Runaway Train

Consider this basic and sobering group of facts: In the 100 years and change since we dug that first well, the human race has used half of all the oil on the planet. Author Michael C. Ruppert points out that this oil took literally millions of years to produce, and is the result of climactic conditions that have existed on a grand scale at only one time in the Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history.

Colin Campbell, a respected oil geologist who has worked for many of the majors and is the author of the 1997 book The Coming Oil Crisis, believes we have, at best, one trillion barrels of the easiest-to-reach fossil fuel left, with some additional harder-to-reach reserves in oil from coal and deep water sources, shale deposits, polar reserves and natural gas energy. Half of our remaining supplies are in the volatile Middle East, with Saudi Arabia having the largest reserves (261 billion barrels).

Campbell says in a 2002 interview with Ruppert, “Probable actual physical shortage of all liquid hydrocarbons worldwide won’t appear for about 20 years, especially if deepening recession holds down demand. But people are coming to appreciate that peak is imminent and what it means. Some places like the U.S. will face shortage sooner than others. The price is likely to soar as shortage looms, which itself may delay peak.”

Richard Heinberg, author of PowerDown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World and editor of the MuseLetter, thinks civilization is reaching a crossroads that will end the long-time domination of fossil fuels. He argues that the peak of oil production will be reached as early as 2010 or 2015.

The notion of a coming oil peak has reached the mainstream. In a front-page essay entitled “The End of Cheap Oil,” National Geographic wrote, “
[S]laking the world’s oil thirst is harder than it used to be. The old sources can’t be counted on anymore. On land the lower 48 states of the U.S. are tapped out, producing less than half the oil they did at their peak in 1970. Production from the North Slope of Alaska and the North Sea of Europe, burgeoning oil regions 20 years ago, is in decline. Unrest in Venezuela and Nigeria threatens the flow of oil. The Middle East remains the mother lode of crude, but war and instability underscore the perils of depending on that region.

“And so oil companies are searching for new supplies and braving high costs, both human and economic
.[T]hey are still finding oil in quantities to gladden a Hummer owner’s heart. But in the end the quest for more cheap oil will prove a losing game: Not just because oil consumption imposes severe costs on the environment, health, and taxpayers, but also because the world’s oil addiction is hastening a day of reckoning.

“Humanity’s way of life is on a collision course with geology—with the stark fact that the Earth holds a finite supply of oil. The flood of crude from fields around the world will ultimately top out, then dwindle. It could be five years from now or 30: No one knows for sure, and geologists and economists are embroiled in debate about just when the ‘oil peak’ will be upon us. But few doubt that it is coming. ‘In our lifetime,’ says economist Robert K. Kaufmann of Boston University, who is 46, ‘we will have to deal with a peak in the supply of cheap oil.’”

The significance of peak oil is widely debated. We’re producing 75 million barrels a day now, and have either one trillion barrels left (Campbell), or two trillion, according to more optimistic sources such as the American Petroleum Institute. Many geologists say that because of a constant flood of new discoveries we’re nowhere near running out of oil. Others point out that we’ve had Cassandra warnings before, including talk of peak oil in the 1970s. But even some former Bush advisors, like Matthew Simmons, see it coming. “The event will occur, and my analysis is
that peaking is at hand, not years away,” he said. Whatever your perspective, it’s plain that the current spiral of ever-increasing oil consumption and fast-growing car populations (especially in Asia) is not even vaguely sustainable. So if we can’t do anything about supply, we may have to reduce demand.

The U.S. today is in intense denial about energy consumption and its implications for global warming. As we build ever-larger homes and gas up our Hummers, we’re oblivious to the damage we’re causing.

As Jeremy Rifkin points out in his new book The European Dream (which will be excerpted in the March/April issue of E), they’re much more worried in Europe. The British government, for instance, is launching two technology incubators specifically aimed at climate change, one to deal with fuel cells, hybrids and other clean designs, and the other to use advanced technology (what’s called “telematics”) to reduce road congestion and emissions. Further, the European Union has committed itself to building a hydrogen-based energy economy by 2050, with renewable energy as the cornerstone.

A group of international automakers worked with the UN to produce a 2002 report that looked seriously at a sustainable future for the industry. At that time, the world produced 58 million cars and trucks per year, with the Chinese auto industry (its growth reinforced by bicycle bans in some areas) already experiencing 14 percent annual growth. And China was surpassed by 47 percent growth in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Clearly, the world is ill equipped, both in terms of oil production and generation of greenhouse gases, to handle that kind of automotive population explosion.

There were 531 million passenger cars worldwide in 2002, and there will likely be more than a billion by 2020. In the European Union, thanks to strong tailpipe laws, emissions are expected to decrease 85 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. Most European countries are also doing quite a lot to reduce car ownership and travel, by building impressive public transit networks, imposing heavy taxes on new cars (as in Denmark) and creating “car-free” zones in the central cities.

European cities also use electronically aided car-sharing networks, and are integrating telematics to increase the efficiency of park-and-ride programs (by providing very accurate, updated train and bus schedules, for instance).

Heinberg and Campbell would probably say this is all too little, too late. We can slow the runaway train down, but not make it stop. I’d like to think we still have a few more cards to play.