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Bottom of the Barrel: What the end of oil means for our way of life
The pump says $7.98 a gallon. Your December heating bill reads $536. A pound of tomatoes rings up at $10.
It’s not a scene from a science fiction novel. Despite fluctuations in oil prices that (when declining) sometimes make the crisis seem less urgent, the world is about to start running out of cheap oil, says Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies. And its loss — and rising cost — will permeate nearly every facet of our everyday lives.
Experts predict we’ll reach the point of peak oil production by 2016, after which world oil supply will go into steep decline. And less oil, of course, means that we’ll have to learn to live with less. Less transportation, less imported food and goods, and less of the everyday luxuries we’ve learned to take for granted. Oil is at the core of industrial growth, and its depletion will cause a dramatic change in life as we know it.
“We’re entering an era that is as different from the industrial era as the industrial era was to pre-industrialization,” Heinberg says.
Over half of all oil-producing countries have passed their peak
It’s no surprise that this is happening. Oil is a finite resource — one that petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert spent his life studying. In 1956, Hubbert concluded that when any given country had extracted half of its total oil, it would reach the point of peak production. That’s because at about the halfway point, the cheap, easy oil would already have been extracted. What remained would be more costly and difficult to obtain. Thus, based on the law of diminishing returns, the rate of production would drop off. Hubbert predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970 as it reached the halfway point of extraction. It did, and since then the same thing has happened in many other countries — out of 44 countries producing significant amounts of oil, 24 have already passed their peak.
“It’s not a matter of some theoretical process that may or may not happen,” Heinberg says of world peak oil production. “Everyone agrees it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of when.”
Indeed, Heinberg is not alone. Matthew Simmons, CEO of Simmons and Co. International and energy advisor to President Bush, told a Swedish television station, “We need a wake up call. We need it desperately. We need basically a new form of energy. I don’t know that there is one.”
There’s no magic elixir to replace oil
Oil as an energy source is the equivalent of “winning the lottery,” Heinberg says. It delivers large amounts of energy for a small price (at least, up until now). Solar and wind technologies are certainly viable alternatives, but it will take immense resources — including oil — to build enough renewable energy systems to supply our current energy demand. To make the change without social chaos, we’ll need to drastically alter our energy habits as we convert our infrastructure to sustainable power sources, he says.
Heinberg explores possible solutions in his new book Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. He has also started teaching students at New College of California about how to transition to a post-petrolum society. Among his recommendations is being as self-reliant as possible, by growing your own food and using less energy, for example. He also emphasizes sharing information, helping friends and neighbors understand the situation.
“We’ve gotten ourselves into a real fix here,” he says. “You have to make the best of a situation, no matter what it is.”