Scientists' warnings unheeded
By James McCausland
In 1973, the Arab oil-producing nations convulsed most of the world by tightening the spigots on their wells and sharply reducing production. Corporations, and nations including Japan, went into crisis mode and many started to think of ways to lessen their reliance on petroleum products. As the after-shock waves began to subside and black gold started to flow again, most enterprises kicked petroleum replacement well down the agenda. Yet there were further signs of the desperate measures individuals would take to ensure mobility. A couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol – and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence.
A couple of years later, George Miller conceived the scenario for Mad Max. Max (a very young Mel Gibson) was the antihero out on roads that had become battlefields where the prize was fuel. Society had corroded as a result of the reduction of supply and the rule of law deteriorated into chaos.Res Publica, put out by the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.Mad Max may have been a fantasy with apocalyptic overtones, keep an eye out on the road for people in leather jackets and souped-up cars chasing bike gangs – with the price being a few hundred litres of petrol.
George and I wrote the script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late. Sure, it contained a large element of geeks' own adventures; but at its core was a sizeable kernel of truth. That kernel has taken root, and it's called peak oil.
When an oil well is discovered, it is at peak production until it reaches about 50 per cent of its total output. After this, the remaining half becomes more difficult to extract – and much more expensive – as the ratio of water to oil expands. Ultimately the well is abandoned and the search for a new well begins.
Easier said than done.
According to many experts, the discovery of oil fields worthy of the name reached it zenith in the middle of the 1960s. As a consequence, consumption of oil is already outpacing reserves.
Peter Newman, professor in city policy and director of the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University, points out that the US now imports half of its oil needs. The price tag for the first 10 months of 2005 was $US144 billion ($A185 billion), up 32 per cent on the previous year.
Much of this can be attributed to the rapidly rising price of oil; but he posits the possibility that the underlying reason may be that the world oil production peak is occurring right now. At any rate, with reserves growing much more slowly than consumption, a peak in global oil production is inevitable.
Professor Newman published his paper in (sic). He quotes C.J. Campbell, an oil geophysicist and founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, as claiming that conventional oil peaked in 2004 and all oil liquids will peak in 2010: "The real point is not so much the exact date of peak but . . . that the first half of the oil age, which was characterised by growing production, is about to be followed by the second half when oil production is set to decline with all that depends upon it. On that at least we can stand firm."
Professor Newman argues that global oil seems to be at full capacity, and that that level may hold for a few years before the inevitable downward spiral.
To make gloomy matters grimmer. this is happening at a time when the previously dormant economies of the global economy's behemoths, China and India, are growing exponentially. China is now the world's second-biggest consumer of oil.
Of course, there are sceptics: those who believe something will turn up to mitigate the problem.
Professor Newman is hearing none of this. He quotes BP Exploration manager Richard Miller. "This is the classical economist's view; something will turn up, when the price of oil is high enough, because something always does. But there isn't anything conceivable that could replace conventional oil in the same quantities or energy densities at any meaningful price. We can't mine the oil sands in sufficient quantity because there isn't enough water to process them. We can't grow bio-fuels because there would be no land left to grow food. Solar, hydro, wind and geothermal don't yield enough energy, hydrogen (from water) takes more energy to make than it can yield, and nuclear fission and fusion are presently off most political agendas. When oil gets too expensive, surviving Americans will still obtain energy from alternative sources, but in much smaller amounts and at much higher prices."
One of the pernicious problems about peaking is that we will only be able to identify the problem after it has occurred. So preparing for alternatives has to be well under way years before the peak is reached.
So if we don't recognise the problem well in advance, a disaster of unforeseen magnitude could befall us.
Last year a report prepared for the US Department of Energy spelled it out in terms that could be plucked from Armageddon. "The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions were gradual and evolutionary. Oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary."
The sombre fact is that no matter how dramatic the consequences, it is difficult to get anyone excited to the point of taking action.