Peak oil is here; we must act
By Robert Bolman
With oil nearing $100 a barrel, I’m writing to announce that the all-time peak of global petroleum production is behind us. It happened in 2006. Once on the downhill slope of the oil production bell curve, supplies will decline about 3 percent annually.
Sustainability analyst Lester Brown released an update recently that ran through the figures: “After climbing from 82.9 million barrels per day in 2004 to 84.15 million barrels per day in 2005, output only increased to 84.8 million barrels per day in 2006 and then declined to 84.62 million barrels per day during the first 10 months of 2007.” Unless some new production comes online soon, the numbers indicate that the peak indeed occurred in 2006.
If 2008 sees 84.2 million barrels per day in oil production and 2009 sees 83.5 million barrels, the peak oil bell curve will be well established.
Much of modern industrialized civilization has been built upon cheap, abundant oil. The food we eat, the products we buy and our transportation are all heavily dependent on oil. The ramifications of a 3 percent annual decline in production are staggering.
Petroleum is highly concentrated. It is estimated that a gallon of gasoline contains more than 100 tons of ancient plant material compressed over time. For this reason (among others) it is naive to believe other sources of energy are going to make up for this shortfall:
Hydrogen isn’t a source of energy. It’s merely a somewhat convenient way of storing energy. Hydrogen still needs to be produced, which requires energy.
If you multiplied all current wind and solar generating capacity by a factor of four, it would still account for less than 1 percent of current energy use. The real trick is producing the liquid transportation fuels such as gasoline and diesel.
In order for our current transportation habits to be continued with biodiesel and ethanol, so much food-producing land would have to be turned over to fuel-producing crops that it would cause an international food catastrophe.
Uranium is expected to reach its peak in production by 2030. Nuclear power produces electricity, not liquid transportation fuels.
Tar sands, oil shale and coal gasification are all large potential sources of energy (to say nothing of greenhouse gasses). Unlike oil, they take a lot of energy to make into liquid. These sources would be hard-pressed to make up for a declining oil production.
Peak oil and climate change are like opposite sides of the same coin: humankind’s unrestrained orgy of fossil fuel consumption. We must address them in much the same way: The human family needs to learn to live without fossil fuels.
While the Bush administration’s energy policy seems to consist of dominating the Middle East, there are many things to do locally.
A good place to start would the elimination of fares for Lane Transit District buses. Fares account for 20 percent of LTD’s operating budget. A fraction of what is earmarked to build new roads could pay for it.
As Lane County’s buses are designed to run on diesel fuel, much of the system should be rebuilt as a full light rail system. It is vastly more efficient than buses, can run on green electricity and can encourage denser development.
Lane County should stop all sprawl-type development. It is the height of foolishness to be building single family houses (that encourage automobile use) on farmland we’ll need to grow food. Growth should be accommodated through infill — especially in downtown.
Lane County should stop all road-building. Why bother when there will soon be fewer cars?
Every new building or extensive renovation should result in a zero net energy building — one that produces as much energy as it uses. Hundreds of jobs could be created doing rigorous energy upgrades on every house in Lane County — paid for by the energy savings.
The sweeping changes needed to address peak oil and climate change should have begun years ago. We need bold action now. While the federal government will be useless until at least January 2009, it will be interesting to see if Eugene’s Sustainability Commission can get serious now.
Robert Bolman is founding director of Maitreya EcoVillage in Eugene.