Robert Hirsch. Mitigation of Peak Oil: Making the Case: more numbers and some questions.

The Fifth International Conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO-5) July 18-19 2006 in San Rossore, Italy.

hirschBob Hirsch is the author of the deeply influential Hirsch report which has been referred to here on many occasions. I had really been looking forward to hearing him speak but found his talk hugely disappointing. You can see his Powerpoint slides here. I will give you my notes of his talk first, and my reflections on it at the end. It was one of those talks where you sit there thinking “did he really just say that?”, and eventually realising that yes, actually he did. Anyway, this is (reconstructed from my notes) what he said.

What happens when world oil supplies decrease? The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 caused inflation, unemployment, recession and high interest rates. What we are about to face now is the world’s first forced energy transition. Growing oil shortages will lead to world demand destruction.

h2Forecasting is very difficult. If we look at previous peaks (i.e. US 48, UK) we can see that even a year beforehand it was not obvious that it was going to happen. Texas, North America, UK, Norway, all had steep declines after their peaks, 2 – 10%, which is very hard to model. The Hirsch Report looked on a worldwide basis at 3 scenarios, firstly that no action is taken until the peak is reached, secondly that mitigation is started 10 years before the peak, and thirdly that mitigation is started 20 years before the peak. It assumed a crash programme implementation as the most optimistic case.

h1In the new study, due out very soon, we looked at vehicle fuel efficiency, and at options for mitigation in relation to that. We looked at heavy oils, tar sands, coal to liquids, gas to liquids, vehicle efficiency and enhanced recovery. Why did we look at those things? They are all ready for implementation, now. Our model assumes a 20 year preparation time, and depletion rates of 2%. This decline rate would be bad enough, but Slumberger are predicting depletion rates of 8%, which would be terrible.

h3The problem with transport is a liquid fuels problem, and is to do with what it is that you have to put in in order to get clean liquid fuels out. The new study, “Economic Impacts of Liquid Fuel Mitigation Option” is due out soon (it has since emerged, and is available here). It only looks at the US, and at the cost of mitigation, with increased vehicle efficiency surprisingly being the most expensive. Our forecast is that this programme would require 1 trillion per year. (Hirsch’s presentation was full of figures and graphs and charts which I failed to note down in time, so for the rest you’d be best to check out his Powerpoint, but that is the essence of it).

Comments and Reflections.

I had been really looking forward to hearing Bob Hirsch speak, the Hirsch Report being considered a somewhat seminal document. I have to say I found his conclusions, and even his starting question, profoundly repugnant. What he basically argued was that we need to plan for keeping all the US’s cars on the road, so how can we do that? By using the fuels that are technically feasible to bring onstream in time for the peak, such as coal to liquids and the tar sands, at a cost of $1 trillion per year, this could be done, so we need to get on with it.

I confess to being flabbergasted at the insanity of this proposal. Climate change wasn’t mentioned once in his talk, the fact that his choices of fuel are the most climatically destructive possible choices possible (a car running on petrol made from coal is responsible for 30-40 percent more CO2 than one running on ordinary petrol) wasn’t mentioned. This is utterly crackers. What the hell gives the US, the nation responsible for the lion’s share of contributions to climate change, the right to finish off life on Earth in exchange for a few more years motoring? He made no mention of the EROI of these fuels, which Charles Hall told the conference the following day was, for tar sands, around 1:1.

At supper that night there was discussion around the table as to whether he actually meant it or not. I wondered if he was putting it forward to say that it was a ridiculous scenario, and to argue that we need to rethink our attachment to the car. Richard Heinberg was adamant that no, Hirsch was perfectly serious, that he was saying that this is what we need to do. I had sat through the talk waiting for the bit where he said “so clearly, the US needs to break its addiction with the internal combustion engine, as to not do so will end life on the planet, be unfeasibly expensive, involve resorting to EROI-negative fuels and environmentally unacceptable fuel extraction processes, and will, as a certainty, kill us all”. I wondered if I had missed something. I hadn’t.

Hirsch’s presentation presented clearly what happens when one takes a purely peak oil perspective rather than a climate change one (thank heavens that Jeremy Leggett’s presentation the next day introduced a desperately needed climate change perspective). For me, Hirsch laid out a clear and perfectly reasoned argument why we cannot possibly keep all our cars going and why we need to break our addiction to the car. He just hadn’t realised that that was what he was doing.

Imagine if the readers of Transition Culture were given a $1 trillion a year budget to initiate and drive a programme of global powerdown, think how much we could do! There was some very dangerous thinking and some equally dangerous basic assumptions in Hirsch’s presentation. I would not wish to take away from the usefulness of the original Hirsch Report and his work on depletion profiles, but on the strength of this presentation, the forthcoming report is a dangerous work of fantasy which, in the wrong hands could lead to policy choices being taken which are, in effect, collective suicide.

A far more intelligent take on the US’s dependency on cars can be found here.