By Tim Hjersted
Jul 23, 2010
You wouldn't know it from the mainstream media's coverage of the BP oil spill, but the 184 million gallons of oil that are now devastating the Gulf region is only a part of a much larger problem. Corporate greed and corrupt government oversight played their roles in the disaster, but so far little attention has been given to why the hell oil companies are drilling miles below the ocean surface for oil in the first place.
It’s now well known how technically unsafe and inherently risky drilling for oil is so far under the ocean surface. And while energy companies may be greedy, and they may be shortsighted, they certainly wouldn’t expose themselves to undue financial risk unless they had no other choice.
Sadly, as BP, the Pentagon, and all the other energy companies know, they’re taking these risks because all the cheap, easy-to-get oil has already been drilled or is being drilled. The low-hanging fruit has been picked, and as long as our civilization remains addicted to petroleum, oil companies are going to continue to drill in more dangerous and environmentally hazardous locations to give us our fix. In this respect, the BP disaster represents only the beginning of what a post-Peak Oil world is going to bring.
Since I stopped getting my news from mainstream outlets several years ago, I feel like I’m living in some sort of twilight zone. Peak Oil – what it is, what it means, and why we can’t ignore it – were all questions and discussions that went mainstream in the alternative press back in 2005. That’s why it’s amazing to me that five years later the mainstream press still hasn’t initiated a national dialog on the subject, and many people still remain either uninformed or misinformed.
Now, granted: a serious national discussion of the issue would almost certainly crash the financial markets and drive us into a global depression, but how long can the mainstream media dunk its head into the sand while the signs that we need to urgently address this issue keep smacking us in the face (and washing up on the shore of the Gulf Coast)?
After the $148 price spike of 2008 destroyed demand and sent oil below $100 a barrel again, we’ve been lulled back into a false sense of security. We’ve entered what the International Energy Agency calls the “undulating plateau” of peak oil – a multi-year period where oil prices spike as demand collides with declining supply, then the price goes down as demand is destroyed. Subsequently, as the economy recovers, demand increases and smacks back into declining supply, which sends the price of oil even higher the next time. We’re now in that relatively comforting dip where the price of gas and other petroleum products remains relatively affordable.
We can expect that the next major price spike will come within the next two years, fueled likely not by our own economy recovering, but from rising demand from China and India, among other developing nations.
So for the next two years we have a rather unique opportunity. The next price spike is likely going to make the financial collapse of 2008 feel like the “good old days.” Over the medium term, the continued instability of financial markets, along with the instability of our own finances is going to make it increasingly difficult to prepare for and transition into an oil independent way of life. Since we need fossil fuel energy to build the solar panels and wind turbines and smart electric grids, it makes a whole lot of rational sense to invest in this infrastructure while oil is less expensive. Will we even be able to afford the transition to a “green” economy when oil is $200 to $300 a barrel? Many energy experts have their doubts.
I have to wonder how many people recognize the significance that our choices will have over the next five years on this planet. Many climate scientists have predicted that by 2015 we may hit a series of “tipping points,” where rising global temperatures will trigger enough glacial melting to release further CO2 into the air, causing accelerated glacial melting, and the problem will permanently tip out of our control. That’s only five years away.
I know, I know. Our whole civilization is like the college student that waits till the night before his mid-term paper is due to start writing it. We all love to procrastinate, and maybe, like the college student, we perform better under the pressure of a hard deadline. But let me tell you: that paper is due tomorrow. The deadline is here. It’s time to pull an all-nighter, drink some double espresso lattes and get to work. If we don’t, and we wait for the next spike in energy prices to get our butts moving, we may jeopardize our ability to address global warming with the stability and financial resources necessary to avoid an even greater environmental catastrophe.
Ah man, it’s so annoying right? It’s like hearing your mom tell you it’s time to clean up your room. Well, here’s the good news. The solution for both peak oil and global warming is the same thing: reducing and then eliminating our use of fossil fuels. The more our society transitions to renewable sources of energy, the less we'll emit global warming causing CO2 emissions, and the less we'll be sucker punched by expensive fossil fuel costs.
Ultimately, a post-carbon society is inevitable. Whether that future looks remotely desirable to us depends on what we do now. The sooner businesses, private citizens, and elected officials stop futzing with little tweaks to the status quo, and get serious about the big picture at the end of the road, the better off we'll be. These distractions include ethanol, nuclear power, "clean coal," tar sands, oil shale, hydrogen, Cap & Trade, more efficient cars, and many of the other single-fix responses being proposed by industry and government currently. Many of these approaches may actually exacerbate our problems.
I'll give two examples. The first is with the Alberta tar sands that skeptics often tout as a reason why peak oil is bunk. They claim that there are massive repositories of oil capable of fueling the world's energy needs for the next 100 years. The problem is, on top of the devastating environmental, climate, and human health consequences of using this oil, on an engineering level, this oil is mixed in with thick encrusted sand and rock, making it incredibly energy intensive to process. As a recent report by Environmental Defence Canada found, when you do an energy ROI audit, you find that mining and processing the tar sands requires more energy to produce it than what you get to use.
As the EDC writes, "It is estimated that by 2012 the Tar Sands will use as much gas as is needed to heat all the homes in Canada ... Using huge amounts of relatively clean burning natural gas in order to produce dirty and carbon heavy oil is what commentators have dubbed "reverse alchemy" -- the equivalent of turning gold into lead."
The second example is cars. Though it may help in the short-term, we don't need more efficient cars; we need radically redesigned cities that are not dependent on cars to get us everywhere. We need radically re-localized food and product economies that do not require the importation of food and resources from thousands of miles away.
The city and suburban infrastructure necessary to support the speedy movement of our cars, trucks and semis requires an immense overall supply of energy and resources to build and maintain. Not only that, but we forget oil is not just in the energy we put in our gas tanks. A car's tires are made from oil. Asphalt is made from oil. All the resins and plastics that go into cars are made from oil. And there are currently 800 million cars in the world that were built on this paradigm of cheap energy. Can we honestly expect to build another 800 million electric cars, with all of it's massive supporting infrastructure, with the remaining expensive oil we have left? It's just not going to happen. That's why trading out the gas tank with batteries and going on our way is not going to cut it. We've got to go back to the basics. We need to rethink our whole system.
Solutions that take into account a “whole-systems” approach do exist. In fact, the more I’ve looked, the more I’ve discovered sustainable and innovative ideas that are already being implemented in places all over the world. A resident of Oakland, California, Richard Register presents an inspiring vision of what a post-carbon, ecologically healthy city might look like in his book, “Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature.”
Similar to New Urbanism, the places where people live would be built in close proximity to a mixed combination of work, shopping, food, and recreational spaces, allowing for easy use of bicycle or mass-transit to get where ever you need to go. The city’s economy would be re-localized, from organic food production to basic goods and services. Decentralized wind, solar, and geothermal energy systems would provide energy to a net-metered grid, while advanced efficiencies in building design would reduce energy demand by over seventy percent. Long distance travel would be accommodated by high-speed rail or boat, and electric cars borrowed through community car-share programs would be used for medium distance trips. Urban food gardens and plants would be integrated throughout multiple floors of buildings, in back and front yards of people's homes all over the city, and streams would weave through public centers and parks.
Finding an abundance of ideas for how to create more sustainable cities is not the problem. What we need is a national discussion at all levels of society, and at all levels of our communities, so we can start to talk about how we're going to address peak oil here at the local level. How are we going to get from here to there?
We need to get our schools involved. We need to get our city and planning commissioners involved. Businesses, elected officials, and private citizens all need to come to the table and get to work.
Now, at the end of most problem-themed articles I've read, specifically ones dealing with global warming, I've noticed a curious trend. After spending most of the time talking about the problem, the one paragraph at the end devoted to "things you can do" usually centers solely around personal suggestions: Change your lights to compact fluorescents. Turn down the thermostat. Bike more. Buy less, and try to buy used more than new.
These are all things we should be doing to cut down on our own energy use, but I wonder why it always stops there. Presumably it's because American's are too lazy to expect they'd be willing to do anything more ambitious. I want to prove this assumption wrong.
Great change has never been inspired by small requests. If it seems like people in America haven't been doing much lately to address global warming, it's because not much has been asked of them. Most of the time, our leaders simply ask us to shop or make sure our tires are inflated properly. I think if we do start to expect and ask more of each other, though, we'll be surprised by the results. As Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R, Md) has said, "There is no exhilaration like meeting and overcoming a big problem... and I think that Americans could be exhilarated by the challenge."
So there it is. We're facing some pretty unprecedented challenges. The time for just making small, personal changes is over. As I heard Alex Steffen say recently, "Don't just be the change. Mass-produce it."