For five years the peak oil movement has been largely the province of internet conspiracy buffs, church basement conferences and esoteric debates among petroleum geologists and scientists about statistical data few can understand. Last month, however, oil “peaksters” seemed to break out of their policy doldrums when they journeyed to the banks of the Potomac for what may have been their first mainstream conference in the nation’s capital.

Street Cred

Sponsorship by the University of Maryland gave peak oil at least momentary “street cred” on Pennsylvania Avenue as federal, state, and local politicians joined with business executives, bureaucrats, economists, and respected scientists. City council members from places like Huntington Beach, Calif., and Bloomington, Ind., joined Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, and such Washington stalwarts as Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.). The Maryland Republican, an engineer who invented an oxygen recycling machine used by NASA in manned spacecraft, has founded the peak oil caucus in the House.

Department of Energy consultant Roger Bezdek, who directed research for the federal Energy Research and Development Administration during the 1970’s energy crisis, discussed his strategy for a crash program to develop alternatives to oil. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly, winner of the Sweden’s alternative Nobel Prize the Right Livelihood Award, and Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and its annual State of the World Report, were there. So was NASA Goddard Space Institute Director James Hansen, perhaps the leading scientist to document global warming, and Mona Sahlin, minister of Sustainable Development for Sweden, which is pursuing a plan to completely end its dependence on oil. This was no crowd of radical tree huggers.

For three days, they debated how the nation and world should respond to the imminent peak in world oil production, after which the supply of Beverly Hillbilly Jed Clampett’s “black gold” will decline forevermore while demand blows through the roof as the industrial and automotive age engulf China and India.

From Futurist to Historian

In fact, Princeton University geology professor emeritus Ken Deffeyes—who spent much of his career searching the world for petroleum at Shell Oil—joked that in November of 2005 he switched from being a futurist to a historian. The switch, he said, occurred because his analysis shows that was the month when world oil production peaked. We are already descending the world oil production curve, he maintained. Yet, oil provides almost 37 percent of the world’s total energy, more than any other form, and almost all energy for transportation. Add in natural gas, also near decline, and the total rises to more than 60 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration. Little has been done to develop replacements.

However, most Americans—even those tuned into network news and the nation’s better newspapers—would never know that leading scientists and some politicians are discussing peak oil and how it promises to dramatically reduce Earth’s population as the century unfolds.

Perhaps the concept is just too horrible to report. Or perhaps a jaded media has sloughed off peak oil, relying on mainstream economists who snicker in their neo-liberal hubris that petroleum depletion is no more a problem today than was the disappearance of whale oil late in the Nineteenth Century. The invisible hand of the market—barely missing a beat—will provide new energy technologies and substitute fuels as oil becomes short in supply and its price inevitably rises. Soon, we will all be cruising hydrogen highways in H2 Hummers and levitating objects with unlimited amounts of power from cold fusion reactors.

Others compare oil peaksters to religious fundamentalists, both awaiting the apocalypse. Fundamentalists foresee the Biblical four horsemen, who will punish the wicked after true Christians ascend to join Jesus in the Great Rapture. Meanwhile, peaksters look to a cruel science of ecology that warns of a great die off at the hands of natural law. The peak oil cognoscenti will survive by building sustainable communities, like the castles of medieval times. Neither has happened, these critics note, though they admit each scenario provides endless grist for book publishers.

Those Pesky Laws of Thermodynamics

The fallacy of such a view, however, is that science has shown there are some certainties in the world. It’s not all just a matter of opinion, belief, spin, and two sides to every story. Bird doo does fall because of gravity, on fundamentalists and peaksters alike. The Earth rotates around the Sun. The archaeological record is replete with civilizations that have come and gone. Then there are those pesky two laws of thermodynamics that govern energy: first, all energy is conserved, and second, energy devolves into a disorganized state known as entropy as it is used and can never be recovered again. There is no free lunch.

These truths trump the invisible hand of economics, scientists say, pointing out that oil represents:

  • Millions of years of accumulated solar energy shining on Earth converted into a liquid useful to humans by plants, animals, and millennial geologic forces that acted hundreds of millions of years ago;

  • A highly concentrated and portable form of energy—like no other known to humanity—not easily replaced; and
  • Trillions of dollars in infrastructure needed to produce, refine, distribute, and beneficially use the resource invested over many decades.

“No Silver Bullets, Only Poison Pills”

In the past 100 years, oil, and its cousin natural gas, has allowed the human economy to become so productive—through the green revolution in agriculture, the pharmaceutical revolution in medicine, and the transportation revolution that allows people to exploit resources anywhere on the planet—a population explosion ensued. That’s why peaksters fret that without massive worldwide cooperation to quickly convert to new, more efficient energy technologies the next hundred years will see a population implosion amid growing warfare over the world’s shrinking fossil fuel supply. Even the alternatives, like bio-fuels, will present tradeoffs. Devoting land to grow fuel crops, for instance, will take away land from food production in a hungry world, notes Lester Brown. Recovering heavy oil will quickly burn up the world’s store of natural gas, since it must be heated before being pumped. Turning to coal for motor fuels could deplete our domestic supply in as little as 50 years, rather than the 250 years it would take at current consumption levels. “There are no silver bullets,” notes Roger Bezdek, who examined all of these options during the 1970’s, “only poison pills.”

That is why the U.S. emphasized finding new oil supplies during the 1970’s, a strategy which increased production in the 1980’s and drove down prices. The problem is that since then, oil exploration records show that the more holes we drill the less oil we find. We are entering the last phase of using up the oil that took geologic epochs to form in less than a couple centuries. Without oil and natural gas, the most pessimistic of peaksters project that the world’s economy will rapidly devolve to burning wood and coal and plowing the fields with horses, a technological base that once supported 2 billion people but not 6.5 billion and growing. Meanwhile, the more fuel we burn the hotter the planet will become, raising sea levels, intensifying storms, and creating other climate shifts that will imperil agriculture. Bezdek, an optimist among peaksters, believes that a “massive crash” conversion program will take 20 years and cost trillions of dollars, if it can be done at all. “The bottom line is the world has never faced a problem like oil peaking,” he said.

This is the essence of the heavy fare at the “Peak Oil and the Environment” conference in Washington last month, hardly light dinnertime conservation. In an entertainment nation, it’s no wonder that the peaksters are having trouble getting the public to pay attention to their urgent message, much less act on it. It’s a message too big and scary for most to process let alone act on, so why not just get back to shopping, sports, celebrities, and the Doppler radar forecast. If it’s going to rain, at least you can bring an umbrella.

Irresistable Force, Immoveable Object

In seeking to change public opinion, peaksters seem to have met an immovable object. So what now?

Strikingly absent from the conference were the big environmental groups, as well as people of color, human rights groups, peace groups, and organized labor. The university approached the big environmental groups for sponsorships, conference organizer Max Christian told me, but only the Natural Resources Defense Council agreed. These absences suggest not only the limits of the peak oil movement today, but a good starting place for peaksters to forge a broader front for change.

As oil supply tightens, the price will rise, creating economic hardships for workers and poor people, so many of whom are minorities. Peaksters could join forces with the poor in a call for energy equity. A new infrastructure will be needed, much of which could be built by organized labor. The labor-based Apollo Project already is aimed at making a transition to a new energy future, but is moribund because of union ties to big oil and gas projects, like liquefied natural gas. Support for some big alternative fuel projects might move labor forward. The petroleum wars—high intensity and low intensity, like in Iraq and Nigeria, respectively—already have begun so human rights and peace groups should embrace the peak oil message. Environmental groups seeking to head off global warming and improve public health by reducing the use of fossil fuel should seemingly be on the same page.

To build that broader coalition, however, peaksters first must devise a unified vision for the future. There is deep division among peaksters as to how to respond to the unfolding energy emergency. This lack of vision leaves the public and their elected leaders uncertain what to make of peak oil and easily lulled by assurances that the market will provide ready and easy substitutes as they sit back and enjoy the big game on widescreen.
Meanwhile, peaksters are losing the war as they battle among themselves.

Lifeboats, New Deal or Re-localization?

Many, for instance, are focused on building lifeboats—sustainable communities that will withstand the new medieval era peak oil promises to unleash. These communities—likely to become hyper versions of today’s gated communities—are mostly white and educated. Survivalist and exclusionary by nature, they are predicated upon a harsh Darwinian philosophy of survival of the fittest that will offer no place for the poor. They have little faith in government and, no doubt, will be quick to emphasize physical security measures should the going get tough.

Other peaksters want to create a massive top down federal program to spur a mix of technologies—from clean coal, to shale oil, ethanol, and nuclear power. In a déjà vu of the 1970’s energy crisis, this approach will assure a primary role for today’s large energy corporations. However, it is a strategy—if coupled with energy efficiency measures—that is increasingly tantalizing to environmental groups. They see that if it can be done in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, it promises to maintain the status quo, requiring little in the way of lifestyle changes or disruptions to the economy. On the surface it seems to make sense, but peel back the layers of the onion and each of the technologies presents monumental problems and uncertainties. Fully exploiting Canadian tar sands oil, for instance, will use all of the natural gas our northerly neighbor now sends our way and then require construction of nuclear power plants to boot. Even Bezdek, a chief proponent of this approach, admits it already is too late to pursue such a strategy without facing massive economic disruptions.

Yet other peaksters are focused on re-localizing the economy by reversing sprawl, eliminating most autos, and fostering local agriculture and manufacturing, spelling an end to the neo-liberal global economy. They call for cooperation among nations under an international oil depletion protocol that calls for an orderly “power down” as oil becomes depleted. They point to Cuba, which lost most of its oil under U.S. enforced economic sanctions, as an example of how a modern industrial society can maintain health care, science, education, and culture while shifting toward a largely localized, low energy economy. However, this would require dramatic lifestyle changes and self-sacrifice making it politically unpopular.

Finally, the 400 pound gorilla not represented at the conference—but suspected of being firmly entrenched within the Bush Administration and major energy companies—are those who recognize peak oil as a reality and seek to assure the supremacy of American access to petroleum increasingly through military power. Call them survivalists on an international stage.

Forging Alliances

Getting at least a couple of these wings of the peak oil movement together will be necessary to advance public opinion on the issue. The economic re-localizers, for instance, could seemly forge an alliance with crash alternative program advocates and environmentalists around the dual issues of peak oil and global warming, which already is widely accepted as a reality by the public. By focusing on a message of economic posterity and equity they could win support from labor and civil and human rights organizations.

Second, peaksters must confront skeptics who see them simply as a smokescreen for big oil as it profiteers on fear about the security of the world’s petroleum supply. Peaksters are at the same stage as global warming advocates stood 20 years ago. They are seeking to win acceptance of a scientific theory increasingly supported by data in the face of a skeptical public that prefers to rationalize living large lifestyles with promises of technological breakthroughs. It is easy for critics to offer conflicting statistical analyses of oil reserve and production data that do not point to an immediate problem. People do not understand the difference between conventional crude, tar sands, heavy crude, and Venezuelan bitumen. Peaksters might make a stronger case on the need for change, not based on forecasting future oil production, but future oil prices. Gasoline at $3, $4, $5, and $10 a gallon is something people understand. Oil reserves that can’t be seen and are subject to continuous arguments create doubt.

The Limits of Gloom and Doom

Finally, peaksters must broaden their appeal. Doom and gloom wins only so many converts and then becomes self limiting. So does chastising people for their ignorance and irrational behavior. After all, as John Maynard Keynes observed, in the long-run we are all dead. To broaden their influence, peaksters must focus on the opportunities and benefits in any solution to peak oil—new employment and economic enterprises, a healthier lifestyle, more neighborly communities, less environmental pollution, posterity for future generations. They must devise a message of hope and inclusion embodied in a clarion call for action in confronting the biggest challenge humanity has faced in its short history on Earth. Otherwise, we’re all about to go down shooting.

William J. Kelly is staff correspondent for California Energy Circuit, a weekly covering energy policy in the Golden State, and has written on the environment and energy for more than 20 years.