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Bill McKibben, Sierra Club Magazine
Fossil fuels burned brightly in their day, but now it's time to make the leap to safer, cleaner, climate-friendly alternatives
EXPLORERS USED TO AMUSE their European audiences by telling of heathen tribesmen who would panic when an eclipse rubbed out the noonday sun. The natives would scream or pray or make ritual sacrifices to appease the god on whom they had always depended, a god now acting so irrationally. Our chief deity--the cheap energy that has made our lives rich and easy--is about to be eclipsed as well, and the sounds you hear (motorists moaning about the price of gas, politicians loudly insisting that sacrificing wilderness in the Far North will save the day) are no different. Except that solar eclipses pass quickly. This change is forever; fossil fuel was a onetime gift--and the sooner we understand that, the sooner we can go about the realistic task of doing without it.
Much of what passes for discussion about our energy woes is spent imagining some magic fuel that will save us. Solar power! Fusion power! Hydrogen power! But such wishful thinking hides the basic fact of our moment in time: We've already had our magic source of energy. Fossil fuel was as good as it gets: compact, abundant, and easy to handle and transport. All you had to do was stick a drill bit in the ground or scrape off a few feet of soil above a vein of black rock and you were set. Learning to use coal, gas, and oil kicked off the Industrial Revolution and, in subsequent centuries, underwrote the chemical revolution, transportation revolution, agricultural revolution, and electronics revolution. (Right now, even as you read this, fossil fuel is producing hundreds of billions of revolutions per minute.) Pretty much every action of modern life involves burning hydrocarbons, and it's modern life that we've come to like.
So it's no wonder that we start to get a little jittery when we contemplate the coming end of the fossil-fuel age. The growing recognition that we're approaching a peak in oil production is the most obvious sign, of course--our supply of petroleum is now measured in decades, and as each decade passes, that supply will become harder to find and more expensive to pump. The world's four biggest oil fields are in decline. We're using oil five times as fast as we're discovering new reserves. And just as those of us already in on modernity would like to start hoarding the remaining supply, the Chinese and Indians and lots of others are discovering that they'd enjoy taking their cars out for a spin as well.
If all we were faced with was peak oil, we might be able to keep the circus going. We could figure out ways to replace many uses of gasoline with coal, which is abundant as long as we don't mind removing all the remaining mountaintops in the southern Appalachians (a sacrifice, I predict, we would bring ourselves to make--or rather, we would bring ourselves to call upon Kentuckians and West Virginians to make). But we've got a far deeper problem than that, one coal can only make worse. Global warming, as we've come to understand in the past few years, is not a speculative, distant, or easily managed threat. It's not one more item on the list of problems, somewhere between global terrorism and failing inner-city schools. It's the first civilization-scale challenge humans have managed to create...
(January/February 2007 issue)
The latest issue of the Sierra Club magazine is devoted to energy. Several other articles on energy are online, in additio to the well written overview by McKibben. I think this is the most prominent mention of peak oil by the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club has an energy section on their website, with the focus on global warming.
The blind spot of the Sierra Club seems to be long distance travel. For example, they don't mention air travel at all in their Ten Things You Can Do to Help Curb Global Warming - much more important than changing lightbulbs or having your car tuned. Half of pages in the the paper copy of this issue of their magazine is devoted to "Sierra Club Outings," those beautiful far-off locations which can only be reached by burning large quantities of fossil fuels.
Jerome a Paris, who was interviewed for McKibben's article, has a related post today on The technology of community.
A Primer on Reserve Growth - part 1 of 3
Rembrandt, The Oil Drum: Europe
The difference in vision between so called "optimists" and pessimists" with respect to the peak in world oil production is often caused by a view of future technological development in the oil industry. This development influences both conventional and unconventional oil production. Only a part of the oil in an oil field can be produced. It is claimed by oil companies and various institutes that technological advancement will increase the recoverable amount, thereby postponing the peak in conventional oil for several decades. In essence this means that the amount of recoverable reserve increases over time due to changes in technology, economy, insights. But also expected recoverable reserves increase over time due to past underestimates. This is why the term is called "reserve growth".
The only institute that has done exensive studies with respect to the growth of recoverable reserves over time is the United States Geological Survey. In their World Petroleum Assessment 2000, the USGS claims that between 1996 and 2025 worldwide conventional oil reserves will increase by 730 billion barrels due to reserve growth.
A large amount of forecasting institutes such as the International Energy Agency and Energy Information Administration take the figure of 730 billion barrels from the USGS for granted. In addition to forecasting institutes, oil companies often claim that reserve growth is the key to postponing the worldwide peak of conventional oil production. The question is to what extent the USGS prediction can be relied upon.
Two weeks ago I posted a piece about the discovery forecast of the USGS. In this second post with respect to the USGS World Petroleum Assesment 2000 we take a first glance at what reserve growth really is and what we can learn from studying the worldwide recovery factor of conventional oil fields
(23 Dec 2006)
How to address Contrarian Arguments: "We have huge reserves"
Luís de Sousa, The Oil Drum: Europe
On this second installment of the Contrarian Arguments series we'll look into the We have huge reserves rhetoric.
The first part can be found here: Part I : Fundamentals.
We have huge reserves, but I have bad news for you, they've been huger:
[graph: Regular Oil Reserves, as computed from Colin Campbell's "Growing Gap" graph]
The "Huge Reserves" kind of argument is probably the most important one to address, beyond all the madness and delusional arguments like infinite oil, this one can be used be serious geologists and researchers. It is the kind of argument you can get from people that have seriously (or close to it) studied the stuff, but came up to slightly different conclusions of those got by the regular peak researcher.
At the head of the serious people taking this kind of argument is CERA, our nemesis. So we'll look closer to CERA's work and understand what differentiates our conclusions.
(24 Dec 2006)
Rail-Volution on Peak Oil
The Rail-Volution conference last November had a session on Peak Oil. At the conference papers page, scroll down to: "Oil or Not -- Are We in a Transportation Energy Crisis? "
The peak oil presentations (in PDF) can be accessed directly:
Do we know enough to make decisions? (34 pages/1mb PDF)
Gary Landrio, Vice President, Rail Operations, Stone Consulting & Design, Warren, Pennsylvania
Transportation Energy Crisis?
(30 pages/0.7mb PDF)
Todd Litman, Executive Director, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Future Oil Supply Uncertainty and Impacts on Transportation/Land Use Planning
(17 pages/0.5mb PDF)
Rex Burkholder, Councilor, District 5, Metro Council, Portland, Oregon
Peak Food and Population Overshoot
John Rawlins, Whatcom Watch
A wall chart in the Whatcom Community College physics lab shows the historical (and projected future) curve of oil extraction along with other geo-petroleum data. There is also a curve on the chart that, because of its color, is difficult to see and is easy to overlook entirely. When I ask a student in my energy class to notice it and tell everyone else what the label on the curve is, there’s always a moment of realization and the dawning of a major future problem in a world with declining oil availability. The nearly invisible curve shows world population versus time, and the population curve correlates perfectly with the oil extraction rate curve.
Before oil (and natural gas) humans used manual labor to grow food, and the amount of food determines an upper limit on population. The large-scale, increasing use of oil and natural gas in the industrial world’s food-growing enterprise has meant ever-increasing quantities of food - until now. Therefore, population increase over the past 150 years correlates very well with oil extraction.
John Rawlins has a B.S. in physics and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He retired in 1995 from the Westinghouse Hanford Co. at the Hanford site in Eastern Washington. Currently, he teaches physics and astronomy at Whatcom Community College.
Concise summary of the issues. This is the third in a series by physicist Rawlins: "Fossil Fuels at Peak." Previous articles:
Part 1: A Personal Peak Oil Discovery Process
Part 2: Changes in Energy Infrastructure to Take Decades and Trillions of Dollars
We Don't Know Jack
Chris Nelder, Energy and Capital
Sometimes I feel sorry for journalists on the energy beat. Most of them are your basic college-educated, liberal arts generalists, with a flair for communication but not necessarily math or science.
Unfortunately, in a world waking up to the fearsome reality of peak oil, good numbers are hard to come by. This is especially true in the oil business, where “tight holing”-keeping information top secret-is a term as old as the business itself.
But there are some numbers that are available, and some of them are pretty reliable. And even a journalist has the math skills needed to work with those numbers-it’s basic arithmetic.
So when Chevron announced a “new” find in September of some three to 15 billion barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, with a possible production rate of 300,000 to 500,000 barrels per day of light sweet crude, I looked for some good journalism about this exciting new discovery.
But I didn’t find it.
The Globe and Mail published an article called “Peak oil theorists don’t know Jack,” a short little puff piece that carefully skirted any facts and selectively quoted the press release, while suggesting that peak oil fears should be forgotten.
(21 Dec 2006)