The Reality and Ramifications of Peak Oil
An Earth Manifesto publication by Dr. Tiffany B. Twain
beings, ever since ancient times, have always been on the horns of a dilemma
with regard to energy use. The means to
make fire was discovered many millennia ago, and when human populations got
large enough, they began to excessively chop down nearby forests. They found that this depletion had
deleterious effects on their ability to sustain their settlements. Much later, when oxen and horses supplied
the power to pull buggies and plows, it was always an inconvenient bother to
feed the animals and clean up after the crapulent messes that they made, as one
can well imagine.
plantation owners in the United States relied on slave labor. This dependence had even more serious
drawbacks: slaves were expensive to
buy, feed and house, and sometimes it was downright hard to keep them in
line. When the slaves eventually
cottoned on to the fact that they were human beings who deserved some rights,
it became a logistical and political and moral nightmare for the landed
gentry. A terrible Civil War was fought
over this slave-based economic system, and more than 600,000 Americans died in
In the first two-thirds of the nineteenth
century, millions of whales were slaughtered to produce whale oil that was
commonly used to light homes and cities.
These creatures are among the most wondrous of
marine mammals, and some of the largest living things ever to exist on
Earth. The use of whale oil use was an
exceedingly messy way to provide illumination in both physical and ethical
even greater cosmic irony relates to the use of fossil fuels. Their discovery was a stroke of miraculous
good fortune that has provided the human race with enormous horsepower to drive
our industrial revolution and booming economic production activities and our
bottomless desires to buy and consume.
Cheap fossil fuels have facilitated big changes in technological innovations
and an agricultural “Green Revolution”, and they have helped enable rapid human
population growth. Ironically, the very
act of using this fossilized energy from the Sun involves a process of
combustion that gives off toxic wastes like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides,
ozone and microscopic particles of grit, in addition to many billions of tons
of carbon dioxide every year. This
heat-trapping gas is now upsetting the normal climate conditions to which all
forms of life on the planet are so marvelously well adapted.
the rapid depletion of these resources is leading to an economic and
existential crisis. If we do not find
adequate alternatives to replace fossil fuels in the coming decades, our
economies and societies could collapse.
Our Achilles heel reliance on fossil fuels for transportation,
agriculture, construction, home building, heating, communication, electricity
generation, and almost every facet of our lives is serious and laden with
risks. We are truly “addicted to oil”.
Crude oil first began to replace whale oil
in the 1860s. This new resource proved
to be relatively inexpensive and plentiful.
Discovery after discovery of new oil fields has taken place, until we
have now scoured the planet and found a total of just over 2 trillion barrels
of oil. We have burned up about 50% of
these reserves of oil so far, and an estimated 1.2 trillion barrels of known
recoverable reserves of oil remain.
We are currently burning more than 30
billion barrels per year worldwide. Do
the math! Less than 50 years supply of
oil remains, allowing for some new discoveries and taking into account the
rapidly increasing demand worldwide.
Some fuzzy math on reserves could make this time frame even shorter,
while hydraulic fracturing processes -- fracking! -- may extend it, but between
now and the time oil is fully used up, the price will reach prohibitively
Most people are familiar with a standard
bell curve. Imagine in your mind’s eye
a bell curve of the use of petroleum from the point-of-view of 100 years from
now, when this finite resource will have basically been completely used
up. We are near the top of this curve,
and at the beginning of the downward slope.
By the time only 500 billion barrels remain – in likely less than 30
years -- supply shortages will become startlingly severe and the price of oil
and gasoline and related products will really be skyrocketing. Economic activity will be crippled unless
good alternatives are developed.
No one has any idea how we will operate
commercial airlines under such conditions, or our military jets, which we have
been using so aggressively in the past 15 years to achieve our stated
‘geostrategic imperative’ of guaranteeing uninterrupted access to Middle
Domestic resources of oil in the United
States have been so thoroughly exploited that production peaked in 1970 or so,
and they have declined ever since. In
1956, geophysicist Marion King Hubbert predicted that we would reach Peak Oil
production from domestic reserves around 1970.
Many people scoffed at Hubbert’s prediction, but their criticism and
ridicule was nonetheless eventually rebuffed when his projections proved to be
remarkably accurate. Similar techniques
to those that Hubbert used have been applied to estimate the date that
production of crude oil would peak in the entire world. Global Peak Oil is projected to be somewhere
around NOW, give or take a few years.
Those who doubt this fact should be cautioned by the reality of our
experience with domestic reserves.
Crude oil production in the world increased
from less than 60 million barrels per day in 1980 to over 70 million barrels
per day in 2004, and then hit a plateau in the 70 to 72 million barrels per day
vicinity for the next 6 years.
Hydraulic fracturing has increased this output in 2012 through 2015, so
this new technology is postponing the date of Peak Oil production somewhat, but
we must understand that conservation and the efficient use of energy represent
the safest and smartest initiatives that could be undertaken. When the International Energy Agency
published its “World Energy Outlook 2012”, this insight was made clear.
Factoring in an increased use of natural
gas and Canadian oil sands and other unconventional sources of fossil fuel
energy, Peak Oil may be delayed a bit longer, but demand for oil will continue
to increase for the foreseeable future.
This increase in the rate of resource depletion will be achieved by
exploiting reserves more aggressively and by developing even more risky and
polluting activities, like extracting oil from tar sands and oil shales, and by
drilling in fragile polar ecosystems and deep-sea locations, and by using the
risky process of fracking in more places.
When the Paris Climate Accords were signed
by nearly every nation on Earth in December 2015, humanity became more aware
that a good proportion of fossil fuels should be left in the ground. The International Energy Agency made this stunning declaration in
the executive summary of its latest World Energy Outlook: “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil
fuels can be consumed prior to 2050, if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal”. This goal, equivalent to 3.6 degrees
Fahrenheit, is considered to be the upper limit threshold at which the onslaught of "dangerous
climate change" will begin to be felt. Rephrased, the International
Energy Agency is stating that over two-thirds of today’s proven reserves of
fossil fuels need to be left in the
ground through the year 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic climate
change. Aggressive burning of coal, oil
and natural gas may seem like a great idea from the standpoint of investor
profit-making on fossil fuels, but from the standpoint of long-term
consequences for life on Earth, it is a ridiculously more costly proposition.
efficiency, says the International Energy Agency, “is just as important as
unconstrained energy supply, and increased action on efficiency can serve as a
unifying energy policy that brings multiple benefits.”
The World Energy Outlook 2012 clearly
stated that our global energy regime is not sustainable. The sudden extreme turmoil in Arab oil
producing nations starting in 2011 has accelerated this crisis. Netflix offers instant viewing of many films
on the Internet, including a documentary titled Collapse about the compelling, indeed frightening perspectives of
Michael Ruppert. He gives a
particularly chilling account of what may happen as Peak Oil occurs. He incisively elucidates the concept of a
“bumpy plateau” in oil prices as we move through the top of the bell curve of
oil production, before a “cliff” of decline begins. Volatility of oil prices in the past decade is entirely
consistent with this bumpy plateau.
Check out this film … but note that it is not for the faint of heart!
The U.S. for many years imported more than
50% of the oil it uses. This percentage
doubled in the 30 years from 1980 to 2010.
Aggressive use of fracking technologies in Texas, North Dakota and other
states, however, has reversed this trend, and domestic production has been
increasing. “But still, much of the
world’s largest reserves are in Middle Eastern countries. Yes, right there where we are making enemies
by supporting repressive authoritarian regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia,
and pursuing imperialistic economic and military policies.”
Technical advances in the process of
fracking -- the hydraulic and chemical
fracturing of underground rock formations -- are allowing the oil and natural gas industries to fracture rocks that
contain fossil fuels. This development
has sensationally increased the supplies
of oil and natural gas in the U.S. in the past 5 years. As a result, oil imports have declined from
60% of our annual needs to 40%, and the U.S. will probably become a net exporter
of energy in the next decade or two.
change in energy prospects is allowing
apologists for the full-speed-ahead-in-dangerous-waters crowd to chortle that
Peak Oil has been indefinitely delayed.
The delay is indisputable, but to consider it indefinite is absurd. In
any case, as one observer has stated, it now appears that there is enough oil
“to fry us all.”
Enormous profits will be made in the next 50 years on fossil fuel
extraction. But it is instructive to
evaluate the boom-and-bust nature, and unjust character, of all extractive
industries that exploit non-renewable resources. Consider silver and gold mining, for instance. Huge amounts of money were made by mining
companies in the area around Ouray and Silverton, Colorado, during the heyday
of mining in the region, but then once the mineral veins were effectively
exhausted, the mining operations closed their doors and left a damaged
environment and toxins leaching into creeks in the vicinity. The costs for the clean up of such problems
caused by mining companies are being shouldered by entirely different people
than the ones who profited so handsomely from the operations that created the
Another serious developing consideration
involves fresh water use. Large
quantities of water are
necessary to the production of energy, so wasteful usages of fossil fuels
contribute to increasingly serious water shortage challenges The energy sector already accounts for 15%
of the world’s total use of fresh water, and water scarcity already affects about one-fifth of all humans. This threat is projected to get
significantly worse as the population grows and climate change alters
precipitation patterns and mountain snowpacks worldwide. In fact, according to Scientific American, two-thirds of the world’s population
is expected to be living under “severe water stress conditions” by the year
2025 unless there are major changes in the distribution of ever-scarcer water
supplies. By 2025! That’s like tomorrow!
needs are growing for water to be used in extracting increasing quantities of
fossil fuels, water is becoming an increasingly important criterion for
assessing the viability of energy projects.
It would be marvelous if the next ‘game changer’ was to be in energy
conservation and energy efficiency, and this outcome would become much more
likely with proactive energy policies that assess sensible green fees on carbon
emissions. This is Risky Business!
Many economists and politicians believe
that technology will come to our rescue in this dilemma. Once crude oil prices become high enough to
hyper-stimulate innovation and the search for alternatives, they say that
inventions and new processes will be developed to solve the problem. These believers could possibly be right,
though it is not currently seen as probable.
In the meantime, fossil fuel production has been so competitively
overdone that oil is bizarrely cheap in 2016, and we are fiddling while Rome
burns instead of taking smart actions to create powerful incentives to
It is shortsighted to continue to subsidize
existing fossil fuel industries and delay the need to invest boldly in
alternatives. The smartest course of
action would be to use the remaining reserves of fossil fuels and some of the
gargantuan profits being made from their depletion to help make the transition
to renewable alternatives. It takes a
lot of energy to build solar panels, wind farms, fuel cells, and geothermal and
nuclear power plants, so we should be using our diminishing reserves of oil for
the best of these purposes rather than squandering them as fast as we can in
our businesses, vehicles, homes, airplanes and power plants.
Our lives and business activities are
structured around artificially cheap oil and natural gas. The actual cost of fossil fuels is far
higher than the price we pay at the pump or in utility bills. That price comes in the form of generous
subsidies as well as in the externalized costs of oil spills, environmental
damages, mountaintop removal coal mining, mercury pollution, health costs associated
with smog, and the effects of climate change that are being exacerbated by
spewing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
will not be easy to replace because it is a unique high-energy resource.
It is a form of fossilized hydrocarbon energy that was generated by plants
using light energy from the Sun and the process of photosynthesis. The extent to which fossil fuels have
facilitated our industrial and agricultural revolutions is beyond our ability
to fully comprehend. They have allowed
us to increase the production of food so that our human population has
increased from 1 billion in the year 1800 to 2 billion in 1930 to over 7
billion today. It may prove to be impossible to sustain our population
once fossil fuels are practically gone in the next 50 years. The
implications of this may prove to be unimaginably severe.
One thing is certain: it is foolhardy
not to be taking advantage of the last 50% of the world’s oil reserves to help
develop and implement the transition to cleaner and safer renewable energy
alternatives. In 1973, E. F. Schumacher made a compelling observation in
his book Small Is Beautiful: we should be treating fossil fuels as
capital resources rather than as income.
The logical conclusion of such an intelligent and intuitively reasonable
treatment would be that we would conserve these convenient high-energy fuels
and put some of the profits obtained from burning these irreplaceable assets
“into a special fund to be devoted exclusively to the evolution of production
methods and patterns of living which do not depend on fossil fuels …”.
Some of these profits should also be
utilized to mitigate pollution problems, and to pay for the damages associated
with climate changes that are being driven by accumulating greenhouse gases in
the atmosphere. See Chapter #28 – On Climate Change, in Comprehensive Global Perspective, for
further illumination on this topic.
At the time E.F. Schumacher wrote the words above,
the U.S. had more than 200 billion barrels of oil reserves, and our nation had
just passed Peak Oil production from domestic reserves. Today we have used up most of our domestic
oil, and we have less than 30 billion barrels of oil left. And we are wantonly intent on using up these
reserves and all of the others found around the rest of the planet. While our population represents less than 5%
of the people in the world, we are burning up almost 25% of the fossil fuels
used each year.
Instead of wisely setting aside a portion of the
profits derived from the profligate depletion of these difficult-to-replace
assets, we allow corporate executives, public investors and other
self-interested constituencies to reap all the profits. We even give generous incentives to Big Oil
corporations to add to their already gargantuan profits every year. I am not an expert, but
one analyst noted that tax subsidies and loopholes, such as oil depletion
allowances, drilling cost deductions and enhanced oil recovery credits,
sometimes exceed 100% of the value of the energy produced by that oil. “In other words, it would be cheaper in some
cases for the government to just buy gasoline from the companies and give it to
taxpayers free of charge.” Wow! If that is only half true, it would be
obscene for us to continue to give Big Oil such subsidies.
We are acting in a manner similar to the ancient
Rapanui inhabitants of Easter Island, who devotedly carved out their monumental
iconic stone statues to honor the past while blithely destroying the forest
resources upon which their civilization was completely dependent. At a time when only a fraction of the
original palm tree forests remained, they should have been planning ahead to
use those trees in a way that would have allowed them to create sustainable
lives and make a transition to a new resource base, or to build boats that
would have insured them some flexibility for finding new sources of food in the
sea. But, no! -- The Rapanui were
unable, or unwilling, to change course and adapt. They either did not recognize the writing on the wall, or they
did not listen to cautionary voices that may have told them that the exhaustion
of these vital resources would completely devastate the source of their
livelihoods and prosperity, and maybe even threaten the very continuity of
their survival. As a consequence, their
population crashed from more than 10,000 people in the year 1600 to less than
200 people a century later.
Humanity now faces a starkly similar dilemma -- and
we face it on a global scale. We
are at a risky tipping
point, and yet we are complacently allowing politics-as-usual obstructionism
whenever energy proposals come before Congress. Some of
the ‘smartest guys in the room’ have ironically joined ‘a conspiracy of fools’
in opposing such understandings. So
instead of supporting far-sighted energy initiatives and investing in
conservation and alternatives, we continue to allow oil conglomerates like
Exxon Mobil to make the biggest corporate profits in world history. Meanwhile, we continue to neglect
intelligent initiatives and forward-thinking ideas.
Since the more than 321 million people living in the
United States represent less than 5% of the total world population, and we have
only 2% of the world’s proven oil reserves, and we burn almost 25% of the total
amount of oil used worldwide each year, WE AMERICANS ARE THE ONES who should
seize the initiative to make smart changes in our rules, policies, incentives
and behaviors. We live in a time of
unprecedented uncertainties, and yet we seem to be in denial of the fact that
fossil-fuel consumption subsidies are seriously distorting the equations of
resource usages and the necessity of a shift to fossil fuel alternatives.
technologies represent one of the greatest investment opportunities ever, so
our government should strongly encourage them, rather than letting entities
vested in the status quo oppose sensible and productive changes.
the fact that fossil fuel industries are among the most profitable industries
in all of history, they are the second most heavily subsidized industry in the
world, after agriculture. The
International Energy Agency estimates that fossil-fuel subsidies amounted to
$312 billion in nations worldwide in the year 2009. Fossil fuel subsidies
worldwide jumped by 30% in 2011 from the prior year total to almost $525
billion, and opposition to incentives to develop renewable energy sources has
the U.S., subsidies total many billions of dollars per year. The only way that such an absurd status quo
could have become established in the U.S. is to have allowed giant energy
conglomerates to gain overweening power and influence in national and state
politics and policies.
lobbyists have powerful influence in Washington D.C. They gain this power in league with corrupt politicians and
operatives in ‘conservative’ think tanks who cook up a wide variety of
ingenious and ingenuous ideological rationalizations. They use their undue influence to obtain big tax breaks and other
subsidies, and they irresponsibly use this influence to obtain concessions that
allow them to externalize pollution costs, healthcare costs, and environmental
damages onto society. In addition, the
costs of wars and heavy military presence in the Middle East are in some ways
merely methods of protecting our access to oil reserves found there.
further manipulate us by stoking our desires and using seductive advertising to
promote consumerism and wasteful depletion to satisfy their goal of making
bigger profits. These strategies run
contrary to the common good, and are harmful of the prospects of people in
future generations who will need natural resources to thrive and survive.
burn about 7 billion barrels of oil per year.
Because our domestic reserves are estimated at maybe 30 billion barrels,
they are diminishing to the point of exhaustion. Because we spend so much money on imported oil, it would be wise for us to boldly
embrace an Apollo-Program-like initiative to achieve a cleaner and renewable
energy independence from this dependency.
we move past Peak Oil, a restructuring will take place in agricultural
practices and policies of efficiency and conservation, and in building and
transportation alternatives. The
economies of the world’s nations will shift, of necessity, toward smart and sustainable activities, and away from shrewdly profitable but
shortsighted and unsustainable ones.
The “endgame” of cheap oil may well be a return to more local and
say that nuclear power is the best hope for the future. But nuclear power has required heavy
subsidies ever since it was first developed.
Many of the costs related to nuclear reactor disasters in places like
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, Japan have been foisted upon
taxpayers in the affected countries.
Today, we still have not figured out how to keep extremely long-lasting
radioactive nuclear wastes safe indefinitely from contaminating the
environment. The risks of accidents at
nuclear power plants and in transporting and storing dangerous radioactive
wastes make power derived from nuclear energy much more risky than other
alternatives. There are also
significant dangers involved in the possibilities of terrorist attacks or
military bombings of nuclear plants.
These facts should be taken into account in all decisions about the
situation and construction of nuclear power plants and the commitment of public
funds to give direct and indirect subsidies to this industry.
In any case, we face a new age of terrible austerity
if we do not find ways to replace fossil fuels, to conserve them, and to live
our lives more in harmony with resource limitations and with the natural
balance of ecological systems. Our
current energy policies are putting us in increasing jeopardy of extreme
economic instability, social upheaval, environmental calamity, and intensified
Post-Peak-Oil societies must adapt, according to the
wise Marion King Hubbert.
“Our principal constraints are cultural.
During the last two centuries we have known nothing but exponential
growth, and in parallel we have evolved what amounts to an exponential-growth
culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential
growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of
That is a thought-provoking idea! Our collective activities are like some
grand distorted Ponzi scheme on a scale so risky that much more serious
considerations need to be given to them.
During this moment of time, we need to do everything we can to avoid
having this new age turn out to be one of wanton depletion of resources and
heedless devastation of Earth’s providential ecosystems. To succeed at this, let’s support bold
action. Let’s demand fundamental changes
in our economic policies, energy policies and environmental practices.
I believe we can achieve this! But we must be more assertive in
courageously beginning this process NOW!
A ray of hope has developed with some of President Obama’s recent
stances, and with the forward-thinking proposals set forth a few years ago in
the Senate by Bernie Sanders of
Vermont and Barbara Boxer of California.
These two senators have made commendable proposals to boldly address the
problem of our fossil fuel addiction and the risks of climate change by
introducing two bills, a Climate Protection Act and a Sustainable Energy Act,
which constitute a comprehensive climate bill. Congress should approve these bills!
According to my
observations in the Introduction to Common
“Under this legislation, a fee would be assessed on carbon pollution
emissions, and the proceeds would fund investments in energy efficiency and
sustainable energy technologies such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass.
The proposal would also provide rebates to consumers to offset higher costs of
oil, coal, natural gas and electricity generated from fossil fuels.
By putting a
price on carbon, polluters would pay for the damage they inflict on all of us,
and the necessary transition to cleaner renewable fuels would be
encouraged. A proposed fee of $20 for
each ton of carbon dioxide pollution would reduce emissions an estimated 20
percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025.
These new laws
would bring in more than $1 trillion in new revenue over the next decade, and
this revenue would be spent in smart ways.
Broadly speaking, the money would serve three important functions: to protect consumers, invest in clean energy
infrastructure, and reduce national budget deficits.
fees would be regressive like other consumption taxes, in that they
inordinately impact poor people and middle-income families, the Climate
Protection Act and Sustainable Energy Act would create a rebate program to make
sure these families are not unduly burdened. This idea is modeled on the dividend paid to all residents of
Alaska for profits made on the extraction of oil from state lands, so it would
ensure that pollution reduction costs are offset so that they are not regressive.
It would be an
auspicious move to reduce dirty energy use and replace it with cleaner energy
to power our economy. These bills would
help provide funding for the energy-efficient Weatherization Assistance Program
and investment tax credits, clean energy technologies, worker training, and
other programs that are crucial for making the transition to a cleaner energy
our nation’s budget deficit is a real problem, the Climate Protection Act and
Sustainable Energy Act would reduce this debt by $300 billion over the next ten
These bills would create a sufficiently robust tax that would lead to
meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas pollution and put us on a path that
helps us avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
These bills would stimulate the economy, create jobs in the burgeoning
clean-tech and green-jobs sectors, and encourage businesses to make new
investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. They would also end taxpayer subsidies to
oil and gas companies to ensure a more full cost accounting for their
activities. And the bills include
provisions to reduce risks from a shift to fracking in oil and natural gas
production that causes local air and water pollution.”
Good ideas and sensible policy initiative could significantly improve
our collective prospects, so I heartily encourage all decision-makers to give
serious consideration to these ideas!
do what is in our nation’s best interest, in honor of commemorating our
country’s 240th anniversary of our declaration of independence from foreign
Dr. Tiffany B. Twain
August 16, 2016 (Revised
from initial publication in August 2008, with periodic updates since then.)