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Whipple: The Hirsch Report—One Year Later

Tom Whipple, Falls Church News-Press
You can’t delve very deeply into the world of peak oil without encountering a reference to the “Hirsch Report.” This report, which is imposingly titled Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management was published in February 2005 by SAIC under a contract with the US Department of Energy. The cumbersome title immediately led to the document becoming popularly known as the “Hirsch Report” in honor of its principal author Robert L. Hirsch.

Google “Hirsch Report” today and you will get over 20,000 hits. A quick review of the first thousand or so shows they mostly are referencing the peak oil study.

The Hirsch report is significant for three reasons.

1. It was sponsored and paid for by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, an arm of the US Government and prepared by highly qualified and respected researchers.
2. The report came to the devastating conclusion that the country and the world will face unprecedented economic, social, and political problems
3. The mainstream media and our country’s leaders have ignored it.

If there is a weakness in the report, it is the failure to grapple with the “when” of peak oil. After acknowledging the peak is inevitable, Hirsch and his associates list the many reasons it is difficult to project even a rough year for the peaking. They go on to say, “The bottom line is that no one knows with certainty when world oil production will reach a peak” and list 12 estimates ranging from 2006 to “no visible peak.”

It is the lack of a “when” keeping the report and its significance relegated to peak oil blogs and out of the New York Times or the 6 o’clock news.
(23-29 February 2006)

Things to come: part I

Michael Ventura, Austin Chronicle (“Letters at 3AM” column)
…In a recent interview, [Britt] Ekland, now 62, offered an idea to be remembered if we are to endure the enormous changes that are overtaking us: “The key to life is being able to downsize without losing your dignity.”

That thought will run through this series of columns, in which I’ll sketch, as best I can, what we’re in for (for good as well as for ill).

…With its excellent rail system, Europe is far less dependent (internally) upon air travel. That is tonight’s subject. More than pump prices, and perhaps more than heating-oil prices, the first drastic change for middle-class and more-or-less affluent Americans will be their inability to fly.

In the last year, the price of jet fuel has risen 50% (NY Times, Sept. 15, p.C1). The airlines have desperately tried to absorb this price hike, keeping fares low and hoping for the best. But those days will be over by Easter, if not Thanksgiving. USA Today, Sept. 15, p.1B:

…The average driver may be able to absorb fuel costs for a few years more, but not the average flier. Within a year – or two, or three? – affordable passenger flight will be history.

What will that mean in real life?

Airfares will skyrocket. Schedules will be pared to the bone. If you’re not rich, and if your lifestyle includes hopping planes when you choose – you’re grounded. As airlines fail and the surviving carriers cut back, flights will be fewer, especially to smaller cities. …Tourism as we know it, an industry merely decades old, will not survive.

… What good could possibly come of this? Well, for starters, if it happens soon enough it may save many millions of lives.

The Economist, Aug. 6, p.10: “[E]xperts now believe a global outbreak of pandemic flu is long overdue, and the next one could be as bad as the one in 1918 [before passenger flight], which killed somewhere between 25 and 50 million people.”

The Times, Sept. 22, p.12: ” …The experts’ greatest fear has been that air travel will spread the disease uncontainably before its symptoms are obvious, raising the casualty rate into the hundreds of millions. Without convenient air travel, that’s unlikely.

Another benefit: 9/11 turned the U.S. into a no-fly zone for three days. There were many reports that air quality throughout the country (after just three days!) was measurably much better. Drastic curtailment of flight would not only make our environment healthier, but would probably do more to slow global warming than the full enforcement of the Kyoto Treaty, and do it quicker.

I’ll explore other benefits in future columns, but briefly now: Amid this massive disruption, we will be forced to pay attention to where we are. You can’t go elsewhere for culture; you must cultivate it where you are.

…With long-distance travel a rarity, communities will become more conscious of being communities. I’m no optimist, but perhaps, perhaps, many will realize that we’re all in this together, and that our well-being and our neighbors’ are entwined. Above all, the frantic pace of American life will slow down. Way down.
(30 September 2005)
We posted a link to Michael Ventura’s essay earlier, but now the other three essays in the series are online, reader K informs us:
Part 1 (Sept 30, 2005) – this column
Part 2 (Oct 14, 2005)
Part 3 (Oct 28, 2005)
Part 4 (November 11, 2005)

$4 a gallon (April 29, 2005)
Letters At 3AM archives

Michael Ventura has been writing his biweekly column “Letters at  ..” for twenty years. It appears now in the Austin Chronicle and online at He’s published three novels, written several movies, and is the author of four books of nonfiction, including We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse (HarperCollins), with James Hillman.

(from Robert Bly Talks with Michael Ventura (PDF) in the Sun magazine)

The earth’s half empty oil tank

John Gilkison, EV World
The Deffeyes article on Peak Oil saying we had crossed the peak on December 16, 2005 set off a train of ideas which I thought deserved a blog. Simmons quotes a little over 2 trillion barrels as the total amount of oil available to mankind and said we had consumed just a little over one trillion barrels of oil by the end of 2005.

Crossing the threshold of Peak Oil is a little analogous to crossing the event horizon of a Black Hole in space, in that there is nothing to tell you that you have done it. Once you have crossed the invisible line it is however a irrevokable event. More to the point with numbers like this, it is often hard to get a good visual appreciation of just how much oil we are talking about. While a couple trillion barrels of oil may seem like a lot of oil, (and it is for any of us personally) just how big is it as compared to the Earth let’s say?

I will leave it up to the reader to check my methods, I will just tell you what I did. A barrel of oil contains 42 gallons, a US Gallon has a volume of 231 cubic inches. So a barrel of oil constitutes roughly 9,702 cubic inches, or 5.6145 cubic feet, if you divide by 1,728. This last figure in cubic feet must be multiplied by 2 trillion barrels to yield our total volume.

The cubic foot is a little unwieldy for our purposes, so converted this to cubic miles, and ended up with a little over 76 cubic miles of oil. Still without a visual clue, I organized this rather large amorphous concept, into a sphere. The formula for figuring the volume of a sphere is 4/3 times pi cubed. This resulted in a sphere with a radius of 2.63 miles, or a diameter of 5.26 miles.

Now we are getting somewhere, just imagine a large spherical oil tank almost as tall as the tallest mountain on Earth and you got it.

John Gilkison is a professionally-trained astronomer who works for the New Mexico State University in Las Cruces
(23 February 2006)
A previous effort to visualize energy use in units like cubic miles of oil was made by engineer Hewitt Crane — see next article.

Looking at energy supply in terms of Cubic Miles of Oil (CMOs)
(original head: “Second set of considerations about the state of the world’s energy supply”)

Hewitt Crane, Doug Engelbart’s Colloquium at Stanford
…Now, the current world of energy, it’s an old business. It has evolved an enormous range of units of all sorts that are used today for oil, coal and gas, plus dozens of other units.

Just to keep track of the units or be able to communicate is a real chore. I won’t even try to explain what some of those are. In our enterprise, we’ve used only one unit: the cubic mile. … I’ll tell you how it came about. 11

I was sitting in a long gas line with a lot of other people here in the early 70s, almost 30 years ago, and I said, “I wonder how much oil we use.” So, I looked around and it was getting close to a trillion gallons per year. And, I said, “A trillion. It’s not a million. It’s not a billion. It’s a trillion.” I said, “Is that a lot?” Compared to what? And it turns out, besides you got a lot of ways to look at it, a cubic mile, a mile by a mile by a mile, contains a trillion gallons, close to it. I said, “That’s interesting. We’re using a cubic mile of oil per year” Wasn’t at that time, not quite, but today we are passing through, it’s continually increasing. Production this year is one cubic mile of oil, and still growing. Let’s see, where are we going from here? Now, oil. You say, “Why should we build a unit out of oil?” Well, it just happens to be a very convenient unit, but oil is very special. And, unless people really understand it, you can continue to waste it as we do. 12

Hewitt proceeds to translate the figures of energy from various sources into one unit — cubic miles of oil (CMOs) and gets the following table:

Commercial Global Energy Production in Cubic Miles of Oil (CMOs) / year (rounded)

FOSSIL (total 2.1, 85%)
Oil 1.0
Coal 0.6
Gas 0.5

SOLAR (total 0.2, 75%)
Hydropower 0.2
Biomass < 0.01
PV, wind, thermal < 0.001

NUCLEAR – fission 0.2 (total 0.2, 75%)

OTHER – geothermal < 0.01

TOTAL ————-> 2.5 Cubic Miles of Oil (100%)

…There’s the world: 2.5 units. You don’t have to worry about billions, trillions, and quadrillions. There are 2.5 units. Everything we talk about on an annual basis. You can use the fingers of one hand. You don’t have to be confused, as many articles are, say trillions when they mean billions. Who cares? Factors of thousands, they’re so big. No one ever understands when there are errors made in articles. 20

(January 13, 2000)
Retired engineer Hewitt Crane developed an intriguing methodology for thinking about energy from different sources. His talk was given at a symposium organzed by Douglas Engelbart who is

best known for inventing the computer mouse (in a joint effort with Bill English); as a pioneer of human-computer interaction whose team developed hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to GUIs; and as a committed and vocal proponent of the development and use of computers and networks to help cope with the world’s increasingly more urgent and complex problems…

Also see discussion and Colloquiem homepage. -BA