Posted by: Rob | May 7, 2008

Peak Oil

Peak oil. Two words. And yet, quite a mouthful. I have been troubled by the idea of peak oil for several years now. A while ago I read several books on the subject and then, for a variety of reasons, the books and the ideas and the worries went on the shelf.

The me that I am now would like to leave those volumes, those thoughts on the shelf. But circumstances and current events dictate otherwise. I read on that crude oil futures closed near US $123 per barrel today; some (&!@*ing) analyst was quoted as saying that oil could be US $200 within the year.

Is any of this surprising? No, not really.

I have a subscription to an industry trade journal – Hydrocarbon Processing – and a few years back there was an interesting column by an European staffer for the magazine, a fellow name Tim Lloyd Wright. He wrote in his column about a book he had recently read. A book that had somewhat opened his eyes, I think. The book is called The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, by Thom Hartmann. I obtained a copy of Hartmann’s book and read it cover to cover. It was good. Very good. I will have to get another copy as I loaned mine out and it never came back. In summary, though, Hartmann talks about how the bulk of the earth’s fossil fuels were laid down some 400 million years ago. The coal, crude, natural gas and other forms of hydrocarbons are essentially treasure troves of stored sunlight from hundreds of millions of years ago. Essentially, nearly all of the energy that we use on earth is ultimately derived from our star, the Sun. It has been estimated that the annual amount of solar energy falling on the planet is sufficient to support somewhere between 500 million and 1 billion people. What’s that you say? How many people are on earth today? Hmm. I checked here. It says there are over 6 and a half billion people on earth right now. How is this possible? The annual solar energy falling on earth will only support a half to one billion people.

The answer: ancient sunlight. In the last one to two hundred years humans have willy-nilly exploited a once in a lifetime boon. Stored reserves of oil and natural gas have allowed technological growth unmatched in human history and an accompanying ability to produce food at rates never before seen. The availability of cheap food has been one of the single most significant underlying factors behind the human population explosion. But now, the boom of the boon is coming to an end. In how long? No one really knows.

A lot of naysayers and double speakers will try to tell us that there is no problem. Really? Is there no problem? The forecast for global peak oil is based on the work of M. King Hubbert who very reliably predicted peak oil for the United States. He made the prediction in the late 1950’s figuring the peak would occur in 1970. (The “peak” is the point on a graph of oil “production”* versus time where the rate of “production”* is greatest. After the peak the “production”* rate declines and so, interestingly enough, does supply.) Global peak oil forecast is for sometime in the 2005 to 2010 timeframe. We won’t know we’re at peak until after the fact. Given what is going on today, could it be possible that we’ve passed the peak? If anyone knows, they’re not saying.

We recently watched a video entitled “Crude Awakening“. It’s more of what I’ve previously read, yet still worth spending about 90 minutes to get an idea of where we’ve been and what may be in store. Oh, and if you’re still labouring under the illusion the Saudis have plenty of oil? Well, Matthew Simmons (who appears in the “Crude Awakening” film) has written an excellent, although somewhat technical, book titled “Twilight in the Desert” which tells us that we shouldn’t believe everything we hear about the magnitude of the crude oil reserves that the Saudis have. It’s backed up by engineering data gleaned from technical reports written the scientists and engineers solving the myriad problems arising from exploiting the resource from below the sands of the Arabian peninsula.

There is far more on this subject than can be covered in a simple blog piece. I don’t worry so much about myself. We’ll tough it out for whatever time we have left. It is my children for whom I fear. That we would leave them to such a catastrophe is unconscionable. Is it too late to fix this? I don’t know. I hope so. For my children’s and my (future) grandchildren’s sake.

Months ago I “stumbled” upon a blog devoted to discussing the issues around peak oil and sustainable living. I’ve just come back to it now after not visiting it for awhile. A recent entry there has this video posted. It’s done to Tracy Chapman’s “The Rape of the World”. It’s long (about 6.5 minutes) but I recommend it for a sobering look and perhaps for provoking some thought.

* Crude oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels are not “produced”. They are merely exploited by pulling them from the ground, cleaning them up a little, altering them a bit maybe and then burning them. (Excludes fossil fuels used a feedstock to generate a myriad of artificial compounds like plastics.)


  1. i suspect we’ll see a good bit of this in our lifetimes, and certainly during the lifetimes of our children. wars? inevitable…

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