Wednesday, May 30, 2007

peak oil in 600 words or less

i’m not an oil man or scientist or phd or anything like that. i’m merely a humble musician, a computer geek and father of young kids. i’ve spent much of my free time in the last year reading everything i can about resource depletion, the effects of our modern lifestyle on our planet, and related issues. (actually ALL issues are related to this, but that’s a topic for another post.) most of what i could say about peak oil / global warming / relocalization / etc has been said elsewhere by the great brains of these movements.

i write this because i know some people may read this blog who have never thought about these issues, or they tuned it out because it was presented in a way that was too-technical (read: boring) or too-alarmist (read: we’re all gonna die, and nothing can be done!). so, hopefully without being too boring or hopeless, here’s peak oil in 600 words or less:

i’ll start with money, since that's something most people care about: let's say i have a coin-operated atm. instead of inserting a bank card, you insert a dollar. in return the atm spits out 20 dollars. feed it another dollar and it gives you 20 more. holy crap, you’d think, this is the greatest atm ever! if you keep feeding it ones and getting twenties back round the clock, you’d be pretty rich by the end of the week. the next week you discover the payoff has declined – you feed it 1 dollar and only get 10 back - but hey, that’s still a good deal so you keep at it. the next week you feed it 1 and only get 5 back, then 2, then 1.50… once the payoff hits 1 to 1 you'd be wasting your time, and unless you are reality-challenged you’d definitely stop before the atm turns your dollar into 50 cents. it doesn't matter how much money is left sitting in the atm, you’d have to abandon it while you’re still ahead.

replace dollars with oil barrels in the example above and i've just described EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). oil is cheap, but it isn't free - it takes energy to get energy. all over the world there are abandoned oil wells rusting in the sun that are sitting on top of lots of oil – sometimes half the oil that could be produced from them - because it would take more energy to get the oil out than the oil would provide.

the oil problem arrives not when we've harvested the very last drop of oil (which none of us will ever see), but when we've harvested all we can from an oil field without losing energy. take an aggregate of all the world’s oil fields and sooner or later EROEI will guarantee that global oil production will taper off and begin a terminal decline. at that point we’ve passed peak oil.

lots of smart people studying this believe we will reach peak in the next 5 to 10 years. some think we're already there.

“ok,” you say, “but who cares – oil is just about driving, right? i’ll just get a hybrid and be ok.”

there’s much more to it than that. our entire modern way of life is built on abundant cheap oil. everything from our most basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) to the high-tech gadgets we play with (to kill the boredom caused by having our most basic needs being so easily met) wouldn’t be possible in current form without oil to make and package and distribute these things.

oil is the closest thing to magic that humans have ever seen. each drop contains millions of years worth of solar energy. no other energy source is close to being so powerful, so portable or so profitable for those who use it. it’s also a finite, non-renewable resource – this is the tacit understanding behind all the discussions of (and oil company propaganda about) renewable energy - discussions which don’t mention oil. renewable energy discussions also don't mention anything nearly as powerful, portable or profitable as oil either.

once we pass peak oil, production will fall below global demand and the price of oil will rise. and then the price of everything currently made possible by oil (from high-tech gadgets to food, shelter, clothing) will rise too.

and then some of these things may not be “made possible” anymore.

but how bad will things get, really? more on that next time…


Chaster said...

"each drop contains millions of years worth of solar energy"

Hmm, not quite true for a purely quantitative sense, but I gather you were reaching for hyperbole more than scientific data. Nice post on PO though. A lot of people have a hard time grasping the extent to which our society depends on oil.

barry stoll said...

sorry - i should've said "bazillions of years worth of solar energy" :)

you're right - i was going for hyperbole in order to get the point across to an average person. this was intended as a basic peak oil 101 primer. people who already know better, well, they already know better...

Ole Keynesian said...


This is the best basic, non-byperbolic explanation of peak oil I have seen. I am an elected official in a small town in the western U.S., and I have been trying to eduate my fellow Councilmenebers on the need to address peak oil locally. May I reproduce your post as it (attributing it to you, of course) in an email to my fellow policy makers?

Ole Keynesian said...

Let me try this again, in English this time...


This is the best basic, non-hyperbolic explanation of peak oil I have seen. I am an elected official in a small town in the western U.S., and I have been trying to eduate my fellow Councilmembers on the need to address peak oil locally. May I reproduce your post as is (attributing it to you, of course) in an email to my fellow policy makers?

barry stoll said...

wow... thanks a lot Ole Keynesian. i'm honored.

feel free to pass this on to whoever you want.

"information wants to be free," you know?