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.
He makes his own bread— out of wheat he grinds by hand."Grain is alive until you grind it,” says Craig Bergland, 57, putting two slices in the toaster.
These days, he buys the grain. He’d like to be growing his own, becoming more self-sufficient, living sustainably. Some day he might not have a choice, says Bergland, the 2006 Green Party candidate for Nevada governor.
“We don’t stock our supermarket shelves,” Bergland says. “Oil does.”
Bergland grows what he can in his yard, near the intersection of Kietzke and Plumb Lane. He plants potatoes in rubber tires that keep dirt from eroding and keep the ground warmer in spring and fall.
When the toasted bread pops up, we move to Bergland’s living room. Sun streams in from the window. The beagle, Huxley, rescued from the animal shelter, wanders over for a scratch.
Bergland, in olive green vest and black jeans, sips coffee and looks over his ideas scribbled on a yellow notepad. He rattles off wishes: “Businesses should shift to a four-day workweek. That would give their employees 20 percent fuel savings right off the top. And have you ever walked into a nice store on a sunny day? You see the lights on. What’s wrong with solar tubes and natural sunlight coming into the store? Instead you have a dark store lit with incandescent bulbs. It’s incredibly wasteful.”
Bergland likes to reuse and recycle. He’s collecting tin cans to solder together as solar heat tubes. He heats almost all his water using a solar water heating system. And he’s built several passive solar collectors—boxes constructed with salvaged glass and metal painted black—that serve as home-heating assists.
“I can build another [solar] box for the roof and kick the temperature up another 10 degrees!” he says. “We throw out so much it’s unbelievable. Our landfills will be the next energy fields for the next species.”
I nod, munching on warm buttered bread. Nothing better than toast to accompany talk of the apocalypse.
The end of cheap oil, Bergland contends, will be the end of the world as we know it. And that end might be coming sooner than we think.
Bergland’s been studying the writings of “peak oil” theorists, who watch for the time when global oil production reaches its apex and starts to drop off. Supplies will lessen while demand continues to rise. Costs will increase, and our petroleum-based civilization may begin to crumble.
For Bergland, the question is not “if"—but “when” and what to do next.
He sees two options.
“You can take 100 pounds of rice, some water, and drive out to the boonies. You can live on the rice for a while. But then what do you do? Could be gruesome.”
“The other alternative is to build neighborhoods, to rescue the suburbs. … Set up a mechanism for people to share tools, gardening tips. Teach people to be more self-sufficient and try to become sustainable. How about small neighborhood [electricity] generating plants?”
Bergland prefers the second option—developing community “lifeboats,” to use author Richard Heinberg’s term. The Santa Rosa, Calif.-based journalist and college instructor has written several books on peak oil issues, including The Party’s Over and The Oil Depletion Protocol. (See www.richardheinberg.com) Heinberg’s reporting provides a stark, well-referenced wake-up call along with a plan, tools and ideas for changing our lifestyles and impacting 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 tells me via 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.”
Apocalypse? 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 healthcare.
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 says. “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.”
Is there any upside? 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 alternative energy basket, however. 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 says.
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.
“The shift away from fossil fuels is the single most important priority for humanity in this century,” Heinberg says.
Energy issues will likely emerge as a priority in the coming years. 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,” says Kent Hoekman, executive director of DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences. “Is it enough? I don’t know. But it is substantial and growing.”
Bergland, who works at local casinos when he’s not running for office, wouldn’t say that he’s prepared for the collapse of civilization. But it’s been on his mind. If we wake one morning to find no cheap oil to fuel our SUVs and our appetite for double bacon cheeseburgers, Bergland won’t be surprised.
“I’m a little discouraged,” Bergland says. “Peak oil’s not on the public mind. It’s as important—and maybe more immediate—than global warming.”
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. (See www.princeton.edu/hubbert)
When all the numbers are in, we’ll know if the peak oil 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. (See www.simmonsco-intl.com.)
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 a 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.
“Some books are scary ones that keep you up at night and give you nightmares,” Bergland says.
He sorts peak oil thinkers into two camps. Late toppers think the end is decades away and envision a more “hopeful” future—”Soylent Green without grinding up people,” Bergland says, referencing the 1973 film with Charlton Heston. Early toppers see chaos in the near future: “Mad Max meets the Donner Party.”
Bergland counts himself amongst the latter. He’s hopeful, but he does own a .22-caliber rifle that he’s fired at the Burning Man shooting range.
“Owning a gun is a really harsh thing,” he says. “You hope you never have to use it. We’re all eternal, and I ain’t getting points by shooting someone to protect my food.”
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 says. “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. Bergland and cohorts are working on the Nevada Neighborhood Emergency Management Association, a FEMA for citizen activists. Content at its Web site, www.nnema.org, is still in early phases of development.
“It’s scary to have highly advanced civilization like this where people are saying, ‘What the hell is peak oil?'” Bergland says. “But if we can pull together, it may not have to be a stark terrible thing.”
Bergland hopes lawmakers will begin to pay attention.
“The last person who did anything was [President Jimmy] Carter. He talked about lowering the thermostat and putting on a sweater. He set [fuel efficiency] standards [for motor vehicles] and installed solar panels on the White House. He was great.”
When Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, he had the solar panels removed from the roof.Interest in oil depletion wanes and waxes, often with the price of gasoline, says Hoekman at the Desert Research Institute.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 would 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,” he says. “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.”
Demand increases, and 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 says.
What alternatives seem to be working? Well, not solar. Too expensive. That’s at the bottom of Hoekman’s list. Wind is promising, though it hasn’t approached its potential in Nevada.
Biomass? There’s lots of enthusiasm and investment, but “it’s not here in a substantial or sustainable way yet,” Hoekman says.
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 says, 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 high-level radioactive waste.
Geothermal makes the most sense for Nevada—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 says. “The answer is do both. … We need a complex portfolio that makes use of everything. There is no single answer.”
Bergland cooks meals in a strange-looking box, with silver fold-out flaps, in the backyard. Rice, beans, even meat can be stewed up in Bergland’s Sun Oven, made in Milwaukee, Wis., that he’s been using for years. “It’s great for potatoes,” he says.
Bergland designed his own solar oven which is mounted on the custom trailer he takes to Burning Man.
“Perfect for making soy milk,” he says, joyfully. “I like to make my own.”
Solar ovens are simple to use, he contends, though it takes some planning. “You just look at where the sun’s going to be about the time you want the food to be done.”
Solar ovens are also simple to construct. If electricity someday soon becomes too expensive for average working folks, we can make ovens out of foil-lined Franzia wine boxes.
“Once you get the hang of it, it’ll cook a quart of rice in about an hour,” Bergland says, “using no energy other than the sun’s heat.”