Peak Oil - What It Means to You

You wouldn't know it from the mainstream media's coverage of rising gas prices, but the squeeze we're all feeling at the pump is just a small part of a much larger picture. The current price of gas is more than a just a little rough patch that might get worked out by the markets or policy wonks in Washington. Global oil production today is at or near its max capacity, and in the next few years current supply will begin a long and irrevocable decline that will mean dramatic changes for nearly every aspect of our lives.

We're moving from an era of cheap, abundant energy to an era of increasingly expensive, scarce energy. Given that our entire modern industrial society has become heavily dependent on the availability of cheap fossil fuels to power everything from our transportation to food production, to a myriad of commercial goods and our overall economic growth-this is *kind of* a big deal. For college kids, soccer moms, and business tycoons alike-peak oil is going to bring a major smack down on our way of life.

While global warming has finally begun to break into the mainstream, its twin brother-peak oil-has yet to be talked about in our national discourse. However, the economic crisis that peak oil presents will likely be felt much sooner than global warming. Major price spikes may come in the next few years, and with rising demand from China and India, among other developing nations, the battle for remaining oil reserves will invariably lead to resource wars and increased conflict in the Middle East. Combine this with teetering financial markets and a devaluation of the dollar, if we do not begin to prepare for peak oil now, the overall financial chaos from all this may jeopardize our ability to address global warming with the stability and financial resources necessary to avoid an even greater environmental catastrophe.

Past Event

Film: "Crude Impact"

  • Monday, April 21, 2008, 7 p.m.
  • Liberty Hall Cinema, 644 Massachussets Street, Lawrence
  • All ages / $3


Great news, right? Well, there is some good news. The essential solution for both of these problems is roughly the same thing: eliminating our use of and dependence on fossil fuels. The more our society transitions to renewable sources of energy, the less we'll emit global-warming-causing CO2 emissions, and the less we'll be racked in the balls by expensive fossil fuel costs.

Ultimately, a post-carbon society is inevitable. Whether that future looks remotely desirable to us depends on what we do now. The sooner businesses, private citizens, and elected officials stop futzing with little tweaks to the status quo, and get serious about the big picture at the end of the road, the better off we'll be. These distractions include ethanol, nuclear power, "clean coal," hydrogen, more efficient cars, and many of the other single-fix responses being proposed by industry and government currently. Many of these approaches may actually exacerbate our problems.

Case in point: though it may help in the short-term, we don't need more efficient cars; we need radically redesigned cities that are not dependent on cars to get us everywhere. The city and suburban infrastructure necessary to support the speedy movement of the personal automobile requires an immense overall supply of energy and resources to build and maintain. It seems natural that the suburban model of design would have developed during the 20th century when there was such a vast supply of cheap energy to make it economically viable, but with an end coming to cheap energy, we've got to go back to the basics. We need to rethink the whole system.

Portland Peak Oil Task Force

The Portland Peak Oil Task Force listed the following eight reasons for concluding "the peak likely will occur sooner rather than later":

1Trends of both discoveries and production point to a global resource base of about 2.2 trillion barrels of oil. The world has already used more than one trillion barrels, and is currently using more than 30 million barrels per year.

2Optimistic estimates that the earth holds 3 trillion barrels of recoverable oil would require a reversal of historic discovery trends and a doubling of estimates of remaining reserves.

3In the long run, production cannot exceed discoveries. Experience in many oil-producing nations indicates that production lags discovery by 25 to 40 years. For example, in the U.S., discoveries peaked in the early 1930s, and production peaked in 1971. World discoveries of oil peaked in the mid-1960s, and have declined ever since.

4Discoveries fell below production in the mid-1980s and have continued to fall. The world currently finds one barrel for every four or more that it uses.

5Higher oil prices and increased drilling have not resulted in increased discoveries. New discoveries have tended to be fewer, smaller, deeper, more remote, and more costly. The largest, most easy-to-find deposits are likely to already have been found. For example, a much-heralded discovery in the Gulf of Mexico recently is located in a hurricane-prone area under 7,000 feet of water and another 20,000 feet below the ground, and contains 1 to 6 months worth of oil at current rates of consumption the costs of producing this would be high, and it would not noticeably delay the peak.

6About two-thirds of oil-producing nations have already peaked and are in decline, including the U.S., Mexico, and the North Sea (U.K. and Norway). At least two of the world's five largest fields ever found Burgan in Kuwait and Cantarell in Mexico have peaked and begun to decline, and there is concern that Saudi Arabia is having difficulties maintaining production from the world's largest field, Ghawar.

7Knowledge of where oil may or may not be located is more extensive than ever. Geologists have identified what kind of geological formations are likely to produce and hold oil, and the earth's geology has been extensively mapped. In addition, millions of wells have been drilled looking for oil and other resources. The likelihood of finding new fields comparable to those in Middle East, Texas, Russia, Mexico, or the North Sea, is very low.

8Estimates of existing reserves are unreliable. Reserve estimates of OPEC member nations jumped 60 percent in the late 1980s. This was likely due to a link between proved reserves and production quotas. In the past two years, Shell Oil and Kuwait downgraded their estimates of proved reserves by 20 and 50 percent, respectively.

Solutions that take into account a "whole-systems" approach do exist. In fact, the more I've looked, the more I've discovered sustainable and innovative ideas that are already being implemented in places all over the world. A resident of Oakland, California, Richard Register presents an inspiring vision of what a post-carbon, ecologically healthy city might look like in his book, "Ecocities: Building cities in balance with nature."

Similar to New Urbanism, the places where people live would be built in close proximity to a mixed combination of work, shopping, food, and recreational spaces, allowing for easy use of bicycle or mass-transit to get wherever you need to go. The city's economy would be re-localized, from organic food production to basic goods and services. Decentralized wind, solar, and geothermal energy systems would provide energy to the grid, while advanced efficiencies in building design would reduce energy demand by over 70 percent. Long distance travel would be accommodated by light rail or boat, and electric cars borrowed through community car-share programs would be used for medium distance trips. Gardens and plants would be integrated throughout multiple floors of buildings, and streams would weave through public centers and parks.

Finding an abundance of ideas for how to create more sustainable cities is not the problem. What we need is a national discussion at all levels of society, and at all levels of our communities, so we can start to talk about how we're going to address peak oil here at the local level. How are we going to get from here to there?

We need to get our schools involved. We need to get our city and planning commissioners involved. Businesses, elected officials, and private citizens all need to come to the table and get to work.

Now, at the end of most problem-themed articles I've read, specifically ones dealing with global warming, I've noticed a curious trend. After spending most of the time talking about the problem, the one paragraph at the end devoted to "things you can do" usually centers solely around personal suggestions: Change your lights to compact fluorescents. Turn down the thermostat. Bike more. Buy less, and try to buy used more than new.

These are all things we should be doing to cut down on our own energy use, but I wonder why it always stops there. Presumably it's because Americans are too lazy to expect they'd be willing to do anything more ambitious. I want to prove this assumption wrong.

Great change has never been inspired by small requests. If it seems like people in America haven't been doing much lately to address global warming, it's because not much has been asked of them. Most of the time, our leaders simply ask us to shop. I think if we do start to expect and ask more of each other, though, we'll be surprised by the results. As Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R, Md.) has said, "There is no exhilaration like meeting and overcoming a big problem... and I think that Americans could be exhilarated by the challenge."

So there it is. We're facing some pretty unprecedented challenges. The time for just making small, personal changes is over. As I heard Alex Steffen say recently, "Don't just be the change. Mass-produce it."

Tim Hjersted is the director of the Films for Action project. To read his online blog, visit

The Portland Peak Oil Task Force's analysis of alternatives to oil and natural gas

1Coal is abundant in the U.S., with 240 years worth of reserves at current use rates. It can be used to generate electricity or can be made into gaseous or liquid fuels. However, increased use of coal would seriously aggravate global warming. Much of the CO2 could be sequestered, but it would require about one-fourth of the energy in the coal to do so. In addition, coal use would have to quadruple or more to displace oil and natural gas. But if U.S. coal use increased just 2 percent per year, the lifetime of our coal reserves would drop to 85 years and lead to a "peak coal" problem in the not-too-distant future.

2Nuclear power produces only electricity, which means it is not well suited to replace oil as a transportation fuel. Even if nuclear power could meet all U.S. energy needs, the 10-fold increase in nuclear power plant capacity would require massive infrastructure costs. With that many plants in operation, known reserves of uranium would be depleted in about 20 years. Breeder reactors could extend the life of uranium reserves, but safe, affordable breeder reactors are not currently available. Nuclear power also poses the problems of nuclear waste disposal and nuclear weapons proliferation. Oregon has had strong opposition to nuclear power, and Oregon's only nuclear plant was closed early because of leaking steam tubes.

3Oil sands in Canada and Venezuela are abundant. However, the oil is not in liquid form, but rather more like sand-impregnated asphalt. This makes oil sands extraction land- and water- intensive, polluting, and high in carbon emissions. In addition, it has an EROEI of about 3- to-1, meaning it takes about one-third of the energy in the oil sands to produce it.

4Oil shale has many of the same environmental problems as oil sands. In addition, oil has never been produced commercially from shale. Shale oil has an estimated EROEI of about 1.5-to-1, meaning two-thirds of the energy it yields must be used to produce it. This would increase the amount of CO2 emitted. Capturing the CO2 would further reduce net energy.

5Enhanced oil recovery involves advanced methods to extract more oil from a field, such as in-fill drilling, horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and injection of solvents like CO2, nitrogen or steam to make the oil move more easily. Because of costs, enhanced recovery is unlikely to affect an oil field's peak since it is not typically applied until after production has peaked. Recent studies also suggest these methods simply allow the oil to be extracted a little faster, with the total amount of oil produced from a field remaining about the same.

6Biofuels (biodiesel and ethanol) are highly touted to replace oil for transportation. Biofuels are carbon neutral, meaning the CO2 they emit is balanced by the CO2 they need to grow. However, biofuels would compete with other uses of the land, such as food, forest, erosion control, and habitat. In addition, most ethanol in the U.S. is now made from corn, which is oil- and natural gas-intensive to grow and, as a result, has a low energy return best-case analysis estimates the EROEI at about 1.67-to-1. There are hopes that ethanol will be able to be made from cellulosic plants such as switchgrass, which are less energy intensive and can be grown on marginal lands. However, this is still in the research stage. Biodiesel has a better EROEI (3-to-1 or slightly greater) than ethanol, but will probably require dedicated crops and cropland, thereby limiting the amount that can be produced. While biofuels hold some promise, they are unlikely to replace more than a small share of the petroleum-based liquid fuels currently used.

7Hydrogen is often touted by many as the clean, renewable fuel of the future. However, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. It is not found in its most useful stateH2but must be separated from other atoms to which it is attached, such as carbon or oxygen. Most hydrogen today is produced from natural gas. This is not sustainable when natural gas is in decline. In the long run, if hydrogen is to be used as a transportation fuel, it will have to be electrolyzed from water using renewable power. But because of thermodynamic losses in producing and transporting the hydrogen, it may be more efficient to use the renewable power directly. In addition, because of its volume and because it leaks so easily, hydrogen is difficult to store and distribute. The current storage and distribution infrastructures for natural gas and gasoline would have to be replaced, at huge costs, to accommodate hydrogen.

8Clathrates are ice crystals containing methane (i.e., natural gas) found at the bottom of oceans. The potential resource is immense. However, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and release of even part of this methane could trigger runaway global warming. At this time it is not technically feasible to capture the methane for commercial use without a large portion escaping.

9Renewables (wind, solar, biomass, wave power) will need to be developed to the fullest extent possible, and fortunately Oregon is well-endowed with them. However, aside from biofuels, most renewables produce electricity or thermal power (heat). Their applications rarely include transportation. While abundant, it is not clear how much of our total energy needs renewables will be able to meet. The immediate need for renewables is to meet electric load growth, then to begin displacing coal and natural gas in electrical generation to reduce CO2 emissions. In addition, fossil fuels are required to build renewable power plants. We need to begin building the infrastructure now while cheap oil and natural gas are still available. They will be more expensive and difficult to build once oil and natural gas supplies are declining.


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