“Peak oil” is the theory that we’ve reached or will soon reach the summit of annual oil production.
Technically, it’s not a theory but a fact. Oil will run out or become too expensive to retrieve, or the demand will outpace the supply, making cheap gas a thing of the past.
The only question is how the declining supply will affect us — whether we’ll have a technological breakthrough, an economic restructuring, or the political planning it will take to soften the impact. So far, it doesn’t look promising.
Most economists and energy experts who have studied the issue put the peak somewhere between now and the year 2040. Barring an unexpected discovery of unknown reserves, most peak oilers say we will see the effects in our lifetime — possibly within a few short years.
Worldwide oil production has been flat for the last four years, and new discoveries aren’t keeping pace with increasing demand.
Government studies of the issue have been largely ignored by the media and swept under the rug by the government itself. Robert L. Hirsch, a former oil industry scientist, prepared a report on the topic in 2005 for George W. Bush’s Department of Energy.
The picture it paints ain’t pretty. Hirsch now thinks we’re two to five years from the peak, and it will be a dramatic and abrupt fall. Hirsch has a new book out called “The Impending World Energy Mess,” and the issue is finally getting some buzz.
Unfortunately, the uninformed skeptics will be given just as much air time as the well informed experts, and the grudge match between Fox and MSNBC may keep us distracted until it’s too late.
The economic disruptions from peak oil would be greatest in the U.S., and would have us looking back fondly on these days of high unemployment, record debt and other minor inconveniences.
Our entire society has been built around cheap oil — not just the gas in our cars, but also the asphalt we drive on, the plastic that envelopes us, and the diesel-soaked distribution system that brings us everything we need to survive. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, the fuel that keeps us warm — all are brought to our door courtesy of cheap oil. Our urban-sprawl society may look as anachronistic as a hoop skirt in a few years.
Nations like China and India are just getting used to oil. They might be able to transition back to a smaller scale. European society was built on a smaller scale and has been preparing for a future of energy and climate changes.
Speaking of which, peak oil theory is a lot like climate change theory. For every proponent, there’s a “debunker,” and most of us don’t have the scientific or technical expertise to sort fact from fiction.
Conspiracy theorists on the left think peak oil theory is a corporate plot to increase profits by creating false shortages. Those on the right think it’s a government plot to create a police state.
Peak oil and climate change theories also have this in common: If they’re false, we would still benefit from preparing as if they were true. Eventually, we need to stop polluting the planet and start creating a post-oil society. It makes sense to start now.
Sadly, our leaders aren’t leveling with us or leading us toward a more sustainable society. Bush knew about the spectre of peak oil, but kept mum. Obama knows, too, but he’s not saying anything either. They think we can’t handle the truth, and they may be right.
Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.