| Mar 09, 2006

Feature Article - March 9, 2006

Feature Article

March 9, 2006

Global Change Part 2:Theslippery peak

Commentary by GrayMerriam

Is the oil shortage real? Yes, any way you look at it. The simplest way is to look at whether we are still increasing toward a peak of oil production or whether we are past that peak and seeing a decline in production. World production is beginning to decline. We are sliding down that slippery peak.

Oil is one of the fossil fuels that were created when large amounts of jungle-like vegetation were buried and preserved without losing the carbon content. We dig or drill for this carbon-rich material because we can bring it up to the surface and by supplying a large amount of oxygen and a spark, we can burn or explode it.


We have built a way of life around exploding fossil fuels mainly petroleum fuels gasoline, oil, natural gas. No other animals have learned how to store and transport and manipulate a source of energy that is not food energy. Our civilization depends on manipulating non-food energy. We call it technology. It has been characterized as a fossil fuel-based, automobile-centred, throwaway society. Some say civilization. Some say life style.

Although we had a fling with nuclear energy, we have not until now given serious consideration to energy sources to substitute for fossil fuels. Our civilization has come to depend on fossil fuel sources and, as with many such dependencies, fossil fuel use has shaped much of what we think of as normal and convenient. Fresh strawberries on our mid-winter table. For that convenience, for which there are many alternatives, we pay all the resource costs springing from packaging and transporting those berries in refrigerated trucks for several thousand kilometers and building and maintaining a road system that enables it all. Then there are the costs of moving the berries into individual stores, and refrigerating them all the while. Think your way through your lifestyle and find all the non-essential conveniences, like February strawberries, that you have come to consider normal.

Those habits can’t continue to be a normal part of our lives. Fossil fuels, oil in particular, are running out. We are on the down slope of global oil production. There are three basic ways of knowing that to be true. One is to see how many oil-producing countries have passed their peak in production compared to how many are still increasing in production. Among oil-producing countries, 15 have passed their peaks of production and 8 are still increasing.

Another way looks at the time lag between reaching the peak of oil discoveries and the peak of production from those discoveries. For the U.S. , discoveries peaked in 1930 and production started to decline in 1970. Since 1970 U.S. production has fallen 44% and Venezuela ’s has fallen 33%. The eight countries that have not reached their peak production will also pass their production peaks at predictable times in the near future. Until then, it is doubtful that increasing production in those eight countries will compensate for the known declines in production in the other 15 countries.

The third way to see that oil is running out is to look at the investment behaviour of the big oil companies and their reasons for those business decisions. The oil giants are buying back as much as they can of the stock in their own companies, because the value of oil is going to increase in the future as the supply decreases. There is lots of evidence. Companies are being told by their oil geologists that 95% of all the oil has already been discovered. That is supported by the fact that, even with oil above $50 per barrel, very little new oil is being found. Discovery is falling off steeply. The annual rise in demand for oil is increasing at 2 million barrels per day and the annual production is going down at 4 million barrels per day. Petroleum geologists agree that there is no way that new discoveries can fill that increasing gap between demand and falling production. Because of the cost and the need for other resources such as water and natural gas for the processing, oil sands are seen to do no more than slow the increasing gap between demand and declining production.

So if China increases to 1.45 billion people by 2031 (25 years from now!) and India grows even larger than that and there are about 3 billion more people in the other developing countries, and they all hold the ‘American Dream’ of 'consumerism' as their ideal lifestyle, the oil demand will become absolutely impossible to fill.

For more details and discussion see “Plan B 2.0”, 2006, by Lester Brown, from the Earthwatch Institute or go to www.earthpolicy.org or wait for more to follow from here.

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