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

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Imagine, if you can, that there is a resource everyone likes to use.  They like to use it for convenience: it lets them go places, have neat things, eat the foods they want no matter what time of year it is….
Now imagine, if you can, that this resource begins to become scarce. Imagine that the world could not discover any new supplies of this resource, nor could they produce it any faster. Imagine this was because the ‘easy’ supplies had already been used, and now the more difficult to reach supplies were economically disadvantageous to access… What would happen to the supply of this resource? It would dwindle. And what would happen to all the items that were made from it? They would rise in price. And what would happen if the resource became so scarce that not everyone could have it? How would people react? [1]

How indeed?

While it would be so much easier and better if we only had to imagine this scenario, Reality is telling us a different story—magical technology and bazillions of barrels of shale oil and tar sands underground notwithstanding. Likely consequences are certainly unpleasant, enduring, and far-reaching—all the more so if we aren’t planning to do much about it in advance, as seems clear.

Given that there are almost no aspects of everyday living and producing which are not dependent in large or small part on the ready availability of affordable, high-quality conventional crude oil, Peak Oil will leave few aspects of life-as-we-know-it untouched. It’s all the more important we recognize that the various “Plan B” substitutes/alternatives don’t provide us with the same combination of energy efficiency, accessibility, affordability, and supply. Changes in all that we do, use, own, make, transport, etc., etc., are inevitable.

A little foresight will go a long way. A lot more foresight would be better.

With that in mind, here’s the latest contribution to my Peak Oil’s Impact series—observations and commentary on how Peak Oil’s influence will be felt in little, never-give-it-thought, day-to-day aspects of the conventional crude oil-based Life As We’ve Known It. A little food for thought….[A follow-up to last week’s post on the U.S. Olympic Training Centers]

~ ~ ~

The Olympic Games are now underway. It remains one of our great cultural and athletic events—a spectacle unlike any other.

Two hundred-plus nations. Hundreds of events. More than ten thousand athletes. Hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of British citizens and visitors and volunteers and workers and trainers and broadcasters and chefs and hotel staffers and providers of transportation and a near-endless list of others. An amazing undertaking by any measure.

A Few Considerations….

Different venue, but still wondering….

How do teams [and/or individual athletes] … deal with travel issues and schedules when gas is much too expensive … 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 because budgeting all that money to drive [or fly] to an in- or out-of-state stadium no longer makes financial sense…?
What happens to the vendors and other suppliers when the majority of fans just stop  attending…? [2]

 

And what of all the related transportation services dependent on all these flights: rental cars, limos, taxis, hotels, restaurants, airport gift shops and the like? What happens to them, and their employees, and their suppliers? What kind of plans have been discussed in the boardrooms?
How many employees in each of those industries, each individual business establishment, and each spouse or partner or child dependent on each one of those countless employees might be adversely impacted when those businesses start to feel the serious pinch of declining energy supplies…?
And what of the ripple effect?
What happens when this air travel decline is extended to hotels and rental cars and all the rest; when rental cars are either much more costly and/or there are less of them to begin with? What happens when the preferred hotels have downsized because business and tourist travel has declined? [3]

 

What happens when the mind-boggling efforts in planning, preparing, transporting, supplying, delivering, etc., etc. needed to stage this incredible event by countless thousands of individuals and merchants and organizations and government officials are simply no longer feasible because every single entity up and down the supply and service chain is faced with the reality of insufficient availability of “affordable”, quality, energy supply to make this extravaganza happen?
How many economic dominoes tumble as a result? How many businesses lose out? How many employees? [4]

And A Few Details

A fascinating story about the construction of London’s Olympic Stadium is just one account of the awe-inspiring levels of planning and preparation and work required by countless tens of thousands to stage this great event.

An entry in Wikipedia details the incredible breadth of plans and preparations and considerations and activities engaged in by London officials and others in the years leading up to these 2012 London Games. Construction; redevelopment; addressing and adapting to citizen concerns and opposition; funding (billions of dollars); security concerns; private and public transportation (including new high-speed rail service and the construction of a cable car system); lodging, meals, and the staffing of and supplying for same; marketing; broadcasting; entertainment; and last but not least: the creation of needed facilities, supplies for same, and services for and on behalf of the athletes, their families, and assorted staff serve as an overview of the countless details attended to in advance of the Games.

Aside from the obvious costs, manpower, effort, and time, all of the above and the myriad assortment of other preparations each and all require energy … a LOT of energy, and of necessity a LOT of fossil-fuel derived energy to meet and plan and travel to and construct and implement and coordinate and oversee and experience.

I’m not anticipating that the Olympic Games and the years of preparation required will cease to be anytime in the near future, but the reality of Peak Oil will affect this event just as it will every other commercial enterprise.

What happens when there simply isn’t enough energy to make all of this happen as smoothly and effortlessly (I use those terms loosely) as has been the case to this point? How high a priority do we—and every other nation—assign to our Olympic athletes and the stupendous amount of resources and plans and preparations they need when we’re no longer dealing with the same quantities and quality of affordable and accessible energy supplies?

How much magic does “human ingenuity” and the Technology Fairy have at the ready for just this one spectacle?

It will take an incredible amount of planning and thought to figure out an appropriate Plan B just for this one event … how much more planning and thought will be needed for everything else? [5]

* My Photo: Fenway Park, Boston – June 1, 2010

Sources:

[1] http://americanendgame.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/peak-oil/; Peak Oil: Why Gas Prices are Never Coming Down by Dark Smith [“a former liberal … now firmly planted in the independent libertarian camp”] – 02.25.12
[2] http://peakoilmatters.com/2010/06/09/peak-oils-impact-1/; Peak Oil’s Impact # 1
[3] http://peakoilmatters.com/2012/02/02/peak-oils-impact-winter-travel/; Peak Oil’s Impact: Winter Travel
[4] & [5] http://peakoilmatters.com/2012/02/16/peak-oils-impact-the-super-bowl/; Peak Oil’s Impact: The Super Bowl

 

 

Imagine, if you can, that there is a resource everyone likes to use.  They like to use it for convenience: it lets them go places, have neat things, eat the foods they want no matter what time of year it is….
Now imagine, if you can, that this resource begins to become scarce. Imagine that the world could not discover any new supplies of this resource, nor could they produce it any faster. Imagine this was because the ‘easy’ supplies had already been used, and now the more difficult to reach supplies were economically disadvantageous to access… What would happen to the supply of this resource? It would dwindle. And what would happen to all the items that were made from it? They would rise in price. And what would happen if the resource became so scarce that not everyone could have it? How would people react? [1]

How indeed?

While it would be so much easier and better if we only had to imagine this scenario, Reality is telling us a different story—magical technology and bazillions of barrels of shale oil and tar sands underground notwithstanding. Likely consequences are certainly unpleasant, enduring, and far-reaching—all the more so if we aren’t planning to do much about it in advance, as seems clear.

Given that there are almost no aspects of everyday living and producing which are not dependent in large or small part on the ready availability of affordable, high-quality conventional crude oil, Peak Oil will leave few aspects of life-as-we-know-it untouched. It’s all the more important we recognize that the various “Plan B” substitutes/alternatives don’t provide us with the same combination of energy efficiency, accessibility, affordability, and supply. Changes in all that we do, use, own, make, transport, etc., etc., are inevitable.

A little foresight will go a long way. A lot more foresight would be better.

With that in mind, here’s the latest contribution to my Peak Oil’s Impact series—observations and commentary on how Peak Oil’s influence will be felt in little, never-give-it-thought, day-to-day aspects of the conventional crude oil-based Life As We’ve Known It. A little food for thought….

One of the great cultural and athletic events on this planet is soon upon us: The Olympic Games are about to begin.

More than 200 nations will participate in over 300 sporting events, involving an estimated 10,500 athletes, and who knows how many hundreds of thousands (millions, more likely) of others lending their assistance and expertise to prepare the athletes for the world’s biggest sporting spectacle.

U.S. Training Facilities

Our own Olympic and Paralympic athletes enjoy the benefits of three separate campuses, located in Colorado Springs, CO; Lake Placid, NY, and Chula Vista, CA. In addition, there is an Education Center in Michigan and five other training sites. The Wikipedia site indicates that some athletes live at these sites for “months or years” while other athletes attend the sites for a variety of services offered (e.g., a sports science and sports medicine center, a broad array of training facilities, and a dining hall and two residence halls). Let’s not forget that “Over 15 other member organizations, as well as two international sports federations, and the USOC headquarters are located nearby in Colorado Springs.”

That’s a lot of people and a lot of athletes doing a lot of traveling from a lot of different places on a lot of occasions using a lot of resources for a lot of months in preparation for the Games.

Planning and staffing and supplying these training facilities for our athletes is no mean feat. Years of effort are required by countless thousands to put the structures into place to prepare our athletes for this incredible commitment and effort.

A Small Dose Of Fossil Fuel Reality

For all the recent unbound optimism that fracking is our Great Energy Savior, facts suggest that the billions in shale oil reserves are not quite the be-all and end-all of our energy concerns. Producing a few million barrels of day (in time) is a whole lot better than not, but when factoring in depletion rates on the current, higher-quality, more efficient, affordable, easier-accessible conventional crude oil supplies we’ve been milking for more than a century (did I mention that these are finite resources?), it’s not quite as encouraging as petroleum industry shills would have us believe.

And so again the questions arise: what happens when the crude oil we’ve grown so accustomed to having available as and when needed at acceptable prices is … not? What happens when all of us have to make do with less? What happens when our crude oil-dependent lifestyles are forced to adapt in all kinds of ways to lifestyles without  the same measure of that most fundamental of resources?

Assigning Priorities

Does maintenance of our Olympic training facilities carry a higher priority than your and your family’s and your neighbors day-to-day needs? Local physicians? Dentists? Fire safety? Trash collection? School bus service? The list grows long, quickly.

How high a priority will travel to and from our magnificent Olympic Training Centers have in a future where we simply do not have the quality and quantity of energy supplies at the ready—in no small part because the leaders we otherwise depend on are doing almost noting to educate us and prepare us for that too-soon future?

Back in February, in discussing the myriad efforts and resources and planning and what-nots associated with the National Football League’s Championship game, I asked this: What if there was no Super Bowl game?

What I wondered in that Super Bowl post is no less relevant now: What if we didn’t have enough energy resources to staff and supply our Olympic Training Centers? What if athletes couldn’t affordably and/or practically get there?

What happens when the mind-boggling efforts in planning, preparing, transporting, supplying, delivering, etc., etc. needed … by countless thousands of individuals and merchants and organizations … are simply no longer feasible because every single entity up and down the supply and service chain is faced with the reality of insufficient availability of ‘affordable’, quality, energy supply…?
How many economic dominoes tumble as a result? How many businesses lose out? How many employees?

I suppose there would be some limited, selfish acceptance if these issues and concerns were limited to those Olympic athletes and related personnel. Reality suggests the consequences of Peak Oil might be a bit more expansive than that.

Adaptations and sacrifices loom, even if they aren’t about to be forced upon us this year or next or even the couple thereafter. Who cares when? We’re using more and more of a finite resource every day, one whose substitutes simply don’t match its affordability and efficiency (among other attributes).

Why aren’t we starting the long and complex process of planning and adaptation now? Do all but the delusional think we’ll be able to just switch over to Something Else with no effort and no consequence?

* My Photo: Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan, P.R. – Feb 2006

Sources:

[1] http://americanendgame.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/peak-oil/; Peak Oil: Why Gas Prices are Never Coming Down by Dark Smith [“a former liberal … now firmly planted in the independent libertarian camp”] – 02.25.12

 

 

 

 

 

An observation worth noting … and pondering, from Richard Heinberg:

Still, there are a few observations that no serious energy analyst can dispute. Oil exploration and production costs are skyrocketing (Bernstein Research estimates that this year the industry needs prices in the range of $100 a barrel to justify new projects). The super-giant oilfields that still account for 60 percent of world crude production are aging, and so the more modest contribution of unconventionals, which are expected to be both expensive and slow to come on line, must push against a tide of depletion and decline. It’s only a question of when the overall global production decline begins, not if. Meanwhile, some of the fuels (ethanol, natural gas liquids) counted by IEA and EIA in the ‘all liquids’ category have significantly lower energy content per unit of volume than regular crude oil; thus an increase in barrels-per-day of ‘all liquids’ does not necessarily mean an increase in the amount of energy delivered to society.
Further, all the unconventional liquid fuels (including biofuels, tar sands, and ‘tight’ oil) offer a low energy return on the energy invested in producing them. Therefore, even if the number of barrels of liquid fuels delivered to market is still gradually increasing, the amount of useful net energy being made available by the petroleum and biofuels industries, when energy costs are accounted for, is probably already declining. And this is almost certainly true in the US—the poster child for unconventional oil production. Finally, available global crude exports are declining rapidly as producing nations use more of their oil domestically. [1]

Facts, as I have noted frequently, can be damned annoying … all the more so when they intrude on cozy optimisms where unpleasant realities only spoil all the fun.

There’s been a lot more happy talk of late touting even more Magic Technology (fracking, etc., etc.) which will now, once and for all, at last put the “theory” of Peak Oil to bed. But as Richard Heinberg clearly explains, there are some damned facts we need to keep in mind and factor in to the planning—the planning which so far is not getting much traction among the powers that be. That’s going to cause a fair amount of problems for us down the road, because whatever it is we’ll need to do to address those problems aren’t going to lend themselves to overnight, easy, inexpensive solutions.

To think that the few million barrels of unconventional oil to be produced each day are the answer to our problems is more delusional that optimistic. They’ll help, of course, just not nearly enough—not even close. But as long as we’re not too concerned with reality or the future, then I guess optimism is as good an option as any.

* My Photo: Atlantis – The Bahamas, February 2008

[1] http://www.postcarbon.org/blog-post/985668-peak-denial; Peak Denial by Richard Heinberg – 07.02.12

 

The problem isn’t just political intransigence—it’s that neither political party has made an effort to convince the electorate of the need for change. Without that sort of public discussion, closed-door negotiations are bound to go nowhere.
But while party polarization plays a large part in legislative stalemates, the problem goes deeper. Neither political party has been willing to conduct a sustained conversation with the American people about the real choices we face over the next generation. If large political decisions are to be sustainable, they need to obtain the consent of the people—and it’s hard to see how the current discussion can generate that consent, or even contribute to public education. [1] *

[T]here is an inherent cut-off point approaching – and it is very different from the shocks, jolts, and other experiences that formed our current national paradigm of energy and gas prices.
That is the point that I feel needs to be stressed, and it’s lack of emphasis, in my opinion, is the substantial failure of our energy education. Until this realization is made commonplace, the hardships we will endure (are enduring) won’t make sense, and the obstacles in the way of a logistically sustainable future will not have proper context. The world as we know it was built via cheap, easily transportable, and highly dependable fuel, and that fuel is essentially non-renewable in supply. At present, there is no substitute for fossil fuels in this way, as per the actual capacity to supply us with the energy we need to live in the society we do. [2]

‘Energy literacy’ and ‘peak oil literacy’ should be requirements for pundits – and for citizens more generally. I’ve followed these issues for many years now, and the poor energy knowledge among even the chattering classes and punditry still amazes me. [3]

Attitude Is Good; So Isn’t Understanding

A while back, sifting through some old research material, I came across this November 2010 article by an economist. I thought then, and do so more now, that it was a perfect description for the complete lack of awareness the too-large majority of citizens carry with them about Peak Oil.

… I am denying that the date of the peak is particularly significant and that sometime shortly after the peak we will face any kind of significant social strife, economic collapse, or other major drama. I’m stuck in a ‘business as usual’ pose, because I expect business as usual….
I expect over time petroleum will become expensive relative to other energy sources, and we will substitute away from petroleum and toward alternatives as that happens….Eventually, petroleum will become the niche fuel in an energy economy mostly running on other sources. I don’t expect the social trauma associated with this transition to be any more wrenching than the shift from wood to coal or coal to oil.

The attitude expressed— prevalent still—is certain to cause no small amount of anxiety to the general public in light of observations such as this one:

The hard truth is that there are no good fuel substitutes anymore. Throughout human history, we have always been able to find not just a substitute fuel, but a better one: a cheaper, denser, more abundant one. That is simply no longer the case. One may hope for some miraculous technological breakthrough, and one may simply have faith that the invisible hand will solve our problems, but such thin threads are hardly a reasonable basis for policymaking and forecasting. [4]

I’m a big fan of optimism, and I’ve repeatedly advocated that I think the people of this nation are up to the challenge of taking on the planning and implementation needed to transition to an industrial and personal lifestyle powered by something other than fossil fuels. I’ve also been quite clear that that undertaking is no small feat, will require a significant change in attitude and a healthy dose of realism and courage, along with a full appreciation for what we face, what’s involved, and why we must change just about everything….

An Easy Transition? How?

So when I read from someone presumably more aware of energy factors than the average citizen, I wonder what kind of process is required to just “expect business as usual” in a world where the essential life blood of our industry and progress will be undergoing an inexorable depletion with nearly-inconceivable impact on life as we know it. When dealing with real-life problems affecting billions for years to come, that level of denial and hope isn’t worth much. Knowledge and information are vital … using them wisely even more so.

The notion that we “we will substitute away from petroleum and toward alternatives” is likewise a great attitude to have going in, but to just sit back and wait for all of that to just materialize from the heavens is great if you only plan on sticking around for a few more days.

And what of these “alternatives”? Funding? Research? Planning? Trial and error? Small-scale testing? Large scale testing? Feasibility? Efficiency? Quality? Cost? Time? Mass-production/implementation? I could come up with a dozen more considerations which suggest that a trauma-free transition might be a wee bit more of an issue that denial provides.

Every industry, family, commercial enterprise, social entity, governmental unit, and individual currently using fossil fuels—which we do for almost every product, process, service, and transportation mode owned or depended upon—might realize fairly soon that trauma-free transition will be anything but!

And just how similar is this highly-advanced, technologically-dependent, globalized, overly-populated planet to the wood-burning one dozens of decades ago? Might there be a bit more complexity now?

To scoff at the notion that the world of 2012 will adapt effortlessly to a transition in energy sources on anything approaching the scale mandated when our crude oil supplies are no longer the readily-available resource most of us have never given a thought to is to exhibit a lack of awareness difficult to fathom. Is there a business leader on this planet who shows up for work each day and just “goes with the flow” to see what opportunities might present themselves? Do coaches in any professional sport just advise their players to “show up for the game and we’ll figure out something then”? Why aren’t we planning for Peak Oil?

For the truth of it is that we, in the modern, capitalist, ‘free,’ industrialized world are not very good at saying: ‘No. No, you can’t have that. No, you can’t do that. No, you’ve had your share.’ Very few democracies, and even fewer when feeling the pressure of increasing constraint, have mustered the informed maturity to limit themselves, in part because their underlying philosophical principles were never preoccupied with     prohibitions—just the opposite in fact. Freedom and liberty as we have conceived it (and this part—‘the as we have conceived it’–is crucial to my meaning here) have little demonstrated ability when it comes to self-restraint, especially when it comes to the most pressing issue of consumption. [5]

So we have some issues to contend with, not the least of which is both an education process and an appreciation from the populace that the effects of a peak in crude oil production will leave almost no business, no lifestyle, and no family untouched.

Probably Not Our Best Strategy

In a study I recently discussed here and here in which the emotional and psychological implications were discussed, the authors offered this observation about our collective attempts to deny that we face serious energy challenges ahead:

We suggest that, if and when serious oil shortages become a reality, three defense mechanisms: denial, establishment of scapegoats, and an increased need to affiliate are likely to be employed to facilitate the continuance of this American myth of plenty and perception of invincibility. [p.2149]

We suggest that, despite continued scientific evidence of peak oil, oil depletion, and declining EROI, the U.S. populace will continue to exhibit these psychological and sociological defense mechanisms on a broad societal scale until sufficiently clear, irrefutable evidence to the contrary brings about a shift in perception and changes in actions. As the gap between increasing U.S. oil consumption rates, declining EROI of oil, and oil depletion expands, demands for government intervention programs (designed to combat growing unemployment and poverty) will probably increase. At the same time, economic paucity and recession will result in calls for decreased government spending cutting these very programs. As a result, the division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in American society will likely bolster affiliation within sub-groups on different sides of the issue. The influence of intense and unabated individual and societal stress created by the inevitable decreasing quantity and EROI of oil will likely adversely impact the interdependencies and linkages that bind society together.…
… [T]he leaders and political party in power are likely to seek expanded influence and increased structure resulting in larger, more centralized political power. The American populace, driven by fears of economic and social repercussions resulting from oil depletion, will probably experience lethargy and an unconscious desire to be guided by those in positions of power. The gravity of the impending energy crisis, and the possibility that there may not be an adequate alternative to oil, will likely result in discordance between the American populace and those in positions of leadership. It is probable that this discordance will result in disillusionment within the populace and expanded and increasingly mistrusted and maligned centralized leadership. [p. 2150]

Are these authors correct? I’m not qualified to answer, but a diligent reading of the information they presented suggests they did not pull these notions out of a hat. So are we willing to ignore information and advice like this and instead trust the words of those who have a vested financial interest in preserving business and energy-production (such as it is) status quo? Who wins and who loses? (Hint: most of us won’t be winning….)

We do have choices.

* [Even though this quote references a discussion on the U.S. economy, its principle is no less applicable to any legislation greatly impacting the nation.]

* My Photo: Coffins Beach, Gloucester MA July 2010

Sources:

[1] http://www.tnr.com/article/the-vital-center/101945/washington-post-debt-crisis-narrative; Why America’s Public, Not Its Parties, Are the Key to Fixing the Deficit by William Galston – 03.23.12
[2] http://theenergycollective.com/jesse-parent/80287/substantial-failure-energy-education; A Substantial Failure’ Of Energy Education by Jesse Parent – 03.23.12
[3] http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2012/03/toward-energy-literacy; Toward Energy Literacy: Our “Peak Oil” Reality by Tam Hunt – 03.12.12
[4] http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/our-energy-future-golden-age-or-stone-age/143; Our energy future: Golden Age or Stone Age? by Chris Nelder – 10.26.11
[5] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-12-23/politics-third-rail-peak-oil-analysis; Politics: the third-rail of peak oil analysis by Erik Lindberg [original article published by Transition Milwaukee on Fri, 12/23/2011 at: http://transitionmilwaukee.org/profiles/blogs/politics-the-third-rail-of-peak-oil-analysis?xg_source=activity] – 12.23.11

One of the key deficiencies of “unconventional” fuels is their low energy return on investment relative to conventional fuels. Many analysts have ignored this factor because investment decisions are made on the basis of the financial, not energy, return on investment. But a growing literature suggests that the two are intimately related….
The financial return on investment is known as ROI. The analogue in energy, the energy return on investment or EROI (also expressed as EROEI, for “energy return on energy invested”) is a ratio of the energy produced to the energy invested in its production….
As we continue to substitute unconventional fuels for conventional fuels and the overall EROI falls below 10, It’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to continue running our complex society. Prices will go too high for the economy to tolerate and kill demand before unconventional substitutes can scale up to replace declining higher-EROI fuels. [1]

Conservatives in Washington and elsewhere insist that we can no longer afford the level of governmental services we’ve become accustomed to. Their call for austerity in public spending is partially right, but for reasons that are wholly wrong: they think that by busting public unions, by reneging on pension agreements for teachers and public employees, by privatizing the production of public goods (streets, schools, even national defense), by cutting regulations and in general shrinking the government, they’ll release the pent-up entrepreneurial energies of business, which will put things back the way they were a few decades ago, when oil was returning a respectable 40:1. That’s simply not going to happen….
It is possible to have a decent civilization founded on the rates of return that renewable energy offers — and unlike the EROI of oil, those rates can be expected to increase with time and technological development. Solving the EROI squeeze means committing ourselves to building the infrastructure we need to capture current solar income and run our economy on renewable, non-carbon-based energy. Every unit of fossil energy we use to do anything else commits the United States and the planet as a whole to a lower, more straitened standard of living in the future. [2]

Who among us is willing to just readily accept that with a big smile? Who among us is crazy enough to think that that’s always and only nothing but good news and a great vision for the future each and every moment of each and every day?

How About A Plan?

Assuming for just this one moment that Peak Oil proponents like me might be right about one or two aspects of Peak Oil production and the ensuing conclusion that life as we’ve known will undergo monumental changes (because the fuel which provided us the means to fashion such an astonishing array of technological and industrial marvels is on a declining slope of availability), might it then be at least marginally reasonable to think that we should be embarking on a nationwide effort to plan for the transition? As daunting—and unwelcome—a prospect as that surely is, shouldn’t more than just a few us be urging recognition and planning?

Creating a ‘green energy’ economy may be the most daunting central planning task ever attempted. It entails nothing less than the reengineering of our entire energy infrastructure. And, like all central planning schemes, it is based on a roadmap that eschews real-world experience and sound economics in favor of utopian ideology driven by political connections….
Everyone acknowledges that electricity generated from wind and solar cannot be produced and delivered at prices that compete with coal or gas. However, alternative energy advocates believe that someday the cost curves will cross, and that government subsidies will accelerate that day’s arrival.
For this to come true, multiple problems have to be solved before taxpayers run out of money or patience. Along the way, the alternative energy industry has to avoid getting sidetracked into the wrong technologies, as this will delay the eagerly awaited carbon-free future. [3]

All absolutely true, and in the long term, entirely irrelevant. Does it really make sense to just sit on our hands and continue to congratulate our vast ingenuity today, and then find ourselves entirely unprepared—practically and psychologically—for the time when all of these magical innovations prove themselves to be exactly what the facts suggest they are: short term solutions and nothing more? Geology, facts, and reality will intrude no matter how rosy one’s scenario might be … and that sucks!

Not Even Magic Will Help

There isn’t a single even-marginally sane advocate of the need to transition away from fossil fuel-based industry and society who envisions anything other than years and years (decades, truthfully) of trial and error research and all which those efforts entail before reaching commercial and practical viability. So just how successful do these rosy-eyed “optimists” think we’ll be when Peak Oil reality intrudes on their happy little hopes for human ingenuity and the magic of free-market economics and we’re confronted with the need for beyond-comprehension change and adaptation in the space of just weeks or months? Denial has its limits.

Perhaps they might pause for a moment and consider the evolution of our fossil fuel-based industrial achievements. Pretty certain that didn’t happen in just a few weeks or months, either. Lotsa trial and error research there, too. Where would we all be now without the needed support and encouragement from not just government but society and industry at large in the decades of fossil fuel development? Amish lifestyles for all of us, anyone?

Eighteen months ago, I offered these observations … not much has changed.

It’s true that the possibility exists that the tipping point when oil production begins its unavoidable decline may yet be many years away … but are we really willing to wager that something will come along to save the day when it’s time to deal with those challenges on a day-to-day basis? Are we willing to even place bets on exactly when that might be? Doing nothing seems like a monumental—and monumentally foolish—    strategy.
‘We are confronted with a society built on high-quality energy, dense forms of energy, fossil fuels especially,’ says [Boston University] ecological economist Cutler Cleveland. ‘Could you have the same standard of living with renewables? I don’t think we really know. Things might have to change very fundamentally….’
‘[R]enewables’ handicaps do not bode well for speeding up the next energy transition. Fossil fuels ‘were phenomenally attractive,’ yet it still took 50 to 70 years to bring them into widespread use, says [systems analyst Arnulf Grübler of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)]. That’s because, no matter how attractive a fuel might be, it takes time to create the infrastructure for extracting and transporting the resource, converting it into a usable form, and conveying it to the end user. It also takes time for inventors to develop enduse technologies—such as steam engines, internal combustion engines, and gas turbines—and for consumers to adopt them and create demand. Renewables ‘will be slower because they’re less attractive,’ says Grübler. ‘They don’t offer new services; they just cost more.’ [4]

Might Not Be A Bad Idea To Consider This

It’s certainly comforting to arrogantly rely on the fully-developed energy supply which supports our ways of life now and snidely pick apart the efforts needed to substitute for the fossil-fuel based existence we all take for granted. That’s shortsighted and narrow-minded at best. I’m likewise fairly certain that that was not the standard MO for 19th and 20th century development.

My main concern is how we cope with the decline stage of fossil fuels, which is not as final as being dead, but effectively forces us into a new era of energy transition. Because conventional oil will begin its decline first, a chief concern is how we might replace its function for transportation. Rather than write off fossil fuels completely, some see promise in what alternative fossil fuels might offer….
Note that not one of these options represents a departure from fossil fuel transport. At some level, this speaks to a desperation in our predicament: we simply are not ready to be weened from the fossils, even as it becomes ever more imperative that we do so. [5]

I’d like to think (hope?) that we haven’t come close to maxing-out our potential to create a gratifying future for ourselves.

So here’s the thing. What if I’m wrong to be worried? Or what if my imaginary critic is wrong? Which is worse? If I advocate a path of restraint and careful transition to a possibly lower-energy future and I am ultimately shown to be wrong about the limits we face, what’s the damage? In this scenario, we’ve stabilized our system into something approximating sustainability. If we learn later that we have more resources available, we can make the choice to spend them profligately, use them sparingly, or ignore them. But we do so from a position of stability. If, on the other hand, the critic convinces us that the future is up, up, up, and we don’t take resource limits seriously then their being wrong is disastrous because we charge into overshoot, overextension, hit resource limits hard, and run a serious risk of societal collapse. [6]

Probably safe to say that’s not anyone’s first ten choices. Time will tell….

* My Photo: Eastern Point, Gloucester MA August 2011

Sources:

[1] http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/what-eroi-tells-us-about-roi/361; What EROI tells us about ROI by Chris Nelder – 02.15.12
[2] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-07-18/new-austerity-and-eroi-squeeze; The new austerity and the EROI squeeze by Eric Zencey – 07.18.11 [Published by The Daly News – Original article: http://steadystate.org/new-austerity-eroi/]
[3] http://www.forbes.com/sites/billfrezza/2011/11/22/alternative-energys-alternate-reality/; Alternative Energy’s Alternate Reality by Bill Freeza – 11.22.11
[4] http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/329/5993/780; Do We Have the Energy for the Next Transition? by Richard A. Kerr – 08.13.10
[5] http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/02/fossil-fuels-im-not-dead-yet/; Fossil Fuels: I’m Not Dead Yet by Tom Murphy – 02.14.12
[6] http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/02/the-way-is-shut/; The Way is Shut by Tom Murphy – 02.21.12

[M]y problem with the peak oil argument is that it isn’t really very clear in itself as to what it means. From what I understand at some point we get to the end of cheap oil, we’ve only expensive oil left and then, well, and then apparently something terrible happens. [1]

Very few of us who write about Peak Oil suggest that something “terrible” is about to happen at any moment. Likely consequences are certainly unpleasant, enduring, and far-reaching—all the more so if we aren’t planning to do much about it in advance, as seems clear. Just as the evolution of and arrival at Peak Oil was a lengthy process, so too will be the demonstrations of its impact on our lives.

Given that there are almost no aspects of everyday living and producing which are not dependent in large or small part on the ready availability of affordable, high-quality conventional crude oil, Peak Oil will leave few aspects of life-as-we-know-it untouched. It’s all the more important we recognize that the various “Plan B” substitutes/alternatives don’t provide us with the same combination of energy efficiency, accessibility, affordability, and supply. Changes in all that we do, use, own, make, transport, etc., etc., are inevitable.

A little foresight will go a long way. A lot more foresight would be better.

With that in mind, here’s the latest contribution to my Peak Oil’s Impact series—observations and commentary on how Peak Oil’s influence will be felt in little, never-give-it-thought, day-to-day aspects of the conventional crude oil-based Life As We’ve Known It. A little food for thought….

Do-It-Yourself Landscaping

Have a lawn at your residence? A garden? Flowers?

Ever use fertilizer? Watering can, or garden hose? Mosquitoes bother you from time to time? Good to have insect repellant, isn’t it? Leaf blower? [Gets my vote as the single most annoying home product ever invented … think R-A-K-E.]

Mow the lawn yourself? Gas mower? [Or, in winter: snowblower for the driveway and sidewalks?]

Just a couple of the basics any/all of us make use of if we tend to our own lawns or gardens or flowers. Of course, there are all kinds of hand tools and assorted other what-nots we make use of to tend to our properties, and/or compounds we add to our lawns or gardens to help them thrive.

Not a single one of those items was: created and/or manufactured by or with and/or transported and/or is used, without at least some reliance on crude oil somewhere in the process between the original idea and your usage.

Plan B Landscaping?

So when Peak Oil is obvious to all in the near-enough future … when we can’t just head down the street and fill our gas tanks without a thought; when the inferior substitutes such as the tar sands and shale oil aren’t keeping pace with demand and/or depletion of existing reserves; when investments are being curtailed because demand slackens or the price is simply too high; when net oil exporters aren’t supplying as much to the rest of the world as we’ve come to expect either because they don’t have it to produce/export, or they need more of it for their own citizens [see this], or for a host of other industrial and/or geopolitical reasons, how far down the list of supply priorities will all of the lawn tools and lawn/garden supplies fall?

Admittedly, this is hardly anyone’s idea of a tragedy. (Landscapers will no doubt beg to differ, of course. A lot of dominoes will tumble for those companies and their employees and their suppliers and the employees of their suppliers, and on and on that goes.…)

Not exactly “terrible” for the rest of us, however. But it will be at least an annoyance and a lifestyle change we’re not giving any consideration to at the moment—one to be added to a very long list of annoyances and inconveniences when the fossil fuel-powered lives we’ve been living and enjoying for decades takes a turn away from always-available and almost-always-affordable, energy-rich crude oil.

What will we do if no one plans ahead … a long time ahead?

* My Photo: at our summer home – May 2010

Sources:

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/05/02/peak-oil-is-here-now-what/; Peak Oil is Here: Now What? by Tim Worstall – 05.02.12

An observation worth noting … and pondering, from Andrew McKay:

There is no alternative to oil that can be as easily extracted, transported, stored and used as oil. There is no alternative to oil that will let us continue our lifestyles unaffected. To misunderstand this critical point is to misunderstand the predicament that peak oil puts humanity in entirely.

There’s been a lot of happy talk of late regarding a Harvard University policy brief which has apparently solved all of our fossil fuel concerns. Whew! That was close. We almost had some energy issues to worry about.

Raymond J. Learsy’s typical choice of words [my bold/italic for emphasis] sums up the deniers’ delight with this great news, as he speaks of the “already skyrocketing” shale oil field production:

The U.S. shale/tight oil could be a paradigm-shifter for the oil world, because it could alter its features by allowing not only for the development of the worlds’ still virgin shale/tight oil formations, but also recovering more oil from conventional, established oilfields….
It will probably trigger worldwide emulation over the next decades that might bear surprising results — given the fact that most shale/tight oil resources in the world are still unknown and untapped. What’s more, the application of shale extraction key-technologies (horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing) to conventional oilfield could dramatically increase world’s oil production.

Pigs could fly, too. How many barrels in a “surprising results” or even a “could dramatically increase”?

If we can all just manage to contain our exuberance for a moment or two, we may want to reflect on Andrew McKay’s observation, while keeping in mind a fact or two (among many):

* conventional oil fields are depleting by the day
* these unconventional sources are of inferior quality, more costly, more difficult to refine, and take longer to get from extraction to availability—and did I mention that the fields we have been relying upon for decades are depleting by the day? Just staying even with demand is the first order of business, and when production is “skyrocketing” to a few hundred thousand barrels a day on a planet requiring some 85 – 90 million barrels per day, well … do the math.

These resources are admittedly better than a stick in the eye, but problem solved? Hardly.

* My Photo: Wellfleet (Cape Cod) MA 2004

 

I’m passing along some useful/informative Peak Oil-related articles of note [and some political ones, too, which in one way or another will have considerable bearing on what we do and don’t do as Peak Oil makes its presence felt], all of which crossed my desk during the prior month … in case you missed them!

Enjoy.

 

 


http://www.opednews.com/articles/The-Big-Lie-Coup-d-Etat-by-Robert-Reich-120605-868.html

Robert Reich
06.05.12
The Big-Lie Coup d’Etat

~~~

http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/155760/why_do_working-class_people_vote_conservative 

Jonathan Haidt (via The Guardian)
06.06.12
Why Do Working-Class People Vote Conservative?

~~~

http://www.baconsrebellion.com/articles/2012/05/smart_growth_conservatives.html

James A. Bacon
05.12
Smart Growth for Conservatives

~~~

http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-price-of-inequality

Joseph Stieglitz
06.05.12
The Price of Inequality

~~~

http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Guest-Post-The-Saudi-Oil-Problem/

Tam Hunt
06.06.12
The Saudi Oil Problem

~~~

http://www.salon.com/2012/06/06/whats_the_matter_with_wisconsin/singleton/

Dean Bakopoulos
06.06.12
What’s the matter with Wisconsin? The real lesson in the recall vote is that the GOP will stop at nothing to turn the middle class against itself

~~~

http://richardheinberg.com/museletter-241-end-of-growth-update-part-1

Richard Heinberg
06.11.12
Museletter #241: End of Growth Update Part 1

~~~

http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/the-future-of-oil-prices/508

Chris Nelder
06.13.12
The future of oil prices

~~~

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-cesca/the-truth-about-the-presi_1_b_1540698.html

Bob Cesura
05.23.12
The Truth About the President and the Deficit

~~~

http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/policy-makers-slow-to-take-peak-oil-action/

Brendan Barrett
06.06.12
Policy-makers slow to take peak oil action

~~~

http://www.alternet.org/economy/155918/exclusive_interview:_joseph_stiglitz_sees_terrifying_future_for_america_if_we_don%27t_reverse_inequality

Lynn Paramour
06.24.12
Exclusive Interview: Joseph Stiglitz Sees Terrifying Future for America If We Don’t Reverse Inequality

~~~

http://www.reformer.com/ci_20930567/is-peak-oil-dead?

Tim Stevenson
06.25.12
Is Peak Oil Dead?

~~~

http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2012-06-25/commentary-america%E2%80%99s-new-energy-reality-bidding-war-declining-global-net-oil-expo

Jeffrey J. Brown
06.25.12
Commentary: America’s new energy reality – A bidding war for declining global net oil exports
[Original article: http://aspo-usa.com/]

~~~

http://www.democracyjournal.org/25/why-history-matters-to-liberalism.php

E.J. Dionne Jr.
Issue #25, Summer 2012
Why History Matters to Liberalism

~~~

http://truth-out.org/news/item/9950-suppressing-democracy-101

Lamar W. Hankins
06.24.12
Suppressing Democracy 101

~~~

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2012/06/18/the-responsibility-of-government-and-disadvantaged/

Peter Werner
06.18.2012
The Responsibility of Government

~~~

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/national-affairs/what-part-of-austerity-isnt-working-dont-people-get-20120617

Jared Bernstein
06.17.12
What Part of ‘Austerity Isn’t Working’ Don’t People Get?

~~~

http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2012/06/19/Extreme-Politics-Will-Make-the-US-the-Biggest-Loser.aspx

Mark Thoma
06.19.12
Extreme Politics Will Make the U.S. the Biggest Loser

~~~

http://truth-out.org/news/item/9847-thomas-frank-on-money-in-politics

Bill Moyers
06.18.12
Thomas Frank on Money in Politics

~~~

http://www.opednews.com/articles/How-Tea-Partiers-Diss-the-by-Robert-Parry-120616-307.html

By Robert Parry
06.16.12
How Tea Partiers Diss the Framers

~~~

http://www.reformer.com/ci_20930567/is-peak-oil-dead?source=most_viewed

Tim Stevenson
06.25.12
Is Peak Oil Dead?

~~~

http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2012-06-25/myth-busting-polyannas-1-roger-harrabin

Andrew McKay
06.25.12
Myth Busting The Polyannas 1: Roger HarrabinOriginal article: http://www.southernlimitsnz.com/2012/06/myth-busting-polyannas-1-roger-harrabin.html

~~~

http://truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/9907-the-price-of-inequality-99

Joseph E Stiglitz, [W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. – Book Excerpt]
06.21.12
The World’s 99% Knows Capitalism Is Failing and Believes That Change Is Possible

~~~

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-policy-has-contributed-to-the-great-economic-divide/2012/06/22/gJQAXTX2vV_story.html

Joseph E. Stiglitz
06.22.12
How policy has contributed to the great economic divide

~~~

http://www.postcarbon.org/blog-post/985668-peak-denial

Richard Heinberg
07.02.12
Peak Denial


* My Photo: Cancun, Mexico 2005


 

Leapfrogging now past fossil fuels to renewable energy is not just desirable but probably inescapable. The only question is whether we as a society will do it with a focused plan for a rapid transition or whether the transition will be chaotic and marked by violent swings in the economy as the world lurches from one energy-induced crisis to another.  [1]

Clearly, it makes no sense to wait until renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels before beginning transition, particularly if you’re talking about transportation fuels. To do so would be to gamble with the entire economy and risk severely negative outcomes, like fuel shortages, riots, and depression. Are we really willing to take such risks, simply because we prefer to believe that the free market will magically sort everything out, particularly when we know that our economic theory evolved in an age of energy surplus which is now behind us?…
The right time to execute transition is not when the alternatives are cheaper. The right time is before it’s too late, and while it’s still affordable. That time was really 40 years ago. We have less than two years left before things really start getting difficult. What, exactly, are we still waiting for? [2]

So What ARE We Waiting For?

Excellent question, and so far we have almost nothing resembling an appropriate answer. The choices remain: begin intelligent, rational, nation-wide conversations about how to plan for our eventual transition away from a fossil fuel-based society and preserve some semblance of prosperity for our future; or ignore/deny/pretend that the “massive” and “vast” resources comfortably tucked underground for millions of years need nothing more for their production than a tweak or two from the Magic Technology/Human Ingenuity Fairy and the removal from office from the extra-terrestrial liberal somehow voted into the White House as part of a vast conspiracy to destroy America by offering Muslim, tax-based regulations (or something like that….)

I’ll state for the umpteenth time that I’d love if I and peers are entirely wrong about our concerns regarding Peak Oil. And for the umpteenth time I’ll also point out that my very lovely suburban lifestyle is not one I have any desire whatsoever to abandon in any way because of Peak Oil’s impact, so I have a decidedly selfish reason for wanting to be wrong.

So … I’m either a complete lunatic who has decided his mission is to perpetuate nothing but nonsense about a non-existent energy problem so that I can … uh … uh, gain some benefits of uncertain definition, or I’ve looked at enough information over the past few years both pro and con and decided that I need to add my small voice to urging much greater awareness about an issue certain to affect us all in the not-too-distant future. While my wife may offer her own assessment on the “lunatic” angle, I’m fairly confident that most of my waking hours are spent a long distance away from that existence.

Accordingly, for all the happy talk about the vast resources just waiting to pop out of the Earth’s surface minutes after President Obama is defeated, enabling the wonders of free-market economics to once again perform their magic, those hopes and expectations must contend with more than a few damned facts and what we on the Peak Oil/climate change side of the fence like to call “reality.”

It sucks for us, too! Speaking for myself and I believe for most others urging greater awareness and preparation in advance of Peak Oil’s full range of impacts on our personal and industrial lifestyles, more information, sound planning, and actual preparation make more sense than just keeping fingers and toes crossed. A choice….

It should be clear that the vogue dismissal of peak oil fears based on optimism around marginal, incredibly environmentally destructive resources like tar sands and shale hardly stands to account. [3]

What Are The Odds?

No one is being forced to buy into that perspective. But as I’ve asked in prior posts: What are the chances that the facts espoused by knowledgeable Peak Oil proponents such as Chris Nelder, Chris Martenson, Kurt Cobb, Sharon Astyk, Robert Rapier, Richard Heinberg, Gail Tverberg, Michael Klare et al (apologies for not naming more) are all entirely wrong and even contrived? Even after discounting their knowledge and the truths they share by 50% and there’s still a serious problem looming!

Does it make any sense at all to just simply ignore all of that and bank all our hopes that human ingenuity is going to save us just in time? What if that doesn’t happen through no fault of anyone’s?

What if geological factors—among others entirely beyond the control of our brightest technological experts—simply make it impossible to make up for the 3 – 4 million barrels of conventional crude depleting each and every day? What if the optimistic, exuberant expectations about the promise of shale, tar sands, and deep-water resources just cannot be met in a world of increasing demand?

Rolling The Dice?

Just how much are we all willing to risk by ignoring the facts and the ticking clock? When do we get serious about planning?

Should we wait until our transportation infrastructure becomes rusted and too expensive to maintain…? No, because declining net energy, declining net exports, and declining production will make it increasingly difficult and expensive to do anything. You have to build the replacement infrastructure while the energy and materials and capital you need to do it are reasonably available. [4]

Declining availability and increasing competition for the remaining fossil fuels will make it progressively more difficult to manufacture, transport, and install renewables and efficiency improvements. Within 25 years, the world could lose 25 percent or more of its oil supply, and nearly all of its available net exports. Any interruptions in oil supply will have immediate and far-reaching effects on our globalized world of resource production and manufacturing, and cause systemic dependencies to break down. [5]

Unfortunately, the facts aren’t changing. Conventional oil fields are depleting this very moment, and the next, and the next, and the next….We’re looking for “replacements” in inhospitable locales (miles beneath the ocean floor, for example), or we’re exerting tremendous amounts of energy, costs, and effort to find them (think tar sands and tight/shale oil). We may very well have decades ahead to avail ourselves of these unconventional substitutes, but the facts tell us they are not as energy efficient as the crude oil whose production plateaud in the middle part of the last decade. They cost more to find and produce, and for all the optimism about the quantity awaiting extraction, the more important factor is that extraction isn’t even keeping up with what we’re losing to depletion every day. And China, India, and others eager to assume a more technologically-advanced place in the world, are hungry for more.

The math isn’t working.

Yes, we can re-purpose other fossil fuels (coal, gas, heavy oil/tar) to help plug the gap in liquid fuels, meanwhile accelerating their depletion. We can use liquid fuels more efficiently. We can try every trick to tease more oil out of depleted wells. All these things will happen. Their collective effort will ease the pain (and bring on new hurts), but it is not clear whether all efforts in tandem can arrest the decline, given practical, political, and economic realities. They are all more expensive, all lower EROEI, all harder, and with the exception of efficiency improvements keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. Although the pain may be eased, the problem does not go away….When will we decide to pull the plug…?
No matter what mix we decide to pursue, if we wait until the decline starts before seriously ramping up all viable efforts in tandem, we will find economic hardship, job loss, energy volatility as demand flags and then resurges, etc. The unpredictable environment will not be conducive to large investments in risky alternatives. In short, we could get caught with our pants down. And if you’ve ever tried to run in this state, you know what happens next. [6]

More to come….

* My Photo: sunrise at Long Beach, Gloucester MA – August 2005

Sources:

[1] http://www.aspousa.org/index.php/2012/01/fossil-fuels-vs-renewables/; Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables: The Key Argument That Environmentalists are Missing by Kurt Cobb – 01.23.12
[2], [3] & [4] http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/when-should-we-pursue-energy-transition/159; When should we pursue energy transition? by Chris Nelder – 11.02.11
[5] http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/our-energy-future-golden-age-or-stone-age/143; Our energy future: Golden Age or Stone Age? by Chris Nelder – 10.26.11
[6] http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/02/fossil-fuels-im-not-dead-yet/; Fossil Fuels: I’m Not Dead Yet by Tom Murphy – 02.24.12

NOTE: In an effort to provide another platform for at least some of the insightful and important work being done by many others hoping to make our planet and its citizens a bit safer, healthier, and better-informed about matters affecting us all, from time to time I’ll turn blog space here on Peak Oil Matters over to guests.

Tim Stevenson is the Founding Director of Post Oil Solutions (www.postoilsolutions.org).* He recently offered a terrific summary of some primary talking-points on Peak Oil. I’m delighted to share his article here—it’s a great read.

My thanks to Tim for giving me permission to share it.

This will be my only scheduled post this week – enjoy the holiday!

~~~

Monday June 25, 2012

“If we don’t change our course, we’ll end up where we’re headed,” says an ancient Chinese proverb.

From the deepest waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the prairies of North Dakota, and many places in between, the production of oil and gas in the United States has greatly increased over recent years through the industry’s ability to access heretofore inaccessible and unaffordable “unconventional oil.” Using new technology and financed by the rising prices of oil since the mid-2000s, national oil production has risen over the past four years from 4.95 million barrels a day (mb/d) to 5.7. The Energy Department projects 7 mb/d by 2020, while other experts claim production could eventually be 10 million, which would put the United States in the league with Saudi Arabia.

With this increased production, a growing number of people (especially from the oil industry, Wall Street, and the Republican Party) have loudly proclaimed the end of peak oil, dismissing it as a myth that has now been dispelled. We’re not running out of oil, they insist.

But peak oil is not about the end of oil. Geologically speaking, that will never happen. Rather, peak oil is about the end of the cheap, abundant, easy to extract oil, the “sweet” crude that has been the bedrock of our industrial civilization, and the basis of the economic growth we’ve come to take for granted. This older oil still accounts for 75 percent of our daily consumption, but has been disappearing at the rate of 3-4 mb/d each year, and will be largely gone in 20 years. As older fields dry up, newer ones are not being discovered. In 20 years, cheap oil will be largely gone.

Peak oil is also about the increasing worldwide demand that is outstripping production. According to the latest report from the International Energy Agency, global oil demand is forecast to climb to 89.9 mb/d in 2012, a gain of 0.8 mb/d (or 0.9 percent) on 2011. Oil production has flat lined at around 85 mb/d since 2005; producers cannot increase production because new fields cannot keep pace with declining production from old fields, registering an aggregate decline rate about 5 per cent per year. When supply cannot meet demand, oil prices rise, along with everything else in our consumer-oriented society that is dependent upon oil (like our food).

Hence, energy companies have increasingly turned to unconventional sources, those previously identified reservoirs that were long considered inaccessible and prohibitively expensive, such as deep offshore and Arctic oil, shale oil, and tar sands.

Despite their apparent promise of a bright future, however, this shift to unconventional fossil fuels has a very dark side. For one thing, their extraction and processing is extremely expensive. The Energy Returned on Energy Investment (EROEI) for the Bakken shale in North Dakota, for example is 4:1, which means it takes one barrel of energy to produce four barrels of shale oil, and that is before refining the oil to finished products. The tar sands net energy in Alberta is 3:1. These compare with the halcyon days of cheap oil – the 1930s and 1940s – where the EROEI produced 100:1 net-energy. In order to recoup their considerable investment, energy companies will have to charge triple digit sums for a barrel of oil. Historically, the U.S. goes into a recession when we spend more than 4.6 percent of our GDP on oil, around $60 a barrel. Charles Hall, at the State University of New York, has calculated that it is not possible to run our complex civilization on a net-energy below about a 6:1ratio.

Additionally, this bonanza is short term. The 24 billion barrels, for example, estimated to be trapped in U.S. shale formations is only about 9 months’ worth of global consumption. Fracking wells typically don’t keep producing for very long. While some have been able to yield as much as 1,000 barrels a day, the rate then falls off to 65 percent the first year, 35 percent the second, and 15 percent the third.

Then there is the environmental damage, like the BP Gulf disaster in 2010. The drilling technique for tar sands and shale oil — “fracking” — uses great amounts of highly pressurized water, sand and toxic chemicals to force oil and gas from the rock formations in which they are embedded. This has resulted in serious air pollution, wastewater problems, and concerns about the safety of water supplies, with growing evidence that toxic fracking water is leaking into underground aquifers. Earthquakes are also occurring in fracking areas where they’ve not happened before.

But the ultimate irony to this so-called “end of peak oil” scenario is the climate card that unavoidably comes into play. For in addition to the expensive wells and environmental damage, there is also the fact that this new technology must burn great amounts of energy — and, hence, release millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere — in order to extract yet additional fossil fuels to be burned. Unconventional oil and gas — the touted liberators from peak oil — require far more energy than drilling for conventional fuels.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency calculates that, barring serious changes, global emissions of carbon dioxide will rise 43 percent between 2008 and 2035, an increase that would eliminate any hope of avoiding the apocalyptic consequences of global warming.

Rather than devoting resources, and the time we have left, to creating a sane transition to a post petroleum world, this oil rush to unconventional sources only exacerbates our addiction to oil, and compounds our delusion that technology can somehow trump nature, as well as the challenges that are essentially political, social, economic, and (especially!) spiritual, blindly hurtling us yet closer and faster to the edge of the cliff.

* Tim can be reached at info@postoilsolutions.org