July 4, 2012

Peak Oil

Today's topic is peak oil. Now you would think this is a simple enough concept to grasp. Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource. That means there is only so much of it, and we can't make any more of it. So, sooner or later, it is bound to run out. How hard is that to grasp? And yet, in today's polarized world, denial of anything is possible, and not surprisingly, a lot of folks deny the possibility of peak oil.

Peak oil, like anything else, can be seen in a couple of different ways. Most folks think of it as the point where the amount of oil pumped out of the ground diminishes from one year to the next, instead of increasing, signalling the beginning of the end. This is a difficult calculation, since companies and countries routinely lie about their reserves, inflating or deflating the numbers to suit their purposes. So based on reserve and production data that may or may not ever have been accurate, one could maintain that production is still increasing. That appearance does not negate the reality of oil as a finite, non-renewable resource.

A slightly different way of looking at peak oil is to think of it in terms the availability of cheap oil. There can be no doubt that, in that sense, we have indeed peaked. Gone are the days when you can just drill a pipe into the ground and out will gush oil, what refiners refer to as light and "sweet" oil. What oil there is to be found is likely to be off-shore, far from markets, harder to get at, and there will be less of it at lower quality. That's why words like "fracking" and "BP oil spill" have entered into the daily lexicon.

The only reason we have seen oil prices decline is because of the global recession. When economies begin to ramp up production, the demand for oil will again rise and there will be no avoiding the issue of peak oil.

Think of the global economy as a NASCAR race and the global meltdown as a multi-car pileup. The world economy has been running under a yellow caution flag. At some point, the green flag will come out, and the race will resume at full speed. The main question then will be whether or not there is enough fuel left in the tank to get the cars to the finish line. That is when peak oil will pass from a theoretical concept to a crushing reality.

Even more worrying, most folks really don't get just how much of our consumer culture relies on products derived from petroleum. As I pointed out in Fifty Years of Global Warming:

Which is more important: a gallon of gas, or a bottle of aspirin, or the antihistamines to treat those sniffles? Fertilizer and pesticides used to grow cheap food? How about the dishwashing soap we use to clean our dinner plates? Or the additives that extend the shelf-life of canned foods? Sneakers and CD’s, without which no kid would be complete? Dyes? Garbage bags? Golf balls? Plastic, anyone?
We face some rough choices as the oil in the ground becomes more and more expensive to find, extract, and refine. Who decides whether the next barrel of oil will make gasoline or medicine or plastics or Britney Spears’ CD’s? Will we be content to let the market place decide that, or will we eventually have to appoint a Petroleum Czar to make these choices for us.
These are not things I will ever have to worry about, but my children and grandchildren will face these tough choices. Some problems can be deferred or delayed, but not this one. Peak oil is an inevitability. And we have done little more than talk about it. Just like a whole host of problems, from funding for Social Security and Medicare to the debt to ... yes, climate change. We truly are a throw-away culture, and the biggest thing we have thrown away is our children's future.

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