“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