not about running out of oil so much as it is about running out of
My father rode a camel. I drive a car.
My son flies
a jet-plane. His son will ride a
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--
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
on top. Every time you insert $1
into the slot and shake the box, $100 appears which you can then spend
you wish. A $100 return for every $1 invested is a fantastically high
So it has been with oil for
the past 150 years. For every barrel we invested in extracting
additional oil, we
100 more barrels on average. However, this ratio has begun declining
over the past few
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
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.
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.
the many productive uses of petroleum, burning it for fuel is like
burning a Picasso for heat.
- Big Oil Executive
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
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
economic system which must always grow
spells serious trouble for
everyone on the planet.
Hubbert's Peak (aka Peak Oil)
The vertical axis
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
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
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
peak is reached, production starts to go into a long decline until
there is no
more oil to extract.
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
as the first major move in the global end-game for oil.
Peak Oil Comes, I'll Buy a Hybrid
It's about food far more
than it is about commuting
people, when first told about Peak Oil, respond with a variation of
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
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.
the economic impact of almost everything going up in price due to
steadily worsening shortages in this key raw material.
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
article: The Oil We
Eat from Harpers.
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
these Peak Oil primers.
US Army Report acknowledging Peak Oil.
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