The Warning of Peak Oil
By Colin Wright
After years of work by a small group of dedicated activists, the concept of Peak Oil is slowly percolating into mainstream dialog. Peak Oil is not, as a friend once surmised, a marketing campaign for a particular brand of gasoline. Rather it is the imminent maxing out of global oil production, the point after which each succeeding year produces less oil.
By now Peak Oil has been covered (at least briefly) by most major media from Time magazine to USA Today. It has been debated on campuses such as Caltech and Stanford. Even Congress is getting in the act. A Peak Oil caucus has formed in the U.S. House, whose members recently held hearings: see http://www.energybulletin.net/11621.html, which ought to be required reading for every person.
Perhaps like me, you had thought oil depletion would be something to worry about around 2030. In fact, the alarm bells have been sounded by the independent Association for the Study of Peak Oil (http://www.peakoil.net). Consisting of academics and former oil industry analysts, ASPO is perhaps the most credible oil research group. They're currently predicting 2010 as the year of peak oil production.
That would not be bad in itself (given the way global warming has taken off), except that it doesn't leave us much time to plan for alternatives. In the words of Dr. Robert Hirsch from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory: "Unless a mitigation crash program is started 20 years before peaking occurs, the economic consequences will be dire" (http://www.energybulletin.net/11647.html).
Why? As world-wide competition for the remaining oil increases (particularly from China and India), prices will escalate. Oil supplies about 40% of the world's energy and powers over 90% of the world's transportation. Our entire industrial society is based on cheap oil, and just about every product these days, from pharmaceuticals to plastics, is oil-based.
It is not only the date of oil peaking that is unknown, nor the amount of time we will have before oil is essentially gone from our lives (perhaps 30 years after peak). The consequences are impossible to predict. On one end of the spectrum of opinion are the worst case scenarios -- worldwide depression followed by mass starvation (e.g. http://www.dieoff.org). On the other end, we have business-as-usual with alternative sources of energy. The problem is that the alternative sources of energy are mostly expensive, dirty and finite themselves. Renewable sources of energy, while a welcome partial solution, are not "energy-dense," meaning that the energy return is small per dollar invested. (For a survey of our energy landscape, I'd recommend Richard Heinberg's excellent ground-breaking book "The Party's Over.")
While we can't know the future, it's a safe bet that expensive energy will lead to less travel and more conservation. Price inflation will surely follow expensive oil, as production and transportation costs increase. In other words, we can expect a negative effect on the world economy with a possible recession.
The task for progressives and environmentalists will be to situate oil and natural gas depletion in an ecological context. We are pushing the Limits to Growth, as GDP's increase annually all over the world, populations continue to increase and one resource after another appears to be finite within our lifetimes. (For example, natural gas is expected to peak a decade after oil. Copper extraction has been reported to be near peak at http://www.energybulletin.net/11647.)
We can continue to grow our consumer-capitalist economy until we have exhausted and fried the earth, guaranteeing ecological collapse. Or we can start pushing for a sustainable society that is not based on material accumulation, increased energy consumption and market competition. We can work for a culturally-rich, less-affluent and community-oriented society.
Fortunately, in Seattle, we have many advantages that will help us in the years ahead. We have a fairly well-educated, environmentally-friendly population with a progressive tradition. We have a relatively mild climate and useable hydroelectric power. (Note: that hydro-power could help electrify our transit system.) Much of our food could be grown in-state. The challenges will be to localize our economy to provide our basic needs and our livelihoods. (For example, eventually, the demand for jet airliners will slow and we will need to foster new eco-technologies.) Sweden is pushing ahead in this regard with the formation of networks of "eco-municipalities", which create local employment.
The ramifications of Peak Oil will be immense. We will need to push for a global oil depletion protocol so that the world's remaining oil can be shared equitably without warfare. We will need a new ethic of cooperation and sharing to find new ways of relating to each other as neighbors and citizens. (Groups such as Sustainable Ballard and the Seattle Permaculture Guild are already forging new pathways.) The key to surviving Peak Oil will be to build strong neighborhoods filled with citizen-activists, who elect progressive leaders. Educate yourself, then get active. (One place to start is the Seattle Peak Oil Awareness group, http://www.seattleoil.com.)
We must create a sustainable society while we still have the energy and resources to prepare. If we wait until the last load of coal or uranium is burned, the last tree cut down, our fate (as Jared Diamond warns) will be that of the Easter Islanders. That is the warning of Peak Oil.