The Oil Drum: New York City

Helping New Yorkers understand, prepare and adapt to the implications of Peak Oil

Sunday, July 31, 2005

What is "Peak Oil"?


In the online community discussing the implications of peak oil, there is a growing recognition that awareness is not building fast enough to affect the types of societal changes that will be necessary to weather the coming storm. As I have learned the hard way, just saying "peak oil" is not enough.

So as a way of helping us sharpen our message to the uninitiated of what "peak oil" is, let me explain my point of view:

Peak Oil is not the end of oil but rather the end of cheap oil. Cheap oil is what fueled the economic and population booms of the 20th Century.

Oil has tripled in price in just the last 4 years (see chart - 2001: $20; Current: $60)

We've got about half the total supply of oil left that we inherited from millions of years, but it's going to be much harder (more energy spent expended) to extract that second half. The second half is also going to be a lot dirtier (high in sulphur) than the first half thus degrading the environment even more. We've got somewhere between 1-1.5 trillion barrels of oil left according to various sources. We are using almost 90 million barrels a day - over 20 million barrels a day in the United States alone.

In the back of everyone's minds they know that this is not sustainable, but most don't realize that we don't have 50-100 years to adapt. Most also don't realize that most of the world's oil was discovered before 1960 and that the US hit its peak in 1970. At most we have 10-20 years, even by optimistic goverment self-estimates of reserves from OPEC. The problem with the data is that we just don't know how much of the reserve information coming out of secretive places like Saudi Arabia and Iran to believe. Other oil industry experts that have been done extensive research on what the actual reserves might be like Mathew Simmons, Paul Roberts, Colin Campbell believe that we may reach the peak, if we aren't already at the cusp, much sooner - like within this decade. Even a major oil company, Chevron, has publically stated that they believe that we are close to a peak in oil production and need to urgently seek alternatives.

One estimate that predicts peak oil occuring soon

Without cheap oil a number of alternative energy sources will have to fill the gap and/or society must be radically re-organized to consume less oil. There is no single source of energy that can now or in the next 10 year replace oil, but rather a combination of wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, hydro, coal (preferably cleaner burning), bio-diesel and other sources that are under development or have not yet been imagined might be able to help minimize the impact of declining oil production when it occurs.

This is why urgent attention to this issue need to happen at all levels of our society, from investing more in alternative energy R&D, to re-organizing our cities and suburbs away from the automobile, to making each region more self-sufficient in meeting its own food, water and energy needs. If we wait until oil prices start to run away from our ability to sustain our society, there will be massive disruptions to our economy and potentially major dislocations of people in areas heavily dependant on cheap oil.

Personally, I think we will get through this, although not without a lot of hard work and some major negative consequences for those who are slow to adapt to the changing world.

I think New York City is probably as good a place as any to be during this and I'm not planning on heading for the hills anytime soon. The major risk I see is severe economic conditions causing urban unrest and break-downs in law and order. If things get really bad, my back-up plan is moving to Ithaca, NY where I lived during my four years at Cornell. But if we start planning now I think NYC can become a leading light in the country on how to re-organize our way of life more sustainably. Much work needs to be done and we don't know exactly when the storm will occur, but it's better to prepare as early as possible.

------

For more reading, from the less urgent to more urgent please read: Wikipedia, Energy Bulletin, Peakoil.com, Saintbryan, Kunstler, Matt Savinar, dieoff.com


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29 Comments:

At 10:19 AM, Blogger liberal elite said...

Great post. Thanks. I needed to remember the urgency.

I would like to approach police unions and military units in a direct contact campaign to highlight the issue with most of the salient points you have outlined here.

The urgency comes from our current lack of alternatives to petroleum or a parallel socio-economic structure, the uncertainty about the peak point date, and global warming.

It seems to me that in the worst case scenario the police and military are going to be deployed by the corporate chiefs and the Pentagon to suppress popular unrest and impetus to change the system. (See Bolivia, Iraq) That's why we need to educate and enlist the armed forces personnel now concerning their stake in this issue.

I know it sounds far-fetched but, police and soldiers are people, too.

 
At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Dna said...

Global warming is unimportant in the context of our current dilemma. Peak oil is a much more pressing issue and is going to affect a lot more people a lot sooner. Ironically, the less developed countries may fare better. We are too dependent on technology however.

 
At 11:04 PM, Anonymous Peak Oil News said...

Thanks for another informative article outlining the urgency of this crisis. I agree that we are not set to run out of oil, however, the impact of increasingly high oil prices will be felt across all sectors of society. Oil is not only used to fuel our transportation, but also to create plastic products. Petroleum is used extensively in agriculture and technology industries. The increasing price of oil will have a huge impact on our way of life.

Some people are waking up to this urgency. I agree that this is not happening fast enough. There is some hope, visit Alternative Energy News to keep informed on some of the daily renewable energy developments throughout the world.

 
At 12:44 PM, Blogger Kirat Singh said...

The Oil peak is imperative and an urgent crisis. We must change before its too late.
I wrote an article in this regard,
I would really appreciate the comments of those knowledgable in this field.

http://kirat92.blogspot.com/2008/06/oil-at-140-getting-our-just-desserts.html

 
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Dna said 'the less developed countries may fare better'

This is really not true at all. It is the developing countries that have the most to fear. The 1970s oil shocks were devastating to a lot of developing countries and were one of the major causes of the third world debt crisis as they borrowed money to try to cope with it. They use a lot less energy, but what they do use they are much more dependent on for their very survival, and they can be destroyed by price increases.

 
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At 5:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any discussion about oil prices over the next decade must include an attempt to quantify emerging economy demand as an important driver at the margin. Here is a simple thought experiment using Chinese demand to give some idea of the magnitude of the supply issues we face:
- China moves from 3 bbls/person/year to the South Korean per capita consumption level of 17 bbls/person/year
- Transition takes 30 years
- No peak in global production

In next 10 years we must find 44 million BOPD. If you superimpose peak production on top of this demand profile using the following parameters oil prices would increase approximately 250% in real terms over next 10 years:
- Oil demand elasticity of -0.3
- Current production 84 million BOPD, current price US$ 80
- Peak production 100 million BOPD
- Post peak decline rate of 3-4%

If you want to try the model for yourself using your own assumptions it can be found at: www.petrocapita.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=128&Itemid=86

 
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