Friday, November 16, 2007

Peak Oil And Silence
By Peter Goodchild

16 November, 2007

The fact that the world’s oil supply is going to run out has been known for a long time: M. King Hubbert was spreading the word in the 1950s, and there are persistent rumors that many oil engineers in those days had a good idea of what was going on, but they were afraid to speak because they might risk losing their jobs. But that was fifty years ago. Why is there still such a remarkable silence?

How is it that only about one in ten million people is concerned about the world’s decline in oil? Pathological denial might account for a few cases, but surely not for all. A state of denial could be found in people in the days leading up to the Second World War, but those who were convinced of the onset of war surely numbered more than one out of ten million.

The answer, in part, may be that the issue is too complicated for people to understand. Whenever there are articles written on the subject, they receive various comments from readers, showing that each of those people is lacking in a knowledge of one or more aspects of the problem. There are too many side-issues for people to grasp. They cannot grasp how large or small the oil reserves are, they cannot grasp the number of uses there are for oil, or how dependent our entire industrial society is on it, they cannot grasp the general foolishness of "alternative energy," and they cannot grasp the fact that the "authorities" don’t have some Grand Plan to deal with it all.

Another reason for the low number of concerned people may be that there are so many other people trying to push the opposite belief: that there is no problem of oil depletion. Many such "peak-oil debunkers" are perhaps simply afraid of the facts, and they may feel that they need to shelter themselves by sharing their beliefs with others. The rest of such people are politicians and business leaders who know — consciously or otherwise — that they would have nothing to gain by rocking the boat, and that in fact they might well risk their own jobs if they gained a reputation for spreading doom and gloom.

Some people in positions of authority may have an even better grasp of the consequences: they may have realized that a public announcement of the end of oil could lead to a general panic, a collapse of the stock market and money market, a complete lack of faith in the hypercapitalist dream-world, where ordinary citizens are duped into working for less and less, and at the same time encouraged to spend more and more. The entire illusion could be shattered if anyone in power were willing to speak a word of truth.

It is also true, no doubt, that humans have great intelligence but a poor grasp of time. Most young people cannot think ahead more than about a year, whatever issue may be involved. Middle-aged people think ahead about as far as retirement. Older people can only think ahead about as far as their own deaths. Elderly people often say they have great love for their grandchildren, yet when told about the oil problem they are likely to reply, "Oh, well, what do I care? I’ll be dead by then"; that’s not hypocrisy, it’s just a poor understanding of the fact that the world can change significantly over time.

Illiteracy doesn’t help, of course. To the slight extent that anyone is willing to discuss world events, the opening line is likely to be, "Did you see X on TV last night?" rather than, "Have you ever read X?" Television, movies, and glossy magazines present a kaleidoscope of half-truths, fragments that are strong on shape and color, weak on intellectual content or interconnection. Dinner-party conversation must likewise consist of paratactic bits and pieces if it is not to elicit an embarrassed smile. We live in an age in which it is heresy to suggest that schoolchildren be subjected to either placement or achievement tests, and the politically-respectable definition of "average" sinks ever lower. The publishing of a book with spelling errors in the 1950s would have been scandalous, whereas books published nowadays seem to have been proofread by drunkards. It may not be entirely true that bad spelling is the end of civilization as we know it, but it is not entirely false either. No one is individually to blame for illiteracy, but it is a growing trend that only rarely arouses indignation, and the decision to resist being dazzled by "the media" often means choosing to stand alone. Fundamentally, illiteracy is a kind of mental cannibalism: such food is nutritious, but only for as long as the supply holds out.

Perhaps the silence will never end. Most people will never personally see the oil wells running dry, so they will never really know who or what to blame. Modern surveillance techniques will ensure that no protester gets more than half a mile down a street. The process of erosion will be so slow at first that people will wonder if they are imagining the whole thing: higher costs for food and fuel, lower quality of goods and services, a general third-world ambience to what were supposed to be first-world cities. One day, however, there will be a realization that the Grand Plan is not forthcoming, and that staying alive will depend on the Small Plan, person by person, family by family.

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He can be reached at

New ‘Disaster’ Movie Warns World of Oil Apocalypse
The latest gloves-off documentary to hit screens predicts a global meltdown as vital fuel runs out
by Robin McKie, THE GUARDIAN

Oil is ‘the bloodstain of the earth’s economy’ and will soon trigger a global conflict that will cost millions of lives. That is the stark claim of a controversial new film, which says a crash in oil production is about to set off worldwide recession and economic collapse.

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, which opens in UK cinemas this week, shows stark images of rusting Texan and Venezuelan wells and fuel riots in Asia and Africa. Such scenes will be repeated thousands of times around the planet in the near future, argue the film’s makers, who say the world is facing changes ‘more frightening than a horror movie’.

The film is the latest of several polemical documentaries to achieve nationwide release. Others include Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Michael Moore’s Sicko, and the forthcoming Darfur Now, in which Don Cheadle provides a voice-over about the Sudanese civil war.

However, A Crude Awakening has had a boost not available to the rest. Just as its screenings were scheduled to begin here, crude oil prices soared to their highest level for decades, reaching $96 a barrel last week. Petrol and diesel at more than £1 a litre at UK garages is now common.

‘This is a bleak and very worrying topic, but we have tried very hard to make it entertaining and exciting,’ said Basil Gelpke, who - with Ray McCormack - wrote, directed and produced the film.

And to judge by film festival screenings, they may have succeeded. A Crude Awakening has won prizes at the Zurich and Palm Beach festivals. It is a dramatic depiction of the arguments of economists and geologists who say that the day of ‘peak oil’ has either occurred or is imminent. Peak oil is defined as the time when the world produces its maximum output of oil and enters a period when prices start to soar as demand rises - thanks in part to the industrialisation of China and India - while supplies dwindle.

The US Energy Information Administration said recently it believed production had peaked last year. Others say it has not yet occurred but is imminent, a point backed by geologist Professor Stuart Haszeldine, of Edinburgh University. ‘If we have not reached peak oil already, then I am sure it will be upon us within the next two years.’

In the North Sea, oil production has been declining for years, America reached its maximum output decades ago, and in other parts of the world stocks of easily accessible oil are slowly being used up. ‘We have reached the peak of oil production, the question is: how steep is the slope downwards on the other side,’ said Matt Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy

Oil companies say that there are still major reserves to be exploited. In particular, Arctic and Antarctic fields - which are being freed of ice and snow as the world heats up - are being sized up for their reserve potential.

In Burma, protests over rising fuel prices led to a crackdown by the country’s military authorities while in China, where there have been critical fuel shortages recently, one man was shot for trying to jump a petrol queue. Such events are destined to become the norm across the planet, it is argued.

As prices soar and production falters, the world will hurtle into a future of pitched battles over dwindling oil supplies. ‘It is not just the threat to transport, ‘ added David Strahan, author of The Last Oil Shock. ‘All across Asia, particularly in India and Bangladesh, farmers use diesel generators to pump water in and out of their fields. If oil prices soar, they will not be able to afford to irrigate their crops. The result could be starvation and food riots.’

In addition, crude oil is a basic necessity in the manufacture of materials such as asphalt and plastic. The construction of a desktop computer consumes 10 times its weight in fossil fuels, for example. Without cheap oil, such products will no longer be affordable.

It is an alarming scenario, although a note of caution was sounded by John Loughhead, director of the UK Energy Research Centre. ‘It is true that we may very soon run out of oil from accessible sources, but there are many other types of fuel that we could exploit,’ he said.

At present, energy companies exploit a field only if they think they can get oil out of the ground at a cost of less than $18 a barrel. This is a very conservative estimate, given current prices. At present oil is being sold at over $90 a barrel. ‘If, in future, companies use a more realistic figure of $40 a barrel instead of $18, that would make many, many more reserves suddenly become economical - the oil tar fields of Alaska, deep water reservoirs, and others,’ Loughhead said.

‘The trouble is that it is very difficult to estimate future oil prices. Ten years ago they stood at around $10 a barrel. Now they are almost 10 times that. Certainly, I doubt oil will be cheaper than $40 a barrel again, so that means many more fields which once seemed uneconomical will become better bets for exploitation.’

Loughhead said oil was just a small part of the range of hydrocarbons found in the ground. ‘It is becoming easier and easier to turn substances like coal and gas into liquid form and use that as a substitute for oil, so fuels based on hydrocarbons will still be with us in some form for a few decades yet,’ he said.

Fuel figures

· The United States has 2 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and consumes 25 per cent of its annual production.

· 98 per cent of all energy used for road, rail, ocean and aviation transport is provided by oil products.

· A barrel of oil is 42 US gallons, or 34.97 British gallons or 159 litres.

· It is thought there are between 1,000 and 2,000 billion barrels of oil left in the planet’s reserves. The world produces 75,000 barrels a day*.

· It would take a man working for 25,000 hours to generate the same amount of energy that is stored in one barrelful of oil.

*This article was amended on November 11 2007. Daily global oil production is 75 million barrels a day, not 750,000 as we stated in the article above. This has been corrected.

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