I heard a new expression the other day – Peak Oil. And now I feel like Queen of the Stoopids for not having heard it before. I mean I know that oil is a finite resource, that we will run out one day and that’s what all the sustainable living, renewable energy clamour is about. But I hadn’t heard of the Peak Oil Movement and that the whole running out thing is imminent and possibly CATASTROPHIC. Now I do and I’m giving the whole thing some serious attention.
I write this with an element of “I knew this was coming and I know it’s time” sort of dismayed resignation, with definite panic and pangs of pre-emptive nostalgia. It seems – according to the Peak Oil Model – that these days of ours could well and truly be The Good Old Days, and I don’t want them to go. I don’t want to be saying to my grandchildren, “Guess what, Gramps and I used to fly on planes – we went all the way across the world, even to Paris!” I don’t want to carry the burden of Nostoilgia. (Already I’m fondly recalling uni days when I’d put $3 worth of petrol in.) So must I? Yes, according to the Peak Oil model, and there’s far more that a spot of wist to worry about:
(from the Peak Oil Tasmania website): “It’s real and it’s serious – the world is running out of crude oil. Life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable and it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.”
Rightio, from here on in, I’m officially taking off my blinkers and will have a good old look at the Peak Oil Movement’s claims and facts, like these ones:
- Our society is heavily reliant on oil. Oil is what’s seen the developed world develop and economies grow. Today, the world uses 83 million barrels of the stuff per day. It is the raw material for petrol, diesel and jet fuel – which means it gets us where we want to go. It also provides the base for a heap of chemicals and most plastics. Our prolific food production, processing and distribution relies on oil (farm machinery fuel, agrichemicals and fertilisers); it essentially feeds the world (in particular, the fat-arsed, portion distorted First World.)
- Oil is a fossil fuel. This means it is a source of energy created from once living things which have been layered and compressed over millions of years, then exposed to extremely high temperatures which either liquefies them into oil or converts them into natural gas. Underground, the oil and gas gathers in pools within layers of rock. These ‘traps’ or ‘wells’ are discovered, then drilled. Many superficial oil wells were discovered accidentally (think Beverly Hillbillies if you’re as ancient as me); they were quickly used up. Today, oil is actively sought and mostly drilled from the ocean floor, which is an expensive business.
- The discovery of oil peaked in the 1960’s. Today, one barrel of oil is found for every four consumed.
- The oil companies predict that the “peak oil moment” – the moment when conventional crude oil production moves into steep decline – will be in 2035. The Peak Oil Movement disagrees with this – and tells that this moment has passed, sometime in July 2008. (And there I was wondering what to get my twins for their 3rd birthday – ought it have been a veggie garden and a solar panel?).
- At first, oil decline will lead to higher prices for fuel and food. Down the track, it is projected that – along with a rapidly growing population (and right about now, Earth is hitting 7 billion; it has doubled since 1968), the worst case scenario will see “a die-off (due to starvation) from which civilisation may possibly never revive” (Dale Allen Pfieffer, 2003). Shit.
- As the price of fuel escalates, then becomes irrelevant, we will not be able to jump in the car any old time. Even the haloed electric car isn’t very green unless we plug her in to renewable energy sources to recharge it. Plus, there are evidently about 7 gallons of oil in a single tyre!
- But never mind transport – we have feet after all. What we can’t survive without is food. Post oil and overpopulation will contribute to seriously scary food shortages. Dumb and greedy agricultural management has left vast areas of arable land useless without massive inputs of oil and natural gas in the form of fertilisers and the machines needed to disperse them. Over decades, man has artificially replenished soil nutrients which has lead to huge leaps forward in agriculture and food production, in turn leading to huge leaps in the number of humans. Now, as fertilisers and machinery fuels become less accessible – and eventually inaccessible – agricultural production will have to decrease as soils go back to their overused, useless states. The end result – never mind your daily choccie fix, we humans will be delighted to see a humble egg. Holy Shit.
- There are other more extreme factions of the Peak Oil Movement who predict all sorts of chaos – riots, war, extinction of homo sapiens…but I think we’ve had enough gloom, my attention is piqued by your Peak okay, I’m on it. Enough.
So here’s how my brain worked to cope with the onslaught of all this doomage:
First I wondered why there hasn’t been more hype about all this, why our pollies aren’t desperately transition planning (the government response page on the Peak Oil Tasmania website is scarily blank) and why the bloody hell is Julia Gillard rolling out the National Broadband Network and not the National Manure Drive? Aha! I thought with relief, it must be a load of codswallop. So I scurried about in cyberspace looking for something to debunk the theories of Peak Oil and to shove it all into the scaremongery myth basket. There’s a bit of debunking out there, including:
- The oil companies (grain of salt stuff) and other opponents who actually just postpone the peak oil date by up to about thirty years.
- Others say that yes there is going to be change ahead and adjustments must be made but there is no need to get hysterical. Technology will prevail (such as efficient digital exploration sensors) and renewable energy alternatives will come to the party.
- The theory that oil production will not peak but plateau. Then it will gradually decline, not due to oil shortage price hikes but due to more efficient energy use which will slacken demand (this from the Wall St Journal, Sept 17 2011)
- New shale oil reserves have been discovered, which actually negates the oil discovery peak that happened in the 60’s. And anyway, new oil supplies are coming mostly from existing oil reserves as they are extended or added to as they become better known.
- Some say that the peak oil model is based on one man’s theory (Marion King Hubbert – yes he’s a bloke – an earth scientist who came up with the original peak model in the 50s) and a whole lot of hypothetical figures.
- The Peak Oil model is based on the theory that fossil fuels are created in such a way that makes them finite. We actually know very little about the geological origins of oil – the late Thomas Gold, an astrophysicist extensively researched the origins of oil and found, “that petroleum is being continuously created from elements residing miles deep within the earth, then there will always be some available, and could conceivably be created faster than humans burn it up.” Ooh I like that one.
OK so then I felt a bit better about it all and stopped entertaining ideas of harvesting my rampant lambs ears for use as loo paper. But then I worried that I was relaxing back into my easy oil (Kleenex Cottonelle) ways too readily and so read a whole book about Peak Oil – Confronting Collapse by Michael C. Ruperrt. And the panic rises again. Conscious that I am a bit prone to drama and hysteria, I fight the urge to sell the Volvo and search online for a sturdy horse; I try to be practical with my panic. I take an earnest look at energy alternatives, preferably renewable ones. But there is not much joy here either (yet) – all the alternatives are feeble energy-makers compared to crude oil and they all have problems of their own. Plus, when it comes to energy, there is no free lunch baby. In other words, when energy is extracted, energy is always expended – some in larger ways than others.
Here’s the alternative energy sources, explained from a Peak Oil point of view:
- Firewood – great for creating heat, not really an option for mass production of heat energy. Could lead to unauthorised wood harvesting and forest degradation, animal livelihood risks and so on…Also, too much woodsmoke leads to pollution and health problems.
- Hydroelectricity – (doesn’t even appear to feature entertained in global energy considerations and) raises more environmental concerns including compromising rainforests, interrupting ecosystems etc. Energy returns are dependent on dam sites and if it’s a remote area then greenhouse emissions can be very high. But it is renewable.
- Geothermal – this is the energy that heats natural hot springs. Has a small energy output which could be used for home heating. But the harnessing causes pollution, uses water and risks earthquakey sort of activity. Potential geothermal sites are remote.
- Wind Farms – poeople complain variously about wind farms being ugly, noisy, bird killing eyesores that fuzzy-up their tellies. Possibly more worrying is the large oil output for the production of the turbines themselves.
- Solar – sounds cleaner than Godliness but actually uses toxic materials to manufacture the PV cells (although ABC’s New Inventors recently featured paint-on solar cells or solar paint – it won the series). As it stands though, solar panel production is expensive and will take a long time to pay for itself, but is evidently our best alternative and is the way of the future.
- Tidal Energy – another spark of hopeful energy, created in a similar way to hydro, but using waves and tides, harnessing that incredible gravitational pull of the moon. Its potential is yet to be developed though, so it is still frankly incredible.
- Nuclear – uranium will peak too, potential for catastrophic accidents, pubic fear, toxic waste, high water use, at least 10 years for planning approval and construction.
- Natural Gas (methane AKA farts) – This is another fossil fuel – oil in a more heated and compressed, gas form. It is also peaking and declining and new discoveries are apparently unlikely. It is also dangerous (highly flammable, terrorist target) and expensive to transport and in most cases must be piped. Explosions are a risk. Methane is itself a greenhouse gas.
- Coal – responsible for up to 37% of Australia’s total Greenhouse gas emissions, so not exactly clean. Not to mention the environmental car-crash caused by open cut mines, water pollution, acid rain…It is non-renewable, and coal production could peak in as little as 15 years. But coal provides 40% of our energy and 76% of our electricity (via coal burning plants that create steam to power turbines).
- Clean Coal – Carbon capture and storage methods are being developed to essentially take the carbon dioxide from coal and lock it up deep underground. Only a handful of coal plants employ these techniques and others are under construction. According to Michael Ruppert, “Clean coal is one of the biggest lies in human history”, that the expense of producing it and the peak coal prediction render the whole idea ridiculous.
- Coal Seam Gas – or ‘unconventional gas’ is methane found in coal seams that are too deep to mine economically. Much of Australia’s natural gas is from coal seams, and the industry is burgeoning. But energy big-wigs are exploring for it in large agricultural tracts and even in residential areas, which puts privately owned land at risk. It’s another big polluter.
- Bio-fuels – In Australia these are biodeisel and ethanol, made from sugar cane or grain. They are blended with conventional fuels to reduce greenhouse emissions (in the late 1800’s, Rudolph Diesel first invented his engine to run on peanut oil). But they compete with food production (no matter how much used oil KFC throws in the bio-fuel bin, it will never be enough); the process uses a heap of fertilisers and water and creates pollution.
- Shale Oil – is an oil alternative extracted from a certain type of rock. There’s been a lot of excitement about it being the answer to our fuel woes, but it is much more expensive to produce, has greater environmental impact and produces piles of waste.
- Oil Sands – (bitumen) can be converted into synthetic oil. Same story as shale oil – expensive, set to destroy forests, produces waste. 1 barrel of oil produced from bitumen creates 3 times the greenhouse gas of a barrel of conventional crude.
Other than that, I have a list of brain altering strategies like: read up on permaculture and say Sorry to our soil, plant veggies, get jiggy with slow food, go to farmers’ markets, compost in earnest and above all, REDUCE my – and my family’s – consumption. And I will talk about it more, ask more questions amongst my community and make sure it is all part of my children’s everyday way of thinking. The world doesn’t need any more senseless piggy-wig consumers.
And okay, despite little bottom-hole protests in the supermarket in the form of involuntary sphinctal clenches, I will choose unbleached toilet paper. I will shun extra packaging (goodbye kiwi fruit nestled in your convenient plastic punnet, goodbye veggie chip fun size packs) and I will buy the plant-based wash-up liquid even though its scent isn’t pleasing. I will roll back my dependence on easy fuel. And maybe one day I’ll make enough of my own ice cream to off-set my large portions and the Volvo.
So maybe I’m not fighting the Peak Oil fight in giant leaps of sacrifice (like Adrienne Langman in her Peak Oil prep memoir, Choosing Eden) but by crikey I’ll fight for our planet and my children’s future; maybe that’s the same thing. And maybe the Good Oil Days are over but we can be optimistic and see it this way: – as we rediscover those old, healthier ways of living, ancient respect for our land and old fashioned community spirit in the face of change – the Good Old Days may just be ahead of us all.
PS I have discovered that since taking off my blinkers – peak oil adjustments are everywhere. So maybe you’re all saying, durr Meg you dipstick (gettit?), our house is powered by compost, I keep pigs for slaughter and I bake my own bread – haven’t been to the supermarket in years, want a piglet? And here I am feeling all superior over my attitude change and the pile of green bags in the back of my car. And the pollies are talking about it – sustainable stuff is in the news all the time, they just don’t mention peak oil, perhaps to avoid a panic rush that will see the steep decline turn into a precipice. So okay I’m an idiot but my brain’s caught up somewhat (Megoracle mission accomplished) – now I’m looking forward to the challenge and I find that I’m interested – I want to talk about it and learn. Hope it’s not too late.