Peak Oil Again

I’ve posted on peak oil before, but I am hearing about it more frequently, so perhaps it’s time to post again.

In 1997 I read the Campbell article in Scientific American, and it made sense: there’s a limited amount of oil, the most optimistic believe that we’ll reach this peak within 30 – 40 years, even if the peak is decades away, it makes sense to cut back on oil use now. By a lot.

I wasn’t enamored by the solutions of the peak oil advertisers, retreating into small villages. The solutions seemed recycled Y2k, in fact, these solutions appeared shortly after 2000 if I have my history right. This makes them look like solutions in search of a problem.

I understood some of the scientific arguments against an early peak – world oil reserves are not as well explored as American ones had been when Hubbert produced his analysis of when the US would reach peak oil (and as one scientist peak oil aficionado pointed out, Hubbert’s analysis wasn’t all that good, he was lucky in predicting US peak).

I was challenged by the total lack of interest in this topic in the policy and climate change community. They kept saying peak oil is not a problem, but burning the oil is. I knew these people to be numerate, yet they were not interested in a topic that seemed common sense to me.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned why. We can switch to plants-to-fuels, or biofuels (after some point, this will cause damage to water and land). We can switch to coal-to-fuels, or synfuel (we can capture and geologically store the carbon dioxide produced in producing this synfuel, though we can’t capture and store the carbon dioxide produced in using fuels in a car, airplane, etc.) It will be long after my death when we run out of relatively cheap fuels – relatively cheap may be more expensive than they are today, but they still will be relatively cheap.

Long before, we will have emitted enough carbon to devastate the Earth. The issue won’t be regional solutions. Instead, water availability, or too much water, or both floods and drought in the same area will be problems. The productivity of crops and ecosystems everywhere will have declined or plummeted. And the important problems will not be whether the rich can continue our lifestyle, but whether the poor can find a way to live.

Some feel that it’s OK to focus on peak oil because the solutions are the same. The only solution that overlaps is to drive less, and if peak oil people do this, fine. But solutions such as synfuels, solutions such as using the tar sands of Canada to produce our oil, as we are now doing, are not solutions to climate change. And devoting energy to building a local community structure may be useful, but how will we solve problems if hundreds of millions Chinese need to move because they don’t have water. If 100 million Bangladeshi (population 144 million) must move because of a sea level rise this century of 1 meter (or more). Such predictions are not yet into IPCC reports, but the predictions now coming out of the scientific community are that we may see a sea level rise of 2 m, as we learn more about ice sheet instability. How will your small town deal with agricultural water no longer available south of the delta in California (east of San Francisco) with a 1 m rise? The problems are global. The solutions must be global.

The most important solution is, of course, for the rich to burn considerably less fossil fuel or to store the carbon emitted (a temporary solution for perhaps a century). And for the rich to subsidize the poor so that they can burn less fossil fuel. There is no way to store the carbon emitted by automobiles and airplanes and motorized boats. We can use biofuels – storing carbon dioxide in plants and then releasing the same carbon when burned – for only some of our transportation needs. Perhaps a better use of our energy is to lobby our legislators hard to double fuel efficiency of cars. And reconsider our own use of transportation. And labor – badger nicely! – with others on their transportation modes. Not because others are evil, but because all of us do not want to harm the Earth, we all want to be part of the solution.

Bob Seeley looks at the other side of peak oil, those who believe physical reality is too confining, and that there is a Bottomless Well.

4 Responses to “Peak Oil Again”

  1. Mary Ann Baclawski says:

    Thanks, Karen. This is a good reminder to not look at just one problem- global warming or peak oil, but to remember that we need to keep them all in mind.

  2. Bustopher says:

    There is definitely a lot of talk about Peak Oil lately. I bought “The Party’s Over’ a couple of months ago and watched the film “The End of Suburbia.”

  3. Bob Seeley says:

    I agree that the suggested remedies for peak oil are worse than the disease and that in the long run it’s a side issue compared to climate change. But I think it would be a strategic mistake to ignore this issue completely. It’s hard to imagine any country, let alone the U.S., having programs in place before the price of oil and supply difficulties begin to cause major disruptions. This provides an opening to argue for decreasing fossil fuel use generally—oil is running out, the price is going up, and the suggested alternatives not only aren’t in place but will kill us if they are implemented.

    You have to use the opportunities the situation gives you, and problems with oil prices and supply are also opportunities to argue for a different way of doing things.

  4. Doug says:

    Actually I can’t agree that PO is a side-issue, the environment and energy policy are intimately bound up.

    The path of least resistance to PO will be to move down the list to ever-dirtier fossil resources, starting with coal. At least 30% of the energy in the coal will be wasted in a coal-to-liquids process, and 100% of the carbon in the coal will eventually be released to the atmosphere. Plus, as electricity demand increases in India and China, yet more coal will be burned for power, and with nuclear power closed as an option in the US, Australia, and other countries, we can expect more coal to be burned in those countries as well.

    This future needs to be avoided by encouraging all of the non-carbon alternatives. Although more expensive than coal, they will ultimately be needed anyway as coal too will go into depletion before the end of the century. It makes far more sense to switch now, and save the coal for use as a feedstock in chemical industries, stretching the reserves for many centuries and drastically reducing its eventual impact on the atmosphere.