Considering how important peak oil is to our society and our future, I’m constantly amazed at how few people have heard of it, much less understand it. I’m no expert on the subject, and most of the information in this piece comes from the Internet – I won’t even bother to reference much, you can get it all from Wikipedia. But I thought a brief summary of the issues involved might raise the level of debate when the issue comes up.
What is peak oil?
Peak oil is simply the point at which petroleum production is at its historical and future maximum. It is not an end to oil production, only a point in time when the market changes dramatically. In fact, it’s roughly the point at which half of all oil that will ever be extracted has been extracted. The consumption of oil has increased almost continuously from the day a use for it was discovered, and at the point of peak oil this will have to change.
What happens at peak oil?
When we hit the global peak of oil production, oil prices will increase until demand drops. This is not just fundamental economics, it’s the only outcome physically possible. If demand is at or above the level of peak production, and production drops, demand must drop since the amount of oil available can not meet this demand. Once oil becomes scarce and expensive, if society has not adjusted to other technologies then the effect on economies will be dramatic.
The Hubbert Curve
In 1956 M. King Hubbert published models that predicted the US would hit peak oil production between 1965 and 1970. Not only was he correct about production in the US, the Hubbert curve has been successfully applied to oil producing countries around the world. The model doesn’t just apply to a prediction of a country’s oil peak, but also to a global peak for oil production.
Predictions of the Peak
The International Energy Agency has estimated that the world has hit peak oil in 2006.
The US military is the world’s single largest user of oil. The Joint Forces Command published the Joint Operating Environment 2010, stating “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.”
A survey of petroleum geologists was published in the journal of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 2008. 61% of petroleum geologists believe peak oil has occurred or will occur within the next 10 years. Only 15% give us over 20 years until peak oil.
Both Exxon and Shell have admitted that almost all of the easy and cheap oil in the world have been found.
Can’t we just drill, baby, drill in Alaska?
Alaska has known reserves of oil, and therefore is already accounted for in these predictions. Remember – peak oil means roughly 1/2 of the oil we’ll ever extract is still in the ground. It’s assumed we’ll open up more of our reserved oil at some point in the future, and the question is whether it’s more useful to use our supply before or after prices go up.
How does this affect Seattle?
Our land use and transportation decisions affect us on the decade or even century scale. Although it’s really hard to predict the future, the success or our decisions depend on this prediction. I don’t predict cars will go away. But driving them will become more and more expensive. And paving our roads will become more and more expensive. We can either prepare for this future now, by building densely and connecting dense nodes with electric transit, or we risk hitting a wall and having a large amount of our population lose much of their mobility.