It’s Bleak at the Peak
Peak Oil’s Slow Bleed Has Begun–How Will We Face It?
With the Wikileaked news that Saudi Arabia may have overstated oil reserves by as much as 40%, speculation about peak oil has been rampant. Peak oil is the principle that once half of oil reserves are gone (the peak), scarcity will increase and prices rise as the remaining reserves become more difficult to reach. The result is more like a slow bleed than a sudden catastrophe—and the resulting record-high pump prices are already being felt.

While the U.S. hit peak oil in the 1970s, global reserves have proven unexpectedly high (at least until now). The problem with cheap oil, though, is it leads to more use, hastening the day when we really do hit peak oil. Thus the surge in highway building and automobile use in China, speeding us to peak oil and beyond. Two possible reactions to the increasing difficulty of meeting the world’s oil needs are to go further afield in the search for oil and to find alternatives. (A third necessary though often overlooked alternative is to reduce personal transportation and other oil-consuming activities.) Unfortunately, we seem to be careening toward the first option. Which brings up another element: the environmental cost of oil. This tends to increase as oil supplies run out.

Deeper, and Riskier

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is one result of the search for oil in ever more inaccessible regions, in this case 18,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Another is the expansion of tar sands oil, notably in Canada. Difficult to extract from the earth, such oil has been estimated to emit 10% to 45% more greenhouse gas by the time it’s finished burning in your car, although another estimate puts it at only 6% more. Either way, it’s more emissions at a time when we desperately need to be cutting back.

Tar sands oil has numerous other nasty environmental effects: extraction uses large amounts of water, blights landscapes, destroys habitat, and might cause cancer. It’s also expensive. Nevertheless, we’re moving ahead with plans to build a 1,660 mile pipeline to Canada to make bring this dirty oil to the US.

With global climate change apparently moving ahead faster than anticipated, replete with unintended consequences, we should take whatever action is needed to quell it. Instead, our biggest fear seems to be running out of gas, and we’re taking whatever action is needed to squeeze a bit more oil out of Mother Earth. Why not, instead, work harder to move alternatives forward?

Waiting for Weaning

It’s true that alternatives are expensive and technically difficult, but so is pumping oil from ever more remote, isolated, environmentally sensitive and politically dubious regions. Instead, we should be working harder on some combination of electric cars and biofuels. While corn ethanol has a high environmental cost, due to the input of oil products in agriculture plus the use of land, ethanol from sugar is far more efficient—Brazil has declared energy independence on it. Unfortunately, the U.S. continues to impose a tariff on foreign ethanol while subsidizing our far less efficient version. Other biofuel sources, such as algae or jatropha, need to be developed. Powering up to electric cars depends on battery technology—much improved but still expensive—and will take time. Of course we can also reduce our automobile use through improved public transit.

Weaning ourselves off oil, then, is a challenge, but continued reliance on oil is also technologically difficult. The oil will eventually run out anyway and we’ve already wasted 35 years since the last energy crisis. Perhaps we’ve internalized our short-term consumerist beliefs to the extent that we can no longer change our ways? Perhaps it’s just easier to choose not to believe in climate change or decide that we can’t affect it in any case? Whatever the reasons, it looks as though we will continue to treat oil not as an environmental menace but as precious black gold that’s “good to the last drop.”