Peak Oil and What Happens When We Run Out

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Amidst all the concern about the Deepwater Horizon spill, global warming, and a myriad other issues affecting fossil fuel usage, one item is often overlooked, an item that many people don’t want to think about too much.

Oil is a finite resource. One day, it will eventually run out. The global economy is based on the ready availability of portable, convenient energy. Not to mention the chemicals and synthetic materials made from petroleum, everything from clothing to kids’ toys to road surfaces.

At some point in time, oil supplies will reach their maximum output, and after that point, world-wide production will begin to fall as the easily-exploited reserves are exhausted. Demand for oil will outstrip the available supply. This phenomenon is known as Peak Oil, and many fear that we have already past it. Peak Oil is often illustrated by the Hubbert Curve, a classic bell curve showing a peak and rapid production decline.

The consequences are pretty dire, and the seriousness of the situation depends on how many years worth of oil we have left, and what we can do to shift our dependence away from oil.  At the very least, a change in lifestyle will be required, especially for those who live in the wealthy western nations. More than that, though, entire economies will have to shift. Iceland has gotten a start on this process, with its plans to be fossil-fuel-free by 2050. However, Iceland is small, both in geographical size and population, and even they will take decades to eliminate their dependence on oil.

Some warn that the global economy will not be able to respond in time, and that the world is on the brink of a next great depression, one that will last for many generations. Some of these doomsayers also sell courses on how to survive the coming resource crash, in a manner reminiscent of the Y2K “crisis”, so there is an element of self-interest here that cannot be discounted. Others, with an equal, or perhaps even greater level of self-interest, maintain that peak oil is not an issue. Much of the latter’s criticism of the methodology surrounding Peak Oil and the Hubbert curve appears valid.

One of the problems around the prognostication of Peak Oil is the timing. Experts have been predicting Peak Oil since the late 1970’s, each time revising their predictions based on new data. Thus there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the timing and effects of Peak Oil. For some, the boy may have cried wolf a few too many times.

There is no doubt that we will eventually run out of oil, or at least cheap oil. Against that day, we need to start moving towards establishing alternative energy sources for transportation and infrastructure. We need to do things like moving to concrete paving rather than asphalt, electric cars, and renewable sources of base power. Most importantly, however, we need to start adjusting our lifestyles. Conservation needs to assume a greater importance in all energy strategies, and issues like fuel economy and emission standards need to be addressed and improved as rapidly as possible. One day the oil will run oout, and what happens to us then depends on what we do now.

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

2 thoughts on “Peak Oil and What Happens When We Run Out”

  1. Such short sighted green flatulence. Dear Colin, ever hear of 4th gen nuclear? Your just a pudse for all the renewable hype and electric cars that still don’t have viable battery storage. An electric car would need an onboard CIV to supply electrical energy effectively, like train engines. It takes twice as much electricity to charge them then they dispense. May be decades. May never happen. Your looking at eggs that may never hatch. Emissions have pretty much been cleaned up.

    Proven methods like conservation and being frugal are the best alternatives. With 4th gen nuclear, no problems of meltdowns, waste nor proliferation, you could manufacture a gas substitute.

    But meanwhile oil is the cash cow that can drive innovation and research into alternatives. New technology has allowed oil drillers to reach oil that was previously inaccessible more economically. Why not use that resource to rebuild the economy to realize viable alternatives that could be developed later. The most likely candidate, nuclear as far as I can see. Wind and solar are grossly over subsidized and are only hyped as renewable and green. Deep Horizon was criminal mismanagement by BP that has a track record on such fiascos.


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