It’s dark and cold outside. Up on the bridge, the captain has been warned about the presence of icebergs, yet the ship is steaming full speed ahead through the North Atlantic. But it’s okay. The Titanic is unsinkable. And the band plays on.
Nearly one hundred years after the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage, we are also embarked on a collision course with disaster, perhaps not as dramatic, but far more catastrophic and far-reaching in its implications. The global economy in general—and the United States in particular—is about to run into an iceberg, despite repeated warnings. The captain is arrogant and inattentive. And, like the passengers on the Titanic, the vast majority of the general public is not prepared for the extreme danger that lies dead ahead. When this disaster strikes and everybody rushes up on deck, they are going to find that—even after all these years—there still aren’t enough lifeboats.
THE DANGER OF PEAK OIL
The disaster I’m referring to is the onset of the global oil production peak— often referred to as “peak oil” or “Hubbert’s Peak” after the Shell geologist Dr. Marion King Hubbert. In 1956, Hubbert accurately predicted that U.S. domestic oil production would reach its peak in 1970. He also predicted global production would peak sometime between 1995 and 2000, which it would have if the politically motivated oil shocks of the 1970s had not delayed the peak for about ten to fifteen years. Generally ignored until just a few years ago, peak oil is now viewed by a growing number of observers as a greater (or at least more immediate) danger to human society than global warming. That doesn’t mean that global warming isn’t a serious problem. It is, especially in the long term. But peak oil is such a threat because the modern global economy is now almost totally dependent on enormous quantities of relatively cheap petroleum products. Anything that seriously disrupts the supply or price of oil means big trouble, and the current volatility of oil prices is already causing problems that are beginning to ripple through the global economy
So what does peak oil really mean? When we arrive at peak oil, we will have consumed half of the total global reserves of oil. That might not seem like such a big deal, since half the total reserves are still available. But what many people don’t realize is that the first half was the easy part to find and exploit, and also represented the highest quality. While the remaining half is still in the ground, it’s generally much lower in quality and located in much smaller fields in inconvenient places like the Arctic, or under deep water. Consequently, what remains is going to be much harder and more expensive to produce. In 2003, for example, the global oil industry invested $8 billion in exploration, but only found $4 billion worth of oil. Since then, things have only gotten worse. Poor results like this do not provide much incentive to increase investments in exploration. At some point, it may become uneconomic to extract the remaining oil, and much of it will probably never be recovered. This eliminates an awful lot of the other half of the reserves that people have been counting on to carry us well into the twenty-first century.
Worse yet, serious doubts have recently arisen concerning the size of reserves claimed by many oil companies and oil-producing nations. The massive 2004 accounting scandal involving oil giant Royal Dutch/Shell and the subsequent 22 percent (4.35 billion barrels) cut in the company’s petroleum reserve estimates is viewed by some industry experts as just the tip of the iceberg of overinflated reserve figures for the industry. Matthew Simmons raises similar concerns about Saudi Arabian reserves in his 2005 book, Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy. Simmons maintains (over the loud protestations of the Saudi government) that the commonly held assumption that Saudi Arabia will be able to continue to produce oil at current levels for the next fifty years is unrealistic. He thinks Saudi production has already peaked or is about to peak. Simmons, the highly respected founder and chairman of the world’s largest energy investment banking company, makes a detailed and convincing case for his assessment. Not everyone agrees with Simmons, but in March 2005 the Algerian minister for energy and mines admitted that OPEC has essentially reached its oil production limits.1 And in April 2006 United Arab Emirates’ oil minister Mohammed bin Dhaen al-Hamli confirmed this when he said “fundamentally, there is nothing we can do” about current high oil prices.2
Adding to these concerns, in January 2006, the Kuwait Oil Company admitted that its supergiant Burgan oil field has peaked. And in February, a leaked internal memo from Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), disclosed that the world’s second-largest oil field, Cantarell, has also peaked. “It’s a supergiant field, so when you have a supergiant field declining, it’s very difficult to compensate for that,” said Adrian Lajous, a veteran oilman and the director of Pemex from 1995 to 1999. “Cantarell has peaked and has started its decline.”3 Taken together, these reports are not good news.
The main problem is that, after peak production is reached, the global supply of oil will inexorably begin to decline at the same time that demand continues to increase. The global oil market currently consumes 84 million barrels a day. By 2025, that demand is expected to climb to around 121 million barrels a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. At the same time, production from most of the largest existing oil fields is declining at a rate of 5 percent or more annually. (Cristophe de Margerie, head of exploration for French oil giant Total says, “Numbers like 120 million barrels per day will never be reached, never.”)4 When the line on the chart for supply that’s coming down crosses the line on the chart for demand that’s going up, we will have reached the critical tipping point. The huge price increases for oil predicted after we reach the tipping point will unquestionably lead to much higher prices for almost everything—especially food. The remarkable “Green Revolution” that now feeds the world’s 6.6 billion inhabitants is based mainly on cheap oil (and natural gas). The end of cheap oil will undoubtedly cause serious disruptions in the production of food, causing food prices to skyrocket. As a result, millions of people, particularly in struggling Third World countries, will almost certainly starve. But hunger may also stalk the streets of cities and suburbs in the developed nations as well. Prices for most other goods will also rise dramatically as we slide further down the backside of Hubbert’s Peak and as demand for oil continues to bump up against an irreversible decline in supply.
Unfortunately, the onset of peak oil may arrive much sooner than most people think. The experts, as always, are divided on when this will take place. One of the most optimistic views, promoted by the U.S. Department of Energy, maintains that oil production won’t peak until 2037. Many observers feel this estimate is far too optimistic, especially considering the huge increase in demand from countries like China, which overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest oil consumer in 2003. Renowned petroleum geologist Colin Campbell estimates that global extraction of oil will peak sometime before 2010. Kenneth Deffeyes, a geophysicist and author of the 2005 book Beyond Oil, says the date for maximum production was December 2005. “My career as a prophet is over, I’m now a historian,” he said.
But the exact date may be somewhat academic. This is because, if the rollover point at the top of the peak does occur within the next few years, there simply isn’t enough time left to make the massive shift to the renewable energy strategies that would allow for a smooth transition from our present oil-based economy. That smooth transition would have been possible if we had started the process twenty or thirty years ago (as many environmentalists and scientists urged at that time). But it didn’t happen. Now, we’re simply not prepared, and the consequences will almost certainly be catastrophic. A February 8, 2005, report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy (commonly referred to as the “Hirsch Report”) entitled The Mitigation of the Peaking of World Oil Production puts it this way: “The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions were gradual and evolutionary. Oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.”5
Unfortunately, we are also facing a similar dilemma with natural gas, which was supposed to be a cleaner and abundant substitute for oil and coal. It turns out that domestic supplies of natural gas are declining almost as rapidly as supplies of oil. And filling the gap with foreign imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is, at best, a problematic—and only temporary— strategy, since natural gas (another fossil fuel) is part of the problem rather than a long-term solution, according to Julian Darley in his 2004 book, High Noon for Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis. “The speed and suddenness with which the natural gas crisis appears to have arrived in North America is due in large part to the silence of the extraction industry, but it is also abetted by the myth of inexhaustibility and substitutability of resources,” he says in the book.6
It’s also likely that this crisis will be arriving sooner than expected in Europe as well because, on April 20, 2006, Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, admitted that it had significantly less natural gas in its reserves than previously assumed, and that in a few years’ time Russia would not be able to meet the demands of all its consumer countries. This has enormous implications for the European as well as Asian nations that have been counting on Russian natural gas supplies.7 At the very least, considering the impending reductions in the supply of oil and natural gas, the global economy is about to come in for a very hard landing. A series of global economic recessions or depressions, massive unemployment, political instability, and more international conflict are almost certain to follow.
In addition to these oil and gas woes, we are simultaneously facing many other challenges. Global warming, or as environmentalist David Orr aptly describes it, “global destabilization,” is right at the top of the list, and its effects are becoming harder and harder to ignore. This unfortunate side effect of our profligate burning of fossil fuels is already beginning to wreak havoc around the world. The recent record floods and disastrous wildfires in nations throughout the globe and the massive devastation caused by four major hurricanes in Florida in 2004—and especially hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in 2005—are just a preview of what’s to come. I’m sorry to say that the city of New Orleans was the first major casualty of global warming in the United States. The second major casualty was the U.S. oil and gas industry in the Gulf region, which may never recover fully. These events, more than anything, have provided a loud wake-up call, but many Americans still don’t really get it. There will be similar events in the very near future, however, that will be impossible to ignore. What’s more, the string of recent record-high temperatures—2005 was the warmest year since records were kept, according to NASA—does not bode well for the future either. A June 2006 National Academy of Sciences report to Congress says that “recent warmth is unprecedented for at least the last 400 years and potentially the last several millennia . . . and that human activities are responsible for much of the recent activity.”
A large body of published scientific studies in 2005 simply confirmed what most responsible scientists have been saying for years, that the physical consequences of climate change are no longer theoretical, they are real, they have arrived, and they can be quantified. Taken collectively, these studies suggest that the world may well have moved past a crucial tipping point. What’s more, the science behind these studies also makes it clear that additional climate effects will result “even if emissions of greenhouse gases are halted immediately.”8 Halted immediately? About the only thing we can be certain about is that greenhouse gas emissions are not going to be halted any time soon, especially considering the intransigent position taken by the Bush administration on the whole subject of global warming, and its plans to rely even more heavily on coal in the future.
In the first months of 2006, as growing evidence of a dramatic acceleration of global warming proliferated around the world (but especially at the poles), the tone of the urgent warnings from climate scientists became even more desperate. But it’s no longer necessary to listen to scientists to get the message. Just look out the window—but beware of what you might see. The more than 100 killer tornadoes that struck five Midwestern states in a twoday period in-mid March 2006—storms that killed at least ten people and caused as much damage in forty-eight hours as might be expected in an entire year in some locations—added even more evidence that something is terribly wrong with global weather patterns. That was followed by 63 devastating tornadoes—some with winds over 200 miles per hour—in seven states on April 3 that killed at least twenty-seven people and totally obliterated hundreds of homes and businesses throughout the region. The very next week, twelve more people died as numerous twisters struck Tennessee. And what were described as “300-year floods” on the East Coast in late June 2006 took at least twenty lives in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Virginia. The “killer heat wave” of July that gripped virtually the entire nation added an exclamation point to this ominous trend. This is a clear example of why global warming is so important. We’re not just talking about a gradual adaptation to warmer temperatures, or about being able to grow bananas in Vermont someday.
The combined impact of global warming, peak oil, and overpopulation, along with the alarming depletion of freshwater resources and habitat destruction around the world, is setting the stage for a global catastrophe. We are facing challenges of biblical proportions. It’s increasingly possible that industrialized society as we know it will collapse under the combined, simultaneous pressures of these many challenges, and a growing number of observers are warning of this potential.
PROBLEM? WHAT PROBLEM?
Unfortunately, our national political leaders, especially in Washington, D.C., are in denial. The passage of the controversial Energy Policy Act by Congress in July 2005 is a perfect example. The energy bill was a golden opportunity to substantially change the direction of the nation’s energy policies for the next decade or so. Yet, for the most part, it was simply business as usual. While about 25 percent of the total funding represented in the bill was allocated to a variety of token renewable energy and conservation initiatives, the lion’s share—65 percent—went to subsidize the oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear industries. Giving subsidies for oil and natural gas companies at the same time they were raking in billions of dollars in record-high profits was simply obscene, to say nothing of a waste of taxpayer money that should have been invested in renewables. What’s more, a provision for higher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards was stripped from the bill, eliminating a key tool for reducing oil consumption nationwide. (Higher fuel-efficiency standards for some vehicles proposed later by the Bush administration didn’t even begin to address this problem and were mostly just window dressing.) A target of producing 10 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources by 2010 was also removed from the bill at the last minute. The biggest outrage of all is that the members of Congress who passed this do-nothing bill actually get paid for this sort of head-in-the-sand behavior.
One noteworthy exception to this sorry state of affairs inside the Beltway is Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett from Maryland. In early 2005 Bartlett got the peak oil message, and he spent the next year trying to get the attention of his congressional colleagues—and the rest of the nation. At first, his colleagues could barely suppress their amusement, thinking that Bartlett was committing political suicide. But due at least in part to his tireless efforts (and the efforts of members of the grassroots peak oil community), by early 2006, peak oil was finally the subject of at least some open discussion in the nation’s capital. Congressman Bartlett deserves credit for political courage in a place conspicuously lacking in same.
It is increasingly clear from polls conducted in March of 2006 that the national mood about energy matters at the grassroots level has shifted dramatically, and that the politicians inside the Beltway, but especially President Bush and his administration, are increasingly out of step with the rest of the nation. More than four out of five Americans (83 percent) support “more leadership from the federal government to reduce the pollution linked to global warming, encourage new approaches to promoting conservation, and spark the development of renewable or alternative energy sources.” The level of support was relatively uniform across political lines, including 81 percent of conservatives, 83 percent of independents, and 88 percent of liberals.9
Many cities and states across the nation are also fed up with the lack of action inside the Beltway on global warming, and have essentially bypassed both Bush and Congress to tackle the problem themselves. In May 2005, the mayors of more than 130 cities, including New York and Los Angeles, agreed to meet the emissions reductions envisaged in the Kyoto Accord, independent of federal policy decided in Washington. The number of cities has now climbed to 238, and the mayors, representing over 44 million people, have signed an agreement to meet the goals spelled out in the 1997 international treaty on climate change and urged the federal government to do the same.
Unfortunately, the mainstream national “news” media in the United States—especially commercial TV news—has all but abdicated its responsibility to inform the electorate about the important issues of the day. As a result, until very recently the vast majority of the general public in the United States has been almost totally clueless about the disaster that is about to overtake them. This disaster, appropriately named “the Long Emergency” by James Howard Kunstler in his 2005 book of the same title, is going to change everything. At best, we will have to rethink many of our basic assumptions about our economy and society, and be forced to do things differently. At worst, our modern technological civilization may come to a terrible and tragic end, according to Kunstler.
But how is it that what is arguably the most serious challenge to our very survival has been almost totally ignored (or deliberately suppressed) by the people who are supposed to be looking out for our interests? The main problem is that they are too busy looking out for their own interests or the interests of the powerful corporations they represent. Bad news doesn’t inspire people to go shopping at Wal-Mart, or to invest on Wall Street, which largely explains the longtime blackout of coverage in the mainstream broadcast media. And what politician do you know who has the courage to stand up in front of national TV cameras and tell the electorate that the American Dream is about to come to an end?
The Great Wall of Silence finally began to crumble in late 2005, as articles about peak oil began to appear in a few mainstream print publications such as Time magazine and USA Today. Then, on March 1, 2006, The New York Times finally said in an editorial, “The concept of Peak Oil has not been widely written about. But people are talking about it now. It deserves a careful look— largely because it is almost certainly correct.” Better late than never (Al Gore’s powerful 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has finally helped to move the global warming discussion into the mainstream as well).
There are basically four main responses to this impending emergency. Richard Heinberg describes them in his 2004 book, Power Down: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. The first response is based on fear, division, competition, and conflict. Heinberg refers to this strategy as the “Last One Standing.” Human history simply overflows with examples of wars fought over critical resources, especially dwindling resources. Many observers point to the Bush administration’s foreign policies since the 2000 presidential election as a classic example. They describe the unfortunate and disastrous 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq as the opening salvo of the coming global oil wars. And many of those same observers say that China will be a key competitor in that struggle in the years ahead. But if the scramble to control the remaining global oil and gas reserves descends into international conflict, there will be many contestants vying to be the last one standing (India’s oil consumption is predicted to increase nearly 30 percent in the next five years). But by then it won’t matter much, since humanity will have squandered its precious dwindling resources on warfare and destruction that could have been used for more productive purposes.
Although the long-term consequences of this strategy are bleak, many national leaders already seem committed to following this ultimately self destructive path. It’s more politically expedient to find scapegoats and demonize others than it is to face up to the problems at home and suggest conservation strategies and changes in the lifestyles to which we have become accustomed. Vice President Dick Cheney’s statement that “the American way of life is not negotiable” is a classic example of this intransigent attitude. We especially need to be wary of politicians who will try to divide us and use fear to divert public attention away from their own failures to adequately prepare the nation for this disaster. The opportunities for political mischief are enormous.
The second response to the Long Emergency is denial and wishful thinking. Heinberg describes this as “Waiting for the Magic Elixir.” There is a good deal of both denial and wishful thinking on the part of many government leaders, economists, and market analysts (as well as the general population) when they are confronted with our many upcoming energy challenges. “Don’t worry, our scientists will think of something,” is a frequent response. “All we have to do is just . . . ,” is another (where you simply fill in the blank with your favorite silver-bullet energy strategy). “The free market will solve everything,” is yet another. Right.
Many folks just can’t seem to cope with the idea that our sophisticated, technological, modern way of life could possibly be imperiled, and dismiss the threat out of hand, or just hope the problem will go away. Some don’t want to listen. Some are delusional. At noon, on April 27, 2006, in response to high gasoline prices, various Christian clergy from around the nation converged on a gas station in Washington, D.C., to pray for lower prices. In a press release, the Pray Live group said many people are “overlooking the power of prayer when it comes to resolving this energy crisis.”10 But all the wishful thinking in the world isn’t going to solve this problem. At best, it offers false hope. At worst, it insures disaster. Meanwhile, the Long Emergency looms ever closer.
The third response to the Long Emergency involves facing the problem squarely, overcoming fear, building community, and following “The Path of Self-Limitation, Cooperation, and Sharing,” as Heinberg describes it. Ideally this should be the strategy of choice. But from a political standpoint, expecting national leaders to suggest anything even faintly resembling this strategy is probably unrealistic. One can always hope, but in all likelihood, this isn’t going to happen. So, in the absence of leadership at the international or national level, what can we do?
This brings us to the fourth response to the Long Emergency, “Building Lifeboats: The Path of Community Solidarity and Preservation.” It’s increasingly clear that we cannot wait any longer for our government to solve these problems or wait for some “miracle” technological fix. It’s time to get active at the local level. We need to build lifeboats—and get ready to use them. Thanks to the criminal negligence of our leaders, it is almost certainly going to devolve on individuals and communities to fend for themselves, especially if the interconnected global economy—which is hopelessly dependent on cheap oil—collapses.
The intelligent response is to begin the process of localizing and decentralizing our economy now, while we still have the time and resources to do it. And we need to accomplish this local lifeboat-building process as soon as possible. Irish economist and author Richard Douthwaite focuses on this local approach in his excellent 1996 book, Short Circuit: Strengthening Local Economies for Security in an Unstable World (now, unfortunately, out of print and very hard to find). “A community wishing to minimize the hardships it would suffer if the world financial system collapsed should obviously make monetary independence its first priority. A currency and banking system that can continue to serve a particular area regardless of whatever financial convulsions take place outside that area is fundamental to the construction of a self-reliant local economy,” he says. “Once a local financial system is in place, the community should turn its attention to meeting its irreducible energy, food and clothing needs from its own area. In fact, I rate community energy independence second only in importance to monetary independence because food production and many other activities depend on energy use.”11 We will be focusing on local energy independence in this book.
THE ENERGY DILEMMA
But you don’t have to sit in the dark and cold while trying to deal with all of this by yourself. That’s where a copy of Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook: Community Solutions to a Global Crisis is going to come in handy. Although there are many problems that we will need to face in the difficult times ahead, one of the most immediate is our current energy dilemma, and the need to shift to renewable, non-fossil-fueled sources of clean energy. The time for debate about this necessity is long past. The time for immediate action is now. This book addresses this imperative with a thorough survey of our current energy options. It also offers an upbeat (but not Pollyannaish) practical response to the Long Emergency that begins at the local level. This book should inspire you to take cooperative action now in your own community, to initiate disaster preparedness plans and begin to revamp our local energy infrastructure for greater energy self-sufficiency while we wean ourselves from our addiction to fossil fuels. This will not be easy, but it’s still possible.
Having said that, I want to be clear about this—we’re no longer talking about business as usual—this is a real emergency. The economic chaos and social disruptions caused by the end of cheap oil and other environmental problems are almost certainly going to result in the development of an intensely local focus on our daily lives. Out of necessity, the primary focus is going to be on the basics—food, water, clothing, shelter, security—and the energy to power a much-reduced and decentralized economy. Without energy, however, we face a bleak future indeed. But with an assured supply of locally produced energy, coupled with a major reduction in consumption, we may have the means eventually to refashion our economy and society into a more sustainable model. And the energy sources for this new economy will also have to be sustainable, otherwise we will effectively seal our own fate. Burning more coal is not the answer.
The challenges we face are enormous, and consequently require a collaborative response. The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook focuses on what you and your community can do to prepare for the energy crisis that we will be facing in the very near future. The strategies described are based on current, proven technology (rather than theoretical or unproven energy sources) and with a strong emphasis on cooperative community strategies based on local ownership. This local ownership model is increasingly being referred to as community supported energy (CSE), which is similar to community supported agriculture (CSA), except that instead of investing in carrots, tomatoes, or onions, local residents invest in renewable energy projects and a cleaner environment. Local ownership is the key ingredient that transforms what would otherwise be just another corporate energy project into an engine for local economic development and greater energy security. Examples of what people are already doing collaboratively in communities around the world are provided to offer successful models that can be replicated elsewhere. The book is divided into eight chapters:
Chapter 1 provides a detailed look at our current energy choicesæfossil fuels, nuclear, and a wide range of renewables coupled with conservationæand lays the groundwork for the more detailed descriptions of the renewable energy strategies contained in the remaining chapters.
Chapter 2 addresses solar energy, and describes the many ways it can be used to power and heat the new downsized, localized economy as well as your home.
Chapter 3 focuses on wind energy, and looks at the many recent developments in wind technology and where it can best be utilized to power your home or your community, with emphasis on community-owned wind projects.
Chapter 4 looks at hydropower, especially small-scale hydropower, and how it may once again play a significant role in some locations to power your home, business, or community. The chapter also describes some recent ocean energy developments that look promising.
Chapter 5 explores our many biomass options, and how they will be a significant part of the post-carbon economy to provide heat, electricity, and some transportation.
Chapter 6 focuses on liquid biofuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol for heating and transportation, and spells out the considerable potential, and limitations, of this rapidly growing sector.
Chapter 7 covers geothermal resources used for electrical generation, heating, and many other purposes on both a small and large scale, and explains why this strategy offers so much additional potential.
Chapter 8 sums up our renewable energy prospects and places them within the context of the growing international peak oil response, known as the “relocalization movement.” We’ll see how community-supported energy initiatives can be merged seamlessly with this movement to create a powerful new model for local self-reliance and security.
A glossary of terms, a bibliography, and an extensive guide to organizations and online resources rounds out the volume.
Many of the strategies described in this book can be implemented by you in your own home. Some are more appropriate for businesses, neighborhoods, communities, or even cities. All are intended to help free us from our addiction to fossil fuels and provide at least a basic supply of energy for a new, downsized, localized economy. It’s important to understand, however, that this new economy is going to involve significant reductions in consumption at all levels and substantial changes to our lifestyles and patterns of living. This will be an extremely painful process for many people. Some view this as a disaster. Others see it as an opportunity to refashion our society into a more sustainable and equitable model based on strong local communities and cooperation. I prefer to see the glass as half full.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
I’m not, however, minimizing the challenges ahead, which are enormous. Population—or more to the point, overpopulation—is the largest problem of all, and is driving most of the other difficulties we face. But since it is basically impossible to have a sensible discussion of this taboo subject, even among otherwise intelligent and rational people, it is increasingly unlikely that we will be able to resolve this situation voluntarily. Consequently, Mother Nature is about to resolve it for us involuntarily.
I also freely admit that many of the difficulties we will be confronted with in the energy-constrained decades ahead cannot be solved by installing solar panels, wind turbines, or small-scale hydroelectric systems. The complex challenges of reinventing our agricultural practices, revitalizing the local business sector, revamping the monetary system, reorganizing transport, and transforming our cities, towns—and ourselves—extend well beyond the scope of this book. Nevertheless, these vital tasks will require the same type of courageous, collaborative strategies that I suggest for renewable energy initiatives. But the goal—a transformed, cooperative, and ultimately sustainable society—is worth the effort, and will be a priceless gift to our children and grandchildren.
In April 2006, as I was completing this book, the general upward trend in global oil prices began to accelerate dramatically. On April 17, the price had broken the $70-per-barrel threshold, and five days later the price had surged to a record $75.35 per barrel. The price of gasoline at the pump in the United States climbed rapidly as well, soon topping $3.00 per gallon in many areas. Most mainstream commentators blamed the run-up on concerns about the Bush administration’s saber rattling in the ongoing U.S.- Iranian nuclear crisis, as well as worries about the civil unrest that has cut Nigeria’s oil production and other anxieties about tight oil supplies and surging demand. All of this was coupled with the onset of the summer driving season and—incongruously—record high oil inventories in the United States. Something strange was happening. Politicians pointed their fingers at the oil industry, and called for more Congressional investigations into price gouging, and talk of an excess-profits tax resurfaced. Outraged American drivers complained about “ridiculously high” gasoline prices while filling the oversized gas tanks on their SUVs. At the same time, Lee Raymond stepped down from his position as Exxon/Mobil CEO with a retirement package of nearly $400 million, in what Senator Byron Dorgan from North Dakota described as “a shameful display of greed.” Most people across the country seemed to agree.
But while all this was going on, at least one Dallas, Texas, petroleum geologist, Jeffrey J. Brown, claimed that the mainstream media and other observers had it wrong. “A careful examination of recent supply data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) suggest a different reason—oil importers are bidding against each other for available total petroleum (crude oil plus product) imports,” he said. He then went on to detail falling average daily U.S. net petroleum imports compared to the previous year. “This sharp decline in net U.S. petroleum imports corresponded to the beginning of the recent run-up in oil prices,” he observed. According to the EIA, December 2005 appears to have been the all-time record high for world crude production. The latest data, for January 2006, show a decline of about 500,000 barrels per day, according to Brown.12 This may prove to be a temporary anomaly. But maybe not. If not, then Kenneth Deffeyes may have been correct in his prediction that world oil production would peak in December 2005. I hope he’s wrong. But if this is the case, then we have already left the familiar before peak oil (BPO) world behind, and have entered the new, unfamiliar post peak oil (PPO) world. It may take several years’ worth of additional oil production data before we really know for sure. Regardless of whether Deffeyes is right or wrong, the need for immediate action to prepare for (or respond to) peak oil couldn’t be more urgent. So much to do. So little time. Let’s get to work.
1 “Algeria: OPEC Has Reached its Production Limits,” AP, Green Car Congress, March 12, 2005, http://www.greencarcongress.com/2005/03/algeria_opec_ha.html.
2 “OPEC toothless to tame high oil prices : UAE,” Reuters, The Financial Express, April 7, 2006, http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=122914.
3 Kevin G. Hall, “Mexican oilfield crucial to U.S. facing decline,” MyrtleBeachOnline, March 16, 2006, http://www.myrtlebeachonline.com/mld/myrtlebeachonline/news/ nation/14116129.htm (accessed on March 19, 2006).
4 Carl Mortished, “World ‘cannot meet oil demand,’” Times Online, April 8, 2006, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,13130-2124287,00.html.
5 Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, “US DOE has received the warning,” http://www.peakoil.net/USDOE.html.
6 Julian Darley, High Noon for Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis, (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004), 12.
7 “Gazprom owns up to gas shortfall,” Novosti, Russian News & Information Agency, April 21, 2006, http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20060421/46808586.html (accessed on April 26, 2006).
8 Kelly Levin, Jonathan Pershing, Climate Science 2005: Major new discoveries (World Resources Institute, 2006), http://climate.wri.org/climatescience-pub-4175.html (accessed on March 20, 2006).
9 40MPG.ORG, “Survey: 3 Out of 4 Americans Fault Federal Leadership on Global Warming & Alternative Energy, Back Growing State & Local Efforts,” http://www.40mpg.org/getinf/ 031506release.cfm (accessed on April 25, 2006).
10 “D.C. prayer rally to seek lower gas prices,” UPI, April 26, 2006, http://www.upi.com/ NewsTrack/view.php?StoryID=20060426-114223-5447r (accessed on April 29, 2006).
11 Richard Douthwaite, Short Circuit: Strengthening Local Economies for Security in an Unstable World (Dublin, Ireland: Green Books), 47, 50.
12 Jeffrey J. Brown, “What the mainstream media are not telling you about the run up in oil prices,” April 20, 2006, http://www.energybulletin.net/15126.html (accessed on April 21, 2006).