Progressive Writers Bloc

The End of Oil

By David Chandler

It is well known among petroleum geologists that world oil production will peak sometime in the next decade. One might quibble about the exact timing, but all the believable scenarios put that date very soon. The International Energy Agency forecasts the peak in 2012. Some of the same people believe we are already at peak production of "conventional oil."

What makes this situation especially worrisome is that there is no sustainable energy source on earth with an immediate prospect of replacing oil. All other forms of energy combined, including natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, and wind, would fail to equal the easy, concentrated energy source that is oil. You may be surprised that nuclear is included in this list, but the availability of nuclear power is limited by the availability of nuclear fuel. Breeder reactors may seem to solve the limited fuel problem, but they don't. They are more costly and have major problems of their own, which is why they have been discontinued in the US, UK, and France.

The peak in oil production may not seem to be the critical point…after all half the oil is still in the ground…but the peak is where trouble begins. For one thing our economy is adapted to easy accessibility of energy. As the economy grows, demand for energy increases. As oil production slows down, the supply fails to keep up with demand and prices start to spiral uncontrollably upward. Peak oil production in the U.S. occurred in the 1970's, on schedule as predicted back in the 1950's. We have been able to continue to grow in our energy use only because we have been able to increase our oil imports. The peak in global oil production will not allow us this luxury.

There is another problem that occurs after the peak. Oil is initially easy to extract. As the wells start to decline in productivity the remaining oil is less pure and harder to get. It requires going deeper, using more high-tech processing equipment, and investing more energy to extract the remaining oil. Pre-peak oil is cheap oil. Post-peak oil is expensive oil, even apart from the effect of dwindling supply and increasing demand.

Think of squeezing water from a sopping wet sponge. At first the water comes out easily. After the first squeeze the sponge continues to hold water, but the second and third squeezes take greater effort, and less comes out. Something similar applies to oil. The point where it makes no sense to keep drilling is when the energy required to get the remaining oil exceeds the energy of the oil that would be extracted. The increasing cost is not the issue. Even at thousands of dollars per gallon, nothing is gained by pumping it out of the ground.

Passing the peak in oil production has another major consequence: a capitalistic economy demands growth to remain stable, and growth is ultimately limited by the availability of energy. Therefore the downturn in energy availability will bring with it economic instability and ultimately the collapse of our economy.

Much touted hydrogen fuel is not even a factor: it is a "carrier" of energy, not a source. It requires as much energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen as will be recovered when hydrogen and oxygen recombine in the burning process.

This is the "Ghost of Christmas yet to come," except unlike the ending in the Charles Dickens story, it is not clear that any actions on our part will change the ultimate outcome. The earth's population currently exceeds its ultimate carrying capacity, and the vast American culture of consumption is destined to be seen as a bizarre aberration in world history. The best we can hope for is a "soft landing" as reality catches up with us. If we radically scale back our energy consumption and find ways to stabilize our economy apart from constant growth we might be able to maintain a humane way of life as we find a new balance with nature. But if we try to become king of the energy hill, to maintain our island of greed at the expense of the rest of the world, we will not only fail to survive, long before we die off we will forfeit our humanity.

My fear is that the latter strategy is the real motivating force behind the scenes in our current push for world domination, operating under the cover of the "war on terrorism".

The primary source for this article is the huge website, Don't read it if you are feeling suicidal! The information there is solid, but the news is unremittingly bad. The challenge for us as a nation and as individuals is to find ways to retain human values as we live through the coming time of economic freefall.

See our website,

Contact Information
Website designed by DavidChandler