Peak Oil: The High Water Mark of the Culture of Consumption
By David Chege - Linus Bell
Humanity is on a collision course with the resource limitations of the planet we live on. Where we are headed and why is the most necessary truth to be told.
The global oil market is making headlines with an increasing frequency these days, as rising gas costs dig into people’s pockets and the price of a barrel of oil continues its upward trajectory. While the administration talks of decreased reliance on foreign oil, the reality is that America has not been energy independent since the 70s oil crisis when it’s domestic oil industry hit a maximum level of production. When Saudi Arabia announces that its supergiant Ghawar oil field is declining in output every year , it is stating that it is beginning to undergo the same crisis of production that shocked the US economy three decades ago. Saudi oil is the keystone of world production, and Ghawar supplies nearly half of Saudi output. Everyone knows that the Middle East has lots of oil, but if we can’t pump it out of the ground as fast as we use it, we are in for a tumultuous decade.
It’s basic supply and demand. Demand has risen steadily while annual production has remained relatively flat since 2000. That means more people are making do with less oil, and because prices continue to rise they are also paying more for the privilege. Is there a limit to the surge in oil prices? Analysts at Goldman Sachs predict that the oil value rollercoaster will spike to upwards of $100 per barrel within two years . At those prices you can expect to pay closer to $7 per gallon in the US for gas rather than the $2.00 or $2.50 we hear so may groans about today. Think it’s impossible? Crude oil prices have more than tripled in the previous few years from $20 to now $60 per barrel. Professional expectation that it will double again in the near term are based on many factors including the inability of major oil companies to replace the reserves that they bring to the market with new discoveries, as stated in a report by the Wall Street ratings agency, Standards & Poor . S&P is willing to dismiss it as a lack of investment, but with profits and demand at an all-time high, why would oil companies be unwilling to invest in increase production?
Economists and financiers only study oil in terms of price and market dynamics, but oil is much more than that. Oil is energy. Energy is the physical foundation of our modern industrial economy. Increased energy consumption from increasingly efficient grades of fuel has propelled our economic development since the advent of the industrial revolution . Oil is the cornerstone of that energy supply. It is unrivaled in its combination of extractability, transportability, and energy density. It is the prerequisite for every other form of energy in our economy. The “flat Earth” mentality of free-market economics tells us that we will always find more oil, that market demand creates supply. Physics and geology say otherwise, and the sciences suggest that the world is in for a rude awakening. Oil is finite. You have to find an oil well before you can drill it and the biggest and best were found a long time ago .
As a geophysicist employed by the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation to map oil fields, M. King Hubbert spent a career learning and exploiting the processes of the Earth’s formation that create and store its most precious resource. In a landmark 1949 paper , he defined the basic trends in the acquisition of any finite resource based upon on a lifetime’s experience with the subject. His subsequent forecasts of oil production were premised upon the hypothesis that the rate of discovery will follow a curve as the process begins at zero, increases to a maximum, then declines back to zero as the last deposits are found, and that after a delay to develop the necessary infrastructure, the rate of that resource’s extraction will follow a similar curve.
1930 was the year in which oil discovery in the continental US hit its peak; since then the industry has been finding fewer and fewer oil fields to replenish what it has been bringing to the market. Having graphed the history of oil discovery, Hubbert compared it to a graph of subsequent oil development and predicted the peak in oil extraction would follow in the early 1970s .
He was laughed at.
He was dismissed as a lunatic, raving about doomsday scenarios that could never happen.
He was 100% accurate.
In short, everything that people associate with the 70s economic recession: lines at the gas station, decreasing industrial output, and massive inflation in the financial sectors; was due to conditions predicted and ignored 20 years in advance based upon purely physical analysis, completely devoid of economic or political considerations.
OPEC’s decision to launch an oil embargo was only effective because the US could not increase its own domestic production past the limit stipulated by “Hubbert’s Peak”. This set off a flurry of technological investment and innovation to ramp up production outside the Middle East with North Sea, Mexican and other off-shore, previously unfeasible projects coming online. US domestic production has remained in decline. The North Sea bonanza experienced its discovery peak in the 1980s and its production peak occurred in 1999 . It was the largest exporter of the western world and has gone into decline along with the rest of it.
The Global Hubbert’s Peak
The Earth has been thoroughly explored by seismic observation and geophysical analysis and what little remains is currently being scoured clean. Global oil discovery reached its peak in the 1960s, declining every year since even as consumption has maintained an overall upward trajectory. We currently use 26 billion barrels per year while we discover only 6 billion to replace that . The gap is growing. We are not finding enough oil for discovery to keep pace with production. Annual global oil production will soon reach its maximum potential when about half of the world’s petroleum reserves have been exhausted.
As per analyses by career petroleum geologist Hubbert, and subsequently refined techniques by Jean Laheurre  and Colin Campbell , oil production could peak as early as 2008 and decline to half that level by 2040. Their totals are consistent with most of the estimations ever made of ultimately extractible oil for the entire planet – give or take a few hundred billion barrels. Allowing for even an extra trillion barrels of oil reserves that we have somehow failed to notice, a second Middle East hiding under our noses, only delays the inevitable peak by a single decade. The numbers are in, and when we reach midway it’s strictly downhill from there: for our energy consumption, for our economy and for our way of life.
The end of our oil-based economy will be the single most critical event in the long history of human civilization, and each of us will live to see it and be responsible for dealing with it. Human development has been propelled by revolutions in technology powered by revolutions in energy acquisition: the agricultural (solar energy) revolution of a few millennia ago, the industrial (coal/oil) revolution of a few centuries ago, and the recent electrical revolution. Failure to adequately prepare for the lack of oil will send us reeling back to a pre-industrial economy.
The International Energy Administration
The IEA, founded to be the early warning detector in the event of a second 70s style crisis, has reversed its former, infinite growth forecasts, in part due to the efforts of the previously mentioned Campbell and Laheurre. Using the most conservative information, accepting for instance, the sudden simultaneous doubling of the stated reserves of every OPEC nation in the 1980s, it has arrived at a global production peak between 2010 and 2020, although given the highly conservative nature of the organization, its findings are couched in the most neutral of terms. It states that assuming current supply/demand trends hold, by 2020 there will be a 16% production deficit to meet projected needs that will have to be filled by “unidentified, unconventional” sources – in other words, pulled out of thin air . Politics aside, the gist of the report is as obvious as it is alarming. Demand is rising – exponentially. Supply is diminishing. This process will accelerate until production cannot support consumption.
After the Peak, Comes the Decline
“Peak Oil” was undoubtedly the major issue discussed by Vice-President Cheney’s Energy Task Force, whose deliberations with the oil industry were so closely guarded. Coupled with the administration’s determination from the outset to effect regime change in Iraq, it is apparent that American energy policy and military policy have become one and the same . The current thrust of American geopolitical strategy is to dominate the world’s remaining oil reserves through a direct military presence in the Middle East.
As oil demand surges in the developing nations, only a handful of countries in the Middle East have the spare production capacity to accommodate them. Control of those resources allows Washington to counter the drive towards modernization in potential rivals like India and China, choking their economies simply by limiting their consumption of oil. In the longer term, as the global reserves that America relies upon become increasingly depleted, access to Middle East oil will allow the US to maintain its culture of unrestrained consumption in the face of worldwide scarcity. Make no mistake, all scenarios of oil depletion that do not include a transition to an alternative energy source end with economic stagnation and collapse following the production peak for all industrialized nations. Possession of the Middle East will postpone the day of reckoning for the United States, but all reserves are finite and the Middle East is no exception.
Obstacles to Transition
US economic hegemony is founded on the use of the dollar as the only currency accepted for international oil transactions. This requires each nation to maintain large dollar reserves in its central bank, permitting the US to print limitless quantities of paper money to finance its enormous trade and budget deficits, confident that the global demand for the dollar will prevent the natural inflation. Any disruption of this system, such as a shift to the euro among the world’s oil producers, would entail a plummeting demand for it and overnight inflation would knock the bottom out of the dollar. Similarly, a change in energy source instead of currency would destroy the ability of the US to float the value of the dollar on top of global demand for the currency required in exchange for the world’s most vital resource. The United States has a stake in keeping the world a slave to dollar-denominated oil dependency to prevent the destabilization of its economy.
The basic mechanism of industrial capitalism is growth. Wealth in America is created as the Federal Reserve Corp. pumps money into the economy by issuing loans to individual banks that then issue secondary or tertiary loans to businesses and individuals. Central banks in other industrialized countries perform identical tasks. This is the fundamental transaction from which “capitalism” takes its names: the temporary loaning of capital to the economy that is then returned with interest to the banker. Because of that interest due, the economy is obligated to grow to repay the Federal Reserve Corp. and the private interests it represents. The economic plateau that peak oil signifies means that the economy will no longer be able to grow out of the debt it incurs to keep it functioning. A limit to oil based economic growth resulting from the global Hubbert Peak is the end of capitalism as we know it.
The energy crisis precipitated by oil depletion has three characteristics:
Electrical Energy: for modern industry, commerce and lifestyle
Currently only a small part of US and global electricity supply is generated by burning oil. Coal, followed by natural gas, is the largest contributor to electricity supply with substantial portions also generated by nuclear, & hydroelectric . Oil is rightly seen as too valuable to be used in this manner. However, what often goes unseen is the role oil plays in delivering the coal from the mine to the power plant, and any shortfall in oil supply will still greatly impact coal-generated electricity. Furthermore, the carbon emissions of burning coal and gas are an additional complication to the energy crisis as environmental degradation poses an equally pressing threat to global stability.
Kinetic Energy: for industrial & logistical applications
The transportation grid required by modern commerce is wholly dependant upon oil . Without it, it is impossible to move goods from manufacturer to end-user. Suburban lifestyle in particular is dependant upon personal automobiles and the trucking industry for viability. There is currently no replacement for the gasoline powered internal combustion engine, and the progress from oil peak to decline will be potentially devastating for this type of community structure. Without a replacement fuel, your average car engine descends into obsolescence with the availability of oil. The sprawling residential districts that typify the American way of life require the US to consume a quarter of the world’s oil production, their continued existence depends upon it.
Chemical Energy: for plastics, agricultural and other synthetic products
Petroleum is the base material for many synthetic products. Everything from asphalt to chapstick is derived from the hydrocarbon polymers obtained by processing oil. Also, the pesticides and fertilizers that triple America’s agricultural output are manufactured from petroleum, without which grain yields would plummet . Such intensive farming also causes massive soil erosion that is compensated for by petroleum products, so declining oil availability literally means declining food availability. Declining food availability risks famine and starvation for much of the world’s growing population.
In their totality, these difficulties will require a complete overhaul of our global economy from oil/coal/gas consuming technologies to renewable electricity/hydrogen technologies. However, a merely theoretical knowledge of new technologies is not enough if the infrastructure is not in place to deliver it to the public. The transition will take time but must be made before the inevitable economic contraction caused by declining oil production renders it impossible.
This metamorphosis to an ecologically sustainable economy requires nothing short of a revolution in the way we think about energy, industry, and personal consumption. Yet this energy revolution is only a part of a greater paradigm shift that encompasses addressing the challenges of climate change and the outbreak of global resource wars. They are all intertwined in the evolutionary crisis of humanity’s ascendance as the dominant species on this planet. We are burning fossil fuels that took hundreds of millions of years to accrue, and effecting planetary changes which will last hundreds more. How we navigate this precipitous junction of human history will be the decisive factor in what kind of world will endure for future generations. The vise is tightening. Today is not too soon. Tomorrow may be too late.