Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Peak Oil

Ok, I am going to let the delta rest a bit tonight. I have too much reading to do. After all, Volume 4 of the California Water Plan is over 1600 pages. Is there any wonder most people don't even try to get it.

What I do want to do is to call your attention to a different take on the subject of Peak Oil. This was written by Art Myatt, a Michigan Green, one time candidate for Supervisor in his county and full time solar technology engineer. This was written in response to a question from a European Green posted on the ruralgreen email list. The article referenced and linked is from the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

The very idea that we are in / approaching / will be affected by peak oil has ramifications for policies at every level from small city councils to our national Congress. In an election year, Greens should be the ones making sense on this issue.

The article for which you are asking some expert to check the numbers is, like many others, focused on some technically interesting questions. When will world oil production peak? How much oil do we think is in the ground, and where? Are there significant undiscovered deposits? How much of the oil is now legitimately listed as recoverable, and how much will be economically recoverable in some future of as-yet undeveloped techniques for recovery and some as-yet unknown set of demand and supply curves that will determine the price of oil and thus the economics of using various methods.

Since the reality of this, that or the other very specific scenario for the future of the oil business cannot be determined any better than the question about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, the debate is interminable and never conclusive. When will oil peak? It's like a court case in which each side has its expert witnesses. Some will argue for sooner and some for later. They are all expert, and so far as we can tell, all have some legitimate points in their favor.

"When will oil peak?" is an interesting question, but it is hardly the only question and, in the context of a political policy discussion, it is not the right question. Let's compare it to similar questions about a preganancy.

A pregnant woman will be very interested to know the probable due date for the delivery. Her doctor will probably give her a definite date, with the usual caution that that an error of plus or minus ten days is to be expected, and that the baby may come two or three months earlier, although that would be a premature delivery and a medical emergency. A pregnant woman will also be interested to know if the baby is male or female, or twins or triplets or more. She may be very concerned about the delivery method to be preferred: natural, with some type of anesthetic, cesarian.

These are all very interesting questions. Sometimes the answers we believe we have in the middle of the second trimester prove to be correct. Sometimes they are proved wrong by intervening circumstances. Sometimes we get all the way to the birth without having had certainty about any of the above questions.

However, the main questions about pregnancy, the really significant ones, are more along the lines of: Are you prepared to raise a child? These are the long term issues that really have to be dealt with. Whether it is a boy or a girl, whether the delivery is early or late, the child or children will need food, shelter, clothing and more.

Well, as a society, we are pregnant, so to speak, with peak oil. Whether the peak will come in 2020 or was around last Thanksgiving, the peak means the end of cheap and abundant oil. When the peak is definitely established, the amount of oil available for installed demand is always less from year to year, and the price is always being bid up. While there are a variety of fuels that can, one way or another, be substituted for oil, the price of energy generallly is being bid up and up.

Are we prepared to deal with it? The Hirsch Report, [Department of Energy] looking at this question from an entirely conventional economic point of view, says in great detail that we are not.

Now, I don't think that keeping this global/corporate economy functioning is the goal we should have, so I don't think the conventional economic point of view is the one to have. However,because the Hirsch Report at least asks the right question and then tries to answer it, I would recommend it as a good starting point. Even with conventional economics, he comes to the conclusion that we need a crash program of conservation and development of alternative fuels implemented for at least the next 20 years. Given that we are not doing that, the conclusion that the global/corporate economy is doomed - in its own terms of success, not ours - is not a great leap.

Will the economic implosion that goes with the peak come next month or ten or twenty years down the road? I don't know. Hirsch doesn't know. No 'expert' does. Hirsch does give a table of the dates picked by various experts, either in this or another article of his. Are we pregnant, even if we can't pin down the due date? Oh, yes, we are pregnant. We had better prepare to take care of this baby.

Art Myatt


Tian said...

On October 11th, 2004 the front page headline on the San Jose Mercury News was "$1.999 PER GALLON MAY BE HISTORY". It is now almost a year and a half later, and the price hasn't been any lower than $2.229 that I can remember since then.

On some level, whether or not we have hit peak oil doesn't matter much. China uses more oil every year, and they are willing to bid up the price. India uses more oil every year, and they are willing to bid up the price. Wanting the price to go down is so much wishful thinking unless we are willing to walk away from the marketplace until they lower prices.

I think we need to stop voting for oil companies at the gas pump! If we stop paying their prices maybe things will change. Until then, they will have plenty of money to buy the
Republican Party with.

Wes said...

Agree with everything you said until the object of the last sentence. What makes you think that it is only the Republican Party. Also, consider that there are Republicans like Roscoe Bartlett (MD - 6th CD) who lead the effort for a sound energy policy that recognizes the effects of Peak Oil and Climate Change and who are willing to vote their convictions. There are Democrats like Sen. Mary Landrieu (LA) who are still shills for the oil inducstry.

Roger, Gone Green said...

Well I agree with Tian that we need to stop rewarding oil companies -- but not for the same reason.

We need to discourage the sale of a product that leaves us dependent and addicted and undermines the world environment as much as community as cities are built to accommodate cars not people.

I would agree not because I think it will result in lower gas prices -- something we really don't need -- but because the while age of oil was needed to get where we are, it needs now to be largely over so we can progress as a species.

In fact, I don't see truly lower prices anytime soon, nor would I want too, as that only delays the needed weaning off this temporarily beneficial resource.