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The politics and reality of the peak oil scare

category international | environment | feature author Friday April 06, 2007 00:53author by Andrew Flood & Chekov Feeney - WSM Report this post to the editors

Peak Oil Theory has been around since the 1970s. Some think we have already reached 'peak oil', others think it will happen with the next twenty-five years. The theory argues that when we reach 'peak oil' the rate at which we extract oil from the earth (measured in millions of barrels per day) will reach a maximum and thereafter will start to drop.

As the rate at which we use oil is currently close to the rate at which we extract it, the point of peak oil will coincide or be closely followed by the world consuming more oil than it is producing. As oil reserves are very limited, within months there simply will not be enough oil available. For this reason Peak Oil Theory tends to come as part of a package which is about more than the production and consumption of oil. It also expresses fears about how society will be affected when the oil runs short. In essence, Peak Oil Theory is both about the economics of oil and a pessimistic vision of the future. In many cases Peak Oil is a theory that catastrophe is about to hit humanity. In the first half of this article, I ask if our future is inevitably pessimistic.

In the second half of the article I will examine the peak oil claims themselves. How bad do things really seem to be? This article will demonstrate that the depth of polarisation over this issue is such that even claimed 'scientific facts' cannot be trusted to be accurate but rather tend to reflect the ideological point of view of those offering them. On the one hand, a decreasing number of people deny there is any problem with oil supply. On the other are a growing number who predict peak within a few years and a cataclysmic effect on civilisation as a result.

Why should anarchists care about this argument? Well, if such a crash were to happen it would be a disaster, not only for the world’s population but also for the anarchist project. Oil provides most of the energy that makes current standards of living possible. The nature of the crash would set worker against worker in the fight for access to the limited resources the ruling class would allow to trickle down. And, as the various national ruling classes fought to gain control over the resources of other nations, workers would be pitted against each other in more and more destructive wars.

Before we panic though we need to consider how real all of this is.

Part A: We are all going to die!

The idea that the human population growth would cause it to go into decline is not a new one. An 18th century English economist called John Malthus first made it. The arguments he put forward then are very similar to the arguments made by the Peak Oil theorists. It’s worth going back to the beginning and looking at Malthus’ ideas as perhaps the modern day theorists are equally wrong in the assumptions they share about human society.

Why does Malthus matter?

In the late 18th century Malthus produced the first really systematic look at the question of human population. By looking at the patterns of population changes in various species he concluded that, in the absence of predators, the population of any species would increase exponentially, until it exhausts the resources on which it depends, upon which point the population will collapse dramatically. Based upon this theory he predicted that the human population would continue to go through cycles of exponential growth, followed by sudden collapse.

When applying this theory to humans, Malthus added in a strong moral dimension. The lower classes tended to have more children, and he argued this was a sign of their moral degeneracy. Hence the population collapses that would be experienced through famines and environmental destruction were evidence of God punishing the poor for their immoral ways. This outlook proved particularly attractive to the ruling classes who could present famines among their subjects as part of the natural order of things, or even as an example of God's righteous wrath against sinners.

For example, during the Irish famine of the 1840's, English politicians were able to justify their lack of intervention in Malthusian terms - the famine being, after all, God's natural means of keeping the population in check and simultaneously punishing the sinners, rather than having anything to do with the policies of the government. As Malthus put it, "this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will for ever continue to exist". Thus the upper class continued to export food from Ireland as hundreds of thousands starved to death.

Today Malthus is a deeply discredited theorist. His intermingling of scientific observation with highly subjective moralising is obvious to us as nothing more than a crass justification of power and privilege without responsibility. However, perhaps more importantly, he turned out to be wrong. Since the time of Malthus, the human population has not suffered any of his predicted collapses. Instead the world's population has continued to grow and grow. From less than a billion in the 18th century, it has grown to over 6 billion today. This trend has been slowing but all the same the UN predicts that, on current trends, the world's population will be approaching 10 billion by 2050.

However, no matter how discredited the ideas of Malthus rightly are today, it is worth looking at the reasons why his predictions were so wrong. Firstly, we now know that population trends are much more complicated than Malthus imagined. However, we do know that in general, unless they are checked by predation or competition for resources, populations of species do tend to follow a basic Malthusian cycle of steady growth followed by sudden decline. For example, modern evolutionary biology provides plenty of evidence that the human population has collapsed to relatively tiny numbers - as few as thousands of people - on several occasions in the last 100,000 years.

However, modern humans have achieved a mastery over the earth, which allows us to consciously affect and increase our food supply. But Malthus was aware of this uniquely human trait, as he himself put it: "the main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, is the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means." So where exactly did he go wrong? Why has the population continued to increase at an ever-greater rate since his time, rather than collapsing as he predicted?

Underestimating the power of humans to innovate

Malthus’ basic scientific error was in underestimating the rate at which human ingenuity could increase the amount of resources available to them. Although Malthus and his peers in the ruling class were quite content to allow large chunks of the population to starve to death every so often, seeing this as God's will, many of those people threatened were not. The period since 1750 has been particularly marked out from the periods that came before by an almost constant scientific revolution.

As religion has waned in influence, people became less inclined to write off human catastrophes as God's will and instead were moved to look for the material causes of human suffering and ways to avoid them. Many of these advances have rested upon human beings’ unique ability to cooperate in vastly complex social organisations and our ability to consciously adapt our behaviour. So, for example, the doubling of life expectancy in the West owes most to the enormous public health and sanitation infrastructure that has been built up in the last 100 years in the West, as well as to the collective applied brain-power of some of the brightest human minds over several centuries in order to devise the solutions upon which we depend.

Malthus was wrong, human ingenuity overcame the iron laws of nature he claimed to discover. Peak oil is a new Malthusian panic where access to energy is the limiting factor that access to food once was. In the next section, I focus on energy as a limiting factor. The strongest part of the peak oil argument is that we are reaching the limits of conventional oil - this may be true. However, the arguments are flawed when they argue that there is no alternative to this oil. Making room for the human ingenuity that Malthus ignored, I will look in particular at the role of alternative energy resources and the use of 'unconventional' oil resources.

Part B: Energy and the limits on growth

As some people have applied themselves to the problem of extracting resources from the world and turning them to human uses, others have been working out the basic laws of the universe and trying to understand our place within it. We know, for example, that our species is going to be basically limited to the resources of this planet for the foreseeable future. We also know that one of the fundamental resources upon which humans depend is energy.

The earth ultimately receives all of its energy from the nuclear reactions in the sun. The energy from the sun is generally very hard to efficiently capture and turn into a form that is useful, and the vast majority is either absorbed by the oceans or the atmosphere as heat and or reflected back into space. However, a tiny fraction of the energy that the Earth has received from the sun over the last billion years has been trapped on the earth in the form of fossil fuels. These fuels are particular in that they are extremely easy to extract energy from - just add fire. Their organic nature also means that they are useful in other areas of the process of the transformation of sun-energy into human consumable energy - in particular petrochemicals which are crucial to modern fertilisers. Their nature of being relatively stable and easy to transport in normal atmospheric conditions makes them particularly suitable for transportation - another crucial part in the transformation of sun-energy into human consumable energy.

The big problem is that while we continue to relentlessly expand our use of the earth's resources, we can be absolutely certain that oil production will eventually peak. Based on the best available current data, this will happen sooner rather than later. Although, the exact timing of the peak in global conventional oil prediction - known as "peak oil" is heavily disputed - many credible scientists claim that it will happen within decades and several suggest that it may already have occurred.

Why is Peak Oil a problem?

Of course oil will not suddenly run out one day, leaving all the petrol pumps dry. Instead it will reach a relatively sharp peak of production, beyond which it will be impossible to efficiently extract any more oil, and production will somewhat gradually decline from that point on. Under capitalism "efficiently extract" simply means the ability to make sufficient profit from the extraction. The major oil companies currently abandon productive fields when profit drops below 20%.(1) Oil fields are abandoned before they are empty for this reason.

The theory that peak oil was imminent was first put forward by US geo-physicist, M. King Hubbert as long ago as 1956. He predicted that oil production in the continental United States would peak between 1965 and 1970; and that world production would peak in 2000. His prediction proved slightly inaccurate, as US production actually peaked in 1971 and world oil production will probably peak sometime after 2004. However, aside from the details of exactly when this peak would be reached, his predictions for the patterns of flow turned out to be largely accurate. According to the International Energy Agency's (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2004 Report: "Fossil fuels currently supply most of the world's energy, and are expected to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. While supplies are currently abundant, they won't last forever. Oil production is in decline in 33 of the 48 largest oil producing countries, ..."

Capitalist speculations

A clue that we are not facing the end of civilisation is found in the markets of capitalism. Oil is the major global commodity and, like other commodities, it is bought and sold on the markets years before it even comes out of the ground. If any section of capitalism secretly knew that a peak oil crisis was coming in the sort of worst case scenarios that are predicted, we can be sure that section would be seeking to make enormous profits out of this knowledge.

In the futures market this would be very simple to do. At the time(2) of writing, for instance, I can buy a barrel of Light Crude Oil on the New York MEX market for 65 dollars (3). This actually gives me that barrel of oil in December 2012 - 6 years away. And the price is only 3 dollars more than the price quoted for a barrel in January 2007.

Individual capitalists have made vast fortunes through spotting under priced future items and buying these in order to re-sell when the prices rises. In September 1992 George Soros sold short more than $10bn worth of pounds sterling because he reckoned it was over valued. He was right, Sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and it is estimated Soros made at least $1.1bn profit! In July 1997, with other speculators, he did something similar to Thailand triggering "Asia's worst financial crisis in decades". This illustrates that, even if the cost to capitalism as a whole through such behaviour will be a major economic crash, individual capitalists will still engage in such trades.

If any capitalist believed that oil supplies were going to crash they would realise that by buying say 100 million barrels today for 65 dollars they could make 1280 million if those barrels were worth say 200 dollars in 2012. And if the 2004 peak predictions are right, 200 dollars would be very little to pay for a barrel by 2012 - it could be that very much bigger profits could be made.

So why is it that no capitalist seems to believe in peak oil enough to put their money where their mouth is? Up to a couple of years back, ignorance might have been claimed as an explanation. But in recent months the idea of Peak Oil has been discussed in 'The Economist', probably the major international business magazine. Mathew Simmons, an energy adviser to George W. Bush, has published a book advocating Peak Oil theory, which has been widely reviewed in other publications. There is no longer any grounds to claim that peak oil theory is being hushed up.

So why is the future price of oil not shooting through the roof as capitalists speculate with the aim of making billions? Probably because very few are convinced, some even argue the opposite. The Economist in its article on the subject cites a report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates which "concludes that the world’s oil-production capacity could increase by as much as 15m barrels per day (bpd) between 2005 and 2010 .. the biggest surge in history".(4)

From this and other articles, the counter point to the Peak Oil argument can be sketched as follows. The expansion of oil reserves in the future will rely on smaller fields and on technology extracting a much greater percentage of oil from existing fields - this is already happening in the North Sea. Rising oil prices will mean that it becomes economic to also access the vast unconventional Oil Deposits. Already major production has started out of the Oil Sands in Alberta and current prices of over 50 dollars a barrel mean that the vast Venezuela heavy tar deposits are now economic to exploit.

Why is oil so important

The big scare claimed with peak oil theory is that there is absolutely no realistic prospect of us simply replacing all oil-sourced energy with an alternative energy source in the near future. But why call this a scare? Because replacing "all oil sourced energy" is not what is required. What is required is for a mixture of other fossil fuels (gas, coal), unconventional oil sources, alternative energy, and greater efficiency in energy use being able to take up whatever shortfall occurs when peak oil is reached. As the peak in conventional oil supply will really be a plateau, the point at which all or even most oil would have to be substituted will not occur for many decades.

To understand why oil is such an important substance to us, we need to examine the basic energy equation that defines the usefulness of fuels. Fuels are substances from which we can extract energy. However, it also costs a certain amount of energy to extract the fuel and to deliver it to where the energy is needed. The ratio between the amount of energy extracted in the fuel and the energy expended in extracting it is known as the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)(5). If it takes more energy to extract the fuel than can be extracted from the fuel, the EROEI is less than 1. For example, hydrogen fuel cells have a EROEI of less than 0.9 - meaning that you can only get at most 90% of the energy back out that you put into making it. This means they are only of use for storing energy generated by other means, on their own they consume rather than supply energy. So while they may provide solutions to enable mass transport without oil in the future, hydrogen cells cannot provide energy per se.

EROEI is, of course, difficult to measure since the total amount of energy expended in the process must be considered. For example, one must include the amounts of energy expended in construction of dams, windmills, power stations, power cabling, access roads or nuclear plants. The fact that the industries concerned with generating this power have a vested interest in producing research that shows their technology to have a particularly good EROEI does not help in estimating this. And, on the other hand, proponents of Oil and Nuclear energy have a vested interest in showing 'alternative energies' not to be an alternative. However, regardless of how one looks at the figures, it is clear that oil was once in a class of its own.

Plummeting EROEI

Oil discoveries in 1900 had an EROEI of over 100, meaning that for every barrel of oil that you used to find the oil, refine it and transport it to the customer, you got 100 barrels out of the ground in terms of energy. With fresh oil fields, little more was required than to drill a hole in the ground and pump the oil out. By the 1970's, as the oil in the most accessible areas became depleted, the EROEI had fallen to about 20(6). In other words the 1970's EROEI of oil was 20% of its 1900's value.

In terms of electricity production, hydro-electricity produces a significant net gain of energy, with an estimated EROEI of 10. However, the supply of rivers that can be usefully dammed to gain energy is already much closer to exhaustion than the oil supply. This is true for major dams, recently additional power has started to be generated through the construction of minor dams, which are similar to weirs(7).

On the supply side this means that a rising percentage of energy will come from alternative sources. Most importantly wind, wave, bio fuel and solar power. Wind power is already undergoing a rapid expansion - last year Denmark, the world leader, generated 23% of its electricity from wind power. Greenpeace estimates that by 2020 12% of the world's electricity consumption will come from wind power.(8)

Alternative energy

Peak oil theorists alongside the Oil and Nuclear industries have been trying to debunk alternative energy sources. At one extreme of those who seek to gain from the politics of panic and fear, the British National Party claim in their peak oil study that the EROEI of wind has is about 2(9). Numbers like this tend to be reproduced again and again but they don't bear proper investigation. An overview article which looked at 41 different analyses found an operational EROEI for wind of 18, some 9 times this claimed figure.(10)

A major problem in discussing the feasibility of these sources is the very different facts presented by those who take one side of the debate as against another. Peak oil theorists frequently claim solar panels require almost as much energy to construct as they supply in their lifetime, i.e. that there EROEI is close to 1. On the other hand, proponents of solar power claim EROEI's as high as 17 with payback for panels thus achieved in as little as 1.7 years.(11)

The low estimate EROEI figures are alarming but so in fact would the five fold drop in the EROEI of oil between 1900 and 1970 without the benefit of hindsight. Given these figures alone, and an idea of how important oil was to the economy, an alien observer might well guess that production had crashed by 1970. Instead it massively increased in that period - clearly there is a need for caution in assuming that even a future five fold drop in EROEI would automatically means a similar crash in production.

This is leaving aside that this fivefold drop basically comes from selecting the estimates of EROEI most favourable to the idea of peak oil as a cataclysm. If, instead, you select the sort of estimates that show wind power to have a much better EROEI then oil you start to get a different story. The EROEI figures are massaged to put forward a convincing argument, but the more you examine them the less convincing that argument becomes.

Is there more oil out there?

When you examine in detail the texts on Peak Oil, you realise that the peak predicted is for conventional oil. What does conventional oil mean? Basically conventional oil is what we all think of when we think of an oil field. It is the oil that can be obtained by drilling a hole in the ground and pumping out the liquid to be found there. Part of the reason the EROEI for oil was comparatively high in the 1900s was that the easiest fields then were actually under sufficient pressure to drive the oil out of the wells.

In addition to such conventional oil there are other sources, and the potential reserves in these are massive. They comprise oil that is very difficult to extract, typically because it is bound up in sand or shale deposits. Extracting this sort of oil is an operation more like open cast mining than conventional oil drilling. And the sand or shale extracted then has to be subjected to an energy intensive process to sweat the oil out. This currently gives EROEIs of up to 3(12). The largest deposits are in Venezuela and Canada, and these are already producing over a million barrels a day. It's estimated that these two deposits contain twice as much oil as all remaining conventional oil reserves, although only some of this is easily reached by strip mining.

Other problems and solutions

It is argued that electric power is not nearly as useful as oil is. Electricity requires power cables, or bulky batteries to be transported. There may be areas of the world's economy where there is no possibility of replacing oil with electricity as an energy supply. But the same factors actually give an advantage to solar and wind powered generation that can be generated on isolated sites of consumption not already on a power grid. The rapid development of plug-in hybrid cars and perhaps hydrogen fuel cells suggests that the use of electricity to power vehicles is a lot more feasible than initially thought.

On the demand side, rising prices have made large cars less affordable and encourage efficiencies in fuel economy. This means that demand for smaller cars and for hybrid cars will rise (home conversions have already demonstrated that up to100 miles per gallon can be achieved with hybrids that can be plugged into the mains). Homes, offices and appliances will become more energy efficient and increasingly will generate at least some of the energy they consume through alternative technologies. The ratio of oil use to GDP (a measure of production) will continue to fall (even in the gas guzzling USA it halved between 1971 and 2002). This allows for limited economic expansion without additional quantities of energy as less energy is used per unit produced.

Part C: The politics of the choice

The problem for anarchists is that these two separate possible futures are so different that it is hard to know how to judge where the truth might lie. The worst-case scenarios argued for Peak oil theory are essentially the end of civilisation as we know it. On the opposite extreme, there are still those who deny the possibility of any future long-term energy shortage. The complete lack of agreement even on the 'facts' that would seem to be straight forward - the EROEI's for convention and unconventional oils, solar and wind power - illustrate the great difficulty in choosing between these scenarios.

For understandable reasons, some anarchists have embraced peak oil theory because they simply believe the corporations are lying and cannot be trusted. However, for the reasons already outlined, even if this was the case we would expect individual greedy capitalists to be buying up 'cheap' oil futures, and so far there is no evidence for this.

So far the evidence is not there to uncritically support the peak oil predictions. Anarchists need to maintain a critical attitude to the whole debate. In the meantime we can use the debate itself as an educational tool. For instance, very few if any of the peak oil proponents seem to have thought about what the impact of peak oil would be on class society. The most common presentations of the outcome seem to see everyone suffering equally. But the reality that we know from every natural disaster is that most of the suffering falls on the working class, and that the cost of any solutions will also be imposed on the working class.

The fact that the likes of the BNP see something to be gained from creating a panic around peak oil should also give us pause for thought. Panics are not the atmosphere in which a libertarian society can easily be built. Rather panic and the fear of collapse of civilisation are precisely the requirements of dictatorship and fascism when it comes to forcing populations to accept that the boot on the neck is better than the alternatives.

We have seen Malthus was wrong because he underestimated human ingenuity. However, although it is tempting to attribute the deviation of human population figures from those Malthus predicted as purely being a consequence of the scientific revolution that coincided with it, it would be foolish not to note that the period since Malthus made the predictions also saw the transformation of social organisation in the guise of capitalism, which has today become so pervasive as to be almost invisible. For while the human ability to cooperate and innovate has provided the materials, capitalism determined the way they were used.

Consumerism is based upon people's desire to possess and consume resources and it provides a constant incentive for economic decision makers to extract more resources from the earth and to transform them into a form that is useful to humans. Thus, much of human innovation and scientific thought has been devoted to increasing the supply of resources available to the species and this has worked to such an extent that global food supply has consistently increased faster than the human population since Malthus's time.

This unprecedented increase in available resources can be seen as humans consciously diverting ever more of the world's resources towards themselves. This is not without its costs. Thus the last few centuries have seen our species actively shaping the planet's environment in order to provide this ever-greater supply of resources. We have transformed eco-systems, replaced continent-sized forests with farms, created vast areas of the world in which any impediments whatsoever, whether geological or biological, have been ruthlessly excluded. We have driven most of the species that might compete with us at the top of the food chain to the point of extinction.

Although it would be foolish to imagine that we have reached the limit of our innovations in terms of shaping the planet to our needs, this is an inherently risky route to take from the point of view of our species' survival. The earth's ecosystem and climate are unpredictable complex systems and could, at any stage, undergo dramatic change to arrive at a new point of equilibrium - a point that will probably be far less hospitable to our species - due to the unpredictable results of the dramatic changes that we are forcing upon the earth. In particular, most scientists believe that it is likely the atmospheric pollutants emitted by human industry may cause dramatic changes in our climate through what is known as global warming.

The elephant in the living room

The energy debates provide a useful mechanism for exposing the irrationality of capitalism. For instance, the market will decide the balance between supply and demand solutions to energy needs. Yet the most profitable solutions - like using unconventional oil resources - may also be the ones that require vast quantities of energy to extract and which in themselves, and because of this, will result in massive additional releases of CO2. Almost certainly if the population of the world was to decide on how to best fill our energy needs we would not take the path it looks like the market will dictate.

This is the key point. Whether or not the peak in conventional oil is imminent or decades away, the method in which capitalism will fulfil its energy needs will be irrational when looked at from the viewpoint of the future needs of the people of the planet. It could well be that the root to securing greatest profit for capital is that of exploiting the unconventional oil deposits. In that context feeding the panic about energy supply, and in particular the idea that renewable energy cannot be an alternative, is a very serious mistake as it would encourage many people to accept what would be a very polluting source of energy over efficiencies and renewable energies.

The greatest threat to most humans is not peak oil but rather global warming. Changing weather patterns and rising sea levels already threaten hundreds of millions of the poorest people on the planet. In that context, there is a real danger of peak oil hysteria simply playing the role of a distraction from the need to make real rational decisions about energy production.

The sort of energy debate anarchists need to be promoting is not that of conspiracy theories and collapseism. In the anti-war movement, conspiracy theories around the 9/11 attacks may grab the popular imagination, but they are a serious barrier to any real discussion of imperialism, the causes of the war and how it can be opposed. So it is with Peak Oil and the struggle that needs to be waged against climate change.

We need to help initiate a debate about a real program that people can fight for in relation to climate change. A program that can offer real solutions to filling our need for energy, but ones that do not lead to severe damage to the biosphere which we share.

In the medium term capitalism's continuous need to grow also means that the danger of some key resource running out before an alternative could be developed will always be with us. As will the danger of some by-product of production resulting in a drastic change in the suitability of the planet for human life. As the world’s population increases, any major sudden change could result in the deaths of billions of people. The need for a rational system of economic organisation based on human needs, including the need for an environment, which can support all of us, becomes more urgent with every day.

The article is from Red & Black Revolution 12. Its first publication online is on indymedia.ie

1 The hidden agenda; framework for an alternative oil policy, A Norwegian trade union perspective on the internationalisation of Statoil, translated by Laurence Cox
2 December 2006
3 You can see current prices on the NYMEX futures market at http://futures.tradingcharts.com/marketquotes/
4 Why the World is not about to run out of oil, The Economist, April 20th, 2006
5 There is a useful explanation of EROEI on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EROEI
6 Although an EROEI for oil of 20 is commonly given it may not be accurate. Middle Eastern oil has the highest EROEI and I've seen estimates in the range of 10-20. I've seen figures for Oil produced in the USA on the other hand as low as 2!
7 For examples of micro hydro power see http://www.microhydropower.net/casestudies/
8 Why Wind energy, Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, http://www.ecn.nl/en/wind/additional/why-wind-energy/
9 http://www.bnp.org.uk/peakoil/alterwind.htm
10 Energy return on investment (EROI) for wind energy at http://www.eoearth.org/article/Energy_return_on_investment_(EROI)_for_wind_energy
11 Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands http://tinyurl.com/y8jvdg
12 Actual figures I've seen claimed range from 0.7 to 17. Shell reported an EROEI for one oil shale extraction of 3.5, see http://www.csbj.com/story.cfm?ID=9271

author by Cherenkovpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 03:51Report this post to the editors

The author of this article is clueless. COMPLETELY clueless. I cannot even begin to cover all of the outrageous misstatements made here.

First of all, hydrogen is not a fuel. It must be made from other sources such as coal, methane, alcohol, etc. Many scientists consider it the equivalent of converting gold to lead. To turn methane into hydrogen means an energy loss of ninety percent.

But, my largest concern revolves around the author's rather specious mischaracterization of Malthus and his theory. His distaste for the lower class notwithstanding, the theory he proposes works just fine. The idea that he got it wrong is another fallacy. His theory is not wrong. What he got wrong was extraneous factors that could change his results.

The reason that population grew so much more than he thought it might is the introduction of fossil sunlight during his era. He lived at the beginning of the industrial revolution. What made this leap of innovation possible? Cheap energy. Yes people are creative little buggers, but that does not mean they could build an industrial society without coal, oil or nuclear. Because we could mechanize farming, we could increase food production, and therefore increase population. If you follow the curve of cheap energy growth, you will see that it exactly parallels the curve of population growth.

What the author is not telling you is that it takes ten calories of fossil fuel to make one calorie of food in the United States, and that does not include driving to the store or cooking it.

This is not a political problem or an economic problem. This is a physics problem.

For two really good introductions to the problem:

http://media.globalpublicmedia.com/RAM/2007/03/James_Kunstler_Talk_3-26.ram

http://www.energybulletin.net/primer.php

author by Chekovpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 19:42Report this post to the editors

Here's what we said about hydrogen: "For example, hydrogen fuel cells have a EROEI of less than 0.9 - meaning that you can only get at most 90% of the energy back out that you put into making it. This means they are only of use for storing energy generated by other means, on their own they consume rather than supply energy. So while they may provide solutions to enable mass transport without oil in the future, hydrogen cells cannot provide energy per se."

Your claim that we are clueless looks a little bit weak when it appears that you didn't really read it too closely.

Also, I think your linking of cheap energy to population growth is absurdly reductionist and quite wrong too. Global population doubled between 1750 and 1850 - which is way before oil became important and way after coal became an important fuel.

Finally, I have addressed similar defenders of Malthus in the comments on the indymedia posting of this article at: http://www.indymedia.ie/article/81815#comments

In short, there are a number of areas where Malthus got it unequivocally wrong (the arithmetic increase of food versus the geometric increase of population for example), but having said that, I still think his theory is essentially correct, albeit overly simplistic and it under-estimates human capacity for innovation.

author by Mike Bendzelapublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 19:54author email mikeb at foxhill dot comReport this post to the editors

It's not often that the very first sentence of an article is so incorrect, so utterly wrong, that one stops reading immediately:

"The peak oil theory has been around since the 1970s"

M. King Hubbert actually presented his theory to the API in Texas in 1956.

Now, if you had said, "US oil production has been in a long crash since the 1970s," you would have been correct.

Either takes action to protect yourself and your family, or don't.

author by Andrewpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 21:29Report this post to the editors

One of the odd things about peak oil theory is the intolerant responses you attact if you question even minor aspects of it. Both 'responses' to this article demonstrate the typical reaction and both reveal the the authors far from carefully reading the article scanned it for a line they could react to in order to dismiss it.

In fact if you can get past the first line you'll find further on its is explained that "The theory that peak oil was imminent was first put forward by US geo-physicist, M. King Hubbert as long ago as 1956" - the 1970's reference in the summary simply refers to the period when versions of the theory became popular in radical circles - the circles this article is addressed at.

author by Davidpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 22:21Report this post to the editors

I am not certain that those who wrote the previous comments did more than skim the article. It is clear that the author is familiar with the key concepts essential to the Peak Oil argument:

(1) Limits to Growth, outlined by the Club of Rome,
(2) the Tragedy of the Commons and its relationship to the market economy, discussed by Garret Hardin
(3) EROEI
(4) The interaction between the financial wordl and physical realities

I commend the author on his caution. The facts are certainly as hard to track as he states. I personally think that probability ---based on historical production and discovery trends-- favors of a peaking of oil production very soon. But I believe it is important to remain sceptical.

I don't think the author is fully aware of the significant thought many Peaknics are putting in to the social ramifications. Richard Heinberg in particular, a central Peak Oil figure, takes up that issue in his regular Museletter and his books. I know that the members of our local Peak Oil preparedness organization are very concerned with the effects of a potential collapse on social structures.

I find the author's argument that some 'smart capitalists' would have detected 'secret' knowledge about oil a little bit naive. They have as much information as anyone else in this case, because the oil data is distributed across many competing global power segments. Many of those with money that I know have in fact been investing in oil and natural gas trusts and are making significant profits.

Overall, I think the article is well worth reading and provides a good overview and honest statement of the author's bias based on anarchistic libertarian assumptions.

author by Davidpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 22:30Report this post to the editors

Sorry, I should have referred to both authors in the post above.

author by bendzelapublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 22:47author email mikeb at foxhill dot comReport this post to the editors

You said peak oil theory has been around since the 1970s. Those are your words. They are wrong.

And if you think I didnt read the whole article, why am I replying? I said if "ONE" didnt past the first sentence. Pay attention.

More pertinently, and worst of all, there's not a single reputable resource cited in your notes that explains the history of peak oil and what it means. Not one.

I'll tell you what I tell everyone: protect your family now, or dont.

author by Andrewpublication date Fri Apr 06, 2007 23:32Report this post to the editors

Thanks to David for some very constuctive comments.

What is being argued against here is not the concept of peak oil in itself but the collapsist package that this often comes in. I think it is fairly clear that conventional production is indeed at or near peak. This will and indeed has significant economic repercussions - oil and energy in general will get more expensive as extraction requires greater costs.

This means that for those with capital to invest there are very significant profits to be made not simply in oil but inn energy in general. The growth in wind power is such that the companies who got in on the ground floor in terms of producing turbines will probably become very wealthy indeed. Likewise any corporations which patents methods for extracting a greater percentage of oil from an 'exhausted' field or more efficient processing of tar sand or shale will make large profits.

But its important not to treat capitalism as a faceless entity, as simply a system. It is also composed of millions of decision makers, each capable of looking at the available evidence and forming different conclusions. If you had billions of dollars and a serious belief in the worst case peak oil scenarios then investing some of that billions in future oil options would seem obvious.

Some peak oil therorists do seem to believe there is something of a conspiracy to cover up the certainty of the worst case scenario. My argument is imply that if this were true greed along would gurantee a rocketing futures price. For the sort of outcome I try to sketch in the article you wouldn't expect this because oil prices will rise but not to the same drastic extent. This seems to be what is happening.

author by Lou Grinzopublication date Sat Apr 07, 2007 00:16Report this post to the editors

I think it's critical that we separate the notion of oil production peaking (including the timing and rate of decline) from the human consequences, including how and how well we adapt.

I've argued several times over on The Cost of Energy that it's possible for people to believe in the basic physics of peak oil theory (which I think are inescapably convincing) and still have respectful and significant disagreements over how it will play out in human terms.

Personally, I'm a militant middle roader. I think the Apocalypticons, the people who predict the end of modern civilization, are every bit as wrong as the POD (peak oil denier) People. Peak oil will be an enormous challenge (even without adding the horrors of global warming into the mix) that will cause a lot of human pain and likely completely reshape economies. But will it be the end of modern civilization? Not a chance.

Related Link: http://www.grinzo.com/energy/
author by BJpublication date Sat Apr 07, 2007 03:31author email mistered219 at yahoo dot caReport this post to the editors

If human ingenuity is going to pull this off then we should be seeing some very encouraging signs of this miracle energy emerging soon. Unless that miracle is cold fusion then ....well.......NOT!

author by doubleflypublication date Sat Apr 07, 2007 10:10Report this post to the editors

1. "Since the time of Malthus, the human population has not suffered any of his predicted collapses. Instead the world's population has continued to grow and grow."

The author is extending current trends into perpetuity. Not having suffered population collapses in 100 years does not prove Malthus wrong in any way. When talking about global events you have to use an appropriate timescale. 100 years is nothing. If something hasn't happened in a while, it appears antiquated. But dismissing it without thought, like this article does so easily is exactly why human populations repeat the same mistakes over and over and don't learn from history.

2. "So why is it that no capitalist seems to believe in peak oil enough to put their money where their mouth is?"

Umm, why does nobody see $65/barrel as a big deal anymore? Oil was $20/barrel in 2002, meaning the price has TRIPLED in 5 years. It is short-sighted to make these comments simply because oil is not at its all-time high. Trending markets take years to get where they're headed.

3. "As the peak in conventional oil supply will really be a plateau, the point at which all or even most oil would have to be substituted will not occur for many decades."

Why does the author say this? Since when has an oil-producing region plateaued, then gently rolled off? All historical oil production peaks have steep production falloffs. Why do the authors and others insist that the world production peak will be so gentle and foregiving?

The denial is a result of narrow thinking that this type of calamity of the human experience is obsolete because it hasn't happened in a lifetime or two.

author by Mike - IWWpublication date Mon Apr 09, 2007 08:53author email entropy4 at gmail dot comauthor address PO Box 1866, Albany WA 6331Report this post to the editors

Global warming – how are they managing? And the real question: - "Why do we let them?"
Your comment has been queued for moderation by site administrators and will be published after approval.
Submitted by Mike on Tue, 03/04/2007 - 18:41.

It is becoming clearer that the consequences of global warming are coming on stronger and faster than has been predicted.

The reason for this is clear. The predictions have been tampered with. Simply it amounts to a hard and sustained pressure from various fossil fuel lobbies; a willingness to succumb by sycophantic governments; an eagerness of the political parties and personalities comprising these governments to take millions of dollars in political donations and other favours from this sector. Taken together it amounts to a massive sell-out of the birthrights of their own citizens and of the people of the world.

Every report produced has had massive input from these tainted “stakeholders”. This resulted in the toning down of warnings. Then, these sanitised versions of events as our leaders would like them to be, became the basis of all government planning and action. This process has left most of the developed world twiddling its collective thumbs while the planet goes to hell. Lets be blunt: These bastards do not care – they will be able to afford their beach-side villas in Antarctica. Meanwhile, if we do not act soon, working people will be left to manage as well they can.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report in February that definitively links global warming to human behavior. The so called debate over the real effects of global warming (and the first line of defense of our polluting master-class's profits - in effect keeping them flowing two or three decades longer than they should) is over. This week's report will spell out the consequences.

Draft copies obtained by various press outfits give some pretty rough scenarios of the future now unfolding as a result of these deliberate actions on the part of our leaders. These, likely to be toned down yet again before being formally released, contain interesting reading: Widespread hunger and death within 25 years in poor countries faced with scarce water and failing crops. Later in the century, coral reefs and fish populations wiped out

If the present set up continues, and if wage-slaves are willing to let the people who have created this emergency continue to “manage” it, scores of countries will face war for scarce land, food and water as global warming increases.

Working people in over 60 nations, mainly in the Third World, will see, and have to put up with, existing tensions hugely exacerbated by the struggle for ever-scarcer resources. Others now at peace - including China, the United States and even parts of Europe - are expected to be plunged into conflict. Even those not directly affected will be threatened by a flood of hundreds of millions of "environmental refugees".

It is not just me saying so. The new UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, told a global warming conference last month: "In coming decades, changes in the environment - and the resulting upheavals, from droughts to inundated coastal areas - are likely to become a major driver of war and conflict." Margaret Beckett, the British Foreign Secretary, has repeatedly called global warming "a security issue". A Pentagon report concluded that abrupt climate change could lead to "skirmishes, battles and even war due to resource constraints". The Pentagon report concluded: "As famine, disease and weather-related disasters strike... many countries' needs will exceed their carrying capacity. This will create a sense of desperation, which is likely to lead to offensive aggression." Some clues here about the creative thinking the people who bought us the Iraq war are likely to bring to these problems. Anyone else feeling a sense of desperation yet? How about some offensive aggression?

Within the next couple of decades, according to the intergovernmental panelists, tens of millions more Latin Americans and hundreds of millions more Africans will be short of water. By 2050 one billion Asians could face water shortages. The glaciers of the Himalayas, which feed the great rivers of the continent, are likely to melt away almost completely by 2035, threatening the lives of 700 million people.

Though harvests might initially increase in temperate countries, India could see a 30% decline, which, by the 2050s will bing some 130 million people to the brink of starvation.

By 2080, 100 million people could be flooded out of their homes every year as the sea levels rise covering their land and turning them into environmental refugees. Or more accurately refugees of political incompetence, corporate greed and criminal passivity on the part of workers.

Up to a third of the world's wild species could be "at high risk of irreversible extinction" from even relatively moderate warming

The Industrial Workers of the World calls again upon wage slaves and working people in Australia, and in all countries, to start organising yourselves as a class, taking possession of the means of production, abolishing the wage system, and living in harmony with the Earth. Longer you leave it the harder it will get. And we mean harder.

Source: Factual stuff largely plagiarised from Wars of the world: how global warming puts 60 nations at risk By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor of The Independent, Published: 01 April 2007. Finger pointing and general histrionics all mine.

Related Link: http://www.iww.org.au
author by Larabraveheartpublication date Tue Apr 10, 2007 17:57Report this post to the editors

I read the article…. In my opinion – from my studies into the whole peak oil debate, pro’s, cons etc – I found his analysis very superficial.

For example: It appears that his entire argument for why Peak Oil is not here is based upon his knowledge of the future’s/derivatives markets.

A more plausible, and for now – more in depth – analysis to me as to the exact same phenomenon, with a completely different conclusion, was Jeff Vails article at THE OIL DRUM…. Financial Intelligence: How Arbitrage Forensics Provide Insight into Saudi Knowledge:

He discusses an interesting phenomenon with respect to energy futures prices, that long dated futures are limited in how much they can go up (but not down) based on arbitrage principles. Because the price of distant oil futures quickly rise alongside spot market prices when spot markets are moved by short-term events, we can infer that major producers such as Saudi Arabia think that the future price of oil will be much higher than the price at which distant futures are currently trading. This provides further support to the theory that they don’t believe their own statements on their future production or on the future price band for crude oil.

In other words, the reason why the big fat capitalists are not buying future options to sell at future higher prices, is because the oil price at that future specific date (say 2014), will actually be much higher, than what they can currently get for it in the ‘future’s market’.

There were a few other issues, where I currently disagree (although I’d be happy to reconsider, with more evidence), such as:

Then there is the rather superficial analysis of EREOI, and especially in its relation to the tar sands, and alternatives.

But mostly, he does not mention anything related to how the current ‘economic growth’ theory paradigm’s foundation is as a debt-based/cheap energy system.

A simplistic example. The assumption of economic growth is how and more importantly why central banks will print money and banks will give somebody a loan, which is how the money is circulated. For example the bank lends some new business owner money, on the assumption that his business will grow, and he will be able to pay it back. But there is a 95% correlation between economic growth and electricity growth. For businesses to grow, they require electricity/energy. Simply think back to the recent blackouts, and then imagine those on for say 5 hours a day, every day.. and see that there is no way that such a business man is going to make a profit, so as to pay back his loan. When energy supply contracts… that will mean a contraction of the economy.

A very good example, is to take a look at the example of what happened to Cuba, when the Soviet Union fell, and their oil production virtually disappeared (for a harsh version of what to expect, and look at what they did to cope, and you will find the ‘hope’ the GOOD STORY in Peak Oil.. WITH THIS CAVEAT: If people cooperate and work together.

Frankly, my opinion: I would suggest that if that is an analysis that many anarchists find authoritative, then perhaps it may be a good idea to do more research on the issue.

But, I am happy to be proven wrong (;-)), and would happily read any other anarchist analysis, with more depth – from an anarchist viewpoint, which however does not simply superficially explore the peak oil theory -- on the issue.

Anyway, I appreciate the dialogue and shall read the article again… and let it digest and regurgitate in my subconscious and see what comes up! ;-)

Kind regards,
Lara

author by Andrewpublication date Tue Apr 10, 2007 19:23Report this post to the editors

To Lou Grinzo

I think your position as stated here is similar to mine, I certainly agree with your statement that "it's possible for people to believe in the basic physics of peak oil theory (which I think are inescapably convincing) and still have respectful and significant disagreements over how it will play out in human terms." We might disagree on the possibility of exploiting the unconventional oil but actually my position is that while I think this is possible I also think it is a bad idea because of the global warming impact. Indeed part of the reason I wrote this article was because I think the 'Peak Oil Panickers' (POP) if successful in convincing people that 'its either oil or civilisation' are simply creating the conditions that will make the extraction and use of these reserves (and the vast coal reserves) acceptable regardless of the consequences.

To BJ
Your probably need to re read the article, one of the points being made is that 'human ingenuity' is already replacing significant chunks of energy supply with renewables, particularly in the form of wind power. The only real question is whether a combination of these plus improved energy efficency can keep pace with the decline if fossil fuel production post peak.

I say 'fossil fuel' rather than oil here because unfortunately I think we are not just talking of oil and gas but also the very large coal reserves which as long ago as 1940's NAZI Germany were being used to create fuel as well as power. As above with the oil sands this extraction which the POP are creating the public opinion climate for will not be good for us as it will result in increased global warming.

To Mike
Thanks for the IWW statement - it demonstrates that for the vast majority of the worlds population global warming is a much greater danger and as above the POP crowd threaten to create the conditions where this will be made worse in order to 'save' civilisation

To Larabraveheart
Reading the article you recommend at http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2412
is interesting because the comments under it expose more than a few errors in the logic and in any case even the author claims it only applies to Saudi. I'd say once again this shows the danger of accepting 'expert' opinion without looking into what other experts might say. POP is riddled with this problem in relation to just about every aspect, hence the EORI discussion.

Beyond this your comment is also based on the confusion that only oil producers can trade on the market - this is not so. If I had 2 billion and believed that oil would be significantly above 60 dollars a barrel today I could buy that future oil at that price to resell at a massive profit nearer the date. Arbitrage can dampen down changes caused by a small number of investors doing this but if a significant section believed POP we would see this reflected in the future price.

On economic growth you patronise me but I do in fact understand the link between energy and growth - that is the whole point of the argument in fact. It is this linkage that is pushing the massive wave of investment in renewables and in unconventional deposits because above 50USD these become profitable. This in turn caps the future price of oil for reasons explained below and which I won't repeat here.

To doublefly
Actually the global population has not seen a crash for very much more than a 100 years apart from the minor dip of the great leap forward. Of course this doesn't mean it can never happen - you won't find that argument in the article so I'm not sure why you feel the need to counter it. But it should make us cautious about simply accepting predictions about near future crashes.

On oil prices you are right that there has been a big short term jump from 2002. Indeed I suspect recognition of the peak in conventional oil is the reason why this has happened. However you are missing the point of the new stable price at around 60 dollars. At that price both the extraction of unconventional oil and of renewables like wind power become profitable. So in terms of the markets what we are seeing is not a calculation that cheap conventional oil is inexhaustable, that would bring it back to 20, but rather that this source is coming to an end and that energy prices in general will thus cost around the equivalent of 60-80 USD a barrel.

In terms of the peak being more like a plateau and then gradual drop off than a peak and collapse - well that in fact is what the various graphs produced by peak oil predictors look like. At the bottom of the comment I have two graphs posted to the this article by a POP on indymedie.ie. The first is a proper prediction and it shows all supplies of oil and gas declining from a pessimistic peak in 2010. But it is 2030 before they have declined 10% and 2045 before they have declined 20% - back to the level of 1990. In terms of the debate this is what I meant by gradual decline. As above these graphs ignore coal but are still a decline matched by the forecast rise in alternatives in several countries. Forty years from now the graph predicts an acceleration in the rate of decline but in that time period I'd hope we'd want to extract less fossil fuels because of the CO2 problem.

The second graph was the typical careless summary of a POPer. It has no scale but to most people appears to show a collapse of supply right after the peak. This is not what is going to happen but is very often presented as the 'summary' of the most pessimistic data graphed properly before this. Someone hears the peak is in 2006, sees that graph and panics thinking civilisation will fall apart some time around 2010. I've even known pensioners who have sold their home and uprooted their family as a result of such panics - if they had looked at the real POP graph first they might have wondered how much worry they should give to an event which will take place after they are 100.

Actual typical POP worst case prediction which includes a guess at unconventionals
Actual typical POP worst case prediction which includes a guess at unconventionals

Typical panic now summary
Typical panic now summary

author by Terencepublication date Tue Apr 10, 2007 20:02Report this post to the editors

Lara,

There is indeed another Anarchist perspective on the problem elsewhere on this site. It is a far longer and unfortunately less readable article, but is basically at odds with the optimism in the above article.

It is called: "Anarchism and the Peak oil argument" and can be found at the URL below.

Actually I intend to reply to the above article in full but have not yet have had the time to put a reply together that addresses most of the points raised

Related Link: http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=2672
author by Andrewpublication date Tue Apr 10, 2007 21:51Report this post to the editors

Terrys article is well worth reading for the more pessimistic persepective but one that also provides an overall anarchist analysis. The problem I have is that a lot of the other material being uncritically circulated on anarchist sites the issue ignores the role of the state, capital and class. I wouldn't imagine our article as any sort of final word but at least it means we have both sides of the debate being argued out in some detail.

author by Terencepublication date Fri May 11, 2007 08:13Report this post to the editors

I have written a full response to this article over on Indymedia Ireland where the article also appeared. You can see it at the URL below.

Related Link: http://www.indymedia.ie/article/81815?comment_limit=0&c...93610
author by javierpublication date Sun May 13, 2007 02:40Report this post to the editors

"Their organic nature also means that they are useful in other areas of the process of the transformation of sun-energy into human consumable energy - in particular petrochemicals which are crucial to modern fertilisers."

Fertilisers today are mostly of a mineral nature (urea, phosphates, sulfur, etc) and not of an organic nature (organic being carbon chains). The importance of natural gas and oil is as a source of energy and hydrogen (neccesary for the synthesis of ammonia wich in turn is used to synthetize urea). I do not know much on the subject but I think organic fertilizers are not made from oil or gas but harvest residues and dung mostly.

"However, a tiny fraction of the energy that the Earth has received from the sun over the last billion years has been trapped on the earth in the form of fossil fuels."

I would clarify by saying that part of the energy from the sun is captured through photosynthesis by some organisms (bacteria and plants) wich in turn are used by the rest of us (direcly or indirectly depending if we are primary, secondary o tertiary consumers) as our energy source for living. As organic matter (mostly photosynthesis capable organisms as they constitute most of the biomass of the earth) accumulates under sediments and rocks heat and pressure provoke chemical reactions that produce petroleum.

Other than that it a very well thought piece.

author by Terencepublication date Sun Aug 19, 2007 07:33Report this post to the editors

There is an interesting article titled: Peak Phosphorus at http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2882 over on the OilDrum.com website covering the possibilty of a peak in phosphorus which as anyone knows is a key element in helping maintain the huge food production levels of industrial agriculture.

The above article basically dismisses that Peak Oil is a really serious problem and suggests we can get around it and that Climate Change is the real problem. As events have been unfolding lately, it seems all these problems are strongly interlinked and you can't really say that this problem is worse than that one, because it is becoming obvious they need to be all solved together.

Related Link: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2882
author by Alexpublication date Wed Sep 05, 2007 13:21author email revolution_reversal at riseup dot netReport this post to the editors

I really don't like this grappling with Malthus, he completely ignored consumption patterns in his analysis and refused to see the intersectionalities of status and amount consumed. If he had of looked at that he would have realized how different social relationships prodice different consumption levels; especially on class lines.

Someone should put sometime into investigating what the human highest common denominator is. By that I mean what is the highest level of material wealth anyone has claim to while still allowing for all others to share in the same amount for themsleves.

author by Andrewpublication date Fri Sep 07, 2007 06:35Report this post to the editors

Alex I think part of the issue is to get people away from thinking that there is a meaningful "highest common denominator" in terms of wealth as the reality is a whole lot more complex.

An easy illustration for this is the approach to transport. This often gets reduced to whether the worlds population could all have North American levels of car ownership. This is of course pretty impossible under current and forseeable technology.

But a better way of looking at the question is not the specifics of the current N. American solution to the need to be able to get from A to B but rather that need itself.

By this I mean that if like me you don't have a car it is actually much, much easier to get from small town A to small town B in Tunisia or Morrocco than it is in New York or Ontario. For non car owners the need for transport is actually filled much better in these countries whose GNP and car ownership are both a fraction of that in Canada or the USA because the applied solution to transport is collective (via multi person taxis as well as bus/train) rather than individual. Obviously these solutions also use less much fuel per person and contribute less to climate change.

So the solution is not simply how much is spent but also how it is spent. Your measure is further complicated by large gaps in costs of living and reliance on informal and family gift economies.

author by Andrewpublication date Wed Oct 31, 2007 04:35Report this post to the editors

With the rising price of oil at the time of writing the explotation of unconventional oil is rocketing. There is a good article on some of the consequences of this at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/oct/30/energy.oilandpetrol

Eventually, Shell alone intends to extract 500,000 barrels a day, and to do so for 50 years; in total 1.2 m barrels are extracted each day, a number projected to rise, when all the plants are operational, to 3.5m. The companies intend to invest $100bn in the area in the next 15 years; if oil prices stay as they are, or rise, and once the capital costs are paid off, they're playing for possible profits of tens of billions a year

author by Terrypublication date Mon Nov 05, 2007 00:43Report this post to the editors

I would be very sceptical of the claims and figures in the Guardian article. It strikes me as the type of article to sooth people's fears and that of investors too. As usual only lip service is paid to the the immense environmental damage, something which should not be allowed to go without comment especially from Anarchists.

Nor did I notice anything in the article about EROEI (energy return on energy input) and the acute water problem, except for a tangential mention of it. Nor any mention of the high quality gas in both purity and energy forms used to create a lower quality fuel and which itself is past peak and certainly will not last for 50 years.

For a balanced and more objective insight of the important environmental and physical factors affecting the sands, I would encourage people to look at any of the articles on the www.oildrum.com website that previously covered this topic. These provide good figures for a range of things and in context rather than that what you get from the Guardian which we must remind ourselves is an arm of the corporate press.

For example:
Tar Sands: The Oil Junkie's Last Fix, Part 1
http://canada.theoildrum.com/node/2915

Tar Sands: The Oil Junkie's Last Fix, Part 2
(looking at water, energy, labour and the environment.)
http://canada.theoildrum.com/node/2931

As a final comment, the above comment says:
>if oil prices stay as they are, or rise, and once the capital costs are paid off, they're playing for possible profits of tens of billions a year.

I am not clear of the purpose of this part of the comment but I will respond to one possible interpretation. It is true that capitalists regulary make money out of destroying the environment and people. For example the Iraqi war.

It may mean be there to mean or imply that somehow the capitalists will keep the oil flowing and there will be no major disruption. That is not the case, because these enviromental costs will have an effect and actually contribute to higher CO-2 emissions locally.

For example just this September (2007), the amount of sea ice that melted in the Arctic was the lowest ever and it is now projected that by 2013 (only 6 yrs away), the Arctic could be ice free. This would be the first time in millions of years and about 100 years earlier than the IPCC projections. It is hard to reconcile these facts with the crazy efforts in Alberta to keep the Happy Motoring Utopia going for awhile longer.

So in other words what message were we supposed to take away from the previous comment?

Related Link: http://www.theoildrum.com
author by Andrewpublication date Mon Nov 05, 2007 02:26Report this post to the editors

The text is a quote from the article not my comment on it. The Albertan oil rush though is very, very real, its one of the reasons the Canadian dollar has risen 20% in the last 6 months as the price of oil has climbed. Its also a small part of the reason unemployment has dropped to a 30 year low despite a lot of closures in the manufacturing sector. Basically where I am a few thousands miles to the South East the amount of money to be made there is a common enough topic of conversation. The bottleneck in expanding extraction at the moment is actually pipeline capacity.

The (severe) environmental consequences of oil shale extraction were discussed at the end of the original article (as are EORI). The major problem I see with 'peak oil panic' is that in so far as it become popular it softens up the population to accept any level of environmental degradation in the name of 'saving civilization'. That dynamic under the heading of 'energy security' had some part of play in popularising the US occupation of Iraq (and in refusing to sign up to Kyoto).

Basically I posted the link to demonstrate that rising oil prices (almost certainly a product of the plateau in conventional oil extraction being reached) do indeed result in unconventional deposits becoming exploitable. The problem then is not the oil 'running out' but the consequences of the accelerated CO2 emissions arising from the fact that the EORI is indeed lower than conventional deposits.

author by Terrypublication date Mon Nov 05, 2007 08:12Report this post to the editors

I have no issue with the fact that there is a major boom going on with the tar sands and it has boosted the economy of Canada. As to the bottlenecks, I would argue they are the supply of gas and water. BTW, the ethanol corn/bio-diseal boom is very real and so is the effect on food prices.

On the 'energy security' argument, I am not really sure how or if that was part of the package of lies used for the Iraq war. It is clear though that the (USA) population was both un-informed and misinformed. Given the amount spent so far, estimates which now range to close to $1 trillion, if it had been spent on energy efficiency, solar photovoltaics and wind power, we'd be in a much better place on every count. The thing is, have the public connected the dots? For example if one selected 20 or 30 people at random on the street and asked them if they can see that connection and or even if they are aware of the figures (on war costs, basics of peak oil, energy usage etc)

I am probably more in the 'peak oil panic' than not in it, but at no point do I ever see any justification for increased levels of environmental degradation but then I have always believed that we are already severely damaging the environmental as it is and that it is totally unacceptable. Neverthless I do accept that point made because for those who are not very strong on environmental concerns then peak oil panic is likely to lead them to accept more damage, but this sort of assumes (and properly quite correctly) that any subsequent debate largely takes place within the corporate press. Obviously it is our role here and that of others in non-corporate media, to show that the issue is more complex and far reaching and to avoid the either or choices constanly used by corporate press. I think non-corporate media sites like the theoildrum.com, energybulletin.net, globalpublicmedia.com and others have done a good job so far because they do more or less present the peak oil panic case than not, but they also say Kyoto is not nearly enough and we have to make much deeper changes and none of them promote increased environmental but greater sustainability. In this sense they have exceeded the responses from the traditional Left who should be out in the front and not trailing behind in these interlinked issues.

author by Andrewpublication date Mon Dec 17, 2007 07:03Report this post to the editors

A left web/paper publishing project had published a special issue on the Tar Sands, the 48 page PDF can be downloaded from http://www.dominionpaper.ca/print/tar_sands_issue_48

author by ergaleiopublication date Tue Feb 12, 2008 17:39author email dromoi at riseup dot netReport this post to the editors

Greetings,

First of all I want to say that the article is a very interesting one and a good contribution to the debate about oil depletion and an anarchist view of what is happening.

However, I have a point of criticism and if is possible I expect an answer. In the article, which is written on April 2007, it is said that the rise of oil prices has been only 3$ in 6 years which is very little if we assume (as oil peak experts do) that oil is running out. Ofcourse this is a very good argument as far as the 2007 is concerned.

Yet today, February 2008, we are observing a huge rise of prices. One month ago oil price had reached 100$ per barrel which has been a rise of 50% in 6-8 months. I believe that this fact diminishes the basic argument of the article.

In my point of view oil peak is happening, not as a major catastrophe, but as a gradual transition of the capitalist energy model AND a crisis situation at the same time. These things go together in a way. I believe that as anarchists we should serf on the plateau of the oil peak and push for an anarchist perspective of the gradual change and crisis of capitalism.

author by Andrewpublication date Tue Feb 12, 2008 22:50Report this post to the editors

The 3$ figure is not in fact for the amount oil had risen but the difference in price on the futures market between a barrel 3 months and five years in the future. If you think back the prices cited here were already a large increase (I think from memory at least a doubling) in comparison with the oil princes of a year earlier. So it would have been silly to predict no future price increases of a similar magnitude.

The point being made was not that prices would not increase but that the market was not predicting an increase which would be the case if there was some sort of 'peak oil cover up' in progress. So it was an argument against the cover up idea, not against a price increase (in retrospect it could have been explained better).

It terms of the current price it makes a lot of sense if we are at the peak of conventional oil because from this point on oil becomes more expensive to extract. However as the article argues this is also the point at which both unconventional deposits and alternatives become highly profitable. Both however take time to develop (equipment needs to be manufactured etc) so an energy price hike (coal has also doubled) in that period is to be expected. In the meantime shortage of supply means the price of a barrel of energy will increase to a point some distance above what will be stable in the long term.

The overshoot is to be expected in other words because capitalism isn't capable of planning on the global scale in any great detail. As with the exception of one or two locations (eg Denmark) energy supply was left to the market the current price peak could last some time while the alternatives are scaled up. And even longer if some sensible environmental action is taken to prevent the extraction of the unconventional deposits - I remain of the opinion that the real damage of peak oil panic is in undermining opposition to the extraction of those deposits. A disaster in terms of climate change.

author by Terrypublication date Tue Feb 12, 2008 23:44Report this post to the editors

In the last comment at the end you said:

"I remain of the opinion that the real damage of peak oil panic is in undermining opposition to the extraction of those deposits"

Can you expand a bit on what you mean there.

As I see it, most people seem to get it fairly quickly that switching to tar sands or increasing coal use are a bad idea once the obvious pitfalls are pointed out.

author by Andrewpublication date Wed Feb 13, 2008 04:35Report this post to the editors

I should first make it clear that I'm referring to what I call the 'Peak Oil Panickers' that is those who suggest that Peak Oil is a civilisation ending event. If that is the argument you put forward than the unconventional oil deposits are going to be seen by most people as a risk worth taking to save civilisation.

author by Terrypublication date Wed Feb 13, 2008 08:26Report this post to the editors

Actually I don't think that logic follows. If anything using the Tar Sands is likely to help cook the planet further and more likely to lead to the end of civilisation than not using them.

I would have thought that regardless of the arguments, panic or not, the most sensible and obvious thing to do would be to say encourage free public transport in every major town and city throughout the world, now.

As anarchists, surely this is the message that one should be pushing not trying to work out which side of an argument one should be on and then to make sure it is opposite whatever the peak-oil panic view is.

Increasingly the twin issues of Peak Oil and Climate Change have become entwined, especially since the dramatic record breaking loss of sea-ice in the Arctic last year that set new records and has been far beyond the worst predictions of any climate scientists and which has been setting off alarm bells since.

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