19 February 2010

published article: "Peak Oil: Under The Radar"

This article was published in the 2010 issue of Projections magazine, conceived and compiled by Ewan Scott and Nick Petch. Many thanks to Ewan for his consideration, and to Cecilie Corless for recommending me.

Peak Oil: Under The Radar

While climate change has been in our consciousness for over a decade, another pressing issue remains largely untouched by the mainstream: peak oil.

In 1956, a Shell geophysicist called Marion King Hubbert presented a shocking revelation about the state of oil production in the United States. According to Hubbert's figures, oil production in the lower 48 states would peak within 15 years. His colleagues spent 14 of those 15 years dismissing his theory, until U.S. oil production did indeed peak right on cue, in 1970. Production levels have been in decline ever since.

The Hubbert curve, as it has become known, is reminiscent of a bell curve. The level of production increases until about half of the oil is extracted, then flattens at some maximum "peak". Beyond this point, production begins an inexorable downward trend, irrespective of any efforts to increase it. This model has held for individual deposits, regions and countries, and it will likely hold for oil production globally.

On this global scale, nobody is quite sure when the peak will occur. Some say that we are at the cusp right now, others that it has passed already, and others still put the date well into the future or deny it will occur at all. It is also unclear whether oil production will follow a gentle decline over the peak or whether it might drop somewhat more dramatically. It is therefore difficult to predict what effects the decline may have on the economy or on society more generally, at least in the short term.

What we do know, however, does not paint a rosy picture. The rates of production of most of the world's oil producers have already peaked, many of them in the last decade (Australian oil production peaked in 2000). Oil discoveries worldwide peaked in the mid-1960s, and in each year since 1980, more oil has been produced than has been discovered. Currently, the world consumes four barrels of oil for each barrel of discovery.

We also know that our modern economy depends on cheap and abundant energy. Oil is the pesticide on the food we eat, the circuit boards in our computers, the synthetic fibres in our clothes, and the case around our appliances. It fuels the transport industry that drives us to work every day, brings goods to the shopping centres we visit on weekends, and flies us to visit our loved ones for the holidays. As demand begins to recover from two years of economic hardship, supply constraints look set to make our way of life a whole lot more expensive. It was less than 18 months ago that oil prices rose to US$147/bbl and unleaded petrol cost over $1.70/L at the local pump.

Upon discovering the possible further ramifications of peak oil, it is not uncommon to feel a sense of helplessness. Oil is the lifeblood of the bright, busy lifestyle to which the western world has become accustomed, and peak oil is less a simple economic concern than a conscious awareness that this lifestyle won't last forever. Many people, upon learning about peak oil for the first time, regress into a deep depression, faced with an absolute over which they feel that they have no control.

Therein lies a fundamental question: what can anyone do about it?

It is important to note the political sensitivity of a concept that undermines the prosperity of the common man. In 2006, the Senate Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport received nearly 200 submissions (including one from this author) for its report on "Australia's future oil supply and alternative transport fuels". The final report, issued in February 2007, summarised ten recommendations for taking stock of existing oil supplies, reducing the use of private cars and developing supplies of biofuels. It was not until November 2009 that Greens Senator Christine Milne pointed out that the recommendations had not been addressed, even as a first step towards a governmental plan to deal with peak oil. Only 37 of the 76 Senators were present for the vote, and 31 of those defeated the motion. As Phil Hart said on The Oil Drum:

"The major parties are not just ignorant of 'peak oil'. They are, with clarity of purpose, voting against any attempt to respond or even investigate further."

Fortunately, there are helpful courses of action that individuals can take, without waiting for official intervention.

Our most direct dependence on oil is transportation. Most obviously, this means a lot less time behind the wheel of a car, and more time cycling or taking public transport. However, it also implies that we should be spending a lot less on unnecessary consumer goods, built from cheap plastic and typically shipped thousands of kilometres from overseas factories. Although many large electrical appliances have a star rating for electricity use, this does not take into account either the fuel used for shipping or the cost of manufacture, often requiring energy worth many years of normal operation of the appliance.

One of the most interesting upshots so far has been the rise of backyard gardening. Besides water, food is our most basic necessity, but as modern agriculture depends heavily on chemical sprays, heavy machinery and long-distance transport, the cost of food at the checkout continues to increase. Many householders have turned to their own gardens for their food and have started planting vegetables to offset the price of produce at the supermarket.

Perhaps, though, the most important course of action is to explore the options open to you and to keep them open. If you are concerned about peak oil, seek out like-minded people and find out what is happening in your local community. Even if you've never once picked a piece of fruit off a tree, there may be a community garden you can visit, or a "permablitz" team you can join, that can help you get your hands dirty. Find out what buses and trains run through your suburb, see what fresh food markets set up nearby, and keep an eye out for film screenings and other events organised by local environmental groups or Transition Towns initiatives.

The Hirsch Report, issued by the US Department of Energy in 2005, suggested that it would take 20 years to re-engineer a modern, energy-intensive economy to mitigate the declining availability of oil. Of course, little has been done for society to adapt to global warming, which we have collectively known about for decades, and there is growing pessimism for December's conference in Copenhagen. Whether you are new to the concept and wish to learn more, or whether you are already willing and able to adapt, the sooner you get started, the better. Even if our worst fears are not realised, what awaits us may still be a bumpy road over the peak. The better prepared you are for change, the smoother that descent will be.

The time to act is now.

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