Watching The End of Suburbia and listening to Colin Campbell talk about Peak Oil was a galvanising experience for Rob Hopkins. It was his ‘Peak Oil Moment’ and it motivated him to get his students to produce the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan ( http://transitionculture.org/essential-info/pdf-downloads/kinsale-energy-descent-action-plan-2005/) , which in turn led on to the creation of the Transition Towns movement in Totnes. Although the focus of the movement is now three-fold (climate change, peak oil and economic contraction), originally finding out about peak oil was what shocked Hopkins into action. So, what is peak oil?
The production of oil, whether it’s for a single field, a country, or the world, follows a bell curve, with extraction being relatively easy and cheap on the upcurve, and increasingly difficult and expensive on the downcurve. The peak is the highest point of the curve, when oil is being extracted in greater quantities than ever before, but this is also the turning point, normally when the field is about half empty, and from this point on production cannot go any higher no matter what efforts are made. Gail Tverberg of the Oil Drum has some good graphs to show this (http://www.theoildrum.com/node/5969) and the whole of her article should be read. In respect of world production of oil we have been on a plateau since 2005 as far as crude is concerned, although there was a peak in 2008 for all liquids, which includes anything which can be turned into oil, such as tar sands, biofuels, and anything that can help to convince us that we don’t have a problem with oil supplies. One problem with the descent from the peak, if we have indeed passed it, is that production will drop at the same time as demand worldwide is increasing, causing an ever wider gap between the two. This could lead to great international tension as countries scramble to get the remaining supplies. Another problem is the increasing difficulty of extracting the oil. Basically, this means that more and more energy is needed to extract each barrel of oil. When oil was first discovered the amount of energy from one barrel was sufficient to produce one hundred barrels from a well; the ratio is now less than 20:1 and dropping. Obviously, the closer you get to using one barrel to extract one barrel, the less sense there is in doing so. Profits become vanishingly thin. Tverberg’s article also has a graph showing how discoveries of oil peaked back in the sixties, and another showing that what we can expect from new fields about to come on line will do little more than keep production on a plateau for a short while, followed by the inevitable drop. More and more authorities are saying that the world could start suffering from serious shortages in the very near future ( http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-08-23/major-reports-point-oil-supply-turmoil-and-price-volatility). How will this affect us?
Many of us in the developed world have lived through a period of increasing wealth and plenty to the point where we naturally expect such things to carry on ad infinitum. It’s the natural order and we are entitled to expect things to be better for our children. Unfortunately, practically the whole of industrial civilisation and its products are the result of abundant, cheap fossil fuels, and above all oil, which is really the lifeblood of our civilisation. Oil is the feedstock for nearly all plastics – look around you and see how much we depend upon plastic – as well as pharmaceuticals and pesticides. In fact, the whole of modern agriculture is so dependent on oil that it has been said that we eat oil ( http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/100303_eating_oil.html) . Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are made from oil; nearly all farm vehicles, including tractors and combine harvesters, are fuelled by oil; the vehicles that transport farm produce to processing factories and then to supermarkets here and abroad are fuelled by oil. If the price of oil rises, the price of food rises, but if oil becomes more and more difficult to get, then we have a real problem with the supply of food. Next time you go shopping, look at where all the food you buy comes from. (You can find out more about Hong Kong food miles in Peggy Yang’s paper at http://www.hku.hk/kadinst/wp.html). This system is seriously unsustainable, but if we’ve passed peak oil, then we are in danger of the whole system collapsing. Food is obviously of fundamental importance, but when you consider that 95% of all transport is fuelled by oil, the problem extends to just about everything we buy. Whatever gets transported from one place to another, except small items moved locally, depends upon oil. That means manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, public services, construction companies, tourism, sports, in fact everything you can think of is fundamentally affected. (A good, but very long introduction to all aspects of peak oil can be found at Matt Savinar’s site www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net whilst a shorter account can be found at The Energy Bulletin www.energybulletin/primer)
It’s very clear that a world with diminishing supplies of oil – and those that are available costing the earth – is going to create enormous problems for us in the industrialised world. It’s hardly surprising that people who ‘get’ peak oil talk about their peak oil moment. It’s like being thunderstruck to realise how dependent we are on oil, and how little the issue gets discussed in the media or by governments. In fact, the US government, having commissioned Robert Hirsch to look into the question of future oil supplies with particular regard to transport, promptly tried to sweep the report (2005) under the carpet when it produced somewhat unexpected results. Hirsch himself was surprised at the enormity of the problem, and his report has become a peak oil ‘classic’. In the report’s conclusion it states, ‘Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary” (http://www.hilltoplancers.org/stories/hirsch0502.pdf). Well, there has been no mitigation, and we’re probably already past the peak, so we look to be in for a very rough ride.
Finally, before getting carried away by the regular euphoric accounts of massive new finds of oil that are going to save us, look to see if any mention is made of EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested): in other words, for each barrel of oil expended, how many will be extracted? And secondly, what will be the rate of flow of extraction. The Canadian tar sands are vast, but the rate of flow is slow, so they will do very little to mitigate the effects of peak oil. It’s not, as they say, the size of your tank that matters, it’s the size of your tap.