Peak oil

We cannot drill our way to oil independence. We know this. Offshore rigs dotting the Atlantic, the Gulf, the coast of Alaska and California will never solve our energy problem. "Drill baby drill," is a bankrupt, mindless Republican mantra the results of which are now being played out.

For decades, environmentalists have lamented our national myopia, our lack of political will regarding critical environmental decisions. Yet, our retreat into denial continues to be unshakable. Well before BP's massive rupture, now spewing some 15,000 barrels (or more) of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama lifted the ban on offshore drilling. It was a startling and regrettable decision and entirely beside the point. The debate lies elsewhere.

As the environmental disaster unfolds in wrenching slow motion in the Gulf, as an appalled nation watches entrails of oil snake their way across vast stretches of the Gulf and massive aerosolized plumes develop beneath the surface, we have an opportunity to reframe, in the most profound way, our posture toward oil and sustainable and renewable energy.

But let's begin with a question: Why was BP drilling below five thousand feet, at a cost of $1 million a day, in a zone clearly beyond their technological abilities should an accident occur? Is it out of desperation because the reserves on land and in far more accessible waters have been exhausted?

Which begs a meta-question about oil, one that renders the familiar "oil independence" discussion mute: are we soon approaching what is known as "peak oil"?

Peak oil is that point when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached after which the rate of production worldwide enters terminal decline. Efforts to locate and extract oil will become ever more risky and costly and the potential environmental impact more harrowing. The Gulf is a poignant example.

By some estimates, the U.S. peaked in 1970 (Japan peaked in 1932), Saudia Arabia will peak in 2014 and Iraq in 2018. Of the 65 oil-producing countries in the world, 54 are in decline, including Saudi Arabia's Ghawar, the largest oil field in the world. Other petroleum sources, such as oil sands and oil shale, are so costly and damaging to extract and refine that they are only marginally feasible. The end of easy oil is here.

When peak oil arrives, estimated by some to be 2020, supply will no longer meet demand. Worldwide consumption of oil in 1980 was 63 million barrels per day; in 2006 it was 85 million barrels; in 2015, it is projected to be 98.3 million barrels; and by 2030 it will be 118 million barrels (China and India are now aggressively in the mix). This trend, spurred by population growth, to be sustainable, would require a 35 percent increase in worldwide production of cheap oil, something that exceeds all projections.

The increasing scarcity of this finite resource will have worldwide economic implications.

Fossil fuels have been pivotal to the industrial and post-industrial revolutions. The world construct is petroleum-based, from transportation to residential, from commercial to industrial, with the largest sector being transportation. The U.S. alone consumes some 17.7 million barrels of oil daily.

To say that we need to free ourselves from the grip of oil, or to acknowledge that oil may be soon depleted, is to suggest a change so profound that it is unimaginable. The implications are staggering.

A 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Energy titled "Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigations, & Risk Management," also known as the Hirsch report, stated, "The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."

For far too many in government, oil independence is taken to mean freeing ourselves from reliance on others while aggressively pursuing drilling on our own shores. The reality is that oil independence will eventually come for all of us, not by choice but by necessity, as global fields decline and the last drop is either too risky or too costly to extract.

The challenge that looms is unprecedented. It's the stuff of dystopian science fiction wherein the world is transformed into a post-oil, post-technology, quasi-agrarian society. Or not. Change, however, is the one constant.

No matter the outcome, peak oil is the future. The question is, will we be ready? Can we make the transition to renewable and self-sustaining forms of energy? And when will the national debate begin in earnest? Time is of the essence.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland and writes opinion columns for the Daily Tidings. He can be reached at

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