The bigger story behind Katrina
Long before Katrina hit, independent scientists who study the depletion of
oil and gas, were warning of an imminent peak in world oil production. One
such scientist, Dr. Kenneth S. Deffeyes, professor emeritus of geology at
Princeton University, suggested that the peak would come this fall. Dr.
Colin Campbell, founder of the independent scientific organization, the
Association of the Study of Peak Oil, believes that the peak has arrived.
Many experts agree that the peak, which will only be clearly identifiable
several years after it happens, will occur some time between 2000 and 2008.
Others argue for a somewhat later arrival and a bumpy plateau rather than a
peak, but most seem to agree that the peak of world oil production is likely
to mark the beginning of radical changes in the way we live.
Oil is a very special substance. It is a very concentrated form of solar
energy that took millions of years and unique geological circumstances to
develop. By way of illustrating how concentrated the energy in oil is, it
has been suggested that "the flare given off by igniting an ounce of
charcoal starter lasts a few seconds, but the energy was derived from, say,
a prehistoric tree fern absorbing sunshine for nine years." For another
illustration, consider that it is possible to drive a compact car 6 km on
the oil that would fill a pop can.
Oil is also highly portable and extremely versatile. It is used to fuel all
manner of engines from chain saws and lawn mowers to cars, trucks, heavy
machinery and jumbo jets. It gets made into a vast array of everyday items
such as asphalt, plastics, fabrics, clothing, elastic, velcro, inks, paints,
solvents, lubricants, fertilizers, pesticides, and paraffin wax.
Canadians annually consume more than 6 tonnes of oil equivalent per person.
We are highly dependent on oil (and natural gas which is also facing an
imminent production peak) for our food, heat, transportation and consumer
goods. Our current diet for instance, is based on large inputs of fossil
fuels during farming, manufacturing, and transport. It has been estimated
that at least 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are used up in the
production of every calorie that we eat. Most of the food we eat travels
thousands of kilometers before arriving at our dinner table.
Demand for oil has been steadily increasing in Canada for some time. Global
consumption has also been steadily increasing. Demand is increasing
especially quickly in several rapidly-industrializing countries such as
China and India.
World oil production follows a classic bell-curve pattern with a gradual
increase early on, followed by a steep increase to the peak, a steep decline
and gradual tapering off at the end. At the peak the world is "awash" in
oil. There is more being produced and consumed than has ever been before or
ever will be again. Past the peak, production declines sharply since much of
the remaining oil is harder to get at (under oceans and Arctic tundra for
instance), more difficult to extract and refine (from tar sands and oil
shale for example) and therefore subject to diminishing returns in terms of
the energy yield per unit of energy used for extraction.
Thus we are reaching the peak of world oil production at a time when our oil
dependence is at a very high level, demand is increasing worldwide, and
supplies are about to be sharply reduced. We can therefore expect the price
of a barrel of oil to rise to several times its present level in the years
ahead. So, while price spikes from Katrina are temporary, and prices may go
up and down for several years, at some point in the not-to-distant future
they are likely to begin an inexorable rise.
Unfortunately, alternative energy sources are not capable of replacing oil
and gas at anywhere near the scale of our current consumption. Most
alternatives are much less concentrated forms of energy, are less portable,
less versatile, more expensive, and rely on oil at some stage of their
production. Many alternatives will be used and will become increasingly
important in the future, but no combination of known alternatives will allow
energy consumption to continue at its present level.
Detailed analyses of the limitations of alternatives to fossil fuels are
available on the internet. See page two of Life After the Oil Crash
(www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net); this site was the source of inspiration for
Republican Congressman, beef farmer and scientist, Roscoe Bartlett of
Maryland, who has recently made three hour-long speeches on "Peak Oil" in
the American Congress; the speeches are on-line at www.bartlett.house.gov.
Also see Energy Bulletin (www.energybulletin.net) and the Association for
the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (www.peakoil.net).
Some names that people have coined for the difficult period we are now
entering include the "Post-Carbon Era"", the "Long Emergency" and "Energy
Descent". As oil becomes much more expensive, and rapidly becomes a scarce
commodity, we will have to learn to use a lot less energy than we currently
do. We will also have to endure a period of economic and social turmoil,
since our economy depends to a great degree on abundant cheap oil for its
functioning. On the positive side, our lives are likely to become a lot less
hectic and more centered in our local communities where we will be more
intimately involved with our friends and neighbours and more often engaged
in meaningful pursuits than is now the case.
Some have seen this coming for a long time. M. King Hubbert, the Shell Oil
geologist whose models are used today to understand the peaking phenomenon,
stated in an article in the journal Science in 1949, that "the consumption
of energy from fossil fuels is thus seen to be but a "pip", rising sharply
from zero to a maximum, and almost as sharply declining, and thus
representing but a moment in human history." He then speculated on the
impact of this "pip" on industrialized human civilization. He asked if we
will make a transition to renewable energy, or "retreat to an agrarian
civilization at a much lower population than present."
Saudi Arabians have also apparently seen the writing on the proverbial wall
as indicated by a saying they have that goes "My father rode a camel. I
drive a motor car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel."
Many positive responses to this challenge are possible. Around the world
people in small communities like ours are beginning to develop action plans
for energy descent; important initiatives include re-localizing the food
supply and developing rural transportation networks. There are also many
innovative ways of using both fossil fuels and renewable energy; the Ottawa
Valley has many pioneers in the energy field, some of whom we will be
profiling in coming articles.
As we begin to face and prepare for oil depletion here in the Ottawa Valley,
we can also take some comfort from the fact that there is great tradition of
helping your neighbour here and there is still a lot of traditional
knowledge about getting along with less energy. Both of these bode well for
how we will navigate the energy descent.