Peak oil in a nutshell

Well, over a week has passed since my last post, which was a bit of an unexpected diversion into democracy and planning. Today I’m going to post no more than 500 words on peak oil – what it is ‘in a nutshell’ (more on nutshells later). Thanks, Jeff, for the suggestion!
Peak oil refers to the point at which the global production of conventional oil (i.e. the cheap and easy stuff) reaches a peak, after which production declines. The concept of peaking applies to any non-renewable resource and it’s important to remember that it relates to production – oil is not about to run out. There will always be some oil left in the ground as we will only extract oil so long as it is economically viable to do so.
Peak oil was first described in the 1950s by a petroleum geologist called M. King Hubbert. Hubbert wondered why production from individual oil wells always reached a peak when about half of the oil remained. He went on to apply his peaking theory to regions, countries and indeed the whole world. In 1956, Hubbert presented his findings which stated that the US would peak between 1965 and 1970 – this was before the oil of Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico was known about, yet he was surprisingly accurate. Despite concerted efforts to produce more oil, the US did indeed peak in conventional oil production at the end of 1970.
Hubbert was ridiculed – the US was the world’s foremost oil-producing nation at the time and geologists just kept finding more oil. This stuff would never run out and boy was it useful – it couldn’t run out. But Hubbert wasn’t talking about oil running out, was he? People never like to hear about something which might stop them having a good time. Even today, while peak oil is much more widely known about, there are still many sceptics (let’s face it, climate change still has its sceptics and there’s a lot more effort invested in understanding climate change).
In 2005, Robert Hirsch published a report, commissioned by the US Department of Energy, on how to mitigate the impacts of peak oil. The report concluded that, “Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking”. Hmm, so when is peak? No one knows.  The year of peak will only ever be seen in the rear view mirror – who knows how much new oil will come onto market or how the global economy will fluctuate (nothing reduces demand for oil like a good old economic depression). And anyway, if we agreed on the year of peak, would that kick us out of our stupor? No, there are too many powerful vested interests who peddle the myth that technology will save the day. Technology does not create energy, it uses it. We are racing towards a low-energy future without a plan – we need an energy transition.

About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
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6 Responses to Peak oil in a nutshell

  1. Jeff Rice says:

    Ok, good so far, but what are the solutions? What can we do to transform society (away from oil) and still keep a good standard of living?

    • mandy meikle says:

      Hi Jeff – in my opinion, we cannot stop using oil and keep ‘a good standard of living’ as it’s currently defined by the mainstream (i.e. having gadgets with an ‘i-‘ in front of them, big tellies, the latest fashions and other non-essential things like foreign holidays, posh restaurants and fast cars). This good standard of living, that some of us enjoy, is primarily thanks to oil – the biggest energy bank of the lot. Your question is crucial though as it raises the vital question of what is ‘a good standard of living’? Food, water and shelter are the essentials, income is important but money can be re-thought (e.g. Freecycling, LETS schemes, swapshops and good old-fashioned bartering). Transport is good (after all, you have to get to where the food or income potential is), as are health and education and community. But the admen have sold us the lie that having more ‘stuff’ is all that matters and it makes us happier – we know that’s a lot of tosh!

      I think our extraordinary level of energy consumption is ‘the problem’ and reducing energy demand is ‘the solution’, although that is easier said than done. People simply do not get net energy – energy in versus energy out. Low carbon futures imply that we can consume our way out of this – buy a different lightbulb, fridge, car… I remember speaking to a geologist with green tendancies who said, “I can imagine a low carbon future but I cannot imagine a low energy one”. Just because we cannot imagine that something bad (if, indeed, a low energy future is bad) might be up ahead doesn’t mean we should stick our heads in the sand and hope it goes away. Peak oil raises harder issues to deal with mentally, or culturally, than climate change alone. Yes, we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels for the sake of the climate AND because they simply won’t be economically viable at some undetermined point in the future, but we must not replace fossil fuels with energy-intensive solutions such as biofuels, hydrogen or nuclear power.

      And as for the solutions, I have never pretended that I have “the solutions” but the analogy I use (as I’m asked about solutions a lot!) is that if I saw a forest fire, I would have no idea how to put it out. But I would not go home & pretend it wasn’t happeneing – I’d tell someone (e.g. the fire brigade) who could maybe help. In the case of living without oil, it’s not clear who to call (damn those ghostbusters!) but we have to talk about this openly and honestly and just take the flak that comes from those who cannot face the frightening ‘fact’ (“what is truth” may be a future post!) that we have squandered the energy bank. As Heinberg said, the party’s over. Yes, it’s not a pleasant message but if this is the way it is, we all have to start thinking about it – seriously thinking about it, not just more weasel words and hand-wringing.

      OK, I’ll end by mentioning the good old Transition Initiative – yes, it’s mostly full of the usual suspects and no, it’s not perfect. How could it be perfect, it’s full of people! But to begin NOW on building low energy futures is the only sensible way to go. Every place has different resources and different needs and we need to find out what these are while making changes is still relatively easy. What works in London will not be the same as what works in Orkney, obviously. I see the Transition Initiatives as seeds of hope (yeuch, I really don’t like that phrase!) – places where, when the cost of everything rockets, there will be some people who have put a bit of thought in, who have learned how to make stuff for themselves, who have withdrawn a bit from the conventional economy before it withdrew from them and are there, able to teach others how to do it when reality dawns.

  2. Teen says:

    Jeff – If by ‘a good standard’ of living you mean living with less materially but more in terms of community resilience and spirit, there’s loads going on.
    For example, check out (and if you’re in Scotland.) Transition towns, cities, valleys, islands and penisnsulas are springing up all over the world. In lots of places people are finding creative ways to become more self reliant. On the island of Eigg the amount of fossil fuels being shipped to the island has been cut dramatically. A mixed renewable energy scheme provides clean electricity, solar panels have been fitted to homes and houses and public buildings better insulated. See for a lively account of what’s going on on the island.
    Neilston in Renfrewshire is another good example – it’s one of a consortium of 25 community groups across Scotland working to reduce power use.
    Making a smooth transition to a low energy society will take unprecedented cooperation and sharing of knowledge and experience. It’s reassuring to know the inspiration and vision is out there and things are already happening. Making changes like these needs to rapidly become the norm.

    • mandy meikle says:

      Cheers Teen – just found this lurking in the spam folder (twice, for some reason!) Thanks for good links to positive things going on. We need positive examples to overcome the potential disempowerment of the peak oil message & that’s what this site is all about!

  3. Brian Orr (of Brent, NW London) says:

    You seem right on message, Mandy.



    • mandy meikle says:

      Hi Brian – hope site is user-friendly enough for you (I edited your comment). Some have had problems commenting. My problem is not finding the time to post more, like today!

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