Peak-oil activists warn that we’ve reached the end of cheap energy. That’s the bad news. The good news is its disappearance could force humankind into a sustainable future
Does anyone out there see the futility of planning for more cars? Is this car culture serving us? Does it enrich our lives and the lives of our children? Does it create peace in the world?
It’s easy to see that driving cars is not sustainable. Yet people are often stunned when I suggest a transportation system without personal car ownership: smaller communities; clean, green, well-funded public transportation; bikes; walking.
Reality check: Driving a car is like time traveling—me in my box, you in yours, racing to … where? Insanity.
—Eartha Shanti, in a letter to the Chico News & Review
Ponder, for a moment, this view of city life.
You live in a community with a population no larger than 20,000. Everything you need—schools, shops, fresh food and drinks—is within walking and biking distance. Public transportation connects you to other sections of town; high-speed rail connects your city to others.
This is what Eartha Shanti sees when she looks though her mind’s eye. “I have a vision of Chico being the first car-free town,” she said—and this is no pie-in-the-sky abstraction for her. She embodies sustainability.
Shanti, 44, is a self-described “mother and yogini” who sells sprouts at the Farmers Market and is readying three books for local publication this year, including It’s Time for a New Creed.
On the west side of Chico, amid the almond orchards, she lives in a community house with her home-schooled, teenage daughter and son as well as three young adults, two dogs and a cat. Shanti and her housemates (the human ones, that is) plan to install a solar water-heating system this year. “It’s a step,” she said, like the Peace Garden Collective fruit tree project, her backyard gardening and an affinity for local, organic produce.
She has two diesel vehicles powered by vegetable oil: a 1979 Mercedes and an ‘84 school bus she uses for field trips and other group outings. Most often, she’ll ride her bike or the bus to cover the three miles between her one-acre homestead and downtown.
Shanti exudes a sense of peace. Her smile is gentle, her speech soothing. She is earthy and grounded at the same time.
“I’m really a solution-oriented person,” she said. “In the oil-war-transportation discussion, the solutions are there. It’s the consciousness that needs to catch up.”
Peak oil. Global warming. Those buzzwords have awakened many people to concerns that have been a foregone conclusion to Shanti and others across the planet.
Among them is Richard Heinberg, a journalist and college instructor based in Santa Rosa. He has written several books on peak-oil issues, including The Party’s Over and The Oil Depletion Protocol. His reporting provides a stark, well-referenced wake-up call along with a plan, tools and ideas for changing our lifestyles and influencing lawmakers now.
“Most of the serious problems we face, from climate change to unrest in the Middle East, have to do with reliance on fossil fuels,” Heinberg said in a phone interview. “If we can make a transition [to sustainable lifestyles and energy alternatives] rapidly and peacefully, we will have accomplished an important task, and everything will be much better as a result.
“If we don’t do that, the future does not look very good.”
Perhaps the peak-oil crowd is being overly dramatic. So we buy hybrid SUVs. What’s the fuss?
The end of cheap fuel means more than expensive trips to the gas pumps.
“So magical are the benefits of oil that it was inevitable that we would find more and more uses for it,” writes Heinberg in The Oil Depletion Protocol. “And so we have built an entire way of life around it.”
Agriculture—from fertilizer to farm machinery to transporting food to your supermarket shelves—makes up the biggest chunk, about 17 percent, of U.S. oil consumption. Also dependent on oil are the production of chemicals and plastics used in everything from fabrics to soap, our home heating, electricity generation and health care.
We wear oil to bed at night and shower with oil in the morning. Oil gives us Wal-Mart, television, computers, fast food, emergency rooms and prescription drugs. It keeps us toasty on cold days and cool on toasty days.
Our utter dependence on oil is recent—it’s only lasted a century or so, though it’s come to dominate almost every feature of modern life, Heinberg says. And there is no renewing the resource. Already, humans have pulled 1.1 trillion barrels of oil from the Earth. Though peak-oil theorists argue that same amount remains in the earth’s reserves, the rest will be harder and more expensive to recover. We’ve pulled the “easy stuff” off the top.
The amenities we’re now enjoying took the Earth millions of years to produce. It’s taken us mere decades to extract and consume much of this supply.
“We started running out of oil when we took the first barrel out of the ground,” Heinberg said. “Now we’ve reached the end of cheap oil. We’ll see declining supplies and increasing prices with increased competition for remaining supplies. We’re already seeing all of these things, but the worst is still ahead.”
From this perspective comes a strong statement: “The shift away from fossil fuels is the single most important priority for humanity in this century.”
The term “peak oil” was first used by geologist M. King Hubbert in 1956. Hubbert accurately predicted the 1970 U.S. oil production peak. His theory has been adapted to determine when global oil production would peak and begin to decline, outpaced by consumption.
Kenneth Deffreyes, Princeton professor, geologist, former oil industry analyst and author of Beyond Oil, calculates that the global peak happened in 2005—and the decline has already begun.
When all the numbers are in, we’ll know if the oil peak did indeed happen in 2005, says energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert: the Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. Simmons gave a lecture at October’s ASPO World Oil Conference titled “The 51st State: Peak Oil Denial.” Saudi oil fields are now mature and in various stages of depletion, he says. And several other well-known oil reserves are at risk. He lists the decommissioning and abandonment of oil and gas installations and observes that new exploration isn’t making up for the depletion of older resources.
As an investment banker, it’s Simmons’ job to get these things right. His firm lists about a hundred clients, among them the World Bank.
Industry voices are chiming in on peak oil. Shell Oil President John Hofmeister told the National Press Club in October that “the easy stuff is running out,” as quoted in a recent Nature magazine article. And Texas oil magnate T. Boone Pickens, a Bush supporter and peak-oil believer, has used the issue to call for building nuclear power plants.
Pinpointing the exact moment of peak oil itself isn’t as sexy as predicting what impact the end of cheap fuel will have on our oil-addicted society.
James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency (2005) juxtaposes coming violence, starvation, biological warfare and mass suicides with guarded hope for humanity. Lester Brown’s updated book Plan B 2.0 (2006) outlines the world’s desperate situation—from environmental devastation to oil scarcity to global warming—and then promises solutions: “All the problems we find ourselves in can be dealt with using existing technologies.”
In Peak Oil Survival: Preparation for Life After Gridcrash (2006), Aric McBay downplays nothing: “For some it can be shocking, upsetting or depressing to recognize that civilization is going to collapse, and there is nothing that can be done to stop it.”
McBay’s book proceeds to offer tips on digging a well and building a sawdust toilet for “humanure.”
This is what peak-oil activists are reading.
Perhaps the most convincing argument that peak-oil theorists aren’t merely crying wolf is the oil industry’s spin control. In November, energy-industry-funded researchers at the Cambridge Energy Research Associates released a study, “Why the ‘Peak Oil’ Theory Falls Down,” projecting that world oil production won’t peak for at least 30 years. In fact, it won’t “peak” but hit an “undulating plateau” before declining.
Critics note that the CERA report was not made public. It was available to clients for $1,000. The report’s author, Peter Jackson, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Peak-oil theorists take issue with the report’s estimate of oil reserves in the realm of 3.7 trillion barrels. The report uses estimates from agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey. Heinberg notes that in the 1960s, the USGS forecast the U.S. oil peak to occur around 2000. It happened in 1970.
“These agencies are underfunded,” Heinberg said. “And they tend to want to give good news rather than bad. This is true of CERA as well. … They take forecasts of demand, how much we want, and work up future supply based on that.”
The recent Nature article quoted Michael Rodgers of Washington, D.C., energy analysis firm PFC Energy: “The problem is if you go and talk to people whose job it is to actually go and find this stuff, they have no clue as to where these trillion barrels of reserves actually are.”
The oil industry fears the market impact of “petro-noia"—the public’s fear of future energy costs and eventual shortages. What if people begin to use less gas or electricity? Short-term profits will suffer.
Awareness of peak-oil issues has grown in the past couple of years. Citizen groups now meet in communities across the nation, hoping to influence lawmakers and sharing useful skills and information that might help humans transition to an oil-depleted future.
Peak-oil issues overlap with other important concerns: global warming, environmental devastation and political unrest involved in maintaining energy supplies (read: U.S. military in the Middle East).
Interest and investment in energy alternatives is expanding, as well.
At the Desert Research Institute in Reno, computer models are being developed to predict the best sites for wind-energy farms. Makers of wind turbines are finding it hard to keep up with production demands. DRI researchers are also developing a portable unit that converts electricity from solar panels or wind turbines into hydrogen fuel that can burn in a combustion engine.
“I would say that we [as a society] have never spent more money exploring alternatives than at this present moment,” said Kent Hoekman, executive director of DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences. “Is it enough? I don’t know. But it is substantial and growing.”
Interest in oil depletion wanes and waxes, he said, often with the price of gasoline. Hoekman, who worked 20 years for Chevron and has represented the American Petroleum Institute on committees, sees the beginning of the end of oil as a good time to be involved in energy alternatives.
“There’ve been times in the past characterized by excitement about alternatives and they’ve come and gone,” Hoekman says. “What makes this different is a widespread recognition that the demand for energy is increasing at an unsupportable rate.”
Hoekman believes that demand—and the rising cost of oil—will force a market solution, the development of alternatives to meet the growing gap between energy supply and demand.
Hoekman agrees with CERA’s assertion that oil supplies won’t necessarily “peak,” but that supply curves will represent more of the “undulating plateau.”
The prospect of civilization’s collapse as a result of oil shortages seems “silly” to Hoekman.
“That seems based on the notion that somewhere we have one pool of oil, and there’s a straw sucking it out. Then, when it’s empty, what will we do?”
In reality, he says, “tremendous” oil resources exist around the globe.
“They’re dispersed widely. It’s not that there’s a definite end to them. There is an end, but as recovery techniques improve, you can recover more from one place. There will be no dead stop when you’ve exhausted everything.”
As demand increases, it will become more expensive to recover fuel. “But as the gap is getting ever wider between oil production and demand—that’s getting filled in with alternatives,” Hoekman said.
What alternatives seem to be working? Well, not solar. Too expensive. That’s at the bottom of Hoekman’s list.
Wind is promising.
Biomass? There’s lots of enthusiasm and investment, but “it’s not here in a substantial or sustainable way yet,” Hoekman said.
Hydroelectric? Perhaps in other countries, but there are no sites left in the United States. “They’re not going to build more dams in the Grand Canyon,” Hoekman said, chuckling.
Coal supplies exist—but the needed carbon dioxide sequestration technologies (that capture CO2 and put it somewhere it can’t escape) aren’t yet in use except experimentally, Hoekman says.
What about nuclear energy? At least it doesn’t emit carbon dioxide or greenhouse gasses. Just a little highly radioactive waste.
Geothermal makes sense—but it won’t work everywhere.
So the future of energy is a topic worth serious attention, Hoekman agrees. Energy alternatives alone can’t solve the problem unless coupled with conservation efforts and efficiency.
“It’s not just do we need to find more energy or use less,” Hoekman said. “The answer is do both. … We need a complex portfolio that makes use of everything. There is no single answer.”
Is there any upside to all the concern about energy? Some hope that the end of oil will force us to live sustainably—and to use our human ingenuity to find new ways of doing things.
Heinberg doesn’t put his eggs in the energy-alternative basket. He’s not convinced that the world will develop wind, solar, biomass or other energy sources to meet demand in time.
Enter conservation. Heinberg and his wife have a one-kilowatt photovoltaic system that supplies all the electricity they use, which isn’t much. They use compact fluorescent lights and computers with LCD screens. “We also just turn things off when we’re not using them,” Heinberg said.
And then there’s self-sufficiency.
Heinberg and wife grow much of their own food with a dozen gardens and 25 fruit and nut trees on their quarter-acre lot. He talks about building “lifeboats"—small, sustainable communities that are “organic; small-scale; local; convivial; cooperative; slower paced; human-oriented, rather than machine-oriented; agrarian; diverse; democratic; culturally rich, and ecologically sustainable.”
Eartha Shanti hasn’t read Heinberg’s work, but their visions mesh seamlessly. Encouraged by sustainability groups at Chico State and Butte College, she hopes to find other likeminded people close to home to explore issues that have grown ever more urgent.
“People talk about global warming and the Al Gore film [An Inconvenient Truth]—I get it, putting smoke in the sky is bad,” she said. “But I don’t think going on and on about global warming will make things better.”
Actions will, ones that come from putting together the various pieces of the big picture. “The moment we turn our attention to working with Mother Earth,” Shanti said, “things will change.”