A Peek at Peak Oil

Writeing und ediTTing note:  This is not the delivered version of the talk I gave on February 26 2011.  There were many asides, rhetorical flourishes, dramatic pauses and parenthetical remarks, at which I attempt to excel, although my attempts are marked by the same speed and ease as the Umberto Nobile Polar Expedition.

A Peek at Peak Oil

This morning I’d like to talk about Peak Oil.  I’m going to talk about how the concept arose, and briefly touch on some of the implications.  It’s the societal and spiritual implications that I hope to stress, (editor’s note: I said hope, and I meant it) so in effect this is a homily about abundance and scarcity.


In 1956, an oil geologist named Marion King Hubbert presented a paper to the American Petroleum Institute.  The American Petroleum Institute is an openly pro-oil non-profit conglomerate that tirelessly lobbies, propagandizes and spins.  It is where people who make their living from oil can go with a reasonable expectation that they won’t have their world view challenged.  And thus it was that Mr. Hubbert’s presentation that day must have really been a skunk at the picnic.


For what he was presenting was a paper theorizing that on the basis of ease of extractability — not total reserves, but how easy it was to get oil out of the ground — the US petroleum industry would measurably start to decline by 1970.


Since this prediction was for no distant future, but less than two decades away, that wasn’t good news for anyone there.  Essentially he told them that for the balance of their careers, they would be presiding over the decline of the extraction of oil in the US. Later on he predicted that there would be a global Peak Oil, which we are supposed to have passed already although I personally think we’re still a few years out.  So in a nutshell, that is Peak Oil.  The demand curve  which grows every time a baby is born meets a supply curve which is held in place by how difficult and expensive the remaining oil — which the oil companies say is limitless — can be extracted from the ground.


To be fair, the concept of Peak Oil is a controversial one.   Let me be clear that everything I’m about to say is my opinion.


The oil companies all say it isn’t true.  Peak Oil always was and always will be a fallacy.  I’ll let you think for a moment about the truthfulness, corporate responsibility and peaceful history of oil companies, just for a moment, give yourself an opportunity to think of three news items in which the oil companies have knowingly lied about something or killed workers through safety violations.  Now ask yourself whether you would have any reason to believe the oil companies when their representatives say peak oil is a fallacy.  They are closest to the geological information that makes Peak Oil at least a working theory and they’ve the most to lose if it’s true, and they’ve lobbied like elite shock troops to be able to drill on every square inch of the planet if they choose.  If Peak Oil is true, then citizens have a reason to prevent them from drilling, and if it’s false then anybody who stands in the way of drilling is impeding the orderly march of progress that has unfolded on our planet since 1859, the first year humans drilled for oil.


So from their perspective, they are right, but they have to kill our mother, they have to kill Gaia, to be proven correct.  Drilling for oil cannot be made to be an environmentally friendly action.


In my view, if the oil companies are denying Peak Oil, that fact and the evidence I’ve encountered is enough to convince me I should be concerned about how expensive my gas is.  But how concerned?  How did we end up here?


(Editor’s note: and here I restate the premise of peak oil in the hopes that it will stick in the heads of some of my listeners.  Hello, nurse; cognitive difficulties r us.)  When the oil industry started up in the continental US, there was more supply than ability to extract and process oil.  Getting oil out of the ground made a lot of money, and so more extraction and production capability was built because everybody who had money to invest wanted some of that.  Demand grew and so did supply. Hubbert figured out that all natural systems can be depleted, even oil, and started measuring oil production against demand.  Eventually there would come a time where the demand curve would hit the supply curve, not because there was no more oil, but because you couldn’t get it out of the ground and to the customer without spending too much money to extract it.  The oil companies have been looking around in desperation for means of increasing production.


That is why fracking is such a big deal in domestic oil production right now — only by increasing pressure on the remaining oil by pumping special fluid into the ground can the remaining oil be extracted.  We don’t know much about what the long term effects are but it isn’t looking good for the people of Pennsylvania.  And it’s legal in BC, so the long term consequences will be part of our children’s heritage as well.


This is about the time I’m thinking…The rest of this needs to be rewritten so badly.  It worked out fine live but on the page it does not pop at all.

Oh my gwd this woman is so repetitive, tell me something I don’t already know or at least give me a new way of looking at it!!  And other self affirming thoughts of this ilk.

We are all living in the shadow of this troublesome dearth of oil.  The days of easy oil discovery and extraction are over.  The last big discovery was in 2003 and it is only now coming on line in Brazil, where the Brazilians have purchased their first nuclear powered submarine to protect their new off shore wealth.


Whatever future energy source humans use, the last one hundred and fifty years of technological development would have been impossible without oil.   To my mind, the little geopolitical stability we’ve had over the last century has been due to relatively inexpensive fossil fuel.  At the same time, the lack of it threatens the way of life that we are used to.


Up until this point, as a species we’ve always counted on technology to help us find a way to escape whatever corner we’ve painted ourselves into.  When the oil supply is restricted to those who can afford it or have the muscle to steal it, will we find some relief from science?  Where should we look for guidance in our own daily living?


Oil causes wars.  That is the political implication.  Where there is not a full scale war going on, there’s a war against the population sitting on the oil, whether they are the denizens of the sea or Nigerians or the Beaver Lake Cree.  Very powerful  people want the last of the easy oil, and they are more than prepared to bribe and threaten and kill to get it, or to hire people to do that work for them.


It’s very easy to look at oil and the impact it has had on human life on this planet  and think that it’s evil.  I look at it and see a mixed blessing, and as it becomes more expensive, I do believe that human beings and the markets we create together will become more creative about how we respond to our needs.


Oil has been so cheap that it has become the solution to every problem.  The chemicals derived from it make fertilizer, plastic, fabric, pesticides, Ink, medical supplies, parachutes, telephones, antiseptics, deodorant, pantyhose and the list goes on and on.  It’s not just the ability to put gas in our cars, if we’re lucky enough to have one, that’s in jeopardy if we can’t afford oil.  Every aspect of human life will become more expensive — and that is going to cause a huge shift in how we do things as a species.


There is always the possibility that new technologies will save us.  Genetically tailored bacteria to turn waste plastic back into oil are not science fiction any more.  We can grow plants to turn into feedstock for fuel.  As Canadians we will have access to these technologies, but whether we can elect governments who will make the unpopular choices that will be necessary to effect change is an open question.  There is only so much an individual can do about demand for oil  – we need visionary leaders and I don’t think leaders of parties who win elections with robocalls are a good bet to lead us with sound technology policy.


I’d like to just take a detour at the moment and say a word about feminism.


(Oh gwd Selectra not your neo-nerdy evo devo gender analysis bs.)


Over the last century women have striven to be able to control their own minds and bodies and achieved, at least in some countries, success.  All of that has been on the back of cheap oil.  Cheap oil has made domestic labour saving devices and contraception, in my view the two biggest contributors to female emancipation, possible.  If there is no reasonable substitute for oil found, feminism may founder.


Okay, now that I’ve managed to horrify you with a vision of a labour intensive and socially backward future, let’s look at some upside.


Monsanto, and all the nasty agricultural monolith companies, are completely dependent on cheap oil to make and distribute their products.  They will end up being priced out of the market, especially when the global seed saving movement stops being a small band of pioneers and starts being everybody.  Instead of collecting Pokemons, kids will be collecting, labeling and sharing seeds, and everyone around them will be happy they are doing it.


Instead of spraying weeds we’ll be sending herds of goats to eat them, and then we’ll eat the goats or their cheese.


Instead of driving ten miles, paying for parking and joining 40000 other people to see a band promoted by a multinational media company, we’ll be walking to the end of the street to play music in each other’s kitchens.  So may it be, and sooner rather than later.


Instead of being indoors watching television we’ll be outside gardening, beekeeping, looking after chickens, rabbits and goats, and Tom Lunderville will have all the help he could ever want picking blackberries.


There will be public and private transportation everywhere — some of it horsedrawn, some steam powered, some electric, some human powered.  And rich people will still have cars.


You’ll spend a lot less time getting dressed, because you’ll only have two or three good pieces of clothing.


Rag rugs are going to make a big comeback.


Kids will be walking to school again.  Kids will be obliged to help their families find and preserve food, and they will know where their food comes from.  They will know what every insect pest and plant disease looks like.


You will know your neighbours.


One of your neighbours may have a shed full of tools to rent to you so you will get out of the habit of thinking you have to buy anything and into the habit of considering what you can trade for something.


Manners are going to come back.  If the pace of life slows down, there will be time for more ornament, and more ceremony, in daily life.


We’ll eat less and enjoy it more. We’ll still have sugar, but it will be from beets and not corn and it will be made locally. We’ll still have cocoa and coffee and cinnamon.  It will be expensive but we’ll still have it. We’ll still have beer and wine and soft drinks and ice cream and cooking oil and it will all be local.  We’ll be eating less wheat and a lot more barley, quinoa and oats.


We will return to more natural rhythms of eating, sleeping, working and celebrating.  We’ll have less interference during childbirth and virtually all children will be nursed for at least six months.


We’ll still have good water in the Lower Mainland, and a lot of us will have cisterns.


We won’t have freesias flown in from South Africa for our tables, but we’ll still have fresh cut flowers if we want them.


In predicting all of these things, I am thinking of what positive outcomes may arise, and I will leave you with one last comment.


Beacon will still be here.  We may have to get creative about how we get everybody to church and home again, and we may have a wood stove instead of a furnace, and we may have to get our own power generation to run the sound system, but our community will be here for us.  Out of all this talk of scarcity, there is still an abundance to life and the human spirit which is quite independent of oil.  Kindness and hard work and self-sacrifice do not go out of fashion.  The most important thing to remember, whenever anyone says to you that something scary is on its way, is “This too shall pass”.  Our mother Gaia has let us nurse at the breast of inexpensive oil for a long time, but even the most loving mother eventually weans her children, and it’s time for all of us to think how we may walk more carefully, more joyfully and more humbly upon the earth that is our only home.

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