When the oil runs out
By Jonathon Gatehouse
Are we heading for the end of civilization -- or are the warnings of a coming apocalypse just another case of Chicken Little?
The Four Horsemen have upgraded to SUVs. Not the hybrid ones either, but those gas-guzzling, bunny-crushing behemoths that Arnold Schwarzenegger favours. In oil-rich Babylon, whores are so thick on the ground that it's a little hard to pick just one. Although everyone can agree on what the Antichrist is up to -- running a multinational petroleum company. Yes, the End is nigh, if you believe the consensus that has been brewing in the halls of academe and the non-fiction aisle at the local bookstore. Starting in 2010, no later than 2020 or 2030, according to the latest vision of secular apocalypse, global oil supplies will peak, and the world will begin to unravel at the seams.
Could that have been the reason behind last week's surprise admission by a former Texas petroleum executive turned president that "America is addicted to oil"? George W. Bush's sudden embrace of the obvious in his State of the Union address, and his new "national goal" to cut Middle East oil imports by 75 per cent by 2025, has environmentalists blowing the dust off plans for hydrogen filling stations, fields of wind turbines and giant ethanol plants. (Although VP Dick Cheney quickly assured supporters that plans to start drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge "are not off the table by any means.") But even a modest change in direction for a president who had supported the bottomless U.S. appetite for energy as "an American way of life" suggests his advisers have caught a whiff of brimstone on the breeze.
It will be a fiery storm indeed, to hear some tell it. "One week -- one apocalyptic week -- a germ of panic will take root and then spread like wildfire through the markets. The price of oil, on which modern human society has allowed the stability of its economic system to rest, will begin to climb toward the ceiling," Jeremy Leggett writes in The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and the Coming Financial Catastrophe (Random House, 2005). "The crisis will play out in television images around the world. Frantic oil traders will scream at each other on trading floors, eyes wild and hair akimbo."
Leggett, an Oxford-trained geologist and professor at the Royal School of Mines, underwent a road-to-Damascus-style conversion in 1989, resigning his job to become Greenpeace's chief scientist. After falling out with the environmental group in the mid-1990s, he again transformed himself, into a green entrepreneur, launching his own solar power company. Time Europe has declared him one of "the key players in putting climate change on the world agenda." What he shares with other proponents of the End of Oil theory is a conviction that we are dangerously near the "topping point," where half the world's petroleum reserves are gone.
Big Oil and its government partners are covering up the depletion, says Leggett, while holding back alternative technologies. And when the truth can no longer be obscured, the price will spike, the economy nosedive, and the underpinnings of our civilization will start tumbling like dominos. The U.S. -- Consumer No. 1 in the lingo of Leggett's book -- will be the most vulnerable, having allowed its citizens to pile up mountains of debt. "The price of houses will collapse. Stock markets will crash. Within a short period, human wealth -- little more than a pile of paper at the best of times, even with the confidence about the future high among traders -- will shrivel." There will be emergency summits, diplomatic initiatives, urgent exploration efforts, but the turmoil will not subside. Thousands of companies will go bankrupt, and millions will be unemployed. "Once affluent cities with street caf�s will have queues at soup kitchens and armies of beggars. The crime rate will soar. The earth has always been a dangerous place, but now it will become a tinderbox."
By 2010, predicts Leggett, democracy will be on the run. As with the Great Depression, economic hardship will bring out the worst in people. Fascists will rise, feeding on the anger of the newly poor and whipping up support. These new rulers will find the tools of repression -- emergency laws, prison camps, a relaxed attitude toward torture -- already in place, courtesy of the war on terror. And if that scenario isn't nightmarish enough, Leggett predicts that "Big Oversight Number One" -- climate change -- will be simultaneously making its presence felt "with a vengeance." On the heels of their rapid financial ruin, people "will now watch aghast as their food and water supplies dwindle in the face of a climate seemingly going awry." Prolonged droughts will spread, decimating harvests. As oceans warm, fish catches "will fall off a cliff," and protein will become a luxury.
Such visions of a coming oil-related apocalypse are now common enough to qualify as their own literary genre. The dire predictions differ on only one major point -- whether our decline will be swift and brutal, or slow and painful. In Out of Gas (W.W. Norton and Co., 2004), David Goodstein, a professor of physics and vice-provost at the California Institute of Technology, points out that the easiest energy alternatives -- coal and natural gas -- might carry us through to the end of this century, but at an enormous cost. "By the time we have burned up all that fuel, we may well have rendered the planet unfit for human life." The coming crisis won't just be in finding new ways to run our cars or heat our homes. Ninety per cent of the organic chemicals humans use -- for agriculture, pharmaceuticals and plastics, for example -- are derived from petroleum. The challenge is enormous, and the possible fixes fraught with their own difficulties. "One way to accomplish that would be to return to life as it was lived in the 18th century," Goodstein writes. "That would require, among many other things, eliminating roughly 95 per cent of the world's population."
Richard Heinberg, a California journalist, educator and musician who has written two books on the subject -- 2003's The Party's Over and Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (New Society, 2004) -- foresees a decline not unlike the fall of Rome; a cascade of catastrophes played out over decades or even centuries: energy shortages commencing between 2010 and 2020, leading to economic turmoil, then social chaos and war. Global warming will bring water shortages, rising sea levels and severe storms that we will be too disorganized to rebuild from. Governments will fall, and the world's population will tumble to fewer than a billion by 2100. "By the start of the next century, the survivors' grandchildren are entertained by stories of a great civilization of the recent past in which people flew in metal birds and got everything they wanted by pressing buttons," writes Heinberg. What remains will be warlords ensconced in wealthy hilltop fortresses -- "a feudal Mad Max society" -- and isolated communities of subsistence farmers.
Each addition to the bleak chorus paints a slightly different picture of the Fall, but all tip the hat to the same unlikely literary father -- M. King Hubbert, a crotchety petroleum expert who died in 1989. In 1956, Hubbert, then a Shell Oil research scientist, developed a complicated formula for predicting the production life of oil fields. He correctly predicted that U.S. production would peak around 1970 and then steadily decline. In 1969, he turned to world reserves, publishing a paper predicting that global production would top out around 2000. Graphed out, the formula looks like the first hill on a roller coaster -- a long climb, followed by stomach-churning descent.
Those findings brought the oil expert a certain renown, but real fame came posthumously when a former colleague published a book expanding on his theories in 2001. Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage by Kenneth S. Deffeyes, now a professor emeritus of geology at Princeton, predicted that the limits of production would probably be reached sometime in 2006. His follow-up, Beyond Oil (Hill and Wang, 2005), recalibrates slightly -- World Oil Peak Day, he says, has already passed us: it was Nov. 25, 2005.
It's not that we are suddenly about to run out of oil -- by some estimates one trillion barrels remain in the ground, more than the total of all the petroleum extracted since the first well was sunk in 1859. What Hubbert's followers believe is that what's left will become harder to get. The easy "fizzy" oil that bubbles upwards by natural pressure is already hard to come by. The fix has been to artificially maintain the flow in fields by injecting water or gas to force oil out of the ground. But that doesn't work forever. Eventually the reservoir pressure drops to the point that the oil starts mixing with groundwater. What remains can be pumped to the surface, but that process is slow and costly, and most of what is recovered is water, not petroleum. That pattern has already been proven in aging oil fields all over the world. And as production slows and then plummets, the curve starts to look awfully similar to Hubbert's peak calculations.
The oil companies say that phenomenon can be easily overcome by a combination of improved extraction technologies, further exploration, and mega-projects like Alberta's oilsands. And the owners of the world's biggest fields -- the Saudis -- have long claimed that their reserves are vast enough that production could be doubled and maintained for decades to come. Nonsense, say the Hubbertians. Matthew Simmons, the chairman of a Houston-based investment bank, combed through more than 200 scientific papers about Arabian oil fields for his book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy (John Wiley and Sons, 2005). He argues that Saudi production -- currently 9.5 million barrels a day -- is already at or near peak, and the giant Saudi fields mostly past their prime. "My crispest conclusion is this: it is virtually impossible for Saudi Arabia ever to produce the 20 to 25 million barrels a day envisioned by the forecasters," Simmons writes. "This possibility should be abandoned by all energy planners, once and for all."
In Beyond Oil, Deffeyes argues there are signs Big Oil may have quietly reached the same conclusion. Despite growing demand, there hasn't been a new refinery built in the U.S. since 1976. Oil tankers are being retired faster than they are being built, and exploration budgets aren't increasing nearly as fast as prices and profits. Besides, nature has its limits. "Oil is not the first natural resource to become scarce," he writes. "The last mine to produce cryolite, used in making aluminum, ran out of ore in 1987. It wasn't a big news item because it was easy to make synthetic cryolite." Deffeyes is more optimistic than many -- he describes the end of oil as a five- to 10-year adjustment while alternatives are perfected. But, he warns, the upheaval will be profound. No more long commutes, strict conservation, less supermarket choice. "Get acquainted with parsnips and rutabaga."
It's not hard to figure out why the End of Oil scenario has captured the public imagination now. We've worried about running out since the first oil crisis in the 1970s. The mere spectre of price hikes and supply problems, like those that followed hurricane Katrina, send car-dependent North Americans stampeding to the pumps. Sept. 11 and subsequent terrorist attacks have made concerns about the stability of the Saudi regime, and the whole Middle East, a preoccupation. And Bush's sputtering war in Iraq is increasingly viewed to be more about securing future supply than establishing democracy.
Big Oil, long a choice villain, has now graduated to the status of evil incarnate. Forget lesser infractions like land grabs or slick-coated sea otters -- in the public imagination, at least, the oil companies' quest for profit knows no legal or moral bounds. In George Clooney's film Syriana, the not-so-subtly-named Connex-Killen manipulates governments, bribes and murders, dispatching the CIA around the globe to secure access to a dwindling resource. "Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why we win," proclaims one executive.
As the last superpower, America's greatest anxiety, and perhaps only weakness, is its dependency on oil, the majority of it foreign. (The U.S. alone consumes a quarter of world production.) Any drastic disruption in the flow of petroleum would clearly hurt the wasteful First World the most. The drop in our standard of living would be precipitous. But in the poorer regions it might not prove quite the same catastrophe. During Bolivia's December general election, for example, the polls closed in the late afternoon because most of the country still doesn't have electric power.
In our culture, apocalyptic visions also strike a resonant chord. They have been a constant source of wonder, fear, comfort and entertainment since the Book of Daniel -- the model for the later Book of Revelation -- appeared in 164 BCE. U.S. historian Paul S. Boyer says such predictions, whether religious or secular, fill a deep human need. They give meaning and drama to history, and offer a framework for understanding often puzzling current events. Since at least biblical times, people have looked at them and concluded that things were about to rapidly get worse. Boyer says the long history of end-of-times prophecy has an inescapable effect on how we approach current and future crises. "I'm not saying these are invented issues -- they are very real," he says. "But the way they are framed and discussed does echo the religious apocalyptic writings." In America, where polls suggest around 40 per cent of the population believes the world will eventually end because of supernatural intervention, the lines are even blurrier. "My sense is that there is a mutually reinforcing and symbiotic process between those who believe in the religious Apocalypse and the secular ones," says Boyer.
Northrup Frye, the great Canadian literary theorist, described the Apocalypse as one of our basic, undisplaced myths, its contrasting worlds of heaven (our desires) and hell (our fears) echoing "the nightmares of anxiety and triumph" in our minds. The Bible, he argued, has provided a cultural "grammar" of apocalyptic imagery that personifies "the vast, menacing, stupid powers of nature." The fact that so many of those symbols -- empty deserts, worlds of fire, darkness, weapons of war -- can now be tied to oil, makes the prospect of it running out even more frightening.
But as critics point out, the current End of Oil books are just the latest in a lengthy line of scientific warnings of doom. In the late 1960s, Paul Ehrlich's bestseller The Population Bomb predicted famines that would kill hundreds of millions in the 1970s as the world's population passed the sustainability point. The landmark 1972 Limits of Growth study by the Club of Rome predicted that if consumption continued to exponentially expand, the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead and natural gas by 1993.
The success of the Peak Oil offerings -- and America's fiercely polarized political climate -- have even sparked a counter-genre of books. The Bottomless Well (Basic Books, 2005) by Peter Huber and Mark Mills argues that supply of raw fuels in is fact infinite: "The faster we extract and burn them, the faster we find more." Others, like Stephen Leeb in The Oil Factor (Warner Business, 2004), offer advice on how to profit from short-term chaos. Buy gold, Leeb says, purchase stock in alternative energy companies, defence contractors and -- perhaps placing a little too much faith in Warren Buffett -- Berkshire Hathaway. (Start saving now -- the holding company trades at around US$90,000 per share.)
With all the clamour, competing claims and diversions, it's not surprising that End of Oil worries don't seem to register as strongly with the public as issues like global warming or even Third World debt. It's a concern for Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, who argues that high-quality energy is the linchpin of our society. "I think the public is exhausted and overwhelmed," he says. "Oil is such an essential part of our lives. There's a huge sense of denial and a belief that somebody will figure something out." In an increasingly interrelated, technologically sophisticated world, there are no easy fixes, says Homer-Dixon, who is currently working on a book about Peak Oil and other coming challenges to global security. Powering America's 230 million vehicles with hydrogen, for example, would take the equivalent of 13,000 Hindenburg dirigibles each day, and require the U.S. to double its electricity output in order to electrolyze the amount of water necessary to create the gas.
The real blame lies with our leaders, says Homer-Dixon, who lack either the knowledge to recognize how bad things might become, or the courage to admit it. "People don't realize how hard the substitution problem will be. You can't run an aluminum smelter with solar panels." He's calling for a Manhattan Project-style mobilization of government, science and the military to confront the crisis before it's too late. "The 21st century will be the age of nature. When humans finally come face to face with its limits and potential."
If the Hubbertians are right, they'd better move quickly to convince the doubters that this is the problem we should be focusing on. The next wave of doom-laden predictions -- all concerned with climate change -- will hit bookstores starting this spring, according to a recent article in Publisher's Weekly. But all the competing visions of the End may be eroding the power of the apocalyptic message, says Paul Boyer. He recounts the example of a lecture he attended in the 1980s by Dr. Helen Caldicott, a noted Australian peace campaigner and physician, on the myriad of health problems survivors of a nuclear war would face. The information was so detailed and terrifying he left the hall filled with a sense of hopelessness, rather than a desire to effect change.
Unlike the religious vision of the Apocalypse, which offers the promise of the Rapture for true believers, the Peak Oil books mostly promise only a decisive ending, not a new beginning. There are faint hopes of a granola Eden with wind power and straw-bale homes for the few who remain. "And it will be here -- amid economic depression, dreadful suffering across the planet, and a rising tide of authoritarian horror -- that the seed of hope will finally be planted," Leggett writes of the enforced switch to green power. But there's also a pervasive sense that the earth would be better off with a lot less people, consuming fewer resources. "I take it as a given that we have already overshot earth's long-term carrying capacity for humans -- and have drawn down essential resources -- to such an extent that some sort of societal collapse is now inevitable," Heinberg says in Powerdown.
Most people spend their lives trying to avoid the issue of their mortality. Staring into the abyss is only bearable if you have a way to avoid falling in. If scientists, thinkers and politicians really want the public to pay attention to a pressing problem, they'd best find a way to offer some hope along with the fear.