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Peak Oil Matters

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


Archive for September, 2010

This one needs no embellishment of any kind. One of the simplest, best essays about Peak Oil I’ve ever read.

If you are a proponent of Peak Oil, this is as good of summary of the basic talking posts as you’ll find.

If you are one of those who doubts the facts and reality of Peak Oil, Sharon’s post will clarify the topic as well as anyone has. (And if you still doubt after this … read it again!)

It’s difficult to ignore the insane workings of Washington these days, or the nearly-incomprehensible levels of narrow-mindedness and outright stupidity exhibited by some political “leaders” and pseudo-political celebrities. Have we all become that gullible and apathetic that the nonsense routinely spouted by these same public figures really doesn’t matter (or worse, that we actually find their hypocrisy acceptable)? Some of the positions taken are beyond shameful, but the prevailing actions and beliefs suggest that as long as you can get away with it, keep doing it.

Somewhere, it seems, a blood oath has been taken that if a proposed solution or policy is not absolutely perfect or risk-and harm-free for every single constituency, it will simply be shouted down, especially if it’s proposed from “the other side.” Almost no one, it seems, appears to understand that policies and proposals affect all of us well beyond the two week time frame everyone seems to labor under. It appears that Peak Oil and global warming suffer treatment no different. No one is willing to recognize the fact that whatever adaptive measures will be needed in a future with limited fossil fuel availability, those changes are going to cost us all … a lot, and they won’t be fixed or in place by early next week.

Our leaders are so afraid to upset even the smallest or weirdest constituency that they’re paralyzing the governing process. By constantly making the perfect the enemy of the good and/or practicing blatant obstructionism for the sake of blatant obstructionism, we run the real risk of making this country ungovernable in issues that matter most. (Hell of a victory!) The failure to appreciate the long-term consequences of these behaviors is just going to make things so much more difficult for all of us. Why? More importantly, why are we allowing this to happen?

The incredible short-sightedness expressed in some comments and positions staked out by leading Republican and conservative Democrat candidates and commentators, and the cowardice of far too many Democrats—specifically as they relate here to public transportation—are beyond troubling. (I could write forever about shortsightedness and insanity on matters of general politics!) It’s not the first time I’ve raised similar issues (here), but in light of upcoming elections, there is an increased sense of urgency and a need to help others think critically about the stakes involved.

Well over half of the world’s oil consumption is devoted to transportation, as is certainly the case here in the United States. What person in his or her right mind truthfully thinks that that can continue for many more years? It’s hard to fathom that these politicians and candidates simply do not get it, and thus feel no sense of responsibility to speak out about the energy challenges we will face because oil production is pretty close to (or already at) its peak.

For those of us who care deeply about our future, the futures of our children, the prospects for this wonderful country, and who understand how much change and challenge we will be facing in the near-years to come in the face of declining oil production, this lunacy is beyond frustrating. We’re bartering away our prospects for success, prosperity, and well-being in the decades to come because no one has the courage or wisdom to appreciate that a broader and bigger vision is needed apart from and beyond the politics of the day.

Almost no one seems capable of stepping back and articulating an intelligent strategy for the future that doesn’t quickly descend into lame-ass political gamesmanship. The Party of No is bound and determined to make certain that no worthwhile Democratic policy is passed for no other reason than it’s being proposed by a President they are irrationally incapable of accepting. And Democrats now appear to be afraid of their own shadows and won’t risk articulating a stand on positions unless all 300 million+ Americans are on board first. What’s going on?

This ongoing farce of “I’m always right and you’re always wrong” is why we elect politicians?! I thought the theory was that we would send to Washington men and women who were blessed with a commitment to doing what’s right for everyone, and who could step aside from the partisan short term considerations and help articulate for all of us plans to encourage our growth and well-being in the face of whatever challenges come our way. (Hard to shake the idealist in me.) Instead, I fear that we’ve become a complacent nation allowing ourselves to soon be governed by a cabal of loud, short-sighted, dim-witted, narrow-minded hypocrites whose primary function seems to be a determination to pander to the lowest common denominator of the least-intelligent citizens who elect them, with an ample supply of knucklehead candidates standing in the wings. Are we so cowardly, so timid in the face of our fears and worries and concerns, that we have abandoned all sense of responsibility or rational thought? I’m pretty sure that’s not how we’ve done things in the past.

If someone doesn’t fix the problem today or by early next week at the latest, we’ll just toss them out and try another group for a couple more weeks. Have we all lost our minds?! At what point do we decide that our understandable fears and concerns and frustrations simply do not lend themselves to easy resolution, prompt resolution, or resolution in ways we’ve all come to believe and expect will do the trick? When are the grown-ups going to show up?

Lashing out and “punishing” those who couldn’t fix everything in 24 hours may serve some visceral need, but the issues we are confronting and will be facing soon enough require a modicum of intelligent planning, mixed with a healthy recognition and respect for the fact that none of these needed changes and adaptations will be free, easy, or quick. Changes will either be forced upon us, or we can create the parameters for progress under new rules by considering the many opportunities we will have, even in the midst of this oppressive downturn.

The truth is that times have changed, and the hopes or expectations that business-as-usual is just around the corner are false ones making our tasks and challenges that much more difficult. This Great Recession and the difficulties we’ll soon be confronted with by declining fossil fuel production (and let’s not forget the climate issues) mandate that we approach these problems differently. The issues cannot be positioned as right-or left-wing matters. All of us will be affected, and obviously many already have been. Climate change, our economic woes, and diminishing oil production worry not at all about the politics of those who will be impacted.

And as for Peak Oil and its impact on business and transportation specifically:

“Intent on demonstrating their resistance to virtually all of President Obama’s policy objectives, Republicans nationwide have staked out an anti-rail position that they hope will stand out as the fiscally reasonable choice when they present themselves in this fall’s elections….

“If Republican-led state governments are unwilling to commit to spending their own dollars on these projects, they simply will not be built. Since intercity rail projects are long-term investments, even if the federal government has already agreed to sponsor some investments, the takeover of a governor’s mansion by an anti-rail Republican could mean putting a full-stop in infrastructure development. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s announcement last week of a work stoppage on the ARC tunnel project shows, this could affect even projects that have already entered the construction phase. [1]

How idiotic! When the time comes to deal with the myriad transportation-related problems Peak Oil will have created—when there is no other choice but for all of us to make far greater use of public transit options than we do now—we’ll be years and years behind in developing the networks and infrastructure needed. The result: even more hardship for even more citizens—with fewer financial and energy resources available to institute the vast changes which will then be required. Now there’s a sound strategy!

Notwithstanding the tin foil hat wearers who seem to think that oil bubbles up from the core of the Earth in endless quantities and supply, the hard truth is that oil production has been at a plateau for several years now, and it is not going to get better! We’re done! Yes, we will still have billions of barrels available to us for many years to come. I do not dispute that. The occasional “giant” oil field may still be found—the type of field which if produced to its maximum may buy us literally a few more months or a couple of years of oil at most—and we may develop more technologies to assist in producing oil from the shale and tar sand deposits around the world, (or to develop acceptable alternative forms of energy), but it is all and will all be: more expensive and time-consuming to extract, of poorer quality and thus more dependent on more and costlier refining, subject to more international restrictions and political complications than ever before, and quite simply much more difficult to find and access. In the end, these pursuits will change almost nothing, but they will certainly exacerbate a situation that will be more complex and disruptive than most of us can envision—a thought that provides me with absolutely no comfort.

And all the while Planet Earth’s citizens are demanding more and more oil. The math simply does not work. Put any kind of spin you want on it, cherry-pick whatever short term facts suit your fancy, but the truth is the truth, and facts are facts. Oil production is not likely to going to get much better than it is now and has been for several years, and once the decline “officially” begins, we’re all going to have to make sacrifices and change our ways of living.

“Prof. William Rees of UBC, co-inventor of the ecological footprint concept, maintains that we are, as a species, already in ‘ecological overshoot’ mode. Ecological overshoot is the point at which human activities are draining down more resources from the planet than the planet can resupply.

“In Rees’s estimation, we are ‘draining down’ the planet’s ‘capital’” now. Even more depressing, he also maintains that if every person on the planet enjoyed the same consumption levels as North Americans, it would take six planets to supply them.” [2]

These are not stats created out of thin air! The Right in particular owes it to the people of this nation to start paying attention to facts instead of the nonsense that they continue to permit their most extreme partisans to spout. The leaders and pretenders have a responsibility to educate, not pander. Denying the truth for selfish political considerations certainly won’t help them much in the future when some serious finger-pointing starts taking place. But why worry about the future, right? Something is bound to save the day. Good luck with that approach.

If we want to continue to have the freedom to travel about as we now do, if we want our industries to continue to produce as they do (or once did), if we want to maintain some semblance of the lifestyles we now live (and for all of my continuing optimism, I’m not at all optimistic that any of this will actually remain possible on the scope it now does), then our transportation options are going to change. Whether we’d prefer that or not will be irrelevant. Peak Oil simply will not care.

And as much as we Americans feel entitled to whatever quantities of fossil fuel we could possibly want or need because … well, just because we’re Americans, another hard truth is that that strategy won’t be working for us much longer. It will not matter if you like that or not; or prefer/demand it to be different; or you just hope I’m wrong. Peak Oil is Peak Oil, and the mounting evidence about diminishing long-term production capabilities is beyond rational debate. You are free to continue to listen to those who have some bizarre vested interest in skewing the truths about oil production, but do so at your own future risk. We’ll all suffer that much more. Thanks!

Are we really going to permit ourselves to remain complacent and even ignorant about the truth? Besides buying time and avoidance, what exactly is that accomplishing?

I’m already clearly on record here as stating that I’m no different than most: I do not want to give up our family’s “toys”, our luxury autos, our 50-miles-away beach home, and all the other trappings my incredible wife’s successes and skills have provided us. I can’t say I particularly enjoy contemplating these matters. Would we prefer being enlightened, involved, and at least marginally prepared, or is ignoring the problem really the best way to handle the energy challenges we’ll all soon be facing?

It’s not going to matter if you’d prefer using your car instead of public transportation, or that it’s too cold or too hot to walk to public transit, or that the bags you have to carry are too heavy, or that public transit isn’t close by or as convenient or as pleasant or any other perfectly legitimate objection. Peak Oil will not care, and your cars will sit in the garage and we’ll all be scratching our heads wondering how we get from here to there because politicians and business leaders in 2009 and 2010 were too shortsighted and narrow-minded to understand what we needed to prepare for, and because we stupidly bought what they were selling mostly because we couldn’t be bothered. We bear our fair share of responsibility for this. It’s not enough to blame others for not telling us that the math of supply and demand wasn’t going to continue working in our favor.

We love our automobiles … all (nearly) three hundred million of them. But 99% of them run on gasoline, and we’re soon going to be paying ever higher amounts for that privilege, assuming we have gas available to us as regularly and as easily as we now do (which we won’t somewhere down the line). That’s going to change … maybe not in 2010 or 2012 or 2016, but what’s most essential to understand is that it’s going to change long, long before we have taken anywhere near enough steps to figure out and implement necessary alternatives. Public transportation for the masses is inevitable, and the ardent deniers of that—those who oppose public funding for transportation initiatives—are going to be the ones primarily responsible for the difficulties we’ll be facing in the years to come. They can’t bear all responsibility, however. The facts are available to all of us, and those who prefer to remain blissfully ignorant about the challenges and consequences will have no one to blame but the face in the mirror when suddenly, or not-so-suddenly, we can’t just hop into our car and run ten errands today … either because gas is now off-the-charts expensive or because it’s not available as it used to be, and we weren’t bright enough when we had the chance to start making different commitments about our future. Those are the facts we will be facing much sooner than we’re prepared to.

It would be nice if this problem lent itself to a quick fix and at minimal cost, but the truth is that no alternatives fit that bill, and we’re already too far behind as it is in developing alternatives sources of energy and modes of transit. It’s also a hard truth that we will for the foreseeable future still need to get from here to there, and the public transportation alternatives are going to be the only viable ones—even though they will surely not serve as the ideal solution for all people in all instances. We can pout and stomp our feet and blame liberals and all the rest, but none of that will get us from here to there. Yes, it’s an expensive and long-term commitment; yes, it will be inconvenient—perhaps greatly so; yes, it will entail more changes to our ways of living and producing than we could possibly imagine tolerating. Deal with it. And while you’re at it, get used to the fact that a hands-off approach by government is not the answer. The problems will be too big and too wide-spread to leave it to “the marketplace” to fix on its own.

If we fail to recognize that we will much too soon be playing by a different set of rules governing our economy, industry, and lifestyles, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves; but that’s of absolutely no solace whatsoever. We still won’t be able to get from here to there.

Peak Oil is not a great mystery. If you have a reservoir of water and 1000 people make use of it every day for all their needs, the reservoir is slowly but surely going to be depleted when only smaller bodies of water are now being found (if at all) and those finds are not matching the amount of water being used or are not nearly as plentiful as the big, easy to find and now-depleting reservoirs have been. If 2000 people are now looking to make use of that reservoir and they have even more needs, it will deplete faster. Because the other reservoirs are also suffering the same fate in varying stages, problems are inevitable. Some are going to have to do without and/or change what they need.

Why does anyone think that the applicable math for, and the rules of, fossil fuels are any different?

We’ve been using more than oil we’ve been finding for nearly 3 decades now, and hundreds of millions more people are now demanding their fair share. Whatever unconventional sources or alternatives we’re relying on technology to provide can’t keep up the pace. The math just isn’t that complicated! Is there some vast conspiracy out there where gazillions of barrels of oil are being kept hidden because … because … why?

One recent article criticized Amtrak service through rural parts of New England, complaining (legitimately, to be sure) about the infrequent and unavailable rail services where and when needed (complete with an unnecessary, snarky jab at the Kennedy family of all things—the conservative strategy in a nutshell: use emotional buzz words when you don’t really have a meaningful point to make. I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that part of the Right’s ongoing strategy is to count on its followers not appreciating or understanding the facts.)

Well … duh! That level of inefficient service is true right now! The whole point of these types of long-term (and to be sure, very costly) investments are to make a huge difference in the future when it will be almost mandatory that we use other modes of transit, but these funding delays and criticisms (again making the perfect the enemy of the good) will create even worse hardships later on, because we will not be able to make the time- and money-sucking changes on such short notice. By all means let’s continue to kick the can down the street. We’ll keep doing so until we fall off a cliff.

Fear, ignorance, or avoidance are certainly some options we have at our disposal.

How about opportunity? This is a great nation, with a great citizenry, and a history of rising to challenges that have felled lesser peoples. Peak Oil could certainly cripple us in the years to come, but another option is that we have the chance right now to collectively move ourselves forward and re-make our society and ways of living and being. It won’t happen quickly, it won’t happen easily, it won’t happen without sacrifice, it most certainly won’t be free, and it is not going to happen by washing our hands of responsibility to recognize the challenges and then fashion different solutions than the ones that used to work in the good ‘ole days. This is an “all in” proposition, and that means dealing with the facts and setting aside the bluster and nonsense of partisan stupidity.

Waiting for perfect solutions guarantees waiting for perfect solutions.

The opportunity to envision new ways of living and producing and then rising above the political nonsense that so poisons our everyday lives is one we have every reason to embrace. What rule says that a future not dependent on fossil fuels is a lesser future?

We’re damned if we spend money, and damned if we don’t. Although it’s clear that spending money has its own inherent consequences, doing nothing or less just doesn’t seem to be the wisest course of action. Standing pat isn’t a solution at all.



[1]; Republican Wave Could Spell Trouble for High-Speed Rail Projects from Coast to Coast by Yonah Freemark – September 22nd, 2010

[2]; How to Get People Out of Their Cars – Rule 3 for sustainable communities: Locate commercial services, frequent transit and schools within a five-minute walk. By By Patrick M. Condon, 23 September 2010.

Worth noting:

As a follow-up to last week’s post about Robert Hirsch and Charles Maxwell, two related interviews with Robert Hirsch found their way into the blogosphere and are well worth reading.

I haven’t touched on too many geopolitical issues (but see here and here for examples) as they bear upon Peak Oil, but that is a result of choices made, and not a determination that the subject is unimportant.

The recent publication of both German and Australian reports on Peak Oil (here and here—the subject of an upcoming post) have sparked a great deal of interest and chatter on the internet, and deservedly so. Coming on the heels of several other high profile reports this year, such as the United States Joint Forces Command’s Joint Operating Environment (JOE) report and a Lloyd’s/Chatham House white paper, keeping government concerns about Peak Oil away from public attention is becoming increasingly difficult.

The report from Germany cited above suggests that Peak Oil will happen this year, and it paints a disturbing picture of potential foreign relation and energy supply problems that will surely not be limited to Germany. The JOE report is not much more sanguine about future international challenges and potential conflicts, although it did not assert a specific date for Peak Oil (but did express serious reservations about the stability and availability of adequate supplies beyond the next few years).

As oil supplies diminish over time, the relative importance of oil-producing nations will likely increase, and with that added influence and power will be the likelihood that U.S. and other Western nations may find their preferences and “values” playing second fiddle to the preferences and values of those foreign suppliers—not all of whom share our ideals and objectives. It’s not at all far-fetched to consider the real possibility that active resistance to the growing political and economic might of these new international power players may result in a swift curtailment of oil supplies. That’s a powerful club for the Russias and Venezuelas and Saudi Arabias of the world to suddenly wield.

Seven of the fifteen largest suppliers of oil to the United States are on the State Department’s Travel Warning List, for their “long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable.” [1] Who knows how the internal politics of those nations will play out in the years to come, and what the international/energy supply and security ramifications might be? Saudi Arabia, long-recognized as the leading oil exporter, has its own set of internal issues to contend with, as both Matthew Wild and this article make clear. We cannot passively assume that our primary suppliers of oil will remain so.

Relying on potentially unstable suppliers is not the most optimistic strategy, and we don’t have too many alternatives right now. Ignoring these geopolitical considerations is even less prudent.

Furthermore, the declining availability of fossil fuels will just as likely limit the opportunities we have to export our preferences and values to other nations in need of our assistance. Diminished influence in the international arena will carry its own set of consequences.

Coupled with the loss of political influence is the likelihood that our ability to project military might and protection will also be lessened. The military is the largest consumer of fossil fuels. If we continue to allocate the same percentages of energy supplies to our military, what happens to the rest of us? How will an even smaller pie be divided? And if we allocate fossil fuel supplies in the same proportions now, what happens to the comfort and security we derive from our then-decreased military capabilities? (The flip side, of course, is that proactively decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels lessens the need to project our military all over the world and at exorbitant costs—financial and otherwise.)

And let’s also not forget that diminishing supplies with the onset of peak oil production means that other nations will vie more aggressively for their fair share of oil supplies. The United States may find itself playing an international game it is not at all accustomed to playing—or prepared to play at all. Acceding to the types of political, economic or ideological “favors” that future suppliers may insist upon could prove a very difficult pill for this country’s leaders and citizens to swallow.

A sampling of headlines from just a few articles over the past few months about China’s aggressive acquisition of future oil supplies suggests another problem. They have the means to tie up a good chunk of future supply, and that behavior may be indicative of how future energy transactions take place, as the German report suggests.

“China Global Oil Shopping Spree” [2]

“China’s Global Shopping Spree” [3]

“Saudis Tighten China Energy Ties to Reduce U.S. Dependence” [4]

“China Looking To Make More Loan-For-Oil Deals – report” [5]

“China Now Controls Majority Of Canada’s Athabasca Oil Sands Corp” [6]

The longstanding practices of free market purchase and sale may not prove to be as enduring as we would expect. As the German report noted, “[b]ilateral, conditioned supply agreements and privileged partnerships, such as those seen prior to the oil crises of the 1970s, will once again come to the fore.” Suffering as we do from our arrogance and sense of entitlement because we’re Americans, the change in oil market practices in coming years will prove to be a distinct and unpleasant shock to our political and economic systems, with consequences spreading far and wide. We won’t be the only nation suffering, either, but that will be of little consolation.

Let’s also not ignore the fact that as supplier nations’ populations increase (Matthew Wild suggests that Saudi Arabia could have as many as 45 – 50 million people in twenty years’ time, more than double its 2000 population [7]), the needs of their own citizens will surely take precedence of those in other countries. Exports are usually derived from excess production after domestic usage is accounted for. (Mexico—one of our primary suppliers—has seen its oil exports to us decline by more than a third in just five years. That trend won’t be reversing course. That’s not encouraging.)

With hundreds of millions of citizens in less-developed parts of the world seeking their own version of the American Dream, where will that leave the gluttonous U.S. demand to be satisfied? (“Should China’s total per capita oil consumption reach the level of the United States, they will require basically all of the world’s current oil production. While it is highly unlikely that China’s per capita oil consumption will reach that level, even if it reaches half of the current U.S. level, they will require 40.7 million BOPD.” [8] That’s almost half of the world’s daily usage … not comforting.)

We’re beyond foolish and ignorant if we think that we’re always going to be first in line when oil is passed out just because we’re America.

Any sense that these are issues “out there” and not really affecting us in our daily, personal lives is a risk we should not be taking. What happens out in the real world oil markets has a direct impact on each and every one of us. The more information and understanding we possess, the better our chances of doing something to help mitigate the very real impact and consequences of declining oil production and supply. It’s understandably far more preferable to let “others” work on these issues, but we must give voice to our own concerns so that decisions and practices eventually implemented will have some marginal comfort and familiarity to us.

We are probably beyond the point where we can fully and properly prepare for effortless accommodations and transitions away from fossil fuel dependency, but having a say in how we all must deal with the effects of Peak Oil will help make those transitions more palatable.

Small consolations indeed.

Sources & References:

[1] – Exponentially on purpose: a century-and-a-half of ignored warnings – Published by Peak Generation on Fri, 09/03/2010 by Matthew Wild

[2]; Posted on Mar. 02, 2010 By Michael Economides, ET editor in chief, and Xina Xie, ET China correspondent

[3]; 04/01/2010




[7] (full cite above)

[8] – Have we passed the point of Peak Oil? by Glen Allen

“What is not yet widely appreciated is that rehabilitation from our oil addiction will take 50 years. That is how long past transitions to new energy sources took because that’s how long it takes to replace the infrastructure that produces and consumes energy.” [1]

Several years ago, in a seminal, well-regarded, and oft-cited project (“The Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management”—commonly cited as the Hirsch Report) sponsored by the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the Department of Energy (PDF here), energy advisor Robert L. Hirsch and his colleagues issued a challenge of sorts, after setting forth a fundamental but daunting truth at the outset:

“The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.”

“Mitigation will require an intense effort over decades. This inescapable conclusion is based on the time required to replace vast numbers of liquid fuel consuming vehicles and the time required to build a substantial number of substitute fuel production facilities. Our scenarios analysis shows:

• Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action would leave the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.

• Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.

• Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.”

“The obvious conclusion from this analysis is that with adequate, timely mitigation, the economic costs to the world can be minimized. If mitigation were to be too little, too late, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), which would translate to significant economic hardship.
“There will be no quick fixes. Even crash programs will require more than a decade to yield substantial relief.”

Not exactly filled with a lot of happy talk, but matters of that (ongoing) critical importance to so many demand nothing less.

In a recent interview, Hirsch expounded on his current views of the imminence of Peak Oil, and is of the considered opinion that we’re just a handful of years away from that point. Coming on the heels of another terrific interview, this time with Charles Maxwell, a well-respected energy analyst (who at best appears only slightly more optimistic than Mr. Hirsch), it seems we have even more reason to be concerned about the onset of peak oil production and its implications. A consensus among legitimate analysts and experts suggest that we’re already at peak, or, like Maxwell and Hirsch, believe it’s only a matter of a few years at most before we simply cannot produce enough oil to meet demand, and will then never be able to do so again. Peak Oil is knocking at the door, and it’s not going away.

A more recent report, this time from the Australia Institute (link to PDF here), echoed a similar theme to that of the Hirsch report:

“As with climate change, the most cost-effective response to the inevitable but uncertain timing of peak oil is to invest in early adaptation. It will be impossible to redesign cities, switch the vehicle fleet to new forms of fuel and transform the location decisions of  producers in a timely manner after the oil supply has peaked. Early investment in adaptation measures will pay high dividends in the future, whether in response to peak oil, climate change or simply better city design and reduced congestion on roads.”

Certainly, we’re well past the 10 or 20 year timeline advisory recommended by the Hirsch Report. That’s a problem—a much bigger one than we can possibly imagine, especially if, like me, you continue to bank on the hope that we’ll find a reasonable group of at least marginally-adequate substitutes in the not-too-distant future.

Throwing a cold blanket on that notion is a report issued last year by the Post Carbon Institute, wherein the following conclusion was offered:

“Can any combination of known energy sources successfully supply society’s energy needs at least up to the year 2100?  In the end, we are left with the disturbing conclusion that all known energy sources are subject to strict limits of one kind or another.

“Conventional energy sources such as oil, gas, coal, and nuclear are either at or nearing the limits of their ability to grow in annual supply, and will dwindle as the decades proceed—but in any case they are unacceptably hazardous to the environment.

“And contrary to the hopes of many, there is no clear practical scenario by which we can replace the energy from today’s conventional sources with sufficient energy from alternative  sources to sustain industrial society at its present scale of operations. To achieve such a transition would require (1) a vast financial investment beyond society’s practical abilities, (2) a very long time—too long in practical terms—for build-out, and (3) significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.”

In other words, “uh-oh!”

I’ve been a strong advocate throughout that we all need to come to terms with the fact that our industrial and personal lifestyles, dominated as they are by the abundant need for fossil fuels, simply cannot continue indefinitely as is. It’s been a hell of a ride, but it’s coming to an end soon. How involved more of us become and how committed we are to finding acceptable means of adaptation will determine how successful our societies will be, and what kind of prosperity we pass on to future generations. Waiting for someone else to fix this isn’t even in the ballpark of decent options available to us.

Our infrastructure, our ways of manufacturing and transporting goods and services, the manner in which we conduct our everyday lives, and indeed almost every facet of living each day in any manner is made possible only because of the ease with which we’ve been able to make use of a so-far always available supply of oil and gas.

Those days are numbered. When that exact point in time might be when we reach Peak Oil (if not already) is irrelevant. If it did not happen in the past few years as many far more knowledgeable than me suggest, then it’s just a few more years down the road at most. The year that happens—2012, 2017, 2020—isn’t nearly as important as the fact that we’re already “too late” by the measures set forth in the Hirsch Report.

And every day that we ignore the problem, or listen to hope-filled invocations from those who insist that the magic of the marketplace and technology will come to the rescue (or worse, the claims of real oddballs who cannot seem to grasp the simple truth that oil is indeed a finite resource) is another day that we lose in our efforts to achieve some semblance of minimally disruptive transitions away from our incredibly expensive and damaging reliance on fossil fuel. That we may technically have several more decades of proven reserves of the stuff isn’t enough of a solution, not when we start considering how truly dependent we are for fossil fuels in every facet of our live. Individuals, neighborhoods, communities, cities and towns, state and national governments, small businesses, big businesses, international businesses—every single one of them is dependent in no small measure on having oil at the ready to function and grow.

Seems to me we have some big problems … and very little in the way of solutions; certainly none that will come to the fore in any semblance of reasonable time. We have too many leaders with their heads buried deep in the sands who fail to understand what is at stake and what types of investments will be needed (Great Recession notwithstanding); we have others who lack the courage (understandable, quite frankly) to explain to us what energy problems we’re about to face, and too few others willing to speak unvarnished truths about the challenges of Peak Oil. That’s not helpful.

I hate doom and gloom! Those who know me best will assure you that I am by and large an extremely optimistic person, and remain so (not without struggle) as I delve into the peak oil challenge more and more.

But there is no getting around the fact that we face monumental challenges in the years to come, challenges that no measure of denial, or pretending otherwise, or issuing pronouncements of dubious validity and reason, or ignorance can overcome. Facts are facts, and the fact is that we’re not producing any longer nearly enough oil to keep pace with what we’ll continue to need in the future, and what the hundreds of millions worldwide desire in order to improve their own lives. At some point in time, wishful thinking and denying the truth won’t prevent the pool from being drained, and our pool of readily available fossil fuel supplies is soon enough going to reach that point as well. There simply won’t be enough at acceptable prices in acceptable production periods with acceptable efforts and in acceptable supply to meet all our needs all the time.

What happens then?

And if any sentient being is expecting that we’ll just simply move on to the next source of energy in a week or two once that moment arrives, then they are in the grips of delusions far too deep for me to appreciate.

We’re either in this together—leading the search for and determining the changes needed—or we’ll be the unfortunate victims of changes imposed.

We need to start having serious discussions about obvious truths. Peak Oil is about as obvious as it gets.


[1] BEWILDERED BY PEAK OIL ECONOMICS By W. Jackson Davis; Denver Post OpEd, 10/16/2008