Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Peak Oil gets a Dress Rehearsal.

In the firm belief that Peak Oil is imminent, a group called Seattle Peak Oil Awareness are preparing for a world from which cheap oil has gone. The scenario is frightening, and in the worst case could mean a die-off in human populations, since many of the world's 6.5 billion people are fed from crops grown using fertilizers made from gas and oil, and oil derived fuel is used in most methods of modern agriculture, including organic farming. The group do not predict an instant Mad Max play-out of post-apocalyptic proportions, but something closer to a sequence of recessions falling one after another like being dealt several bad hands at cards. For example, one member has bought a house near the new light railway line, which he thinks will still operate, and has installed solar panels on the roof. So it is a low-energy future, sometimes called a "power-down", that is being envisaged, rather than the wholesale collapse of civilization.
There is, it must be agreed, some difference in opinion, generally between optimistic industry "experts" on one side, and the early-toppers, who think that the peak in oil production will happen any time now. For instance, the oil consulting firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates, who are based in Cambridge Massachusetts, conclude that it will be another 30 years before world oil production peaks, and that even when it does, the supply will follow an "undulating plateau" before declining. John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, is quoted as saying: "The oil reserves continue to build up". But is that true? My understanding is that there are about one trillion (proven) barrels left in the ground. There may be more than that to be found and there is of course the possibility if making synthetic oil from coal, extracting it from bitumen (in tar sands or oilsands), but it is the light crude oil that is at issue, since this is readily processed into fuel and chemical feedstocks for manufacturing processes, while all the other types of oil require more in terms of fuel and other economic costs to convert them into the kind of hydrocarbon material which fuels the modern world.
If we can rely on that one trillion barrels, then it will last (at present consumption of just over 30 billion barrels per year worldwide) for about 33 years. Since we have already used an equal amount of one trillion barrels, we ought to be at the half-way point of "Peak Oil", now. Any projections of the date beyond the present tacitly implies there is more oil available to be extracted in order to meet a demand which is not static but growing, to the extent that in 20 years it is predicted that China will use as much oil as the United States, thus bringing these two powerful nations head-to-head in competition to get their share of it. Where is it going to come from though? It seems to me that unless some new resource and a working technology with a decent EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) is found to put it on-stream (and quickly), the peak-oil believers in Seattle and elsewhere in the world must be right, and world oil production will begin to decline soon and irrevocably.
Even if more oil can be got, it will inevitably cost more money to produce, meaning that everything that depends on oil (and that really is everything) will become inexorably more expensive. Hence, it will be economic means that drives cars off the roads and goods off the shelves in stores everywhere, including supplies of food. Cuba is a good example of a country that has managed to survive and thrive when its abundant supplies of fuel were cut-off by Russia around the time that the Soviet Union collapsed. To do so, the Cubans have adopted a more localised, partly agrarian economy, and this seems to be working in their favour. This in my view, is the kind of social change that will follow and will indeed need to follow the decline in cheap oil, as their is no other means to survive, unless very rapidly, an equal trench of alternative technology, e.g. renewables and nuclear power, can be brought on line to replace the energy currently supplied by oil (and gas too, since the peak in world gas production is expected to follow peak oil within a decade or so).
If we can do little about this whole unpleasant scenario altogether, as individuals, then what can we do to try to cushion the ride for ourselves and our families. Holing-up in a bunker somewhere with plenty of tinned food and live ammunition doesn't sound much fun to me, and it would only provide a very limited bubble of security, rather like the set of instructions supplied to survive a nuclear attack in a bomb-shelter built in your garden out of bricks and corrugated-iron sheeting. Also, it is unlikely that there will be an overnight crash of civilization. So, I would suggest the following: live as near as possible to your source of work/income, thus reducing dependence on oil-fuelled transport as far as possible; pay off any mortgages and debts, since in times of economic uncertainty, chips can be called in, for example if there were a collapse in the housing market, or the money-lenders (banks etc.) needed their money back quickly. In all probability, businesses based around the "service sector" might fail if people suddenly had less spare cash in their pockets - and that is a very big sector, certainly in the U.K., now we have lost much of our former manufacturing greatness. In all likelihood, a host of local jobs would appear, but in fairly basic "industries" such as farming, and in the provision of raw materials centred around renewable resources like wood and water.
However, the effective collapse of industrialised cities, for example London, with populations of millions (about 10 million live in London, depending on where you draw the borders) would pose a tremendous problem in terms of relocating so many people into smaller communities.
In any event, we should prepare for change, both as individuals and as nations, for the present scourge on the planet's energy resources is untenable and we should expect a process of power-down to occur during the next few decades as we settle-out on a less energy-voracious manner of living.

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