Thursday, August 17, 2006

Peak Oil Planning

My education on peak oil began with Richard Heinberg’s book: “The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies.” Peak oil theory posits that every oil field has a bell-shaped production curve. The peak is when the field is producing the most oil it will ever produce, after which the same amount of oil already pumped remains to be pumped, but at much higher cost because it’s more difficult to extract. Geologists can’t pinpoint the peak until some time afterward, when production timelines show the decline has already begun. But there are formulas to predict more or less when peak will occur, based on past production, the number of new oil fields found and other factors.

The aggregate of oil fields in each nation also has a peak, as does the combined total of the world’s oil fields. Following the projections of geophysicist Marion King Hubbert, who accurately predicted America’s domestic oil production peak in the early 1970s, Heinberg reports that global peak oil will happen some time between now and 2010. The US Geological Survey pegs it more around 2020, and some people, anticipating discovery of huge new oilfields as yet undetected by very sophisticated radar techniques, put it as far off as 2050. (Even without peak oil, global warming and our human response to it could be a sign that the Earth organism is using her internal feedback loops to return to homeostasis.)

It’s not that the world oil supply will dry up overnight. But supply will steadily decline, and become harder to extract, as industrialization continues to push up demand. Few doubt that the singular historical event of peak oil will happen. They dispute when, and, more importantly, how human civilization will cope. Some say market forces will solve the problem: as oil prices rise, incentives for alternative technology will keep pace.

Others (self included) believe market forces react too slowly; without huge financial and political commitments, it will take decades for new energy technologies to become widely available and affordable. Without careful preparation – from local urban planning to national and international resource sharing arrangements – the global economy will collapse, with devastating consequences for people everywhere.

Heinberg speaks of “strategic optimism,” the attitude that even though the outlook is difficult, our best chance for survival is having faith that organized, informed people can and will devise collective solutions. He calls them “energy descent” plans, and many towns are already beginning to transform their economic structures to become minimally dependent on fossil fuels. The Kinsale, Ireland town council was the first municipal government in the world to pass an energy descent plan. Since then, Burnaby, British Colombia; Sebastopol, CA; Tompkins County, NY; the San Francisco Bay Area; Boulder, Colorado; Plymouth, New Hampshire; Bloomington, Indiana; Eugene, Oregon, and other communities have begun their own preparations.

Lakis Polycarpou, in an article here, describes three possible scenarios. In the best case, “successful localities execute a long-term plan to stop sprawl and develop downtowns and main streets where they exist (or build them where they do not), and gradually shift toward a more sustainable (and sane) living arrangement, centered around relatively dense, walkable towns and neighborhoods connected by public transit with goods supplied by electric rail. Policies to encourage local agriculture and the rebuilding of regional economies reverse globalization, saving energy…”

For more information, you can put “peak oil” into Google or start with:
1) the Wikipedia entry
2) the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas here


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