What is ‘Peak Oil’ and why does it matter?’
This feature first appeared in ‘The Green Parent’ lifestyle magazine in April/May 2006
What is ‘peak oil’? A new brand of fuel? No, put simply, it’s the point at which world oil production reaches it’s peak. Type these two words into any Internet search engine and you’ll find millions of hits – just one indication of the scale of debate which is currently raging about the issue. The first edition of ‘World Watch’ magazine this year contained no less than five articles on the subject. Peak oil has rapidly become hot news.
The oil we are using now was formed around 600 million years ago deep in the earth from the decay of plant an animal remains, heated and compressed under layers of rock. The first commercial oil well in the United States was opened in 1859 in Pennsylvania.
‘Black Gold’ has become a mainstay fuel in industrialised countries across the globe. The petrol which fuels cars and road vehicles, is of course, only one of the many branches of the oil supply and production tree. Plastic, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, pesticides, clothing, nylon and agricultural fertilisers; food production, transport and packaging are all linked to oil. In other words, supply and availability now affects almost everything in our society. Such a deep-seated oil addiction creates a problem: evidence shows that at the present rate of consumption supplies of ‘black gold’ will not last for ever.
The challenge we face
Modern industrialised lifestyles – ingrained habits such as excessive car use and lack of energy efficiency measures in houses and industry to name but a few – have meant that conventional oil has been used up much faster than the earth can produce it. It is now estimated that for every four barrels used, only one barrel is discovered. The situation has become more critical with accelerated and exponential population growth. Global demand is outstripping supply.
The peak of ‘Peak Oil’ refers to the picture you see on a graph. When oil is extracted the line drawn follows the shape of a bell-shaped curve. At first, the amount of oil extracted is plentiful, (this is the upward stroke of the curve). As an oilfield is used up production ‘peaks’ and is followed by a gradual decline. In other words: ‘peak’ occurs when the oil in an oil field is half used up. One after another, oilfields around the globe appear to have reached this point.
The astounding fact is that we humans knew an oil peak would happen some time ago. In 1956 a celebrated geologist, Dr. M. King Hubbert, predicted U.S. petroleum production would peak around 1970 then irreversibly decline. The idea became known as ‘Hubbert’s Peak’. Many of us (not least governments and industry) tried to ignore the problem in the hope than it would go away. Dr. Hubbert’s prophecy was duly fulfilled. Opinion is still divided as to exactly when the world oil peak will occur, but due to soaring rates of consumption, most analysts now point to the 2006-2010 window (depending on how fast remaining oil is used up). The fact that the year 2006 is named explains ‘peak oil panic’.
The current price of oil – costing the earth
Oil prices are subject to fluctuations for many reasons. These include perceptions of the risk involved in extracting and processing crude. For example, they may be affected by war, civil unrest, an conflict in an oil-producing nation or a natural disaster such as an earthquake somewhere in the transport networks.
People may become afraid of a shortage of fuel, on which so much of our lives seem to depend(transport of food and essential services such as heating for example). Fear that a resource will become ‘scarce’ sometimes leads to panic buying. When we are told certain foodstuffs are in short supply , some people immediately start stockpiling, which affects supply and may mean others go without. If this sort of individual consumer behaviour is transposed to the global stage, then sadly, we are talking about an increased risk of raw material resource wars.
Al the factors I have mentioned may undermine economic stability and lead to stock market crashes. Unlike small scale solar, society oil dependence means our economic well-being is held hostage to a shaky an unethical global trade. The transportation of oil is also a source of pollution. Millions of barrels are lost in spills every year, to the detriment of coastal and marine environments and the livelihood of fisher people. Leakage of oil from routine shipping and oil and gas operations is also a problem.
As if all this were not enough, we should also consider the increasingly well-documented human rights abuses happening across the globe as a result of oil and gas greed.
Peak Oil meets Global Warming
We find ourselves at a telling and decisive point in the the history of humanity – the point at which the issues of global warming and the world oil peak collide.
Put simply – even if industrial nations were to secure sufficient additional conventional oil supplies, due to the greenhouse gases produced by our use of oil and the accompanying risk of global warming it would be foolhardy to carry on using(and wasting) crude oil in the way we have been doing.
The silver lining, community solutions and visioning the future
There is life after oil dependency. We should know by now that the global crystal ball is very cloudy indeed. Let me risk a few predictions…
It’s a fairly safe bet that saving fuel may soon become less of an option and more of a necessity. The four main areas this will affect will be food, transport, education and finances.
People will become more aware of food miles and the amount of oil used in transporting their groceries, and the production of packaging. As organics, vegetarianism and bioregionalism (local sourcing of food) become much more widespread and popular there will be a culture change in society.
The views of ‘green parents’ and environmental activists will no longer be marginal but firmly mainstream. This will have implications for the gene-tech and the pesticide industry, as both are highly oil-dependent.
A return to small scale communities (or eco-villages) where people grow their own food, and where there is micro power generation is likely. This will not necessarily mean a move ‘back to the land’. Since the vast majority of people live in cities, the idea of a romantic rural “idyll” may need a little adjustment. Don’t forget micro-power generation can be implemented in cities too (think wind generators on your roof or solar water heating).
There may be an increase in ‘co-housing’. Blocks of spacious, well-insulated, soar heated self-contained flats with a communal living area, sports facilities and (dare to dream) a swimming pool – will become more popular. Housing developments like this might popularise car-sharing and whole food cooperatives.
Permaculture initiatives will change for the better (although fares may well go up). Fuel may become more difficult to obtain as well as more expensive. SUV’s will be phased out and we will no longer see so many people on their own in cars. It will no longer be ‘de rigeur’ to park on pavements, and ignore pedestrian access to public facilities.
As far as personal and national finances are concerned, it is likely that the number of jobs related to the oil industry will dwindle and that growth areas will be solar wind, and wave connected.
I predict those of us who have already gained an awareness of energy saving issue sand ecology will experience a new found confidence. All this will not come as so much of a shock to us. We will be ahead of the game, better prepared and well trained. I suggest that psychologically we’ll find the transition to a society without oil easier than others. Especially ‘green parents’ who have plenty of practice in dealing with the unexpected, are in a great space to learn, move forward and adapt.
Some reactions across the globe
The consumption of oil per head (like the consumption of paper, and the production of waste) does vary across the globe. Reactions to the peak oil revolution will accordingly be varied and culturally specific.
The squabble of highly industrialised nations over remaining fuel supplies is plainly insulting to those vast numbers of people whose day to day existence in poverty depends on clean water, wood or simple solar technologies for survival. In some countries it is only the rich who can afford a car, many use bicycles as they have little access to fuel anyway. Likewise the raging peak oil debate will be of little practical help to the billions of people on the verge of starvation or made homeless by flooding and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which are exacerbated by global warming.
Some countries already have a great deal of practice in managing without oil. Cuba is an interesting example, and is currently being cited as a ‘post-peak oil’ society. As a result of the U.S. oil embargo; Cubans were forced to wean themselves off the black stuff and found creative ways to do things differently.
The U.S. is till heavily addicted to oil – (despite the President’s state of the union address on ethanol and alternatives). Extremely large and wasteful cars are widespread there and this may be the reason why there has been more ‘peak oil panic’ across the Atlantic than in Britain – U.S. citizens may decide their gas guzzlers have to go.
Sweden will be a motor for change in Europe as their appointed Mister for Sustainable Development plans to end the country’s dependence on oil by 2020. This will entail move away from nuclear and hydroelectric power towards biofuels for use in transport and electricity generation.
Surviving the Peak with Love and Self-reliance
I believe we can use the parenting skills we already have to survive and thrive. We have to find ways for the sake of our children’s future. If I were to choose the two most important parenting qualities to strive for I would say this: firstly show your children that you love them, and secondly encourage them to be self-reliant. Both of these things: loving our planet, and strengthening our self-reliance, self-education(about alternatives) and ingenuity(to end our dependence on oil) will help us scale the global ‘peak’ successfully.
A (Very Short) Guide to Alternative Non-renewables
The burning of coal produces CO2, which is a greenhouse gas, so replacing oil with coal (assuming that supplies of coal would be available) is clearly not a useful long term solution.
Despite what is suggested, nuclear is not carbon free. The CO2 produced in building nuclear plants and the resulting environmental and social damage should be taken into account in any comparative life-cycle analysis. There is the unsolved problem of the detrimental effect of uranium mining and of the hazardous waste produced by nuclear plants, as well as the dangers of operations which are vulnerable targets for terrorist attacks.
Natural gas also produces CO2 but not as much as coal. NO doubt it will continue to play a useful role as a transition fuel, but it is subject to much of the same problems as oil itself, and will peak too, eventually. There are certainly problems of supply and prices being affected by civil unrest and politics, as recent controversies show.
Tar sands have hit the media spotlight recently with discoveries in Canada. However development and processing produces major greenhouse gas emissions and estimated recoverable reserves amount only a tiny percentage of the global demand for oil.
We have no choice but to prioritise energy saving measures of all kinds, maximise the potential of hydrogen and ethanol and initiate an immediate and extensive expansion of renewables.
What you can do…
- Putting your feet up…doing nothing at all…saves oil
- Be proud – in being ‘green’ you have been doing your best to use global resources wisely…your are role model for the children and young adults you know
- Keep implementing your energy saving measures as a priority
- If you are not already vegan or vegetarian, try eating lower down the food chain…or eating meat free meals more often…
- Breastfeeding is carbon neutral
- Get an allotment
- Use a pantry instead of a fridge
- If you are an urban ‘greenie’ grow organic veg on your windowsill or courtyard
- Stay informed (another reason to keep reading this magazine)
- Walk, cycle or take trains and buses for longer distances.
- Start a car or lift-sharing scheme
Information and Education
- Get hold of funky free ‘peak oil’ graphics on the Internet from http://www.geocities.com(these are for non-commercial use under the Creative Commons License)
- Put the ‘Oil Age Poster’ in your window to raise awareness or donate one to your local school. (The poster features Dr. Colin Campbell’s Oil Depletion Model and is available from the U.S. post-carbon institute).
- Discuss the issues raised with friends, relatives, local government representatives and your M.P. (who doesn’t have the time to be an expert on everything – perhaps they might appreciate information or a training session). Remind them that Britain is a signatory of the Kyoto protocol…
- Follow these pointers for further reading
- Investigate a local ‘peak oil’ group or create one an invite a speaker…go to the peak oil events and conferences featured on the websites listed. Get hold of the films on offer and show them in your area.
- If you have savings, you may wish to to review what you are investing in. Think about putting solar technologies in your investment portfolio.
Useful further information
‘The Short Guide to Global Warming’ by Mark Masling – (Oxford University Press 2005)
This very short introduction is an informative, up-to date, and readable book about the predicted impacts of Global Warming and the surprises that could be in store for us in the near future..
‘Half Gone – Oil Gas, Hot Air and th the Global Energy Crisis’
by Jeremy Leggett – Portobello Books (2005)
With watertight knowledge and sobering clarity, Leggett explains how we became addicted to oil an dhow this habit is dragging us into an increasingly dangerous dependence upon the Middle East