Peak Oil: Background

Climate says we should change, but peak oil says we will be forced to change (Hopkins 2008).

Oil is an amazing liquid, and an ephemeral, invaluable gift[i]. It has been the world’s most important source of energy since the mid-1950s. But evidence suggests that demand for oil will soon outstrip supply, and in the face of shortages of energy, especially for transportation, we will be forced to change our lifestyles.

Oil is effectively a non-renewable resource because it forms much more slowly than we consume it. Thus, by definition our dependence on oil is unsustainable. Oil will become a “scarce,” expensive resource when the world production rate reaches a maximum, an event called peak oil. After that peak, oil production will decline and oil prices and the cost of living will begin a long-term increase.

Currently we have no adequate substitutes for oil. It is the only high energy density liquid that can fuel our current forms of transportation. Coal is used to produce electricity, natural gas for power and heating, but there is no substitute for oil for transportation. The only other liquid fuels that could potentially substitute for oil are hydrogen and biofuels, and both have significant drawbacks. Hydrogen is not a source of energy but a carrier of energy. Hydrogen production requires other forms of energy, usually fossil fuels, and hydrogen vehicles are not energy efficient (MacKay 2009). Biofuel production requires large amounts of land because the efficiency of photosynthesis is low. In most countries biofuel can only be produced by converting land for food to land for fuel, but even if we converted all agricultural land to biofuel production it still could not meet our transportation fuel needs. For example, if Britain converted all of its agricultural land to biofuel production, it still would not supply enough energy (36 kWh/d per person) to meet demand from cars (40 kWh/d per person – see (MacKay 2009) pp. 43-4). After peak oil, we will think twice before hopping in the car for joyrides or frivolous errands; those activities will be too expensive to continue.

Besides its importance for transportation, oil a critically important part of our industrial agriculture system, and is the raw material for many chemical products, including pharmaceuticals, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics; the 16% not used for energy production is converted into these other materials. Peak oil advocates such as Deffeyes argue that we should save our remaining oil for more valuable applications than burning it up in our cars. For example, we can’t make most plastics without oil. An oil shortage could cause shortages in all these materials:

Table 4.1: Things we may have to do without* after Peak Oil

* or fall back on less adequate or more expensive substitutes

  • Most forms of plastic including PVC and polycarbonates
  • Wax
  • Asphalt used to make roads
  • Tar
  • Many lubricants
  • Many solvents
  • Many detergents
  • Many adhesives
  • Resins and epoxies
  • Fibers (polyester, acrylics, nylon, etc.)
  • Synthetic rubber
  • Agrochemicals: Fertilizers, Pesticides, Herbicides
  • engine coolant and aircraft deicer fluid (propylene glycol)
  • Styrofoam
  • Many personal care products including perfumes, cosmetics,
  • Oil-based paints including polyurethanes
  • Materials for electronics (electrical insulation, capacitors, transformers)
  • Many inks and dyes
  • Many food additives including flavorings, colorings, and fragrances
  • Many pharmaceuticals

Thus, an oil shortage could have a major impact on the way we live. In the next post we will explore the evidence for peak oil.


Hopkins, R. (2008). The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience, Chelsea Green Publishing.

MacKay, D. J. C. (2009). Sustainable Energy – without the hot air. Cambridge, England, UIT Cambridge Ltd.

[i] Note that we use the term “oil” synonymously with petroleum


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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