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Running on Empty: A field guide to the coming fuel crunch

Five minutes before he was supposed to take the stage, Marion King Hubbert’s bosses at Shell Oil called him on the phone and begged him not to go through with it. They had heard that Hubbert, a respected geophysicist, was about to tell a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute in San Antonio, Texas, that all the oil production in the United States would soon peak, and, eventually, end. It was 1956.

Hubbert, by all accounts a stubborn and cantankerous man, defied his superiors, walked onstage and publicly predicted that U.S. oil production would peak around 1970. We use more and more oil each year, he said, but there is only so much in the ground, and in that year the rising rate of demand will meet and surpass the falling rate of supply. Fortunately for Shell Oil, most of his colleagues laughed at him.

For years scientists ignored Hubbert and, more importantly, did not apply his analysis to the rest of the world. Not even after U.S. oil production indeed peaked around 1970, and fell almost every year since, until the United States had to import 60 percent of its oil. Not after shortages and oil wars.

“It was as if a physician diagnosed virulent, metastatized cancer; denial was one of the responses,” said Hubbert’s former colleague Ken Deffeyes, who later taught at the University of Minnesota and is now professor emeritus at Princeton University.

Deffeyes left the industry in the 1960s, he said, concerned that Hubbert was right, but he was one of the few. It was not until the 1990s that a critical mass of scientists returned to the Hubbert calculation, applied it to the entire world and found that the peak year, the beginning of the crisis, would take place no later then 2010, and as early as … well, now.

It is difficult to overstate how a permanent oil crisis would change our lives. Such a change would have been profound in 1956, when Hubbert made his prediction and the oil economy had existed for almost a century. But that same year also saw the opening of the federal highway system. That same decade saw the destruction of most of our cities’ streetcar systems, and the explosion of suburban sprawl.

From 1960 to 1990, the United States’ population increased 40 percent, but the number of drivers doubled, fuel consumption doubled and the number of miles driven tripled, according to Jan Lundberg, whose Lundberg Letter was the top-rated oil industry publication in the late 1970s.

Like Deffeyes, Lundberg left the oil industry, taking the additional step of selling his car and founding the anti-car Alliance for a Paving Moratorium. He has not owned a car in years, and recently turned his driveway into a garden.

“Each decade in the U.S., approximately one and a half million people are killed by cars and their fumes, and millions more from diseases caused by the sedentary lifestyle of commuting,” he said. Nor, he added, has the flow of cheap oil made our lives much cheaper or faster. “The average speed of the U.S. motorist is only about five miles per hour when time is factored in to earn money to buy the car, maintain it, pay for gasoline, and insurance, etc.”

Even after decades of environmentalism, Americans are not conserving more than in Hubbert’s day; some cars then could get 40 miles to the gallon; now SUVs get about 18 miles to the gallon, and the Ford Excursion gets about 4.6 miles in the city.

There is now almost one car for every American, and our society is built around that fact. Having transportation is having a car, a crucial factor in getting a job. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Ten percent of all arable land in the United States has been paved over.

Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Nor does the problem stop at vehicles, which consume only about half the oil produced. America, and to a lesser extent the rest of the world, has largely abandoned plant-based products for oil-based ones; polyester instead of cotton, GoreTex instead of canvas. Plastics are so ubiquitous – keyboards, gelcaps, furniture, business suits, the lid of a coffee-to-go — that they are largely invisible. But these, too, are oil, wealth from another era, a tapping into our trust fund of liquefied dinosaur biomass.

Finally, there is the underappreciated use of oil as the basis for fertilizer. Around the time of Hubbert’s prediction, almost all arable land had been taken and world grain yields had hit their limits in production, notes author Richard Manning in his book, “Against the Grain.” In the 50 years since, yields have tripled in a so-called “Green Revolution” that has allowed the world’s population to double; a revolution due almost entirely to oil.

“The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure oil, not food,” wrote Manning. “There’s a little joke in this. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it used. By 1974 (the last year anybody looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1.”

Aside from any issues surrounding chemicals in our food, these agricultural turbochargers add a new dimension to any potential oil crunch. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus proposed a now-famous calculation: Food production increases mathematically (two, three, four …) but population increases geometrically (two, four, sixteen …). Thus, he said, if humans do not control their reproduction, there would be massive famine.

Today, Malthus is often held up as an early Chicken Little, for the years since then have seen humanity grow far beyond what he thought possible. But much of that increase is due oil-powered machines and oil-fertilized crops. Take out those, and Malthus is back in the game.

“Oil and natural gas still underpin almost all aspects of modern society,” said Matt Simmons, CEO of Simmons & Co. International, in a Dow Jones Newswire report earlier this year. “Transport is almost solely reliant on oil. It’s oil that is the basis for the fertilizers that enhance food stocks and that is used in the manufacture of countless goods.”

Simmons is not a hippie. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney energy transition team. He leads the world’s largest energy investment bank. He is an advisor to Republicans, albeit one sufficiently riled to endorse Dennis Kucinich this year.

“We have to radically start changing our lifestyles and trying to come up with a brand new source of energy,” he said. “At the moment we can’t even replace 5 percent of the oil we use with alternatives. The world economy has no Plan B.” He believes we should take the coming oil crunch “as seriously as we took the threat of nuclear war.”

Deffeyes dismisses proposals to simply explore more or drill deeper. Oil, he said, was created by specific circumstances, and there just isn’t that much of it.

First there had to be, in the dinosaur era, a shallow part of the sea where oxygen was low and prehistoric dead fish and fish poop could not completely decompose. Then the organic matter had to “cook” for 100 million years at the right depth, with the right temperature to break down the hydrocarbons into liquid without breaking them too far into natural gas. Almost all oil, he said, comes from between the hot-coffee warmth of 7,000 feet down and the turkey-basting scald of 15,000 feet down – a thin layer under the surface, and then only in limited areas. We could drill the deepest oil, he said, back in the 1940s.

As for discovering new fields, global discovery has been declining each year since 1964. Even if the oil does not run out as quickly as some think, most of the remaining reserves are in countries openly hostile to the United States.

“More than 70 percent of remaining oil reserves are in five countries in the Middle East: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman,” said Dean Abrahamson, professor emeritus of environment and energy policy at the University of Minnesota. “The expectation is that, within the next 10 years, the world will become almost completely dependent on those countries.” Drilling in the Alaska National Wilderness Reserve, he said, will offer only an additional three months of oil.

“In 2000, there were 16 discoveries of oil ‘mega-fields,’” Aaron Naparstek noted in the New York Press earlier this year. “In 2001, we found eight, and in 2002 only three such discoveries were made. Today, we consume about six barrels of oil for every one new barrel discovered.”

If the world ran on oil and had to stop, that would be problem enough. But there is one more issue: most of the world doesn’t run on oil, and wants to start. They see Americans, and want what we have, when in a decade or two we will not have what we have.

“The issue of peak oil is not that we are at the point of consuming the last drop,” said Michael Noble of Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy. He uses the analogy of a party of 100 guests and 24 bottles of champagne. Around midnight the host finds 12 bottles of champagne left, but then many more guests show up, and there’s not much champagne left to go around.

“The United States has drunk most of it, and now the Indians and Chinese, with six times as many people, are showing up expecting to be served,” Noble said. “Sales of autos in China rose about 70 percent in 2003 alone, and almost as much in India, and half the population of the world is in those.”

Privately, at least some politicians are aware of this issue. In a 1999 speech to the London Institute of Petroleum, then-Halliburton chair Richard “Dick” Cheney told his fellow oil executives that the United States “will need an additional 50 million barrels of oil per day” by 2010, the most commonly-cited peak oil year, implying an awareness of the peak.

But Cheney had a solution, he said: “The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.”

Publicly, however, the election year is the season for Democrats and Republicans to blame the other party for rising gas prices, and to boast that they will make it cheaper again. On March 29, Cheney accused Kerry of once supporting a gas tax and now denying it. Kerry fought back that evening at a speech in San Francisco, blaming the administration for the rising gas prices.

If the rise continued, he said, “Dick Cheney and President Bush are going to have to carpool to work together.” The line gets a big laugh every time, but as Naparstek noted, carpooling was mentioned exclusively as a laugh line, not as a sensible and urgent policy.

The Bush campaign struck back with a new television ad, called “Wacky,” showing early 20th century footage of 12 men in suits riding a comically long bicycle. “Some people have wacky ideas,” said the voiceover. “Like taxing gasoline more so people drive less. That’s John Kerry.” In fact, it is not John Kerry, but a growing number of Americans wish it were.

Before any reader gives up hope, there are a few more things to consider. Even if peak oil predictors are right, the crunch may not be sudden, and it may not be all bad. Americans will probably not wake up Amish one day. Television and the Internet will probably continue as long as there is electricity. According to peak oil experts, natural gas should not peak for a few more decades, and coal later still, although Deffeyes is concerned that we will take that easy way out and bring back the dirty air of the Industrial Revolution. Nuclear power will still exist, its problems notwithstanding. Solar power and wind turbines exist, although Americans will have to scramble to make many more.

David Morris of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance said that, while oil will become more expensive in the coming years, it will be 50 to 100 years before the world actually runs out of fossil fuels, “and as the price of oil goes up, alternatives become cost competitive.”

“For example, oil shale is competitive at about $50 per barrel,” he said. “Bio-fuels are competitive at about $45 per barrel. Of course, improved efficiency is competitive at about $5 per barrel, but institutional restraints stop us from taking advantage of that.

And the United States will feel the crunch least, as we will have the money to pay for higher prices and be able to create alternative sources if necessary.”

In fact, analysts last year at the University of Uppsala in Sweden predicted that the oil crunch could be good news for the world, removing a major source of pollution soon enough to prevent the doomsday scenarios popularized in movies like “Waterworld” and “The Day After Tomorrow.”

“There is a ‘die-off’ crowd that takes a certain amount of delight in thinking that we are about to be punished for our sinful ways,” said Ken Avidor, who illustrated this story and whose comics often focus on the unsustainability of our car culture. “They are actually very similar to fundamentalist groups that believe we are living in the End Times and look forward to the Rapture. I sometimes find myself agreeing with their dire predictions, but their kind of thinking isn’t helpful.”

Instead of feeling hopeless, Avidor said, Americans should spend more time talking about the kind of neighborhood they could have the opportunity to create once gasoline becomes expensive and traffic thins out. He and his wife, illustrator Roberta Avidor, have drawn their own proposed village called Illichville, after social critic Ivan Illich.

“I really won’t be very sorry to see our way of life go,” he said. “The idea that luxury brings happiness is false; we have high rates of depression, widespread obesity and a large number of lifestyle disorders that come from living in this strange society.”

Noble cautions people not to become too preoccupied with when world production will peak, but instead acknowledge that it will happen soon.

“If we find it’s not happening until 2009, that doesn’t mean we can party until then,” he said. Instead, he said, Americans should assume that the price of transportation will increase in the coming years.

“Get your family to live as close to your work as you can,” he said, adding that homes next to public transportation will become more valuable. “Get by on one car instead of three for your family. If you buy a car — and a lot of people need them to get around — pay a little more to get a hybrid electric.”

Noble recommends people start early on car-sharing, and cites a local nonprofit project called Hourcar.org, which allows people to time-share neighborhood cars. He also recommends buying organic food from local producers, making one’s food supply less vulnerable to change.

But while Morris and Noble are on the optimistic side, Lundberg’s predictions are more severe. He said bluntly that “our cities are not in the near future going to survive the final petroleum crunch,” and that “attempts to create a network of eco-villages in large cities are going practically nowhere.” After the crisis, however, he believes “it is conceivable that large cities could maintain substantial populations of humans if much de-paving happens, to plant food gardens and orchards.” He cited Havana, Cuba, as a city of two million successfully relying on many urban gardens and little oil use.

Simmons and Deffeyes predict a series of bitter wars in the future, as nations fight over the remaining oil. Author and commentator James Howard Kunstler predicts that many Americans will resent the loss of their lifestyle, and may be looking for someone to blame – feelings that could be exploited by political demagogues.

“Many Americans will draw the conclusion that they’re being somehow cheated by the oil companies or that there’s some kind of corporate conspiracy that’s causing all this trouble and they’re going to militate to do something about it,” Kunstler said. “It’s going to be very painful and there are going to be a lot of losers created in this process. They’re going to be angry.”

I typed much of this late at night while holding my four-week-old daughter, and have been comparing my childhood memories to what hers will be. I knew five of my great-grandparents, all born in the 19th century, and my daughter, if she is lucky, may live to see the 22nd. My parents and relatives grew some of their own food in their back yards, and they canned and preserved and pickled. My wife spins cloth from wool. My old beater car gave up the ghost a few days ago, and I’m biking to work. We have a PC and a TV and are nowhere close to living off the grid, but it’s a start.

I don’t know what world she will think normal. These experts might be wrong, as many have been before them; perhaps our ingenuity will simply come up with a substitute, and we will laugh at articles like this as we laugh at the Y2K scare. Or perhaps the more apocalyptic predictions are right, and my daughter will one day hunt elk through the crumbling canyons of downtown Minneapolis. In lieu of further evidence, I’m placing my money in-between.

My hope is that the crunch will be slow and partly advantageous. She may become an adult in a world where people have three more hours a day from not sitting in traffic, where they cannot escape to the suburbs and are forced to deal with each other. She may see an America where the endless rows of houses have become neighborhoods again, where more back yards are becoming gardens, where you can walk through a suburb and again see people.

And I’m picturing a future grandchild taking a class field trip to the local history museum, where the children are shown footage of our television shows, with people just driving around like it was nothing, and all the children gasping in amazement.

For more information:

BOOKS:

“The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World,” by Paul Roberts, Houghton Mifflin, 2004

“Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending Oil Shortage,” by Kenneth Deffeyes, Princeton University Publishing, 2001.

ARTICLES:

National Geographic, “The End of Cheap Oil”

Scientific American, “The End of Cheap Oil”

London Guardian, “Quest for Energy is Race Against Time”

New York Press, “The Coming Energy Crunch”

WEB SITES:

Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas

Die Off: A population crash resource guide

Culture Change

Hubbert Peak of Oil Production

Peak Oil Action

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