Peak oil - running on empty
i have a car driving friend that would never refuel until the reserve light had been on for a while and the fuel gauge needle was resting at the bottom. she told me that she couldn’t stand filling up and also enjoyed the thrill of wondering whether she would make it to the gas station without the car coming to a spluttering halt. “don’t worry” she’d tell me “it hasn’t happened yet, i think i have an automotive guardian angel”. this was until we were on a service station free stretch of the m25 when the unthinkable happened and i was volunteered to get fuel in the empty emergency canister. empty since the last time she’d run out and had emptied its contents.
you see she’d fibbed. she had run out before but this time she hadn’t taken the precaution of a backup plan which, by default, was now me. the moral of the story, don’t take lift’s from drivers with fuel denial otherwise you’ll eventually end up walking.
in a matter of weeks america goes to the presidential elections and next year the british go to the polls. the biggest voting agenda item is the “war on terror” and i’m wondering if our nominated drivers are also suffering from fuel denial. the world it seems is running out of oil or at least “cheap oil”. conspiracy theorists to scientists and pundits from the auspices of the national geographic to the bbc are all in agreement that we are reaching a point called “peak oil”.
oil production follows what analysts and mathematicians call a bell curve. costs of production are cheap and oil plentiful on the up curve and more expensive on the down curve where it takes more effort to produce less oil. the point at the top is called the peak from where we’ve depleted half of what’s available and begin the slide down. Past this point the price goes up as the oil becomes increasingly scarce. oil, of course, being a fossil fuel is a finite resource and once it’s gone, it’s gone.
so when do we reach this peak?
well those with a sunny disposition and the smile of a pre-election politician will tell you that oil production will peak around 2030. however others, including the association for the study of peak oil and gas, suggest that the peak may arrive as early as 2010.
so we know that we face a future without oil the questions then are how soon that day will come, what will happen during the period of depletion and what are the alternatives.
the human population almost certainly follows a bell curve as well. the point at which we peak depends upon the resources available to us. by 2020 it is predicted that the human population will be double its present size and the world will be far more industrialized at a time when our oil resources are diminishing. thus the down slope of the oil bell curve will be far more rapid than the up curve was.
most of the human race is totally reliant on oil. almost everything we do requires it in some form from transportation to plastics, from food and water production to pharmaceuticals, from manufacturing to electricity, from sewage management to defence. and of course, as a consequence of this reliance when oil prices rise the stock markets become uncertain and under extreme circumstances liable to crash.
so when oil becomes too expensive we can look forward to economic collapse, war, starvation, disease and a rapid descent down the population bell curve which some suggest maybe a contraction to less than 2 billion from a population that may peak at around 20 billion. which means only 1 in 10 of us will make it.
which brings us to the what will happen during this depletion question or put another way what are nation states prepared to do to ensure their survival?
well some would say that we’re already witnessing this unfold. put in the context of a mass reduction of human kind and the inevitable mass genocide and warfare that this will lead too it has been suggested in increasingly plausible circles that encouraging or allowing stunts of terrorism on one’s own people as a pretext to a land grab for oil makes sense. can it be a coincidence that the conflicts that draw our main attention from chechnya to nigeria to argentina to the sudan to the middle east all concern or are related to oil fields?
what about all the alternative energy sources that we keep hearing about? well the problem is that investment, both in monetary and political terms, in these technologies has been nothing like sufficient for them to become viable. hydrogen, which on paper looks like the holy grail to fuel transportation, is so far a myth as it requires oil or gas to produce it and even though it can be made from biomass or water it takes more energy to make than it so far provides. nuclear power given enough stations could provide much of the power but remain radioactive for millennia with no solution for disposal of its waste and a substantial risk of terrorist attack. solar and wind power is naturally linked to the weather and like hydrogen and nuclear can not be used to create plastics, fertilizers or pharmaceuticals. the building of wind and solar farms apart from just the huge amount of space needed will also require an enormous investment in oil and raw materials.
in reality it is likely that all of the above alternative energy sources will be required to sustain anything like the kind of existence that many of the people on this planet currently enjoy. but they have to be funded, developed and in many ways re-invented. every transportation vehicle will require replacing or re-configured. replacement materials and effective recycling programmes will be needed for plastics and pharmaceuticals. all this will require massive global investment, collaboration, adaptation and political will. the present mechanics of capitalism and the monetary system will require a radical redesign to enable corporate executives and politicians not just to do what’s in the interests of their shareholders but what’s in the interest of the human race.
the other alternative is as the arabic saying goes:
“my father rode a camel, i drive a car, my son flies an airplane, his son will ride a camel”
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