Monday, October 15, 2007

Peak Oil

I wrote this several months ago for another blog. For whatever reason, I feel like posting it here.

Here is a cold hard fact: We are either at peak global oil production or going to reach it in the next 5 years.

I don't think people understand the implications of that fact. Let me say this is another way: Within the next 5 years, we will be on the downward slope towards completely running out of useable oil on the planet earth. Most geologist estimate that somewhere around 2030, our planet will be completely out of financially feasible oil reserves.

Ever since Al Gore's movie (An Inconvenient Truth), the nation and the world has been obsessed with the idea of global warming. Everyone is talking about "going green" to stop the release of greenhouse gases that are destroying global ecosystems, melting glaciers, and causing our storms to become more intense. The idea is noble... but HORRIBLY misguided.

The real crisis facing the human race is not climate change. It is, infact, RUNNING OUT OF OIL. Perhaps we don't quite appreciate how much of our modern lives is entirely dependent on the assumption that energy is cheap and limitless. Just about every single thing we do in this country can be traced back to oil.

Let me give you an example from just one day in my life. When I woke up this morning, the first thing I did was turn on the television. TV runs on electricity. Electricity comes mostly from oil (or other fossil fuels). Then I checked my email on my computer that consumes electricity that we get from oil. Let's not forget that many of the parts in my computer are made with plastic that can only be made from oil. Oh yeah... my computer was made in a factory using electrical and mechanical processes that need to be run with energy we get from burning oil. The same could be said about my television. Taking it a step further, both my TV and my computer were most likely made over seas, then had to be shipped to this country on big cargo ships that use tons of fuel to keep them running. Once they reached this country, they had to be loaded onto trucks that run on gasoline and transported to their destinations hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away.

That was just the first 5 minutes of my day. Are you starting to understand the crisis we face as a civilization? The United States especially has a huge problem. The model of suburbia was made possible because of cheap, abundant oil. 10 years ago (even now!) no one thinks much of anything about getting in their car and driving 20-30 miles to work every day. Imagine a world where gasoline is so scarce that it costs $100 per gallon. Now, even if your car got 30 mpg, it would cost you $100 per day to drive to work. A lot of people don't make much more than $100 per day at work. Our towns and houses are so spread out that public transportation is literally impossible to implement. What would we do? We'd all have to go back to living within a couple miles of where we work, so that we could either walk or ride a bike.

That brings up another thing... what will happen to our jobs??? I'll talk about my job. I work in a pharmacy. We get drugs and other pharmaceutical products that are made all over the world. First, the drug companies require cheap energy to power their research facilities. They also need plastics for their research equipment. Once they've researched a compound, they need machinary in order to mass produce it. Once the drug is mass produced, it needs to be packaged and shipped to distribution warehouses using ships, trucks, planes, etc. From there, they need to be transported to my pharmacy in order for me to dispense them.

The pharmacy is entirely dependent on our computer systems. We use the computer to keep track of patient profiles, to order meds, and pretty much everything else. This all runs on electricity provided to us by cheap oil. Imagine if oil goes away or becomes prohibitively expensive. Drug companies wouldn't be able to research new drugs. They wouldn't be able to continue making their present drugs due to the cost. If they can't make the drugs, then what am I going to dispense. What will happen to my job? I have no idea.

Think about how much we complain now about present gas prices. It's over $3.00 per gallon now, and everyone is going nuts. Let me put it to you this way... I just filled up my tank for about $43 the other day. My car has only been averaging about 21mpg (even though it's supposed to be getting 30 hwy mpg). Even with that less-than-stellar gas mileage, I can drive 300 miles on 1 tank of gas. For $43, I can travel 300 miles. Think about that. That's really really cheap. Think about how long 300 miles is. That gets you almost 1/3 of the way down the east coast line... and we think that's expensive. The documentary I just saw put it in these terms. 1 cup of coffee can cost about $3 depending on where you go. 1 cup of gasoline, even by today's prices, costs you about 20 cents. Gasoline is less expensive than bottled water right now. It's essentially the least expensive liquid we have, yet we complain about how ridiculously expensive it is. In 10 years, depending on how far along the downward slope of oil production we are, gas could be $15 per gallon.

What kills me is that NOBODY IS TALKING ABOUT THIS!!!! We hear about global warming every damn day, but no one even mentions how we're a little over 20 years from being completely out of econimically feasible oil. If something isn't done quickly, our lives are going to change dramatically. There are 6 billion people on this planet right now. It's estimated that without fossil fuels, the planet can only support 1.5-2 billion people at most. Without cheap oil, we cannot produce enough food to feed everyone. We won't have enough jobs to employ everyone. There's going to be another great depression that brings about starvation, rioting, and panic. BILLIONS of people are going to die because our way of life is just completely dependent on oil.

Technological advancement will come to a halt because we won't have enough cheap electricity. In actuality, technology will digress. Planes will be a thing of the past. Microchips, computers, televisions... they all are only possible because of how cheap energy is. Without cheap energy, those can't be produced. Our great cities will have to shrink down to a more manageable size. The suburbs will be completely decimated because they will be too spread out and far away from grocery stores and businesses. All the things that oil is responsible for that we take for granted will go away.

This may sound very much like a doomsday prediction. That's because it is. We've had our heads up our asses (or perhaps more appropriately up the oil companies' asses) for so long that its probably too late to solve the problem. We've never invested any time or money into alternative energy sources because oil was so abundant that it was practically free. Now we're faced with trying to find enough energy to power our modern day of life without using oil. The alternatives we have our bleak at best.

Wind Power- wind farms are starting to pop up in the midwest. However, wind is inconsistent, and even the biggest wind farms produce an amount of electricity that can only be described as a drop in the Pacific Ocean of our current and future energy demands.

Solar Power- While it is very true that the total amount of solar energy that falls on our planet in 1 day is 20,000 times more than the amount needed to power our civilization, we've yet to find a great way to harnass that power. Current solar panels only convert about 12% of solar energy into electricity, and that is under absolute ideal conditions. Obviously, you can't make solar energy in the absence of sunlight, so we'd have no electricity at night or on cloudy, overcast days. The deserts of the southwest USA are ideal for collecting solar energy, but unless we develop some way to transport all that electricity to every other part of our nation, it won't be enough. Solar panels are also very expensive to make, so as long as there is cheap oil, no company is going to invest the money to research and develop better ones.

Hydrogen- This is the big one everyone is talking about. "We'll use hydrogen to power our cars." Well, there are a lot of problems with that. First off, unlike oil, there is no hydrogen just laying around our planet. In order to isolate hydrogen, you need to separate it from water through electrolysis. As implied in the name, electolysis require electricity. Therefore, it requires electricity just to create hydrogen. Right now, we actually spend more electricity in oil to create a hydrogen fuel cell than we actually get back from using it. That's not going to help us. Even if we somehow do perfect this process and make it more energy efficient, we have the whole transport process. We have no infrastructure to transport hydrogen. We have no easy way to store it. In addition, it's nowhere near as good of a fuel as gasoline for our vehicles because hydrogen is such a small molecule that it will actually diffuse through our storage tanks even when we aren't running the engine. If you let a hydrogen fuel cell powered car sit for one week then tried to run it, you'd find that it would be out of fuel.

Biodiesel- Global warming people love this option. "We can substitute biodiesel for gasoline." In short... no, we can't. For one, it requires a lot of bio-products to make biodiesel fuel. It's absolutely impossible to make enough biodiesel to replace the gasoline that is required by the 700 million internal combustion engine automobiles that are in the world. Secondly, it requires a lot of oil just to make a gallon of biodiesel fuel.

Ethanol- See biodiesel. Currently, it takes 3 gallons of gasoline to produce 1 gallon of ethanol fuel. Plus, we'd have to have a cornfield the size of the US to get enough ethanol to power our country.

Nuclear- Other than the safety and environmental issues regarding nuclear power, I'll say this: In order to meet the world's current energy demand using just nuclear power, we'd need 10,000 of the largest nuclear power plants built. With all those power plants, we'd burn through the earth's supply of Uranium 235 in 20 years. 20 years is obviously not going to help us.

As you can see, no single alternative even comes close to replacing oil, except one... Coal. We have tons of coal reserves. Probably enough for a couple hundred years, infact. However, if we use that coal, then you'd really see global warming speed up at a catastrophic rate. Therefore, it's really not a viable alternative.

So... as it stands, we are a little over 20 years away from full-on oil crisis, and we don't have a single option that will even come close to meeting our energy demands. In other words, everyone should enjoy their cars, computers, and comfortable way of life while we have it because in our lifetimes, the shit is going to hit the fan, and everything we took for granted is going to come crashing down.

Perhaps if we started making preparations 20 years ago, we'd have a fighting chance of evading disaster. Even today, nobody is thinking about this. Car companies are still putting out 300 horsepower family sedans. Electronics companies are putting out all new gadgets. Everything is going on as if the problem doesn't exist. Our leaders are aware, but instead of spending money to develop the technology that might save our future, we're going into the middle east to fight wars over whatever oil there is left. Believe me... Iraq has absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. It has nothing to do with Sadam Hussein. It even has less to do with providing freedom for the population. We want to set up a democracy there, and in the middle east in general, that will allow us to have access to their oil. As oil becomes more and more scarce, you can expect us to be involved in more and more conflicts with whatever countries have reserves.

In the end, it all goes back to oil... and when you really look at the writing on the wall, we're all fucked.


Jeff said...

"As oil becomes more and more scarce, you can expect us to be involved in more and more conflicts with whatever countries have reserves."

Not only that, but you can expect us to be at war with other nations who also want those same reserves. Wars over oil have to be fought using oil too.

Eric, AKA The Pragmatic Caregiver said...

We've got lots of natural gas, however, which makes a swell transportation fuel on its own, or can be turned into gasoline or diesel-like liquids. Actually, so can coal. This isn't a lab-scale thing - the Germans used it extensively in WWII, as did the South Africans during the Apartheid-era embargoes.

So, coal-to-liquids, gas-to-liquids....biofuels...pretty much got transportation fuels covered - in fact, they've run B-52s on the synfuel from natural gas.

Fixed power generation in the US is mostly coal, though, not oil. Not exactly a semantic difference when we have extensive domestic coal supplies.


Pharmacy Mike said...

Biofuels work great in small populations. However, if you tried turning every car on the road into a biodiesel car, we'd quickly have a shortage of biodiesel fuel.

We just can't make enough biodiesel fuel for the 700 million internal combustion engine vehicles on the road today.

We do get most of our electricity through coal, which presents another problem in the form of global warming.

Eric, AKA The Pragmatic Caregiver said...

Right, biofuels aren't the answer, but they're part of the strategy. Our biggest issue with biofuels at the moment is the relative inefficiency at generating volatile things that ignite with a spark - and I think a large portion of that is fixable with better cellulose-ripping enzymes so you use the whole plant for fuel, not just the seeds (corn/soy/canola). They're not there yet, but neither were the enzymes for prewashed jeans (cellulose-ripping, oddly enough), detergents (Tide) or lots of other industrial uses, at least at launch of the products. Keep oil prices over $50 long enough, the capital investment to get enzyme R&D and commercial-scale production up and running looks pretty attractive.

Again, GTL is where it's at. We've got insane quantities of natural gas available to us, and we can find lots of ways to make methane, too.

One criticism of CTL technology has been the CO2 production problem; the beauty of CTL vs. burning coal to make electricity (ie, for plug-in cars) is that the CO2 isn't part of stack gas like from combustion; it's a process gas that gets separated out in the reaction, and you can bury it somewhere. I think carbon sequestration is extremely realistic *if* you can get a clan gas stream.


Pharmacy Mike said...

What I fear is that this is a problem that we can't afford to let the market decide when to start working on a solution. I would love to see the government make a concerted effort to promote research in alternative fuels. We also need some sort of gameplan and goals as for converting over to these alternatives.

This is the most pressing issue facing our country and modern civilization. Forget abortion, gay marriage, health care, and all that other stuff. All that is secondary to trying to figure out how to support the growing energy needs of the modern world.

No one is really talking about this, and that's what's scaring me.

Eric, AKA The Pragmatic Caregiver said...

I'm with you 100% that this is *way* too important to leave to the markets. I favor a Manhattan Project/Apollo-style assault on the problem. Throw money at it *LAVISHLY*, and pay for it with a 5-10 cent/100KBtu equivalent energy tax. Change the game with intensive research and license the discoveries to producers.


Pharmacy Mike said...

That's exactly what I was thinking. Very soon (like today!), I would love to hear that the government is making up a new agency full of engineers and scientists devoted entirely to changing over our energy supply with the goal to be off foreign oil entirely in 20 years.

We put a freaking man on the moon with computers that could hardly run minesweeper, and that took less than 10 years from the time we announced it. I think if someone decided to challenge us, we can solve this problem too.

Somebody needs to propose that challenge and be prepared to throw whatever money is necessary at the solution though.

Anonymous said...

The answer is fusion. We need a Manhattan project in the world for fusion. A bunch of companies just invested 15 billion in some kind of collider facility, but we need ten times that much to do the research... maybe about as much as we spent in the iraq invasion.

We know it can happen, we just havent bothered to put up the capital for it. And if we discover how to do it, all the energy companies in the world will go out of business.

Pharmacy Mike said...

I actually believe the answer has to be solar power. The sun is right there. We get more than enough energy from it. We know we can turn solar energy into electricity. We just need to get better at it.

Anonymous said...

Youll never get enough energy from solar. You need solar, wave, wind and fission/fusion to do it.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever think we are paying for both sides in the war against terrorism? Al Kaida and the Taliban
are financed thru back door financing by OPEC. A cartel is illegal in our country and yet we do business with them.

There's plenty of oil under the ocean. Its expensive to get to but
Brazil just found a vast pool of oil off their coast in the Atlantic.

Chevron just found another in the
deep water Gulf of Mexico over a mile to the bottom and another 25000 feet below that.

Amazing what the deep water drillers can do. Anyone interested
can read about them on

Corrinne said...

Interesting... I actually had heard about this but I just sort of feel powerless.

My dad is a demented genius. No social skills, dark sense of humor, and is the smartest person I know. He makes his own biodiesel and not because he cares about the environment (hahaha) but because it saves him money. He heats his store with it, he rents out heavy machinery (bobcats, kubotas) and uses it in his diesel truck. I think he said it costs him about 1.50 a gallon to make. Not bad. But if what you wrote was true it is pretty useless anyway.

In order to make it he uses lye, ethanol, and vegetable oil from restaurants. It can't be from fast food places, he says the stuff doesn't break down with battery acid(!). Just another reason to avoid fast food. I'll have to ask how much ethanol he uses to make 50 gallons of biodiesel.

Anyyyway. Just rambling now. We are going to hell in a handbasket, yes indeed.

Anonymous said...

This is wayyy late, so my bad, but it's interesting to read this three-four years down the track, considering people have done nothing about this since then.

I think the way is also solar, though I support nuclear as well. Anything sustainable and safe is best, it shouldn't matter of the price, it's an investment in the future, it will cost barely anything once it's set up, and will provide the world with power for a long time. There is a picture, I would post it if I could, which shows the land mass required by three alternative powers (solar, wind, and something else) to produce enough electricity to supply the world at it's current rates. It's actually a very small landmass required for solar power, so provided someone bothered to invest the money, it could easily be done.

However, the main problem with oil running out will indeed be transport. Planes and cars will not likely be in use when it runs out, which could lead to all kinds of problems.

In a way it is bittersweet, because seeing a change like this in the world could be incredible, but the downside is it could also be terrible, leading to many many deaths, and years of poverty worldwide. Either way it will make my life a little more interesting.

Anonymous said...

Old post, but still relevant. Some thoughts/findings:

Nuclear power is finished as an option in wake of the Fukushima debacle. Not to mention it would be unfeasible to build and maintain them without cheap oil.

Natural gas is already depleted in America and so-called frakking won't make sense without cheap oil to do it. Without cheap oil, most alternatives don't work: Biofuels, wind, solar, etc. Wind doesn't create wind turbines and solar doesn't ship solar panels.

Coal, like it or not, is how we'll transition from oil. And I'm talking dirty coal. Yes, it will be an environmental disaster and yes, billions will die, but that's also the outcome without coal.

The future is not bright.