Key Concept | Peak Oil | Solutions

Image: Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline in Earth’s Resources

Image: Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline in Earth’s Resources

So is there a solution to peak oil? Not exactly. The actions and strategies we will have to take emphasise a reduction of oil consumption so the impacts of peak oil are not so catastrophic, rather than “solving” peak oil itself. We can mitigate peak oil’s impacts, but we can’t stop peak oil itself.

It is important to emphasise here that there is no “techno-fix” solution. Technology cannot “solve” the problem of oil depletion, and as we’ve seen technology can in fact worsen the problem by accelerating resource exhaustion. The opening of unconventional oil reserves does not reduce oil consumption and has huge problems of its own, and because of the geological timescales needed to renew oil reserves it can only be treated as a finite resource. So what can we do?

The end of globalisation?

Global transport, both of goods and people, relies on inexpensive, energy-dense fuels like oil. 96 per cent of world trade transport and 70 per cent of all global freight is via shipping, which itself is heavily dependent on oil. Professor Fred Curtis predicts that peak oil will contribute to a phenomenon he calls “peak globalization”, after which “the volume of exports will decline as measured by ton-miles of freight” due to oil depletion and the rising cost of oil-based fuels. This will reduce the length of global supply chains and thus cause the production of goods to be located closer to where they are consumed. As environmental scientist Peter Newman said,

“Localism is the required modus operandi for the post oil-peak world, just as globalism was for the cheap-oil era.” [x]

Although there are political issues with localism (see here and here) it will more likely than not be forced upon the world due to oil depletion and energy availability declines – as Richard Heinberg said, “It is reasonable to estimate that we might see a 25 to 45 percent decline in energy available to the world’s growing population over the next quarter-century”.  A localisation (or re-localisation) of industry and agriculture will be necessary to not only adapt to peak oil but also to re-integrate human society with its wider environment. Quoting Murray Bookchin at length is relevant here:

“The recent emphasis in environmental theory on “self-sufficiency,” if it does not mean a greater degree of prudence in dealing with material resources, is regressive. Localism should never be interpreted to mean parochialism; nor should decentralism ever be interpreted to mean that smallness is a virtue in itself. Small is not necessarily beautiful. The concept of human scale, by far the more preferable expression for a truly ecological policy, is meant to make it possible for people to completely grasp their political environment, not to parochially bury themselves in it to the exclusion of cultural stimuli from outside their community’s boundaries.” [x]

Regarding food production, an increase in farms using organic agriculture1 would aid in peak oil adaptation with a reduction of energy costs when accounting for the energy requirements in the manufacture and transport of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers and biocides2. Localised organic agriculture would also boost local employment (UK models can be found here and here), improve economic independence and improve sustainability and producer-consumer relations.

An end to growth?

As mentioned in the previous article, peak oil has dire implications for the economic growth imperative via global capitalism. With volatile oil prices leading to an economic growth paradox, the place of economic growth as a basic element of modern society has to be called into question.

The shift from high-EROI non-renewable energy sources to low-EROI renewable energy sources will thus require a new economic model. The geophysicist M. King Hubbert, arguably the father of peak oil theory, assaulted what he called “the culture of money”, and advocated a steady state economy. He recommended an end to economic growth and a future society powered entirely by solar power. “We have an enormous amount of existing technical knowledge,” he said. “It’s just a matter of putting it all together.” The idea of a steady state economy is also advocated by ecological economist Herman Daly and organisations such as the UK Sustainable Development Commission and the Post Carbon Institute.

A more overtly anti-capitalist strategy is the concept of degrowth. According to Iris Borowy,

“The concept of degrowth emerged in the 1970s when scholars like Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly challenged the conventional economic concept that unlimited economic growth was possible on a finite planet.” [x]

As an umbrella concept, Borowy says, it “entails a voluntary downscaling of the economy, notably its material production, consumption and waste, a voluntary, socially equitable and globally just simplicity which defines human well-being in terms of non-material meaning to life.” Degrowth is detailed by Richard Heinberg in his book Powerdown, and a (non-voluntary) example of degrowth in action is Cuba’s Special Period3.

Renewable shift

A massive shift to renewable energy is thus in order, though this will bring problems of its own. Some authors believe renewable energies will only cushion an inevitable decline in energy use per capita.

It is useful, however, to analyse the graph featured at the top of the article. As Vaclav Smil said,

“Higher energy use does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens. [It] does not bring greater cultural flowering…social stability…[or] any meaningful increase in civilisation’s diversity.” [x]

That said, there are alternative ideas in place. Concepts such as Solar Communism have been proposed, and a recent report by the Institute for Policy Research & Development found that humanity “can replace the entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less…by using merely 1% of the present fossil fuel capacity and a reinvestment of 10% of the renewable capacity per year.”

Alongside are constant improvements and advances in solar power, nuclear fusionThermoelectronics, and even Space-based solar power. Further improvements in efficiency are also a must for a post-oil transition (although Jevons Paradox must still be contended with).

The future

The scope of the problem is enormous and cannot be overstated. It will be extremely difficult; such changes are hardly in line with the dominant industrial-consumerist paradigm. But even though we may not like the idea of a global energy crunch, it would be utterly imprudent not to take the spectre of peak oil very seriously. As geologist Kenneth Deffeyes said, fossil fuels such as oil were a one-time gift we used to lift ourselves from simple agriculture and propel ourselves into a renewable future. Oil must be conserved not for energy production but for petrochemical manufacture; likewise natural gas must be conserved for use in nitrogenous fertiliser production (securing supply for hundreds of years).

A post-petroleum society is an absolute necessity and utterly unavoidable. What matters is how soon the transition is; actions now will have far-reaching consequences as to the future state of civilisation on a global level.

“No social order can accomplish transformations for which it is not already internally prepared.” – Karl Marx

Organic agriculture is a system of food production that attempts to replace conventional inputs (synthetic pesticides; fertilisers) with more environmentally benign alternatives (e.g. manure; natural pest control; crop rotation) to create a more sustainable system, working with rather than against the agroecosystem. For further information and examples see Reganold et al., 2001Gomiero et al., 2011, and Altieri, 1995

2 For example, a Danish government study found that upon a 100% conversion of agriculture from conventional to organic in Denmark, total energy use declined by 9-51% depending largely on the prevalence of meat production in the new system. The report by Dalgaard et al. (2000) can be found here

Cuba’s Special Period in Time of Peace was a wartime economy-style austerity program following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1989/90. As the socialist bloc represented 80-85% of Cuban trade, Cuba suffered huge losses in imports, including fuel, food, biocides, and oil. It survived via a revival of agro-ecological agricultural techniques, localisation of food production, and emergency rationing, whilst safeguarding achievements in education and healthcare and ensuring equitable food distribution. For more detailed and nuanced information see Wright, 2005Funes et al., 2002, and Gonzalez, 2003

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Key Concept | Peak Oil | Impacts

Peak oil — why didn’t someone warn us?! Alan Moir – Sydney Morning Herald, 12 July 2008

The previous peak oil articles have looked at several issues including the concepts of reserves and resources, conventional vs. unconventional oil, and the role of technology and economics in mitigating or accelerating oil depletion. In this article we’ll analyse the impacts of peak oil, and in the next one we’ll look at solutions.

Almost all aspects of the modern global economy are dependent on oil to a greater or lesser degree including agriculture, military, transportation, and industry. As Robert Hirsch stated in the Hirsch Report, “the problem of the peaking of world conventional oil production is unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society”.

Economy

The economic implications of peak oil include the risk of a permanent economic recession  and indefinite financial crisis unless other fuels take the place of oil in the economy. As there exists a clear link between GDP growth and growth in oil consumption (e.g. here and here) “future growth in GDP must be dependent upon fuels other than oil if it is to continue as expected“.

World GDP growth and world oil production

World GDP growth and world oil production [x]

In order to reduce or prevent these adverse outcomes the use of oil in the economy must be “reduced to the point where it plays only a very minor role…but this needs to be accomplished in advance.” Authors such as Charles Hall et al. help illustrate the dependence of the global economy on oil as

…it is hard to ignore the coincident timing between the increases in the real price of oil culminating in the summer of 2008 and the subsequent financial collapse towards the end of the summer/fall 2008.” [x]

Peak oil will also affect other commodities and economically important activities, such as our extraction and use of other energy sources. As James Leigh states,

…without oil and its petrochemical products as an energy source, we are not able to use heavy machinery, and ships and transport vehicles. And so without oil and these machines we will not be able to neither extract nor transport coal, gas and uranium, nor the oil itself.” [x]

As a result, “when oil prices rise, so do the prices of food and many commonly purchased items.”

David Murphy and Charles Hall also believe that peak oil will lead to an “economic growth paradox”:

…increasing the oil supply to support economic growth will require high oil prices that will undermine that economic growth…[it] leads to a highly volatile economy that oscillates frequently between expansion and contraction periods.” [x]

The forced use of lower EROI fuels will ultimately will redirect energy from other economic activities to the refinement and extraction of these sources as unconventional sources “generally require more energy consumption at all stages of the processing chain, with the result that the net energy available for productive uses in society is likely to be reduced“. As Charles Hall so gloomily predicts:

…as the amount of net energy declines due to peak oil and declining EROI, humans will increasingly give up categories higher on the pyramids and concentrate increasingly on the more basic requirements including food, shelter and clothing. What this may mean in modern society is that performance art, then expensive vacations, then education, then health care would be abandoned by the middle class as the economy is increasingly restricted. Whether this can be reversed by diverting where and by whom we chose to spend such surplus money or energy as we have will be an increasingly dominant challenge to society.” [x]

Political

As expected, the peaking of oil supplies with have important geopolitical ramifications as the number of oil-exporting countries is reduced over time, redistributing political and economic power to the remaining importers. The number of net oil-exporting countries will be reduced from 35 in 2004 to between 12 and 28 by 2030, and some authors claiming that conflicts like the Iraq War are precursors

of the type of conflict we can expect under conditions of peak oil. That is, military action will be taken by countries intent on preventing disruptions in the production and transport of oil.” [x]

Additionally Dr. Jörg Friedrichs postulated a variety of hypothetical courses countries would take in the event of a “global energy crunch”. They include recourse to military strategy to control oil supplies, “totalitarian retrenchment” in a fashion similar to North Korea following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and “socioeconomic adaptation” to peak oil (which Friedrichs states “would be more difficult for people in Western countries, where individualism, industrialism and mass consumerism have held sway for such a long time that a smooth regression is hard to imagine”). Further, the rising supremacy of NOCs (National Oil Companies) compared to IOCs (International Oil Companies) would mean that in a peak oil scenario the major IOCs would face their “ultimate demise” within the next twenty years.

Disproportionate effects on the “developing” world are also predicted, as weakened or non-existence economic growth would massively affect “unemployment in poor megacities and in immigrant ghettos“, and a conflict between rapid oil depletion and the desire of most “developing” countries to rapidly industrialise may “work together to facilitate civilization clash in frantic efforts for each political bloc to secure the world’s oil resources” leading to the creation and destruction of old and new superpowers.

Transport

The overwhelming reliance of modern transport methods on oil means that the rising of oil prices in a peak oil scenario will incur a rise in transport costs. Shipping is particularly vulnerable, accounting for “96 per cent of world trade transport and 70 per cent of all the freight carried globally“. Even transport infrastructure components like roads and paving are “unthinkable” without oil and oil-derived products. Peak oil in essence will lead to what Fred Curtis calls “peak globalization“, as global supply chains become shorter due to the effects on “both transportation costs and the reliable movement of freight”.

Agriculture

Albert Bartlett once said that “modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food“, and this typifies agricultural systems under capitalism which are characterised via mechanisation, long transport distances, monocultures, and reliance on oil- and natural gas-derived fertilisers and biocides. This overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels (especially oil) means agricultural systems and thus food products in the industrialised world are extremely vulnerable to oil price fluctuations and reductions in oil supply. As the Government Office for Science reported,

The single external commodity that has the greatest effect on food prices is oil; it is also one of the most volatile. Oil prices affect food production through changes in the costs of energy, petrochemicals and fertilisers used in agriculture.” [x]

Our food systems that supply us with cheap, plentiful foodstuffs sometimes from hundreds of miles away rely on fossil fuels, and so quite simply are not sustainable. As Richard Heinberg warned, “the agricultural miracle of the 20th century may become the agricultural apocalypse of the 21st.”

In the final article of the peak oil series, we’ll look at the plethora of possible solutions and adaptation strategies humanity can use to face the looming problem of peak oil.

Key Concept | Peak Oil | Reserves and Resources

Image

Proven Global Oil Reserves. Image: CIA Factbook, 2009

In the previous peak oil article (#4 – Economics, Geology, and Technology) we studied the effects technology had on increasing oil reserves and accelerating oil depletion, as well as the differing views of geological versus economistic outlooks regarding peak oil. In this article we’ll analyse an issue which ties in closely to the previous one, that of oil reserves and oil resources.

Oil reserve definitions are complex and there is no universal definition for classifying reserves, a fact that can cause ambiguity in public data concerning oil supplies. One definition is simply “commercially exploitable oil that is in-situ”. BP defines them as the following:

“…proved reserves are those that have a probability of 90 percent: percentage of the reserve likely to be extracted during its lifetime, given current technological and price conditions. Those are designated as P90. Recoverable reserves that have a ‘better than 50% chance of being technically and economically producible’ are designated as probable, P50 (or ‘indicated’). Finally, possible (or ‘inferred’) reserves (P10, P20) are those that have 10 or 20 percent chance of recoverability under prevailing conditions. Estimates of total world reserves (of conventional oil) change depending on which probability one assumes in the analysis…” [x]

P90 reserves are also known as 1P. P50 are sometimes known as 2P (proven and probable reserves) and P10/P20 as 3P (proven, probable, and possible reserves). According to the Energy Watch Group the lack of a universal definition for reserve reporting  is responsible for the differences in published reserve data.

In comparison a resource tends to be an estimate of the amount of oil in a region which is neither commercially exploitable or technically feasible to extract. The International Energy Agency (IEA) classes a resource as:

“volumes that have yet to be fully characterised, or that present technical difficulties or are costly to extract, for example where technologies that permit their extraction in an environmentally sound and cost-effective manner are still to be developed.” [x]

Such resources include unconventional supplies of oil such as shale oil, tar sands, and Venezuelan “heavy oil” that are difficult to extract and have huge environmental costs.

The issues surrounding reserves are resources are important as ultimately they can affect the timing of peak oil, and confuse people into thinking that the updating of oil reserves equates to more oil being found:

“Since proved reserves (except for the Middle East exceptions) are much smaller than the initially anticipated proved and probable reserves, over time a re-evaluation of proved reserves is taking place because in the course of producing an oilfield probable reserves are converted into proved reserves. This practice creates the illusion of growing reserves despite growing consumption.

The term “reserve growth” is a somewhat misleading metaphor. In reality, of course, each barrel of oil burnt irreversibly reduces the original reserves on earth. Just our knowledge of remaining reserves is subject to change. An upward revision of our knowledge of reserves does not increase the actual amount of reserves.” [x]

In truth reserve growth or the conversion of resources into reserves is unlikely to make a significant impact on the timing of peak oil. As the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) calculated, increasing global reserve estimates “by one billion barrels delays the date of peak production by only 4.7 days”, and that “the discovery of resources equivalent to those of the entire United States would delay the global peak by less than four years”.

But what about the impacts of peak oil? Whether oil reserves grow or unconventional sources come online, oil is a finite resource. It will run out. As Thomas Keefer states:

“With global agriculture, transportation, industry and military capabilities heavily dependent on oil, and with no ready alternative as yet available to the fossil fuel energy regime, the implications of peak oil are not merely technical in nature, but profoundly social…” [x]

How will energy-intense societies cope with less available energy for their economies? How substitutable is oil for our economies? Can renewable energy plug-in the gap left by oil? These questions will be answered in the next article.

Key Concept | Peak Oil | Economics, Geology, and Technology

Image: Richard Masoner

In Peak Oil article #3 we discussed the differences between conventional and unconventional sources of oil. This article will focus on the role of technology in “opening up” new oil sources, and how the peak oil debate often devolves into a conflict of economics vs. geology.

Technology tends to be the main factor in whether an oil deposit can be exploited or not, usually determining whether oil is conventional or unconventional and thus increasing the amount of oil readily available for society. But Robert Hirsch (author of the Hirsch Report) demonstrated in 2005 that technology was not able to offset declines in oil production. Using data of the Contiguous United States oil production he found that despite “large improvements in oilfield technology, including affordable 3D seismic imaging, low-cost directional and horizontal drilling, greatly enhanced geochemical understanding, dramatically improved geological modelling, etc” production declines continued.

Oil Prices and Oil Production in the Contiguous United States [x]

Oil Prices and Oil Production in the Contiguous United States [x]

Additionally new technology for oil extraction and production may simply exacerbate the problem “by increasing production rate and depletion without increasing rates of discovery and replacement“. Improved technologies may “temporarily maintain production at the expense of subsequent more rapid decline” and “increases resource supply and decreases the resource price for a while but results in sharply higher prices in later periods because the resource is exhausted faster than it would have been without the new technology“.

Technological advance masks impending production declines [x]

Technological advance masks impending production declines [x]

It goes without saying that a steeper production decline means less time for society to adapt to a post-peak world, and thus “could have unpleasant effects on the economy“.

Speaking of economics, it is often posited in the “economical” view of peak oil that scarcity of oil supplies will drive market signals, triggering technological development and exploitation of previous uneconomical resources and eliminating the danger of peak oil. They often argue that the “allocative and dynamic efficiencies of the market” will present solution because “as oil becomes scarcer, its rising price will encourage innovation and technology to develop alternatives“, and that “scarcity is a relative, not absolute, concept and that there is nothing unique about any particular productive input, including petroleum” (or as geologist Kenneth Deffeyes said, “The economists all think that if you show up at the cashier’s cage with enough currency, God will put more oil in ground“).

In comparison, the geological view is absolutist, emphasising physical limits, especially those regarding laws of energy and thermodynamics:

“According to the geological view oil reserves are ultimately finite, easy-to-access oil is produced first, and therefore oil must become harder and more expensive to produce as the cumulative amount of oil already produced grows…the recently observed stagnant oil production in the face of persistent and large oil price increases is a sign that physical scarcity of oil is already here, or at least imminent, and that it must eventually overwhelm the stimulative effects of higher oil prices on oil production. Furthermore they state, on the basis of extensive studies of alternative technologies and resources, that suitable substitutes for oil simply do not exist on the required scale and over the required horizon, and that technologies to improve oil recovery from existing fields, and to economize on oil use, must eventually run into limits dictated by the laws of thermodynamics, specifically entropy.” [x]

Or to summarise, “Geologists explain peak oil as an inevitable geological phenomenon. Oil was created in a process taking millions of years, and reserves are not being added to. Although the precise scale of total recoverable reserves is hard to know, their finite nature is certain.” It is clear to see the great divide between the two sides of the issue, but it is important to identify bias or vested interests when attempting to explain peak oil. For example, forecasts of future oil production will be optimistic when made by governments or multinational oil companies whose survival is tied to steady production increases, whereas pessimistic predictions are usually made by independent analysts. “Official” forecasts made by institutions such as the International Energy Agency or US Energy Information Administration will also tend to “project that plentiful oil supplies will be available, that supply will balance with demand” compared to more pessimistic outlooks informed by independent petroleum geologists. It is interesting to note here that a report commissioned by the International Monetary Fund states that, although their final views are not as “pessimistic” as geological arguments, there are definite “resource constraints” on future oil production and that peak oil is “uncharted territory for the world economy”.

Recent evidence that seems to confirm the geological view over the economic view was presented by James Murray and David King in the journal Nature, where they showed that despite price increases (and thus increased demand) oil production reached a “cap” where oil production did not increase regardless of price.

Oil Production Hits a Ceiling [x]

Oil Production Hits a Ceiling [x]

In the next Peak Oil article we’ll look at the issues of oil “reserves” versus oil “resources”, and how that can affect the timing of peak oil.

Key Concept | Peak Oil | Conventional vs. unconventional

Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. Image: WWF

In Peak Oil article #2 we looked at the history of the concept, as well as some problems and complications. This article will focus on a complication that requires more detail and attention – that of “conventional” and “unconventional” sources of oil.

It’s important to remember first of all that oil is not a single substance but rather a spectrum of substances, from “light oils through a series of increasingly lower grade and difficult-to-extract resources such as extra-heavy oil and tar sands.”

“Conventional” oil is defined by the Energy Watch Group as “oil which can be produced with current technology under present economic conditions.” The UKERC (UK Energy Research Centre) define conventional oil as including “crude oil, condensate and natural gas liquids (NGLs) but to exclude liquid fuels derived from oil sands, oil shale, coal, natural gas and biomass”. 95% of all oil consumed so far in human history has been from conventional sources.

Unconventional (or non-conventional), then, is typically whatever is left out of the definition of conventional. Unconventional oils are at the “heavier end” of the oil spectrum, consisting of products that are increasingly harder to extract and refine such as tar sands or oil shale. David Greene and colleagues writing in Energy Policy also state that “Ultimately, the distinction between conventional and unconventional resources is based on technology and economics” and that “massive development” of these sources will be necessary if society wishes to keep consuming oil. But the issue is still tricky – according to Dr. Colin Campbell in the IPRD report “The Post-Peak World” there is still no “standard definition” for what constitutes conventional or unconventional oil. These definition differences affect which sources of oil we study, and thus can affect calculating the time of peak oil.

The pyramid of oil and gas resource volume versus resource quality. Image: David Hughes, Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance?

So how do the resources stack up? Estimates abound that the peaking of conventional oil has either already happened, or will do so in the near future. Doctor Steve Mohr in his PhD thesis estimates that conventional oil will peak at or before the year 2017. The UKERC are more optimistic, with estimates of the peak ranging from 2009 to 2031, and they state that “forecasts that delay the peak until after 2030 rest upon several assumptions that are at best optimistic and at worst implausible” (similar peak estimates are made by Robert Kaufmann and Laura Shiers). Larry Hughes and Jacinda Rudolph claim that instead of peaking, conventional oil production has recently “reached a plateau“, with production neither rising nor falling for the time being. Even the IEA (International Energy Agency) claims that conventional oil production is “declining at an average annual rate of over 4%“, the equivalent of “47 million barrels per day” or “twice the current Middle East production”, and in its World Energy Outlook 2012 stated that conventional oil is now past peak production. But Dr. Colin Campbell states the peak of conventional oil has already happened, passing us by in 2005.

If we want to continue consuming oil we’ll have to turn towards the remaining unconventional sources. But even these sources, in a best-case scenario, “can only delay the peaking of world oil production by about 25 years” . They are expensive “financially, energetically, politically and especially environmentally“. They will also require huge investments in infrastructure in order to produce and distribute the resources effectively, and require “more than 10% of sustained growth” in production in order to temper the impact of conventional oil production peaking. In short, unconventional sources are no panacea for the peaking of conventional sources.

Next time we’ll look at the murkier waters of how economics and geology affect the timing of the peak, and the role of technology in accelerating production and opening up new resources.

Key Concept | Peak Oil | History

Shell Geologist M. King Hubbert. Image: The Cutting Edge News

The geophysicist M. King Hubbert was the first to introduce the concept of peak oil in what is now called Hubbert peak theory, where the shape of a graph representing an oil-producing region would resemble a bell curve (although the actual shape may be irregular and unsymmetrical[1]).

In 1956[2] he used peak oil models to successfully estimate that oil production in the USA would peak between 1965 and 1970. His attempts to calculate global peak oil revealed the limitations of his theory however. In 1962[3] he predicted that the peak of global oil reserves would be reached in 2000, but his model did not incorporate artificial limits to oil production, such as the OPEC-led 1973 oil crisis.

A key problem with Hubbert’s peak theory is its reliance on a value known as URR, or Ultimate Recoverable Reserves. URR “is the amount of oil that has already been produced plus the oil that will be produced in the future.”[4] The URR can change if new oil fields are discovered, though such a possibility is now unlikely and probably unhelpful – for example, “increasing the global URR by one billion barrels delays the date of peak production by only 4.7 days”[5] and total oil discoveries have been steadily declining since the 1960s.[6]

Additionally Hubbert’s 1956 prediction was based on reliable and accurate data supplied by USA regulations. For global URR estimates, there is no single equivalent accurate dataset. Datasets regarding the URR left do exist but all include approximations and estimates.

Also, oil-producing countries may exaggerate their own oil supplies for economic gains, as “belief that a country’s reserves are large boosts its economic clout and creditworthiness with international banks and investors.”[7] Almost 90% of global oil reserves are owned by nationalised oil companies[8] which are not legally obligated to provide reliable reserve estimates.[9] To put it simply, “Oil data are not of public domain and this imposes strong limitations on scientific evaluation and control.”[10]

Despite this, “Hubbert curves” are deemed sound enough to be used in calculating not only peaks in oil reserves, but also for other non-renewable resources such as coal, natural gas, and phosphorus.[11]

In the next article on peak oil, we’ll look at the problems of classifying oil as “conventional” or “unconventional”, as well as looking at the conflicts between economics and geology when it comes to estimating the time of peak oil.

Key Concept | Greenwashing

Image: blog.printecosoftware.com

What is greenwashing?

Simply, it is a form of PR that companies use in order to appear environmentally responsible, when really they aren’t.

The term was coined by Jay Westervelt in 1986 upon seeing signs in hotels encouraging the reuse of towels. They claimed this would save energy from reduced washes, whereas in reality the aim was simply the increased profits associated with reduced towel use. It is a misplaced attempt at corporate social responsibility. The point is best explained with some examples which I present below.

1. Yum! Brands, which own KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut say they want to reduce their energy consumption 10% relative to 2005, but this only applies to its company-owned stores. The number of these stores has actually decreased since 2005, with non company-owned stores increasing roughly 470% since 2005. So they are not exactly living up to expectations. 1

2. The rebranding of British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum in 2000 was somewhat misleading, especially as oil is still one of the dirtiest industries. So need I even mention the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and its environmental impact to prove that they haven’t exactly gone green.  2 3

3. The UK actually banned this Malaysian Palm Oil Council advert as it was so misleading: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zZIoqeuJf4&noredirect=1. The video says that the palm oil brings life, when in fact the palm trees are causing a huge amount of destruction around the world. 4

Try to be aware of the parent companies of brands. For example, Green and Blacks, a usually trusted brand, is actually owned by Kraft. Seeds of Change is owned by Mars.

In conclusion, don’t be fooled by companies. Think about the claims they are making, whether they are true or really do anything to help the environment. No doubt as we demand companies to be more responsible, the frequency of greenwashing will increase. However, remember after all, actions speak louder than words.

I find this image sums it up nicely:

Image: ithinkink.wordpress.com

1 Pearse, G. 2012

2 Cherry, M.A. and Snierson, J.F. 2010 

3 Wikipedia details on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

4 Malaysian Palm Oil Council advert ban

Key Concept | Peak Oil | Introduction

Total World Production of Fossil Fuels in Time Perspective[1]

 “We are in a crisis in the evolution of human society. It’s unique to both human and geologic history. It has never happened before and it can’t possibly happen again. You can only use oil once. You can only use metals once. Soon all the oil is going to be burned and all the metals mined and scattered.” – M. King Hubbert[2]

Peak Oil” is a very contentious phenomenon, the focal point of clashes between geology and technology. The various definitions of peak oil all focus on the unchangeable “peaking” of oil extraction in a given area; that is to say, once peaked, oil extraction will irreversibly decline regardless of technological or economic factors[3]. This is understandably a problem, as our global society requires oil (and other fossil fuels) for a veritable multitude of purposes including heavy industry and resource extraction, transport, agriculture, and chemicals, as well as for energy. Like it or not, oil is inextricably a part of our lives to the point that it is linked to economic indicators like GDP growth[4]. “Modern economies are, from the fundamental energetic point of view, unsustainable.”[5]

And it’s not surprising. Oil, in energy terms, packs a punch. Three spoonfuls of crude oil equals eight hours of human labour[6]. Or put another way, a gallon of petrol is almost equivalent to three weeks of human labour[7]. But its energy-dense nature represents a single-use inheritance of solar energy. The period of fossil fuel use will be a fleeting moment lost in a 200-year eye blink, representing only 0.1% of human history[8] – and the peaking of this wondrous substance will coincide with ever-increasing demands of energy from the world’s growing population, as well as the ongoing Biocrisis.

What to do?

This article is the first in the “Key Concept” series, and the first of several articles regarding the issue of peak oil. Within these articles I hope to detail and explain the history of peak oil, its impacts, the role of economics and technology in forestalling and accelerating the “peak”, and problems measuring and assessing just when the peak will arrive.  Also, what are the solutions? Can we just “plug” the gap where oil used to be with unconventional fuels? What about nuclear and renewables? Or, like Richard Heinberg describes, does our society have to undergo a voluntary “powerdown” to survive[9]? The next article in the series will focus on the history of the peak oil concept, and introduce one of the most important proponents of the phenomenon – M. King Hubbert.


[2] Quoted in Heinberg, 2005

[3] “The term Peak Oil refers the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognising that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion.” – Colin Campbell, quoted here

[8] Ibid.