Crude Awakening: Preparing Ottawa-Gatineau for Peak Oil

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The bigger story behind Katrina
Lynn Jones

Long before Katrina hit, independent scientists who study the depletion of oil and gas, were warning of an imminent peak in world oil production. One such scientist, Dr. Kenneth S. Deffeyes, professor emeritus of geology at Princeton University, suggested that the peak would come this fall. Dr. Colin Campbell, founder of the independent scientific organization, the Association of the Study of Peak Oil, believes that the peak has arrived. Many experts agree that the peak, which will only be clearly identifiable several years after it happens, will occur some time between 2000 and 2008. Others argue for a somewhat later arrival and a bumpy plateau rather than a peak, but most seem to agree that the peak of world oil production is likely to mark the beginning of radical changes in the way we live.

Oil is a very special substance. It is a very concentrated form of solar energy that took millions of years and unique geological circumstances to develop. By way of illustrating how concentrated the energy in oil is, it has been suggested that "the flare given off by igniting an ounce of charcoal starter lasts a few seconds, but the energy was derived from, say, a prehistoric tree fern absorbing sunshine for nine years." For another illustration, consider that it is possible to drive a compact car 6 km on the oil that would fill a pop can.

Oil is also highly portable and extremely versatile. It is used to fuel all manner of engines from chain saws and lawn mowers to cars, trucks, heavy machinery and jumbo jets. It gets made into a vast array of everyday items such as asphalt, plastics, fabrics, clothing, elastic, velcro, inks, paints, solvents, lubricants, fertilizers, pesticides, and paraffin wax.

Canadians annually consume more than 6 tonnes of oil equivalent per person. We are highly dependent on oil (and natural gas which is also facing an imminent production peak) for our food, heat, transportation and consumer goods. Our current diet for instance, is based on large inputs of fossil fuels during farming, manufacturing, and transport. It has been estimated that at least 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are used up in the production of every calorie that we eat. Most of the food we eat travels thousands of kilometers before arriving at our dinner table.

Demand for oil has been steadily increasing in Canada for some time. Global consumption has also been steadily increasing. Demand is increasing especially quickly in several rapidly-industrializing countries such as China and India.

World oil production follows a classic bell-curve pattern with a gradual increase early on, followed by a steep increase to the peak, a steep decline and gradual tapering off at the end. At the peak the world is "awash" in oil. There is more being produced and consumed than has ever been before or ever will be again. Past the peak, production declines sharply since much of the remaining oil is harder to get at (under oceans and Arctic tundra for instance), more difficult to extract and refine (from tar sands and oil shale for example) and therefore subject to diminishing returns in terms of the energy yield per unit of energy used for extraction.

Thus we are reaching the peak of world oil production at a time when our oil dependence is at a very high level, demand is increasing worldwide, and supplies are about to be sharply reduced. We can therefore expect the price of a barrel of oil to rise to several times its present level in the years ahead. So, while price spikes from Katrina are temporary, and prices may go up and down for several years, at some point in the not-to-distant future they are likely to begin an inexorable rise.

Unfortunately, alternative energy sources are not capable of replacing oil and gas at anywhere near the scale of our current consumption. Most alternatives are much less concentrated forms of energy, are less portable, less versatile, more expensive, and rely on oil at some stage of their production. Many alternatives will be used and will become increasingly important in the future, but no combination of known alternatives will allow energy consumption to continue at its present level.

Detailed analyses of the limitations of alternatives to fossil fuels are available on the internet. See page two of Life After the Oil Crash (www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net); this site was the source of inspiration for Republican Congressman, beef farmer and scientist, Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, who has recently made three hour-long speeches on "Peak Oil" in the American Congress; the speeches are on-line at www.bartlett.house.gov. Also see Energy Bulletin (www.energybulletin.net) and the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (www.peakoil.net).

Some names that people have coined for the difficult period we are now entering include the "Post-Carbon Era"", the "Long Emergency" and "Energy Descent". As oil becomes much more expensive, and rapidly becomes a scarce commodity, we will have to learn to use a lot less energy than we currently do. We will also have to endure a period of economic and social turmoil, since our economy depends to a great degree on abundant cheap oil for its functioning. On the positive side, our lives are likely to become a lot less hectic and more centered in our local communities where we will be more intimately involved with our friends and neighbours and more often engaged in meaningful pursuits than is now the case.

Some have seen this coming for a long time. M. King Hubbert, the Shell Oil geologist whose models are used today to understand the peaking phenomenon, stated in an article in the journal Science in 1949, that "the consumption of energy from fossil fuels is thus seen to be but a "pip", rising sharply from zero to a maximum, and almost as sharply declining, and thus representing but a moment in human history." He then speculated on the impact of this "pip" on industrialized human civilization. He asked if we will make a transition to renewable energy, or "retreat to an agrarian civilization at a much lower population than present."

Saudi Arabians have also apparently seen the writing on the proverbial wall as indicated by a saying they have that goes "My father rode a camel. I drive a motor car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel."

Many positive responses to this challenge are possible. Around the world people in small communities like ours are beginning to develop action plans for energy descent; important initiatives include re-localizing the food supply and developing rural transportation networks. There are also many innovative ways of using both fossil fuels and renewable energy; the Ottawa Valley has many pioneers in the energy field, some of whom we will be profiling in coming articles.

As we begin to face and prepare for oil depletion here in the Ottawa Valley, we can also take some comfort from the fact that there is great tradition of helping your neighbour here and there is still a lot of traditional knowledge about getting along with less energy. Both of these bode well for how we will navigate the energy descent.

 

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