Sunday, March 27, 2005

Talk about Peak Oil

Iraqi oil fields ablazePEAK OIL has gained the attention of mainstream media. In recent months there’s been a front page piece in the respected Wall Street Journal, an editorial in the New York Times, a lengthy interview with Colin Campbell on Lateline and an interview with Kenneth Deffeyes on Counterpoint.

Last week, Roscoe Bartlett, the Chairman of the Projection Forces Subcommittee of the US Armed Services Committee, gave a presentation about peak oil to the US Congress. He began with examples of recent news headlines bemoaning the real economic damage caused by rising oil prices and the falling dollar, then proceeded to outline the scientific method of modelling oil reserves that was pioneered by the geophysicist, M. King Hubbert.

Peak OilA scientist working for Shell Oil in the 1950’s, Hubbert studied the productive life cycle of many oil fields and found that for a typical deposit, oil production followed a regular and predictable “bell shaped” curve. His analysis of US oil fields led him to correctly predict that US oil production would peak in 1970. Hubbert’s model, applied to world oil reserves, predicts global oil production will peak sometime this decade.

Last month, Andrew McNamara, the Labor MP for Hervey Bay, gave a speech in the Queensland parliament warning of the impending peak in global oil production. Peak oil, he said, “represents the most serious and immediate challenge to our prosperity and security. It will impact on our lives more certainly than terrorism, global warming, nuclear war or bird flu.”

MacNamara went on to explain that once oil production peaks, oil flows decrease as the pressure in the oil basin declines and the cost of recovering the oil rises steeply. He also mentioned reports that Shell Oil overstated its oil reserves by 40% and expressed concern that many producer nations, including Saudi Arabia, may have similarly overstated their reserves.

The global industrial economy, the world wide network of sea and air ports, road and rail ways, electricity grids, mines, power stations, factories, cities and towns, are all powered by fossil fuels, primarily oil. The broad acre cultivation of crops is made possible by oil powered farm machinery and oil based fertilizers. Our militaries require vast amounts of oil to power their warplanes, tanks and destroyers.

The fact that Andrew MacNamara was speaking in support of a bill designed to facilitate oil exploration in the state of Queensland should not detract from the importance of his message. Peak oil is real, it’s not some corporate conspiracy and it doesn’t mean we’re about to run out of oil. It may well lead to the collapse of the global industrial economy, but there is still plenty of scope for innovative responses.

In his closing remarks, MacNamara offered what I think is sound practical advice. “The challenges we face will require localised food production and industry in a way not seen for 100 years. Self contained communities living close to work, farms, services and schools will not be merely desirable, they will be essential.”


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