Downslope steep after the oil peak
By Robert Bolman
In all the discussion of rising energy prices, there is virtually no mention of peak oil - the one-time peak in global petroleum production. Almost everyone accepts that petroleum is a finite resource, but most insist that there is still plenty of oil left. Indeed, we have used only about half of our recoverable oil.
But the central issue is not when the last barrel will be pumped. The issue is that after oil production peaks, it goes into a permanent and irreversible decline, and the remaining oil becomes increasingly more expensive.
The ramifications of peak oil are staggering. Industrial civilization is built upon cheap, abundant petroleum. Slightly more expensive gasoline is just the beginning. After the peak, you'll see the effects from Wall Street to the supermarket.
Oil plays a role in virtually all aspects of our lives. Almost all plastic products are made of oil. Modern agriculture is little more than a system of turning oil into food, with fertilizers, mechanized equipment and worldwide shipping all dependent on petroleum. The suburbs that dominate our cities were built with the assumption that everyone would continue driving cars. The entire world economy will suffer when energy prices spiral upward.
In 1956, geophysicist M. King Hubbert - using principles of geology, physics and mathematics - predicted that U.S. petroleum production would peak in 1970. Ridiculed at the time, Hubbert was proven right; U.S. oil production peaked in 1971.
Using similar calculations, numerous experts - including Bush administration energy advisor Matthew Simmons - predict that the global oil peak is virtually upon us. Many predictions range from 2005 to 2008.
Many governments and oil companies predict that peak oil is comfortably decades away, but their predictions must be viewed skeptically. OPEC countries have historically inflated their petroleum reserves upon which their production quotas are based. Oil companies exaggerate their reserves to keep stock value high. (Shell Oil recently rocked the petroleum world when it was forced to admit that its reserves are 20 percent less than previously stated.)
The powerful can be expected to deny the reality of peak oil because they know what it will mean for the world economy and the stock markets.
Renewable energy technologies cannot be expected to save us from the brunt of peak oil. The problem is in the sheer size and scale of the energy infrastructure transition that needs to take place.
Wind and solar power, for instance, are both viable sources of renewable energy; if we had kept following the example set by Jimmy Carter when he put solar panels on the White House in 1979, we'd be in better shape than we are today. (Instead, Ronald Reagan took the panels down!) Yet, if we multiplied all of our wind and solar electricity generating capacity by four, it would still amount to less than 1 percent of our current energy consumption. Even if we were to start building solar panels and wind turbines as fast as we can, it would still be too little, too late. And contrary to popular misconception, hydrogen is not a source of energy, but merely a storage medium that must be produced using other energy sources.
The necessary level of renewable energy development will require vast amounts of money and energy. At the rate we're going, this investment will need to be made amid a world economy that has been slammed by the reality of peak oil. Fortunately, the Willamette Valley is in a better position to get through the upcoming changes than other parts of the country. We have abundant rainfall, and we sit amid some of the world's most fertile farmland. When imported food becomes prohibitively expensive, our grass seed industry can switch to food and bio-fuel crops.
While peak oil will present challenges for the economy, it also will produce jobs in energy efficiency, renewable energy and food productionand many other areas. There will be a large push toward a decentralized economy, because ships and trucks will no longer bring many consumer goods from elsewhere.
Perhaps Lane County's recreational vehicle industry could switch to producing energy-efficient public transit vehicles as demand for RVs declines with rising fuel prices.
We mustn't lose any more of our precious farmland to urban sprawl. New development must be of the denser, mixed-use type that will support pedestrian, bicycle and public transit.
Will peak oil be a catastrophe, or will energy efficiency, conservation and new technologies get us through? One thing is certain: petroleum is a finite resource, and at some point we are going to begin running out. Peak oil is fast approaching.
We're foolish not to be taking prudent action.
Robert Bolman of Eugene is founding director of Maitreya EcoVillage. Peak oil expert Michael Ruppert speaks at 7 p.m. May 31 at the McDonald Theatre, 1010 Willamette St.; admission is $10.