page is a reproduction of the Peak Oil intro that used to live at
www.leeds-susnet.org.uk dug out from http://web.archive.org due to
leeds-susnet.org.uk being offline! - credit J. Atkinson)
The term "Peak Oil" is used
to describe the point in time when global oil production reaches its
highest ever flow rate. After this event, oil production will enter
permanent decline. At first this might not seem like a very important
event, until we begin to look at how much we currently rely on oil, or
try to find alternatives - in large enough amounts - for when it starts
At the moment, the
uses around 84,000,000 barrels of oil every day - that works out at
23,501,396,286 pints every day, or the equivalent volume of 2 Lake
Windermeres every year.
We've come to depend
for nearly everything that allows us to live our way of life. Oil makes
up 40% of our total energy use, and 95% of our transport fuel. We use
it as both a fuel and a lubricant to keep our cars, lorries, trains and
planes moving. It is used as a feedstock for the plastics, chemical and
pharmaceutical industries. Man made fibres come from oil. Perhaps most
worrying of all is that modern agriculture depends on petroleum-derived
weedkillers and pesticides, as well as natural gas-derived fertilizers
to achieve current yield levels.
There are some
that can be used for many of the jobs that oil currently performs.
However, there are problems, and in terms of the amount we currently
use, nothing comes anywhere close. For example, biodiesel can be used
to power lorries and cars, but it comes from crops that are currently
grown using oil-derived pesticides. Even if they were grown
organically, it would take an area 5 times the size of the UK's
existing agricultural land to provide enough biodiesel for Britain's
current petrol use. And then where would we grow our food?
sources of hydrocarbon energy doesn't give much more hope; heavy oils,
natural gas, and even coal can be turned into synthetic crude, but
there are serious engineering, environmental or political problems with
all of them that mean that production of them will never be ramped up
quickly enough to fill the gap left by declining supplies of
For example, there are
deposits in Canada but extracting it is far more costly than
conventional oil in financial, energy and environmental terms, and the
overall production rate is ultimately constrained by the amount of
fresh water and natural gas (massive amounts of which are used in
processing the sands) available in the region.
Many governments and
scientists still hope that nuclear fusion technology can be developed
to provide almost limitless supplies of energy but even optimists admit
fusion a viable energy source for mankind is an enormous scientific and
The fact that the nuclear fusion research sector has consistently
promised results within "a few decades" yet still failed to deliver any
major results gives little confidence that a solution will be found in
economy" is very unlikely to materialise. Hydrogen only occurs
naturally on earth as a compound - it needs to be "cracked" from the
substance that contains it (such as water or natural gas). Cracking
hydrogen generally takes as much energy as you get from the hydrogen at
the end of it, so there is no net energy gain in the process.
Furthermore, if we switched all the world's 600,000,000+ road vehicles
to run on hydrogen, we'd also need to retrofit our entire fuel
distribution infrastructure to handle a more volatile substance - at a
time when rising energy prices will be making such major, industrial
projects far more expensive.
for the United States Department of Energy concluded that a "crash
programme" of implementing efficiency measures plus stimulating
increased production capacity for other sources of hydrocarbons would
need to be initiated some 20 years before global oil production peak if
severe economic hardship is to be averted.
So what might happen
worldwide oil production enters decline? At the most basic level, the
price of oil will rise, pricing the poorest people out of the market
Some commentators believe that as oil, and subsequently all other forms
of energy become ever more expensive, businesses will increasingly
struggle with their input costs
while at the same time their customers will be spending less on
consumer goods as a growing proportion of their salaries are needed to
pay energy bills.
Many firms could find
themselves in difficulty, leading to increasing
further weakening consumer confidence and leading to a vicious circle
resulting in growing numbers of business failures. This could have
grave implications for the stock market, and by extension any
investments dependent on it, such as many managed pension funds.
The fact that
is at an all time high in this country is further cause for concern. As
energy prices rise, the rising overall cost of living is likely to put
pressure on the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee to raise
interest rates in order to control inflation.
Rising interest rates for
customers already struggling with large debts could easily lead to growing
rates of bankruptcy.
This could spell real trouble for banks that have lent out as much as 7
or 8 times their own assets' total value. If enough customers start
defaulting on their debts, the lending institutions could find
themselves with burgeoning portfolios of reclaimed property (that
nobody else can afford to buy, so their value will collapse) and become
Rising oil prices
likely to have a significant impact on healthcare standards as the
price of modern, petroleum-derived medicines, plastic equipment such as
syringes, and the electricity to power hospitals and the many machines
in them all rise.
Now consider the fact that we depend on oil and natural gas
due to peak around 10-20 years later than oil) for our current food
yields, and we depend on oil-powered planes and trucks to transport it
to our supermarket shelves. Modern fertiliser and pesticide-intensive
farming methods have destroyed much of the natural, organic health in
the world's soils, so simply switching to organic farming will take
time - it usually takes about 3-5 years for depleted soils to recover
to the point where they can become more productive again. If we leave
it until there is an oil crisis, this period of transition is likely to
be one characterised by widespread hunger, similar to the Special
Period experienced by Cuba in the 1990s.
oil will - in the course of our lifetimes - become a thing of the past.
The transition will come as a shock to many in society, and the less we
do to prepare for it, the worse that shock will be. Our governments and
business are unlikely to solve problems for us because they are
primarily focussed on winning the next election or maximising profits
for this financial year - long term planning for a difficult future
(that may require implementing unpopular policies or compromising
near-term profitability) is a secondary concern. The sooner that we, as
communities start planning for Peak Oil and building a "parallel public
infrastructure", the more prepared we will be when Peak Oil's effects
really start to bite. Inaction now means greater suffering later.
OK, so when exactly
this likely to start happening then? Well, unfortunately Peak Oil is a
phenomenon that you can only really identify with certainty in
hindsight. It is possible that it will be more of a drawn out
production plateau, rather than a distinct peak. However, There is
consensus among several highly respected independent energy industry
figures that it will happen within the next 5 years, if it hasn't
already happened. Certainly, the fact that the price of the benchmark West
Texas Intermediate Crude
oil has tripled over the last 3 years suggests that supplies are
getting tight, and the fact that many of the anticipated economic
indicators are becoming apparent, suggests that - Peak Oil or not - the
economy is already begining to slow down.
Oil Summary - Mike Tooke
Statesman Energy & Environment special, October 2005
Academic Research Papers, Industry journal articles etc
of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk
Robert L Hirsch, Roger Bezdek & Robert Wendling
report, April 2006" - Chris Skrebowski
report, October 2005" - Chris Skrebowski
Sands Fever: The Environmental Implications of Canada's Oil Sands Rush"
- Dan Woynillowicz, Chris Severson-Baker & Marlo Raynolds
Presentations & Slides
Second Great Depression - Causes and Responses" - Colin Campbell
(requires flash player)
Oil - The Emerging Reality" - Chris Skrebowski
Report Overview" - Joe Atkinson
Film & Multimedia
Corners Broadband Edition: Peak Oil - Jonathan Holmes Investigates"
Oil explained - flash animation
of Oil - Rob Newman (requires real player)
"End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse
of the American Dream" - Previews
Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil"
Population & Energy - Excellent lecture by Dr Albert
Bartlett (retired professor of physics from University of Colorado)