Information on this page is taken from the Transition Primer.
The two toughest challenges facing humankind at the start of this 21st century are Climate Change and Peak Oil. The former is well documented and very visible in the media. Peak Oil, however, remains under the radar for most people. Yet Peak Oil, heralding the era of ever-declining fossil fuel availability, may well challenge the economic and social stability that is essential if we are to mitigate the threats posed by Climate Change.
The transition initiatives currently in progress in the UK and beyond represent the most promising way of engaging people and communities to take the far-reaching actions that are required to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil and Climate Change.
Furthermore, these relocalisation efforts are designed to result in a life that is more fulfilling, more socially connected and more equitable.
You may not have encountered the principles of Peak Oil in the media. Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. There was a time when Climate Change suffered the same lack of exposure.
Peak Oil is not about “running out of oil” – we’ll never run out of oil. There will always be oil left in the ground because either it’s too hard to reach or it takes too much energy to extract. Ponder on a fact that the economists conveniently gloss over – regardless of how much money you can make selling oil, once it takes an oil barrel’s worth of energy to extract a barrel of oil, the exploration, the drilling and the pumping will grind to a halt.
Peak Oil is about the end of cheap and plentiful oil, the recognition that the ever increasing volumes of oil being pumped into our economies will peak and then inexorably decline. It’s about understanding how our industrial way of life is absolutely dependent on this ever- increasing supply of cheap oil.
From the start of the 1900s, plentiful oil allowed a coal-based industrialised society to massively accelerate its “development”. From that time, each year there has been more oil (apart from the two oil shocks in the 1970s when Middle East crises caused worldwide recessions). And each year, society increased its complexity, its mechanisation, its globalised connectedness and its energy consumption levels.
The problems start when we’ve extracted around half of the recoverable oil. At this point, the oil gets more expensive (in cash and energy terms) to extract, is slower flowing and of a lower quality. At this point, for the first time in history, we aren’t able to increase the amount of oil that’s coming out of the ground, being refined and reaching the market. At this point, oil supply plateaus and then declines, with massive ramifications for industrialised societies. Very few people are paying attention to this phenomenon, and it’s easy to understand why.
Most of us have experienced running out of petrol at some time while driving, and this can subtly misinform our expectations around oil depletion.
The pattern is simple. Your car runs smoothly as you use up the petrol, right until the last fraction of a litre – when it’s about 97% empty. That’s the only time you start to feel the impact of your “petrol depletion”. The car starts juddering and spluttering, letting you know that you’d better act fast otherwise it’ll come to a sudden standstill.
This pattern means we can ignore the petrol gauge until very late in the depletion cycle. However, the way oil depletion affects industrial society couldn’t be more different. The key point isn’t when you’re close to running out of oil. It’s when the “tank” is half full (or half empty). Here’s why…
Oil recognizes that we are not close to running out of oil. However, we are close to running out of easy-to-get, cheap oil. Very close. That means we’re about to go into energy decline – that extended period when, year on year, we have decreasing amounts of oil to fuel our industrialised way of life.
The key concepts and implications of this are as follows:
It’s difficult to overstate what this means to our lives in the developed countries. To understand the degree to which this will affect the industrial world, here is the opening paragraph of executive summary of a report prepared for the US government in 2005 by an agency of experts in risk management and oil analysis:
“The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.”
Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management. Robert L. Hirsch, SAIC
This report only came to light after being buried by the US administration for close to a year. A perusal of the far-reaching implications of the report give a clear indication why the government was so keen to keep it out of the public domain. Despite the denial by governments, their agencies and oil companies that there is a problem, both Chevron and Total have both admitted that we’re at the end of the era of cheap oil. Jeremy Gilbert, former Chief Petroleum Engineer at BP, in May 2007 said the following: “I expect to see a peak sometime before 2015… and decline rates at 4-8% per year“ (May-2007)
Several US senators, principally Republican Roscoe Bartlett, are raising the issue in the upper house. In New Zealand, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, co-leader of the Green Party, is raising awareness about the threats of Peak Oil. In 2006, Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand said this: “…oil price is very high because probably we’re not too far short from peak production if we’re not already there.“ In Australia, the MP Andrew McNamara heading up the Queensland Oil Vulnerability Task force. He is now Queensland’s newly appointed Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change Ahead of the impending public release of his government-commissioned report on “Queensland’s Vulnerability to Oil Prices”, he talks about the importance of relocalisation in the face of oil depletion:
“There’s no question whatsoever that community driven local solutions will be essential. That’s where government will certainly have a role to play in assisting and encouraging local networks, who can assist with local supplies of food and fuel and water and jobs and the things we need from shops. It was one of my contentions in the first speech I made on this issue in February of 2005… that we will see a relocalisation of the way in which we live that will remind us of not last century, but the one before that. And that’s not a bad thing. Undoubtedly one of the cheaper responses that will be very effective is promoting local consumption, local production, local distribution. And there are positive spin offs to that in terms of getting to know our communities better. There are human and community benefits from local networks that I look forward to seeing grow.”
The Honourable Andrew McNamara, Queensland Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation
But apart from a few notable exceptions, national leaders are not stepping up to address these problems in any meaningful way. Yet. So if the political leaders aren’t going to fix the problem, what is?
Technology is often touted as the panacea for Peak Oil and Climate Change problems. However, a careful review of the reality of these technological solutions indicates their immaturity, their often disastrous environmental consequences and their lack of connection to the real world. We could dither about, waiting for technology or governments to solve the problem for us.
However, general consensus now appears to be that this is a rather high risk option. It’s up to us in our local communities to step up into a leadership position on this. We have to get busy NOW to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil. The good news is that many of the solutions and mitigations for Climate Change will also address the threats from Peak Oil – and vice versa.