Andreas Späth

The end of oil

2010-05-12 07:45

We have to wean ourselves off oil. Urgently.

I’m not just saying that because of the environmental disaster that’s currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Accidents like the sinking of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig are the oil industry’s equivalent of “collateral damage”.

Extracting petroleum from the ground, transporting it and refining it is dirty business and along the way these sorts of mishaps, as well as spills from oil tankers, pipeline leaks, gas flaring, ground, water and air pollution are par for the course.

I’m also not saying it because burning oil in planes, cars, trucks, trains, ships and power stations emits massive amounts of climate-changing CO2. No, while these are perfectly valid motivations, the reason why we have to find alternatives to oil is more basic: we’re busy running out of the stuff.

In 1956, an American petroleum geologist by the name of M King Hubbert, made the bold prediction that oil production in the USA outside of Alaska would reach a peak at some time between 1966 and 1972. He assumed that the cycle of production in any given oil field or region follows a bell-shaped curve. A peak would be reached once about half of the oil had been extracted and from that point on, production would decline and become increasingly difficult and costly. Not many people took Hubbert’s pessimistic forecast seriously.

US oil production outside of Alaska peaked in 1970.

Today, few serious analysts deny the reality of Hubbert’s “peak oil” theory. It’s not an especially difficult concept to grasp intuitively, after all. Oil is a non-renewable resource. It was produced by geological processes over very long periods of time millions of years ago. Once we’ve used it up, it’s gone forever.

The debate around global peak oil is no longer about if it will happen, but when. The optimists claim that it lies decades in the future, while the pessimists assert that it has already happened. In recent years, however, a growing number of commentators have converged on the conclusion that it will be reached earlier rather than later and that the world is not ready for the consequences.

Production in many of the world’s oil fields is already in decline, while consumption rates continue to increase. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently released its projections for global oil demand in 2010: an all-time record high of 86.6 million barrels per day. Discoveries of new petroleum reserves peaked in the 1960s and since 1981 the world has consumed more oil annually than has been discovered. Most experts agree that pretty much all of the cheaply and easily extractable oil has already been found, but according to the IEA’s chief economist, Dr Fatih Birol, we need to find the equivalent of four new Saudi Arabias by 2030.

In 2008 the conservative IEA forecast that world production would “plateau” by 2020 and only reach a peak by 2030, but last year high-ranking whistleblowers alleged that the agency has been deliberately underreporting a looming oil shortage. The IEA’s Director, Nobuo Tanaka, has warned of an oil supply crunch starting in 2010 and recently the US Department of Defense, the single biggest oil consumer in the world, predicted serious shortages from between 2012 and 2015. In March, Kuwaiti scientists published a study that forecasts global peak oil for 2014.

So peak oil is coming and soon. The important question is: what are we doing about it in South Africa? Not much, to be frank. The implications for transportation, agriculture and food production, much of which is dependent on motorised machinery and petroleum-derived pesticides and fertilisers, and the economy as a whole are huge. But you won’t find the issue on many official agendas, neither national nor provincial.

Experts reckon that to be effective, mitigating actions need to be initiated 20 years before the peak. We’re running out of time!

Want to get more informed and involved in this issue? Try the growing Transition Town movement, a community-based approach that emphasises local resilience through renewable energy, food security, energy conservation and more, as well as the local branch of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas.

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

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