How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Peak Oil

Worried that peak oil might mean an end to modern life as we know it? Adapting to an age of oil- and energy-scarcity might not be as unimaginable and apocalyptic as we fear.

The price of crude oil futures hit a new high of $109 this week, far surpassing any previous record.

And, according to the AAA, unleaded gas in the U.S. currently averages $3.222 per gallon, up from $2.537 per gallon a year ago.

Why are oil prices going up so much? Experts point to a number of factors: ever-increasing demand from the fast-growing economies of China and India, expanding reliance on sources in unstable parts of the world, declining production from established large oil fields and, while still not widely accepted, the possibility of the globe having reached peak oil.

Peak oil refers to the point at which oil production reaches its maximum, then begins to decline as remaining oil resources become increasingly hard to discover and pump.

Saudi Arabian oil minister Ali al-Naimi touched on the subject of peak oil in an interview last week. He said his country had ample proven reserves to make peak oil unlikely over the next five to 10 years, and attributed the current high prices of oil to growing government subsidies for biofuels, which are competitive with crude oil only when oil prices are above $60 to $70 a barrel.

However, Kjell Aleklett, president of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), questioned the Saudi oil reserve estimates. Based on reserve calculation methods used by other companies like BP, ExxonMobil and Shell, Aleklett said, Saudi Arabia’s reserves would be only half as large as currently reported.

Also questioning official reassurances of ample oil supplies is the Energy Watch Group, which last year released a study saying that global oil production had peaked in 2006.

“The most alarming finding is the steep decline of the oil supply after
peak,” said the Energy Watch Group’s Jörg Schindler. “Since crude oil is
the most important energy carrier at a global scale and since all kinds of transport rely heavily on oil, the future oil availability is of paramount importance as it entails completely different actions by politics, business and individuals.”

Earlier this month, despite an appeal from U.S. President George W. Bush, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) decided not to increase its levels of oil production. The group pointed to the weak U.S. economy as one of the reasons for the decision.

In its last International Energy Outlook, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that global liquid fossil fuel consumption would rise from the 2004 level of 83 million barrels a day to 118 million barrels a day in 2030. Two-thirds of that increase was expected to be used for transportation.

The U.S. remains the world’s top consumer of oil, using more than 20 million barrels per day. The next five largest consumers are China (7.273 million barrels per day), Japan (5.159 million barrels per day), Russia (2.920 million barrels per day), Germany (2.665 million barrels per day) and India (2.587 million barrels per day).

Here’s wishing a happy first anniversary to Green Options, a green-focused blog that has quickly grown from one site to 10, with more to come!

I’ve enjoyed posting a variety of blogs to Green Options sites, acting as the progressive half of the Red, Green & Blue feature that was once a regular part of Green Options, as well as writing about climate change for Planetsave, contributing pithy little eco-items to ecoscraps, and submitting news about global environmental news to EcoWorldly. You can find links to other Green Options blogs in the blogroll on the left of this site.

In addition to being a great source of information on all things green, Green Options also brings together some fabulously committed writers-activists, including founder-publisher David Anderson, senior editor Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, associate editor Noelle d’Estries, editorial assistant Kendra Halliday and contributors Juliet Ames, Beth Bader, Michelle Bennett, Kelli Best-Oliver, Pem Charnley, Clayton Bodie Cornell, Kristin Dispenza, Leah Edwards, Victoria Everman, Carol Gulyas, Whitney Hannaford, Joshua Hill, Gavin Hudson, Tim Hurst, John Ivanko, Lisa Kivirist, Stefanos Kofopoulos, Max Lindberg, Jennifer Lance, Sarah Lozanova, Maria Surma Manka, MC Milker, Joe Mohr, Sarah Nagy, Jason Phillip, Philip Proefrock, Elizabeth Redmond, Keith Rockmael, Mark Seall, Paul Smith, Heidi Suydam, Cassie Walker, Kyle Weatherholtz and Lee Welles. (Sorry if I left anyone out … as I said, this is a fast-growing family of sites!)

Happy birthday, Green Options!

The Florida chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism will focus on climate change when it holds its statewide meeting later this month.

The Nuclear Consultation Working Group is criticizing British officials for manipulating its public input procedures for proposed new nuclear power plants.

As the parent of a soon-to-be five-year-old, I continually find myself thinking about what the world will be like for my son when he’s my age. From almost every perspective I consider, the answer comes: it’ll be a lot different — and probably not in the better way — than the world today.

In fact, it seems that today’s preschool generation could aptly be called “Generation Omega.” That’s because it’s the last generation likely to experience the world as we know it. Their adult world will be a radically different place than ours.

Climate change is one reason: the latest research suggests the Arctic could be ice-free well before mid-century, meaning today’s youngsters will know of polar bears only from books, CD-ROMs, YouTube videos and zoos.

A shifting world order is another reason. Globalization promises great advances for the low-income populations of rising economies like China and India. For children in developed countries, though, globalization is likely to mean their future incomes will be lower than their parents’.

Energy is yet another reason for “Generation Omega.” While there’s still plenty of arguing about whether we’ve yet reached peak oil, it’s clear that new oil discoveries are not enough to compensate for declining production from existing fields. And with global energy demands rising — again thanks to ascendant economies like China’s — that means we can expect the coming years to bring tighter energy supplies and, of course, higher prices.

The concept of “Generation Omega” might sound bleak, but I’m trying to be a realist. I’m by no means throwing in the towel, moving to an isolated (but well-above-sea-level) island or holing up in a fortified compound in the wilderness. But I will try to prepare my son for a world different from today’s by teaching him the things that matter most: resourcefulness, conservation, environmental stewardship and — most of all — an appreciation for the fact that it’s not money or things that brings happiness.

How do we solve global warming? Where some people see an obvious solution — stop burning so many fossil fuels and stop tearing down forests and grasslands — others see a great opportunity for technological Band-Aids that do nothing to address the root causes.

These fixes range from a plan to launch mirrors into space to deflect some of the incoming sunlight to schemes to seed the oceans with iron and other nutrients that can feed large blooms of algae. The logic goes like this: algae is a plant, plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, algae sinks to the deep ocean after it dies, the carbon it absorbed goes with it.

Only, it turns out, that logical might not be so logical. A new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research has found that, when algae is most abundant, the amount of carbon that gets tucked away deep underwater is at its lowest.

If that sounds counter-intuitive, it goes to show you that nature understands things better than we do. The researchers believe that when algae is more abundant, more things move in to eat it — “Waste not, want not,” being a deeply held philosophy in the natural world. So all that carbon that we thought would sink to the seafloor instead ends up in the bellies of microbes and larger creatures. And the ever-accelerating carbon cycle goes on.

Now I’m not against technology when it can really solve a problem. Compact fluorescent light-bulbs are a great innovation. So are solar panels and passive solar water-heaters. But technology that doesn’t solve a problem — or helps make a problem worse? That we can and should do without.

If climate change, dwindling oil supplies or species extinctions make life miserable for us in the near or not-so-near future, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” we’ve had the answer — actually, many answers — all along.

There’s no shortage of solutions being offered for all the environmental problems staring us in the face. Worried about the global destabilization that might be created by climate change? International Alert offers a hopeful and detailed blueprint for averting climate conflict. Concerned about U.S. energy consumption? The National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency outlines ways to improve energy efficiency across all sectors by 2025. Want to create a sustainable, clean-energy future for all the world’s inhabitants? The InterAcademy Council provides an in-depth plan.

It’s not the lack of solutions that’s the problem: it’s the political will. What we need is a Marshall Plan for global security, a Kennedy-like challenge to deal with climate change “before the decade is out.” Of course, it’s not politicians alone who are to blame: unless more of us demand change and elect leaders capable of thinking big, we’re part of the problem too.

With daily news reports and new studies reinforcing what we already know — that the environment and climate are suffering, and we’re to blame — it’s easy to feel discouraged, helpless and even hopeless. So, for a change, today I’m focusing on something positive and hopeful: Watercone.

This simple yet elegant, portable and 100-percent solar-powered device lets users convert saltwater or brackish, undrinkable water into pure potable drinking water. Each Watercone can product 1.6 liters of clean drinking water a day — enough to meet the needs of one child.

It’s a wonderful innovation that could save many lives. Watercone’s makers point to UNICEF statistics showing that 5,000 children a day die from diarrhea caused by unsafe drinking water. To help change that, Watercone is looking for investors and companies that can help it start producing and distributing its product for a reasonable price. If you’re interested, please contact the company at stephan@augustin.net.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D, MA) recently held a climate change conference call with several environmentally-oriented bloggers, including myself. I was impressed by his depth of knowledge and clear concern about the implications of climate change, but still discouraged to hear, first-hand, how difficult it is to get good ideas transformed into good laws. As Kerry said, there are still many global warming deniers in Congress, and others who believe the science are still on the fence or reluctant to take too strong an action for one reason or another. So getting enough votes to enact anything with real teeth that has a prayer of curbing global warming is, well, like pulling teeth.

I mentioned to my husband how discouraged I felt after the call. “Kerry’s saying and doing the right things, but Congress isn’t going to do the meaningful things it needs to do now to stop this runaway train,” I complained. My husband’s answer was a wakeup call to me: “Well, what else is there?”

True, I realized. They might be frustratingly influenced by myriad special interests and prone to making decisions based on political, rather than scientific, reasoning. But we in the U.S. don’t have any other national leaders to turn to when we’re looking for effective climate change law.

Kerry himself offered a good suggestion: keep the pressure on so-called moderates who support the science but could do more, he said. Pay special attention to legislators from the states most likely to feel the early effects of climate change — coastal states, for example. It was useful advice, and I’m hoping to follow it in the days, weeks and months to come. I’ll try to keep you posted with any followups in that regard.

In the meantime, to read more about the Kerry conference call, check out my post at GreenOptions.com.