“Here in the United States we’re now consuming about three gallons of petroleum per person per day. That’s twenty pounds of oil per person per day. We only consume about four pounds of oxygen per person per day. We’re consuming five times more oil each day, here in the United States, than we are oxygen. We’ve become the oil tribe.” ~ Randy Udall
In November 2009, a National Geographic Daily News headline read, “Has the World Already Passed ‘Peak Oil’?” The article quoted the International Energy Agency(IEA)’s World Energy Outlook 2010, which suggested that the world’s conventional oil production likely peaked three years previous—in 2006.
What’s the big deal about Peak Oil?
Post-peak oil production means a number of things. First and foremost, it means less oil. This in itself would not be a big deal if demand was falling accordingly. But demand is rising, driven foremost by China, and that also means higher prices for gasoline, food and even many chemicals used in everyday products, all of which depend upon a steady supply of oil. It also means that a steady supply is no longer guaranteed, even without additional unrest in the Middle East. Unfortunately, unrest is predicted to grow, too, as developed and developing nations compete over dwindling supplies.
In other words… a perfect Peak Oil storm.
Energy price spikes have preceded every major recession since 1970. This is because, as Randy Udall so eloquently states, we have become the “oil tribe.” A barrel of oil is an amazing thing. It is an amazingly concentrated and—at least until recently—cheap way to bottle the equivalent of approximately 10,000 hours of human labor. Like the old joke says, if you can bottle something like that, you can win wars and rule the world. We like to dream that it was “The American Way” that has taken civilization to such heights over the last century. In reality, it was cheap oil.
So, does Peak Oil mean that the sun is setting on progress?
It all depends upon whether we can break ourselves of our oil addiction—and our closely related addictions to other finite-supply fuels such as coal, oil and even uranium, all of which will experience similar peaks.
The alternative to finite fuel supplies and polluting cycles of mine, transport, refine, burn and dispose of toxic residue is, of course, “cleantech” that runs on renewable energy such as wind and solar energy. For all their benefits, these energy sources have drawbacks, too—the most notable being that none of them can approach the energy punch-for-size packed into a barrel of oil. But given the alternatives, I’ll take cleantech. The sun can be rising, not setting, on our civilization.
“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” ~Thomas Edison, 1931
by Kyle Crider
Kyle is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.