Rebuttal to Parade Magazine’s Thoughts on Peak Oil

Carl Jung once famously said, “People can’t stand too much reality.” Parade magazine embodies this philosophy to the hilt in, Oil, Energy at What Cost. Parade has always been to journalism what Bacon-Cheeseburgers have been to nutrition. The overall tenor, “don’t worry too much,” is in fitting with their perpetual rose-colored look on the world. But this article is so full of factual inaccuracies and obfuscations, it renders itself worthless, doing more harm than good.

Admittedly, there are few scientific or political arguments that are irrefutable, but let’s start here: Oil is a finite resource – there aren’t any more dead dinosaurs being synthesized by nature into oil – and we began marching towards peaking in extraction with the consumption of the first barrel. It’s the same manner with the extraction of any limited resource.

A common misconception is that our troubles begin when we run out. Not only is this not strictly accurate, but it is misleading, and belies the urgency of the situation because many people think we won’t “run out” for decades. In actuality, we will never truly run out. There will always be some left in the ground, either undiscovered or unrecoverable, either because of remoteness or simply because the energy required to extract it will exceed its energy value. However, we will reach a point when all the world’s consumers need more than the earth’s wells can provide. A small gap between supply and demand is wholly enough to foster a multiplying of costs and shatter our economy. Think of it this way…. If you are king of a growing population on an island and you have enough food to feed 100 this year but only 98 next year, for the two people who starve to death, your shortage is a problem right now, long before you “run out.” That time is perhaps very soon, as near as a few months to a few years, certainly not decades away.

Nay-sayers waggishly proclaim “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. The earth is awash in energy and we’ll go onto something else.” And they’re right: the world is awash in energy, but most of it simply isn’t usable. A few weeks ago, New Orleans was awash in water, but hundreds died of thirst. Oil is the densest, most convenient, historically abundant energy source around and we have engineered our society to consume it lustily. Maybe there is a new energy source on the horizon just waiting to be developed, but nothing is near ready. My friend the rocket scientist says not to worry. “My favorite (emerging alternative for oil) is thermal depolymerization.” Well, until you can pull into your local Exxon station and buy twenty gallons of thermal depolymerization, petroleum will be vital to our economic survival. Debate this if you will, but no energy source or combination of energy sources, either existing or new, will replace what’s lost when there’s less oil available each year instead of more.

Parade’s article quotes “expert” Dan Yergin saying, “New supplies now under development could lower prices in a couple of years,” but there is nothing in the literature to support this notion. Instead, over four barrels are consumed today for every new barrel discovered. The dearth of new discovery is not due to lack of trying; exploration continues apace. There are simply limited places on earth where oil could have been formed and significant major new finds are unlikely. We’ve already picked the low-lying fruit. New discoveries will be smaller, deeper, in more remote places, and will require more energy to extract.

In our supply and demand equation, any supply solution that doesn’t contain the word “miracle” seems unlikely to save us. Instead, we will, by choice or by force of nature, become intensely more local in everything we do. The airlines are already imploding, the travel industry is doomed. Food will become scarcer and more expensive and Wal-Mart’s pipeline of kitsch from China will cease. All recreational use of gasoline and non-essential driving will be taboo. Frivolous trips will become distant memories.

Certainly our automobile-based transportation monoculture puts us at greater risk than other industrialized nations to oil shocks. Simply driving a bit less or switching our fleet to hybrids can’t hurt, but a fundamental restructuring of our communities will be necessary. The way we do everything our society needs done is destined to change dramatically in a few short years. Most ominous is that our deep American sense of entitlement may lead us to war over the availability of what’s left (see “Iraq”).

So gasoline will cost more; sometimes with dramatic spikes, sometimes with momentary skids, but generally upwards indefinitely. Meanwhile, most of us grumble in a fog of privilege and obliviousness. Our leaders, lacking in either fortitude or fair-mindedness, burden us with energy and transportation legislation full of pork that rewards the rich and does nothing to curb our consumption or lessen our dependency. It might be behoove us to consider scenarios whereby everything doesn’t turn out OK.