The Foothills of Peak Oil: Hard Times Come Again

Brian Merchant
MN Post Carbon

The world may look the same, but it has changed. The combination of $4.00/gallon gasoline, $130/barrel oil, and $12/BTU natural gas in the first half of 2008, sent a shockwave through the economy. The term peak oil, or the point when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached is not an arguable concept and many scientists believe we have already reached that point. Rising oil and natural gas prices affect all areas of the economy and places business plans in jeopardy along with lifestyles and livelihoods. It is difficult to even guess where energy prices will be in the next few years; however, at progressive thresholds more and more businesses, units of government, and households suffer issues of affordability.

Natural gas production (extraction) has already peaked in North America. With diminishing supplies at home, natural gas has to be imported from overseas sources. The only way to ship natural gas is to convert it into a liquid. Natural gas becomes liquid when it’s kept at 260 degrees below zero-an expensive process. As yet, America doesn’t have that many ports equipped to offload, store, and distribute liquid natural gas. Plans are underway but building them will take years.

Even if new sources of oil are tapped-drilling in America’s offshore continental shelf or Alaska’s Arctic National Refuge, mining Alberta tar sands, liquefying coal-significant new supplies would take decades to achieve. It’s still not clear that these new sources could offset the decline of production in major oil fields. In June, famous oilman T. Boone Pickens told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, “I do believe you have peaked out at 85 million barrels a day globally.”

Consequently, we have entered a period of hard times like no other. This time, we are confronting real limits-struggling to adapt as we run short of vital resources and can no longer afford business as usual. It is not an issue of choosing to drive less or use an alternative powered lawn mower as petrochemicals are used everywhere, for example:

  • every step of food production is fossil fuel and petrochemical powered from production of the tractors on the field to transportation;
  • the construction of the average car consumes the energy equivalent of 840 gallons of oil;
  • the construction of the average desktop computer consumes ten times its weight in fossil fuels;
  • the production of one gram of microchips consumes 630 grams of fossil fuels;
  • the infrastructure necessary to support the internet consumes 10% of the electricity in the United States.

We move from abundance to scarcity, from consumption to preservation, from debt-based growth to living within our means, from more-is-better to just enough. Various programs continue to be proposed, including the Institute for 21st Century Energy, Al Gore’s 10-year challenge, and T. Boone Pickens’ plan. However, whatever plans come to be implemented, the energy transition will take decades. The challenge for citizens is to thrive through an extended period of hard times while contributing to the local operational definition of energy transition. Plans originating in the Washington, D.C. beltway, or on Wall Street will not touch every detail of our day-to-day lives. As citizens, we will need to shape our space, and if not already, will likely end up performing our own energy cost analysis. One of the most important tasks citizens can perform is to identify obstacles and barriers: zoning and building codes that stand in the way; transport and production processes that don’t make sense; and local alternatives for fossil fuels and petroleum feedstock.

With the end of one era comes the beginning of the new. This is the epic journey of our time. Our eco-region just became our economic region. In our community, we are building our future:

  • Recognizing that we can no longer afford to rely on long distance supply chains from far-away resources;
  • Acknowledging the fact that our dollars have more beneficial impact when they remain close to home;
  • Promoting strong, local economies that are meeting more of their local needs locally;
  • Discovering the alternatives that make sense for our region.
Read Up

The Neighborhood Energy Connection. TwinCitiesPeak Oil Resource Guide,, 2007.

Relocalize Now! Getting Ready for Climate Change and the End of Cheap Oil-A Post Carbon Guide, by Julian Darley, New Society Publishers, 2007.

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

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