Several months ago, I wondered if the media’s fascination with peak oil, which crested in the mid-2000s, had ended. A big concern of many in the energy/sustainability nexus had found expression in popular culture
and in visuals like this:
But now the zeitgeist has flipped, from crude awakening to crude abundance, thanks to advances in horizontal drilling and fracking. (Yes, this is not an unalloyed good.) The United States, which had for years been fretting about its dependence on foreign oil, is now producing a “tidal wave of oil” of its own, as one analyst recently put it in a CNN report. The story of this turnaround can be told in one graph: Read More
It wasn’t that long ago that peak oil was on everybody’s minds. The basic scenario: Global energy demand would soon outstrip the world’s oil supply. Some of the more feverish types believe this will lead to a civilizational breakdown and a post-apocalyptic Mad Max landscape.
Peak oil anxieties first penetrated mainstream media in the mid-2000s, with concerns about Mideast oil running out.
A 2004 National Geographic cover story pronounced:
Humanity’s way of life is on a collision course with geology—with the stark fact that the Earth holds a finite supply of oil. The flood of crude from fields around the world will ultimately top out, then dwindle. It could be 5 years from now or 30: No one knows for sure, and geologists and economists are embroiled in debate about just when the “oil peak” will be upon us. But few doubt that it is coming.
In the New York Times magazine, Peter Maass wrote in 2005:
Few people imagined a time when supply would dry up because of demand alone. But a steady surge in demand in recent years — led by China’s emergence as a voracious importer of oil — has changed that.
This demand-driven scarcity has prompted the emergence of a cottage industry of experts who predict an impending crisis that will dwarf anything seen before. Their point is not that we are running out of oil, per se; although as much as half of the world’s recoverable reserves are estimated to have been consumed, about a trillion barrels remain underground. Rather, they are concerned with what is called ”capacity” — the amount of oil that can be pumped to the surface on a daily basis. These experts — still a minority in the oil world — contend that because of the peculiarities of geology and the limits of modern technology, it will soon be impossible for the world’s reservoirs to surrender enough oil to meet daily demand.
That same year, John Vidal reported in the Guardian that oil production could peak within a year. The subhead of his piece: “Kiss your lifestyle goodbye.”
We’ve heard this song before, Yergin says:
This is actually the fifth time in modern history that we’ve seen widespread fear that the world was running out of oil. The first was in the 1880s, when production was concentrated in Pennsylvania and it was said that no oil would be found west of the Mississippi. Then oil was found in Texas and Oklahoma. Similar fears emerged after the two world wars. And in the 1970s, it was said that the world was going to fall off the “oil mountain.” But since 1978, world oil output has increased by 30%.
Yergin asserts that rising world demand will continue to spur technological advances:
One example is the “digital oil field,” which uses sensors throughout the field to improve the data and communication between the field and a company’s technology centers. If widely adopted, it could help to recover an enormous amount of additional oil worldwide””by one estimate, an extra 125 billion barrels, almost equivalent to the current estimate reserves of Iraq.
This is the sort of thing peak oilers conveniently ignore, Yergin contends:
As proof for peak oil, its advocates argue that the discovery rate for new oil fields is declining. But this obscures a crucial point: Most of the world’s supply is the result not of discoveries but of additions and extensions in existing fields.
When a field is first discovered, little is known about it, and initial estimates are conservative. As the field is developed, more wells are drilled, and with better knowledge, proven reserves very often increase substantially. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that 86 percent of oil reserves in the U.S. were the result not of what was estimated at the time of discovery but of revisions and additions from further development.
If I understand this debate correctly, peak oilers will retort that these “additions” and “extensions” merely delay the hard reckoning.
Yergin’s book (and the massive coverage it is sure to receive) will be lighting up the peak oil boards these next few days and weeks. Let the fireworks begin!
Gail the Actuary, who often writes about peak oil and resource scarcity issues at The Oil Drum, makes the case here that we’re on borrowed time. But unlike Jeremy Grantham, she doesn’t think we can do anything about it:
There is no real solution to our predicament. Even if a cheap liquid fuel could be found in abundance tomorrow, at most what it would do would be move the problem down the road a little way. Population would continue to grow. Pollution would become a greater and greater issue. We would have more problems with fresh water. We would likely come to another limit, in not too many years.
This pessimistic outlook is oddly embraced by one of the writers at Ecological Sociology:
What I love most about Gail’s presentation is that she finally concludes that “there is no solution.” This is the conclusion I came to almost a year ago. When you put the whole ball of wax together, you have to face that fact that there really is no solution. That’s either a ‘bad thing’ or a ‘good thing’ depending on what is collapsing and whether you’re really invested in keeping it going. What is collapsing is globalized Capitalist civilization, and frankly, I’m not sorry to see it go.
This cavalier attitude really rubs me the wrong way. The dominant global economic order may well be poised to collapse, but wishing for it to happen strikes me as insensitive to the amount of suffering that would occur. And just out of curiosity, exactly what sort of (sustainable) economic system does this writer see rising from the ashes? [UPDATE: Shaun's response is here.]
Thankfully, a much less depressingly fatalistic view can be found over at the Oil Drum thread:
From what I see in urban Seattle, the generation of people in their 20′s and 30′s are developing a very different set of expectations than the generation before them. Younger people are driving smaller vehicles if not walking or biking, living in smaller spaces, delaying having children, renting instead of owning, spending their money on experiences and good food rather than consumer goods. It reminds me most of European urban living where a high quality of life requires a much lower level of consumption.
I’m not disagreeing with Gail’s premise at all. The current Business As Usual is not sustainable. What people often miss, however, is that there is a generational change underway and that the upcoming generation may not want or miss the current BAU.
In other, less well endowed countries there will undoubtedly be much misery in the years ahead (see Somalia today). But in the US at least, there are (and always have been) many ways to live within our still bountiful resources. It won’t necessarily look like what many people think of as ‘normal’ today. But for some of us it will be a very welcome change.
Be the change you want to see in the world.
Indeed. It’s also better than waiting (expectantly) for the world to crumble all around you.
There is a profile of the world’s smartest and richest Malthusian in this Sunday’s NYT magazine that carries a headline he surely finds galling:
Can Jeremy Grantham Profit from Ecological Mayhem?
If you know anything about Grantham, then you know he wants to save the environment and civilization from ecological mayhem. As I wrote in this post at Climate Central, after his quarterly newsletter was published in May,
Grantham’s portrayal of a world that will soon be forced to deal with the trifecta of resource scarcity, climate change and population growth, is not unlike the scenarios sketched out by the likes of the environmental thinker Lester Brown and geographer Jared Diamond.
The NYT profile of him reads like a story of a weary prophet who is disappointed but not surprised that his warnings aren’t being heeded. And while Grantham is resigned to the future ecological mayhem that he believes society will endure, he is not giving up hope that he can help head it off.
Personally, I find Grantham to be a compelling voice on peak oil and climate and environmental concerns (which should not be taken to mean I’m in full agreement with him). He also grasps some of the real-world obstacles to political action. For example, here he is on why the U.S. Congressional climate bill got torpedoed:
Grantham put his own influence and money behind the climate-change bill passed by the House in 2009. “But even $100 million wouldn’t have gotten it through the Senate,” he said. “The recession more or less ruled it out. It pushed anything having to do with the environment down 10 points, across the board. Unemployment and interest in environmental issues move inversely.”
The next passage reveals that Grantham, unlike some purists in the climate concerned community, is open to a different game plan:
Having missed a once-in-a-generation legislative opportunity to address climate change, American environmentalists are looking for new strategies. Grantham believes that the best approach may be to recast global warming, which depresses crop yields and worsens soil erosion, as a factor contributing to resource depletion. “People are naturally much more responsive to finite resources than they are to climate change,” he said. “Global warming is bad news. Finite resources is investment advice.”
a broad cross section of Americans may be ready to engage in dialogue about ways to manage the risks associated with peak petroleum.
For a quick primer on the risks associated with peak oil, let’s go to Dry Dipstick:
Overall the long-term prognosis is grim for the future of “cheap” oil, and the world must expect to get along without what has been our critical energy source in expanding the world’s economy for more than half a century. The sooner the world’s governments prepare for that eventuality and a transition to alternative energy sources the better, but the signs have hardly been encouraging up to now, with both the oil industry and its client nation-states keeping their fingers crossed and continuing “business as usual.”
As I have often pointed out on this blog, there is a doomsday strain to much of the current peak oil/climate change commentary. One of the more recent examples is this essay by former NYT correspondent Chris Hedges. It’s largely a jeremiad against corporate globalism, which in Hedges’ view, is driving humanity over a cliff:
The deadly convergence of environmental and economic catastrophe is not coincidental. Corporations turn everything, from human beings to the natural world, into commodities they ruthlessly exploit until exhaustion or death. The race of doom is now between environmental collapse and global economic collapse. Which will get us first? Or will they get us at the same time?
Grantham, for his part, isn’t predicting the downfall of capitalism. But in the NYT piece, he seems equally certain that the future will be ugly:
I have no doubt we’re going to have a bad hundred years. We have the resources to gracefully handle the transition, but we won’t. We apparently can’t.
I hope we prove him wrong. I’m sure he does too.
Fortunately, there is somebody much more learned and well-placed than me on the case. Maybe he’ll have better luck.
It’s high time I got some minions!
This might be true:
The United States continues to slumber while a catastrophe lies in wait. Increasing numbers of analysts and policymakers are warning of another super price spike for oil and the likelihood of “peak oil” more generally.
But I wish the author good luck with this:
It is time for public discussion of this issue to reach the same prominence as climate change. Indeed, many solutions to these “twin crises” are the same because reducing petroleum dependence will ameliorate peak oil and climate change.
One way to kickstart such a conversation on peak oil would be for President Obama to mention it tonight during his State of the Union Address.
You can stop laughing, now. Yeah, I know: that’s as likely as him delivering a 2 minute call-to-arms mini-speech on climate change. (But I still half-expect something on green jobs and energy security. Hey, the guy’s gotta throw a bone after throwing Browner out the door.)
And even then, the discussion would be over by Friday, supplanted by the start of week-long Super Bowl hype.
What might trigger a national conversation on peak oil? Well, everybody knows what that would be, right?
I love the title of this blog I just discovered:
Global Change Watch: Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization
Any guesses (from the doomsday-is-imminent crowd) as to which will upend life as we know it first: peak energy or climate change?