Life after the oil peak
PART 3 OF 3 – The future after oil resources run out is uncertain
By DAN MCMENAMIN / Aggie Science Writer
Editor’s Note: In this final installment in its series on the issue of peak oil, The California Aggie discusses what the future may hold for a world in which oil has become drastically more expensive and rare.
A lot can change in a decade. Ten years ago, the idea of peak oil was almost unimaginable. Life was good for Americans, who enjoyed a growing economy and gasoline at just over one dollar per gallon.
But gas prices have more than doubled since then, bringing the theory of peak oil into the mainstream. If the theory is true, production of the world’s oil supply will soon reach its limit and then steadily decline, leading to rising gas prices and weakening economies worldwide.
Gas depends on oil, which cost around $28 per barrel in June 2003, but has nearly doubled to $54 just two years later. This number is especially worrisome to Americans, who use 25 percent of the world’s daily supply of oil despite making up less than 5 percent of the global population.
People are already starting to panic. Last month, two Sacramento brothers were arrested after being caught siphoning gas from various vehicles. The reason, one of them told police, was that they simply could not afford gasoline anymore.
Stories like this prompt the question: as fuel prices continue to increase, will people fight over the dwindling supplies or will they work together to find a solution to this oncoming problem?
As of right now, unfortunately, there is no clear answer.
“I wish we would develop long-range contingency plans, but there doesn’t seem to be any on the horizon,” said Eldridge Moores, a professor emeritus of geology at UCD. “The Great Depression is the only event that really compares to what’s coming on, of course, unless we get our act together.”
There are currently over 200 million cars in America and upwards of 700 million worldwide.
These statistics not only count the passenger vehicles that people drive to work every day, but also the trucks that transport most of our consumer goods around the country, such as medicine and food. In fact, a recent CIA study estimated that food travels an average of 1,400 miles before it is purchased.
So if the price of oil continues to rise as it has in the past few years, it is easy to say that we can just switch to another source of energy. But the reality is that our society depends heavily on fossil fuels, and it would take years or possibly decades to change the infrastructure of our society to another form of energy.
With this in mind, there are a couple of ideas that could extend the fossil fuel age and buy some time for the inevitable change down the road.
The first possibility — a tax on gasoline — has worked in Europe to cut oil consumption. A gallon of gas in the United Kingdom costs the equivalent of over $6, with taxes making up almost 80 percent of that total.
The revenue from gas taxes in Europe has gone toward improving aspects of society like healthcare and public transportation, as well as pressuring businesses to create more fuel-efficient cars.
“I’ve been to Europe four times in the past year,” Moores said. “They see America as an oblivious consumer of world resources, and I have to tell them I don’t agree with what’s going on.”
The disparity between the two societies could be seen in a commercial made by President Bush’s supporters during the 2004 presidential campaign, which alleged that John Kerry had “wacky ideas, like taxing gasoline more so people drive less.”
Unfortunately, the commercial was off the mark since, like Bush, Kerry had a vested interest in keeping the price of oil down. One of the reasons for this is that oil companies, which contribute campaign funds to Republicans and Democrats alike, have the most to lose if people consume less of their product or try to find a substitute.
“There’s a conflict of interest there,” said Hossein Farzin, a professor of the economics of natural resources. “The lobby of fossil fuel producers in the U.S. is so strong that they would fight any change to alternatives.”
Nevertheless, many scientists, including some at UCD, are searching for other options that could help ease Americans off their reliance on fossil fuels.
Mechanical and aeronautical engineering professor Andrew Frank is working on a type of car called a plug-in hybrid, which he says uses only about 10 percent of the gas that the average car uses.
“The idea is that you plug it in overnight and can drive 60 miles on electricity and then it becomes a regular hybrid,” Frank said. “You plug it in because when you use electricity it’s less then a quarter of the cost of when you use gas.”
Car dealerships in America have seen lots of interest in hybrids like the Toyota Prius which, in some areas, has put buyers on waiting lists for months.
One problem, though, is that electricity is dependent on natural gas, which is expected to peak a couple of decades after oil does. That means that if 200 million hybrids were plugging in and using electricity, it would only cause another fossil fuel supply to decline more quickly.
Renewable energies, like wind and solar power, could help offset an oil shortage in the short term. C.P. van Dam, another UCD mechanical engineering professor, designs wind turbine blades to be lighter and more efficient.
“I’d be the first one to admit that wind energy by itself isn’t going to solve the energy problem,” van Dam said. “But it can help quite a bit to make us less dependent on fossil fuels.”
Just like it would have been hard for people in 1995 to predict the current circumstances we are in, it is difficult to predict what will happen ten or twenty years down the road.
Nevertheless, many peak oil theorists think they know what will happen when the peak arrives. UCD communication professor John Theobald, who has been studying peak oil in depth, says most of these people believe in either the idea of disruption or deindustrialization.
“Those that believe that the energy crisis will lead to deindustrialization believe there will be no substitutes [to oil] that make high industrialized life possible,” Theobald said. “And those that believe in disruption tend to see a very wrenching economic period during the transition to a post-fossil fuel world.”
Either way, Theobald says peak oil theorists’ common consensus is that “the efficient will be rewarded and the inefficient will be punished.”
He says efficiency will likely take the form of more fuel-efficient cars, more public transportation and more self-sufficient communities with a local water supply and locally grown food.
One of these forward-thinking people who are trying to provide a vision of a future without oil is Matt Savinar, who graduated from UCD in 2000. Savinar runs the website Lifeaftertheoilcrash.net, which provides a detailed explanation of the peak oil theory and its possible consequences in the future.
The site begins by saying “Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon.”
The future that Savinar’s website envisions is not a particularly optimistic one. Some of the links he provides detail the end of suburbia and the collapse of the global economic system, among other grim prospects of a time when oil will be increasingly rare.
Ultimately, the goal of peak-oil experts like Savinar is to inform people of the facts of oil that will affect our future. They stress that civilization will certainly not end, but it will “as we know it,” and we will have to adapt to the severe changes that are likely to take place once we reach the peak.