Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The End of Oil and The End

By Nader Elhefnawy

The rise in the price of oil during the past decade, and especially the last five years, sparked a great deal of talk about the world's production and consumption of energy (already on the agenda because of climate change). It has waned a bit in the last few months with the plunge of prices from $150 a barrel to less than a third of that, and our economic worries instead finding their focus in the unprecedented financial disaster sweeping the world (the immediate--but only the immediate--cause of which was the bursting of the American housing bubble), which has actually depressed consumption, even after the fall of the price.

Nonetheless, the basic problem has not gone away for good, just as it didn't go away for good after people turned their attention to other things in the past. It is rarely appreciated that the debate over the imminence of the exhaustion of oil supplies is almost as old as the oil age itself, and has long been conducted along much the same lines as seen today, with liberals and progressives calling for forward thinking and planning, while conservatives place their faith in "innovation," "entrepreneurship" and market forces to deliver the goods. (Indeed, the famously pessimistic Oswald Spengler, in his book The Decline of the West, poo-poohs such fears as they had been expressed in his own day.)

As one might expect, it is also not new to fiction. In 1914's The World Set Free, the granddaddy of all nuclear apocalypse stories, H.G. Wells expresses concern for the dwindling of the world's fossil fuel supplies.

In 1930's Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon depicts the end for modern civilization coming about as a result of exactly this problem. In his Americanized future, the descendants of his generation burn the last of the oil in mindless movement in their personal vehicles as a matter of religious duty. (And to think that so many writers have scoffed at his vision of the future!)

Such fears seem to have been less conspicuous in later decades, but they did not totally go away. In Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's 1953 The Space Merchants, for instance, the exhaustion of the world's oil left those of us who could afford it riding about in "pedi-cabs."

Still, it was the 1970s which would see a deluge of fiction of this type. The most famous expression was perhaps the Mad Max films. It was not simply a repetition of the earlier stories, however. Rather, it reflected a fear of imminent catastrophe, and the scenarios, naturally, were not just limited to far-future scenarios like Stapledon's. Indeed, we see the anxiety about oil's scarcity, and the preoccupation with shady oil politics, in thrillers from the period not usually classed as genre books (and which remind me how much better the period's "airport" novels were than the current run of stuff), like Paul Erdman's Crash of '79 (1976), Steve Shagan's The Formula (1979), Trevanian's Shibumi (1979) (a brilliant and grossly underappreciated mix of over-the-top parody and biting satire) and Clive Cussler's Night Probe (1981) (not as flashy as later books he would write, but a much better read than the last few Dirk Pitt novels).

As oil prices fell again in the 1980s and 1990s, and as the political tenor of the times changed (making an anti-establishment suspicion of the security state and big business less "acceptable," and militarism more so, as recounted by William James Gibson, Andrew Bacevich and others), the nightmares centered less on scarcity as such, fears of immediate exhaustion or even the ambitions of established local potentates like the Iranian Shah or the Saudi royals than their vulnerability to Soviet takeover. In the techno-thrillers that were coming to overshadow the spy novel, like Tom Clancy's 1986 Red Storm Rising, a superpower clash in the Persian Gulf was a standard scenario, and after the Soviet Union's fall, Iraq and fundamentalist Iran were the favorite bogeymen, filling its old place (though never very convincingly, given their smallness).

However, as oil prices rebounded after the turn of the century, so did the 1970s-style fears (validated to the extent that they recognized the failure of governments to act seriously in a timely fashion, as James McCausland, who cowrote the script for Mad Max with George Miller, noted in a recent article), which certainly have their place in Geoff Ryman's "mundane" science fiction movement.

I've certainly found myself paying more attention to the issue, publishing articles in Parameters and Survival on the matter, and for those wondering, here's the current big picture:

• The world's "proven" oil reserves run to about a trillion barrels. At current rates of usage, and with recently observed rates of growth, we could easily burn through a trillion barrels by the 2030s.
• Assuming those numbers, we will not actually succeed in extracting that much oil. All other things being equal, production from a given deposit rises steadily until half of it has been extracted, after which the rate of production begins to fall. This is what is called the "peaking" of oil production. Given the amount of oil already extracted, we may be near, or even at, a global peak.
• Our estimates of the world's proven oil reserves may be exaggerated (estimating supplies is a tricky thing, and the industry is known less for transparency than for dishonesty), so that the crunch may hit us sooner and harder than the numbers above suggest.
• Even assuming the global numbers to be accurate, it may be that a worldwide average makes the situation look better than it really is. The world's production is concentrated in a comparative handful of supergiant oil fields, a notable example of which is Saudi Arabia's Ghawar field, which by itself produces over six percent of the world's oil. These fields are generally old ones, peaking, plateauing and declining, as seems to be the case with Ghawar, so that a field-by-field analysis produces a much more worrisome picture.
• Undiscovered oil supplies may be out there, but we are now using up oil four times as fast as we are finding it. The new deposits tend to be smaller, and increasingly in hard-to-get, expensive-to-work places, like offshore fields. (In other words, don't count on finding a new Ghawar anytime soon.) And even if we do find a really big new field that can help us through the squeeze, actually getting production going there is a decade long process. Put simply, it can be ten years before you get so much as a drop.
• There is plenty of unconventional oil, but it is very hard to exploit, and even in a relatively optimistic assessment-in which it quadruples to about 10 million barrels a day by 2030 or so-it seems unlikely to compensate for the shortfall in conventional supplies.

All of this looks pretty bad, and in ways that were not really the case back in the 1970s. It looks even worse when one sees the essential lameness of the arguments against this picture. (For instance, we are told by oil boosters that the Saudis, far from exaggerating their reserves, secretly know they have three times as much as reported.) They say that the constraints are not geological but "political" (political always referring not to the Suits over here, but the nasty foreigners over there), the Russians and the Persian Gulf countries throwing up obstacles in the way of exploration and development, or the environmentalists opposed to drilling in Alaska (this last claim in particular showing the lack of basic math skills on the part of this group, given the paltriness of even the biggest estimates of what that area might yield). And let's not forget all that abiogenic oil (allegedly) to be found deep inside the Earth's crust.

At the same time, oil boosters are quick to remind us that despite worries in the past, the apocalypse has not happened yet, making those worries "wrong." And there are those who can profit from the doom and gloom. The energy industry can certainly benefit from exaggerating the argument, using it as an excuse for high prices, government subsidies and the exertion of political pressure on oil producers to provide more generous terms, consumers to put up with their profit-mongering in times of general hardship. Fear that the end of the world is about to happen if they do not get every dollar they want can also be used to ward off demands for more socially and ecologically responsible policies.

Indeed, this is more or less what journalist Greg Palast argues in his book Armed Madhouse. Much as I respect Palast (and recommend his book), I find the evidence for a peak by the 2020s (and possibly earlier) persuasive, and said so in the journal Survival back in April 2008. In the issue released the following August, one critic disparagingly described my article as a "doomsday scenario" for that reason, but the truth is that the longer I study the issue, the worse the situation looks to me, and to a great many others. The International Energy Agency, certainly no alarmist, recently put out a worst case scenario in which world oil production falls from today's 86 million barrels a day to a mere 9 million-roughly ten percent of today's levels-circa 2030. Matthew Simmons, addressing the World Affairs Council of Houston in December, declared those numbers optimistic (in part because of the depreciation of the infrastructure for producing and transporting all that oil, which he thinks it may cost $100 trillion-equal to a year and a half of the globe's total economic output-to keep in working order, provided this can be done at all).

A ninety percent cut in planetary oil production over twenty years might well tax modern civilization's capacities for adaptation beyond the breaking point. Electricity and heating would not be the main problem; just a tenth or so of the world's electricity comes from oil burning plants down from 25 percent in 1973, and that mainly because oil-rich Middle Eastern countries have found it convenient to continue along that path. (More recently, however, they seem to be joining the rest of the world in turning to other sources.)

The production of chemicals, plastics, asphalt or fertilizer in which oil is a key component is actually a larger concern, given that in many cases no obvious substitutes are readily available.

The biggest worry, however, is transport, which uses a full two-thirds of our petroleum.

Of course, there is no shortage of ways of economizing or substituting the use of fossil fuels, far too many for me to even make a go of a proper list here. None of them looks like a quick and easy technical fix to the entire problem, but they do offer plenty of ways of chipping at it until it gets down to a manageable size. And of course, there are plenty of revolutionary concepts which can vastly reduce our use of transport in ways that may actually raise the quality of life rather than diminishing it, from treating telecommuting as more than a slogan, to "urban agriculture."

Even so, serious bottlenecks along that developmental path are nearly certain should oil production start to contract sharply in the near term, as in the direst scenarios. Still, it is very likely that early, far-sighted action on a meaningful scale can cushion the blow, at least enough to keep the modern world a going concern. The question that remains, then, is whether or not the potential solutions will actually find speedy, comprehensive, practical application to the problem. The record to date has not been promising, and while the likes of Denmark and Sweden, with their energy-efficient economies and massive exploitation of renewable energy hold out reasons to be hopeful, cases like mainland China (with its vast and growing appetite for energy, to date met mainly with fossil fuels) seem to weigh much more heavily at the opposite end of the balance.

Nonetheless, the current financial crisis is already forcing a great deal of rethinking of the policies and attitudes that led to this point. That has yet to lead to really meaningful progressive action, but an ecologically sounder developmental path may yet be a surprising consequence of our current troubles.

Whatever comes of it, I suspect some places will do better than others. I expect that the developed nations will, on the whole, do better than the developing ones due to their better access to technology and capital (though the smaller needs and innovation of some developing nations may surprise us). I would also guess that Western Europe and East Asia will do better than North America due to differences in infrastructure and politics. (Simply put, the economies of industrialized Europe and Asia are already much more energy-efficient, and in particular oil efficient, than the U.S.'s; and there seems to be less serious domestic opposition to meaningful action in their cases. Already it is Sweden which has unveiled the most ambitious plans for phasing out fossil fuel use and developing renewable energy resources.)

Yet, it is very much an open question whether even the best will do better by a large enough margin to avoid really rocky times ahead. No one is quite where they should be, or even where potentially they could have been had they made a proper start back in the previous energy crisis of the 1970s, but even if a great deal of time has been lost, enough remains in which a serious attempt to think big and think ahead can matter.

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