Friday, February 6, 2015

The End of Oil

''By the Industrial Revolution humans had turned themselves into 'detritovores,' dependent on ravenous consumption of long-since accumulated organic remains, especially petroleum.'' -- William R. Catton, Jr. (1926-2015), Overshoot.

The planet Earth is gradually running out of oil, without which almost nothing in twenty-first-century civilization can function. The human race now uses about thirty billion barrels of oil per year, quite unaware of the fact that by 2030 annual oil production will be down to half its peak rate.

In the entire world, there are perhaps a trillion barrels of oil left to extract -- which may sound like a great deal, but isn't. When newspapers announce the discovery of a deposit of a billion barrels, readers are no doubt amazed, but they are not told that such a find is only two weeks' supply.

As the years go by, new oil wells have to be drilled more deeply than the old, because newly discovered deposits are deeper. Those new deposits are therefore less accessible. But oil is used as a fuel for the oil drills themselves. When it takes an entire barrel of oil to get one barrel of oil out of the ground, as is increasingly the case, it is a waste of time to continue drilling such wells.

Coal and natural gas are also disappearing, in spite of all the stories about their abundance. Coal, however, is highly polluting and cannot be used as a fuel for most forms of transportation. Natural gas is not easily transported, and it is not suitable for most equipment.

Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, for several reasons, but mainly because of a problem of "net energy": the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input. All alternative forms of energy are so dependent on the very petroleum that they are intended to replace that the use of them is largely self-defeating and irrational. Alternative sources ultimately don't have enough "bang" to replace 30 billion annual barrels of oil.

Petroleum is required to extract, process, and transport almost any other form of energy; a coal mine is not operated by coal-powered equipment. It takes "oil energy" to make "alternative energy."

The use of unconventional oil (shale deposits, tar sands, heavy oil) poses several problems besides that of net energy. Large quantities of conventional oil are needed to process the oil from these unconventional sources, so net energy recovery is low. The pollution problems are considerable, and it is not certain how much environmental damage the human race is willing to endure. With unconventional oil we are, quite literally, scraping the bottom of the barrel.

More-exotic forms of alternative energy are plagued with even greater problems. Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices require hydrogen derived from fossil fuels, if we exclude designs that will never escape the realm of science fiction; if fuel cells ever became popular, the fossil fuels they require would then be consumed even faster than they are now. Biomass energy (e.g., from corn) would require impossibly large amounts of land and would still result in insufficient quantities of net energy, perhaps even negative quantities. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Wind and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.

The current favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but proponents must close their eyes to all questions of scale. To meet the world's present energy needs by using solar power, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of 360,000 km2 (140,400 square miles) -- a machine the size of Germany. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials -- a self-defeating process.

Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, and the operation of machines for harvesting, processing, and transporting. The Green Revolution was little more than the invention of a way to turn petroleum and natural gas into food. Without fossil fuels, modern methods of food production will disappear, and crop yields will drop to less than a third of their present levels.

The problem of the world's diminishing supply of oil is a problem of energy, not a problem of money. The old bromide that "higher prices will eventually make [e.g.] shale oil economically feasible" is meaningless. This planet has only a finite amount of fossil fuel. When that fuel starts to vanish, "higher prices" will be quite unable to stop the event from taking place. At most, the later twenty-first century will be an age of coal, and a portrait of that future era can be found in any story by Charles Dickens.

The technology of one century built the technology of the next. The technology of the past -- the hammer, anvil, forge, and bellows of the ancient blacksmith -- made it possible for later generations to extract the low-grade ores of the present. Very low-grade iron ores can now be worked, but only because there were once better, more accessible ores. This "mechanical evolution" is, of course, liable to collapse: when Rome fell, so did literacy, education, technology. But after many centuries, the Classical world returned. The western world experienced its Renaissance, its rebirth, after the Dark Ages because the natural world was fundamentally unchanged.

In the future, however, after the collapse of the present civilization, the necessary fuels and ores will not be available for that gradual rebuilding of technology. The loss of both petroleum and accessible ores means that history will no longer be a cycle of empires.

Much of modern warfare is about oil, in spite of all the pious and hypocritical rhetoric about "the forces of good" and "the forces of evil." The real "forces" are those trying to control the oil wells and the fragile pipelines that carry that oil. A map of recent American military ventures is a map of petroleum deposits.

"Ah, these doomsayers -- somehow humanity always manages to squeak through." Yes, it does: the Roman empire kept going for centuries after the deaths of Caligula and Nero. The empire kept tottering through long centuries of war, famine, and plague. An empire can drag on for thousands of years. But that does not make its demise any less real.

The problem of the loss of petroleum will, of course, be received in the same manner as most other large-scale disasters: widespread denial, followed by a rather catatonic apathy. The centuries will pass, and a day will come when, like the early Anglo-Saxons, people will look around at the remains of huge buildings and conclude that they must have been "the work of giants."

There is no ''big plan'' for dealing with these problems, and there never will be, although most people assume the leaders of society are both wise and benevolent. There will be only the ''small plan,'' person by person, family by family, or (preferably) ''tribe'' by ''tribe," at least for those who are not simply immobilized by shock. The ''small plan'' is variable, but it might include moving to a more-rural environment, where there would be fewer ties to the global economy.

"Peak oil" basically means "peak food." Without mechanization, irrigation, and synthetic fertilizer, yields for crops of any sort drop considerably, and famine is inevitable. It will simply not be possible to maintain a global population of more than a small fraction of the present size. Those who expect to survive and prosper will be those who have mastered the art of subsistence farming.


Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

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