 28 weeks, not 28 months, not 28 years … 28 hours, give or take.

If we wanted to be really selfish and share none of it on the open market, then it would get the United States through most of next week’s work week. Period. We wouldn’t have enough left to get us into the weekend.


One hundred million suddenly seems like a pretty measly amount. Worse when you consider the what and the where and the how of this specific drilling venture. Let’s not forget that production from this field won’t be a cozy 2 or 3 week endeavor. If history is any guide, it will be years before any sizeable yields are on the books. As it stands, by 2013 the expectation is 40,000 barrels per day. Wheeee! (I’m guessing this is going to be a wee bit costly, given that the land rig alone cost BP a tidy $200 million. Pretty sure those are the kinds of costs oil companies like to pass on at the pump.)

These are the options big oil corporations are left with. Yet there remains a loud chorus of ardent knuckleheads who talk all kinds of nonsense about how much oil is left for us to use for the next umpteen decades so doncha worry and how Peak Oil proponents are some fringe group of crazed pessimists the rest of us would do well to just ignore; or they prefer the magic of economics and price points and inflation and consumers’ price tolerances and all that other information (or worse, the magic of as-yet undiscovered technologies riding to the rescue) that doesn’t have any impact whatsoever on how much oil actually remains reasonably accessible for our use in the normal course of our days.

By all means keep on denying the many signs (facts) of Peak Oil if that floats your boat. Won’t get you much, but why accept responsibility for doing something about a challenge if we can either pass that on to someone else or just remain blissfully ignorant and just keep a-hopin’ and a-prayin’. You betcha!

Those of us who recognize the sheer folly of placing our future economic well-being on a wing and a prayer owe it to themselves and others to begin working and planning together so that we offer ourselves the best possible chances of avoiding the very consequences that pinning our hopes on magic technology and pure denial will lead to.

We have better choices, and we are free to make better decisions, painful though some of them may surely be. Better to have a say than not.

NOTE: Starting a long weekend with family obligations thrown in as of Wednesday, so I may post once more this week and will then likely be off until the middle of next week. Enjoy the holiday!

Michael Lind is the Policy Director of New America’s Economic Growth Program and a frequent contributor to—a publication (and writer) whose perspectives I usually agree with. The new America website is quite good.

However, Mr. Lind recently published an article at Salon regarding the future of transportation—fixed/high-speed rail, specifically—that I take issue with. I do so not so much because his information might be incorrect (and I don’t dispute his knowledge and information on the subject), but I disagree because he offers up an attitude regarding our approach to transportation and automobiles that can only cause us more problems as we confront Peak Oil. It’s an all-too-familiar refrain Peak Oil proponents encounter, and is one we find especially distressing in light of the challenges Peak Oil is going to impose upon all of us.

Lind begins his article advocating more government spending on infrastructure—a position with which I wholeheartedly agree. (Readers familiar with Bob Herbert’s op-eds in the New York Times—which I’ve referenced in several posts—will recall that Mr. Herbert is likewise a passionate advocate of our need to repair, maintain, and enhance infrastructure spending for a host of sound, well-considered reasons.) Enough studies are out there demonstrating the many positive benefits and effects those spending priorities have on our economy and employment numbers.

Despite his advocacy for this essential governmental strategy, Lind criticizes support for high speed rail. In doing so, he raises common objections to funding and planning for alternative forms of transportation. While factually there may be merit to his arguments, the problem is that despite the rhetoric, the reality of Peak Oil is going to make the stated objections entirely irrelevant.

There is little chance that we’re going to devise a perfect public transportation solution, but to dismiss the approach outright because we’re too spoiled to recognize the need for change is at best foolish. We’re in need of some serious attitude adjustments, and transportation woes are another consequence of Peak Oil that we can either prepare for voluntarily, or have imposed upon us. Something is going to have be done. We can either throw our hands up and keep hoping, or start taking steps to figure out the solutions that just might work. It seems quite obvious that public transportation is going to have to be part of that mix.

Lind observes that “As nations grow more affluent, their people prefer the convenience of personal automobile transportation to the inflexibility of mass transit.” Of course they do! I much prefer jumping in one of our cars to run errands or to go to our beach house or do any number of other things when I feel like doing so rather than walking up and down my lengthy and very steep hill and then figuring out how many different modes of public transit I might need to get where I want to go. Millions and millions of other car owners harbor their own legitimate reasons why they favor the comfort and convenience of their own autos.

If fossil-fuel supplies were unlimited, inexpensive, and always-at-the-ready, we would not be having these discussions. But facts are annoying—especially the true ones!

All of the factors this blog and other writers have set forth regarding the imminence of Peak Oil tell us that unlimited, inexpensive, and always-at-the-ready oil is not going to be an option for much longer—some reports suggest in as few as a couple of years. Many writers have already noted one of Peak Oil’s many obvious warning signs: we’re drilling thousands of feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere because “cheap” and easy-to-find oil no longer exists. It’s just one sign among many. “Affluence” isn’t going to buy anyone bonus points when it comes to oil supply and demand … the transportation needs of the rich won’t stave off Peak Oil.

So when the ever-diminishing supply of unlimited, inexpensive, and always-at-the-ready oil is a factor with which we are all contending every day, preferring “the convenience of personal automobile transportation to the inflexibility of mass transit” won’t be worth the paper that comment is printed on. Peak Oil doesn’t much care about our “preferences,” or whether long-distance air or passenger car travel is “more practical,” as Lind also argued.

That’s simply not going to matter … not a little, not a lot, not at all. It’s nice to discuss preferences and wishes and hopes and all the rest, but geology and reality are what they are, and soon enough we are not going to have anywhere near the amounts of inexpensive oil readily available to each of us so that we can drive wherever and whenever we want. That’s a fact. Wishing it away is a nice sentiment but utterly meaningless. Peak Oil doesn’t much care for wishes and prayers, either.

So objections notwithstanding, we need to be thinking about, planning for, and finding ways to fund, create, and construct the types of public transportation we’re all going to need in the decades to come. It’s painful, but it’s that simple.

It’s no doubt true that implementing passenger rail and other forms of alternative transportation (and sources of energy, which Lind also criticizes) on a scale even remotely approaching the levels we’ll need in the decades to come is a jaw-dropping, almost unfathomably expensive proposition … until you realize we will have no rational alternatives other than to truly shrink our growth and become a nation of many local economies.

There is going to be a lengthy list of items and services and needs that are going to have to continue to be fulfilled by an ever-declining amount of crude oil, and I daresay that your and my carefree choices to run a couple of errands on a near-daily basis or visit with friends on the weekend aren’t going to have much priority on that list of who gets what, when, and how much.

Those who are waiting for a low-cost, ideal alternative to our current forms of personal transportation are in for a very rude awakening somewhere down the road.

Likewise, Lind’s urging that we devote more financial resources to enhance freight transportation on our roadways is just as misguided. Truckers won’t be exempt from Peak Oil’s impact … no one will. He is unfairly and inaccurately dismissive in suggesting that all of our urgings to provide more funding for high-speed rail and the like is so that we can “cut five minutes off the daily commutes of office workers in New York and New Jersey.” Enough high speed rail proposals have been put forth, and the Obama Administration has at least opened the door to enough other high-speed rail projects, to dismiss Lind’s snarky contentions outright. That’s something I’d expect to hear from someone on the Right, for whom facts are all-too-often useless and/or irrelevant when choosing to perpetuate narrow-minded ideology instead.

“Focusing on freight infrastructure improvements means that, among other things, we need to build more highway lanes and in some cases new highways for the trucks that will continue to carry most freight.” I’m hard-pressed to understand how that could possibly be a legitimate solution. Not only will not be able to afford that; higher gas prices and declining supply will leave less cars and trucks on the road. What a waste of limited resources!

And despite Lind’s claims about asphalt as some kind of magic solution, the truth is that asphalt is one of the countless products derived from crude oil, or from the energy-intensive and more expensive extraction process of the tar sands. (See this Oil Drum post for a discussion of asphalt.) Less crude oil equals less asphalt—as some cities have already witnessed first-hand.

Thinking that the enormous population increases expected in the coming decades is going to be properly addressed by building more roads and creating more suburban sprawl where owners are going to be left entirely dependent on automobiles they won’t be able to regularly or readily fuel seems ass-backwards at the very least. Asphalt is not nearly the savior Lind asserts it to be.

Two items of note on this subject from an extremely informative 2009 article by Phillip Longman (a Lind colleague) in The Washington Monthly [1]:

“The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that for distances of more than 1,000 miles, a system in which trucks haul containers only as far as the nearest railhead and then transfer them to a train produces a 65 percent reduction in both fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. As the volume of freight is expected to increase by 57 percent between 2000 and 2020, the potential economic and environmental benefits of such an intermodal system will go higher and higher. Railroads are also potentially very labor efficient. Even in the days of the object-lesson train, when brakes had to be set manually and firemen were needed to stoke steam engines, a five-man crew could easily handle a fifty-car freight train, doing the work of ten times as many modern long-haul truckers.”


“Failing to rebuild rail infrastructure will simply further move the burden of ever-increasing shipping demands onto the highways, the expansion and maintenance of which does not come free. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (hardly a shill for the rail industry) estimates that without public investment in rail capacity 450 million tons of freight will shift to highways, costing shippers $162 billion and highway users $238 billion (in travel time, operating, and accident costs), and adding $10 billion to highway costs over the next twenty years. ‘Inclusion of costs for bridges, interchanges, etc., could double this estimate,’ their report adds.”

And Lind wants to increase freight transportation on our roads?

As for his urging that we build more airports … seriously? In a few short decades—as things stand now and for the foreseeable future—we’ll be lucky to have one-third the number of airports now existing. It’s also quite likely that only a very small percentage of the population anywhere will be able to afford air travel in any event—assuming jet fuel remains available in any semblance of reasonable supply. How is that a solution?! Ignoring the effects of Peak Oil isn’t going to get us much except more difficulties.

Lind urges us to consider a “harsh reality” that makes no sense in light of Peak Oil: “The greatest economic crisis since the Depression shows no signs of ending soon. A major, long-term program of public investment is needed more than ever. But the public investments must pass the reality test. And the harsh reality is this: There isn’t going to be a significant high-speed rail system in the U.S. in the near- or medium-term future. There isn’t going to be a continental electric grid permitting solar panels on condo buildings in Berkeley, Calif., to power heirloom-poultry farms in Maine. Most Americans are not going to sell their cars and move back from the suburbs to the cities in order to live in tiny apartments or condos and ride the rails to work. These are romantic daydreams that Democrats could afford to indulge only as long as they were out of office and were not responsible for results.”

So how does he reconcile those statements with the fact that majority of the world’s population already lives in cities, with estimates suggesting that as much as 75% of the world’s population will reside in cities by 2050? [2] Hate to say it, but “romantic daydreams” or some reasonable approximations may very well be our only options in the not-too-distant future. That is the very harsh reality we will have to contend with in the face of Peak Oil. The fossil fuel choices he seems to think we’re going to endlessly possess are simply not going to be available to us. Ignoring that truth is an option … just not a very good one.

Lind is absolutely correct that we need a massive commitment to our woefully ill-maintained infrastructure. (See this and the referenced links therein.) But his assertions that we need to rely on more roadways and more fossil-fuel-consuming trucks is not a solution. We will cater to consumer demands or for more suburban sprawl at our collective peril. We won’t have those options once Peak Oil is upon us, either.

Again I’ll emphasize how critical it is that we begin considering alternatives to transportation, the nature of our infrastructure, and our sources of energy. The dislocations will be challenging enough; let’s not make them worse by waiting for some “better” day to get started. (And let’s not forget that putting into place the infrastructure and technologies needed to make the transitions a reality are themselves going to require a lot of fossil fuel. We’re simply not going to have enough to do all of that and still maintain our lifestyles and industries as we do now. Something is going to have to give.)

While Lind is correct that “There is no public support in the U.S. or any other industrial democracy for the combination of self-imposed austerity and massive subsidies that would be necessary to create an economy based on renewable energy,” that is likewise not going to matter. Who among us wants to sacrifice the lifestyles we’ve come to insist upon?! The real issue is that when Peak Oil is here, lack of public support (predicated on selfishness and an unwillingness/inability to make sacrifices voluntarily) won’t matter either. We either suffer from the harsh impact of Peak Oil by choosing to do nothing, or start working on the next best options, whatever they may be (while understanding those undefined options are no guarantee of harsh-free changes).

I fully recognize that the energy, affordability, and efficiencies derived from fossil fuels/crude oil are as yet unmatched by any forms of alternative or renewable sources of energy. That’s a major part of the challenge of Peak Oil: there will be no seamless transitions to something else to keep life going as it does now because we don’t have that option. Changes—perhaps even drastic ones—are looming.

So do we wait until we’re really battered and beleaguered by Peak Oil, or do we make a national commitment (and act upon it) to finding some reasonable means of supplanting fossil fuel usage—especially for transportation, given that it’s going to take us many years (decades is more likely) to effectively and permanently transition away from oil? We’re already too far behind, and we have no guarantees of finding a successful solution in any event. Is waiting and doing nothing the better option? Is that our legacy?

There are no easy fixes. There are no inexpensive fixes. There are no quick fixes, either. But we clearly can no longer rely on what got us here.

The sooner we all understand that and begin acting on that knowing, the sooner we can begin digging our way out of a mess our own successes and innovations have created.


[1] – Back on Tracks: A nineteenth-century technology could be the solution to our twenty-first-century problems by Phillip Longman

[2] Nimble Cities: Help Slate make transportation in and between cities more efficient, safe, and pleasant by Tom Vanderbilt

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered up an interesting piece recently, one I’d encourage you to read.

Echoing a theme I have been drumming repeatedly, Friedman shared a Letter to the Editor written by a friend of his, accepting personal responsibility for playing a role in the ongoing tragedy that is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Interestingly enough, last Monday I came across a similar post by William Rivers Pitt, sharing much the same honest and necessary message about our thoughtless and selfish over-consumption of fossil fuels. Two people are a good start … several billion more to go!

As Friedman’s friend makes so clear, the warning signs and information are everywhere. The choices are clear. The options—ill-conceived though they may be at this moment, if they exist at all—are ours to fashion.

The op-ed reminded us of cartoon character Pogo’s observation: “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

Almost 70% of our fossil fuels usage is to transport ourselves from one place to another. We cannot sustain this pace of oil usage. As I have repeatedly stated (as have many others), we’re not going to be running out of oil any time soon, but changes in how much is available to us—at reasonable prices—are looming, and a steady decline is inevitable. We are not prepared for this.

As I repeatedly urge everyone to realize and accept: we are all in this together. We all bear our share of responsibility for designing solutions and changes in advance of Peak Oil’s direct impact, or for the consequences that we’ll all have to endure because we either denied, ignored, pretended otherwise, or just hoped that someone else would take the reins and come up with some kind of magic solution to our energy challenges. (Good luck!)

I’ll leave you with some excellent advice:

“To implement the essential principles of change, we must reframe the challenges we face. We must approach them not from the compartmentalized perspective with which we tend to frame and separate our many problems, but from a systemic perspective that attempts to identify the common root causes of all of these symptoms of an overarching disease. From that analysis we must work together to develop the holistic, systemic vision of where we need to go as a society and the plan to get there.” [1]


[1]  Creating a game plan for the transition to a sustainable U.S. economy by Solutions

One of the main themes that I will return to repeatedly as this blog progresses is that of transportation.

I’ll permit others more technically savvy, experienced, and knowledgeable to address the issue of automobile usage and our eventual conversion of internal combustion engines to those that either run on alternative fuel/energy sources, or electric cars. (I have discussed automobiles in several prior posts such as this one.) My focus will be on the broader theme of how much we depend upon all forms of transportation in our day-to-day lives.

The sooner we can begin having “Oh, I didn’t think of that…” moments, the sooner we can begin effectively dealing with, planning for, and transitioning to ways of living and producing that are no longer dependent on fossil fuels as the energy source needed. We’re all in this together….

My hope is that these types of post will inspire more and more frequent “I didn’t think of that” moments for everyone.

Fairly self-evident, but true: It’s only when we start asking questions that we’ll begin seeking answers. As long as we ignore issues or simply take things for granted, we have zero incentive to make changes. Changes imposed upon us are much less pleasant than those in which we have a say ahead of time.

Everything we do that requires transportation via automobile, either of necessity or of convenience, is going to be affected when the ready supply of relatively inexpensive and always available gasoline from our local service station is no longer relatively inexpensive and always available. We may not have in place formal rationing once the steady decline of gasoline is upon us, but we will experience de facto rationing.

The effect is going to be the same: we are not going to be able to just hop into our cars for a fill-up whenever we need it. Somewhere along the line, limited allocations are going to be imposed upon our lifestyles. It will happen voluntarily and with careful planning, or it will indeed be imposed upon all of us, protests notwithstanding. Which would you prefer?

With that significant change will come all kinds of changes and adaptations in what we do day-to-day. How we live our everyday lives, what we need to do or should do or prefer to do are all going to be impacted in one way or another when that trip to the local gas station is no longer an immediate option for us.

So let’s consider one of those every day common events and how this, too, will be impacted by Peak Oil: the appointment with our dentist/doctor.

How many of us regularly schedule appointments with our family MD or dentist? How many trips on average do we/our family make to see them during the course of a year? Two? Five? Twelve? How many of us walk to those appointments? How many of us have accessible and convenient public transportation enabling us to go with minimal difficulties?

I’m going to guess that the percentage is probably less than fifty—perhaps much less. Certainly those who live in major cities and whose medical providers likewise have practices in the “downtown” areas likely take advantage of public transportation, but most of us either don’t have that option, or for any number of other reasons choose to drive.

It’s quite likely that we combine trips around those appointments: perhaps some grocery shopping after the dentist appointment, or we’ll run over to our children’s school and pick them up after class, or we have to take the kids to practice on our way to the doctor, or we just decide to stop off at a couple of places along the way. There are any number of possibilities that strike us all as perfectly normal and routine events.

Peak Oil is going to change “normal” and “routine.”

So what happens when gasoline has become prohibitively expensive? How many of these combination trips suddenly require much more planning? How many of these trips even become possible? What sort of juggling are we all going to have to do to figure out how to accomplish these routine tasks when it’s either costing us small fortunes to fill up our gas tanks, or when we only have the option of doing so under guidelines that are completely foreign to us today?

If our dentist or MD has an office too far to walk to, too far from public transportation stops (or we have no public transportation options), what are we going to do? For that matter, what are those medical service providers and their staffs going to do when confronted with the exact same issues? How are they going to get to their offices?

Right now I have the option, inconvenient though it may be, of getting to my doctor’s office via two separate modes of public transportation and a half mile walk. But I know that my primary care physician (25 years and counting) lives nowhere near his office, and there is no public transportation that will get him from his home to his medical practice in any manner that might be considered convenient. What’s he going to do? What am I going to do when he can’t get to his office any longer?

My family dentist’s office is about 15 miles from our home. What is plan B for us? For he and his extensive staff? There is a subway stop about half a mile from his office, so once again I have the option of getting there via three separate modes of public transportation), but how convenient is that in comparison to just hopping into my car and shooting down interstate 95?

The solutions for me are not impossible, and indeed for a sizeable percentage of us, that may be true as well. But when a single twenty-five minute trip to our medical care provider—at our convenience (ignoring the countless other routine trips we take each week)—suddenly requires coordinating walking to and from public transportation (hoping that the weather cooperates, by the way), and then having to take into consideration multiple forms of public transportation with the time factors doubling or tripling or worse (all the while ignoring the types of routine errands we now tack on to these trips without a second thought), what are we all going to do?

Seth Borenstein, science writer for the Associated Press, wrote a very interesting article this past Friday that dovetails nicely with the series of posts now being featured here in Peak Oil Matters.

Although written from the perspective of those who may wish to “punish” Big Oil as a result of the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Borenstein nonetheless shared some incisive observations about how pervasive is crude oil’s impact and effect in our daily lives. Shampoo, for example, was noted as being “100% chemical,” with crude oil serving as the source for almost everything that makes up a bottle of shampoo.

It’s a nice, concise look at how utterly dependent we have become on crude oil to do so much more than just fuel our automobiles.

Even more distressing an observation, however, is how crude oil now rests within us. According to the article, “When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested humans for environmental chemicals and metals, it recorded 212 different compounds. More than 180 of them are products that started as natural gas or oil.” As was further observed, these chemical cocktails are messing with the human body.

No chance that the increasing rates of all kinds of cancer over these many recent decades has anything to do with the chemicals we ingest, right? Aren’t we fairly certain that all the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez or now in the Gulf of Mexico is harmless to wildlife? No chance of any long-lasting impact on the hundreds of species in the Gulf coated with or ingesting all that oil, right? No harm to them, no harm to us.

How much more evidence do we need before we’re convinced that we must change how we live our lives and grow our economies?

What the hell are we doing to ourselves and our planet?

Just a quick note as a follow-up to yesterday’s post:

I came across an interesting article discussing how much of what we produce is so callously discarded without a first thought, let alone a second one. It’s worth the two minutes it will take anyone to read it.

In the days to come, when Peak Oil is having its impact on production across all industries and manufacturers, we will likely lament how careless we were in tossing away products and items that could have been preserved with only minimal effort on our part. But in keeping with our Damn-The-Consequences approach to too many aspects of our everyday choices, it’s not terribly surprising that we’re all too guilty of a failure to expend minimal effort or thought.

It’s late, but not too late, to make changes. Better that they be voluntary….

As I mentioned when this most recent series of posts began last week, my intention is to explore in non-technical terms Peak Oil’s impact in our lives. I want to provide readers with some concise, easy-to-read general themes/ideas/food for thought, without getting bogged down in technical details about manufacturing and the like. Some discussions (such as today’s on plastic) will likely pop up in several different posts. All are primarily designed to do one thing: help you to understand how Peak Oil will impact each and every one us in our day-to-day lives.

So let’s talk a bit about plastic. It is estimated that more than 200 billion pounds of it are manufactured each year. Thousands of products (including the computer you are likely using right now to read this) include plastic as a component. We don’t have plastic without a lot of crude oil first….

With that in mind, today I’m going to begin a discussion of this amazing creation by considering a ubiquitous off-shoot: water bottles. (I’ll avoid that part of the discussion where it’s clear that bottled water—minimally regulated as it is—is clearly no more pure than the vastly-more regulated and safe tap water; that it costs us hundreds of times more for bottled water than it does for tap water; or the fact that in “[a]ddition to the millions of gallons of water used in the plastic-making process, two gallons of water are wasted in the purification process for every gallon that goes into the bottles.” [1] There’s some food for thought! Good thing water resources are infinite, right? Right?)

In that just-referenced 2007 article by the Union of Concerned Scientists, it was stated that “[a]pproximately 1.5 million barrels of oil—enough to run 100,000 cars for a whole year—are used to make plastic water bottles….”

The Pacific Institute has estimated that more than seventeen million barrels of oil are used in the manufacture, transportation, and storage of those water bottles. “The amount of oil used for each plastic bottle would equal driving only half a mile. Producing one bottle requires 3 oz of crude oil, and if you fill a bottle 1/3 with oil that’s how much is used in just shipping requirements.” [2]

Estimates also suggest that almost 90 percent of the 50 billion bottles of water purchased in just this country each year wind up in landfills—that’s tens of millions of single-serve non-returnable containers each and every day. If it decomposes at all, that plastic will be there for thousands of years first. This is what we do this planet every day. As I quoted in a recent post: “When are we going to stop behaving so stupidly?”

I’m as guilty as anyone of this shopping foolishness, although in my defense I have now switched to eco-friendly reusable containers, to my children’s likely annoyance. (Just add it to this list, kids.)

In truth, our wild over-consumption of bottled water may be one of advertising’s great successes and a testament to our never-ending search for Damn-The-Costs-And-Consequences convenience, but Peak Oil is sure to have an impact on this lifestyle choice as it will with most other similar choices.

As I and many others have discussed ad nauseum, those who scoff at Peak Oil and cite their chapter and verse about all the fossil fuel resources yet to be produced (and the magic “undiscovered” resources), consistently and conveniently neglect to mention the costs, risks (hello Deepwater Horizon!), energy expenditures, and time delays in obtaining those no-longer-easy-to-find-and-produce resources (assuming they are correct about the size of the resources and the inherent obstacles are surmountable … big question marks.)

What that means in practical terms is that as demand continues to increase (think China and India, among others), supplies simply will not match that pace, and things are going to change. This will be a very long, drawn-out process, despite the false attributions of deniers who claim we believe we’re suddenly going to just run out of oil. But the harsh truth is that as increasing demand collides with decreasing availability, allocations and sacrifices are going to have to be made—sooner than we are likely to be prepared for.

Can we be so foolish as to think that items of convenience such as bottled water will continue to have priority among the thousands of products and transportation services currently utilizing oil/fossil fuels? I’m fairly confident that we can probably find at least a few items that will likely have spots higher up on the rungs of importance.

In practical terms, perhaps manufacturers will continue to provide water in plastic bottles, but surely not on their current scale and just as surely in more costly fashion. The “convenience factor” will certainly take a hit. Less production and more production costs mean less demand, which leads to less production, which costs jobs, and the dominoes in that industry will begin to tumble too. Up and down that supply, manufacturing, advertising, and transportation chain, the decline in demand will be felt. (Again: not an overnight phenomenon, but the decline will begin and it won’t stop.)

Soon enough, we’ll all be “inconvenienced” in one way or another at least several billion times a year because at least several billion bottles of water will no longer be either available or worth purchasing. Fifty billion produced bottles will eventually become … forty billion? Twenty billion? Five billion? More changes, more impact, more people and industries affected. What happens to all those employed in some capacity along that chain?

And we’re just talking bottled water….


[1] A World of Reasons to Ditch Bottled Water by Union of Concerned Scientists – July 9, 2007

[2] The US Consumes 1500 Plastic Water Bottles Every Second, a fact by Watershed by Petz Scholtus, 10.15.09

In my last post, I took a first look at a “big ticket” item that will clearly suffer from the effects of Peak Oil: sports.

I touched on just a few aspects among many (travel, revenue) that will be adversely affected by the onset of Peak Oil and the challenges that will have to be confronted once relatively inexpensive fossil fuel is no longer available to support the myriad organizational components of athletic competition. Of course, not every adverse affect on products or industries will be irreconcilable or as potentially dramatic in its scope as I suggested in that essay.

The history of our industrial success has in no small part been a result of our capacity to improve upon that which came before. There’s no question that perfectly acceptable substitutes may already exist for many products, or can be fashioned with a relatively small amount of effort. (Per my last post, I’m not inclined to believe that once the manufacturing of basketballs and footballs declines, we’ll never find appropriate and suitable replacements—but it will surely be much more difficult to maintain supply and meet demand with the same efficiencies.)

The challenge will be not just to find those replacements, with the time and effort and testing and marketing required of any new product, but more importantly, doing so with less fossil fuel energy to support that entire process. That’s where the real challenge comes: having systems/infrastructure already in place (and we’re not even close) that will allow for product alternatives and the processes by which they are designed, created, tested, marketed, transported, and successfully utilized—and accomplishing all of this with much less fossil fuel available from start to finish.

As I have alluded to previously, when worldwide demand exceeds the oil industry’s capacity to effectively and feasibly produce enough oil at acceptable prices—as Peak Oil assures us it will, if it isn’t doing so already—sacrifices at all levels, in all nations, for all citizens, and in all industries will be the end result. The way we’re heading right now, most of those sacrifices will fall on the involuntary side of the ledger. No one will be pleased with that.

You and I may insist that we be allowed to run all the errands we want each and every day, or travel to this place or another, or buy this or that product as and when desired, but when demand is regularly exceeding supply, changes and sacrifices are going to happen no matter how strenuous you or I insist to the contrary. (If it’s a choice between my local fire department having ready and immediate access to fuel for their vehicles and putting gas in one of my family’s four vehicles, it’s pretty clear to me who “loses”.) That means more changes in how we live our daily lives.

Shouldn’t we start thinking about this now, while it’s only a bit too late to be doing so?

And at the micro level, our day-to-day lives are going to change measurably. In many instances the changes will just be changes. Different certainly, but not necessarily better, and not necessarily worse. It won’t all happen overnight, of course, but change is assured.

Let’s take a much more mundane example than major sporting events and the relevant organizations: let’s consider toothpaste and toothpaste tubes. These items are among the thousands of products utilizing fossil fuels/crude oil in the course of their manufacturing processes. (When you get right down to it, if it’s a product being transported in the marketplace, it uses fossil fuels, so that doesn’t leave out too many items!)

Is it likely that we’ll still be able to brush our teeth every day even if crude oil is no longer part of the manufacturing mix? I’d hazard a safe guess and suggest that yes, we probably will. The packaging may have to be different, there may be some aspects of the texture or quality of toothpaste that changes, but for you and me, as long as we can go to the local store and get the tube (or vat or container or bottle or whatever will “house” the new toothpaste), we may not notice much difference if it tastes pretty much the same and does the job about as well as does our current brand.

But how many steps in the process leading to the placement of that product on the local store shelf are going to change because toothpaste producers and toothpaste tube manufacturers have to re-design or re-formulate or re-process those products—or the means by which they are transported in the marketplace? For a “simple” product such as toothpaste, it may not be such a big deal, and perhaps we won’t even notice the cost difference—or indeed any difference at all.

Can we expect that to be the case in all instances, for all products? Even fools twice over would have trouble believing that.

This is where Peak Oil’s impact becomes formidable. I can’t say that I’ll care a whole lot if ingredient XYZ becomes necessary in the manufacturing of my favorite toothpaste in place of whatever element of crude oil is now used. But I will care more if transporting my favorite tube becomes prohibitively expensive because Crest or Tom’s of Maine or Colgate can no longer afford necessary components in the processing and (especially) the delivery of that product, leaving me with the choice of chewing gum or relying on the one or two local merchants manufacturing their best attempt at a suitable substitute (and who do so with far less resources than the major manufacturers).

This likely manufacturing and delivery conversion is not going to just affect toothpaste….A small day-to-day inconvenience on that front, perhaps, but it isn’t going to begin and end there.

What happens then?

When I first began this blog, my intention was to first (I hope) educate readers about the main issues of Peak Oil, offer commentary when necessary, and then devote most of my time exploring in non-technical terms Peak Oil’s impact in our lives. It’s time to begin doing that.

(And let me preface this entire series by declaring that I’m not a technical guy: how much crude oil is needed to manufacture all of these items, what the process is, whether substitutes might be available, etc., are all beyond my interest and expertise. I want to keep this simple, for me as much as anyone! I have no plans to get up to anyone’s eyeballs in manufacturing or processing details. I want to provide readers with some general themes and ideas … some food for thought. Fill in the details as much, or as little, as you wish on any of the scores of topics I’ll now be covering. Some discussions will span several posts; others will offer up a nugget or two for consideration before I move on to another topic. All of these posts are designed to do one thing above all else: get you to understand that Peak Oil is not an abstract concept. It is real, it will affect each and every one of us, and it will keep affecting each and every one of us from soon until forever….)

I have discussed in several posts already the issues of transportation and infrastructure as they relate to Peak Oil, and the urgent need for all of us to reflect on all that must—and will—change when Peak Oil is fully upon us. Without an established infrastructure designed to support commerce and our ways of life without fossil fuels as the driving source of energy, any hopes we have for continued growth (not that that’s a guarantee even with an appropriate infrastructure) are by the boards.

Peak Oil isn’t going to just affect some of us some of the time in some ways. Peak Oil is going to impact all of us—substantially—and irrevocably. Life will be different, and that won’t change. The good ‘ole days will remain the good ‘ole days. There will be no going back.

There is no special place where this must begin. So let’s jump in with a topic of interest to many of us. Let’s talk sports. (This is one of those topics much too broad to cover in just one post, so I’ll just begin with a few general ideas and considerations, and will return to this subject in future posts.)

It’s easy enough to mention the fact that footballs, and helmets, and cleats, and basketballs and what have you are all made with crude oil as an essential component. It’s also safe to assume that once we begin dealing with curtailed availability of fossil fuels, some needs will have lower priority than others. Ambulances will probably have access to fossil fuel-based crude oil (gasoline) before Spalding or Wilson get the fossil fuel-based crude oil they need to make basketballs and footballs. Obviously there will be ripple effects across the industry when this happens, and the end users (from the junior leaguers and the neighborhood kids all the way up to the professionals) will also have some problems to contend with: either the products will become less available, or they will become prohibitively expensive for many along the chain of users. What happens?

Ever try dribbling a basketball that no longer bounces? How easy and inexpensive will it be to replace that? What happens when high school sports programs with limited funds as it is have to replace cleats and helmets and other accessories and their prices have doubled, or tripled, or the helmets and cleats are simply not being manufactured any longer on a scale sufficient enough to meet demand? What happens then?

Let’s also take a broader view. How do teams (high school, college, the pros) deal with travel issues and schedules when gas is much too expensive to enable teams to transport their players even short distances, or when air travel is severely curtailed and wildly expensive because not enough jet fuel is being processed to meet demand (and airports are shuttered because air travel has diminished markedly*), or when the fans cannot afford to put the gasoline in their vehicles that in the past allowed them to attend the games without a second thought?

What happens when half, or a third, or one-tenth the number of fans can afford to attend games because budgeting all that money to drive to an in- or out-of-state stadium no longer makes financial sense? Pure supply and demand: when demand continues and supply is reduced, prices go up. Decisions are then made about where to allocate funds. Does a trip across the state to attend a Red Sox game make more sense than paying for your children’s basic needs for the next few months?

Where will the revenue to pay players come from when the majority of fans are no longer traveling to see the games either because limited gas supplies are now being allocated or it’s simply become too expensive for “frivolous” trips? How do owners continue to fund their vast operations (office staff, marketing, scouting staffs, minor leagues, utility services for the stadiums and training facilities, and on and on it goes)? What happens to the vendors and other suppliers when the majority of fans just stop attending … permanently?

For all their current revenue, what happens to the Red Sox or Yankees when they are scheduled to travel to Tampa Bay, or Texas, or to the West Coast, and it costs a small fortune in fuel costs alone for charter planes? What rail services currently exist that offer a practical alternative? Exactly how far out does the ripple effect extend?

No organization, no group of individuals no matter what their financial status, and no industry that currently utilizes fossil fuels to any extent will escape the effects of Peak Oil. For all the magic and excitement and joy of athletic events, sports will suffer the impact of Peak Oil every bit as much (if not more) than many or most other industries.

What happens then?

* See, for example:

“How horrendous, how destructive, and how ultimately-suicidal does the evidence have to be before we all agree that the age of cheap oil is over?” – Charles Cresson Wood [1]

“When are we going to stop behaving so stupidly?” – Bob Herbert [2]

“It’s time we moved on to something else, or this is going to kill us.” – Craig Severance [3]

“The Deepwater Horizon disaster reminds us that, of all non-renewable resources, oil best deserves to be thought of as the Achilles heel of modern society. Without cheap oil, our industrial food system—from tractor to supermarket—shifts from feast to famine mode; our entire transportation system sputters to a halt. We even depend on oil to fuel the trains, ships, and trucks that haul the coal that supplies half our electricity. We make our computers from oil-derived plastics. Without oil, our whole societal ball of yarn begins to unravel.

“But the era of cheap, easy petroleum is over; we are paying steadily more and more for what we put in our gas tanks—more not just in dollars, but in lives and health, in a failed foreign policy that spawns foreign wars and military occupations, and in the lost integrity of the biological systems that sustain life on this planet.

“The only solution is to do proactively, and sooner, what we will end up doing anyway as a result of resource depletion and economic, environmental, and military ruin: end our dependence on the stuff. Everybody knows we must do this.” – Richard Heinberg [4]

The hope is that more of us are starting to understand the implications, given the attention lavished on the Deepwater Horizon spill. The question remains: what are we going to do? Nodding our heads in agreement that we’re about to face enormous challenges to preserving our ways of life and industry won’t cut it. The truth is harsher: life as we’ve known it is going to change. How—and how much—are yet to be determined.

We’re already well past the point where we should have acknowledged the problems of declining oil production. Denial, or ignorance, or just waiting until some kind of magical solution comes along are beyond counter-productive at this point. Now we have to start the lengthy, complex, sacrifice-is-necessary process of restructuring the way we live, work, and produce. Plans have not yet been formulated, so we’re already behind.

And all of this, dear readers, is not going to happen any time soon. But we need to start. The longer we wait, the more problems to be overcome we’ll create. That is not our best strategy. We’re already going to be confronted with far more challenges than the vast majority of us realize or understand. None of us are likely prepared for all the changes and challenges we’ll have to confront.

The tin-foil-hat-is-on-too-tight crowd needs to step aside and acknowledge the reality that the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe (yes, Governor Barbour, that’s what it is) is one more signpost on the long road of oil production problems. Denial has served whatever ignorant and ridiculous purpose it might have been intended for. Now, it’s time for the adults among us to start dealing with the facts and the truths about oil production and fossil fuel availability.

Despite their efforts to disparage those of us convinced of the imminence of Peak Oil by uttering ridiculous claims attributed to us, we’re not going to “run out” of oil. But as I and many others have taken great pains to explain, we are going to start seeing problems with production keeping up with demand, and that diminishes our access and availability to the oil and gas we’ve become all too comfortable expecting. Lulls in the prices or availability of gasoline and oil should not be mistaken for anything other than lulls.

We need to keep in mind that the United States does not live in a vacuum, nor, despite the fervent yet misguided expectations of some, are we “entitled” to our fair share of oil and gas before anyone else. (By some estimates the Chinese will increase their ownership of autos by nearly a half billion in the next decade or so! Where is all that needed extra fossil fuel supposed to come from? And that’s just one growing economy!) Facts are annoying as hell, but there’s no getting around them….

The problems are inexorably going to get worse … not next week or next month, but well before we’ve had time to establish a new infrastructure and new methods of commerce and mass transit. We’ve got years of work ahead of us, and not nearly enough years to put it all in place before the serious problems appear.

We’re all in this together, even the paranoid, card-carrying knuckleheads who insist we have “infinite” supplies of oil (as soon as the words “Zionist cabal” or discussions about long-ago-discredited Russian claims about the origins of fossil fuel appear in a pseudo-argument, you know you’re dealing with someone whose sky is a different color than ours); we all have a stake in the solutions we fashion; and we all bear responsibility for the outcomes. What will we choose?

This is getting serious….


[1] The Questions You Ask Create The Future You Manifest; 06/02/2010 by Charles Cresson Wood
[2] Our Epic Foolishness
[3] What Will it Take to End Our Oil Addiction? May 29, 2010 by Craig Severance
[4] The End is nigh – Deepwater Horizon and the technology, economics, and environmental Impacts of Resource Depletion; 06/01/2010 by Post Carbon Institute