Peak Oil—Nature’s Own WMD? Part V
This was scheduled to be the last article on what I (and others) am convinced could be the most significant and most threatening problem facing our country—what the title of this series describes as Nature’s Weapon of Mass Destruction—Peak Oil. There is, unquestionably, growing recognition and increasing momentum within several segments of the media as well as in Congressional circles that a problem of enormous magnitude exists. I am therefore extending this series in order to incorporate a sense of just how severe the consequences of Peak Oil could be.
If the 21 st Century was the era of Hydrocarbon Man, what will the post-hydrocarbon period look like? By all accounts, unless we come up with a solution for Peak Oil and the ultimate decline in the availability of petroleum (especially cheap petroleum), the outlook is more than bleak, it could be cataclysmic.
Although the entire world will be affected, since the United States consumes 25 percent of world oil production, and as a result of achieving the world’s highest living standards, it will undoubtedly take the biggest hit by far. While several broad based magazines such as Time, National Geographic, and The New York Times have run major stories on Peak Oil, none have concentrated exclusively on the post-cheap-fossil-fuel era.
The consequences of oil prices escalating into the three-digit range received some coverage in two major films shown on CNN, the first, Oil Crash, a 90 minute presentation on March 11 th, the second, the 60 minutes long We Were Warned, one week later. As far as I know, these films are the first effort to educate the television audience about the Peak Oil menace. Both depicted much relating to what you have already read herein, in this series of articles. They also included personal appearances by a number of Peak Oil advocates, five of whom have been quoted in this Blog series, including Matthew Simmons whose book Twilight in the Desert was featured in last month’s issue.
In its pre-broadcast promotion, CNN quoted Robert B. Semple Jr., associate editor of The New York Times editorial board, who wrote in that paper’s March 1, 2006, on-line edition: “The age of oil—100-plus years of astonishing economic growth made possible by cheap oil—could be ending without our really being aware of it. Oil is a finite commodity. At some point, even the vast reserves of Saudi Arabia will run dry. But before that happens, there will become a day when oil production ‘peaks,’ when demand overtakes supply (and never looks back), resulting in large and catastrophic price increases that could make today’s $60-a-barrel oil look like chump change. Unless of course, we begin to develop substitutes for oil—or begin to live more abstemiously—or both. The concept of Peak Oil has not been widely written about. [He obviously does not read Bob's Blog.] But people are talking about it now. [Take note Bush and Cheney.] It deserves a careful look—largely because it is almost certainly correct.” Semple concludes: “These [are] not doomsday scenarios from conspiracy theorists, but hard scientific facts backed by serious research.” [My emphasis.]
White House circles have been strangely silent, ignorant (which I doubt), or untroubled by the potentially catastrophic consequences that will result from inaction, despite the fact that reports indicate that the president and certainly the “oil-man” vice-president have been fully briefed. Will history view President Bush’s lasting legacy as, “He was asleep at the Peak Oil switch”? Just how catastrophic the consequences of Peak Oil could be are outlined in a book that describes what must be considered a “doomsday” scenario, yet it also must be admitted that the author’s facts and presentation are instructive and compelling. The book, published in 2005, is titled The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophe in the 21 st Century. The author, James Howard Kunstler, is a Long Island boy who is considered a social critic and has written several other books revealing himself to be an outspoken critic of suburbia and urban development. He argues that Peak Oil will result in the end of industrialized society and force Americans to live in localized agrarian communities.
Some might think that argument to be extreme, far-fetched, and perhaps even ludicrous. However, consider the wording of this report: “The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.”
That was not the ravings of some fuzzy minded nut case. It was the introduction to a report (mentioned previously in an earlier article herein) commissioned by the US Department of Energy, authored principally by Robert L. Hirsch, a highly respected energy expert and Senior Energy Program Advisor for Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC). In further testimony before the House Sub-committee on Energy and Air Quality, on December 7, 2005, Hirsch stated: “The world has never confronted a problem like Peak Oil. Since it is uncertain when peaking will occur, the challenge for decision makers is vexing. Mustering support for an approaching, invisible disaster is much more difficult than for one that is obvious. We would like to believe that the optimists are right about Peak Oil being a distant problem, but the risks of error are beyond imagination.”
This is where James Howard Kunstler fits nicely into the picture. He takes us “beyond imagination” into a world of chaos and monumental, almost unthinkable change. In essence however, he is merely elaborating on what the Hirsh report only hints at. For example he describes how “The Long Emergency” (the name of his book and in essence the aftermath of Peak Oil) “will require us to make other arrangements for the way we live in the United States. America is in a special predicament due to a set of unfortunate choices we made as a society in the twentieth century. Perhaps the worst was to let our towns and cities rot away and to replace them with suburbia, which had the additional side effect of trashing a lot of the best farmland in America. Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It has a tragic destiny. The psychology of precious investment suggests that we will defend our drive-in utopia long after it has become a terrible liability.”
He goes on to portray how “the circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are. Anything organized on a large scale, whether it is government or corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away.”
Another book, Peak Oil: Survival Strategies, by Alex Kuhlman who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Amsterdam provides a more concise description of the various threats:
- Oil extraction from wells will be physically unable to meet global demand.
- Massive disruptions to transportation and the economy are expected from about 2005-2007 onward as the global decline of petroleum begins.
- Gradual cut-off of fuel for transport and for industrial machinery. Global trade will greatly decline.
- Massive food shortages; agribusinesses would not be able to operate without the supporting fossil fuels.
- Resource scarcity; most products depend on fossil fuels.
- Reduction of virtually all business and government activity and very serious unemployment.
- Social unrest
- Resource wars.
This enabled the world’s population to grow at an exponential pace in the last century, increasing even now at the astonishing rate of about a quarter of a million a day. The larger the population, the more dependent we are on oil and natural gas for food production. What happens when petroleum supplies diminish and/or become so expensive that they are out of reach? That leads to a critical question not often associated with Peak Oil: What size population can a post-petroleum world support from a food supply standpoint? The current world population is estimated at 6.5 billion. Some maintain the supportable number could be as low as 2 billion.
The United States currently has a population of 297 million. The organization Negative Population Growth (NPG) estimates that “during the remaining brief decades of fossil fuels…a rough guess at the total US population that could be comfortably supported by [petroleum] renewables…would be 125-150 million.” Is there an implication here that we would get down to that number as a result of the starvation of half the population?
Think of a world where oil prices have at least doubled, perhaps tripled to $130-$200 a barrel. On that basis, gasoline at the pump could rise to over $5-$8 a gallon. Think of the impact on food prices and food production, not only because of increased prices for fertilizer and insecticide products, but because of increased transportation costs (it is estimated that the average food product travels 1500 miles before it is delivered); think of how transportation costs, not only for trucking but for automobiles, and airlines will escalate, significantly cutting down the mobility of people and goods; think of the hundreds of thousands of products derived from petroleum such as paint, pharmaceuticals, fabrics, plastics, cosmetics, detergents; think of the impact on retailers when people can no longer afford to drive—as stores close, how can the normal flow of food and consumer goods be maintained? Think of the rampant increase in inflation and the absolutely devastating effect on the economy.
You say this can’t happen. But what if the doomsday scenarists are right? What if they are only half-right? Some maintain that improved technologies will save the day. Others are convinced that some form of replacement, or a series of replacements for petroleum will evolve, such as ethanol, other bio-fuels, hydrogen fuels, or battery power. But even if a transportation fuel replacement can be discovered, what about the hundreds of thousand of products created from a petroleum base, what will replace them?
Some of these petroleum renewables, and other ideas to relieve the transportation fuel problem will be discussed in next month’s article, and that, I believe, will be the last you hear on the subject of Peak Oil—unless of course, an announcement is made that it has indeed arrived.