Tonight in Seattle:  

Peak Oil: Is It the End of the World As We Know It

Don't Bring Me Down...
OK, I'll let you in on my secret theory: I believe that we humans find doomsday scenarios so freakin' interesting (look at "The Day After Tomorrow", or that 80's nightmare inducer, "The Day After") because we want to know the worst case scenario so we can start planning for it. Seriously, after September 11th, who didn't have an escape route from the city planned out? Lord knows I did — I even told all my friends, so they'd know where to come find me.

So maybe I have a perverse predilection with worst-case scenarios, and you should take everything I'm about to tell you with a grain of salt. A giant, Rainier-sized grain of salt. But at the very least, it'll get you thinking, might possibly explain why the fuck we're nation-building in Iraq, and get you to switch to a hybrid or biodiesel car (read igChar's fantastic article!)

Here's my latest sleep-killing end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (earthquakes, birds, and snakes, and aeroplanes...) scenario: it's called the Peak Oil theory (www.PeakOil.org, www.peakoil.net, www.peakoil.com, or Google search "peak oil" and freak out at the number of hits). The peak oil theory is, simply put, the proposition that global oil production will one day (soon) peak, and then begin an inevitable decline due to overconsumption of this finite resource.

Beware the Peak
The theory was first proposed by the late Dr. M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist, who was well known as a world authority on the estimation of energy resources and on the prediction of their patterns of discovery and depletion. Hubbert realized that U.S. oil production in the 1950's, when the U.S. was the world's top oil producer, followed the upward slope of what appeared to be a bell curve — one that he projected would peak, and then begin to decline.

His prediction in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in about 1970 and decline thereafter was scoffed at, and Hubbert was blackballed and fired from his job. His analysis has since proved to be remarkably accurate, as the Energy Crisis of the early 70's revealed, when the U.S. indeed hit its peak oil production and began the era of U.S. reliance on foreign oil. 

Peak Oil

Many prominent scientists and economists note that world oil production is following the same Hubbert curve, with an anticipated peak of 2000-2025, depending on estimates of oil reserves and undiscovered resources. Some more alarming recent estimates are that the oil peak has been passed, and we will only begin to realize this within the next several years. The graph above (from peakoil.net) demonstrates the latest thinking — that the global oil peak is due in 2008 — and that even the Middle East, the Arctic, deepwater drilling, and natural gas can only sustain us for another decade or so.

Exploration and Lag Time — Huh?
Now, many folks will tell you that there is nothing to worry about — that there is always a lag time between the discovery of oil resources and its subsequent extraction. See, the problem with this assurance is that we haven't discovered any new easy to extract resources in years.

What does "easy-to-extract" mean? Well, on the upward slope of the curve, every drop of oil is both easier to extract and cheaper to extract than the drop prior (think freshman economics — once the infrastructure is in place, subsequent production is cheap). After the peak of global oil production, every drop of oil is harder to extract and more expensive to extract than the prior drop. This is a production nightmare. If this was candy bars, you'd stop making them and switch to something else. This graph (also from peakoil.net) illustrates the growing gap between new oil discoveries and current production. 

Peak Oil

So here's something to think about — the world's two largest oil fields are in Iraq and Saudi Arabia; a point that some claim explains the ulterior motives of the current Iraq war as a means of securing U.S. access to these resources, as they will be the last "easy to extract" oil resources. This means that when the rest of the world has been pumped dry, Saudi Arabia and Iraq will be the last two places pumping. Call me a genius, but I kinda think whoever is in control of those places is in the position to make a shitload of money, and will have a lot of friends, if you know what I mean.

So Freakin' What? I'm Hungry!
Again resorting to basic economics, oil production decline will result in extreme price inflation, territorial disputes, and a severe limiting pressure on global population. Why? For one, the entire agribusiness industry is oriented around cheap oil, including the use of petrochemical insecticide and fertilizer, delivery, and packaging.

Play a fun little game with me: go into your local supermarket (as crunchy granola hippy-dippy as you want) and look at the products on the shelves. How many are wrapped in, encased in, or somehow utilize plastic? A lot, huh? Maybe even most of them. Well, friends, THAT'S ALL OIL. Most synthetic polymer materials are made from petroleum byproducts and used in everything from polyester clothing to vinyl siding on homes to the plastic film on compact-disc covers. The price of high-density polyethylene, used in such common products as plastic milk containers and trash bags, has risen by 20 percent since early 2003 and is at historic highs (from builderonline.com).

How 'bout the produce section? All those lovely fruits and vegetables were grown in farms that use chemicals made from petroleum products. "Ah ha!" you say — not the organics! Yes, but what about the pumps that water the fields? What about the farm machinery that plows, tills, and harvests? What about the lovely big rig that trucks it all to your PCC?

Do you see where I'm going with this? If oil cost $200 per barrel (it's about $40/barrel right now, a ten-year high), and gasoline is $20 per gallon — who pays for trucking your food to you? Farming has never been a get-rich proposition, and it's even worse now. What if gas is $100 per gallon? I know it's nutty to think about — but if we run out of it, who can honestly say how much oil and gas will ultimately cost?

Now — to make things worse: world population is increasing, and we've never done a good job of feeding everyone. But after the peak, world oil falls at roughly the same rate it rose. Simply put — the world will have access to as much oil in 2025 as it did in 1975 (assuming a Y2000 peak). However, oil will be significantly more expensive, and the world population will have doubled from ~4 billion to ~8 billion people. Collapse of food production and delivery resulting in massive starvation in third- and second-world countries is not a far-fetched possible result. People will flee whole countries, looking for food. Where will those refugees go? Kent? Kalamazoo? Kansas? Kentucky?

And now to cap off the horror in our frightening new world of terror. Can you imagine what we'll say to Brazil or Botswana or Bangladesh when it becomes clear that we — the U.S., Russia, Europe, and Japan — have used up all of this precious resource before they ever had a chance to get to their feet and become self-sufficient? Don't you think they might be pissed — and that suddenly the poor starving nations of the world will rightly feel that they've been fucked out of an entire century of cheap development? Well, maybe I can't predict the future but I'm pretty sure they will, and you know — they'll be completely right.

This is The End, My Only Friend... The End.
Normally I like to end on an up note — with lots of suggestions for what you can do. But you know, I'm still freaking out about this one — I don't know what to do, other than tell you to switch to biodiesel or buy a hybrid car. Maybe if enough of us do that, the oil companies will get the message, and car companies will get the message. Kind of like everyone going low-carb at the same time: the potato farmers are freaking out, and Coca Cola suddenly has low-carb Coke.

But this is more than conservation — this is a giant, unanswered question: how do we switch the entire world over from an oil economy to a non-oil economy — and what the hell does a non-oil economy look like, anyways? And once we do it, how the hell do we tell six billion people we screwed them out of a hundred years of the American dream, cause we were busy driving our SUVs to the market for plastic encased crappy food?

Again, I don't know the answers, but this is one end-of-the-world nightmare scenario that seems more and more real to me, and I just want to wake up.

Resources


Three ImaginaryGirls.com wholeheartedly supports this report but opinions expressed are the author's and do not necessarily reflect opinions or policies of the girls {although, as igLiz says, "It doesn't necessarily not reflect our opinions..."}

That's right, there is no happy ending. You cannot petition the lord with prayer. In my experience you go crazy for 6 months with this kind of information. You read Heinberg, Kunstler, Quinn, Campbell, Defeyes. Then you learn about permaculture, simplicity etc. What you do not do is hide your head in the sand.

Thanks for this comment "format".I have a hard time e-mailing people and I can't afford a web site.If you're wondering how to convert the world to a non-oil based culture then e-mail me at jcspiess10@NatlCollege.Edu .I grew up poor and thinking about just how the world could be less than totally fucked and I believe in all honesty that the pain of my life and considerable intelligence,reflection and reading have crystalized into the answer everyone needs to hear.I'm not trying to make a buck.I won't ask you for money.I don't give a damn about fame.I just need to get the word out so it doesn't die with me.

Peak oil, who cares, I don't. I'm looking forward to seeing civilisation collapse and all the useless people who spend their lives concerned with bullshit having to do something real in order to have the right to keep breathing. Political correctness will go out the window real quick, society will have no time or patience with self proclaimed victims anymore, either you pull your weight or you sink.

If you know about peak oil your already ahead of the pack. Since you know you can start physically and mentally preparing for a life with less and less oil and less and less energy and less and less security. Or you can choose to deny it is happening or will happen and be a big loser when it does. One thing for sure, if you want to live in th e past trying to clinge to old habits and lifesyles and just can't accept that the part is over, you might as well cut your wrists and get it over with. Most of the population of the world fall into this catergory, they are toast, dead men walking. The first thing to do is to prepare to "survive" the slide. Whoever survives and comes out the other side of the population implosion will be the ones that have been able to adapt to an 18th century lifestyle. Think people that lived then were unhappy, had unrewarding lives, not worth living.....if you answer yes to these questions then your well on the way to being one of the losers.

Wow Stu, you are a little ray of sunshine, aren't you...?

We have sufficient supply to keep the world running for 30 years or so, at the current level of demand. But that's irrelevant because the days of inexpensive oil are behind us. All are needing for fuel economy

Stu,
Your words are good. I feel anxious for the 'slide' to start happening. Practice toward it is difficult. For instance, one of the first things I do is turn the computer on in the morning. I'm also planning to go now to the corner store and get OJ, the newspaper, and a pack of pre-rolled cigarettes. I will truly welcome the absence of these luxuriates, it's all addictive. Until then, I have little self-control.

Hi all, been a while since someone commented here...interestingly, since the last comment in 2008, the world has made huge strides in proving on an almost daily basis peak oil may have already occured and even huger strides at ignoring the problem. Oil now has a resistance-low market point of $90+, oil shortages are common in poor countries, food prices are surpassing inflation at alarming rates, the economy has not even rebounded from the last recession and people are starting to very slowly realize; hey...there is an actual serious situation afoot! But I figure it will be another year before half the world's population even bothers to learn the term 'peak oil'. For now, I watch newscast after newscast with people describing peak oil, without actually using the term and getting sidetracked before getting to possible solutions. In a way, it's really really scary.
I appreciate your article but there is one error that requires correcting. You call it "Peak Oil" theory? I find that odd. Oil is a finite resource. We don't grow it on trees. Demand is increasing as supplies decrease. Therefore by definition it will run out and soon. That is a plain and simple fact. Even BP (visit their web site) is forecasting 40 years before it's all gone. Therefore timeline wise we passed the halfway mark years ago. Note that's 40 yrs before there is nothing left not 40 years before the funs starts. Huge price hikes, supply shortages affecting well, everthing. This is not doomsday speak. It's simply a fact. Another fact. Most Governments know about this but because there vision tends to become impaired beyond 3 or 4 years, they are doing nothing about it. As for bio-fuels and electric cars. Hmmm you missing the point. These things will exist but not for a world population of 6 Billion. These are what I call 'anti-panic" myths so people think there is a parachute. Some basic arithmetic will lead you to conclude that bio-fuel etc is strictly going to be specialist fuel only. We haven't even started mass production and already the US Govt has realised that it's effecting food production. The US consumes around 90 Million barrels of oil a day! You would have to cover ever square meter of the US with biomass just to fuel your cars. Nothing to do with fuelling the world generally. Unfortunately the only logical conclusion one can come to is that the world as we know it will end. Effectively we will revert to pre-oil and eventually pre-coal population levels and society. Scary but has to happen. For all sakes but especially for the planet. We need to deal with reality before reality deals with us.
the world consumes 90 million a barrels of oil a day the u.s. consumes 22million barrels
very frankly we, the people who know of peak oil should have cans of beans and bottles of water and guns stashed away, though i am going to also look forward to the utter collapse of our fucked up, self destructive society, i want humans to live on and believe we will, there are only a few things that will stop peak oil my friends, a pamdemic that spans the earth killing 6 billion people, or the invention of fission, since fission has been 25 yrs ouot of reach for the last 60 years, the widespred modern day plague is the only thing that will stop this, even if every country had solar panels on ever rooftop, every non agricultural field, wind turbines everywhere, this could not be stopped, only two things could have saved us from this, preparing for this 50 years ago, or if hemp was not made illegal, hemp can replace 90% of ALL PERTROLEUM PRODUCTS, 90%. and im talking about hemp not marijuana. and if you think ethanol is the salution then are sorely mistaken. and further more tar sands and coal are going to be the last things we use to conclude our total destruction of the environment, it is a 2:3 ratio to get oil out of tar sands, where as its a 1:30 ratio for pumping oil out of the ground. it takes 2 tons of taar sands and tons of BOILING water to extract one barrel of oil from tar sands. with the economy declining this is not the solution, my friends im not a doomsayer and im not a pessemist, im a realist, and make NO mistake, the collapse and ffall of society will happen in OUR life time, with it almost definitely happening in the next 15 yrs, i intend to head to the mountains, so goodluck in the coming apocolyps

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