After the Peak
January 31, 2015
Nearly 17 years ago the modern peak oil movement began with the publication of “The End of Cheap Oil” by petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère in the March, 1998 issue of Scientific American. Campbell coined the term “peak oil” to describe the inevitable moment when the world petroleum industry would produce oil at its historic maximum rate. From then on, production would decline as the overall quality of available resources deteriorated, and as increasing investments produced diminishing returns. Unless society had dramatically and proactively reduced its reliance on oil, the result would be a series of economic shocks that would devastate industrial societies.
Campbell estimated that global conventional oil production would reach its maximum rate sometime before the year 2010. In later publications, Laherrère added that the peak in conventional oil would cause prices to rise, creating the incentive to develop more unconventional petroleum resources. The result would be a delayed peak for “all liquid fuels,” which he estimated would occur around the year 2015.
Today we may be very nearly at that latter peak. Slightly ahead of forecast, conventional oil production started drifting lower in 2005, resulting in several years of record high prices—which led the industry to develop technology to extract tar sands and tight oil, and also incentivized the US and Brazil to begin producing large quantities of biofuels. But high petroleum prices also gradually weakened the economies of oil-dependent industrial nations, reducing their demand for liquid fuels. The resulting mismatch between growing supply and moderating demand has resulted in a temporary market glut and falling oil prices.
Crashing prices are in turn forcing the industry to cut back on drilling. As a result of idled rigs, global crude production will probably contract in the last half of 2015 through the first half of 2016. Even if prices recover as a result of falling output, production will probably not return to its recent upward trajectory, because the US tight oil boom is set to go bust around 2016 in any case. And banks, once burned in their lavish support for marginally profitable drilling projects, are unlikely to jump back into the unconventionals arena with both feet.
Ironically, just as the rate of the world’s liquid fuels production may be about to crest the curve, we’re hearing that warnings of peak oil were wrongheaded all along. The world is in the midst of a supply glut and prices are declining, tireless resource optimists remind us. Surely this disproves those pessimistic prophets of peril! However, as long-time peakist commentator Ron Patterson notes:
Peak oil will be the point in time when more oil is produced than has ever been produced in the history of the world, or ever will be in the future of the world. It is far more likely that this period will be thought of as a time of an oil glut rather than a time of an oil shortage.
Within a couple of years, those of us who have spent most of the past two decades warning about the approaching peak may see vindication by data, if not by public opinion. So should we prepare to gloat? I don’t plan to. After all, the purpose of the exercise was not to score points, but to warn society. We were seeking to change the industrial system in such a way as to reduce the scale of the coming economic shock. There’s no sign we succeeded in doing that. We spent most of our efforts just battling to be heard; our actual impact on energy policy was minimal.
There’s no cause for shame in that: the deck was stacked against us. The economics profession, which has a stranglehold on government policy, steadfastly continues to insist that energy is a fully substitutable ingredient in the economy, and that resource depletion poses no limit to economic growth. Believing this to be true, policy makers have effectively had their fingers jammed in their ears.
A cynic might conclude that now is a good time for peak oil veterans to declare victory, hunker down, and watch the tragedy unfold. But for serious participants in the discussion this is where the real work commences.
During these past 17 years, as the peak oil debate roiled energy experts, climate change emerged as an issue of ecosystem survival, providing another compelling reason to reduce our reliance not just on oil, but all fossil fuels. However, the world’s response to the climate issue was roughly the same as for peak oil: denial and waffling.
Today, society is about to begin its inevitable, wrenching adaptation to having less energy and mobility, just as the impacts of fossil fuel-driven climate change are starting to hit home. How will those of us who have spent the past years in warning mode contribute to this next crucial chapter in the unfolding human drama?
Despite peakists’ inability to change government policy, our project was far from being a waste of time and effort. The world is better off today than it would have been if we had done nothing—though clearly not as much better as we would have liked. A few million people understood the message, and at least tens of thousands changed their lives and will be better prepared for what’s coming. One could say the same for climate activism.
If our main goal during the past 17 years was to alert the world about looming challenges, now it is to foster adaptation to fundamental shifts that are currently under way. The questions that need exploration now are:
- How can we help build resilience throughout society, starting locally, assuming we will have little or no access to the reins of national policy?
- How can we help society adapt to climate change while building a zero-emissions energy infrastructure?
- How can we help adapt society’s energy consumption to the quantities and qualities of energy that renewable sources will actually be able to provide?
We have to assume that this work will have to be undertaken in the midst of accelerating economic decay, ecological disruption, and periodic crises—far from ideal operating conditions.
On the other hand, there is the possibility that crisis could act in our favor. As their routines and expectations are disturbed, many people may be open to new explanations of their predicament and to new behaviors to help them adapt to energy and monetary poverty. Our challenge will be to frame unfolding events persuasively in ecological terms (energy, habitat, population) rather than conventional political terms (good guys, bad guys), and to offer practical solutions to the burgeoning everyday problems of survival—solutions that reduce ecological strains rather than worsening them. Our goal should not be to preserve industrial societies or middle-class lifestyles as we have known them (that’s impossible anyway), but to offer a “prosperous way down,” as Howard Odum put it, while preserving whatever cultural goods that can be salvaged and that deserve the effort.
As with our recent efforts to warn society about peak oil, there is no guarantee of success. But it’s what needs doing.