Peak Oil primer and links
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What is Peak Oil?
Peak Oil is the simplest label for the problem of energy resource depletion, or more specifically, the peak in global oil production. Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource, one that has powered phenomenal economic and population growth over the last century and a half. The rate of oil 'production,' meaning extraction and refining (currently about 84 million barrels/day), has grown in most years over the last century, but once we go through the halfway point of all reserves, production becomes ever more likely to decline, hence 'peak'. Peak Oil means not 'running out of oil', but 'running out of cheap oil'. For societies leveraged on ever increasing amounts of cheap oil, the consequences may be dire. Without significant successful cultural reform, economic and social decline seems inevitable.
Why does oil peak? Why doesn't it suddenly run out?
Oil companies have, naturally enough, extracted the easier-to-reach, cheap oil first. The oil pumped first was on land, near the surface, under pressure, light and 'sweet' (meaning low sulfur content) and therefore easy to refine into gasoline. The remaining oil, sometimes off shore, far from markets, in smaller fields, or of lesser quality, takes ever more money and energy to extract and refine. Under these conditions, the rate of extraction inevitably drops. Furthermore, all oil fields eventually reach a point where they become economically, and energetically, no longer viable. If it takes the energy of a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, then further extraction is pointless.
M. King Hubbert - the first to predict an oil peak
In the 1950s a U.S. geologist working for Shell, M. King Hubbert, noticed that oil discoveries graphed over time, tended to follow a bell shape curve. He posited that the rate of oil production would follow a similar curve, now known as the Hubbert Curve (see figure). In 1956 Hubbert predicted that production from the US lower 48 states would peak between 1965 and 1970. Shell tried to pressure Hubbert into not making his projections public, but the notoriously stubborn Hubbert went ahead and released them. In anycase, most people inside and outside the industry quickly dismissed Hubbert's predictions. In 1970 US oil producers had never produced as much, and Hubbert's predictions were a fading memory. But Hubbert was right, US continental oil production did peak in 1970, although it was not widely recognized for several years, and only with the benefit of hindsight.
No oil producing region fits the bell shaped curve exactly because production is dependent on various geological, economic and political factors, but the Hubbert Curve remains a powerful predictive tool.
Although it passed by largely unnoticed, the U.S. oil peak was arguably the most significant geopolitical event of the mid to late 20th Century, creating the conditions for the energy crises of the 1970s, leading to far greater U.S. strategic emphasis on controling foreign sources of oil, and spelling the begining of the end of the status of the U.S as the world's major creditor nation. The U.S. of course was able to import oil from elsewhere, and life continued there with only minimal interuption. When global oil production peaks however, the implications will be far greater.
So when will oil peak globally?
Hubbert went on to predict a global oil peak between 1995 and 2000. He may have been close to the mark except that the oil shocks of the 1970s slowed our use of oil. As the following figure shows, global oil discovery peaked in the late 1960s. Since the mid-1980s, oil companies have been finding less oil than we have been consuming.
Other quite different types of analysis have provided supporting evidence to these 'early peak' scenarios, most notably UK Petroleum Review editor Chris Skrebowski's Oilfields Megaproject reports, and energy banker Matthew Simmons' analysis of Saudi Arabian oil fields.
The effects of natural gas peak are more localized due to the economic and energetic expense of liquefying and transporting natural gas as LNG. Both British and North American natural gas production have already peaked, so these nations may be facing dual energy crises.
What does Peak Oil mean for our societies?
Our industrial societies and our financial systems were built on the assumption of continual growth – growth based on ever more readily available cheap fossil fuels. Oil in particular is the most convenient and multi-purposed of these fossil fuels. Oil currently accounts for about 43% of the world's total fuel consumption [PDF], and 95% of global energy used for transportation [PDF]. Oil is so important that the peak will have vast implications across the realms of geopolitics, lifestyles, agriculture and economic stability. Significantly, for every one joule of food consumed in the United States, around 10 joules of fossil fuel energy have been used to produce it.
The 'Hirsch Report'
A risk mitigation study on Peak Oil was released in early 2005, commissioned by the US Department of Energy. Prepared by the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and titled “Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management” [PDF], it is known commonly as the Hirsch Report after its primary author Robert L. Hirsch. The executive summary of the report warns that "as peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking." [Emphasis added.] Unfortunately nothing like the kind of efforts envisaged have yet begun.
But it's just oil - there are other fossil fuels, other energy sources, right?
To evaluate other energy sources it helps to understand the concepts
of Net Energy,
or the Energy Returned on Energy Invested ratio
(ERoEI). One of the reasons our economies have grown so abundant so
quickly over the last few generations is precisely because oil has had
an unprecedently high ERoEI ratio. In the early days of oil, for every
barrel of oil used for exploration and drilling, up to 100 barrels of
oil were found. More recently, as oil recovery becomes more difficult,
the ratio has become significantly lower. Certain alternative energy
'sources' may actually have ERoEI ratios of less than one, such most
methods of industrially producing biodiesel and ethanol. That is, when all factors are considered, you probably need to invest more energy into the process than you get back.
Some alternatives such as wind and hydro-power have much better ERoEI, however their potential expansion may be limited by various physical factors. Even in combination it may not be possible to gather from renewable sources of energy anything like the amount of energy that industrial society is accustomed to. Richard Heinberg uses the metaphor that whereas fossil fuels might be considered a massive energy inheritance, and one spent perhaps unwisely, renewables are much more akin to a hard won energy wage.
For certain tasks, such as air travel, no other energy source can readily be substituted for oil. As noted by the Hirsch Report, alternative energy infrastructures require long periods of investment, on the scale of decades, to be widely implemented. We may be already leaving the period of cheap energy before we have begun seriously embarking on this task.
It's perhaps worth noting briefly that any ERoEI study is complex and different methods of accounting can come up with vastly different results, so any net energy study might be viewed with some suspicion. Perhaps the best method yet developed is Howard Odum's eMergy analysis. But we may not know with total certainty the usefulness of any renewable energy technologies until the hidden fossil fuel energy subsidies are finally removed.
Many people are working on partial solutions at various different levels, but there is probably no cluster of solutions which do not involve some major changes in lifestyles, especially for the global affluent. Peak Oil presents the potential for quite catastrophic upheavals, but also some more hopeful possibilities, a chance to address many underlying societal problems, and the opportunity return to simpler, healthier and more community oriented lifestyles.
The Post Carbon Institute Outposts. The Post Carbon Institute
is a think tank devoted to exploring the implications of, and preparing for, Peak Oil, focusing on relocalization. They
most important initiative of the Post Carbon Institute is working with groups
of concerned citizens to prepare their community for the Post Carbon Age. These
groups are Outposts in
the sense that they are community-based extensions of the Post Carbon Institute;
they operate autonomously yet receive guidance and electronic infrastructure
from the Institute. Outposts work cooperatively in their local community to
put theory about living with less hydrocarbons into practice while sharing
knowledge and experiences with the global network of outposts.”
The Community Solution to Peak Oil.
Many excellent resources are available through the website of
this US based organisation "dedicated to the development, growth and
enhancement of small local communities... that are sustainable, diverse
and culturally sophisticated." The Community Solution have organised
two recent grassroots Peak Oil conferences, and have developed a case
study of Cuba, a country which has relatively successfully adapted to
an artificial oil peak.
is a 'design science' which can allow us to live in relative abundance
with minimal resource use. Permaculture principles can be used to
functionally redesign social systems, built environments, ecological
and agricultural practices for energy descent. David Holmgren's recent
book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, deals
explicitly with the global oil peak and proposes permaculture as the
best set of strategies for dealing with 'energy descent'.
Local Energy Descent Action plans: Several
communities around the world have begun their own preparations for Peak Oil, and are documenting the process. The Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan
out of rural Ireland is the world's first local action plan for Peak
Oil, dealing with many issues including health, education, tourism and
youth issues. Local organisers within the town of Willits, Califonia
have begun work on the Willits Economic LocaLization Project in response to Peak Oil.
Oil Awareness Meet Ups
is a grass roots awareness raising network helping people meet up and
discuss peak oil. Join or start a meet-up in your neighborhood.
Local Currencies and Steady State Economics:
Intentional Communities: Intentional Community (IC)
is an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing, residential land
trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives and other
related projects and dreams... ICs represent one of the sanest ways of
dealing with energy peak.
Surviving Peak Oil:
A good collection of essays edited by Dale Allen Pfieffer on "what
measures can people of limited means undertake to ease their transition
into a post-petroleum world."
The Depletion Protocol: (previously refered to as
the Uppsala or Rimini Protocol) is an ethical global political
framework for sharing the world's remaining oil reserves more equitably
than free market forces would allow, to avoid resource wars and
profiteering. Help promote it:
Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) are a system for
rationing fuel which includes everyone – individuals, industry and the
Government – and which enables users to sell any rations they do not
Lobbying: Lobby governments to spend now on renewable energy and improving agricultural practices. Many facts are summarized in the following 'convince sheet' by Bruce Thomson: greatchange.org/ov-thomson,convince_sheet.html
Where can I get more information?
Several articles already published on this site provide good introductions to this topic:
There are some great introductory websites like:
Some excellent original media about peak oil is being generated at:
Research and reference articles can be found at:
More energy news:
More links, and books to read: An excellent list of links is maintained here:
Your feedback is welcome.
Last updated 8 April 2006