22 September, 2005

If this is the only answer, we're truly fucked

Last night I had the pleasure* of attending a lecture by Richard Heinberg, a professor at New College of California who has spent the past couple decades figuring out how to transition the world off of oil addiction. He has watched opportunities come and go.÷
  • In the early 1980s, the United States could have taken up conservation as a national mission, which would have leveled out the "peak" in peak oil. It would have taken about 25 years — that is, until about now — for the changes to percolate through the economy, with cities growing ever more walkable, vehicles ever more efficient, our economy ever less dependent on far-off suppliers, and our buildings ever more comfortable even without compressor air-conditioning. Instead, according to Heinberg, Reagan and Bush convinced the Saudis to flood the world market with oil so as to cut out the Soviets' primary source of foreign exchange. And in every way possible, we made our lives more dependent on oil, rather than less.
  • In 1991, after Iraq took over Kuwait, the U.S. could have taken the opportunity to support energy conservation and tell the spooky Saudi royals to deal with their border problems on their own. Instead, we took the opportunity to establish semi-permanent bases in a country that is also the capital of a religion our leaders pointedly misunderstood.
  • In the 1990s, Al Gore suggested a carbon tax. If it had gradually driven oil prices up to their current levels, the result would have been more conservation, a more gradual and bearable oil peak, and plenty of money for public investment in the transition. Instead, we got Newt Gingrich, followed quickly by a five-year investigation of a $100,000 land deal in Arkansas and an impeachment trial. Which was, at least, more entertaining than a carbon tax.
  • In 2000, Al Gore ran for president. Sort of.
  • In 2001, after right-wing religious nuts decided to avenge the permanent bases in Saudi Arabia and the ongoing bombing of Iraq by blowing shit up in the USA, and everyone in the U.S. was asking, what can I do to help, the president could have taken the opportunity to ask for shared sacrifice and encourage people to conserve energy. Hell, he could have asked people to all move to communes in Tibet and they would have. He said to give blood and suddenly the Red Cross was turning people away. So he seized the moment to push for, you know, repeal of the estate tax, the endangered species act, and Social Security. In any case, it sure is shared sacrifice!

Following a history like this, a weaker man might have grown discouraged and taken to more fruitful pursuits — like attempting to punch holes through a brick wall with his forehead -- but Prof. Heinberg is an eternal hope machine. He has come up with an idea called the oil depletion protocol. It's a bit complicated and to tell the truth I wasn't paying much attention by the time he got to it, but the short version is that countries that currently import oil all need to get together and agree to import 2% less every year from now on. That could even out the peak, prevent developing nations from developing in an oil-dependent manner, and prevent perpetual oil war. Kind of like the Montreal Protocol, only instead of air-conditioner refrigerant, we'd be phasing out the lifeblood of the global economy.

It's a nice idea until you think about it. An astute audience member asked, "So this protocol requires that countries all give an accurate assessment of their current reserves. And an accurate portrayal of their current imports. And then to reduce their imports in the name of some international common good." "Right," said Heinman. She looked as convinced as if she had just been told that most Americans worship a flying spaghetti monster. "What are the chances of that happening?" she asked. "I don't know," he said. "But it's the only way out that I can see."

I agree. It's the only way out that I've heard, other than this rather gloomy collection of thoughts. And at this point, we are so deep in the cave that the only way out appears way too high overhead. I feel like we as a civilization are about to be in the position of the injured climber in IntoTouching the Void. We are about to cut our own rope and go down into the crevasse of darkness and misery because it is the only direction left.

Or at least that's the conclusion if we are indeed near peak oil and the U.S. Dept. of Energy report on transitioning off oil is correct. Here's their report, yet to be officially released, but somehow leaked out onto the web. I hope it's for real, though we can't be sure. In any case, check out the pdf of The Hirsch Report:
...Mitigation will require an intense effort over decades. This inescapable conclusion is based on the time required to replace vast numbers of liquid fuel consuming vehicles and the time required to build a substantial number of substitute fuel production facilities. Our scenarios analysis shows:
  • Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action would leave the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period. The obvious conclusion from this analysis is that with adequate, timely mitigation, the economic costs to the world can be minimized. If mitigation were to be too little, too late, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), which would translate to significant economic hardship. There will be no quick fixes. Even crash programs will require more than a decade to yield substantial relief.

*The pleasure mostly came from my conversation with the lovely and brilliant Saheli*, whose musings occasionally grace our comments. Hooray for meeting a blogmate in person! It's a first for me. And no wonder, since I'm not a person, but a burrowing creature who lives under the earth.

÷I made up this list of missed opportunities. His is probably much, much longer.


Err, so... if, as ExxonMobil and others now claim, oil is going to peak in 2010, or if, as Matthew Simmons claims, it has peaked already, we are screwed according to the DOE itself?! Aaagh. Give me the 1950s again! Back then it was just racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, anti-communism and thermonuclear war.

Also, kudos on meeting a blog-mate! I've never done that... though I met another Wikipedian... 

Posted by saurabh

When I got to Seattle, somebody recognized me from my homepage, linked to from my Wikipedia user page. The first thing she said to me was "I know you". I was seriously freaked out. 

Posted by Dan

Well, actually, the report was written by SAIC, the big military contractor full of ex-CIA and ex-DOD types. But it was commissioned by DOE. 

Posted by HEDGEHOG!

For the record, Dan, I was not creepy, and neither was Hedgehog for all his mysterious underground leanings. Blogconnecting is fun, and I highly recommend it.
Here's my peak oil post.  :-)  

Posted by Saheli

Not to be pedantic, but it wasn't the injured climber who cut his rope in Touching the  Void (understandable conflation with Into Thin Air by Krakauer), it was his friend above - to save himself. Which on makes for a more chilling metaphor when applied to your scenario, I guess!

Great post though, and lucky you for meeting Saheli, whose site I came from before visiting here.


Posted by Robert S.

Yes, touching the void. I am fixing that. But I think I was right about who cut what, though memory in small creatures is notoriously spotty. First the guy up above had to cut the rope. Then after the injured guy below fell a ways and hit the glacier below, he went right into a crevasse and his rope got hung up on a chunk of ice, saving him from death. So he was hanging in a void, injured, in the dark. When it got light, he could see his predicament, so he cut himself loose. The only way out was down. Which was my point -- it could be that our only way out is down. Which I, as a burrowing animal, am used to experiencing. But you folks might dislike that my house has the smell of death and excrement and is pitch dark all the time. 

Posted by hedgehog

See, Robert, if you hadn't said anything my brain would have glided over that and digested the metaphor as quickly as possible. Now it's been exposed for all its raw power and I'm going to have to go read the book and it sounds rather painful.:-p At least I know the guy lived. Hope for civilization, at least?

So Hedgehog is  planning on capitalizing on his underground experience. Well, always good to know an expert.  

Posted by Saheli


Before you all go on some doomsday, cleansing lament. Please read this:


Sure, there is a crisis at hand. However, it has always been a crisis, and a challenge.

Correction: The reserves for tar sands is even larger than entire Saudi Arabia reserves.

The current crisis is due to: 

1) Sudden surge in demand by China, and India.
2) Problems in some of the supplies recently - Iraq, Venezuela, Libya.
3) Practically, no frontier exploration in last 20 years in Middle East, Saudi Arabia wanted that way for some clever reasons so that the market does not really get gluted like it did in 80s.
4) No new refineries built in last 20 years in USA.

Posted by Kush Tandon

But doomsday laments feel so good!

Seriously though:
1. China and India are not going away.
2. Iraq is likely permanently jacked due to oilfield mismanagement, first by Saddam and even more so in the years since he fell. Venezuela is now supplying more than ever. I don't know much about Libya. What are their supposed problems?
3. Plenty of people, especially Matthew Simmons, seem to think the Middle East has been pretty well explored. Geologist Greg Croft said the same thing, but said that wasn't a coincidence -- he was one of Simmons' sources. (Does "gluted" have something to do with buttocks?)
4. The lack of new refineries could be evidence that the oil companies have accepted that they aren't going to get much more supply -- which is what I heard from Greg Croft . Have there even been any refineries proposed in the last 20 years? I don't know the answer.

Rather than focus on such minutiae, Heinberg recommended looking at the long-term curve of oil finds. Basically, we're clearly on the tail of the bell curve for discoveries. What that means is that we have a sense of how much oil we've got, that it's not eternal, and that we've used a lot of it already. The next peak could come in anything from 1 to 20 years, but it is coming, and we are already feeling the effects. 

Posted by hedgehog


I will be the first to accept that their is a big problem. However, energy business/ politics is not for faint-hearted. I always recommend people to read Daniel Yergin's "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power."

Sure, big oil discoveries have recently been few and far between. However, the age of natural gas  is waiting to be ushered and perhaps would be the catalyst for hydrogen economy. Huge investments are underway for LNG (liquefied natural gas), especially in Qatar.

I need to find time and write my thoughts - my head is spinning with multiple ideas.

PS: Countries like Libya and Iran are not even realizing their potenetial because of lack of investment, use of cutting edge technology for last 30-40 years. To some degree (lesser though), same is the case for Russia. Long term exploration is very expensive and risky - countries like Saudi Arabia have stayed away as if you owned expensive land but have been holding off for development because you do not want the rent of the houses you already own to go down.

PPS: I agree with you that next peak is coming - we do not know when. 

Posted by Kush Tandon

Your account is indeed correct, Hedgehog. Your dimunitive brain is clearly useful for more than burrowing and foraging! And your memory's better than mine, too. I didn't realize which part of the overall horrific enterprise you were referring to.

That book and Into Thin Air though - whew, enough to make you think the whole mountain climbing thing - well, that there might be better hobbies.

Coincidentally, I'm reading Into the Wild right now, another of Krakauer's Adventures-Gone-Wrong ouevre.  

Posted by Robert S.

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