True North

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Mr. Fit, meet Mr. Shan: Peak Oil Blues Part 1

I have always been a great supporter of self sufficiency at every level from family to country. Yes, I was somewhat involved in the 'back to the land' movement in the 60s and 70s - some friends of mine had a rather nice rural commune in Oregon back then. It's also part of the reason why Mrs. M. and I haven't lived in a city for over 25 years - there are many other reasons but that is part of it.

I recently discovered another magazine dedicated to sustainable living called simply Back Home which I have been picking up because of a series they have been running on building a DYI wind turbine (ok - I like a challenge). The latest edition contains an article by James Howard Kunstler called Global Oil Production Peak. (The editors have made this article available in pdf format.) So I thought I would pull together a couple of other Kunstler articles and tackle a major issue of the day.

Kunstler has been accused of being overly pessimistic and gloomy about the future. That's not surprising given the emphasis on state sponsored scientism by the Bush regime. Not being overly fond of religion (he once said "Religion is a kind of low-grade showbiz for that half of the nation under the median IQ") hasn't improved his standing with the Theopublicans either. Saying things the petro-jihadists don't like doesn't mean he's wrong.

So what is "peak oil"? I'll let Kunstler explain that himself.
The few Americans who are even aware there is a gathering global energy predicament usually misunderstand the core of the argument. That core states that we don't have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems.

The term "global oil production peak" means that the time will come when the world produces the most oil it will ever produce in a given year, and after that production will inexorably decline. It is usually represented graphically in a bell curve. Peak is the top of the curve, the halfway point of the world's all-time total fossil fuel endowment.

The best estimates of when this peak will actually happen are somewhere between now and 2010. In the past year, after revelations that Shell Oil misstated its reserves, and the Saudi Arabians proved incapable of goosing up their production, the most knowledgeable experts revised their predictions and now concur that 2005 is apt to be the year of all-time peak production.

It will change everything about how we live.

Some other things about the global energy predicament are poorly under stood by the public and even by our leaders.

The first is that this is going to be a permanent energy crisis. It's not going to go away this time. We will not over come it. We will have to accommodate ourselves to fundamentally changed conditions.

The second explains the first: no combination of alternative fuels or systems will allow us to keep living the way we do. They will not even allow us to keep running a substantial fraction of what we are currently running. This is particularly true of the so-called hydrogen economy. There isn't going to be any hydrogen economy. The idea is a fraud. It represents the wishful think thinking of American leaders in politics, business, and even technology. I call this the "Jimmy Cricket Syndrome,” the notion that wishing for something makes it come true.

The peak oil idea is based on the theory that oil is a finite resource. It was created by certain organic and tectonic processes millions of years ago, and there was only so much of it formed - a lot, but only so much. The earth does not have a "creamy nougat center" of inexhaustible "inorganic" oil, as some of the wishful would like to think.


This is not about running out of oil. There will always be some oil left. That isn't the problem. The problem is that we have skimmed off the cream (so to speak) in the form of easily accesible, sweet, light crude.
The oil that remains, meanwhile, the second half of Earth's all-time total endowment, is the oil that is harder to get out of the ground. The first half was easy to get to. Most of it was accessible on land, in places where the weather is pretty good and the working conditions favorable - in Texas, for instance. Much of the remaining oil lies in forbidding places, in the Arctic, or deep under the ocean. It will be much more difficult and expensive to get out. Quite a bit of it will never be extracted because it will take more than a barrel of oil in energy to extract a barrel of oil.


Kunstler believes that the implications of reaching peak oil are immense and no part of our everyday lives will be exempt. While I don't completely agree with all of Kuntler's predictions, most of them are plausible.
Most immediately we face the end of the cheap-fossil-fuel era. It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life - not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense - you name it.

But we aren't just talking about oil here.
To aggravate matters, American natural-gas production is also declining, at five percent a year, despite frenetic new drilling, and with the potential of much steeper declines ahead. Because of the oil crises of the 1970s, the nuclear-plant disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the acid-rain problem, the US chose to make gas its first choice for electric-power generation. The result was that just about every power plant built after 1980 has to run on gas. Half the homes in America are heated with gas. To further complicate matters, gas isn't easy to import. Here in North America, it is distributed through a vast pipeline network. Gas imported from overseas would have to be compressed at minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit in pressurized tanker ships and unloaded (re-gasified) at special terminals, of which few exist in America. Moreover, the first attempts to site new terminals have met furious opposition because they are such ripe targets for terrorism.


Large scale instability figures prominently in his predictions. Some of this instability will be geopolitical and military.
Because demand will stay high, while supply steadily drops, there will be instability in the markets and probably a lot of international military mischief as nations jockey for control over the oil-producing regions. That jockeying is already underway. The war in Iraq has been an attempt by America to insure its access to Middle East oil, not only to the oil in Iraq itself but to influence and moderate the behavior of the two adjoining major oil-producing states, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Other nations may also seek to insure their access to oil, and that could mean trouble.

China started out with much less oil than did the U.S. China has been explored thoroughly (the Communists didn't have to economically justify their exploration, so they drilled everywhere). China has less oil now than the U.S. has left, and they have ramped up the world's latest (perhaps last) great industrial economy. Sooner or later, they are liable to "reach out" for oil elsewhere. The Chinese army can walk into the oil-producing regions of central Asia. We are currently operating military bases in several former Soviet republics adjoining Afghanistan. However, it would be suicidal for the U.S. to engage the Chinese army in an Asian land war. If the Chinese march a little farther, they can even walk into the Middle East....


Nor, as Kunstler noted above, can we count on alternative energy to solve the problems caused by reaching peak oil.
No combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run American life the way we have been used to running it, or even a substantial fraction of it. The wonders of steady technological progress achieved through the reign of cheap oil have lulled us into a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome, leading many Americans to believe that anything we wish for hard enough will come true. These days, even people who ought to know better are wishing ardently for a seamless transition from fossil fuels to their putative replacements.

The widely touted "hydrogen economy" is a particularly cruel hoax. We are not going to replace the US automobile and truck fleet with vehicles run on fuel cells. For one thing, the current generation of fuel cells is largely designed to run on hydrogen obtained from natural gas. The other way to get hydrogen in the quantities wished for would be electrolysis of water using power from hundreds of nuclear plants. Apart from the dim prospect of our building that many nuclear plants soon enough, there are also numerous severe problems with hydrogen's nature as an element that present forbidding obstacles to its use as a replacement for oil and gas, especially in storage and transport.

Wishful notions about rescuing our way of life with "renewables" are also unrealistic. Solar-electric systems and wind turbines face not only the enormous problem of scale but the fact that the components require substantial amounts of energy to manufacture and the probability that they can't be manufactured at all without the underlying support platform of a fossil-fuel economy. We will surely use solar and wind technology to generate some electricity for a period ahead but probably at a very local and small scale.

Virtually all "biomass" schemes for using plants to create liquid fuels cannot be scaled up to even a fraction of the level at which things are currently run. What's more, these schemes are predicated on using oil and gas "inputs" (fertilizers, weed-killers) to grow the biomass crops that would be converted into ethanol or bio-diesel fuels. This is a net energy loser - you might as well just burn the inputs and not bother with the biomass products. Proposals to distill trash and waste into oil by means of thermal depolymerization depend on the huge waste stream produced by a cheap oil and gas economy in the first place.

Indeed the economy will be severely damaged by the consequences of reaching peak oil production. Although some of us would question if all of the consequences are bad.
The automobile will be a diminished presence in our lives, to say the least. With gasoline in short supply, not to mention tax revenue, our roads will surely suffer. The interstate highway system is more delicate than the public realizes. If the "level of service" (as traffic engineers call it) is not maintained to the highest degree, problems multiply and escalate quickly. The system does not tolerate partial failure. The interstates are either in excellent condition, or they quickly fall apart....

The global oil peak will eventually put an end to activities that have become "normal" in American life, such as easy motoring, commercial aviation for the masses, national chain-store shopping, theme park tourism, centralized schooling, cheap groceries, and much more. Peak oil will bring an end to globalism as a general proposition because there will be no more cheap long-range transport. Anyway, friction over oil supplies will probably alter our trade relations with the countries to whom we have "outsourced" so much of our manufacturing.

Food production is one of the areas that Kunstler expects to be hardest hit.
Food production is going to be an enormous problem in the Long Emergency. As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil- and gas-based inputs, we will certainly have to grow more of our food closer to where we live, and do it on a smaller scale. The American economy of the mid-twenty-first century may actually center on agriculture, not information, not high tech, not "services" like real estate sales or hawking cheeseburgers to tourists. Farming. This is no doubt a startling, radical idea, and it raises extremely difficult questions about the reallocation of land and the nature of work....

Food production will necessarily be much more labor-intensive than it has been for decades. We can anticipate the re-formation of a native-born American farm-laboring class.

Most consumers have no idea of the cost of producing the raw ingredients for what winds up on the supermarket shelves. Nor do they understand how much of that cost is for items related to oil prices. The operation of a tractor is incredibly expensive. A 190 hp tractor - not large by today's standards - dragging a cultivator will suck up about 14 imperial gallons of diesel fuel per hour. That works out to around 1 litre per minute. During that hour, it will cultivate approximately 20 acres . At 50 cents a litre, that works out to over $1.50 per acre which jumps to over $3.00/acre at $1.00 per litre. A large industrial grain farm will consist of 3000 to 10,000 acres each of which will have some piece of equipment dragged over it at least twice a year. Do the math yourself.

And all we have talked about so far is fuel for the tractor. There are many other fuel consuming items on a farm. There are also oil inputs into engine oil and grease. Agricultural chemicals contain oil derivatives as well as requiring energy to make them as do tires. Not to mention the manufacture of the implements themselves. To make matters worse, many of the expenses of farming are front end loaded. You still have the costs of fertilizing and seeding with no guarantee you will see a crop at all.

Industrial livestock production is no different. Gone are the days on grandpa's farm where there were a dozen hogs curled up in the straw during the winter and running around in the mud all summer. Modern hog barns with 2-3000 oinkers are very energy (and capital) intensive. The same is true of cattle feed lots.

Of course you not only have to haul inputs onto the farm you have to haul the finished products somewhere to sell them. Semi-trailer units are only slightly less thirsty than the above mentioned tractor. A tractor hauling a 96 foot trailer rated at 50,000 lbs gcw traveling normal highway speeds drinks about 12 gallons per hour as opposed to 14 for its agricultural brother - roughly 5 miles/gallon. Of course agricultural products are not the only ones facing this problem.

The way that commerce is currently organized in America will not survive far into the Long Emergency. Wal-Mart's "warehouse on wheels" won't be such a bargain in a non-cheap-oil economy. The national chain stores' 12,000-mile manufacturing supply lines could easily be interrupted by military contests over oil and by internal conflict in the nations that have been supplying us with ultra-cheap manufactured goods, because they, too, will be struggling with similar issues of energy famine and all the disorders that go with it.


Instability will not be restricted to international rivalries. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that all this upheavel will have a profound effect domestically.

Before long, suburbia will fail us. We made the ongoing development of it the basis of our economy, and when we have to stop making more of it, the bottom will fall out of our economy. That is already happening, by the way, and the process will accelerate as the air goes out of the housing bubble. The air will go out of the housing bubble because it was sustained by unprecedented amounts of supernaturally cheap credit...

The failure of suburbia as a useful living arrangement will lead to a fantastic loss of hallucinated "wealth".” McHouses far from any town or city bought for a half a million are likely to lose much of their value. All types of suburban real estate will hemorrhage value: retail and office as well as McHouses. There will be a fight over the table scraps of the 20th century. The subdivisions are likely to become the slums of the future; the strip malls will be our salvage yards...

All large-scale enterprises will have trouble surviving the long emergency of the coming global energy crisis...
Many of the fears expressed since 9/11 about the coming of an American police state may end up being misplaced. The federal government may be lucky if it can answer the phones in ten years, let alone keep track of citizen's activities...

Life in the U.S. will become profoundly and intensely local. As industrial agriculture fails due to a scarcity of oil and gas-based "inputs:’ we will certainly have to grow more of our food closer to where we live, and to do it at smaller scale, more labor intensively. This raises extremely difficult questions about the reallocation of land and the nature of work.... Vocational niches will evaporate as whole industries wither away. There will be a lot of economic losers. A whole new social class will emerge: the formerly middle class. They will be angry and bewildered over the loss of their "entitlements" to the American Dream. They may vote for leaders who promise to bring back the "good old days:’ (They won't be able to.) These masses of disentitled people may enter into neofeudal social relations with those who own land in exchange for food and physical security. Their labor will be needed. Or they may simply seize that land - which does not cancel the possibility for an eventual neofeudal outcome; it only suggests a period of turmoil in ownership.


I feel better now. Don't you? Seriously, there is a crisis in the offing. When it will happen and how quickly things will spiral downward are still items we can only speculate on. Obviously, many of Kunstler's predictions are not short term concerns. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be concerns.

Before some wingnut decides to show up and attempts to subvert the discussion from the subject as a whole into a debate over just when peak oil production will occur, it really doesn't matter. Peak oil will occur and that fact is far more important than whether it happened last year or won't happen for another 5 to 10 years. The only difference the timing makes is in how long we have to prepare to deal with the consequences of the event.

What we have been doing simply is not working, Doing more of what we have been doing is not going to produce a different set of results. Time is not our friend. If we begin to make make changes in our attitudes, expectations and lifestyles now, the transition to this much different future will be relatively painless. At least relatively painless compared to what it will be like if we don't read the writing on the wall until our backs are up against it.

My apologies in this piece for abusing the copyright of Back Home Magazine, Rolling Stone via Truthout and James Howard Kunstler. My time is short and I needed to lay the groundwork as quickly as possible. There will be subsequent pieces in this series addressing things we can do to avoid the worst of the unfolding events. I am not sure when these post might appear. Please keep in mind my erratic posting warning.

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