Peak Oil—Nature’s Own WMD? Part I
OIL! The commodity that has (excuse the pun) fueled the growth of modern civilization; that every industrial country places total reliance on, to the point that 40 percent of all primary energy, and 90 percent of transportation energy is predicated on its reliable and continuous supply. However, most forget that petroleum is also essential to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, the agricultural industry and even the apparel industry since most synthetic fabrics are produced from petroleum. Its high energy density and its ease of movement (compared to nuclear, wind or solar for example) afford manifold physical and chemical elements not available in any other known energy source. Basically, oil is the lifeblood of the industrial world. A major disruption of the world’s oil supply would unleash a global economic collapse bringing an end to modern civilization as we know it. Yet, there are many who predict we are on the cusp of such an event. The beginning of such a nightmarish occasion is termed PEAK OIL, nature’s virtual weapon of mass destruction.
Let me emphasize that theories relating to Peak Oil are not the outlandish ramblings of “world ending” doctrinaires. There are too many highly respected academics, geologists, scientists, economists, and oil industry professionals who are adherents of Peak Oil for the concepts to be ignored. That is not to say there are no skeptics, but even most of them do not question the validity of Peak Oil theory, merely the timing, so the only major argument is when, not if.
Although there are some scientists (mainly in Russia, and a minority at that) who would argue otherwise, petroleum is a fossil fuel formed from organic matter such as plants and animals that died millions of years go, accumulated in the bottom of oceans, and were ultimately subjected to enormous pressures and heat. As a result, this mix broke down compounds of hydrogen and carbon atoms—hydrocarbons. Because of the circumstances and time element involved, the process cannot be duplicated and thus, petroleum is considered a nonrenewable energy source.
The ancients discovered many uses for petroleum. According to the Old Testament, Noah waterproofed his Ark with pitch, a thick glue-like form of petroleum. Egyptian Mummies were coated with it to enhance preservation. The Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians used petroleum substances to pave their streets and as mortar in buildings. In Europe, starting in the Middle Ages and into the 1800’s petroleum products were thought medicinal, and in America, ultimately became associated with the term “snake oil.”
It wasn’t until the mid-1800 that oil became a commercially desirable product. That occurred in 1854 when Abraham Gessner, a Canadian physician and geologist, discovered how to extract oil from asphalt and create kerosene. Heretofore, candles and whale oil were used for lighting, but with Gessner’s invention, the development of kerosene lamps accelerated, and the quest for oil began in earnest.
Large-scale oil production began in 1859 when “Colonel” (an assumed title) Edwin Drake, a former railroad conductor, struck oil in Titusville, Pa., and put a pump on a well. Within five years, John D. Rockefeller, who had been refining oil into kerosene, began to develop the industry, and formed the Standard Oil Company, a move that ultimately made him the richest man in America.
By the 1920’s, seven major oil companies (known as the Seven Sisters) produced almost all the world’s oil, with five of these companies in the United States. In fact, until 1974, America was the largest oil producing country in the world. Of course, the catalyst that propelled the demand for oil was the invention of the automobile. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 8,000 registered vehicles. Within 20 years, there were 23 million cars. Ironically, early on, most cars were powered by electric batteries, but they had insufficient range. Perhaps, if we had concentrated on that technology, we would have fewer problems today.
One particularly unique and original observation relating to the impact of petroleum was voiced by Richard Heinberg, a professor at the New College of California and the author of several books, including his most recent, The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003). In an interview last year, he was asked, “How important is oil to industrial societies?” He replied, in part, “Energy is everything…With the Industrial Revolution human beings discovered an energy subsidy like no species has ever found before in the history of our planet.” He continued, “As a result, we’ve increased our human population from just a few hundred million at the start of the Industrial Revolution, to over six billion, three hundred million now. And of course, the total is still growing: we’re adding about a billion people every twelve years at current rates…We’ve added more people just since 1999 than even existed in the world just a few hundred years ago. This is an indication of the incredible impact that fossil fuels have had on human societies.”
In addition to recognizing the world population explosion that was enabled as a result of the availability of a cheap (at the time) energy source, another less desirable activity was also severely impacted—the conduct of war. At the beginning of World War I, military strategy was predicated on the horse as the primary mode of transportation. This created enormous logistical problems since traditionally it was assumed that for every three soldiers, one horse was needed. However, that one horse required ten times the food of three soldiers.
According to the Environmental Literacy Council, the number of motorized vehicles in the British forces rose from 800 cars (mostly requisitioned) at the beginning of the war, to 56,000 trucks and 36,000 cars by the end; 50,000 of the vehicles were shipped from the United States during the war, and in one and a half years the U.S. built 15,000 airplanes. The development of the tank and the airplane provided mobility and power that was unprecedented in warfare, dramatically changing the nature of war.
Also changed radically was the attitude toward oil, its critical importance to war activities, and the way that nations viewed this highly regarded natural resource. It was now considered a strategic commodity and its supplies had to be ensured. Although the United States was the world’s leading oil supplier, in the mid 1970’s America’s oil production started to diminish (see below) and the mid-east began its rise as the world’s leading supplier. The dynamics of oil became the pre-eminent factor in foreign relations, and with the rapidly changing landscape that now includes the additional and increasing demand for oil from China and India, the supply situation, as well as the foreign relation situations become more problematic.
So, where does Peak Oil fit in all this, and for those not familiar with the term, what does it mean? In order to fully comprehend the full ramifications of Peak Oil, a short review of history is required. It starts in 1956 with M. King Hubbert, the most famous and renowned petroleum geologist of his time. His life spanned most of the twentieth century. He worked for Shell Oil Co. and taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UC Los Angeles, and a number of other schools. To quote, Richard Heinberg once again, “Hubbert realized that, for any given oil province when about half the oil is gone, production tends to peak. The reason for that is that we naturally go after the easy, cheap oil first, and by the time about half the total amount of oil is gone, the cheap easy stuff tends to run out; then it becomes more difficult to extract what’s left. So there’s a bell shaped curve of production that seems to apply across the board. Economic and political factors can change the shape of that curve, if there’s a war or the price of oil changes, or a country voluntarily decides to restrict exports, those can alter the oil extraction profits. But even so, what goes up must ultimately come down, and so depletion can be mathematically modeled even if the graph is fairly bumpy.”
Applying his calculations to the production capacity of the United States, the leading oil producer in the world for many decades, Hubbert predicted in 1956, that the halfway point of extraction would occur around 1970. His superiors at Shell Oil were not too happy with his revelations. Nevertheless, U.S. production did indeed peak in 1970 just as Hubbert predicted, and it’s been declining ever since. Heinberg maintains that “We’re extracting about as much conventional onshore oil in the U.S. now as we were in 1940, which is much less than was being extracted in 1970, and that’s the reason that we’re more and more dependent upon imported oil from places like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iraq.” (Ah yes! Iraq. Could that be the real reason we’re there now?)
In any event, when any oil production site, be it an individual well, a country, or the world supply reaches that halfway mark, Peak Oil has been achieved. Heinberg answers the question, “What will happen when we [the world] pass the peak of the Hubbert oil curve?” He replies, “Once we hit the peak, every year thereafter we will be unable to find and pump more oil. If the demand continues at the present rate or grows [it is predicted to grow dramatically], the supply will be inadequate, and that will have tremendous economic implications for the whole world. As I explained earlier, our whole industrial way of life is largely based on petroleum. So either we have to find other energy sources to make up for what we lose from petroleum as it begins to run out, or else we will go into permanent economic decline with vast implications for the economy, food production, transportation and so on.”
If we assume the Peak Oil concept is valid, the key question is when will it occur? This of course, is a critical issue and it will be discussed at some length in Part II of this series. However, as Princeton University geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes, writes in his book, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Shortage, “There will be chaos in the oil industry, in government, and in national economics, it is too late to reverse the trend.” He has stated that Peak Oil was reached on Thanksgiving Day, 2005. He also predicts, “a permanent state of oil shortage.” This will cause a crippling inflation, unemployment, and economic instability in all the major oil consuming countries. (Deffeyses was a close friend of Hubbert and worked closely with him.)
Some are referring to the possible ultimate results of Peak Oil as the equivalent of a global Armageddon. Yet, let me ask you this. Have you heard one politician, one political leader of either party, one world figure express concern, or even mention the phrase Peak Oil? (Actually there is one member of Congress who has done so, and his efforts will be mentioned in Part II.) Must we once again wait until it is too late to do anything about what could be the greatest problem the modern world has ever faced? Are we really about to contend with a nature constructed WMD? Next month’s article will examine the subject in greater detail.