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High noon for oil and gas, twilight for suburbia?

[ First published in the June edition of SPINACH7 magazine. ]

Julian Darley, author of High Noon for Natural Gas, has been in Washington talking up an alarming vision of a world with rapidly declining oil and gas production, straight to the ears of power. Adam Fenderson has him on the line.

There are several dots to connect between the laws of thermodynamics and the future of suburbia. However that’s the path my interview with Julian Darley proceeds down when I phone him in Washington DC. Julian, a British-born, Canadian-based environmental philosopher, is the head of two main organisations, the Post Carbon Institute, a think tank, and Global Public Media, an independent internet broadcasting station. He’s also the author of the forthcoming book, High Noon for Natural Gas, written to alert North Americans, and some other industrial nations, of approaching natural gas shortages. I ask him to tell me about the worrisome global trends of oil depletion, and whether this issue, described by Bush energy advisor Matthew Simmons as ‘the world’s most serious question’, and by the Guardian’s George Monbiot as the ‘taboo [of] our generation,’ is finally starting to break. But first I want to know who exactly he has been meeting with in the downtown office I called him in, just ten minutes before we spoke.

‘Right. Well I can’t name all names, but let’s just say I’ve been having interviews, serious and long ones, with people who are close to — who could be in office in the US if Bush gets removed. There is a chance that some of the people coming in there know about the seriousness of the oil and gas issue. These are some of the people I’ve been briefing in the last three days.’

Promisingly, he’s also met with two heads of the US environmental non-government organization, Friends of the Earth and says, ‘that's a first for me, to have a very high level meeting with a serious environmental organisation’. It seems no major environmental group has tackled these issues directly, with the permaculture movement an interesting exception.

Drawing on the ongoing research of several retired company oil geologists, most notably Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrère and Kenneth Deffeyes, Darley expects that ‘by about 2040-2050 we'll be getting relatively tiny amounts of oil out of the earth, perhaps at 1930s, 1940s levels, perhaps even less’.

‘Globally, the estimation is that roughly we had about 1900-2000 billion barrels that we could get at reasonably easily. This includes what we’ve already used, and we’ve used about half of it, around 900 billion barrels. There’s no question that there are more molecules of oil down there than that, by a vast factor no doubt, but that’s irrelevant. The real question is what can we get out, what does our technology allow us to get out, and what will the laws of thermodynamics allow us to get out? If you put more energy in to get a barrel of oil than you get out of that barrel, then you’ve lost the game. You’ll have to stop. It becomes absurd.

‘When you’re dealing with a large oil field, or a large oil province, when you have extracted about half of the oil, for geological reasons and for reasons of the pressure of the gas and other things in the reservoir, production generally reaches a peak.

‘So many countries have gone over the peak now and are also in decline, most obviously Britain, and the US in 1970-71, but many, many other countries are already in decline.’ All hope lies on the Middle East to increase production, to maintain global production at current rates. ‘And now we’re starting to see very serious question marks about all the Middle East countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and there was something of a bombshell released yesterday here in Washington DC with a presentation by Matt Simmons, who must be one of the people on the planet who knows the most about Saudi Arabian oil production, and he’s suggesting publicly that Saudi Arabian production may not have long to go on its present plateau of 7 to 9 billion barrels a day, before they too go into decline.’

So when, then, can we expect a global peak in the rate of oil extraction? ‘It looks like 2007-2008 will be about the latest before world oil supplies get into trouble, and if Saudi Arabia gets into trouble before then, very likely we will move into decline before then.’

To me, this sounds dangerously like not just in my lifetime, but in the lifetime of my grandmother. Can a person who rode a horse to school live to see the beginning of the end of the oil age? For all its wonder, I feel like I’m living in what historically might one day be seen as a horrible, poisonous blip in time, leaving a legacy of ecological destruction behind a deranged party of excessive oil consumption.

How different will our lives look in ten or twenty years? What will happen to suburbia? ‘It's very hard to see how much of a long term future suburbia has. It’s getting into all kinds of trouble on its own, even without any constraints on gasoline and oil or any of the other hydrocarbons like natural gas.’

‘Suburbia is absolutely built on the automobile. It's physically constructed around it. It can't operate without automobiles. It won't work to human scale. It won't work to walking scale. It seems to be an utterly disastrous system which has been put down at a great cost of money, energy and environment. Whether it can possibly be retrofitted, I don't know. What to do with suburbia other than taking bits of it out, and plowing it under, and if you haven't ruined the soil, starting to try growing food, community food, putting land into food production where there were houses? It seems to be a very grave situation indeed for suburbia. Not tomorrow morning, but as we head out further into this decade into the next decade, I see extremely serious problems for suburbia.’

In his forthcoming book, Julian warns that North America is simultaneously facing a crisis in Natural Gas and will soon be competing against Japan, China, Korea and many other countries for LNG imports if it does not radically contract its energy demand. ‘About 95 per cent of the chemical industry is dependent on oil and gas together. Nitrogen fertiliser is a very serious business, because nitrogen fertiliser depends almost 100 per cent on natural gas.’

‘We need to be contracting our energy demand. By any accounts this sounds like a ludicrous thing to suggest to the US. Both because of the global oil peak and the North American natural gas peak, the only serious course for North America now is to start contracting its energy demands. That means contracting the economy and that means it reflects into the wider global problem of global population. The US is such a huge resource user of all kinds — food and energy — that the US would need to set an example by starting to control its own population. This is an absolute political minefield.

‘However, if we don’t plan for contraction, Nature will do it for us. The trouble is Nature doesn’t plan for anything. Nature will just simply contract us. And it will be absolutely grisly. So I’m hoping that more and more people will understand that this business of planning for contraction isn’t just an afternoon picnic. We should have done it 30, 50, 100 years ago, but we have to start now, and of course everybody makes the claim that we have to start now. The thing is if we don’t start now we will simply move into decline and the forces of nature will stack up against us. We won’t have the luxury of ignoring this for very much longer.

‘I know for sure that I have bubbled this issue into the policy apparatus in interesting places and we’ll see what comes out of it. It’s been a very encouraging visit and encouraging to see that people are finally taking this issue seriously... with a capital F.’

For more information visit Julian Darley’s websites: www.GlobalPublicMedia.com and www.PostCarbon.org. High Noon for Natural Gas is published by Chelsea Green Publishing in June 2004.

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