Peak oil rising
Lately there’s been a slew of articles, columns, and essays beating the peak oil drum. It’s easy to understand why, with the price of oil reaching new record highs every day and economic stormclouds gathering like divine judgment over America’s head. Nor are these issues unrelated; as James Howard Kunstler said a couple of weeks ago at his blog, Clusterfuck Nation, “the fiasco in finance is happening in lock-step with Peak Oil (and very likely because of it at a fundamental level).”
Below are some choice recent items about these issues from a variety of venues. I urge you to share my ongoing and steadily mounting amazement at the way fundamental questions about the nature and future of our contemporary technological way of life have moved decisively to centerstage. We’re really starting to have this national (and international) conversation. We can only hope that the American, British, and other publics — that is, we the people — aren’t too benumbed and zombified by the various breads and circuses of our respective media carnival cultures to profit from the airing and sharing of these thoughts. How central are the ideas expressed in, for example, The New York Times, to America’s real culture at large anymore? I just don’t know.
So in addition to the question of whether we’re in a “too little, too late” situation when it comes to practical efforts to avert the “hard landing” of widespread economic, political, and social collapse in the face of oil-and-energy-related problems, I think it’s equally important to ask whether we’re too late to avoid additional massive troubles caused by the decades-long devolution of public discourse and intellectual levels that occurred in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Try to imagine the sad, shuffling animated corpses of Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later (the latter of whom, granted, can run pretty fast) coming up with a solution to their apocalyptic predicament.
Maybe in an enegy-starved future we’ll all just end up like the Dawn zombies, wandering through shopping malls in a perpetual stupor while the world falls apart outside. Er, wait a minute . . . that’s not the future!
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Timothy Egan, The New York Times, March 5
From the steps of the Supreme Court to the White House press room, from global trading exchanges to the snowy reaches of Alaska — over the last week, you could hear the creak of history as it began to pivot in a half-dozen locales.
The Age of Oil is at an end. Maybe not this year. Maybe not for five years. But signs of the coming collapse are evident.
Start at the White House. There, a week ago, President Bush touted tax breaks for oil companies that have just posted the largest profits in the history of American business. Yet he was dumbstruck when asked about the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a price that will force many families to choose between food and basic travel.
….And then on Wednesday of this week, oil reached its all-time, inflation-adjusted high on the global market: $104 a barrel. Remember that number. Because when oil was half that price, three years ago, Bush said the market alone was sufficient incentive for Big Oil to make added investments. But now that the price is over the $100 mark, Bush wants to continue giving breaks to oil companies rather than shift those incentives to alternative fuels, as many in Congress would do.
….Next scene: the Supreme Court. In the pre-dawn cold last Wednesday a group of fishermen, merchants and natives from the Alaska village of Cordova waited to get a seat for the day’s proceedings. There, the high court was hearing Exxon’s appeal of $2.5 billion in punitive damages the company was ordered to pay for the nation’s worst oil spill.
….The common thread in all of this is oil. The Age of Oil brought us John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly, and corruption that reached into the White House. It may end with an industry too bloated by profit and too arrogant to pay the costs of its mistakes — and a president who is deaf to the sound an energy empire makes before it crumbles.
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Richard Heinberg, The Ecologist, March 4
[T]he problem is not merely technological; it is cultural in the deepest sense. Starting a couple of centuries ago, our species embarked on a path of unprecedented growth, founded on a temporary subsidy of cheap hydrocarbon energy. Climate change is a side effect of fossil fuel consumption, and has emerged as the most critical symptom of our growth binge. But unless we address the core of the problem, other symptoms will soon overwhelm us even if we manage technically to resolve the dilemma of carbon emissions.
Addressing the core of the problem means letting go of growth; in fact, it means engaging in a period of controlled societal contraction characterized by a stable or declining population consuming at a per-capita level far lower than is currently taken for granted in the industrialized world.
For anyone who understands the basics of ecology—having to do with relationships between population, resources, and carrying capacity—nothing could be clearer. But for those who insist on seeing only technical problems with technical solutions, the forest remains lost from sight behind a single tree.
….[Sir David] King says that wrongheaded environmentalists are keen to take society back to the 18th century or further. Yet there are few indeed who want to ditch the humanitarian and scientific advances of the past decades. This is a straw-man argument. A fairer formulation of many environmentalists’ views is this: unless we use technology within the context of a controlled, planned, sustained period of economic contraction, we will see a chaotic, depletion-led societal collapse that could make the 18th century look like paradise by comparison.
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Jeremy Leggett, The Guardian, March 5
[Cardin comments: Note that Leggett begins (in a portion of his article that I have not excerpted below) by linking to a news piece about oil setting a new record price at over $102 per barrel. Right now as I type these words a single day after his column was published, there’s a current headline about oil breaching the $105-per-barrel mark. Prices and events are moving quickly.]
[D]evelopments in the peak oil debate so far this year should be sounding alarm bells everywhere. In the first week, with the oil price hitting three digits for the first time and growing numbers of oil traders betting on forward contracts for $200 oil before the end of the year, the James Baker Institute urged oil industry bosses to address falling investment in exploration.
….In the second week, Total boss Christophe de Margerie warned that oil production may be nearing its peak. He now believes the world will never be able lift production from the current level of 85m barrels per day . . . . The CEO of ConocoPhillips agrees with him. The oil companies duly announced their 2007 results, and masked in statistics combining oil and gas production was the alarming fact that all, bar Total, had suffered falling oil production. This is not what we expect of an oil-addicted world on course for 115m barrels a day.
The CEO of Hess was the next oil boss to blow a whistle, telling an oil industry conference in Houston that oil companies, oil-producing countries, and consumers need to act now. “Given the long lead times of at least 5-10 years from discovery to production,” he said, “an oil crisis is coming and sooner than most people think. Unfortunately, we are behaving in ways that suggest we do not know there is a serious problem.”
Sixty per cent of the world’s oil production is from countries that have already peaked. As for the tar sands, said John Hess, “their contributions to supply are not material enough to bridge the gap in oil requirements over the next 10 years.”
….If peak oil hits, and the slumbering industry awakens from its endemic over-optimism – -in the west and in producing countries alike — what do we do if the producers start keeping their fast-dwindling resources in order to power up their own fast-expanding economies? An oil shock then risks turning into an energy famine.
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Tom Whipple, Falls Church News-Press, March 6
The coming storm will bring one of the most severe tests of the cohesiveness of governments and peoples that the world has known for a long time.
Over the last century, the industrial societies have built extremely complex and specialized civilizations. A simple example is that here in America only two percent of us now live on farms where they presumably are capable of readily producing their own food. Only 0.3 percent of Americans now claim to be farmers. The remaining 99+ percent of us are dependent on oil-based food processing, storage, and transport for our daily sustenance.
The fate of most of the world’s peoples is going to depend on how well we, as societies -– here and around the world — get our collective acts together over the coming decades and organize to survive the transition to a post-oil world.
Currently the body politic in America is paralyzed by a rough political balance between those clinging to 20th or perhaps even 19th century concerns and those who, however vaguely, understand that things must change. So far the U.S. Congress has done little to prepare for the massive changes to our economy and lifestyles that are now only a few short years away.
….What is a virtual certainty . . . is that the next U.S. President and governments at all levels and in all countries are going to face problems last seen during the 1930’s or perhaps worse. No matter how much of an anathema it may be to many, it seems clear that government intervention, regulation and controls are going to have to grow. In an era when 99 percent of us have not the slightest idea how to grow food, nor have any place to do so, it will take organization and cooperation similar to what went on during World War II to avoid a societal calamity.
….Some may fear for the country for at times of great crisis political institutions are endangered. While in America we voted for FDR and his New Deal to grapple with the great depression, in Germany they had Hitler, in Italy Mussolini, in Russia Stalin, and Japan wound up with the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Getting through the trauma of oil depletion is going be a real test of political institutions.
….In the American form of government, policies are hard-wired to two and four year election cycles. The next American President may come into office with a mandate for change and with a Congress that will follow his leadership. The Congress, however, may be overwhelmingly of a different party or gridlocked with narrow majorities, in which case it may take another two or four years for the situation to right itself.
We are entering the most interesting time of our lives.