In the prior post I gave a general definition and overview of peak oil for those that have yet to track this development. Until recently, the brightest minds unencumbered by vested oil interests have strongly suggested, and with good documentation, that the world could well run out of extractable petroleum sometime around the mid twenty-first century.
Up until a year ago, this was cause for great alarm. Most countries in the world, with the U.S. being at the top of the list, have, in the last 50 years, allowed economic development, urban planning, real estate development and transportation issues to be made within the context of always having cheap oil to allow us to construct a society around the internal combustion engine. If you were to look at a time lapse photographic history of the U.S .landscape from 1900 to 2000, taking one photograph a month for 100 years, the changes will be almost entirely based on an automotive culture. This culture, while transforming the countryside, has basically been using the same mechanical invention, the internal combustion engine the entire time. It has been as though once we fell in love with the car and the cheap gasoline that powered it we decided that we arrived at the highest point of civilization and our infatuation blinded us to any kind of consequence other than some nasty smog and ever lengthening drive times. These were judged to be small prices to pay for an American Dream that gave us 300 horsepower to go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted.
To look at cultures going forward like this at a time of peak oil it is hard not to settle on the image of lemmings rushing toward the cliff in ever increasing numbers and with mindless abandon. To continue forward with little or no change would, as a reader of this blog has mentioned several times, create a Mad Max landscape where people would end up killing each other for gasoline. Truly try to imagine living in American suburbia or exurbia and not being able to drive. We would retreat back to an 1800s image of local towns having to become self sufficient, with the Internet being the only low cost way to connect a nation.
However, the view of peak oil has changed dramatically in the last year. The first major reason was the historic run up of oil prices in 2006. All evidence indicates that this price run up has caused more change in behavior than any prior one of the past 30 years. Even though prices have receded from last summer’s high, oil is still three times as expensive as it was in 2000, so the long term trend is clear. This price increase has created changes in habits with people thinking more in advance before driving, dramatically increasing use of public transportation and creating powerful market demand for higher MPG vehicles. Conservation due to cost has been the result. This price increase has also lead to the second major change in the view of peak oil.
Higher petroleum prices means that the harder to extract heavier oil and shale oil now becomes more economically viable resources. This has led to R&D and then use of newer extraction technologies such as steam flooding which has resulted in the increased output of many oil fields where production has been declining. This successful use of new extraction technologies has lead many petroleum geologists to project that the remaining extractable oil reserves might in fact be almost double projections of several years ago. If true that means that the date for the depletion of the oil resource moves from 2040 to say 2075.
The third major reason for the altered view of peak oil is what I have consistently written about in this blog and that is the fact that the US and the world passed through the tipping point in 2006 regarding global warming. Everyone uses the term, generally understands the term and is looking at it as one of the major issues that exists. Big business, politicians, and national leaders are all becoming green. The issue is no longer whether to be green or not, but rather how far can we go in becoming green. This means that huge effort, and massive amounts of money are flowing toward energy conservation technologies and alternative fuel technologies. An example of this is General Motors.
Last week GM announced that, as part of its being a volunteer in the EPA Climate Leader program, it would reduce its CO2 emission from North American manufacturing facilities by 40% by 2010 based upon 2000 levels. This translates to 4.5 million metric tons, or the energy annually consumed by more that 400,000 households. What is interesting is that once a commitment was made, the transformation became easy. In 2002 GM promised to reduce CO2 emissions 10% from 2000 levels by 2005. They actually reduced emissions by 11.7% by 2003, one year later. [This can be replicated by many other major global corporations if they commit to do so. I am using GM as an example as they have opened themselves up to this blogger, so I am aware of their particular efforts.] This addresses global warming concerns and allows the company to promote its greenness. The underlying truth of course is that petroleum and its waste are now perceived as a problem. So the conservation and efficiency side of the equation has become transformative in the recent past.
What is even more exciting is the rush to innovation to find technologies that will dramatically cut down on petroleum energy usage or replace it altogether. GM is doing its part by an all out, very public effort to create an electric car for the masses. Create a car that can theoretically be driven for ten years without a drop of gasoline. Converting the billions of incandescent light bulbs at use in this country to the new fluorescent bulbs is another effort that will result in the savings of tens of millions of gallons of oil every year. In other words, this global warming tipping point is sparking an unprecedented effort across the board culturally to reduce the use of fossil fuels. This effort, if the direction continues, and is embraced by the largest energy consuming countries around the world [are you listening China?] will obviously push back the date of planetary petroleum depletion.
It is possible, and this should be the vision of us all, to have the supply of petroleum never get exhausted because the demand for it has dwindled so dramatically that what is left can last for centuries. However we must continue to act as if massive destruction due to global warming and oil depletion are only a decade or two in the future.