mast_img1.jpg Return to Home Page
Masthead Image 2

Peak Oil










The Karavans masthead photograph was taken by Colorado mountain biker and photographer Timmy Pitschka.

Peak Oil
It's not about running out of oil so much as it is about running out of cheap oil.

          My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies
                    a jet-plane. His son will ride a camel.
The above quote is a popular saying used by Saudi Arabs to remind themselves that the boom brought about by the switch to oil as the energy source of first choice will be shortlived-- spanning only a few brief generations.

What most Westerners fail to grasp--or refuse to grasp--is that the insight contained in this quote applies not only to the citizens of petroleum rich nations in the Middle East, but to everyone else-- including ourselves. While they may extract the fossil fuels, we rely on it for almost everything we have in modern society.

It helps to understand what oil has meant to civilization over the past 150 years by thinking of it as a resource with near magical properties. Imagine having a black box with a slot on top. Every time you insert $1 into the slot and shake the box, $100 appears which you can then spend as you wish. A $100 return for every $1 invested is a fantastically high return.

So it has been with oil for the past 150 years. For every barrel we invested in extracting additional oil, we got back 100 more barrels on average. However, this ratio has begun declining over the past few decades. Some estimates state that it could be as low as 10:1 in 2006. No one knows the true ratio for certain but all agree that it's decreasing steadily and will continue to do so.

Every barrel of oil is estimated to provide the energy equivalent of eight adult human beings working full-time for a year. In addition to providing humanity with the cheapest source of energy in its history, oil has also enabled us to produce tens of thousands of products that were not otherwise possible to bring into existence before the discovery of fossil fuels. Practically everything we eat, consume, and use has fossil fuel in it in one way or another. Fossil fuel molecules permeate almost everything our society relies on to function. Specifically, fossil fuels (i.e., oil and natural gas) and their derivatives are used in the manufacture of medicines, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, plastics, alcohol, building materials, cloth, detergents, synthetic rubber, glycerin, sulfur, solvents, nylon, paints, polyesters, food additives, dyes and supplements, explosives, and insulating materials.

Considering the many productive uses of petroleum, burning it for fuel is like burning a Picasso for heat.
                                                               - Big Oil Executive

Peak Oil doesn't mean that we abruptly run out of oil. Rather it means that, at some point, the Law of Diminishing Returns sets in. That point is commonly referred to as Peak Oil or the tip of Hubbert's Curve.

This is where the term "Peak Oil" comes from. Oil fields produce oil in a predictable manner.  Once the top half of an oil field is emptied of its easy-to-extract light sweet crude, what remains is the heavy sour crude, which is much more difficult and expensive to extract. At this point (i.e., the top of the Hubbert Curve or the Peak Oil point), extraction rates begin to diminish. Diminishing extraction rates coupled with a global economic system which must always grow spells serious trouble for everyone on the planet.

Hubbert's Peak (aka Peak Oil)

The vertical axis represents the volume of oil extracted over time from a given oil field or from an aggregate of oil fields such as those in a particular region or the global sum of all oil fields. The horizontal axis represents time. The curve illustrates that oil fields do not stop producing oil after peak production level is achieved. Instead production begins a long steady decline after the point of peak production is passed. This decline can be anywhere from two to ten percent or more per year depending on the particular oil field.

Peak Oil: Reaching Peak Oil does not mean that the world suddenly runs out of oil. This will not happen over-night; it will take decades to completely empty the oil fields just as it took decades to reach the peak in production. Rather Peak Oil means that we have extracted the first half of the oil from a field. The first half consists of the cheap, easy to extract light sweet crude. The second half of a field's contents consists of heavy sour crude oil, which is far more difficult to extract and, therefore, more costly to bring to the end-user. This first graphic in this article shows the bell curve used by geologists to describe how oil fields behave. At first production steadily increases. Then at some point a "peak" in production occurs. This represents the maximum volume in barrels per day that the field will produce during its life. Shortly after peak is reached, production starts to go into a long decline until there is no more oil to extract.

In summary, declining oil supplies in a world where both  population and demand for oil are always increasing spells trouble--serious trouble for us all.  Most writers on Peak Oil predict that the world will see intense, and often violent, competition for control of the last remaining productive oil fields over the coming decades. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is viewed by many as the first major move in the global end-game for oil.


If Peak Oil Comes, I'll Buy a Hybrid
It's about food far more than it is about commuting

Most people, when first told about Peak Oil, respond with a variation of "Fine, at that point I'll trade in the SUV for a Prius hybrid car." This is to miss the point entirely. Peak oil is about far more important matters than merely being able to drive an SUV three blocks to Blockbuster and back.

Fossil fuel is not just something you pour into your tank at the gas station. Look around you. Practically everything that's not wood or metal is made from fossil fuels. Think of all the products in your life: your computer casing, pens, food packaging, shoe soles, automobile interior, etc. Almost everything in modern life is derived in one way or another from hydrocarbon molecules. More importantly, the food we rely on can only be grown in the volumes needed to feed 300 million Americans and 6.2 Billion non-Americans with the use of fertilizers and pesticides derived from hydrocarbons.

Think of what Peak Oil means this way: once the world's oil production peaks and starts declining everything will start rising in price. Absolutely everything, including your food and ability to stay warm in winter and alive in summer if you live in the southern states.

In other words, fossil fuels
are civilization's economic lifeblood.

Imagine the economic impact of almost everything going up in price due to steadily worsening shortages in this key raw material.

Threat to Global Food Supply

Excerpts: "Food is energy. And it takes energy to get food. These two facts, taken together, have always established the biological limits to the human population and always will."

Recommended article: The Oil We Eat from Harpers.

Fossil fuels: The term "fossil fuels" refers to both oil and natural gas. The fertilizers and pesticides used as a form of agricultural steroids to ensure that sufficient crops can be grown from dying or dead top soil are mostly derived from natural gas. However, the "3000 mile Caesar Salad" requires a huge expenditure of oil as well to move food from its distant origins to your local grocery store.

Peak Oil poses a serious threat to the world's ability to continue feeding its people. Richard Heinberg's article "Threats of Peak Oil to the Global Food Supply" explains this threat.

Find additional articles on Peak Oil and the food supply here.

Peak Oil Primers

Read these Peak Oil primers.

US Army Report acknowledging Peak Oil.

Karavans | Eco-Living | Alt Energy | Transportation | Food
Community Building | About |

Solar Power

Wind Power


Emergency Kits



New Products


Business Services

Site and Content © 2006 to   - - All Rights Reserved.