Peak Oil: Yet Another Inconvenient Truth

By Jean Arnold

The rise and fall of oil production.
by Jean Arnold
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“The glory of the 20th century is now the burden.”
– Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, 2006

Fossil fuels are involved in nearly all we own, eat, wear, do, and everywhere we go. Rising oil prices, from a growing gap between supply and demand, are rippling through the economy.

As the demand for oil grows, pundits quibble over how many decades of oil remain. But even the most cheerful forecaster does not see a long future for the liquid that fuels our lives. The more crucial question is: How will the depletion play out?

Our plate is already loaded with plenty of reasons to end our addiction to oil-global warming, air pollution, geopolitical tensions, oil spills, trade deficit. The event known as “peak oil” is the biggest reason yet.

In a paragraph, here it is: When about half the world’s oil supply is used up, production reaches a peak and then declines an estimated 2-3% a year, even as demand continues to grow. Relentlessly, year after year the world has to make do with less oil, even as there are more and more of us. Developing nations and the poor suffer the worst.

Growing numbers of leading petroleum geologists and analysts believe we are at global “Peak Oil” now, or will be within a few years.

No one knows when world peak will arrive, or what sort of peak it will be- sharp, double, an undulating plateau- as calling the peak can happen only after the fact. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), the information arm of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), world production has been fairly flat since autumn 2004. Oil producers are running at maximum and now barely meet soaring demand. With no spare capacity, any slight disruption drives oil prices higher.

Oil-powered America

The U.S. should know about peak oil, as production in the lower-48 peaked in 1970, but we avoided this significant truth as we began importing ever more oil to replace our waning flow. Vastly endowed with the black riches, America was second only to Saudi Arabia in conventional reserves.

America’s rise to become a leading world power in the 20th century is almost synonymous with the rising power of oil in agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and globalization. The U.S. was the leading world oil producer from the early 20th century through the 1940s, and today we are still the third-largest producer. Even so, we import about 60% of the oil we use. We have now burned through a higher percentage of our reserves than any other country, and in the process we have gone from being the world’s largest creditor to largest debtor nation.

Oil-powered America emerged as the new dominant player during World War I, eclipsing coal-powered Britain. With that war, petro-powered fighter planes, trucks, tanks and boats overtook cavalries, wagons and horses. In both World Wars, strategies largely involved control of resources. The Allies’ control of oil resources played a huge factor in their victories. After WWI, British War Cabinet member Lord Curzon exulted, “The Allies floated to victory on a wave of oil.”

In 1930, the great East Texas Oil Field was discovered, and after WWII, America rose higher and higher on a grand wave of cheap energy. Chemists had a field day developing a myriad of plastics, new fabrics, synthetic rubber, detergents, paints, solvents, medicines, cosmetics-all derived from oil and gas-to expand our mass production, exports and standard of living. Fossil fuel-based fertilizers and insecticides and diesel-powered farm equipment revolutionized agriculture-filling supermarkets with food and freeing millions from farming to pursue other vocations. Car culture was born and its landscape of freeways, suburbs, gas stations, drive-ins, malls, theaters and motels sprawled across the land, fulfilling our desires for freedom, mobility, convenience and instant gratification. Cheap transport has sped people and goods around the globe. Many of us have lived more opulently than kings and queens of yore.

But all was not well in the land of abundance. In the 1950s, a top Shell geophysicist, M. King Hubbert, discovered that oil production followed a roughly bell-shaped curve of rising production to a peak when about half was extracted, with an irreversible decline thereafter. The effect holds true at all levels: single oil fields, whole nations, even the entire world. He predicted that U.S. oil production would peak sometime between 1966 and 1972, then it would descend inexorably.

Shell tried to suppress his warning; still he spoke out. Most dismissed him, as the U.S’s ever-climbing production seemed unstoppable. But as Hubbert predicted, in 1970 America’s continental production topped out and has declined since-output is now at just half its peak. Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay came online later, creating a smaller peak in 1988, with output now at one-fifth its peak.

Texas provides a great example. Its production climbed 40% over the decade before its 1972 peak. As oil prices surged in the late ’70s, Texas producers fully expected to increase production with the biggest drilling boom in its history. Yet to their astonishment, production fell, in spite of higher oil prices, frantic drilling and improved technology. By 1982, the 40% gain had been lost, and now Texas output is at a quarter of its former glory. In a December 26, 2005 “Fortune” magazine interview, billionaire Richard Rainwater said, “I believe in Hubbert’s Peak. I came out of Texas. I watched oil fields reach peak and go over, and I’ve watched how people would do all they could, put whatever amount of money into the field, and they couldn’t do anything about it.” More wells were drilled in the lower 48 than in all other countries combined, with the most advanced technology. If more oil existed in quantities to offset declines, it would have been found.

In decline worldwide

Discovery of new oil fields peaked in 1964, and nowadays consumption outpaces discovery about 5 to 1. The last time drillers found more oil than consumers used was 1981. Two of the three largest oil fields in the world, Cantarell in Mexico and Bergen in Kuwait, are now declining. The North Sea region is in steep decline, at just one-fourth its 1999 peak. Fifty-four of 65 oil-producing nations have entered depletion mode, leaving fewer nations to carry the weight.

Oil companies now find that money invested in exploration yields little return-they cannot find enough smaller new fields to replace the large fields now declining. Increasingly, companies find themselves drilling to extraordinary depths in the seas, in other challenging locales or amid hostile peoples such as in Nigeria. From the October 2005 issue of Petroleum Review: “Quite remarkably, in the first half of 2005 the top…22 publicly quoted oil companies all produced less crude and NGLs [gas] than they did in 2004…Clearly, it is no exaggeration to say that the world’s largest publicly quoted oil companies are now really struggling to hold production levels….”

More and more effort, less and less oil

Petroleum geologist Jeffrey J.Brown provides some valuable insights about the nature of fossil fuels. “Conventional” oil flows readily when pumped; whereas “unconventional” sources such as heavy oil must be heated in the ground first; also the tar sands and oil shale must be mined and heated. It is also helpful to view fossil fuels as a spectrum from gas to liquid to solid: starting with natural gas (the cleanest), and ranging through natural gas liquids, condensate, light sweet crude oil, heavy sour crude oil and bitumen to coal (the dirtiest). The world craves liquid transportation fuels (LTFs)-gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, which are most cheaply made from easy-to-extract light sweet crude oil. Being in highest demand, light crude may have already peaked. Brown notes that we are now turning to both ends of the range (the lightest, natural gas; and the heaviest – heavy oil, tar sands, and coal) in an attempt to maintain and increase our supply of LTFs. The trouble is, LTFs from the light and heavy stuff are terribly expensive and energy-intensive to produce; their production rates are low; and they are horrible for the environment. If you think drilling for oil and gas is bad, pillaging the planet for these nonconventional hydrocarbons is much worse.

The oil shale of eastern Utah and western Colorado, Venezuela’s heavy oil and Alberta’s tar sands hold vast unconventional deposits that dwarf Saudi Arabia’s oil deposits. Eastern Utah also has some tar sands and heavy oil. In Canada, current oil production from tar sands is at about 1 million barrels daily. Canadian tar sands are heated with enormous amounts of natural gas, even though North American gas production has now peaked. Producing just one barrel of tar sand “syncrude” moves four tons of earth, pollutes between two and five times that amount of water, releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases-and burns enough natural gas to heat a home for four days.

Several companies are now testing extraction methods on Utah and Colorado oil shale. Shell’s idea is particularly audacious- proposing to superheat a 2,000-foot underground segment of oil shale 700 degrees for three years, with a surrounding “frost-wall” to protect the aquifer below from contaminants. This would require the energy of one large coal-fired plant (consuming 5 million tons of coal per year) to extract a mere 100,000 barrels daily (a few minutes of U.S. consumption).

Turning to these sources is not a sign of technological innovation. It is a sign of desperation.

Some fossil fuels will always remain in the ground, too costly to extract. A ratio called EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) refers to the amount of oil extracted to the energy used to get that oil. The higher the ratio, the better. Decades ago, many wells returned an EROEI of 100; little energy was required to draw out the black gold. Think of the “Beverly Hillbillies” when Jed’s bullet hits the ground and the oil spurts out effortlessly, and you sort of get the idea. But the oil companies have mostly taken the easy pickings, leaving the hard-to-get-stuff for later.

Well, “later” has arrived. Now fields might average an EROEI of around 20. Deep-sea wells have an EROEI of less than 5. At the low end, the tar sands score dismally, about a 3, and oil shale is even worse. Hopes ride high for ethanol, yet its EROEI is nearly nil, given all the fossil fuel inputs of fertilizer and equipment operation. Hydrogen is a net energy loser. When it takes the energy of a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, it is just not worth it.

Soaring fuel costs hit energy-intensive processes especially hard. For example, tar sands projects are now experiencing major cost overruns. Difficult-to-extract oil stays put until extraction techniques are developed, or as the price of oil goes up, it becomes more economical to extract. Peak oil is all about running out of $20/barrel oil…then $40/barrel oil…then $60/barrel oil. We are already at the end of cheap oil.

Differences of opinion

Not all energy experts believe peak oil is imminent, and some totally dismiss the theory. But even the most optimistic energy consultants’ predictions still leave us facing the dilemma in just a few decades. They believe that as oil prices rise, producers will find cost-effective ways to extract unconventional oil and to recover more from depleted fields. A double-peak is possible, as the ability to massively scale up production of the non-conventional sources is still years away. However, with their inherent challenges, this may not be achievable. Oil “cornucopian” Michael Lynch, an energy consultant, emphasizes that numerous earlier predictions of oil depletion went unfulfilled when new oilfield discoveries and advancements in oil extraction were made, as if to imply that oil supply is infinite and such a forecast will always be wrong.

Many nations’ peak graphs reveal not so much a bell-shaped curve as a general jagged pattern, influenced by political and economic factors. Economist Mark Brandly asks how one knows which peak is final or which decline is final. He states that one needs to know this to know the start of the crisis. Yet if peak production forms a bumpy plateau, unable to meet skyrocketing demand, this alone could wreak tremendous economic havoc.

Lack of accurate and transparent reserve data further muddies the waters and makes true analysis impossible. In the 1980s, many OPEC nations suddenly boosted (actually, nearly doubled) proven reserve numbers, which allowed them to boost production quotas and export more (production was required to be proportional to proved reserves).

Government agencies, such as the U.S. Geologic Survey, the Energy Information Agency, and watchdog International Energy Agency, use these doubled-reserve numbers and issue rosy interpretations of data in their reports. These highly respected agencies mutually reinforce one another in believing that OPEC reserve data is accurate, that the Saudis will be capable of doubling output in 15 years, and that unconventional production will be ramped up-all meeting soaring demand. The EIA’s International Energy Outlook 2006 projects global demand at 118 million barrels a day (mbpd) in 2030, up from 85 mbpd currently, a 38% increase in 24 years, and forecasts that output will meet demand.

Oil companies, the United Nations, analysts, economists and even environmental groups quote these reports and uphold their conclusions. Governments and corporations base their planning on them. However, many leading energy experts say these projections are delusional-such production levels are unattainable. They doubt OPEC’s reserve numbers, and Saudi Arabia’s claim that they can double output (and the Saudis refuse to be audited).

Assessing the same data, they starkly conclude that we are trapped on a runaway train.

Matthew Simmons, a top energy investment banker and advisor to President Bush, has extensively reviewed over 200 Saudi reserve reports and argues that overall Saudi fields are in decline. In the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security’s March 2004 report he says, “The entire world assumes Saudi Arabia can carry everyone’s energy needs on its back cheaply. If this turns out not to work there is no ‘plan B.’ Global spare capacity is now ‘all Saudi Arabia.’ This is the world’s insurance policy, and no third party inspector has examined it for years. Conventional wisdom says ‘Don’t worry. Trust today,’ but if conventional wisdom is wrong, the world faces a giant energy crisis.” Last fall, Saudi Arabia shocked the world when it announced it could not boost production to offset losses sustained by hurricane damage to Gulf of Mexico producers.

Too little, too late?

Free-market advocates proclaim that rising fuel prices will signal the market to develop alternative technologies just as we need them, yet these alternatives are still decades from viably replacing energy-dense fossil fuels. A recent U.S. Department of Energy report, “The Mitigation of the Peaking of World Oil Production,” by energy analyst Robert Hirsch, strongly recommends intense actions beginning 20 years prior to peak to transition smoothly away from traditional petroleum. It states that government intervention will be required-market signals in the form of higher oil prices alone will be insufficient and will come too late to induce the dramatic actions needed. The report’s proposed mitigations call on a mix of unconventional sources (heavy oil, tar sands, oil shale), enhanced recovery from older fields, efficiency and conservation. These large-scale measures will take years to enact; for example, converting the nation to more efficient vehicles will take about 15 years.

Hirsch believes that if we are on the brink of peak, we are in no way prepared, and at this late stage we would be in for a rough ride. The executive report summary warns: “As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented.”

All currently viable renewables combined-wind, solar, tidal, geothermal -will not replace oil’s concentrated energy. Most of these provide electricity-they will only replace oil if we replace our vehicle fleet to plug-in hybrids. We still don’t have other fuel options for aircraft. Fuel cells are not fuel sources, but energy converters that must be produced by using energy. Hydrogen and corn ethanol are unviable as broadbased solutions (see sidebar). Producing ethanol is already stealing from food production. Some developments show promise, such as thermal conversion, and cellulosic ethanol-but are not market-ready. Peak guru Richard Heinberg notes that using fossil fuels is like spending an enormous inheritance, whereas using renewables is like working hard and living from paycheck to paycheck.

Natural gas, coal, nuclear

Some suggest natural gas and coal liquefaction as a bridge towards the renewables. Others propose more reliance upon nuclear power and natural gas in response to global warming. Many Americans believe we still have abundant stores of natural gas. Few realize that North American production has peaked, and much of the world’s gas is stranded far from infrastructure. Companies here must drill record numbers of wells only to see total production stay flat or fall, which is partially why we are seeing such a drilling frenzy here in the West. Increasingly they turn to unconventional gas, such as coal methane beds common in Utah, with higher environmental impact.

In coming years, we will rely on liquefied natural gas (LNG) transported from overseas sources such as politically volatile Central Asia and Africa (more reliance on foreign fuel!). Building the vast and costly global LNG infrastructure will take time, and is now being delayed. Transporting and storing LNG is risky, burdensome to the environment and a potential terrorist target. On the coasts, LNG port placement battles rage on. In the meantime, we could see the harsh realities of localized peak gas shortages in North America. We have already had a couple of close calls. World peak gas is predicted for 2020-2030, following with a steeper decline than oil’s. North America’s gas peak will go unheeded as a warning sign, while the world invests deeply in the globalized infrastructure. Natural gas has many uses: heating buildings, an ingredient in plastics, and as the main source of hydrogen and fertilizer. Gas-powered plants generate over 20% of our nation’s electricity.

Pressures mount to rely more on coal, the dirtiest hydrocarbon, for both electricity and for liquid fuel. Coal industry ads tell us we have 250 years of coal left at current consumption rates. In reality, much of the easy-to-get coal has been mined … sound familiar? Appalachian miners are moving closer to towns and going deeper. A large percentage included in reserve quotes is too dirty to burn, too remote, or is buried under places like towns or national parks. What will “America the Beautiful” look like after we’ve dug up the coal from these places? These reserve estimates have not been updated since the 1970s and were based on older surveys from the 20s and 30s.

Montana’s governor Brian Schweitzer proposes his state’s coal for coal liquefaction as an oil substitute. This process would create solid waste, CO2 emissions requiring sequesterization, and polluted water. Even so, this will likely be an important source of transportation fuel. If we go this route, Gregson Vaux, engineer at Science Application International Corporation, calculated that we could have peak coal in 30 years.

Increasing natural gas prices and global warming have also brought more pressure to boost our nuclear power. After several decades, its faults are still unresolved: safety, security, cost, and nuclear waste disposal. Is civilization’s destiny bound up with finite energy resources from within the Earth-oil, gas, coal-or can we make a shift to renewables? This could be humanity’s most challenging transition.

Other energy woes

Peak oil is not the only problem. Oil and gas prices are going up for other reasons. We increasingly rely on oil from political hotspots. Others in the world want to live like us, so demand from developing countries, especially China and India, is surging. Aging infrastructure, shortages of drilling equipment and workers, and lack of refining capacity (especially for heavy oil) are delaying projects and driving costs up. Soaring oil company profits are only icing on the corporate cake – a secondary result of higher prices.

Another layer of complexity affects oil pricing. Oil is an exchange-traded commodity, subject to the future-guessing of oil traders, as they respond to factors that effect supply and demand. The absence of hurricanes in the oil-producing Gulf of Mexico, a correction in the commodities market, and other factors, have led to a price drop since early August. But the underlying situation, as described in this article, remains. The price is still high, well within a solid upward trend. Some peakers predict that as the peak draws near, pricing will become more volatile.

These other factors contribute to the energy malaise and are easier to identify and blame, only obscuring the truth about Hubbert’s Peak. Our fossil-fuel-based energy industry can no longer be relied on as a steady elixir for our economic engine.

Does Bush get it?

Where are Bush and Cheney (former oilmen themselves) in all this? Why is the Administration not preparing us for the possibility of an imminent peak, as they warn us of the possibility of terrorism? Why is President Bush not going much, much further in weaning us from our “addiction to oil”?

In a 1999 speech to a London Institute of Petroleum luncheon, Cheney revealed that he understands what is at stake: “By some estimates, there will be an average of two-percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day…Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world’s economy.”

Energy banker Matthew Simmons and Maryland Rep. Rosco Barlett have explicitly warned Bush about peak oil. Whether he doesn’t get it, doesn’t believe it, doesn’t want us to know, or just doesn’t care-preparing us is not on his agenda. What would we expect from a president who said, “We need an energy policy that encourages consumption”? By championing ethanol and hydrogen, calling nuclear power clean and renewable and proclaiming that we have 250 million years of coal left (a Bushism, certainly!), our president reveals his ignorance on energy issues. Clinton and Gore are now publicly stating they think we are about at peak, and that we must now get going.

The Army is particularly concerned, and is beginning preparations-after all, militaries and war are enormous gas-guzzlers. Were it a country, our Department of Defense would be the 31st largest oil consumer in the world!

Food = Oil

Food security may be the largest concern of all. For every calorie we eat, we also “consume” at least 10 calories of fossil fuel-used in raising, processing, and transporting. In America, food travels an average of 1500 miles to reach our plate. Garlic from China, apples from Chile, lamb from Australia, olive oil from Italy-eating food from far-flung places is now commonplace. Industrial agriculture, AKA the Green Revolution- built on cheap fuel with gas-derived fertilizer, oil-derived pesticides and diesel-powered equipment-has fed billions. Never in history have so few fed so many. Perhaps, as Bill McKibben puts it, a “greener counterrevolution” is in order.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, oil imports to both North Korea and Cuba plummeted, and their industrial agriculture soon collapsed. In response, Cuba virtually transformed its food system with organic, small-scale urban farming, permaculture, and animal power, and is now feeding its people on very limited quantities of oil. North Korea, on the other hand, tried to maintain the status quo and has food shortages to this day.

Predictions galore

Post-peak predictions abound, from the apocalyptic (fascism, endless resource wars, abandoned suburbs, economic collapse, famine, Mad Max “man-feeding-on-man” breakdown) to the visionary (urban farming; a “powerdown” path of cooperation and economic sacrifice; re-emphasis on the local). Others believe market forces will unleash a flurry of innovations to rescue us, enabling us to maintain perpetual growth.

Some peakers are moving to self-sufficient, sustainable communities called “lifeboats.” Richard Heinberg is calling for an “Oil Depletion Protocol” – a cooperative, managed sharing by which nations reduce and ration energy consumption in step with the global depletion rate – as a way to head off oil wars. Some peakers advocate restructuring our debt-based monetary system, which is based on unlimited growth incompatible with a finite planet. Julian Darley, founder of the think tank Post Carbon Institute, says we are headed for “relocalization,” a reversal of energy-hungry globalization. San Francisco and Portland have passed peak oil resolutions, and Denver is taking concrete steps such as reducing fleet size, using hybrids, and expanding mass transit.

A functioning democracy requires its citizens to understand their real situation. Had Americans grasped our 1970 peak’s foretelling of the global peak, what path would we have taken? It’s time for Americans to become “energy literate” and realize the enormous challenges now facing the energy industry in delivering gasoline to our SUVs, heat to our McMansions, and maintaining what we call “normal.” Peak oil needs to become a part of our vocabulary, yet many have not heard the phrase nor know the concept.

Peakers can relate to Al Gore’s musings in his film “An Inconvenient Truth” – he keeps searching in vain for signs that society is waking up to the imminent need to change course drastically, and soon. Indeed, the prescriptions for both global warming and peak oil are nearly one and the same.

Jean Arnold is an avid researcher whose work as a visual artist (exploring urban mobility) and concern for the environment led her to this subject.

The following appeared as sidebars in the print version of this story:

Sobering Up:

How does one prepare for peak oil and peak gas, as their outcomes are so unpredictable? Some peaksters are promoting self-sufficiency skills and head-to-the-hills survivalist preparations. This list focuses instead on community-based response and reducing energy consumption. While fear is natural, the loner stance is simply unworkable. We are all interdependent in many ways. While we will need to engage in individual actions, we will also need to work together collectively – whether we live in cities or small communities. The federal and state governments may not respond appropriately or in a timely manner, so it might fall on us at the local grassroots level to arrive at responses to peak oil and gas.

Weaning away from petro addiction is a step-by-step process; we can’t quit cold turkey. The Oil Depletion Protocol (see main article, under “Predictions Galore” heading) calls on people to reduce fossil fuel consumption 2-3% per year, which doesn’t sound like much, but over a 10-year period it adds up to 25%. The areas of biggest impact are heating, transportation, and food choices. Focusing on changing more impactful habits, such as driving, is better than agonizing over smaller issues. Some of these suggestions may seem excessive or radical now; they will seem less so as the price of energy climbs.

Study and implement Catalyst’s sustainability checklists in the April and July 2006 issues, available at – offering many tips for reducing energy usage. The suggestions listed here are a supplement to those checklists.

Many homes locally are heated with natural gas. Save your utility bills as a feedback mechanism. Catalyst’s April list offers many energy-saving home heating and cooling tips. Get the highest R-value insulation you can. Double-glazed windows can reduce heat loss through windows by 50%. If replacing your furnace, consider a heat pump system rather than a gas furnace, for both heating and cooling: When replacing a water heater, consider either a solar or an on-demand one. For alternatives to gas heat, read “Natural Home Heating: The Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Options,” by Greg Pahl, covering numerous options, such as wood stoves, biomass, heat pumps, and solar.

Transportation is a biggie: consider purchasing a more efficient vehicle, even a hybrid, then drive less – walk, bicycle, carpool, use public transit, and coordinate errands.

For ridesharing and carpooling, use,, and

For safety tips on urban bicycling:

Convert a diesel vehicle to run on vegetable oil: and – or buy B20 biodiesel (no conversion required):

Travel less. Businesses could use teleconferencing, rather than sending employees on business trips. Take more local, less exotic vacations. Consider travel by bus or Amtrak. Longer flights are more fuel-efficient than driving to the same destination, but shorter flights are less so. Two or more passengers makes driving more favorable. Emissions in the stratosphere have a worse effect.

Pesticides and food transport use much fuel, so buy organic, locally raised produce, meat, and dairy products as much as possible. Participate in farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture. Buy less processed, less packaged foods, and less frozen foods. If possible, grow your own vegetables, even learn to can or dry foods. Plant fruit and nut trees. Compost food and garden waste. Eat lower on the food chain.

Conserve water, as it requires energy to purify water and run pumping stations.

Buy fewer new clothes – prefer clothing made from linen, organic cotton, or the new fabrics such as soy, bamboo, and hemp. Non-organic cotton production uses vast amounts of oil-based pesticides. Polyester, acetate, nylon, and acrylic fabrics are all petroleum-based. Rayon takes a lot of energy to make. Buy used clothing in any fabric you want.

Choose natural, petroleum-free cleaning and personal care products.

Get out of debt and reduce consumption. Downsize your lifestyle. Prefer local businesses over chains. Buy less stuff, especially plastic things. Notice where goods are shipped from, and choose those made closer to home.

Spread the word about our energy situation, telling friends, family, neighbors – be gentle and patient in doing so. Don’t be surprised if those around you don’t get it, don’t want to hear about it, or believe a technofix will take care of everything. Try not to talk about it too much.

For coping with the emotional aspects of learning about and understanding peak oil: Develop meditation, deep breathing, or other centering practices.

Consider joining a co-housing project, an intentional community, or an ecovillage:,, Community Solution advocates living in small communities:

Learn about permaculture – the philosophy and design system of sustainable homes, gardens, and communities. Many permaculturists are developing responses to peak oil. Visit:,

Consider having just one child or no children. In many ways, the human population is now exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet.

Deep structural changes

Contact Catalyst if you want to join a local Post Carbon Group, as part of the Relocalization Network, to address ways of preparing your local community for energy descent. The Relocalization Network provides support for doing this:, Or start a local Peak Oil awareness group, using to find other like-minded people:

Write letters to the editor. Write or call those in power, telling them to get serious about ending fossil-fuel addiction. Local politicians may be the most important ones we need to reach.

On the federal level advocate these initiatives: implementing a carbon tax; eliminating oil, gas, and corn ethanol subsidies; substantially raising CAFE standards; lowering the speed limit; massively increasing R&D for renewable energy; maintaining and raising the wind power tax credit; reviving the railroad infrastructure for both freight and passengers and legalizing hemp cultivation for ethanol and biodiesel.

Get your city to pass a Peak Oil Resolution: to get a funded, citywide assessment and response (see sidebar: “City Preparedness”). Initially issues such as mass transit, city fleets, zoning, and asphalt will need to be addressed; eventually much food production will need to be local – cities will need to address this. Also advocate that your city endorse the Oil Depletion Protocol: Call on all levels of government to adopt it.

Join the campaign to pressure Ford to develop more efficient vehicles, and eventually fossil-free vehicles:

The Apollo Alliance is an impressive coalition of labor groups, environmental groups, justice- and faith-based groups, foundations, and business partners working to advance the development and implementation of clean energy solutions, and energy-saving solutions for the nation, for states, cities, and universities (available in comprehensive reports at their website.) Visit:

Health care professionals should start considering peak oil’s impact on the health care system and ways to mitigate. Visit:

Work to bring about campaign finance reform. Learn about, then work to eliminate, corporate personhood. This is a good place to start:

“Unlimited” energy supply, “unlimited” growth, and “unlimited” currency are all intertwined, and may be about to hit the wall on this finite planet – which would necessitate an overhaul of the monetary system. One possibility is to institute a local currency system, redeemable locally only, as Ithaca has done: This will promote community self-reliance and the local economy. A local currency could also provide loans for energy-saving or energy-making devices. Learn about steady-state economics, and study ways to implement it. Websites:,,,,

City Preparedness for Peak Oil:

Of all levels of government, city-level peak oil preparations may be the most important. The design, structure, and operation of cities create either efficiencies or inefficiencies – which then affect individual choices. As energy prices rise, important aspects of living will become more localized. Citizens can have the greatest effect at the local level.

Some cities have taken definite steps towards addressing climate change, including Salt Lake City. There are both similarities and differences in addressing climate change and addressing peak oil and gas. For example, using natural gas-powered buses and cars addresses climate change and pollution, but worsens North American peak gas issues. A major priority in climate change mitigation is reducing electrical use from coal-fire plants, and to build up the wind turbine infrastructure. In terms of peak oil, this will have a much less immediate effect. Planting a tree to offset CO2 emissions won’t offset oil depletion. Regarding peak oil, cities will need to address issues such as public outreach, asphalt (made from petroleum), expansion of local food production, and transportation issues.

Reducing oil consumption is a major concern in dealing with both peak oil and global warming. City initiatives such as downsizing city fleets, city fleet turnover to more efficient vehicles, urban planning and zoning, expansion of mass transit and the encouragement of telecommuting and bicycle commuting – all are transportation-related and would address the use of oil. Of these, zoning and planning can have the largest impact – higher-density cities mean shorter transit distances. Making a city fleet more efficient is a mere drop in the bucket of overall consumption. Nevertheless, this is an important measure, as rising gasoline prices can take a big bite out of city budgets.

Portland and San Francisco have both passed Peak Oil Resolutions, the first step in identifying appropriate responses. Portland peak oil activists have posted a great website to educate and inform their fellow citizens.

As a former petroleum geologist, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper was well aware of peak oil long before taking office. Denver is taking measures such as downsizing its city fleet, using more efficient vehicles (including hybrids), using biodiesel in the fleet’s diesel vehicles, building a light rail system, land use planning, and promoting business telecommuting. The city also hosted a national peak oil conference last fall. Peak oil awareness groups are forming in cities nationwide.

Here in Salt Lake City, attempts have been made on several fronts to reduce oil consumption and pollution. Since 2005, the city’s fleet vehicle pool was reduced by 87 vehicles and nearly 84,000 fewer gallons of gas were used than the previous year. Additionally, the city has purchased 14 natural gas vehicles and three gas electric hybrids. Seventy-five other vehicles, including 100% of the shuttle buses at Salt Lake City International Airport, now run on compressed natural gas.

More than just thinking about which kinds of vehicles to utilize, Salt Lake City is also taking steps to reduce vehicle transit overall. The City participated in World Car Free Day, an international event held on September 22nd as an effort to promote alternatives to commuting by car. September was also “Curb Your Car Month” in Salt Lake, a combined effort with UTA. Forty-eight miles of roadways in Salt Lake now have bicycle lanes and in 2005 the Metropolitan Pedestrian Safety Study judged Salt Lake the most improved city in the nation for pedestrian sa–ety.

Salt Lake’s steps to meet the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases have definitely taken the city down the right path. However, efforts to find more ways to reduce fossil-fuel consumption need to be ongoing. The city also needs to identify vulnerabilities that are unique to the situation of peak oil and peak gas, and find ways to address them.

– Pax Rasmussen –

Waiting for GODOT…or is it Hydrogen?

Loads of hype is circulating about our future hydrogen economy, yet its promoters are overlooking hydrogen’s limitations. First, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. Hydrogen does not exist in an uncombined state in nature; it must be made. It always takes more energy to make hydrogen than it can provide – whether made from fossil fuels, electricity, or biomass. Physics tell us that whenever you convert from one energy form to another, some energy is lost … no matter now much research money is thrown at the problem.

Second, hydrogen needs to be chilled and compressed – using even more energy – and must be stored in thick-walled, huge containers…highly inefficient to lug around in our cars. Third, hydrogen is the lightest and sneakiest element, so it readily escapes from even the best-sealed container, it makes metal brittle, and it is highly flammable. Being leaky and highly flammable is not a good combo. Fourth, it takes a lot of energy to move it through a pipeline. We’re talking about some overwhelming infrastructure challenges, even more than can be listed here.

In July, at the Lucerne Fuel Cell Conference in Switzerland, conference organizer Ulf Bossel made a major announcement that the dreams for a hydrogen economy will never be realized, “…We cannot solve the energy problem by wasting energy. The laws of physics speak against a hydrogen economy.” He said that direct use of electricity by the consumer is three to four times as efficient as hydrogen would be. Supplying just half the U.S.’s car fuel in 2025 with electrically-made hydrogen would require about as much electricity as is used in this country today. Hydrogen will not be a magic bullet for our transportation needs. However, it will have certain worthwhile uses, such as for storage of intermittent wind and solar power.

Corn ethanol suffers from the same basic problem as hydrogen…it provides just a bit more energy than it takes to produce it – given all the fossil-fuel inputs to raise, fertilize, transport and distill the corn. Cellulosic ethanol and soy biodiesel show more promise. Ethanol and biodiesel from hemp might be the best option of all, were it legal to grow in the U.S. The net energy gains of various biofuels are being hotly debated. Concerns are also being raised about soil depletion, about the amount of water required for ethanol distillation, and most biofuels raise the question: do we use our farmland to grow food or fuel? Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute, says the grain needed to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank would feed one person for a whole year.

These “solutions” have much seductive appeal, as they feed the hope we can maintain our present consumer-based lifestyle and that we will not have to change a thing. Broad-based hydrogen solutions, if attainable, are decades away. We cannot afford to wait for hydrogen cars … if they ever arrive. We need to address peak oil and global warming issues now. Plug-in hybrids and improved efficiencies would be a good place to start. The CO2 emissions from the electricity to charge the plug-in cars is less than using gasoline in a traditional combustion engine – even from coal-fire plants.

Other Resources


“The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World” – by Paul Roberts, 2005.

“The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies” – by Richard Heinberg, 2005.

“Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World” – by Richard Heinberg, 2004.

“The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse”

– by Richard Heinberg, 2006.

“High Noon for Natural Gas”

– by Julian Darley, 2004.

“The Long Emergency”

– by James Howard Kunstler, 2006.

“Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy”

– by Matthew Simmons, 2005.

“Big Coal” – Jeff Goodell, 2006.


An Inconvenient Truth

Who Killed the Electric Car?

The End of Suburbia

A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash


– good introduction to Peak Oil – news & message boards – news & articles – online discussions

– thinktank Post Carbon Institute’s site

– videos, interviews, articles

– order “The Oil Age” poster, loaded with info

– metadirectory with links to articles & sites -ride sharing, relocalization, community-based response – learn about the Protocol and how to adopt it Australian Broadcasting’s Four Corners show on Peak Oil, can be watched on the internet

This article was originally published on September 5, 2007.