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Peak Oil Matters

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


Archive for August, 2010

{A reminder to my readers: I was down South recently to set up my daughter for her senior year of college, and next week we travel to New York for several days to set up our other daughter for her sophomore year. We’ll return at the end of next week just long enough to get ready for a ten day vacation, so it’s entirely possible that this will be my last post until after Labor Day. Thanks for your patience and continuing interest!}

I’ve written on several occasions (see this recent post, for example) about the difficulties we’ll face in transitioning from our fossil fuel-based way of life to “something else” … that something else not yet certain. To that end, some recent articles (links provided at the end of this post) address this same issue by pointing out some of the more precise difficulties we’ll be encountering as we attempt to transition away from our fossil fuel-dependent economic and personal lifestyles. As it stands now, there is no effective and clear-cut choice for Plan B, and thus the problem.

“The time for smooth, convenient solutions was decades ago, when scientists first began to raise the alarm about the greenhouse effect and peak oil, and the twin approaching disasters of a changing climate and an energy crunch. By now, the most we can do, and the least we have to, is to scramble however we can. Yes, even during a global recession, and even during the next ones. If you think upgrading the energy foundations of a planetary civilization is hard during an economic recession, imagine how hard it’ll be with a fraction of the energy available, and climate-related disruptions erupting everywhere.

“We need to make extraordinary advances in energy sources, and we have to do if fast, or, to put it simply, the 22nd century will look like the 17th. We need to constrain our use of fossil fuels as much as possible….We are in this fix because a few short decades ago we did nothing. If we do nothing, or even if we just don’t do enough, the fix we’re going to be a few short decades from now will be much, much worse.” [1]

Despite the occasional nincompoop who insists that our supply of oil is infinite, the truth is that oil is a geologically finite resource (as are the other fossil fuels), and increasingly harder to come by. I and many others have posted frequently explaining this basic fact which some still seem incapable of accepting.

(It doesn’t help when others offer truly fanciful assessments about the remaining reserves of oil and gas. Saudi Aramco President and CEO Khalid A. Al-Falih was recently quoted as having said that we can still expect to have available between 6 and 8 trillion barrels of conventional oil and natural gas liquids and about 7 trillion barrels of unconventional oil. [2] Not exactly the most objective source of information….I’m guessing that pixie dust is also in ample supply for those making such assessments.)

Just last week, Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist, once again expressed his concerns about the future availability of oil:

“The era of cheap oil is over. Each barrel oil that will come to market in the future will be much more difficult to produce and therefore more expensive. We all – governments, industry and consumers – should carefully choose the type of car we want to buy in the future and should be prepared for oil prices being much higher than several years ago.” [3]

In its simplest terms, this acknowledgement is a clear recognition that at some point in the not-too-distant future (and we’re past the point where it matters that that date may be next week, three years, or fifteen years from now; we’re too late to effect a painless transition away from oil), we are going to have to endure the disruptions, changes, and yes, the hardships of not having enough fossil fuels at the ready to meet our demands and expectations. We can hope that the changes in business practices, industrial production, and personal lifestyles will be effortless, but that will likely remain just that: a hope.

As the authors of the articles mentioned above explained, history is such that the transition from one dominant source/supply of energy to another is not a simple or easy process. It is a multi-decades long effort, as not only must the supporting infrastructure (transport modes, utilities, public services, etc.) be changed or adapted to new energy sources, so too must industry revise what goods and services it produces—and how. And then, the end users must be willing to accept what is then offered in the market place, necessitating that they in turn then adapt their own lifestyles to these “new” products and services. That’s going to take a good long while.

So too must we recognize the fact that effecting the transition from fossil fuels to whatever alternatives ultimately prove to be the most efficient and cost effective (we’re still waiting on that) will itself require massive amounts of fossil fuels in order to create, build, produce, and then supply into the marketplace the new infrastructure and products fashioned from some other energy source.

Perhaps the key stumbling block remains as yet unresolved: no alternative source of energy has yet proven to be as efficient, effective, readily available, or commercially viable as oil. Anything else will thus be … less, and more expensive.

So what’s the solution?

“Now, all sides are counting on a Green Economy: it seems that we all just have to firmly believe that researchers and engineers worldwide will develop alternative energies into marketable products that are similarly fungible as crude oil at precisely the right time; in this way people in the old industrialized countries would not have to abandon their lifestyles, and the middle classes in the newly industrializing countries would not have to give up their hope of comparable prosperity.” [4]

Good luck to all of us!

We may very well (and I hope we do) develop alternative sources of energy that prove to be perfectly capable of meeting our future demands, but those who are counting on that as a given are taking enormous chances.

Hoping is not the strategy we should be relying on.


[1] – Peak Oil and Climate Change: Between Too Soon and Not Soon Enough by Marcelo Rinesi
[3] – IEA: ‘Cheap oil is over’ as demand approaches new record by Matthew Wild
[4] – Peak Oil – yet another Inconvenient Truth by Dr. Jürgen Wiemann

Links on energy transition referenced above:–The-Slow-Pace-of-Energy-Transitions – Wood to Coal to Oil to Natural Gas and Nuclear : The Slow Pace of Energy Transitions By Robert Bryce – Do We Have the Energy for the Next Transition? Richard A. Kerr – Lloyd’s ‘Sustainable Energy Security’ White Paper – Some hits; some misses by Gail the Actuary

Summer is full upon us here in the U.S., and that means for many of us the joys of summer vacations. Hiking, camping, biking, visiting, beaching … all the favorable-weather options are available to us. Just this past weekend my wife and I had the pleasure of hosting family from both out-of-state and from the opposite end of Massachusetts. I’m flying out at the end of the week to visit my daughter as she prepares for school. A lot of things to enjoy and a lot to look forward to during these warm summer days!

My wife and I have not yet taken our “vacation”. Our summer plans tend to be somewhat fluid. As I noted way back when in my introduction to this blog, we are very fortunate. We own an exquisite (at least to us), spacious summer home a hundred yards or so from the Atlantic Ocean. We vacation here and enjoy every blessed minute of it! In normal driving conditions, it takes us fifty minutes or so to go door-to-door from our suburban Boston home to the “beach house”, which is where I am as I write this. What a treat for us!

Summer vacation usually means grabbing as much time as we can here—work and young adult schedules permitting. That means frequent travel along the Route 128/Interstate 95 corridor … most times with more than one vehicle; most times more than once or twice a week.

As a strong proponent of Peak Oil, I have decidedly mixed feelings about this, as I have mentioned before (Kurt Cobb wrote a sensible piece touching on a related theme just a few days ago). I love this lifestyle, and I approach my task of disseminating information about our soon-to-be-curtailed availability of fossil fuel supply with more than my fair share of selfish trepidation. We do not yet own hybrid vehicles, and so we spend more than our fair share of time filling the gas tanks of my wife’s German import and my Japanese SUV in order to make many trips to and from our summer home from Memorial Day through mid-October. I balance that guilt with the acknowledgment (rationalization?) that I work from home, and that my wife’s office is about 6000 feet from our home, so we actually spend no more on gas than most other families.

Once gas prices begin their inevitable climb up, whether that’s later this year, next year, or a couple more years down the road, and with a simultaneous curtailment in how much fossil fuel will remain available to us to meet all of demands and expectations and needs, my rationalizations may not matter much.

With that in mind yesterday, for the first time in the 6 summers that we’ve owned this home, I used public transportation to make most of the journey from home to here at the beach house. My daughter drove me a couple of miles to a commuter rail stop which took me into Boston’s North Station, where I then—some fifteen minutes after my arrival—boarded a different rail line to take me to the North Shore. I then hailed a cab to take me the three miles or so from the train station to our summer place. (I’ve already informed my wife that I will soon take public transportation door to door, just to see what that’s like. That will add two bus trips and a decent amount of walking at the beginning and end of my trip, along with two separate subway rides. I’m expecting at least an additional hour of travel each way, but no more than a few more dollars in fares.)

The one way trip yesterday cost me about $20.00, and took me two hours and ten minutes door to door. Compare that to less than $10.00 of gas and less than 60 minutes of travel time when I drive. More expensive certainly, and clearly more time-consuming, but all in all it was a pleasant enough experience, and surprisingly scenic in several places along the way. It was nice to be able to read and engage in some computer work while traveling … not an option when I’m barreling along at 65 miles per hour on Route 128.

I’m expecting to have to do much more of this in the years to come if we intend (as we most certainly do) to keep this as a second home (and eventually as our primary residence, or so we hope.) At the very least, this kind of travel will become a not-inconsiderable inconvenience for us. I’ll expect no one to shed any tears for us, and rightfully so.

All of this got me thinking about what other families normally do during the summer for their vacations. My thoughts then almost immediately turned to one of our nation’s more popular destinations: Walt Disney World in Florida. We have vacationed there on a couple of occasions, as have hundreds of millions of others just like us. It’s a deservedly popular tourist attraction.

Then, as I find myself doing more frequently these days, I started to wonder how Peak Oil is going to impose itself on the subject at hand. Truth be told, not much will escape the consequences of declining oil availability.

Just for the heck of it, I started an internet search for facts about Disney World—to get some kind of idea about the place. (I make no promises that the following stats are the most current ones.)

“Approximately 46 million people visit Walt Disney World – including Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park and Downtown Disney Area – annually.” [1]

“A Cast of Thousands . . . around 62,000 to be more precise. That’s how many people it takes to create the magic at the Vacation Kingdom. Not surprisingly, Walt Disney World Resort is the largest single-site employer in the United States
“Suds ‘R Us . . . If you were to wash and dry one load of laundry every day for 52 years, you’d clean as much as the folks at Walt Disney World Laundry do in a single day. The cast members there launder an average of 285,000 pounds each day. In addition, between 30,000 and 32,000 garments are dry-cleaned daily.
“Who’s Still Thirsty? . . . More than 75 million Cokes are consumed each year at Walt Disney World Resort along with 13 million bottles of water. Guests also gobble 10 million hamburgers, 6 million hot dogs, 9 million pounds of French fries and more than 300,000 pounds of popcorn
“Room Roulette . . . If you wanted to stay in all the guestrooms in all of the hotels and resorts currently open on Walt Disney World property (at a rate of one per night), it would take more than 68 years.” [2]

“There are 46,172 parking spaces at the Walt Disney World theme parks, water parks and Downtown Disney. That does not include the parking lots at the resort.” [3]

The point? That’s a lot of tourists traveling a lot of miles, buying a lot of airplane tickets, renting a lot of vehicles, and consuming lots of fossil fuels for transportation (to say nothing of the energy expenditures to do all the laundry, transport and prepare all the food, maintain all the rooms, etc., etc. A lot of dollars are spent while visiting Disney World.)

What happens when the $3.19 per gallon of gas that we now pay for premium gas is $4.09 per gallon? $5.29? $7.79? When the now incredibly inexpensive $200.00 round trip air fares from Boston becomes $380.00? $660.00? I have no illusions that we’ll see those prices in the next few years, but I can’t say that I’d be terribly surprised if that happens sooner than I expect.

Those higher prices will stand alone … they won’t be rising along with a commensurate increase in incomes. Incomes will be what they will be in the years to come while fossil fuel prices climb ever-higher, simply because we are not going to have enough to meet all the world-wide demand by the billions of people who either want to maintain their convenient and occasionally extravagant lifestyles, or who aspire to reach those goals themselves.

Something is going to have to give.

And when those gas prices begin that climb, how many families are going to make the decision that a trip to Disney World, or Las Vegas, or Myrtle Beach, or our astonishing National Parks, or to Europe, or to the Caribbean, or [insert preferred vacation spot here] are no longer in the cards? What happens to the countless millions who depend on those tourist dollars? How many dominoes tumble in all the industries affected by or existing because of tourism? Difficult to wrap your mind around all of that, isn’t it?

What kinds of personal lifestyle changes will each of us have to then embrace when we start thinking about the family vacation in July or August?

Something to think about, perhaps? It is definitely not too soon to do so. We’ll be thankful for having taken the time to consider these issues well in advance. Being blind-sided is not nearly as much fun as it might seem.

{Note to my readers: I’m heading down South later this week to help my daughter set up for her senior year of college, so this will likely be my only post until the middle of next week. This month, I’ll also be heading to New York for a few days to move our other daughter into her new digs for college year # 2, my wife and I will be taking some vacation time throughout the month, and we’re celebrating our anniversary at the end of August, so postings will be sporadic until after Labor Day. Thanks for your patience and interest!}