"We've been discovering less oil with every passing year to the point now where we're extracting and using about 4 or 5 barrels of oil for every 1 that we discover."
—Richard Heinberg, 2007, interviewed in "What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire" documentary
Greetings on the day after the resplendent inauguration. Yesterday President Obama mentioned "that the ways we use energy ... threaten our planet."
Along with the ways we use energy, the levels we have consumed of finite, non-renewable fossil fuels — the energy source that powers the bulk of what makes our civilization run — have brought us to a unique moment in our history.
Consider the following description by Richard Heinberg of how lavish our lifestyle is in terms of the amount of energy used to drive it:
Americans, more than the people of any other region, have learned to take high-energy living standards for granted. In order to gain some perspective on this accustomed standard, it might be helpful to perform a little experiment. Try running up three flights of stairs in twenty seconds. If you weigh 150 pounds and the three flights go up forty feet, you will have done 6,000 foot-pounds of work in twenty seconds, or 300 foot-pounds per second. One horsepower equals 550 foot-pounds per second; therefore, you will have just generated a little over half a horsepower. But no one could sustain such a burst of muscle-energy all day long. The average sustained human power output is roughly one-twentieth of a horsepower.
This exercise is useful (even if performed only in imagination) in comparing human power with the power of the machines that maintain our modern way of life. Suppose human beings were powering a generator connected to one 150-watt light bulb. It would take five people's continuous work to keep the light burning. A 100-horsepower automobile cruising down the highway does the work of 2,000 people. If we were to add together the power of all of the fuel-fed machines that we rely on to light and heat our homes, transport us, and otherwise keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed, and then compare that total with the amount of power that can be generated by the human body, we would find that each American has the equivalent of over 150 "energy slaves" working for us 24 hours each day. In energy terms, each middle-class American is living a lifestyle so lavish as to make nearly any sultan or potentate in history swoon with envy.
pp. 30-31, The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, New Society Publishers (2003)
See also: John H. Lienhard, Power Production, http://uh.edu/engines/epi277.htm
In December Heinberg wrote an important article (expanded with references in January) that is a proposal for the Obama Administration's response to economic, environmental, and energy challenges on the situation we face with regard to fossil fuel depletion titled, "The Real New Deal; Energy Scarcity and the Path to Energy, Economic, and Environmental Recovery" (HTML, PDF). The Executive Summary sets the framework:
Our continued national dependence on fossil fuels is creating a dangerous vulnerability to both long-term fuel scarcity and catastrophic climate change.
The current economic crisis requires substantial national policy shifts and enormous new government injections of capital into the economy. This provides an opportunity for a project whose scope would otherwise be inconceivable: a large-scale, fast-track transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
This project must happen immediately; indeed, it may already be too late. We have already left behind the era of cheap fossil fuels, with a permanent decline of global oil production likely underway within three years.[1,2] Moreover, the latest research suggests we have less than eight years to bring carbon emissions under control if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change. Lacking this understanding of the urgency of fossil fuel depletion and climate change, a mere shift away from foreign oil dependence will fail to meet the challenges at hand.
The energy transition must not be limited to building wind turbines and solar panels. It must include the thorough redesign of our economic and societal infrastructure, which today is utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. It must address not only our transportation system and electricity grid, but also our food system and building stock.
Our 21st century nations dependence on 20th century fossil fuels is the root of the economic and environmental threats we face. A coordinated, comprehensive transition to an economy that is no longer dependent on hydrocarbon fuels and no longer emits climate-changing levels of carbon — a Real New Deal for a post-carbon world — will be the Obama Administration's greatest opportunity to lead the nation on a path toward economic, energy and environmental recovery.
- Gold, R. & Davis, A. (2007, November 19). Oil Officials See Limit Looming on Production, The Wall Street Journal. New York.
[See Also analysis at: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3265]
- Lerch, D. (2007) Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. Sebastopol: Post Carbon Press. Page 12.
- Hansen, J. (2006, July 13). The Threat to the Planet. New York Review of Books. New York.
In 1956, U.S. geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that oil production from the US lower 48 states would peak between 1966 and 1972. The actual peak occurred in 1970.
As Heinberg writes in The Party's Over (pp. 98-99),
Following his predictions of the US production peak, Hubbert devoted his efforts to forecasting the global productin peak. With the figures then available for the likely total recoverable world petroleum reserves, he estimated that the peak would come between the years 1990 and 2000. This forecast would prove too pessimistic, partly because of inadequate data and partly because of minor flaws in Hubbert's method. Nevertheless, as we will see shortly, other researchers would later refine both input data and method in order to arrive at more reliable predictions — ones that would vary only about a decade from Hubbert's.
Hubbert immediately grasped the vast economic and social implications of this information. He understood the role of fossil fuels in the creation of the modern industrial world, and thus foresaw the wrenching transition that would likely occur following the peak in global extraction rates. In lectures and articles, starting in the 1950s, Hubbert outlined how society needed to change in order to prepare for a post-petroleum regime. The following passage, part of a summary by Hubbert of one of his own lectures (from 9/30/81), conveys some of the breadth and flavor of his macrosocial thinking:
The world's present industrial civilization is handicapped by the coexistence of two universal, overlapping, and incompatible intellectual systems: the accumulated knowledge of the last four centuries of the properties and interrelationships of matter and energy; and the associated monetary culture which has evloved from folkways of prehistoric origin.
The first of these two systems has been responsible for the spectacular rise, principally during the last two centuries, of the present industrial system and is essential for its continuance. The second, an inheritance from the prescientific past, operates by rules of its own having little in common with those of the matter-energy system. Nevertheless, the monetary system, by means of a loose coupling, exercises a general control over the matter-energy system upon which it is super[im]posed.
Despite their inherent incompatibilities, these two systems during the last two centuries have had one fundamental characteristic in common, namely, exponential growth, which has made a reasonably stable coexistence possible. But, for various reasons, it is impossible for the matter-energy system to sustain exponential growth for more than a few tens of doublings, and this phase is by now almost over. The monetary system has no such constraints, and, according to one of its most fundamental rules, it must continue to grow by compound interest.
Richard Heinberg is one of many authors who have studied and written extensively about fossil fuel depletion and the implications for the human project. On December 8, 2008, in an article titled "The Peak Everything Year," he reiterated his understanding that the peak of global oil production occurred last summer:
For those who understand the overwhelming importance of fossil fuel depletion, the signal event of 2008 was without doubt the oil price spike that sent the cost of a barrel of crude rocketing to $147. Knock-on effects were as anticipated: the airline industry contracted, the auto industry went on life support, food prices jolted upward, and the overall economy went into reverse ... Due to all of these things, the demand for oil subsequently peaked and began to slide, which in turn caused the price to plummet, with no end currently in sight.
I am among several commentators who have gone on record as saying that July 2008 will turn out to have been the all-time record month for world petroleum production. With the price so high (in July), all producers were pumping flat out. And now, with the price so low, there is no incentive to make the required enormous investments in future productive capacity, so that when demand picks up again (and it may be a few years before that happens), new additions to supply will not be sufficient to overcome the capacity erosion that will have accumulated in the interim due to depletion and decline in existing oilfields. Say goodbye to Peak Oil: it's history now.
President Obama extolled us to align ourselves with the work of finding solutions to the challenges we now face:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
Page 5 of "The Real New Deal" speaks to a primary challenge we must address while there is still time to realize and manifest the change that is needed:
By taking up a de-carbonized renewal of America's transportation system, electricity system, food system, and housing stock, the new Administration can address a number of problems simultaneously: climate change, economic contraction and unemployment, environmental destruction, resource depletion, geopolitical competition for control of energy, balance of trade deficits, the threat of hunger, and more.
The energy transition plan must not be merely a wish list of good ideas, but a prioritized, staged program with robust funding and hard yet realistic targets. Further, it must be presented to the American people in a compelling way: public education on a massive scale will be required to help ordinary citizens understand what is at stake and how sacrifices undertaken now can build a better world tomorrow.
Despite the need for public buy-in, the purpose of this document is not to outline a program that will be an easy "sell" from a political standpoint. Rather, its intent is to set forth what is actually needed in order to save America and the world from economic and environmental collapse — and what is needed may not be easy or palatable. Somehow the necessary must be reconciled with the possible, but it is the empirical requirements for survival that are ultimately decisive. It will be the task of leaders at all levels of government to mold political realities to fit those requirements.
The current financial calamity is appearing at perhaps the last historic moment when action to avert a climate catastrophe has a chance of succeeding. Crisis is nearly always an opportunity for someone or something. In the current instance, economic crisis affords the opportunity for bold action of a kind and on a scale that would otherwise seem unacceptable.
May 2009 see the inauguration of a genuine sea change in the way we see ourselves and our world and how we respond to the challenges life presents us with in this time.
- "The Real New Deal; Energy Scarcity and the Path to Energy, Economic, and Environmental Recovery," by Richard Heinberg, January 10, 2009
HTML at: http://www.postcarbon.org/real-new-deal
PDF at: http://www.postcarbon.org/files/real-new-deal.pdf
- Oil Depletion and the Fate of the World — A Synopsis of Richard Heinberg's book: The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2004)
- Peak oil primer, Links, What Can Be Done? Energy Bulletin
- Peaking Of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management. By Robert L. Hirsch, SAIC, Project Leader, Roger Bezdek, MISI Robert Wendling, MISI, February 2005
Full Report: http://www.netl.doe.gov/publications/others/pdf/Oil_Peaking_NETL.pdf
- Post Carbon Institute
- The Oil Depletion Protocol
A Plan for a Sensible Energy Future
- The Relocalization Network
- ASPO International
The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas