Transition Culture Interview with Richard Heinberg - Part One… Peak Oil
An Interview with Richard Heinberg - 23rd November 2006 - Part 1.
While Richard Heinberg was at Schumacher College teaching part of the Life After Oil course I was lucky to be able to take 40 minutes of his time to do an interview with him. We explored various aspects of the peak oil challenge before moving on to explore solutions, in particular community-initiated responses, such as the work Richard is contributing to in Oakland, as well as the emerging process here in Totnes. Part One, posted today, focuses on peak oil, and was recorded the day after his talk in Totnes Civic Hall, which was attended by over 350 people.
With the recent discoveries in the Gulf of Mexico and the falls in the oil price, what developments over the last couple of months have reinforced your belief that we are close to the peak?
Well, there was the recent International Energy Agency report which didn’t give me any new information, but I thought it was interesting to see the IEA more or less admitting to the problem of future oil supply. Claude Mandil is clearly worried now, which is in stark opposition to the CERA Report which came out two days later that basically we have nothing to worry about for the next 3 decades (laughs), which of course is an entirely political document, not based on science at all, and is extremely irresponsible in terms of its message to the world.
Even though the IEA isn’t actually talking about a near term global oil production peak they are at least saying that supply is likely to be tight and may be inadequate in the years to come. People at least need to hear that message. As to new news, I mean of course a lot of things are slow to develop.
We know that Mexico’s oil production is going into decline with the decline of Cantarell, but that was forecast several years ahead, that’s not really a surprise to anyone who has been watching that sort of thing. I think the signs of near-term peak are not typically dramatic episodic events, it is the slowly developing accumulating evidence that we are seeing. The fact is that global oil production has been pretty well stalled out at around 84½ million barrels a day, on average, for the past year. Given the high prices, that is very suggestive that we may be in the early undulating plateau stage of the peak right now, but we won’t know for a while.
In the UK there are now the beginnings of a concerted momentum on climate change. Do you see the two issues as being separate or intertwined?
They are very intertwined but not always exactly the same. For example, because the emissions from natural gas are so much less than the emissions from coal or oil, many nations are looking to natural gas as a solution to Kyoto obligations, fuel switching from coal to natural gas. This is happening in the US too, the US emissions have been growing, and some states like California have at least attempted to keep their emissions under control by switching away from coal to natural gas for electricity production.
Well that makes perfect sense if your focus is climate change and reducing emissions, but if your focus is peak oil and gas and reducing vulnerability to future fuel shortfalls it doesn’t make any sense at all, particularly in the US and Great Britain where future natural gas supplies are guaranteed to decline over the very short term. California has got itself into a terrible fix as a result of its dependence on natural gas. There are going to be electricity shortages in the year ahead as a result of that.
How do you see the state of health of the peak oil movement and how has it changed over the last 2 years?
Well, the peak oil movement barely existed 2 years ago. So it has grown absolutely enormously and very quickly over the past couple of years and we are seeing groups forming spontaneously in towns and cities in many countries around the world, where literally nothing was happening even months ago. Many of those new groups are being very successful actually in advocating policy and contacting officials and affecting policy.
I think we have a lot to be proud of in terms of what we have accomplished, but of course any movement that grows very quickly is going to grow unevenly, and I’m sure that there have been growing pains in various ways and various areas and various kinks to work out along the way. I also think that over the past 2 years we have seen a rapid growth in oil prices and that has helped enormously in getting out the message.
However in the past few weeks where we have seen declines in oil prices exactly the opposite has happened, we have seen a PR attack against the peak movement, by Cambridge Energy Research Associates and by Exxon and others to say “peak oil theory is garbage”, in the words of Exxon. Unfortunately that has damaged the public perception of the movement at least. I think most of the people in the movement as savvy enough to see through those kinds of statements but I think the public perception of the movement has suffered as a result of that.
Do you see that the movement’s perspective or focus has moved away from purely focusing on graphs and depletion curves to looking beyond that?
Yes, and that’s a natural evolution. I think anyone who first becomes acquainted with the idea of peak oil first probably has to go through some psychological adjustments (laughs)! Probably the typical stages of grief, denial, anger and all that and very often an obsession with the facts themselves and trying to become knowledgeable about those facts, internalise the information and then verify the information so they can be sure of this. After all, they are probably in the process of reorienting their lives and their priorities and they may be trying to convince their friends and family about this and they need to have better information and get all the facts straight so they can do that.
Typically the learning curve is very steep in the first few months of peak oil awareness. Once that information is verified and internalised, the next stage is “what are we going to do about it”? Now we have enough people who have gone through that process of learning and begun to think about what we can and should do about it that there are lots of opportunities and answers and strategies being pioneered and thought through.
What will stop China, India and the US bypassing peak oil altogether by mining all their coal and turning it into petrol?
Well for the US, I can’t speak so well for China, that’s a subject that clearly needs more thought, but for the US I think simple logistical limitations will make it impossible for the US to dramatically increase its coal production. There are problems of variable resource quality, the high quality anthracite of the north east is being depleted rapidly. The US infrastructure for transporting coal is already maxed out, and so it would require the building of probably a parallel railroad system throughout the US in order to considerably increase coal consumption and transportation.
Also, the building of a coal-to-liquids infrastructure is itself an enormous logistical nightmare. I have been to South Africa and talked to the executives of Sasol Corporation that have the coal to liquids technology, and of course they are very happy with the idea of selling their technology to other countries, but what exists right now is absolutely miniscule in comparison to what would be needed to offset any substantial proportion of America’s liquid fuel needs.
We are looking at a needed investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, and many years of hard work before this could come to fruition, and I frankly don’t see the Federal Government in the US as being capable of mounting that kind of co-ordinated effort at the moment, it is simply too fractious and dysfunctional.
In your book Powerdown you set out four scenarios for life beyond the peak. Two of them ‘Powerdown’ and ‘Building Lifeboats’ emerged as the two most desirable. Where do you now see yourself as which is most likely? The ODP is seen as a kind of global powerdown, and I wonder a few years after you wrote the book when you look back which of those you see as the most desirable or likely?
These are really strategies… So, I don’t know if I could even think of it in terms of likelihood, because likelihood is more about projected outcomes.
My view is that the lifeboat strategy is necessary, and that those who are drawn towards it certainly should pursue it. However, [unless] some Powerdown efforts are underway, and successfully so, the likely outcome is a chaotic collapse of society, possibly including a general oil war, and the consequences of that would be so devastating that they would probably wipe out the possibility of success of any of the lifeboat communities.
So I have devoted myself almost entirely to the Powerdown path, even though I see the Lifeboats strategy as being very necessary. Maybe if I were 25 years younger I’d be out there trying to start an ecovillage or joining one, and pursuing the Lifeboat strategy, but I think it is important for many of us to try and cushion the collapse and manage the collapse for a variety of reasons. I also think it is possible to pursue both strategies simultaneously in many instances.
So that survivalist “head for the hills” response is one you have little time for?
Personally I have little time for it, although of course the Lifeboats strategy doesn’t have to be one of simple personal survivalism, it can be undertaken in ways that are more communitarian in orientation.
What are your thoughts on linking the concept of addiction to our relationship with oil?
I think it is very fruitful and helpful because we all are extremely dependent on oil and the products and possibilities and powers that it gives us, and that’s going to change. We will be seeing that dependence challenged and compromised in all sorts of ways and that will have enormous psychological consequences for people. So understanding addiction I think could be very helpful.
Of course I also use the addiction metaphor in my pitch for the Oil Depletion Protocol in saying that simply focusing on energy substitution is a way of avoiding dealing with the addiction head-on, which is ultimately what we have to do. As with any addiction you are only going to make progress by reducing your consumption of the addictive substance, in this case oil, and I believe that an essential step in our collective survival is going to be deliberately and proactively reducing our consumption of oil so as to reduce competition and stabilise prices of this stuff as the Protocol mandates. That is equivalent of going cold turkey, maybe not all at once, but gradually over time, as with any other addictive substance.