I am not a tree hugger. I am not a member of Greenpeace. I don’t work for a wind turbine company. I am not out to save the earth or mankind. I’m not even politically active.
What I am is a person that decided to try to cut though the agenda-driven noise, educate myself and see if I could arrive at some reasonable conclusions. The following is based on countless hours of reading. Unfortunately, this has included reams of misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, bad science, ignorance and our one-and-only abundant, inexhaustible resource; stupidity. I have also found many credible, well researched and well thought out documents. That said, some things are just not knowable to any certainty. Wherever possible I have cross-referenced data and opinions. In many cases I have done the calculations myself to verify and then done them all over again. I am going to quote very few numbers here but I will make some strong assertions and attack some “truths”. Above all, I have tried to use critical thinking and relied on what “just makes sense”. It has been an amazing learning experience.
I don’t mind if you don’t believe me, but to dismiss me would be at your peril, even if I am dead wrong:
- The best thing you could do would be to read this and then investigate on your own. I think we are in for some very tough times and I would be very happy to have someone prove me wrong.
- The worst thing you could do is take someone else’s word for it.
The miracle of oil
The crux of the issue is that as energy sources go, fossil fuels are king. In terms of portability, storability, stability, and energy density they have no equal, not even close. If you are thinking of hydrogen, it is not an energy source; it is an energy carrier, and a damn poor one at that.
Now back to fossil fuels: They are also, at present, essential for non-stationary applications such as transportation. Unfortunately, over two-thirds of our oil goes to transportation.
Without a plentiful supply of cheap energy, the dramatic development in much of the world in the last 100 years would have been impossible. This can not be overemphasized. Oil's ability for multiplication of effort, over human power, is staggering. Just one example is the vast amount of ores extracted, transported and processed to provide the materials essential to our economies could not have happened in the time frame that it did, and perhaps not at all. Keep in mind, the processing and transportation cycle could occur many times for just one product.
- The Cathedral of Rouen, which was the tallest building in the world (151 m) until 1880, took almost 900 years to complete. This was accomplished with manpower. Real, physical man-hours, the sweaty kind.
- The Burj Dubai, presently the tallest free standing structure in the world by any standard, is expected to exceed 800 m and will have taken 5 years to complete. This was accomplished with oil, in more ways than one.
In light of this multiplier, oil is still very cheap, and more importantly, unlike we in a developed world; it is rightly perceived as very valuable resource to a developing nation.
Energy is the economy and sometimes even life itself.
If China and and/or India have come to the same conclusions that I have, regarding the limited viability of alternative energy sources, they realize that certain things must be in place prior to serious oil depletion. The "
As I try to explain to people the true value of oil and how we have collectively squandered such an incredible endowment, the consistent response I get is “Oh, they will figure something out, they have to!” I have not seen anything in any Constitution that guarantees this and there is no proven breakthrough visible on the technology horizon that I know of. Perhaps if I could find out who they are, I could go quiz them as to their progress. I get back to you on that.
Part of the problem is denial, for those that understand and part of the problem is disbelief because no one who is alive today and born in a developed country ever knew a time when there wasn’t a relative abundance, even during the Second World War.
That said, I feel that the biggest part of the problem is numeracy. It’s an important skill to have. Too few people have faintest idea of the mind-boggling amount of energy we consume and what will be required, in terms of time, money and resources to find a replacement. We are dealing with very large numbers here.
Literacy also plays a part. Oil companies are referred to as energy producers, but this is misleading. Oil companies consume energy in the process of extracting and processing oil, which is a pre-existing energy resource. This applies equally to all other natural resources. A generating station produces electricity, but it does not produce energy, it consumes energy while it converts the energy contained in various fossil fuels.
Once we can no longer chop it down, dig it up or pump it out, we will have to capture it and/or convert it. To do that in any quantity, we will need many, many wondrous machines.
What we choose to do and make with the remaining oil will determine how well we will live and thrive in a Post Oil world on a limited energy budget. Some say Hummers and A380’s are wondrous machines but they won’t do the trick. Do I need to say “part of the problem…”? We need to create an alternative energy conversion system and that task will be much, much more difficult when the oil is gone. Some would say impossible relative to how we live now.
For 99.5 percent of renewable energy, the sole source is solar, and it always has been. Our brief blip with oil was due to solar energy that had been converted and banked. That account is about to be closed and we will be on a solar budget. So many joules per day and that’s it. We can save it but we can’t get an advance. This is not my opinion, this is physics.
In one hour more sunlight falls on the earth than
what is used by the entire population in one year.
“Gee, thanks for that. I feel so much better now. I’ll just get a few solar panels and life will be peachy. There is so much energy out there that we will all live like kings.”
This woeful bit of vague, meaningless, useless information was gleaned from a website promoting alternative energy. It is also terribly, dangerously wrong. Don’t get me started. Please figure this out for yourself. Not for my sake, for yours. I will specifically address this cornucopian rubbish in a later post.
Numeracy factors into any implementation as well. Once any given technology is selected, the sheer number of resources that have to be applied to planning, procurement, construction and commissioning are difficult to get your head around.
Then there is the issue of time frame. These will be megaprojects that may not be completed before the oil runs out. I must point out that as each and every country does the math, there will be fierce competition for resources that will continue to climb in price as supply drops and oil prices rise. If investors are waiting for oil prices to rise high enough to guarantee profitability and immediate payback, we will all pay dearly.
The Oil Clock
I believe that we have reached Peak Oil and the life of relatively cheap oil is finite; between 20 and 40 years. I also believe that it is closer to the former, but the time frame for both peak and depletion is largely moot. Twenty years is a relative blink of the eye, after which we are faced with a Post Oil world. Middle age gives you that perspective.
You can not get rid of the oil clock. You can slow it down through conservation, higher efficiency or alternative energy. That might give you enough time to track down that jar of magic pixie dust that you bought on the Web and is either back-ordered or stuck in shipping.
You can even stop the clock by not using a single drop of fossil fuel, but it is such a versatile feedstock for innumerable chemical processes that it should be limited to that use and that use only as soon as possible. Please note I said should, but that is highly unlikely.
Much like climate change, there are going to be winners and losers in the Post Oil era.
This is why I dislike the term "Global Warming" and prefer “Climate Change”. Not only will there be an increased general warming of the earth, but heat movement patterns are changing, evidenced by changes in ENSO, (the El Nino Southern Oscillation) and also in the
Similarly, as fuel prices increase, changes in energy movements and money movements will also become very dynamic, and the effect on the winners and losers will be no less dramatic.
What I see is a Goldilocks scenario; after Peak Oil:
- Too Cold. Third world countries will never develop, as they have no pre-existing infrastructure and can not afford to establish one. The plus side is they are not addicted to oil. Providing the government is not malevolent, most can likely survive on subsistence farming. Limited resources will eliminate any excess population.
- Too Hot. Developed countries will experience severe, radical changes for which they may not have the resources such as physical skills or mental skills needed to cope. At the very least, the effort and cost of adapting to a Post Oil world will be enormous. For example, a proposal to provide a replacement for just 20% of the
electrical supply with wind turbines will cost between 350 and 400 billion 2008 dollars and would not be completed until 2030. This is simply a proposed scenario and there is no indication that there is any serious inclination to do so in the near future. This substantial investment would do nothing to address the energy needs of most transportation systems. Further energy burdens will emerge as fresh water stocks dwindle and energy intensive water processing methods such as reverse osmosis are required. US
The highly developed infrastructure of the first world is a double edged sword. The entrenched energy burden is staggering and the population is disinclined to deprivation or hard work. Expectations of income and lifestyle are high and deeply engrained. (Thank you, Madison Avenue.) Further, it is likely that a large portion of the infrastructure is in decline. As resources are directed towards energy issues, further infrastructure declines will occur prior to Post Oil. This is the equivalent of starting out on a long road trip with a bald set of tires and a leaky radiator.
On the plus side, the only way that a country can survive in a Post Oil world is through the very resources that part of the present infrastructure provides.
To put this in clear relief, the holy grail of energy production is controlled nuclear fusion. Uncontrolled nuclear fusion is what the world’s nuclear arsenal provides and I’ll mention that later.
Now we get to the porridge that may be "just right", and I did say maybe.
- A developing country like
or China has some huge advantages. Each has an enormous workforce accustomed to manual labour. Manpower, particularly cheap manpower, will be critical. Much of the population consider deprivation a way of life. They also have a well educated, highly skilled and highly motivated segment of the population. They have the infrastructure to make advanced technology as well as an established and improving transportation system. Perhaps most importantly, they each have the mentality of a rising power without the burdens of apathy and trivial distraction. Neither country is susceptible to extreme bullying as they both have nuclear weapons. (Yes, I believe it may come to that) Nuclear aside, neither is particularly concerned about damages to the ecosystem, which means they are largely unfettered. They are presently exempt from CO2 emission constraints, and are likely to stay that way. India has the additional advantage of having a strong single party government so any policy direction charted is not stalled or sent off course by lobbying or partisan politics,(or elections for that matter). China
The geo/economic/politics of energy
So, in order for
To put the human resource of
Most of the developing countries’ inhabitants can exist without heat or air conditioning, perhaps not well but they can exist. The northern, developed countries learned how to exploit fossil fuels to stay warm and cozy. How do we, the developed world compensate for a lack of cheap plentiful fuel, and what will it cost?
Oil reserves are only a small part of the price equation, production is the key. At present, world production is barely keeping up with demand. The slightest deficit can have a significant upward effect on price. Manipulation of production may drop the price slightly but there are indications that production can not be increased without damaging some very large reservoir structures that are already in decline. As demand drops in the
While it is true that a sagging
You may be asking about unconventional oil such as in the Alberta Oil Sands? Well, yes it’s true that there are an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels there and it can be extracted at great financial, energy and environmental cost but it all comes back to production. The entire complex, involving many oil companies, and 30 Billion dollars invested, presently produces about 1.9 million barrels per day and is expected to produce about 5 million barrels per day by 2030 providing they can find a sufficient skilled workforce and material costs don’t go through the roof.
Now, what is that as a percentage current world demand? What is the estimated demand by 2030? I urge you to Google it, to start your path to energy awareness.
“Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my!”
“Oh, the cost, the effort, the economy, my economy!”, “Someone else should go first!”.
During the Second World War, both sides mobilized, huge efforts were undertaken, vast sums were spent and some economies were ruined, but we did it and we all recovered. Why not now?
If we assume that
In the absence of nuclear fusion or pixie dust, forget about climate change. We will try to work it in there if we can, but no promises. In our ongoing quest for so-called development, to paraphrase George Bush Sr., it's all about the energy stupid, and that energy is oil.