Have We Hit Peak Oil Yet?

Brian Merchant
MN PostCarbon

We need to figure out how to live without fossil fuels for two reasons: First, burning fossil fuels remains the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, the cause of global warming and climate change. Second, the world’s supply of oil and natural gas will soon decline, which will result in increased prices. When the price of gasoline reaches $4 per gallon, the price of oil reaches $90 a barrel and natural gas levels off at $12 per million BTU, affordability becomes an issue for everything we do.

The concept of peak oil is the proposition that the worldwide production of oil has already, or will soon, reach its peak. Few people can deny that fossil fuels are finite; the earth has a limited supply. The points of contention lie in the timeline for oil’s exhaustion and in the predictions of economic and social impacts during its decline. Some predict that the decline in oil supplies will occur gradually, as rising prices for oil spur the development and use of alternatives fuels. On the other hand, it is possible that the transition to the post-petroleum era will be a near-apocalyptic upheaval, with economic dislocations, industrial collapse, and widespread food shortages. Such an outlook is based on the premise that American industrialized society, from farming to high-tech manufacturing to transportation, is heavily dependent on cheap, abundant liquid fossil fuels, and that the peak oil transition will occur too quickly for technological fixes to cushion the blow.

A report by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO-07-283, February 2007) said, “The prospect of a peak in oil production presents problems of global proportion whose consequences will depend critically on our preparedness.” In his “Testimony on Peak Oil” (House Subcommittee on Energy & Air Quality, December 7, 2005), Dr. Robert Hirsch stated further, “previous energy transitions (wood to coal, coal to oil, etc.) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary. The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation at least a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and long lasting. In his report to the Department of Energy, Dr. Hirsch acknowledged that several experts have concluded that peak oil could arrive by 2010. At this point we will be unable to afford the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed-a lifestyle based on fossil fuels. Human consumers have never before experienced the scarcity of a commodity as critical as oil without the prospect of a substitute.

Engineering our transition to sustainable lifestyles based on renewable energy will take some careful consideration. Regardless of timing, peak oil will manifest itself in our everyday lives. The most obvious will be in transportation, due to soaring gasoline, kerosene, and diesel fuel prices. Minnesota’s food supply will also be affected: agriculture relies on fossil fuels to operate farming equipment, to produce petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, and to transport food to our markets. Because of the interconnectedness of our oil-based economy, peak oil will affect business and employment centers, education, healthcare, housing, water and waste management, public safety, and urban planning. Regardless of specific timing for peak oil, it is prudent to analyze these areas now, and to implement personal choices and public policies that support more localized, self-reliant living today.

Energy choices and policies should be guided by these fundamental principles:

Powerdown (using less energy): We need to find less energy-intensive ways of meeting our basic needs. We need to evaluate the energy cost of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, places where we live and work, our means of transportation and plans for growth in our community.

Relocalization (meeting local needs locally): We can no longer afford to rely on distant, remote resources to meet our needs especially with respect to food production. Our focus should promote self-reliant communities that can meet more needs locally.

Support alternatives (making the transition): We can no longer depend on business-as-usual-doing things the way we used to. We need to find the right mix of alternatives for our region-for our community.

Sustainability (preserving natural capital): We need lasting methods of meeting our own needs without jeopardizing other societies or future generations meeting theirs. We need to preserve our natural capital-the ecological systems that support life.

The best place to start is at the kitchen table and then the community in which we live. For specific ideas in all of the above categories, refer to the Twin Cities Peak Oil Resource Guide (see Resource Box).

Brian Merchant can be reached at MnPostCarbon@gmail.com.

Twin Cities Peak Oil Resource Guide

The Community Solution

Post Carbon Institute

Relocalize Now!: Getting Ready for Climate Change and the End of Cheap Oil, Julian Darley, David Room, and Celine Rich, New Society Publishers, 2007.

Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers, 2004.

The Neighborhood Energy Connection
St. Paul, MN

Fresh Energy
St. Paul, MN

Peak Oil

Our Sponsors