A snarky guide to peak oil

TVPeakOIl Guide

One endorsement of the Transition Voice Peak Oil Guide. Photo: Hetemeel.com.

“Peak oil” is starting to pop up in the media more and more these days. Everybody from Glenn Beck to the Sierra Club says that the world is running out of cheap oil and that this could be, well, inconvenient, for the global economy. But really, What is peak oil and what does it mean for you? And most importantly, is peak oil just another excuse for Beck to hawk Goldline or for Al Gore to seek more subsidies for solar panels?

Not to worry. Transition Voice’s Snarky Guide to Peak Oil sorts it all out for you. Or double your money back. That’s a promise.

What is peak oil?

mountain peak

Is it about scaling the Jungfrau or trekking the Annapurnas? Or "peak performance" fitness training? No, it's not. So, it's time to retire the stock-photo mountaintop in peak oil stories.

The collapse of society? Mutant zombie bikers in the streets? Fox News commentator Neil Cavuto starring in his own prime-time TV reality show?

Peak oil is not the end of the world, but it will be the end of the Oil Age. That doesn’t mean we’re running out of oil, but it does mean the world is running out of cheap oil. And talk about bad timing — world oil has peaked just when countries like China, India and Brazil have started to use lots of oil for the first time, competing with America, Europe and Japan for the second half of world oil.

“How did OUR gas wind up in THEIR tanks?”
More Customers + Less Oil = Higher Prices.

Peak oil is as much about the economy and politics as it is about geology. And it’s not just about pain at the pump, though it couldn’t hurt to trade your pick-up truck for a Prius soon — or better yet, try to work and shop closer to home. Peak oil is also about paying more for all the stuff that oil makes possible, from bread made with wheat grown on factory farms to polo shirts and DVDs imported from China.

Peak oil, combined with climate change, might just mean the end of shopping as we know it, in the words of Australian author Paul Gilding.

Why should you care?

We dare you to find one thing in your daily life today, from heat and light to the food you eat, the water you drink and even the air you breathe in your home or office, that’s not somehow made possible by oil. Go ahead, try it.

There, you see? Modern humans are basically marinated in oil. Sounds tasty, huh? Anyway, since the world reached the half-way point of oil in 2006, almost everything we do from now on will become more expensive. Some things, like vacations by plane, might get so expensive that they may soon disappear for all but the very wealthy.

When gas gets to $10 a gallon, you’ll have much bigger questions than how much it costs to drive to WalMart. For example, “Is an XBox really worth $18,000?” or even “Will WalMart still be open?”

Who came up with peak oil?

M. King Hubbert at home in 1975

Hubbert at home in 1975. He liked 'em curvy. Photo: mindfully.org.

M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist working for Shell in Houston, first outlined the theory that oil production follows a bell curve in 1956. This curve became known as the Hubbert Curve, which has become almost as famous as the Laffer Curve, though offering significantly less humor (83% fewer laffs).

Colin Campbell, a British petroleum geologist and co-founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), coined the term “peak oil” in December, 2000. Fun fact: unlike these people or these or even these, apparently Colin Campbell has completely slacked on the chance to cash in on his own concept of peak oil.

Who disagrees?

Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, says that peak oil may come someday, but probably not before 2030. Free-market think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute agree and encourage America to start exploiting “unconventional” fossil fuels like tar sands and shale gas to replace the cheap, easy oil of today. Caveat: Though both Yergin’s company and free-market think tanks gladly accept money from large oil companies, their results are in no way biased towards, say, encouraging people to rely on oil for years to come.

Who else doesn’t believe in peak oil?

It’s clear that nearly every big company that makes products from basketball shoes to smart phones is acting like there will be plenty of cheap oil left for decades to come. Otherwise, why would they continue to move their factories to China, far away from their biggest markets in the US and Europe?

What’s so special about oil?

What politician’s speech on energy would be c0mplete without noting that oil is “the lifeblood of the economy”? That is, if the global industrial economy were alive, and if it were a mammal that had warm blood coursing through its supply-side veins, that blood would be crude oil. Or as we like to call it, Black Gold, Texas Tea or Saudi Sex Serum.

Anyway, oil powers nine out of every ten miles traveled by Americans and our stuff. You know, everything we transport.

It’s also a key ingredient in chemicals, prescription drugs and plastics, making billions of products possible or at least more affordable. Without oil, there would be no IV bags, iPods or IROCs. And if you’re feeling a little blue, without oil you could forget about Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, Effexor or Cymbalta — as in caveman times, you’d have to walk over to the corner tavern and order a Boiler Maker. At least they’d have Neolithic Beer Nuts though, right on the stalk, which you can’t get from Pfizer.

Can’t we find new sources of oil?

People who make money drilling and mining say affordable oil can come in the future from “unconventional” sources from tar sands to oil deep under the oceans. Oil from deep under the Arctic Sea is now becoming easier to get, thanks to melting melting ice caps, produced largely by burning oil in the first place. How conven-ient! But no matter how much easier this playing-hard-to-get oil may become, it will never be as squirty as the crude of the past, gushing 50 yards into the air from Old Spindletop in the thirties or a-bubblin’ out from under Jed Clampett’s boot. And despite (or because of) fancy technology, tomorrow’s difficult oil will be many times more expensive than today’s easy oil.

Worst of all, goop from Canadian tar sands or crude from thousands of feet under the ocean floor is dirtier and more dangerous than old-timey easy oil, so it’s a disaster for local communities and the global climate. Remember: Deepwater Horizon = Deep Doo Doo.

What about clean energy like solar and wind?

Solar panels in Barcelona

We're late getting started with clean energy, so every bit we can do now is crucial. Photo: Xelcise via Flickr.

Truly renewable sources  of energy offer our best promise for energy in the future. But they have a couple of big challenges.

  • Solar, wind and tidal power produce electricity, rather than the liquid fuels that power 95% of transportation today. Switching over all our cars, trucks, boats, trains and planes from diesel and gas to batteries might not even be possible. But if it were, it would cost trillions of dollars and take 30 years or longer. And you thought Cash for Clunkers was a complicated program? We just don’t have the time or money for the federal government to buy up all of America’s ’95 Ford Tauruses and distribute EV Tesla Roadsters in exchange.
  • Even if they were ramped up on a war-footing starting today, it would probably take decades for solar, wind and other renewable sources to equal the energy we get from oil today. That’s because of “net energy” — the amount of energy it takes to produce more energy.

Why’s everybody so worked up about “net energy”?

All energy sources are not created equal. In technical terms, some are “proven” or “promising.” Others are “bogus” or “bullsh#t.” Just as you have to spend money to earn money, so you have to use energy to get energy. And just as some financial investments (mortgage-backed securities, anyone?) go bust, some energy sources turn out to be more trouble than they’re worth.

With money, if you invest a dollar and get $100 back, that’s a great investment. With enough capital, you can maintain a few yachts at that rate. But what if you invest a dollar and get only 90 cents back? If you lose money like that for too long, you can forget about yachts — you’ll have to put your house on the market. It’s the same with energy. If your energy source gives a positive return, like oil from Saudi Arabia, then you’re looking at happy motoring. But if your energy source actually gives a negative return — if it takes more energy to produce than you get out of it — then you’re going to be driving on fumes pretty soon.

ethanol sign

Some energy ideas owe less to physics than to politics. Photo: swanksalot via Flickr.

Are some energy sources actually negative?

It’s hard to believe, but yes, some energy schemes provide less energy than it takes to run them. For example, to distill ethanol from Iowa corn can require more energy from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas to produce than the energy you get when you burn the ethanol in your car’s gas tank. That’s not an energy source: it’s an energy sink. And the main reason Americans find ethanol at their gas pumps these days is political, not rational. Relying on more bad ideas like that would pretty soon put us into energy bankruptcy. (If you want to read more about “energy return on energy invested” or EROEI, knock yourself out).

What “net energy” does society need to function?

Even if deepwater oil, natural gas from shale, or tidal power doesn’t deliver the huge bang for the buck of the best oil, these other energy sources do still give a positive return, don’t they? Can’t society make do on energy sources that give at least twice or three times as much energy as they take to produce? That still puts us in the black. If it were money, any investor would be overjoyed to double or triple their investment. It should be the same with energy, right?

Not so fast there, buckaroo. As great as doubling or tripling sounds when it comes to dollars, when it comes to energy, it just ain’t enough. Our whole system of flying red wine from Chile to San Francisco or shipping DVRs from China to Copenhagen depends on an energy yield far greater than double or triple. Indeed, Nicole Foss has said that our industrial economy requires energy sources that deliver at least ten times more energy than it takes to produce them. And few sources except conventional oil, gas and coal deliver such a big bang for the buck. Others are more like your passbook savings account. Are you enjoying that 0.25% interest you’re getting these days?

And the worst energy schemes are little better than subprime-mortgages — they sound too good to be true because they are.

Can’t fuel cells give us an unlimited supply of cheap energy?

It seems like fuel cells and the “hydrogen economy” have been 20 years away for half a century. But do you see any hydrogen cars in the parking lot at the grocery store? Any fuel cells on your neighbors’ roofs? No, we didn’t think so. And unlike wind and solar, which have also been around for decades but are now growing at rapid rates, energy from hydrogen does not show any promise of becoming affordable any time soon.

Because money talks and BS walks, if the hydrogen economy was an apprentice working for Donald Trump, it would’ve been fired in the first season.

Aren’t there other new sources of energy?

unicorn with a rainbow

We're not saying that ALL high-tech energy schemes are rainbows and unicorns. Oh, heck. Yes we are. Photo: scorpiorules58 via Flickr.

Cold fusion, zero-point energy, free energy — for centuries, humans have been seeking perpetual motion machines. Modern pseudo-physics has been exploring free energy schemes for half a century or more. But somehow they haven’t worked. It seems that the laws of thermodynamics are more definitive than the US Tax Code.

Throughout human history, our only sources of real energy have been 1) sun, wind and water 2) the muscle power of people and animals or 3) burning stuff like wood, coal and oil. So, finding new energy sources that aren’t one of those three would be unprecedented in human history.

But, hey, it could happen! Of course, you could also get hit by an asteroid shaped like the Nike™ swoosh or get a six-foot-long check from Publishers Clearing House. But is counting on that a sensible plan for the future?

Peak oil experts warn us to stop hoping for a new source of energy to save us and get used to the idea that the sources we have now are probably all we can count on. Then, if some unexpected new energy idea saves us before the end of the movie, we can all be pleasantly surprised.

Can’t “all of the above” put together add up to the energy we’ll need?

After extensive research, mild-mannered peak oil butt-kicker Richard Heinberg has concluded that no amount of energy efficiency, clean energy, nuclear power and unconventional fossil fuels can replace oil at the prices that we’re used to paying. Nearly all peak oil advocates think that we have no choice — society will just have to make do with much less energy in the future, maybe as much as 90% less. At that point, your big screen TV will be handy as a bulletin board. If you can put some cork on it, that is.

How bad will it be to do without cheap energy?

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Will the future be all apocalypse-tribal like in "Mad Max"? If so, expect a world of mohawks and leather chaps.

James Howard Kunstler believes that when peak oil is really felt in society things could get scary — the economy could collapse, industry could disappear and the United States could break up into several smaller countries — as we enter what he’s called “The Long Emergency.” But not all traces of civilization would disappear. For example, there would probably still be old plastic bottles, old cars, crumbling big-box stores and the music of John Tesh, all of which would make excellent salvage and scrap.

Many peak oil writers foresee an end to two centuries of economic growth and global consumerism, but some think society can find a gentler landing. Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition movement, predicts that a low-tech future where life is more local, will have its challenges but that it could improve our lives overall, giving us fewer material things but more meaning.

“He who dies with the most toys wins”? No, that’s not it at all. It’s more like, “He who’s the most Amish wins.” And what does he win? Maybe just the chance to have a long beard without anybody razzing him about a shave. Because shaving will be pretty much optional at that point.

Should you panic right now, or just plan to panic later?

OK, so you can’t stop peak oil. Nobody can. And we’re pretty sure that nobody can stop peak oil from having a huge impact on society either. We know that sounds scary. But whatever you do, don’t, please, don’t flip out. Just take a deep breath and sit a minute. The good news is that there’s still time to prepare your family and your community for peak oil. So relax.

On the other hand, don’t get too chill. We know it’s tempting to just blow it off, dude, and kick back with some Pabst Blue Ribbons and an all-night marathon playing World of Warcraft. But it won’t get rid of that nagging feeling that you should try to do something. If you want relief, it’s not spelled R-O-L-A-I-D-S. It’s spelled A-C-T-I-O-N.

Seriously, what can you do?

Why not start to educate yourself about peak oil and then begin to prepare yourself, your family and your community for a future where energy is much more expensive? We recommend connecting with Transition, a worldwide movement helping people and communities to use fewer fossil fuels and become more resilient.

If you can find a Transition group near you (and there are about 400 of them around the world, with nearly 100 official groups in the US alone) you’ll make new friends while doing things like insulating houses, planting community gardens and working with City Hall to start a local clean-energy utility. Even if peak oil doesn’t hit your community hard for years, using less energy and less stuff will save you money and make you feel good right now.

Isn’t activism just a waste of time?

350.org protest

Even if it doesn't accomplish a darned thing, activism will make you feel more alive, studies show. Photo: 350.org.

If you think that the world economy will collapse in the next 60-90 days, don’t bother with politics. Just buy as many cases of .12-gauge shells and cans of pork ‘n beans as you can and drive them out to your bug-out location as soon as possible.

But nobody knows exactly what the future will look like or when the really big changes will hit. We think it’s worthwhile to take inspiration from Colin Campbell (remember, he’s the guy who came up with the phrase “peak oil”) and Richard Heinberg (who’s written like a bazillion pages on the topic). These guys understand peak oil and how scary it can be about as well as anyone else on Earth. So it would be easy for them to get cynical or to say that there’s no point in wasting time with national governments at this late hour. Yet, these über-peak-oilers still see a point to doing politics.

What kind of activism isn’t totally bogus?

Anything that helps your town, state or country to conserve energy and resources or to re-localize its economy will help prepare for peak oil. For instance, Campbell and Heinberg have even campaigned for industrialized countries to adopt the Oil Depletion Protocol and plan to voluntarily cut their oil imports a little bit each year to soften the blow of peak oil on our economies. And if Campbell and Heinberg can find time in their schedules for activism while still doing their own personal peak oil prep, then you can take time out from your community garden to sign a petition or go to a meeting too.

  • Join environmental groups that are working for policies on the federal level that would cut America’s dependence on fossil fuels.
  • Join industry and labor groups that would help re-build domestic manufacturing.
  • Join lots of people who want to encourage more food to be grown locally and organically.

To help all of the above, why not get involved in the growing movement to take our democracy back from big corporate polluters and other special interests who have been blocking good energy policies for three decades?

Where can you learn more?

  • Check out our Picky List of Peak Oil Resources, a manageable collection of the best books and documentaries on peak oil. We’ve even embedded our favorite short web videos on peak oil for your viewing pleasure.
  • For a more charty-graphy discussion, see Energy Bulletin’s Peak Oil Primer.

Once you’ve gotten the peak oil bug, you’ll find there’s lots more to watch and read. You’ll never want to waste your time watching Law and Order: SVU again. Happy hunting!