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“Peak Oil”: A Disturbing Peek Into the Future

What does the phrase “Swiss financiers” conjure up: wide-eyed radicals with their heads in the clouds, or steely-eyed realists for whom accurate information is the coin of the realm?

Right. “Swiss financiers” invokes an image of hard-nosed solemnity that makes Alan Greenspan look like Red Skelton.

Recently, according to the Washington Post and other news sources, a group of these Alpine illuminati asked retired oil executive Colin Campbell, who helped found the London-based Oil Depletion Analysis Center, to give them the straight skinny on how much petroleum our besieged planet had left to cough up. He assured his audience that oil wouldn’t run out “for very many years,” estimating that some 944 billion barrels had been extracted so far, and that some 942 billion gallons remained unextracted in known fields or were bound to turn up somewhere.

Sounds great, unless you consider the next thing he said: Overall oil production will probably peak next year. After that, it’s all downhill — a decline in production of some 2 to 3 percent per year. (Prepare to hear the buzz-phrase “peak oil” — defined as the point at which half the total oil known to have existed in a field or a country has been consumed, beyond which extraction goes into irreversible decline — a lot in the next few years.)

Campbell repeated his message to a gaggle of businessmen, academics and investment analysts at a conference in Scotland the following week.

In a recent, well-researched posting on the Web site, John Vidal takes note of Campbell’s report, quotes him at length, and considers the implications of his prognostications.

Not everyone agrees with Campbell. The National Geological Survey doesn’t see production peaking for another 30 years, which would mean (if true) that many readers of this post have nothing to worry about. As for the long-term future –well, as somebody once said, “What has posterity done for me lately?”

U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) is delivering a series of speeches to alert the public to the peak oil issue, the next of which is scheduled for Tuesday, May 3 at about 10 p.m. It will be carried live at Streaming audio, MP3 and transcripts of an interview with Bartlett on Global Public Media are available online.

The International Energy Agency sees peak production occurring between 2013 and 2037 — that’s 25 years of wiggle room, folks. Try getting that much wiggle room in whatever you do for a living, and see if you’re still around to collect your next paycheck.

Get away from bureaucracies and into the boardrooms where money is made, and the predictions take a sharp turn back toward the pessimistic.

The energy group John S. Herold Inc. predicts that the seven largest oil companies will begin seeing production declines within four years. Deutsche Bank analysts give it nine years. The industry magazine Petroleum Review (most of its Web site postings are only accessible to members of the London-based Energy Institute) figures conventional oil reserves are declining about 4 to 6 percent a year worldwide.

The oil industry, by the way, never releases “peak oil” estimates, and Campbell — remember, this guy has worked for BP, Texaco, Shell, Chevron, Texaco and Exxon — draws a clear distinction between estimating reserves (“a scientific business”) and reporting them (“a political act”).
Meanwhile, demand is surging. The IEA sees demand by “developing” (read: “poor”) nations increasing by 47 percent in 25 years. China’s oil consumption (one third of extra global demand last year), grew 17 percent and is expected to double over 15 years to half the United States’ present needs. India expects a 30 percent rise in consumption by 2010.

At this rate, nearly 160 million barrels a day — twice as much as today — will need to be extracted in 2035.

From the geologists, three words: Ain’t gonna happen. You think gasoline is expensive now? Heating oil? The petroleum-based raw materials for everything from kids’ toys to yachts? Forget about putting money aside for your children’s education. You may want to open a money market fund to save up for their shoes.

One could read a heap of scholarly books on these subjects and never learn all there is to know. I will offer a few suggestions: Biodiesel; Going Solar; High Noon for Natural Gas; Limits to Growth; Natural Home Heating; The Natural Step; The New Solar Electric Home; The Passive Solar House; The Solar House; What Can I Do?; and Wind Power.

That’s just a cross-section of Chelsea Green’s latest books on the subject of energy. The back list contains dozens more. Call (802) 295-6300, ext. 301, for a free copy of the Spring 2005 catalog, or download a free copy of CG’s fall 2004 catalog at

And if you’d like to explore the feasibility of taking America back from an administration run for the power elite by former oil industry executives, check out Chelsea Green’s New York Times-listed best-seller Don’t Think of an Elephant! or its companion book and DVD set, How Democrats and Progressives Can Win DVD and Don’t Think of an Elephant!

I don’t write scholarly books; I’m just telling you the news — which includes this: The technology of finding oil fields has improved exponentially over the past generation. But there hasn’t been a major discovery of new reserves since the 1960s. Even if a major new oil field were found — and people who’ve forgotten more about the subject than I’ll every know say that’s extremely unlikely — the ravenous maw of global commerce would gulp it dry in a heartbeat. (The first North Sea oil discovery was in 1969, by the way. Discoveries there peaked in 1973.)

What about the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge? Glad you asked. Our fearless leader doesn’t like to dwell on this — though he has been moving heaven and earth for years to get his hands on the stuff (and seems to be succeeding) — but once every drop of oil has been wrung out of that pristine wilderness, and the region has been quite thoroughly trashed, its estimated reserves will have yielded enough oil to last the United States, at current rates of consumption, about six months.

That’s right: If we had all the NAWR oil in barrels in our back yards right now (it will take seven to 10 years to extract it), and used nothing but, it would all be gone by Halloween.

What about the caribou? Well, to paraphrase a memorable quote from Spiro Agnew on slums: Seen one caribou, you’ve seen ’em all.

Better go see one now. Even if there are any caribou left in 30 years, you won’t be able to afford to go see them.

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