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In order to break the addiction to oil, economies dependent on oil will need to invest huge amounts of money and energy in building new social and economic infrastructures that are not so heavily dependent on oil (e.g. efficient public transport systems to continue reading…

A few more of those annoying facts to keep in mind as we (don’t) prepare for looming energy challenges, courtesy of three recent and excellent articles/interviews well worth the time to review in full [see Sources below for the links]:

Nothing can replace oil as the lifeblood of our culture and there is no domestic supply source which will eliminate or even reduce our dependence upon the 10 million barrels per day we import from foreign countries. There are some hard truths that are purposefully ignored by those who want to mislead the public about the grim consequences of peak cheap oil:
* The earth is finite. The amount of oil within the crust of the earth is finite. As we drain 32 billion barrels of oil from the earth every year, there is less remaining within the earth. We have drained the cheapest and easiest to reach 1.4 trillion barrels from the earth since the mid 1800s. The remaining recoverable 1.4 trillion barrels will be expensive and hard to reach. [1]

While it is critical we invest our current resources to finding solutions to the approaching energy gap, it’s also essential we approach the situation realistically and with as little magical thinking as possible. Currently, the US is consuming 10 million barrels per day more than it produces domestically….The short of it is there is going to be no single fuel source that replaces oil, and the transition to a post-Peak Oil future is going to involve a period of “less energy” for society for an undetermined period of time. [2]

We tend to have self-confidence in our ability to solve any problem. But we have no historical analog to the peak of fossil fuels, without a clear (and superior) replacement on the horizon. As a result of our fossil fuel binge, we have unprecedented problems in population, water, agriculture, fisheries, pollution, climate change, and so on. Our moment in history is rather special. It is dangerous to assume that we’ll gracefully handle problems at this scale, because such assumptions amount to dismissals and concomitant inaction. Unacceptable.
It bothers me that we don’t have a plan. It scares me that we (collectively) don’t think we even need a plan. Faith in the market to solve the problem represents a high-stakes gamble. We can and should do better. [3]

Another in the body of recurring themes of Peak Oil Matters is that we do ourselves no favors by denial and delusion. The psychological purposes they serve are no match for the potential harm we’ll cause ourselves over a much longer period of time by ignoring, hoping, or wishing. Strategies available to us, of course, but their usefulness—such as it may be—is completely useless at this point.

The authors above each discuss similar themes raised in prior posts of mine and by any number of others doing their best to put us all on notice that we need to start thinking about the energy issues at hand, and then thinking differently about how to address the challenges. More importantly, planning should be among our top priorities starting about ten years ago. We’re a wee bit behind.

Echoing proposals I offered several months ago (as have others), Jim Quinn boils it down succinctly:

If our society acted in a far sighted manner, we would be creating communities that could sustain themselves with local produce, local merchants, bike paths, walkable destinations, local light rail commuting, and local energy sources.

And Tom Murphy bolsters that theme, citing the much-discussed and highly-respected The Hirsch Report (a subject I’ve covered in a number of prior posts; see the Category in the sidebar):

The bottom line was that initiating all such crash programs in parallel 20 years ahead of the peak (or more to the point, 20 years before the start of decline) may be sufficient to avoid major hardships. Waiting until 10 years before the decline would result in major disruptions as the efforts struggled to establish a large enough foothold in time for the decline. Initiating the crash program at the moment the decline starts was characterized as having catastrophic repercussions. Not treated was the more politically realistic scenario of waiting until 5 years after the start of decline while we bicker about the fundamental cause of our woes and strategies for mitigation….
Because we will more likely wait until the pain of decline has made itself clear, we may find ourselves handicapped by recession and debt, hampering our ability to act boldly….
… [S]tarting a crash program toward replacement of finite fossil fuels too early has great up-sides and marginal downsides (opportunity cost); but failure to act has enormous downside for marginal upside.

What exactly are we waiting for? For all the happy talk about the “potential possible if only we do X and Y might work” options discussed by others [as I’ve cited ad nauseum in the many “Denial” posts], too many of us have been lulled into a false sense of security that the problems—if any—are being handled.

Jim Quinn wasn’t as “kind” in his assessment (but he’s right) while pointing out a serious consequence of this pattern of deceptions and half-truths offered up by not only politicians but also by many in the oil industry who know better (and, as I’ve also emphasized repeatedly, by our own failure so far to learn more):

American presidents have propagated the Big Lie of energy independence for the last three decades. The Democrats have lied about green energy solutions and the Republicans have lied about domestic sources saving the day. These deceitful politicians put the country at risk as they misinform and mislead the non-thinking American public….
The propaganda blared at the impressionable willfully ignorant American public has worked wonders. The vast majority of Americans have no clue they have entered a world of energy scarcity.

For all the talk about the magic of Technology riding to the rescue, almost all of the research, planning, testing, marketing, etc., etc., etc required before establishing various Plan Bs as solutions require fossil fuels to make the processes happen from A to Z. What gets prioritized in a future with fewer of those resources available to begin with? Just how quickly will these various, successfully-tested and fully-implemented Plan Bs be showing up on our doorsteps?

Does anyone have a full appreciation for just how much and how many (processes, productions, transportation plans, products, etc., etc.) will have to be effectively and efficiently converted/prepared/tested for successful utilization of these Magic Technology Saviors (while fossil fuel reserves continue their steady march down the Depletion Slope)?

As Tom Murphy so nicely summed up: “Even though energy may represent something like 10% of GDP, it’s what makes the other 90% possible.”

Is anyone paying attention to the energy “quality” of all the alternatives being considered/hoped for? There’s not a single unconventional (tar sands, shale) or alternative (wind, solar, etc) energy resource that comes close to matching the energy density and efficiency of the hundreds of billions of barrels of crude oil we’ve consumed in the last century and a half. Hello! One need not be schooled in quantum physics, advanced algebra, or geology to appreciate that replacements which are for starters less efficient and more costly are not going to actually “replace” crude oil’s extensive benefits. They’re at best poor substitutes, and how might the consequences of that fact play themselves out for the billions of people with their trillions of products and demands and needs currently supplied by crude oil? Hello again!

With almost all of the major oil fields now on the downslope of their own production peaks, how much stock should any of us be putting in the still-rosy assessments of ramped-up production from those same fields over the next few decades? How does that math work? (We’re of course blindly assuming that these primary oil exporters will of course continue to serve the needs of Americans before … their own citizens? Seriously? Who gets to deliver that message? Safe to assume there might be a complaint or two?)

The most optimistic, arguably-realistic assessments about production potentials of the various unconventional and alternative resources will barely match current depletion rates. It’s now been several decades since we were finding more oil than was being consumed. Given that these crude oil wannabes aren’t as efficient, what kind of math is     being passed around to make this all seem acceptable and not worth a moment’s worth of concern?

As Tom Murphy again summed up for us:

The geological upshot is that oil is not a lake into which we thrust a straw, slurping as fast as we wish. Rather, oil is a viscous fluid in porous, permeable rock that resists rapid recovery. It’s not a spigot or valve that we can turn at will. Nature has a say in how fast we can claim the oil….
The lesson is that we don’t have full control over oil production. If previous discoveries are in decline, and we are not adding new fields at a replacement rate, we should expect aggregate decline.

Each of the three referenced authors do us all a great service by discussing these and other relevant considerations (economic and geopolitical, for example) which put a bit of a crimp in the blind happy talk which gets far too much airplay … at our expense.

I think I can safely speak for each of them, and almost every other proponent of Peak Oil, when I say that I would LOVE to be wrong about all of this! But the harsher truth is that there are just too many warning signs in too many aspects of fossil fuel exploration, discovery, production, cost, quality, and supply to ignore it all and expect that hope, wishes, good thoughts, and crossed fingers are all we need.

The potential exists, therefore, for major disruption to our accustomed ways of life. We will become viscerally aware of how fundamentally important oil is to all that we do.. It’s not just another commodity like sneakers or widgets. Curtail transportation and watch the grocery store shelves struggle to stay full. See food prices escalate and cause immediate hardships around the world. Find out how far-flung about the globe the material resources are that comprise a cell phone. [Tom Murphy]

So, assuming the Peak Oil camp is on to something, what’s the likelihood for a disruption-free transition to another energy source that can replace the energy output we currently enjoy from oil? … How realistic are these hopes?
Not very. [Martenson and Rapier]

Shouldn’t we at least be having broader and more meaningful discussions starting right about now?

Sources:

[1] http://www.marketoracle.co.uk/Article31542.html; U.S. Energy Independence – The Big Lie by James Quinn – 11.15.11
[2] http://www.chrismartenson.com/blog/robert-rapier-scientific-challenges-replacing-oil-renewables/65387; Robert Rapier: The Scientific Challenges To Replacing Oil with Renewables [interview with Robert Rapier by Chris Martenson, posted by Adam] – 11.26.11
[3] http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/11/peak-oil-perspective/; Using physics and estimation to assess energy, growth, options by Tom Murphy – 11.01.11

(A continuation of my two posts from last week)

In this third and final part of my look at The Hirsch Report, a series of “Wildcards” (all from p. 63) were offered which the authors believed might have the effect of either minimizing the adverse consequences of Peak Oil (“Upsides,” which were covered in my last post), or making it much worse (“Downsides”). I’ll offer a comment or two on the “Downsides” today, as they apply to current conditions.

“World oil production peaking is occurring now or will happen soon.”

Two words: Already there.

“Middle East reserves are much less than stated.”

As I wrote in Part 2 of this series on The Hirsch Report: “After decades of already-questionable representations and a complete inability for outside sources to verify those stated reserves, we shouldn’t be counting on more magical discoveries or even a half-rational explanation as to how Middle East reserves magically increased by substantial amounts when OPEC production quotas were changed in the 1980s to tie in with stated reserves: higher reserves = more oil allowed to be sold = more revenue.” What’s the more likely and logical answer? Seems pretty obvious to me….

“Terrorism stays at current levels or increases and concentrates on damaging oil production, transportation, refining and distribution.”

Terrorism is of course always an issue, sad to say. Given the current political turmoil throughout the Middle East, it may be a more pronounced consideration than it has been in recent years. More likely, however, the general discord in that region is cause enough for concerns about oil production and related issues. Recent price spikes are but one indication of how fragile our supply sources have become.

“Political instability in major oil producing countries results in unexpected, sustained world-scale oil shortages.”

Hello! As of this writing, significant sustained shortages are not an immediate concern, but there’s no doubt that if the upheavals in the Middle East spread into Saudi Arabia in particular, we may very well be dealing with that kind of a crisis very quickly.

“Market signals and terrorism delay the realization of peaking, delaying the initiation of mitigation.”

The same considerations stated above would apply here as well, although evidence that we’ve reached peak seems clear enough. Whether our leaders and the majority of citizens realize (or at least acknowledge) it is a different issue. Initiating mitigation is not a concern because we haven’t even gotten there, yet, and that is a problem having nothing to do with market signals or terrorists.

“Large-scale, sustained Middle East political instability hinders oil production.”

I’m thinking there isn’t a need for me to say much about this….

“Consumers demand even larger, less fuel-efficient cars and SUVs.”

There are indications that this is exactly what is happening now. I don’t think we’re prepared yet to underestimate the sense of entitlement which governs much of our behavior—notwithstanding a solid body of evidence about climate change and the ongoing challenges we face in providing adequate energy resources for increasing demand.

“Expansion of energy production is hindered by increasing environmental challenges, creating shortages beyond just liquid fuels.”

This is certainly within the realm of possibility. Increases in oil shale production here in the U.S., along with increased production from the tar sands of Canada notwithstanding, the amounts available now and for a number of years to come is not going to meet demand. Oil depletion from existing fields marches on, and just maintaining current levels of supply is challenging enough.

I won’t bother reiterating too many of the points I and others have raised in recent months about current oil supplies and future prospects. Suffice it to say, demand has exceeded discovery for several decades now; “giant” oil fields discovered in recent years aren’t even close to matching the giant oil finds of forty, fifty, and even seventy years ago. The fact that we continue to rely on those giants many, many decades after their discovery ought to raise at least one obvious question: How much longer can they produce at current/past rates? (See this good summary.)

I wrote this more than a year ago, and it’s safe to assume the situation is not any better today: “Cantarell in Mexico has long been considered of the supergiant oil fields on the planet. As recently as 2004 it was producing about 2.5 million barrels a day of oil, and about half of that was shipped here. Production has fallen off a cliff since then, and in 2 – 3 years, it’s expected that production will have declined by close to 80%. Aside from the enormous financial, political, and social problems that will create for our neighbor south of the border (Cantarell was the major source of income to the Mexican government), this also poses a dilemma for us. Where and how do we make up that shortfall?”

“According to the report [the International Energy Agency’s World Outlook 2010], by 2035 three quarters of currently operating oil fields won’t be producing anymore. In fact, current fields are only expected to account for less than one fifth of that year’s production.
“That leaves over 80 per cent of the IEA’s 2035 production projection coming from new oil fields, ones that either haven’t yet been developed or haven’t even been discovered. And the contribution from that undiscovered category alone is still far greater than the one from currently producing fields. That’s a tall order for new field discovery.
“Undeveloped or undiscovered oil fields, growth in tar sands production and increased reliance on natural gas liquids account for all the expected growth in world oil production over the next two and a half decades.” [1]

‘Nuff said.

Spin is good only for so much and for so long. The sooner we recognize the challenges we’ll be dealing with in the not-too-distant future, the sooner we can start having an intelligent, meaningful, and productive national dialogue about what we need to do. Now is as good a time as any, because later won’t be a better alternative.

Sources:

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-rubin/even-the-international-en_b_787450.html; Even the International Energy Agency Forecasts Peak Oil by Jeffrey Rubin – November 23, 2010

(A continuation of Monday’s post.)

In this second part of my look at The Hirsch Report, I’d like to focus on the advice and conclusions Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues offered, as they now apply to current conditions.

“It is possible that peaking may not occur for several decades, but it is also possible that peaking may occur in the near future. “We are thus faced with a daunting risk management problem:
• On the one hand, mitigation initiated soon would be premature if peaking is still several decades away.
• On the other hand, if peaking is imminent, failure to initiate mitigation quickly will have significant economic and social costs to the U.S. and the world.
“The two risks are asymmetric:
Mitigation actions initiated prematurely will be costly and could result in a poor use of resources.
Late initiation of mitigation may result in severe consequences.” [p. 59-60]

Given the magnitude of the transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy to one in all likelihood requiring combinations of alternative sources of energy—depending on the region and industry—it’s fair to wonder whether any mitigation efforts can be considered “premature” at this point. With 70% of our transportation needs currently being met by fossil fuels, the effort to convert and/or implement alternative plans to satisfy that personal and commercial demand alone will require years of effort … more than a decade in all probability. At this point, absent some magical intervention by energy angels, we are simply too late into the game to prepare ourselves for an effortless shift away from fossil fuels.

That being the case, the sooner we begin the process of planning and implementing (with due regard for the testing and ramping up of new sources of energy), the fewer problems we will nonetheless have to contend with, and the lesser their severity … I hope. It makes no sense to delay for any reason at this point, as we can be certain that there will be some disruptions to our economy, industrial production, and lifestyles as the full brunt of declining oil production seeps inexorably into almost every facet of our ways of life.

There are almost no legitimate assessments which suggest we’re still decades away from Peak Oil. Any time frame shorter than that will be a problem. Let’s not add more problems on purpose because of ignorance or delusion that a rescue is just around the corner, or that we can afford to wait. We can’t.

While we still have at least a sufficient supply of fossil fuel resources, let’s begin the process of re-designing/re-creating our transportation and industrial infrastructures to accommodate alternative energies. Diverting existing resources to those efforts will cause enough hardship as it is. Let’s not make it any worse for ourselves by waiting for the resource pie to get even smaller.

The Hirsch Report offered up a series of “Wildcards” (all from p. 63) which might have the effect of either minimizing the adverse consequences of Peak Oil (“Upsides”), or making it much worse (“Downsides”). I’ll offer a comment or two on each, starting with his “Upsides” in this post. I’ll cover the “Downsides” in my next post.

“The pessimists are wrong again and peaking does not occur for many decades.”

The simple answer is that this wish and hope is extremely unlikely at this point. I’ve yet to come across a single credible report from any authoritative source suggesting anything of the kind. Given that the International Energy Agency ‘s World Energy Outlook 2010 report concluded that Peak Oil occurred five years ago, this is probably not a good bet. (See this and this.)

“Middle East oil reserves are much higher than publicly stated.”

After decades of already-questionable representations and a complete inability for outside sources to verify those stated reserves, we shouldn’t be counting on more magical discoveries or even a half-rational explanation as to how Middle East reserves magically increased by substantial amounts when OPEC production quotas were changed in the 1980s to tie in with stated reserves: higher reserves = more oil allowed to be sold = more revenue. Funny how that all worked out….

“A number of new super-giant oil fields are found and brought into production, well before oil peaking might otherwise have occurred.”

After decades of exploration with all the advanced technology available (and several decades of demand exceeding discoveries—see this), it would be borderline delusional to think that there might still be any such fields remaining. Most recent discoveries of “giant” oil fields turn out to be not nearly as impressive when those annoying facts are added to the discussion.

“High world oil prices over a sustained period (a decade or more) induce a higher level of structural conservation and energy efficiency.”

While energy efficiency (including higher mileage standards) are more frequently discussed, there are indications that the auto industry is already balking at raising mileage standards, and that consumers are not exactly racing to purchase the most fuel-efficient automobiles. With one of our major political parties having already taken the oh-so-mature and visionary step of returning Styrofoam packaging to the House of Representatives’ cafeteria rather than continuing to use recyclable materials (they sure showed us, right?), the education process is a long way from being complete.

“The U.S. and other nations decide to institute significantly more stringent fuel efficiency standards well before world oil peaking.”

A legitimate question to ask is: What’s the likelihood of getting any such agreement at this point? We can’t get everyone (meaning the fact-free GOP) to get on board with greenhouse gas emission standards … we can’t even get them to accept climate facts! “Drill, baby, drill” sums up their energy policy … facts about its at-best questionable value as a solution notwithstanding, of course.

“World economic and population growth slows and future demand is much less than anticipated.”

A possibility, of course. One has to wonder if slowing economic growth is what any of us should be actively rooting for, however. The truth is that it’s likely going to happen in any event. I’m advocating that we ought to actually plan ahead for that eventuality rather than just “count” on it as a possible solution to Peak Oil. I won’t go down the road of population growth except to state that it might be wise for at least some of our leaders here—and across the planet, for that matter—to at least wonder once in a while just how many resources they think this planet has left to provide for an approaching nine billion citizens.

“China and India decide to institute vehicle efficiency standards and other energy efficiency requirements, reducing the rate of growth of their oil requirements.”

Clearly this is not beyond the realm of possibility (and certainly China has taken many steps already in that direction as it is, exhibiting an understanding about the need for energy efficiency and the future which seems notably lacking here in the States—highlighted by a recent Pew Research Center report indicating that China now accounts for almost half of the world’s solar modules and wind turbines). That option alone won’t do the trick, however. But any contributions from major population and energy-consumption regions are a step in the right direction.

“Oil prices stay at a high enough level on a sustained basis so that industry begins construction of substitute fuels plants well before oil peaking.”

Two words: too late. Besides, sustained high fuel prices will curtail demand, which curtails profits, which curtails incentives for investments, which….

“Huge new reserves of natural gas are discovered, a portion of which is converted to liquid fuels.” See this recent post.

“Some kind of scientific breakthrough comes into commercial use, mitigating oil demand well before oil production peaks.”

Two words: too late. For all the astonishing technological breakthroughs mankind has introduced into the marketplace, hoping for that breakthrough here and now which will quickly replace a substantial majority of the 80+ million barrels of oil we use each and every day borders on the insane. Hoping for it to even slowly replace that oil is not much better. Certainly there is a great deal of research and innovation taking place as I write this (not nearly enough in the United States, unfortunately … tough to do when funding is reduced because the Magic Economic Fairy has decided that doing less for our future prospects is the best way to ensure more for our future), but we are many, many years away from successful invention, production, testing, implementation, and full commercialization of anything that could do the trick. Miracles do happen now and then, but if that’s our primary strategy, we are in some deep sh_t.

Crisis, or opportunity?

To be continued….

~~~

As I have been consistently urging in most of my posts in recent months, planning for what happens in the wake of Peak Oil’s arrival must become a national priority—and not just one for Congress. This is an all-hands-on-deck necessity, and every day we choose not to begin the complex, lengthy process of figuring out how to adjust to a world where the basic energy source for almost everything that we’ve produced in the last 100+ years will no longer be available as we’ve come to expect and demand is another day of almost certain difficulty for all of us. That’s not a good formula for growth and prosperity in the years to come.

Given what is at stake, I thought it might help readers new to the Peak Oil discussion to review the observations and suggestions of one of the seminal works of the past decade (see a prior discussion here). Back in 2005, energy advisor Robert L. Hirsch and his colleagues, on behalf of the federal government, issued a report entitled “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). The Hirsch Report offered an informative assessment of the then-current state of oil/fossil fuel production in the early part of the 21st Century. Of greater importance, it presented a clear warning about the potential consequences if we all fail to plan for the day when oil production has begun its inevitable slide down the slope from its peak.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), peak oil production occurred about a year after the Hirsch Report was released. Not good.

The Hirsch Report begins with a stark advisory:

“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.
“Dealing with world oil production peaking will be extremely complex, involve literally trillions of dollars and require many years of intense effort.” [p. 4]

Among its key recommendations, the Report suggested that a “crash-course” of mitigation efforts would need to be undertaken at least a full decade before Peak Oil’s arrival in order to avoid many if not all of the drastic challenges and consequences brought about by declining oil production and the availability of fossil fuels to meet our (increasing) needs. If the IEA assessment is correct—and there’s no reason to believe it is not substantially accurate as is—then we are already five years behind in preparing ourselves. Not good.

“Intervention by governments will be required, because the economic and social implications of oil peaking would otherwise be chaotic.” [p. 5]

“Prudent risk management requires the planning and implementation of mitigation well before peaking. Early mitigation will almost certainly be less expensive than delayed mitigation.” [p. 6]

That’s just for starters. “Less expensive” seems to be out as an option for us now. What kind of “intervention” by governments might be needed has by all indications not yet been considered—at least publicly, as I discussed in my last post. That should be cause for concern.

A quick acknowledgement about how much of our nation’s transportation depends on a ready supply of inexpensive gas and oil suggests even to the entirely uninformed that adapting to the post-Peak Oil world is at a minimum going to be a monumental undertaking of almost-indescribable complexity … in other words, a big challenge! The transportation aspect is not just about dependence on our personal vehicles, either. A significant percentage of our produced goods are transported via trucked freight, and there’s a fair amount of air travel to keep in mind as well. This sobering observation offers plenty of motivation:

“We cannot conceive of any affordable government-sponsored “crash program” to accelerate normal replacement schedules so as to incorporate higher energy efficiency technologies into the privately-owned transportation sector; significant improvements in energy efficiency will thus be inherently time-consuming (of the order of a decade or more).” [p. 24]

So what’s the Plan? Business as usual and a whole lotta hope ought to be off the table already. Denial and ignoring it in the hopes it will just go away aren’t of much help, either. Three questions posed to readers [p. 10] when the report was issued have even greater relevance today. Do we have answers yet?

“What are the risks of heavy reliance on optimistic world oil production peaking projections?
“Must we wait for the onset of oil shortages before actions are taken?
“What can be done to ensure that prudent mitigation is initiated on a timely basis?”

Optimism is fine and well … up to a point. Believing that we’re doomed is not the best starting point, so a recognition that with great, concerted effort we may still be able to count on our nation’s great intellectual and cultural resources to lead the way is certainly advisable. But that notion alone, without planning and then implementation, is not much more than an empty platitude. Obviously waiting until we’re up to our eyeballs in Peak Oil’s impact and consequences is not the preferred approach, but time’s a-wastin’. We’re damn close to that point now.

“[D]oing the research required to bring new technologies to commercial readiness takes time under the best of
circumstances. Thereafter, more than a decade of intense implementation will be required for world scale impact, because of the inherently large scale of world oil consumption.” [p. 7]

Ensuring prudent mitigation is one of the key topics I’ll be devoting scores of posts to in the coming weeks and months. Suffice it to say, leaving it all up to our nearly-useless Congress without a great deal more involvement on our parts is a sure strategy for not-so-pleasant consequences which I don’t want to give even a first thought to. We need to start having difficult, painful, but honest public conversations about what happens in the years to come when the oil and gas we rely on every day is simply no longer as available as it has been for decades. There’s no getting around that fact.

“Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.” [p. 59]

That outcome ought to be scaring the bejesus out of us right about now—to least enough for us and our leadership to get off our asses and start having those conversations and putting plans into place starting today. That phase alone is going to take many months of thoughtful consideration and an examination and understanding of what makes our industries productive and successful, and in turn affords us the myriad options and opportunities we’ve enjoyed for decades. Plan B for all of that is not going to be the end result of a couple of chats at someone’s weekend retreat.

The concluding advisory is not comforting given how inadequate our preparation has been to date:

“In summary, the problem of the peaking of world conventional oil production is unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society. The challenges and uncertainties need to be much better understood. Technologies exist to mitigate the problem. Timely, aggressive risk management will be essential.” [p. 7]

We’ve past the point where “aggressive” is called for. Whatever comes after aggressive is where we need to be, and soon.

I don’t like the thought of crash-program anything, but with oil production having at a minimum plateaued half a decade ago, the signs are not good for a return to business as usual. A minor bump-up in production from oil shale is not a reason for concluding that the Peak Oil problem can again be put to bed. We need to have the courage and wisdom to recognize that, and then begin the process of putting our magnificent talents and the ethics and creativity of our peers to work as we lead the way into the post-Peak Oil world.

Crisis, or opportunity?

To be continued….

In a number of prior posts, including my post from earlier this week, I have tried to impress upon readers of this blog the urgent need for planning. In a future world that was once created, maintained, and enhanced by fossil fuel resources at every step, we’re going to have to devise means and methods to achieve many of the same functions without oil to sustain the efforts. That is no easy task.

Certainly we will help the cause by paying attention to our energy usage and by finding ways to conserve, starting right now. Every measure will help. If we don’t have the basic energy resource (oil) available to us to power our industrial economy in all its facets, then obviously “alternative” energy resources will have to step in as substitutes.

There’s one serious problem: we don’t have alternative energy resources anywhere near the quality, quantity, or scale to serve as an appropriate substitute. That’s Gigantic Hurdle Number One, and we’re not going to clear that bar any time soon absent a legitimately miraculous discovery in the near term; or a massive, nation-wide commitment to make the transition away from our oil-powered economy—with all the research, design, testing, implementation, and sacrifice that entails. The latter is very likely the one we’ll have to depend on, sooner or later. Sooner is the better option.

As mentioned in my last post, as have others, the Hirsch Report was quite clear that mitigation efforts designed to transition away from oil as the foundation of economic growth and industrial production required an all-hands-on-deck twenty year process. With Peak Oil now, apparently, a few years past already, we’ve got a calendar problem. Those mitigation efforts would have had to begin about a quarter of a century ago. Turning back the clock has never been an option, and it’s not available now, either.

“Achieving any really significant percentage of renewable energy contribution to current consumption levels appears to be next to impossible. Current efforts to try and achieve this impossible target require ever more massive and complex machinery and higher and higher inputs of, increasingly scarcer materials and fossil energy to achieve.
“The point is very simply that an enormous amount of fossil energy is required to manufacture, install and operate all forms of renewable energy systems. Without the input of fossil fuel the existing renewable energy projects could never have been built and could not be maintained in operation.” [1]

Worldwide discovery of oil peaked more than three decades ago. Every year since, we have been using a lot more oil than we’re finding. Spin that any way you’d like, it’s still bad math. Approximately two-thirds of the countries producing oil (including the U.S.) have now—or long ago—reached peak production. That math doesn’t work any better.

As the remaining major oil producers continue to expand their own economies and serve their citizenry, the amount of oil they will have left over to only then export to countries like our own will decline. Whatever sense of entitlement we might insist upon won’t be worth much when that reality intrudes. That’s a grand social psychology problem we’re not close to recognizing. We’ve always gotten whatever we need … sometimes just because we wanted “it.” There will be a lot of whining and complaining in the years to come when the realization dawns on us that “just because” is no longer good enough. The citizens of the world have every reason to expect or desire growth and prosperity for themselves. And I don’t foresee the peoples of developing nations deciding en masse to forestall progress so that Americans can continue to gorge themselves at the world’s expense. That may not be a happy message to receive, but it’s an honest one.

And let’s not forget that finding and producing the same quality and quantities of oil that has sustained us to this point is only going to be more difficult; which of course also means more expensive. Oil producers won’t be absorbing those higher costs out of the goodness of their hearts, either. We’ll be paying for that.

But so far we have no strategies to address these real-life consequences of peak oil production. The ones we are employing (because we have no alternatives), make less sense as time passes.

“What is crazy and wasteful is that the U.S. and other countries are still building car assembly plants, roads, highways, parking lots, suburban housing developments, and airplanes as though cheap oil will last forever (Brown 2009). We continue to make investments in an infrastructure that will be superfluous shortly after we build it. This is an example of a market that is failing because it does not anticipate even short-term changes.” [2]

What’s a better approach, as we continue to seek ways to pull ourselves out from the depths and burdens of this ongoing Great Recession (and no, tax cuts for the wealthiest few hundred among us really is not the solution)? Perhaps our national leaders might consider the opportunities to redress the myriad infrastructure repair and maintenance issues with an intense focus on adapting that infrastructure to a world where fossil fuels are no longer available to power or sustain it—and us. Relying on the normal resources is painfully short-sighted now. Certainly a reliance on hands-off government for an undertaking this complex is pointless to argue or consider. An unfettered corporate world cannot begin to handle the myriad aspects of this nearly-incomprehensible conversion.

More planning might be a good idea right about now, before we throw money and fossil fuel resources at problems that desperately require our attention.

Other nations, notably China, seem much more capable and willing to prepare themselves for a new energy culture than we are. That’s a problem now, and it’s going to become an even greater and more pervasive problem for us down the road unless we start getting our national act together. But no one wants to take that first giant step to explain to Americans that we’ve got a brewing challenge ahead, one that will too quickly morph into a crisis unless we start doing things differently … now.

“‘China right now is preparing to roll out electric cars, lithium ion batteries, solar cells, cellulosic ethanol. This is where the future of energy is. We’ve a finite resource in oil, just like we had a finite resource in whale oil, and we made a transition,’ said [Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.)]. ‘And we have to really focus our national energies in a bipartisan way, I would hope, on finding our way to compete with China to really build new energy sources of the future.’”

“President Obama has made a similar case repeatedly in recent years, stressing the fact that countries like China and India ‘aren’t playing for second place.’ There’s a gut-level appeal to messages like these, at least there might be, targeting a certain nationalistic impulse — advancing America’s interests isn’t just about a debate over the size of government, it’s also about positioning the United States as a world leader in a competitive landscape.” [3]

The opportunities are still there, daunting though they may be. But unless and until we come to some national recognition about what the real world is going to be like for all us—Republicans, Democrats, You-Name-Its—we cannot hope to prepare ourselves for the massive changes that will confront us in the years ahead. Can we still lead? Will we?

The song remains the same: crisis, or opportunity?

Sources:

[1] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-25/how-sustainable-renewable-energy; How sustainable is renewable energy? by Roger Adair
[2] http://sustainability-ayersj.blogspot.com/2010/11/peak-oil-3-national-and-global.html; Peak Oil 3: National and Global Production Peaks of Oil and Other Resources by John Ayers
[3] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_11/026813.php; THE GLOBAL-COMPETITION ARGUMENT by Steve Benen

As has been reported on a number of other Peak Oil-related websites, the International Energy Agency, in its World Energy Outlook 2010, has finally come around to admitting what many have been stating for some time: Peak Oil is no longer a challenge to be faced in the distant (or even not-so-distant) future. The IEA has now gone on record as stating that world conventional oil production will never match or exceed the approximately 70 million barrels per day produced back in 2006.

Uh-oh!

So while that reality hits us, let’s consider another of those damned facts about oil production and usage:

“If you sort all of the countries by per capita daily oil consumption and start from the lowest consuming countries, you need to sum up the consumption of nearly 100 countries to match the daily oil consumption in the U.S. Among these countries are China and India.
“Altogether the citizens of the U.S. consume the same amount of oil as 4.8 billion people elsewhere.” [1]

Houston, we have a problem. Notwithstanding any sense of entitlement, or the false bravado of assured technological solutions just in the nick of time, our use of oil and its innumerable by-products (forget for a moment—but only for a moment—the demand and usage of every other nation) is going to smack head-first into a wall of declining supply and/or more expensive but still-declining supply. And it’s not going to get any better.

I don’t like it; I assume readers here do not like it; and I’m fairly certain that few individual or business consumers will appreciate or enjoy learning this. There’s no place to look around for any immediate solutions because there aren’t any! Changes won’t necessarily occur tomorrow or next week or next month, but the painful and unpleasant truth is that we’re not going to have available to us the same amounts of readily-available oil supplies at the same relatively low prices we’ve enjoyed for decades. Not gonna happen. That means adaptations, adjustments, and yes, even sacrifices beginning soon enough, with no end in sight. That’s a problem we’re almost completely unprepared to deal with or correct.

We’re all in this together, and we’re going to have to put our thinking caps on and start figuring out what we’ll need to do individually and as a nation to transition away from oil. The optimist in me still thinks opportunities abound, but the clock is definitely ticking.

We’ll still have a number of decades to make a complete transition away from oil as the power source. But the problem is that we’ll be making this monumental transition away from oil at a time when the supply is diminishing, world-wide demand is increasing, costs are on the rise, production and refining become more difficult (and of course more expensive), and it’s going to take much longer to bring that fossil fuel resource to market. That’s just for starters.

We use oil for just about everything produced, transported, and consumed. We’re now going to have to start figuring out many new ways to try and maintain some semblance of a “normal” industrial economy as well as a personal lifestyle using new forms of energy to power just about everything we rely on oil to do for us now. That’s also not gonna happen … certainly not to the extent, with the ease, at the low costs, or with the same quality and quantity we’ve come to expect.

Plans are in order—lots of plans. This is no quick-fix modern day dilemma, and it is most definitely not a challenge that we can rely on the “market” to solve on its own. What remains just as doubtful is the ability of our national government to lead the way, and that’s a problem. I’m not sure right now that Congress could easily, quickly, or even by majority vote declare December 25 as Christmas Day. Certainly they couldn’t do so if President Obama offered that up. This is not encouraging, and it’s even less so when we have a more-than-insignificant number of “leaders” who cannot seem to accept anything that even remotely resembles scientific fact.

We’re going to need a national government with national leaders who can … you know, lead; people who actually understand what is at stake, have some kind of vision for what we need to do now and going forward, are willing to articulate that to the citizenry, can explain what we all have to contribute, and are willing to make the tough choices devoid of ideology. Declining oil production has absolutely nothing to do with conservative or liberal philosophies of governance.

We’ve got an entire industrial and commercial infrastructure that is going to have to be modified, re-built, or in many cases created anew to allow us to move forward with something other than oil to power it. There’s no pretending otherwise, and waiting is simply not an option any more—not that it has been. The Hirsch Report which issued several years ago was quite clear that 20 years of full-out national effort would be needed to effect an orderly and hopefully pain-free transition away from fossil fuels in order to continue to power our economy and support our lifestyles.

If the IEA is finally admitting that peak conventional production happened four year ago, simple math tells us we’re a wee bit late on maximizing opportunities from that 20-year window. Uh-oh, again!

Just to keep things interesting, the transition from an oil-based industrial economy to Whatever-Plan-B-Will-Be will have to be achieved using that same declining measure of supply to design and construct and transport and put into place the infrastructure we’ll need to support and maintain this as yet unidentified and not-planned- for-yet Plan B. We’re talking about using a lot of declining energy supplies that’s a lot more expensive, over the course of a lot of years to put into operation a lot of new industrial and economic and civic foundations to (we hope) enable us to maintain some semblance of growth and prosperity—all while using new energy resources that simply will not be as efficient or inexpensive or dependable as oil has been.

And who does without or with less in order to achieve all of this? “Someone else, of course” is not the answer. We’re all “someone else” now. (As a bonus, extracting this now-more-difficult-to-come-by resource will create even more environmental and other resource-supply difficulties.)

So far, this is not encouraging. Where are the plans? Do our leaders have any courage at all to start dealing with the difficult truths all of us are now going to have to contend with? “Drill, baby, drill” was a poor solution when it was first suggested. Now, it’s just a fantasy. We’re going to need something a bit more intelligent as a solution.

The IEA’s 2010 Outlook states that more than three-quarters of the 2035 production amounts are going to originate from either oil fields that so far have not been developed (including the more costly, less efficient, and less reliable unconventional resources such as the Canadian tar sands), or from fields that haven’t even been discovered yet! Hello! There are a lot of unspoken hopes and wishes and finger-crossings being counted upon. And another bonus: all of this is going to be even more expensive.

What’s even more startling is that the IEA is projecting that by 2035, the conventional oil production we’ve relied on for decades will have decreased from the 2006 peak of 70 million barrels per day to less than 20 million barrels per day. According to my calculations, 20 million is a lot less than 70 million. That is not good math.

These are just some of the facts we have no choice but to deal with. This is not an ideal set of circumstances for us to confront in the midst of our continuing economic woes. But we play the hand we’re dealt, or we fold. Our choice.

First, we need to come to terms with these facts, and that means at a minimum the partisan, fact-free or manufactured-out-of-thin-air political nonsense must end immediately.

From there, we move toward plans and actions. None of the options will be simple, fast, or cheap. Are we willing to bet on human ingenuity and human capital? It won’t be the first time, and there’s no rule that even suggests that change won’t be better for all of us. I’m not willing to relinquish my hold on optimism (though I find myself having to grip a bit harder these days).

The game is different now, the rules are different, and if there is to be any “winning”, it’s going to have to come about with different strategies and lot more playing partners than some would like. But that’s the reality.

“Peak oil and the events associated with it will be an unprecedented discontinuity in human and geologic history. Peak oil crises will soon confront societies with the opportunity to recreate themselves based on their respective needs, culture, resources, and governance responses. Peak oil will require a change of economic and social systems, and will result in a new world order. The sooner people prepare for peak oil and a post-peak oil life, the more they will be able to influence the direction of their opportunities. Nevertheless, there are probably no solutions that do not involve at the very least some major changes in lifestyles. Consequently, peak oil will probably result in some catastrophic upheavals. Peak oil will also present opportunities to address many underlying societal, economic, and environmental problems.” [2]

I’ve ended more than one post to date with this question, and it’s just as vital today as it always has been:

Crisis, or opportunity?

Sources:

[1] http://seekingalpha.com/article/231957-the-end-of-oil-s-golden-age; King Oil – posted Oct 25, 2010
[2] http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-21/collapse-nov-21 and http://www.global.ucsb.edu/climateproject/papers/index.html; Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization: The Current Peak Oil Crisis by Tariel Mórrígan; Global Climate Change, Human Security & Democracy, Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

“The world has never confronted a problem like this, and the failure to act on a timely basis could have debilitating impacts on the world economy. Risk minimization requires the implementation of mitigation measures well prior to peaking. Since it is uncertain when peaking will occur, the challenge is indeed significant.” – The Hirsch Report [PDF here], 2005

The number of reports and opinions suggesting that we are near or have already passed Peak Oil continues to grow. (See this most recent one, for example.) The International Energy Agency’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, has been dropping more than his fair share of hints in the past couple of years, including this comment:

“[W]e have to leave oil before it leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day. The earlier we start the better….”

Several weeks ago, The Australia Institute published a report urging that nations begin serious preparation for a transition away from fossil fuels, an implicit recognition that Peak Oil is indeed a fact and not a theory subject to rational disagreement.

“This paper argues that the time for the world to worry about peak oil is now, while there is a window of opportunity to do something about it. It does not make economic or social sense to delay action until prices are already rising sharply.”

And you can be sure that once prices begin rising “sharply,” it’s a likely indicator that the ready supply of cheap oil is now being curtailed once and for all, and that we have reached peak oil production (which we probably already have). The efforts needed in transitioning from a fossil-fuel based industrialized society to one dependent instead on whatever alternatives are eventually determined to be the most appropriate (but likely inferior) energy sources will undoubtedly cost trillions, and will take years and years to be fully developed and implemented. Too many of us don’t have a clue as to what’s involved. Attempting all of this on the downside of oil production will make the challenges infinitely more difficult. The fact that we haven’t begun to address this with anywhere near the measures of urgency required isn’t helpful.

The post-peak oil world is not one we’ll enter easily, quietly, inexpensively, or quickly.

Those who advocate letting the market dictate how this will all come to fruition conveniently neglect to explain these factors. Expecting that an increase in fuel prices will simply lead to more exploration or the development of alternative sources of energy is not exactly that simple. Alternatives won’t appear out of thin air, fully tested and ready for full public and industrial consumption a few weeks down the road. Those processes likewise take years. Coupled with the fact that investments in energy production has been significantly curtailed during this economic downturn, much more “catching up” is needed just to keep pace, let alone try and get ahead of the curve.

The Hirsch report was quite clear that a 20 year head start before the onset of Peak Oil was the best option for achieving a non-disruptive transition away from a fossil fuel economy. An all-hands-on-deck ten year effort was the next best option, but clearly not one without significant impact on our ways of life and production. Anyone who rationally thinks that we still have enough “time” to effect a seamless conversion from a fossil-fuel based industrialized society to its replacement is delusional; but that’s not to argue in favor of now doing nothing and just hoping for the best.

We’ll need the tools and resources we have now in order to develop, produce, and put into place all that must be revised/created in order for us to properly and successfully adapt to an industrialized world that uses something other than fossil fuel as its primary source of energy and production. And that means we’ll need a lot of existing fossil fuel resources to undertake that process—an additional burden on demand that needs to be taken into account.

We’re past the point of waiting until some better set of circumstances.

Dr. Hirsch’s asked his readers to consider three key issues:

“• What are the risks of heavy reliance on optimistic world oil production peaking projections?
“• Must we wait for the onset of oil shortages before actions are taken?
“• What can be done to ensure that prudent mitigation is initiated on a timely basis?”

His replies were almost self-evident, (and Sharon Astyk highlighted this simple truth for us in her wonderful post last week):

“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 [my emphasis] to yield substantial relief.”

The Australia report is just as emphatic in stressing the obvious benefits of undertaking the massive transition now:

“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.”

The choices are clear: start the almost unimaginably complex, multi-year, incredibly expensive transition away from an economy built on easily available and usually inexpensive fossil fuels to one that we have not invested nearly enough time, thought, or resources to develop as it is; or wait and be overwhelmed by the enormity of those undertakings when we are even more poorly prepared than we are now. The tendency to seek relief for immediate needs in the face of calamity is exactly the wrong thing for us to do with the onset of Peak Oil production. The only way we can provide some assurances of continuing “prosperity” is to plan for the long term quickly, and then start the process of transition immediately. Local efforts or market solutions are not the way to go. We need more leaders who understand this.

And let’s not forget this fly in the ointment (the nonsense of and from right-wing deniers notwithstanding):

“[P]eak oil will make solving climate change much more difficult, because all the solutions to climate change require that we build new infrastructures, new power plants, new solar technologies, new transportation systems, and new buildings that will all be more difficult and more expensive to accomplish after we pass peak. Furthermore, if we tried to address the energy challenges of peak oil by using more coal, oil sands, or oil shale, this could rapidly accelerate climate change. It is critical that we address our coming energy challenges in a way that does not make climate change worse.” [1]

Quite the set of challenges! Time to get started … so what is it going to take?

Source:

[1] http://www.energybulletin.net/node/47670 – Q&A: Peak Oil and Public Health by Tim Parsons (interviewer) with Brian Schwartz, MD

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.

http://petrole.blog.lemonde.fr/2010/09/16/interview-with-robert-l-hirsch-12/

http://petrole.blog.lemonde.fr/2010/09/16/interview-with-robert-l-hirsch-22/

“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.

Sources:

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