here you go way to fast
don’t slow down you’re gonna crash
you should watch – watch your stay here
don’t look out you’re gonna break your neck
so shut , shut your mouth
cause I’m not listening anyhow
i’ve had enough, enough of you
enough to last a life time through
so what do you want of me?
got no words of sympathy and if i go around with you
you know that i’ll get messed up too with you
The Primitives, Crash
Moving into 2007, I suspect that we will find that this will be the year of Peak Oil: not of the occurrence, but rather the year when everyone learns about it, everyone talks about what it is to mean for our world and our civilization and that we finally begin to see some real tangible changes as a result. However, I also suspect, simply based on the trend so far, that we will see far more bad information about Peak Oil than good. So let’s start at the beginning and talk about what Peak Oil IS, what it means.
Peak Oil is the general term used to describe the modeling of resource production of a finite natural product with known reserves, in this case, Oil. The model can be applied to individual wells or fields, but these days, when you hear the term, it is generally being applied to the Earth as a whole and the Global Peak of Oil Production that we either have hit, or will hit in the very near future.
The model, itself, states that resource production increases consistently, up until the point that the well, the field, or the planet has dispensed half of its total capacity. In some ways this is quite easy to understand: when a new well is dug, oil literally gushes forth because the field is under pressure, much like a shaken soda pop will gush forth when opened. However, as the pressure begins to drop we need to expend energy and effort to claim the oil. Generally, this is accomplished by pumping water into the lower levels of the field, creating pressure from below and pushing the oil out the top. However, although these techniques do work, they work less effectively as the well gets lower and lower, and even more importantly the cost becomes higher and higher as more energy is expended to recover the oil.
Now, this is an important point: when someone talks about the increasing cost of recovering oil, this is not simply a function of economics. It is a function of energy as well. Oil has been such an important energy source for so long, because it has been cheap: when we first began using oil in earnest it cost one barrel of oil for each 100 barrels extracted (100-1), for most of our lives, the ratio was closer to 70-1, while currently, we recover something like 10 barrels of oil for each one invested (10-1), Hubbert’s Peak analysis suggests that this EROEI will continue to drop and drop quickly, until we get to the point that we need to invest a barrel of oil (or more) for each one we recover. At 1-1, oil drilling becomes pointless, at anything less than 1-1, we can no longer afford the investment at all.
So what does this all mean to us, as individuals in this global economy and civilization?
In some ways, this is where the discussion gets hard. Because, by definition, we are talking about predictions. Some people will tell you that we will find some savior technology, just in time, because that is what we have always done before. Can’t deny the possibility, however, it has been pointed out that new technology takes time to be developed and implemented on a large scale: decades, frequently. If, however, we have already hit the Peak, we don’t really have decades to develop an as-of-yet undiscovered technology, not without significant impact to our civilization along the way. So for today, I am going to entirely ignore the possibility of a savior technology. It is pure speculation on the one hand, and it is questionable that we could implement anything new this late in the game.
So what about technology that already exists? The ‘Peak Oil Doomers’ (link) will tell you that there is no single energy resource that can replace our current oil economy. And they are correct in that. However, that is also a meaningless statement. We don’t need one, single resource that replaces oil, we only need some way to replace the current energy infrastructure, regardless of how diverse and non-centralized it needs to be. In fact, the case can be made that this diversification and decentralization is a critical component of any sustainable strategy. Currently, oil is the foundation of most of our direct energy usage (transportation, electricity, some heating), our agricultural systems (equipment fuel, fertilizers and pesticides), our chemical industries (plastics, bio-medical) and industrial energy usage in general. So each of these sectors needs to be addressed, but to suggest that they can or should all be addressed as a whole is absurd.
Let’s, instead, look at each of these sectors individually, and see what technologies, techniques and alternatives are available.
In the US, we use roughly 70% of our total oil consumption for transportation. Personal automobiles, Trucking, Air Freight and Air Travel, Shipping, Trains, Buses and so forth. This is probably the largest single concern overall, as we currently have no alternative technology to replace liquid fuel. There are a few speculative alternatives offered, especially liquid coal and bio-diesel. Liquid Coal is significantly limited in that it, too, is subject to Hubbert’s Peak: we currently have enough coal to last 250 years, but if we were to intensify usage, that could quickly fall to less than a human lifespan, some analyists suggest it could drop to as little as two decades. Bio-diesel, on the other hand is completely renewable, but it also has a low EROEI, and could become even less efficient once we lose oil as an agricultural supplement. More on this later.
The other big alternative to oil for transportation is the ‘Hydrogen Economy’. On its face, Hydrogen seems like an ideal alternative: it’s clean, it’s abundant and lots of people are really starting to talk it up. However, there is one really big problem with this: Hydrogen is not a fuel source. More precisely, it is a clean and moderately efficient battery storage unit. This means that Hydrogen may become an important technology for transportation, but it does not supply energy in and of itself. A secondary issue with technology involves another limited resource: current Hydrogen technology uses platinum in the H-Cells, but platinum is quite scarce so there is no way that all of our current personal and industrial vehicles could be fitted with H-cells. (Of course, conservation and simplification must be part of the total package, but again, we will come back to this later.)
Electricity has its own set of issues and considerations: we have a greater ability to generate electrical energy with alternative sources than any other sector. However, electricity is also subject to transportation loss (ie, the further from source to usage point, the more signal and therefore energy, degradation occurs). When we see suggestions that the American Southwest can be covered by solar cells to generate energy for the entire continental US, we need to keep in mind that this is a massively inefficient and wasteful enterprise. And it may not even be possible. There is also significant concern that current electrical grids have become so fragile that any increase in energy flow could cause serious repercussions in the event of a localized equipment failure (ala the NorthEast Blackout).
Some talk has also been forthcoming on Nuclear Power as an alternative. Sometimes I think there may be some value in this, however, it is quite difficult to get past the issue of radioactive waste. We could move forward under the assumption that we will eventually figure out safe, effective and efficient clean up techniques. But we have dropped the ball before, on things like this — do we really want to take a chance on something this critical to our survival?
In Southern France, an international effort has begun to develop our first fusion reactor. While this technology does have some tremendous potential, we must consider development: the research/beta testing of this particular theory is scheduled to last for the next twenty years: if the technique is a success and scalable, AND they complete their research before a significant oil crunch occurs, there would still be some number of decades involved to implement the technology on a significant scale. I don’t want to write off fusion entirely, but I feel it is far too early to seriously consider it as a savior technology.
However, even with all of these concerns, there is a lot of potential, in my opinion, for localized and individual electrical. Solar and Wind Generation has a relatively low EROEI, but it is still greater than 1 (Solar is as yet undetermined because the full life cycle of solar panels is not yet known, but estimates put it anywhere from 1.1-1 and up.), whereas wind has been sited as great as 20-1. Both wind and solar are limited in that they are not constant energy sources, but in combination they may well be able to provide a reasonably effective energy supply.
I am least familiar of all with chemical/industrial uses of oil products. These processes use the hydrocarbon molecule as a basis for chemical permutation. However, hydrocarbons are also available in other forms than petroleum. For example, there are now organic plastics being produced from plant oils.
Of all Peak Oil concerns, I believe that agriculture is the true elephant in the room. While we reduce our energy usage in a variety of ways, we cannot reduce our agricultural production significantly without massive famine and suffering around the world. This tells me that if we are reaching (or have passed) peak, we should be restricting all other oil usage in the interest of maintaining agricultural productivity as we invest time and resources in developing alternative agricultural systems. Unfortunately, in free, capitalistic economies there is no way to make this happen. It has been said that the ‘bread basket of america’, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the western world would be a broad desert right now if it were not for petrochemicals and irrigation. If this is true, any sudden break in fertilization could create a precipitous drop in productivity. And that would be tragic, on a world scale.
Another concern with agriculture in general is land usage. The more land we dedicate to agricultural production, the less ‘natural’, wild land is left. Some may think this is irrelevant, but I would point out that a healthy biosphere provides dynamic and important systems for human (and non-human) survival. The global water cycle is driven by equatorial rain forests, the oxygen cycle is driven by ocean flora, carbon sequestration happens naturally in forests and prairies alike, and so forth. For each of these systems that we disrupt, we will need to design and power mechanical systems to do the same job, generally in less efficient and effective ways. It seems to me that protecting and encouraging the natural systems would be a far more effective strategy especially in an energy poor world. (This will limit the amount of bio-diesel/ethanol/bio-plastic agriculture we can reasonably do, in addition to any restrictions on food production we might need.)
Of course, there are alternatives to petro-agriculture. Various techniques are gaining popularity, from traditional organic farming (which does have a lower yield, even when it does involve mechanization), through bio-intensive gardening and permaculture. Any technique that builds soil health and productivity, naturally, has the potential to be an important part of our future economies. However, every one of these techniques is limited in scale and would require a massive reorganization of infrastructure and cultural assumptions. Instead of dwelling on those issues right now, I will be writing an in-depth article on permaculture in the days to come.
SUSTAINABLE CIVILIZATION AND PEAK OIL:
I have been following the development of Peak Oil Theory and its potential impact on what we call modern civilization for several years, now. I have become fully convinced the Doom Speakers really have too narrow a view to really speak to the issues effectively. At the same time, when I hear anyone suggesting that this is no big deal, that we will find a way to get past this without any significant change to our lifestyles, assumptions or behaviors, I am equally inclined to find them full of s***. This IS an issue that is going to play out significantly over the next several decades. Massive changes will be necessary to address these concerns, and there is no certainty, in my mind, that we, or our governments, will be up to the task. In fact, I have zero faith that our governments are up to it: all of my faith lies with individual people, taking individual action for themselves, their families and their communities.
Whatever occurs over the next several decades, I have complete confidence in one thing: however we are living one hundred years from now, it will be fundamentally different from the way we live today: because we will no longer have unfettered access to cheap energy, we will no longer be able to poison the world around us without consequences and we will no longer be able to destroy the natural systems that keep us alive, because we will no longer be able to ‘afford’ to replicate those systems with inefficient human replicas. So the question, in my mind, is what are each of us going to choose to do – and whatever that is, are we going to succeed? Only time will tell.
(Originally Posted December 27, 2006)