Quietly last month a revolution took place: the United States was forced by scientists it had commissioned to acknowledge the imminent and potentially disastrous effects of the phenomenon known as ‘Peak Oil’.
At the request of the Department of Energy, Robert Hirsch, a senior energy programme adviser at Science Applications International Corporation, along with Roger Bezdek and Robert Wendling, issued a report entitled The Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management.
Between the lines of the reasoned analysis a frightening picture emerges:
“The world has never faced a problem like this,” the report states. “Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.” 1
The question that springs to mind upon reading this is, of course, “So when is the problem expected to occur?”
In answer, Hirsch wrote to eclipsenow.org:
“No one knows with certainty when the world production of conventional oil will peak, but a number of experts think it will happen in the next 5-15 years. Our work illustrates that the oil peaking problem can be mitigated with available technologies, but the time required for implementation is measured on a 15-20 year time line, at best.
The character of the oil peaking problem is like none other; without timely mitigation, the impacts will be dire, worldwide, and long-lasting. Prudent risk management dictates serious attention and massive action soon, which is difficult for most people and many decision-makers, who tend to wait until a problem is obvious before taking action.” 2
Several commentators have noted with disapproval the report’s wish to brush aside the usual precautions such as Environmental Impact Statements that potential mitigation projects have to take before implementation. For the most part, the report does this in scientific-ese but the desperate-measures-for-desperate-times mindset eventually comes through: referring to the attitude of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) the report alleges that this has evolved into BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).
Perhaps the saddest section is entitled ‘Wildcards’. These are supposedly the other side of the coin, possible balancing forces that could turn the tide. But their implausibility gives the section the bittersweet irony of fantasy:
“Huge new reserves of natural gas are discovered…
World economic and population growth slows and future demand is much less than anticipated…
Middle East oil reserves are much higher than publicly stated…
Some kind of scientific breakthrough comes into commercial use, mitigating oil demand well before oil production peaks…”
Hirsch’s sense of urgency was brought home to me literally when in addition to answering eclipsenow.org, he responded to my request for an e-interview:
“Answering some of your questions gets fairly complicated. Here are the
Q: Your report talks about other potential energy sources such as
coal and natural gas to mitigate the effects of dwindling oil
supplies. Could any of these sources replace the oil
used in fertilizers, pesticides and plastic?
Q: The report imagines three possible scenarios: 1: Mitigation begins twenty years before the Peak Oil is reached. 2: Mitigation begins ten years before Peak Oil is reached. 3: Mitigation begins when Peak Oil is reached. However you don’t talk about what life is like during the transition to other fuels. In the worst case scenario do you envision something more extreme than the depression of 1929 such as lack of food deliveries and starvation, particularly in the cities?”
This is a possibility put forth by several experts including oil insider Jan Lundberg. Hirsch passed on the question presumably because it ‘got complicated.’ The other he didn’t address was:
Q: It took about 150 years to get from the discovery of oil to where we are now, during which time life changed relatively slowly. The population is larger now but apart from that, why would the corresponding decline of oil reserves be in your words “abrupt and revolutionary?”
He did kindly answer three more questions:
Q: Do you have a sense of how priorities would work during the
transition: for instance, would petroleum for obtaining water take
priority over gas for personal vehicles?
A: This is one of many complex issues that no one can prejudge in my
Q: The media are covering Peak Oil but not in a way that conveys its
urgency in the eyes of some experts. Do you feel that getting the
word out is helpful because it galvanizes the public and therefore
possibly the government into action or do you feel that it might
instill panic, thereby precipitating precisely the economic disaster
we’re seeking to avoid?
A: The sooner that the public and policy makers take the problem
seriously, the sooner we will have appropriate public policy. Right
now, the issue is “below the radar screen”.
Q: Do you think that the dangers of delaying efforts at
mitigation outweigh the dangers of exerting those efforts too soon [a subject addressed in the report]?
Jenna Orkin is a member of the