Archive for the ‘Peak Oil’ Category

“There are few problems which have greater potential to quickly unsettle the North American public and strain essential services than suddenly being denied access to fuel.” ~ Rick Munroe

Imagine, if you can, that there is a resource everyone likes to use.  They like to use it for convenience: it lets them go places, have neat things, eat the foods they want no matter what time of year it is…  And imagine this item was in total abundance, as if the world might never run out of it.  Imagine how fast people would use this resource…  Probably as fast as they possibly could, right?  And imagine it was really easy to access it, and that in certain parts of the world you could simply drill a hole in the ground and this resource would flow right to you.  Life would be fantastic!

Now imagine, if you can, that this resource begins to become scarce.  Imagine that the world could not discover any new supplies of this resource, nor could they produce it any faster.  Imagine this was because the “easy” supplies had already been used, and now the more difficult to reach supplies were economically disadvantageous to access…  What would happen to the supply of this resource?  It would dwindle.  And what would happen to all the items that were made from it?  They would rise in price.  And what would happen if the resource became so scarce that not everyone could have it?  How would people react?  Would they adapt and move on with their lives?  Would they go to war to protect their resource?  Would there be civil unrest when people couldn’t afford the resource or have the things they wanted?

While those questions may seem difficult to answer in the abstract, we are currently being treated to a real-life experiment along these very lines.  That is because such a resource exists today in the form of oil, and we are watching the world decide what to do about the reality that less oil is available for more of us every day.  The concept of “peak oil”–that the world is now beyond the peak of oil discovery and production–is one that few of us have been treated to, but is probably the most important economic and geopolitical problem facing us in 2012.

Once again, we will turn to Chris Martenson and his Crash Course video series.  This is where the concept was explained to me, and if you want to get it, no one explains it better.  This is Chapter 17a (yes, there a lot of chapters) on Peak Oil:

If you weren’t able to watch the whole 18 minutes at once, I understand.  Please come back to it–this is a really powerful concept.

For those of you who want the down-and-dirty version, here goes:

  1.  Global oil discoveries peaked about 40 years ago.  Since then, no major new high-energy oil or oil-based sources have been discovered (I know, I know, tar sands–those are in the low-energy-return category).
  2. Global oil production peaked within the last few years.  We now produce less oil every year than the year before for the first time since oil was discovered in the 1850s.
  3. Global oil demand continues to climb every year.  Countries like China and India are witnessing massive oil demand as their middle classes grow and the desire for gasoline powered vehicles and creature comforts like electronics, CDs, etc., increases.  Also, energy demand for electrified homes and heat is continuing to climb.
  4. Nations who were recently exporters of oil are also seeing increased domestic demand for oil, and are quickly becoming net importers of energy.  This concept is REALLY important.  For example, Mexico, the U.S.’ third largest oil supplier, is about to begin importing oil to meet its own energy demands.  When that happens, the United States will lose its third-largest oil supplier and then begin competing with Mexico for the dwindling global oil supply.
  5. The sources of oil and oil-based energy we continue to use (including tar sands) cost more to produce and offer less energy per unit.  In other words, we have already extracted and used the cheap, high-energy stuff.  We are now using the expensive, low-energy stuff.
  6. All this to say that between lower supply, higher demand, more nations competing for less oil, and higher production cost per energy unit produced, the cost of oil-based energy (and every other form of energy when you consider that less oil means greater demand for every other way we make energy, including solar, wind, water, LNG, coal, etc.) is going to continue to climb, probably exponentially.

So what?  This is problematic on two levels.  The first level is very obvious.  More of my paycheck going to heat my home and get to work, not to mention buy my groceries (which are shipped by truck) and clothes (ditto), is going to push America’s fragile economy to the brink of Depression (in my opinion, we’re already there, but that’s another post).  What good is a payroll tax cut of 2% when energy costs go up 20%?  The second level is far more disturbing.  Consider the massive, exponential growth of every yardstick by which we measure human development: industrial output, standard of living, quality of life, access to technology, access to communication, GDP, etc.  Consider that these rapid advancements have coincided–although it is not coincidental–with the availability of oil.  If you saw a timeline on a chalkboard that covered the last 200 years, and were asked to mark the board with a line signifying when you believed American society was “at its peak,” meaning at its best, its most prosperous, its most balanced and its happiest, where would you mark it?  I would venture to say that many of us, if we are mature and honest enough to handle this exercise appropriately, would look at the period of the late 1950s to early 1960s and say, “oh yeah, those were the good years.”  And I would agree with you.  If you feel that way, consider how little stood in America’s way during that time.  Sure, we were in the midst of a heightening Cold War, but domestically, the world was our oyster, and development and growth were commonplace and rampant.  And it is my assertion that this period of prosperity was due almost entirely to the abundance and availability of inexpensive, high-yield oil-based energy products.  When there is a ton of oil, and you can get it for almost nothing, any country can be great.  It is, as Chris says, the lifeblood of a developed economy.  With it, a nation can take on all comers and grow its industrial, commercial, and technological sectors with abandon.

However, without a cheap and abundant supply of oil, I am afraid our nation is headed for difficult times.  Could it really get that bad, and how bad would it be?  That is what Peak Oil is all about.  I’ve thrown the term at you, now you get to go learn more, if you choose.

In another post I hope to explore Zbigniew Brzezinski’s important work, The Grand Chessboard.  This book, written post-Cold War, explained the importance of the United States both a) maintaining control of the Middle East for resource purposes and b) not allowing a “Eurasian challenger” to grow powerful enough to threaten American global hegemony.  I think that is an area where the Peak Oil discussion becomes relevant, and I think combining Brzezinski’s work with a post-peak production would goes a long way to explain why we are about to go to war with Iran.  But that, as I like to say, is for another post.

~ DS