Shuck and Jive

Monday, May 11, 2009

Imagining a Post-Oil Future

It appears that we have reached the peak. Even the Wall Street Journal is finally reporting on it. It is not a headline, of course. A blogger for WSJ wrote last week:

Global production of petroleum peaked in the first quarter of last year, says analysts Raymond James, which “represents a paradigm shift of historic proportions. Unfortunately, mankind better get ready to live in a peak oil world because we believe the ‘peak’ is now behind us.”

Raymond James’s notes that non-OPEC oil production apparently peaked in the first quarter of 2007, and given precipitous falls in oil output from Russia to Mexico, there’s not much hope for a recovery. OPEC production—and thus global output—peaked a little later, in the first quarter of 2008, Raymond James says.

The contention rests on a simple argument: OPEC oil production actually fell even as oil prices were above $100 a barrel, a sign of the “tyranny of geology” that limits the easy production of ever-more crude.

“Those declines had to have come for involuntary reasons such as the inherent geological limits of oil fields … We believe that the oil market has already crossed over to the downward sloping side of Hubbert’s Peak,” the analysts write.

This should be headline news in every paper. The president should be speechifying about this every chance he gets. He should be preparing us for reality. But it is too frightening, I suppose. Instead we prop up a dead system with stimulus funds to build...roads? For what? Military vehicles?

Peak oil does not mean the oil has run out, of course. It means we have already drilled, processed, and sent into the atmosphere half of it. The first casualty is the economy which is based on growth. You can't grow a growth economy unless you increase energy input.

Just a few hours ago Energy Current posted this editorial, a summary of our economic collapse as it relates to the peak of oil production:

The lesson to be drawn is that conservation can work within limits, but at some point, there is a straw that breaks the camel's back and the whole system collapses. Ultimately, the inability of the oil supply to keep pace with global demand proved to be a key contributing factor to the current recession.

James Quinn of the Cutting Edge provides a fine summary of what peak oil means and he puts it creatively and bluntly:

When oil prices collapsed from $147 a barrel in the summer of 2008 to $35 a barrel in January 2009, American drivers, Congress, government bureaucrats, and the mainstream media refocused on other more pressing issues such as executive bonuses, Michele Obama’s wardrobe, and the tax law knowledge of Obama’s cabinet. The attention span of the average American is shorter than that of a gnat. As they text and twitter through life, the energy infrastructure continues to rust away, decades old wells are closer to depletion, and alternative energy projects have been scrapped by the thousands. Peak oil likely occurred between 2005 and 2009. The production of oil will now embark on a long slow decline. The world is not prepared.

It is time to imagine a new future. James Howard Kunstler is one of my favorite analysts. In addition to his non-fiction works regarding energy and the economy, he has written a novel, World Made By Hand: A Novel of the Post-Oil Future. Here is a review of it and a few other novels in this genre of speculative fiction.

This is the good work ahead of us now. The oil-based economy is has been an unsustainable charade. The Cheese Doodles, ipods, and SUVs were great fun for some. That party is over. Hopefully it will end with a whimper and not a bang. We need to imagine and make choices about what life is going to be like in the next few decades, and imagine it as a possibility of healing and justice for Earth and its inhabitants.

Here is James Kuntsler on Colbert. Good show.


  1. Cheese Doodles I can live without. I'll be finding a solar power source for my iPod, however.

  2. "It means we have already drilled, processed, and sent into the atmosphere half of it."

    As I understand it, Peak Oil is not about the quantity of oil in the ground but the accessibility and price of getting that oil out of the ground. Basically the easy-to-get, high-quality oil is becoming scarce. Hence it is the era of cheap oil that is oversville.

  3. I think cheese doodles are a better symbol of the problem than iPods. I'm currently reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which I highly recommend. The book details the Kingsolver family’s effort to drop off the food grid and only eat locally produced food. A lot of our food supply is pretty oily (rhetorically speaking) and we will have to make drastic changes to the way we procure food and to our diets in a post-oil future. The average meal has traveled 1,500 miles to get to your plate, often in a refrigerated truck. Our food choices reflect our energy policies.

  4. Thanks, Scott. Here is a more precise definition from "The Cutting Edge" article I cited in the post:

    "Peak oil does not mean that we are in imminent danger of running out of oil. Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction was reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline."

    Bob and Snad,

    Wondering how our church community can be a positive resource. This is the big question I have been asking myself for some time (with no answer).

  5. We've got a good group of people who are doing good things at the church, already. We need to build on that and be disciplined - force ourselves away from convenience items like plastic forks and such.

    I would like to see us read that Kingsolver book as a congregation. Food is a BIG DEAL, not just for eliminating wasteful energy use, but for maintaining control of our lives at the very foundation. She doesn't live that far away, you know. I wonder if we could get her to the church and have a "Local food" event to go with it.

  6. Great idea on the Kingsolver book. I agree completely in regards to the interests our folks have regarding these issues and how to re-orient ourselves!

  7. I've been considering solar panels. When you have the whole thing installed it costs a lot. If you make your own panels and install them they cost a lot less. Take a look at this on EBay:|66%3A2|65%3A12|39%3A1|240%3A1309|301%3A1|293%3A1|294%3A50

  8. We'd have to cut down a lot of beautiful and healthy trees to make solar panels efficient here, Bob.

    But, the upside is that with all the shade, we don't run much a/c here. And our hot water consumption is so low that it would never be a worth-while investment to install solar just for water.

    Now, maybe if they made pv panels that could be installed in asphalt, so they could convert heat from parking lots into energy...

  9. Snad

    Heat energy radiates a different type of power, (heart) than does what solar powers collect, I think.

    However there is a simple way to get energy from a parking lot if people are willing to pay a small price up front. Run water lines under the asphalt. One can then use the energy in several different ways:

    1. Store the water in your hot water heater and disconnect the heater from electrical or other power.

    2. Store the heat in sand underneath your back yard and use the heat to heat your house in the winter and heat the water in your water heater.

    3. Use the hot water to turn a turbine that provides electricity.

    We are so enslaved to oil and coal we don't see the obvious in front of our faces.

    I'm sure there are other ways to collect radiant heat energy but that's my simple solution.

    BTW you can also heat water by running it over your roof if you aren't overrun by trees. Ghost ranch has had this type of energy on a few houses for over 25 years. Of course it works better in a semi arid climate.

  10. Bob -

    It is true the different sources generate heat differently. The key is how that energy gets stored and reused.

    Great information on the sand storage, etc. I'll look into it, as I'm always open to learning about alternatives. Home heating/cooling is the biggest user of energy - and around here it is almost a part of the culture to keep the house closed up and the heat pump n 24/7/52. I rarely see windows open. People need to start opening windows, planting trees to shade the houses, and using geo-thermal for heat in these parts. That would be a great start.

    When it comes time to replace the roof on our house, I am hoping we can afford super-insulated metal roofing that incorporates pv panels. I'd also like to see if we can convert to geo-thermal when the old heat pump bites the dust.