A word on peak oil

I am a little bothered by the amount of people who talk about peak oil but don’t seem to know what it is.  I am no expert, by any means, but I became interested in the subject when I took a geology class a few years ago and we discussed it one day.  I wrote a term paper on it, and I got an A, so my information must be relatively good.

The theory of peak oil production was first introduced by M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for Shell in the late 50s.  It discussed the mathematical certainty that oil production, like all finite resources, will increase more and more over time until it will one day peak, and production will begin to decrease.  Let me use a handy (and not mathematical) metaphor to explain how and why this happens.

Imagine if you will, that you have a can of soda that you have shaken up.  When you shake up that soda, the carbonation causes it to expand, putting the contents of the can under great pressure.  When you open the can, you have created a place for that soda to expand into, and the pressure is released, causing the soda to spray up in your face, right?

Just like shaken soda in a can, oil is formed deep in the earth under massive pressure.  When you first drill into an oil mine, the pressure is released just like when you open the soda can, and it bursts up through the air (known in the oil industry as a gusher).

Now, eventually that soda is going to stop spraying out of the can, and there is still going to be a lot of soda left in it.  That’s because the soda only expands as much as it needs to to relieve the pressure, then it stops expanding.  But you still want to get that soda out and drink it, right?  So you stick a straw in the can, and start sucking it out.

Just like the soda, the oil only expands as much as it needs to to relieve the pressure, and when it stops, there’s still a ton of oil down in the well.  So we have stuck pipes and whatnot down there and started pumping it up.

Now, the more soda you suck out of that can, the lower the soda level gets, the further you have to suck it up, so the harder you have to suck.  Just like with the soda, the lower the oil reserves get, the more energy it takes to suck that oil up.  The problem is that the machines we use to pump it up are run off of … drum roll please … oil!  And the harder (more energy intensive) it gets to pump oil, the more oil we’re going to be using to get it out.  Eventually we will be using one barrel of oil for every one barrel of oil we pull out of the ground.  At this point, oil becomes an energy sink (meaning we’re using more energy to produce it than we’re getting out of it), and production will stop.

When this happens, 30% to 50% of the oil reserves will still be in the mines, but we will be unable to pull it up.  Even if we use some other energy source to power the machines that pump up the oil, we would be using more energy calories pulling the oil up than there are energy calories in the oil.  We would be wasting energy.

This already happened in the United States.  Our oil production peaked back in the 70’s.  What we are anticipating now is a peak in world wide production.

This happens with all finite resources.  It happened with zinc in the 19th century.  It will happen with coal eventually.  It will happen with uranium eventually.  And since, incidentally, it takes WAY more coal to get the same amount of energy a barrel of oil provides us with, we will be facing peak coal production much quicker than we faced peak oil production if we replace oil with “clean coal technology”.  Same deal with nuclear technology, since it depends on uranium.

There is no energy source on this planet that gives us as many calories per unit as petrolium does.  Coal comes closest, and its still not near the energy powerhouse oil is.  Plus its way dirtier.  I hear all this talk about clean coal technology, but I am skeptical of it.  We’ll probably lean heavily on coal at first when peak oil starts becoming a real problem, but we wont want to stay there for long.

When people think about peak oil, they think its just going to mean that we won’t be able to drive anymore, but the scary thing about it is that it will affect much more than just our cars.  Gas is required to ship all of our food and goods, and without gas we’ll all be suddenly reliant on an entirely local diet and economy, the resources for which don’t exist in a big enough quantity to keep us all fed and clothed.  Because big agribusiness focuses on growing only one crop in massive quantities so to be shipped all over the world, everyone in the world relies very heavily on food produced far away for a balanced diet.  When peak oil happens the people in kansas, for example, may find themselves living almost exclusively on wheat, soy and sunflowers.  People on the East Coast can almost certainly kiss beef goodbye.  Not only this, but gas is used to power all the equipment that water, harvest, and prepare all those crops before they are even shipped.

Then of course there’s all the petrochemical fertilizers that make crops produce at the levels they produce at.  Without them, huge agribusiness will not be able to grow as many crops.  Not to mention that most of our fibers, foams, fabrics, plastics, medicines, cosmetics, soaps, household cleaners and all sorts of wonders of modern chemistry are petrochemical based, and production of them will stop when peak oil happens too.  In fact, a lot of our food is entirely or primarily petrochemical based, so when peak oil happens, say goodbye to things like Cool Whip and Margarine.

So much of our world, not just our energy, relies on oil.  As far as energy goes, we will need to employ every alternative means of producing energy we have available to replace oil.  Its not just enough to focus on solar, or wind, or geothermal.  We’re going to need it all, and we’re going to need it fast.  Most experts agree that the harshest of peak oil affects will be upon us in the next 10 years or so, and judging by the rising cost of energy, food, and resources, plus the fact that oil production seems to have pretty much plateaued since 1998, its looking pretty likely that its already starting.

For more information on the theory of peak oil supply, I highly recommend the books by Kenneth Deffeyes. 

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About Rockingthehomestead

Badass feminist environmentalist.
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3 Responses to A word on peak oil

  1. jamilynnfitz says:

    So what do we do about it? Garden? How many people have the knowledge and/or space to produce enough of their own crops to feed them year round? All of this incredibly valuable knowledge is dying off with the people that can teach us how to be more self-reliant. I am starting to garden. But if one was serious about gardening, they wouldn’t buy Monsanto seeds, they would get open-pollinated seeds that they can save year after year. Revolution will start in our wallets and our back yards. But only if we are willing to become informed, and put in the effort.

    Great article, thanks for posting it!

  2. jessimonster says:

    Well, theres nothing we can do about it. Thats the point. There is no way to make more oil.
    We need to figure out how to survive without it. Its totally possible, of course, though it probably won’t be pretty squeezing through that bottle neck. Alternative energy resources, such as wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, even nuclear and coal, will produce power that is just as usable as the power oil produces, but in order to produce enough of that power, we need to build a lot more wind turbines, install a lot more solar panels, dig a lot more geothermal systems, etc. We just aren’t building the infastructure now, while its going to be easy, and there’s going to be a huge struggle to get that stuff up and running when we start getting desperate for any energy we can get. People complain that those technologies are too expensive, but as the price of oil, natural gas and coal increase, as they are bound to do, eventually alternative sources are going to be the cheaper options. And as of right now, there isn’t enough of those sources to go around.
    Really, what we’re going to have to do is get used to having much less power. Theres no way around it. We’re going to have to develop the skills to produce and forage for food on our own, or we’re going to die (and we’re all going to have to learn to defend what food we’ve got, or it will get stolen). There’s no way around it. Its terrifying, yes, and I’d be lieing if I said I wasn’t horrified. I didn’t bring a child into this world to possibly watch him starve to death. No thank you. Thats why I’m doing everything I can now to make that transition as smooth as possible when the time comes (yes, gardening and riding a bike are good examples), and trying to take political action in the hopes that our government might actually take this problem seriously. Its not like we haven’t had ample warning.

  3. Pingback: Grow your own food « All Natural, Single Mothering 101

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