After peak oil: Will America survive?
By Mike Adams
As public awareness about peak oil continues to grow, and even the big oil companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. are now starting to admit that the future supply of oil looks troublesome (see this Boston Globe article), there's an increasing focus on renewable energy solutions. But most members of the public still don't understand energy very well, and they generally have no idea whether alternative energy sources like solar, wind or CSP (see below) can replace oil. Many people are concerned about a potential collapse of modern society due to the end of cheap oil. So to help answer some of these questions, I've put together a set of uncensored, science-based answers about oil, renewable energy and the future of modern civilization. This is offered in a Q&A format.
Question: Will oil really run out in the near future?
Of course it will. Even the recent conclusions reached by an Exxon Mobil about the future of global oil supplies are wildly optimistic and based on numbers that industry experts speaking off the record say are significant exaggerations of supply made for political reasons. Oil is running out, period, and we may already be past peak oil. From here forward, oil is only going to get increasingly scarce and more expensive. Demand for oil will soon significantly outstrip supply. The growth of China's consumption, combined with America's unprecedented thirst for energy means that from here forward, it's a bidding war over increasingly scarce supplies.
Can alternative forms of energy replace oil?
Yes and no. "Yes" because there's plenty of energy all around us that can replace oil. There's enough solar energy hitting the land in the state of Arizona, for example, to meet the entire energy needs of the United States. Likewise, there's enough wind power in Southern Wyoming to power the whole country, too. But this power is untapped. This is the "No" part of the answer: All the energy in the world is useless to you if you can't harness it. Without wind turbines, the wind in Wyoming is useless to us. Without solar panels, the Arizona desert is likewise useless to us as an energy source. Actually harnessing these alternative, renewable energy sources would require many billions of dollars in infrastructure spending, and right now, nobody in Washington seems to have the foresight to plan for a world without oil. There is currently very little investment in developing renewable energy sources.
Thus, the United States may find itself energy starved in the near future even though it is surrounded by abundant (unharnessed) energy!
What's the most promising alternative energy technology?
Few people know about this one, but based on my research, it's the most promising: Concentrated Solar Power, which requires no solar panels at all. It works by concentrating sunlight onto a small pipe using cheap parabolic reflectors. The pipe contains a liquid that's heated to very high temperatures by the sun and drives a steam boiler that rotates a turbine to generate electricity (much like nuclear power plants, but without the nuclear waste). It's cheap, low-tech, and far more affordable than solar power. Plus, it can be built in practically any desert, so it doesn't take up valuable land. As another bonus, when CSP operations are built near the ocean, they can desalinate ocean water as a side effect, providing fresh water for irrigation to grow food. This is the only renewable energy technology I know of that can produce cheap energy, fresh water and crop irrigation all at the same time. Plus, it has no emissions, no toxic chemicals, no nuclear waste and very little environmental impact.
CSP is, in my opinion, the single most promising technology for renewable energy. Isn't it interesting that almost nobody is talking about it? The best solutions, as usual, are routinely ignored.
What happens when the oil runs out?
That depends on whether the nation is prepared to operate without combustion engines. If the people have mostly switched over to electric vehicles, then operating an economy without oil isn't difficult. Sure, other forms of transportation still need oil, but the greatest consumption of oil is found in automobiles.
If the end of oil catches a nation unprepared, then things become quite chaotic. No oil means no more transportation and farming, and that's really all you need to know. No farming (or greatly diminished farming capacity) means no food. The United States, I submit, is about three meals away from mass social unrest. When the average American finds himself without food for three meals in a row, the ensuing chaos (riots, etc.) will make the United States a rather inhospitable place to be. Martial Law will immediately be declared, and the country will become a police state starvation camp. This can all be avoided, by the way, by shifting America away from an oil-based economy. If transportation is based on electricity rather than oil, none of these dire predictions need come true.
Why aren't our national leaders doing anything about this?
Because they are either idiots or crooks. I'm not sure whether they're clever enough to be considered crooks, so I'm sticking with idiots. The utter lack of vision and leadership found in the White House and Congress has been nothing short of astonishing. As far as the current president goes, Bush seems more interested in destroying other nations than saving America.
Can't we be saved by growing ethanol as a replacement for oil?
Put bluntly, the idea of growing ethanol to replace oil is one of the most short-sighted, politically-motivated and outright stupid ideas that has ever been proposed. This is true for two simple reasons: 1) The more corn you grow for fuel, the less corn you have for food, which means that growing enough corn to replace the oil we presently import would result in mass starvation, and 2) It takes almost as much oil energy to grow corn than you get from the resulting ethanol.
In other words, if you want to base your combustion-engine economy on ethanol, what you have to do is take over mass acreage of corn croplands, power all the farm equipment with oil, convert petroleum to the fertilizers and pesticides needed for use on the corn, then spend even more energy on processing, transportation and delivery of the ethanol. So you end up with a nation in a food shortage (corn is the based food ingredient in the vast majority of food products) that's still dependant on fossil fuel oil. So you'd still end up with an oil crisis, but with starvation as an added side effect. There's no faster way to destroy the food supply than to promote the widespread growing of corn for ethanol.
Ethanol, it could be said, is a highly inefficient way to convert oil and sunlight into fuel. You'd be far better off with CSP, which converts sunlight into electricity at much greater efficiency (about 40%).
But what about the massive tar sands in Canada? Can't we get oil from there?
Sure we can, at great expense and with enormous environmental destruction. Extracting oil from tar sands is a very expensive process. It takes sifting through two tons of sand to get one barrel of oil, and it costs about 300% more to refine tar sand oil than the light crude oil coming out of the ground in Saudi Arabia. As stated by Richard Heinberg in The End of the Oil Age:
"Oil sands are likewise reputed to be potential substitutes for conventional oil. The Athabasca oil sands in northern Alberta contain an estimated 870 billion to 1.3 trillion barrels of oil -- an amount equal to or greater than all of the conventional oil extracted to date. Currently, Syncrude (a consortium of companies) and Suncor (a division of Sun Oil Company) operate oil sands plants in Alberta. Syncrude now produces over 200,000 barrels of oil a day. The extraction process involves using hot-water flotation to remove a thin coating of oil from grains of sand, then adding naphtha to the resulting tar-like material to thin it so that it can be pumped. Currently, two tons of sand must be mined in order to yield one barrel of oil. As with oil shale, the net-energy figures for oil sands are discouraging. Geologist Walter Youngquist notes "it takes the equivalent of two out of each three barrels of oil recovered to pay for all the energy and other costs involved in getting the oil from the oil sands.
"The primary method used to process oil sands yields an oily wastewater. For each barrel of oil recovered, 2.5 barrels of liquid waste are pumped into huge ponds. In the Syncrude pond, 14 miles in circumference, 20 feet of murky water floats on a 130-foot-thick slurry of sand, silt, clay, and unrecovered oil. Residents of northern Alberta have engaged in activist campaigns to close down the oil sands plants because of devastating environmental problems, including displacement of native people, destruction of boreal forests, livestock deaths, and an increase in miscarriages.
"Replacing conventional crude with oil sands to meet the world's energy appetite would require about 700 additional plants the size of the existing Syncrude plant. Together, they would generate a waste pond the size of Lake Ontario. While oil sands represent a potential energy asset for Canada, they cannot make up for the inevitable decline in the global production of conventional oil."
Those who promote the "heavy oil" tar sands as some sort of magic-bullet solution to the world's oil shortage are not thinking clearly. Sure, it might contribute several hundred thousand barrels of oil per day to the supply right now, and it could even be ramped up to perhaps a couple of million barrels per day, but this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the 88 million barrels per day in global oil demand expected by 2008. The tar sands cannot replace Saudi oil, and Saudi oil is starting to run dry.
If this oil problem is so bad, why didn't anybody see this coming?
Plenty of people DID see it coming. M. King Hubbert predicted the peak oil phenomenon in 1974. He was widely ridiculed and laughed out of the oil industry. The thinking at the time was that oil would never run out. Curiously, this thinking continues even today.
See Peak Oil at Wikipedia.
Now, as then, no politician wants to hear the truth that cheap, abundant oil may be coming to an end. It's just like politicians not wanting to face the truth about the national debt, or the bubble real estate market. They simply would prefer to pretend that bad news doesn't exist. The preferred response today seems to be burying their heads in the sand (or the tar sand, as it were), and declaring the future looks bright even as they're staring into a dark pit of desperation.
What can I do to prepare for the post-oil era?
The most popular course of consensus action is to simply do nothing and wait to see what happens. This is what 99% of Americans will choose to do. They will continue to buy their gas-guzzling vehicles, live energy-hungry lifestyles and pretend that America will simply take over the oil supplies it needs in the future by military force. (Which may actually be the plan at the Pentagon, by the way...)
The smarter folks out there have already figured out that the war on Iraq is all about controlling oil supplies. So is the cozy relationship with the Saudis. If there's a revolution in Saudi Arabia, and someone takes over the country and decides to stop selling oil to America, the U.S. would stage a military invasion within days. The real mission would be to protect the oil and ensure future shipments to the U.S., but the public explanation for the invasion would be whatever fiction the national leadership thinks the public would swallow (most likely something related to "terrorists").
If you're genuinely interested in surviving the post-oil era with anything resembling quality of life, it requires modifying your lifestyle so that you do not depend on long, highly-complex supply lines for your food, water, energy and basic needs. That means moving out of extreme climates (where you have to heat your house all winter, for example), pursuing your own home garden food production (meaning you'll need good soil and water sources), and learning to live in a more self-reliant manner (or being part of a small community that can operate in a self-sustaining way).
Most Americans, flatly stated, have no interest in giving up the luxuries provided by an oil-powered economy and pursuing some sort of simple, sustainable lifestyle. Americans tend to believe that's the way people live in third-world nations, but not here in wealthy America. That imagined wealth, of course, will largely evaporate when oil becomes scarce. Even the cheap goods at Wal-Mart are shipped here from China using oil.
$10 a gallon for gasoline? Only a matter of time...
To really get a clear picture of what's coming, I invite you to think hard about what happens when gasoline hits $10 per gallon. It's coming. It's only a matter of time.
$10 a gallon for gas means all your milk, bread, beef and other processed food items will double, triple or quadruple in price thanks to the oil-powered miles necessary to transport those items to your local grocery store. $10 a gallon means triple or quadruple the price for an airplane ticket. The cost of building supplies would skyrocket, diminishing home construction. The entire economy would nosedive into a deep depression, and all the financial bubbles we now pretend don't exist (the debt bubble, sub-prime lending bubble, real estate bubble, etc.) would come crashing down.
$10 a gallon means massive layoffs and job loss. It means a huge recalibration of the economy, and it transforms "easy times" into "hard times." Oil is really that important to life as we know it today in first world nations.
I've attempted to explain this to a few individuals, but no one gets it. Generally speaking, people cannot believe that the future would be any different than the present. They believe that things will always be as they are now, even when discussing the worldwide consumption of a resource that exists in a finite supply.
There is very little rational thought being applied to the issue of peak oil today. Most individuals believe there will be no negative consequences of oil running out simply because they cannot imagine any negative consequences. They have no concept of life being anything other than what they experience as a daily routine right now. The mental flexibility required to even consider our modern world without oil greatly exceeds the safe, comfortable thought zones inhabited by the majority of people today.
Now, maybe all this is irrelevant. Perhaps someone will event a free energy machine that creates electricity out of Zero Point Energy. An Irish company called Steorn says they already did invent such a machine, but can't quite make it work in public demonstrations. The free energy, it seems, only appears to work when no one is watching.
I'm not betting my future on the invention of some new, radical free energy machine. Neither does it appear that hot fusion is poised for any major energy breakthroughs for at least the next fifty years. Cold fusion, as I've reported in previous articles, actually does work about 30 percent of the time, but it's not a technology that seems consistently reproducible, nor does it produce massive amounts of excess energy even when it does work (it simply heats a pool of water few degrees).
There are no magic bullet replacements for oil. If we want to have an energy source in the post-oil era, we're going to have to build the infrastructure starting right now.
The oil economy will soon be history
The era of cheap, easy oil is ending. The future can either be abundant and clean, or devastating and chaotic. It all depends on whether society will wake up and get serious about making a transition away from oil and towards clean, renewable energy sources. Constructing a couple thousand wind turbines isn't enough. Slapping some solar panels on the roof of your corporate headquarters building doesn't cut it (although it's great for corporate publicity and P.R.). We either pursue a massive switch to renewable energy using an Apollo space mission kind of national priority, or we are going to be stuck poor, broke and starving when the oil stops flowing.
If Bush had any brains left at all, he'd announce a JFK-like challenge to America to build a new, renewable energy infrastructure in the next decade. But alas, the man is too steeped in oil to seriously pursue alternatives.
The truth is that if our next president does not put this nation on a radical, accelerated shift towards renewable energy, it will soon be too late to save America from economic collapse. Never underestimate the enormous impact that cheap energy has made on America today. Our economy, our cities, our population and even our military strength are all totally dependant on oil. Take away the oil, and America collapses under its own weight.