Author offers bleak peek at life after 'peak oil'
By Susan Palmer
Someday the planet will run out of oil. It may be sooner, it may be later, but that day is coming, say most petroleum geologists. They refer to the point where we've used up half of the planet's fossil fuels as "peak oil" and once we've passed that point, many social scientists predict significant and alarming changes.
On Tuesday, author Richard Heinberg will speak in Eugene about the repercussions of dwindling fossil fuels.
Heinberg, a faculty member at the New College of California, writes and lectures on the subject. His books "Powerdown" and "The Party's Over" warn of economic and social chaos as the world's giant oil fields decline and fewer new sources come online.
Scientists continue to debate the status of the world's oil reserves. At a November conference on the topic sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers were divided into optimists who believe peak oil is at least 30 years away and pessimists who think we'll reach that moment in this decade.
"I personally am convinced by the near-term peakers," Heinberg said in a telephone interview from his California home. "Oil is either at its all-time peak or will achieve it before the end of the decade.
"Most of the super giant fields discovered decades ago are reaching and surpassing their peaks."
The Mexico Cantarell field has peaked. The world's second largest - Burgan in Kuwait - is in decline, Heinberg said. More importantly, he said, petroleum geologists just aren't discovering those kinds of oil fields anymore, and the smaller ones coming online aren't replacing them.
"For geologic reasons, they just can't retain the same rates of flow," he said.
It's not that the world's collective oil spigot will shut off magically sometime in the future, but that over time less oil will be available, driving up prices, and, eventually, availability.
The way Americans live now will change, Heinberg said. Shipping food from hundreds or thousands of miles away will become untenable because of the cost of fuel. Workers will need to be closer to their jobs because they won't be able to afford fuel for long commutes.
The longer we wait to wean ourselves from our reliance on cheap and plentiful oil, the more difficult the transition to alternatives will be, he said.
Heinberg recommends that everyone do an energy audit, examining what kind of car they drive, how much they drive and whether they can get by with less.
"Do I have to own a vehicle? Could I live without a car? If I have to use a car could I share it with other people?" he said.
But such assessments are only one part of the picture. Whole communities will need to deal collectively with the challenges of dwindling supplies.
"Even if I have solar panels and drive a biodiesel car or walk to work, if I'm living in a community coming apart at the seams because the city can't afford to keep the firetrucks rolling, that affects my quality of life," he said.
And that's part of the reason the Eugene Permaculture Guild invited Heinberg to speak here. The local nonprofit group does outreach and education about environmentally sustainable living. They promote everything from backyard vegetable gardening to solar power to urban redesign. The Eugene Water and Electric Board and Lane Transit District are co-sponsors of the event.
Mayor Kitty Piercy will introduce Heinberg, who also will speak at a brown bag lunch at noon on Tuesday in the Atrium Building's Sloat Room, 99 W. 10th Ave.left this out of the fast fax box while the event isn't closed to the public, the room size is limited
Heinberg said he hopes those who come to his lecture will get more involved in their communities.
"I'm not so much interested in just scaring people. ... I'm more interested in helping folks begin to figure out how to make their communities more resilient and better prepared," he said.