Sustainability update: June 2012

It’s been sixteen months since I last posted, and much has happened on the sustainability front during that time. A huge positive development has been the transition from coal to natural gas in many US power plants. This has mainly been driven by historically low natural gas prices rather than environmental concerns, but I think it also results from the EPAs plan to impose more stringent emissions regulations on power plants. Sustainability continues to gain more publicity, and consumers are driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars in response to gas price increases resulting from Peak Oil.

However, Americans have done little to change their consumer lifestyles. And the conservative backlash against environmentalism, especially in Congress and state legislatures, has only intensified. For example, the South Carolina legislature recently voted to prevent planning commissions from using sea level rise forecasts when making planning decisions. That’s the first time I’ve heard of a political organization mandating that relevant information be ignored when making decisions. Even worse, the bill, which is blatantly anti-intellectual and anti-science, passed by a wide margin. Virginia is about to pass a similar law. And a recent study shows that people with high scientific literacy are actually more likely to be climate change skeptics/deniers, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of global climate change.

These events have finally convinced me that no amount of information will convince climate change deniers that we must act to prevent catastrophic climate change. I now accept that most people are capable of being deeply irrational on certain topics. We must place our hope in those who are still able to think rationally, who can still be swayed by the evidence and accept that we are moving toward a global environmental crisis. We must also appeal to those who are not so self-centered that they are able to consider the effects of their actions on the future well-being of their children. It doesn’t help to be angry or frustrated with people we view as ignorant or unethical. We must accept that human beings are deeply flawed creatures, and hope that either God or chance will pull us through this crisis, despite our self-destructive behavior.

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The parable of the snacirema

Once there was a happy town filled with people called snacirema. The snacirema were peaceful people, but occasionally a snacirema turned bad and hurt or killed his fellow snacirema. These incidents were well-publicized, and they made some snacirema fearful. Those who were afraid decided they needed protection, so they started to breed sreraebnug for protection. Sreraebnug were powerful creatures that usually did their master’s bidding, but sometimes the sreraebnug turned bad and attacked their masters or other snacirema. Although the sreraebnug made their masters feel protected, the many sreraebnug patrolling the town made the snacirema uneasy.

The more sreraebnug that people bought for protection, the more people heard of other snacirema who were hurt or killed by sreraebnug gone bad. Sometimes the sreraebnug would get confused and kill good snacirema or sreraebnug. This scared the snacirema even more, so many bought more sreraebnug to protect them. Soon the snacirema were afraid to go outside without a sreraebnug to protect them. And there were so many sreraebnug that deaths caused by confused or bad sreraebnug became common.

Finally the snacirema became so frightened that they held a town meeting. “How has our town become so dangerous?” someone shouted. Another chimed in “I used to buy sreraebnug to protect myself from bad snacirema. Now I have to buy more sreraebnug to protect myself from other sreraebnug. But I don’t feel any safer.” Arguments raged through the town hall. Then one young snacirema stood up and asked, “Didn’t we all feel safer before everyone started buying sreraebnug? Didn’t we have fewer deaths and injuries without the sreraebnug?” The crowd murmured for several minutes before the snacirema standing next to her said “The girl is right. Using sreraebnug for protection has made our town more dangerous, not less. The sreraebnug have made us more frightened, not less. I wish we could get rid of all of the sreraebnug, and then maybe we will all feel safe again.”

It was decided; the snacirema herded up all of the sreraebnug and put them in a zoo, promising to keep them well fed. They didn’t have to do that for long, though, because the sreraebnug fought and killed each other until none were left. “Good riddance” said the townsfolk. They were no longer afraid to go outside. Without the sreraebnug, they learned to trust each other again instead of being afraid of each other. And the snacirema lived happily ever after.

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Global Climate Change: Theory and Evidence

Perhaps the greatest challenge to sustainability is Global Climate Change (GCC). Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide (CO2), a known greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. This has led to a steady rise in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. At the same time, average global temperature has risen 0.76°C (1.4°F) since 1850, a phenomenon known as Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). “Business as usual” models project global temperatures to rise an additional 3°C (5.4°F) by 2100. The consequences of such rapid and dramatic global change are largely unknown, but preliminary estimates suggest that sea level will rise a little over 3 feet by 2100, and that weather hazards will become more severe. Economic losses are estimated in the trillions of dollars and loss of life in the hundreds of millions. A 3°C rise in average global temperature could put 30-50% of plants and animals at risk of extinction (IPCC 2007). Risks can be magnified if global climate passes a tipping point that leads to irreversible change. The high level of uncertainty about the effects and consequences of GCC demands that we apply the precautionary principle and reduce carbon emissions. In this blog post we will review the theory behind AGW and the supporting evidence.

First we have to make clear what we mean by “climate.” Climate is what you expect, but weather is what you get. Climate is the long-term characterization of the ‘average’ weather. It changes over decades, while weather changes on a daily and even hourly basis. We often overgeneralize, in space and time, the short-term changes in weather. An example of overgeneralizing in a geographic sense is “we had a wet summer, so everyone in the U.S. had a wet summer.” We overgeneralize in a temporal sense when we say “this week is the coldest I can remember; we must be entering a new Ice Age.” We make both types of mistake when we generalize short term changes in local weather to long-term changes in global climate, e.g., “this summer in Nashville is the hottest I can remember; it must be global warming.”

GCC has happened often during earth’s long history. Much of what we know about these changes comes from the study of ancient climates as preserved in rocks, sediments, and ice cores. These changes resulted from natural processes such as variation in solar output, in the earth’s orbit around the sun, in the spatial distribution of the continents, in oceanic circulation patterns, and the rates of volcanic activity. However, never has climate change resulted from human activity, until now. The greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), which is emitted during burning of fossil fuels, is believed to be responsible for a sudden rapid increase in average global surface temperatures in the last century. Average global temperature has risen by 0.76°C (1.4°F) since 1850 and is projected to increase another 0.5-1.0°C (0.9-1.8°F) due to greenhouse gases we have already added to the atmosphere (Dawson and Spannagle 2009). These changes are irreversible over a timescale of 1,000 years because it would take longer than 1,000 years for the artificially warmed oceans that moderate climate to cool off (Solomon, Plattner et al. 2009). Because the rate of temperature change is greater than at any other time in the last 22,000 years when natural processes determined the global temperature (Joos and Spahni 2008), we infer that a new, non-natural process is responsible for these changes, so we name it anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

The idea of global warming is really quite simple. Energy in sunlight passes through earth’s atmosphere and heats the surface, which warms and gives off heat. Without greenhouse gases like CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere, that heat would radiate into space and be lost, and the average surface temperature of the earth would be only -18°C (0°F), meaning that all water on the earth’s surface would be frozen (Faure 1998). Life would not be possible. Fortunately, the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere absorb and trap the heat, increasing the average observed surface temperature of the earth to a very hospitable 15°C (59°F). We are fortunate to have greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. However, like Goldilocks we need it not too cold and not too hot, but just right. If the concentration of greenhouse gases gets too high, it will be too hot for us.

Recognition of the greenhouse effect goes back to Joseph Fourier in the early 19th century, and the role of carbon dioxide (CO2) was identified in 1859 by John Tyndall. No scientists dispute that CO2 is a greenhouse gas: scientists have repeatedly verified that through experiment. It was Svante Arrhenius in 1896 who predicted that human activities could contribute to the greenhouse effect, but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that scientists like Roger Revelle and Wallace Broecker began to raise the alarm. Their concern was based on measurements by Charles Keeling, who showed that CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was increasing at an alarming rate. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 (Figure 1) show both seasonal fluctuations related to plant growing seasons, and a long-term trend of steadily increasing CO2. So how is this related to human activity? In the Peak Oil chapter, we described how oil contains the energy of sunlight that fell on earth millions of years ago, trapped in organic molecules manufactured by plants using photosynthesis. The simplified chemical reaction is:


Figure 1. Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide at Mauno Loa, Hawaii, USA (ppm) and average annual global surface temperature anomaly (°C) between 1958 and 2010. Temperature data from Hansen (2010), atmospheric CO2 concentration data from Keeling (2009).

Eq. (1) CO2 + H2O + energy from sunlight = CH2O + O2

The molecule CH2O represents the organic matter that stores the energy in fossil fuels. When we use fossil fuels, we undo the work of photosynthesis, promoting the reverse reaction by heating the organic matter in the presence of atmospheric oxygen so that they react and liberate the stored energy, a process called combustion. The troubling product of this combustion is CO2, which accumulates in earth’s atmosphere, leading to the observed steadily increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration (Figure 1).

Equation (1) illustrates the delicate balance between plant photosynthesis (forward reaction) and combustion (reverse reaction) that determines the concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. From Eq. 1 above we can see that combustion consumes O2 while producing CO2. Thus, we would predict that increasing CO2 concentration should be balanced by decreasing O2 concentration in the atmosphere, which is what we observe (IPCC 2007).

The current atmospheric O2 concentration of 21% is just right for trees: If O2 rose to 25%, forests would burn after every lightning strike, but if it fell to 13%, we could not start a fire. In fact, it is life that regulates the composition of the atmosphere, as illustrated vividly by James Lovelock’s conception of Gaia. He posits that earth behaves like an organism because its components act in concert to maintain life-support systems at optimal levels. Just as our body maintains a constant temperature of 98.6°F, the earth can maintain global temperatures within a narrow range that is conducive to life. How does it accomplish this? Eq. (1) gives us some insight. Because temperature positively correlates with atmospheric CO2 concentration, when CO2 is increased, then temperature increases, and these changes combine to create a greenhouse that promotes plant growth through photosynthesis (Eq. 1). This causes plants to extract greater amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, decreasing atmospheric CO2 concentration and therefore temperature. This is an example of a balancing negative feedback loop. Thus, life helps to regulate the composition of the atmosphere and maintain an optimal temperature, and the earth system of which life is a part is self-regulating (homeostatic). Essentially, the solid earth and atmosphere (geochemistry) and life (paleontology) have co-evolved.

The rapid increase in human population coupled with the rapidly rising rate of combustion of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution has destroyed the balance. Where atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and O2 were in a steady state prior to the Industrial Revolution, they are now rapidly changing. As noted by E.F. Schumacher in “Small is Beautiful (1973),” “The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.” As we pump increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and temperature rises, the earth acts more and more like a greenhouse and plants grow faster, acting as a sink for CO2 according to Eq. (1). However, this negative feedback is not sufficient to keep atmospheric CO2 concentrations from increasing (Figure 1). Although life absorbs some CO2 we emit through fossil-fuel burning, it won’t absorb all of it. Atmospheric CO2 concentration will continue to increase, but not as much as it would without photosynthetic plants. Another negative feedback is dissolution of atmospheric CO2 in seawater. As atmospheric CO2 concentrations rises, increasing amounts of CO2 dissolve in the oceans to form carbonic acid according to:

Eq. (2) H2O + CO2 = H2CO3

Increasing concentrations of this weak acid cause the pH of seawater to decrease. This is a major problem for organisms that extract Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3) from seawater to build shells, because Calcium Carbonate dissolved readily in acidic water. Coral reefs are the backbone of coastal marine ecosystems that have very high biodiversity, yet these reefs are rapidly dying across the world’s oceans, in part due to ocean acidification. How sad that these corals, which have been some of earth’s most successful creatures, having survived for hundreds of millions of years, now face extinction because of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. If the world’s coral reef ecosystems collapse, so will most of the world’s coastal fisheries, leading to the loss of the primary protein source for most low-income coastal communities.

How do scientists know that the excess CO2 in the atmosphere did not come from decaying plant matter or burning of modern vegetation? Because the proportion of atmospheric carbon that is radioactive 14C has been declining steadily, indicating that ancient carbon is being added to the atmosphere[i]. How do we know that the CO2 didn’t come from volcanoes? Because the 13C/12C ratio of the atmosphere has been steadily decreasing. Volcanic CO2 has high 13C/12C, and only plant matter has low 13C/12C, so the decrease in atmospheric 13C/12C must come from burning plant matter[ii].

So we can agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that human activity has increased the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. This should lead to warming of the atmosphere, which will thermally equilibrate with the land surface and oceans through heat transfer, causing them to also warm. Thus, the entire earth will warm, as is evident in (Figure 1). The rate of heating was higher in the last 25 years than over the previous 150 years. This acceleration of warming to rates higher than ever recorded in geologic history is what has scientists concerned (Joos and Spahni, 2008).

Global warming is documented by many global changes. Instrumental records (corrected for the urban “heat island” effect) and natural evidence (shrinking and thinning of Arctic ice, loss of Antarctic ice shelves, and receding of most Alpine glaciers globally[iii]; lengthening of growing seasons, migration of animals and plants to higher latitudes, and borehole measurements) all show that the earth’s surface has warmed 0.4-0.8°C (~1°F) during the 20th century. The probability that warming is real is > 99% (IPCC 2007). For example, the warmest eight years recorded since record-keeping began about 150 years ago all occurred within the twelve years preceding 2011. In fact, since 1850 the 24 warmest years have been as follows, from warmest to coolest: 2010, 2005, 2009, 2007, 2002, 1998, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2001, 2008, 1997, 1995, 1990, 1991, 2000, 1999, 1988, 1996, 1987, 1983, 1981, 1994, and 1989. The 24 warmest years have all occurred since 1980. It is nearly impossible for these observations to occur by chance.

It’s also important to know that CO2 is not the only important greenhouse gas; others include methane CH4, Nitrous Oxide N2O. Together, these gases increase the average global surface temperature by 34°C. The heating power of a greenhouse gas (radiative forcing) is proportional to the reduction of infrared radiation leaving earth caused by a unit increase in concentration of gas in the atmosphere. The cumulative effect of a greenhouse gas depends on its radiative forcing and how long it stays in the atmosphere, termed the “residence time.” The total Global Warming Potential (GWP) therefore depends on both the radiative forcing and residence time of a GHG in the atmosphere (scale normalized to CO2): CO2 = 1, CH4 = 21, N2O = 290, CFC’s = 3000-8000 (Faure 1998). GHG emissions are usually reported as CO2 equivalents CO2e. So, for example, emission of 1 kg of CH4 would be equivalent in terms of GWP to 21 kg of CO2, so CO2e = 21 kg. The GWP of CFCs are large because their atmospheric concentrations are near zero, they absorb infrared radiation between 8000-12,000 nm where CO2 is ineffective, and they have long atmospheric residence times (Faure 1998)[iv].

(Figure 2) compares the relative importance of GHGs to global warming by plotting the percentage of total CO2e associated with each type of GHG emission. Although CO2 is the weakest of the GHG, it has the largest effect on global warming because we emit such large volumes of CO2 during fossil fuel burning. Thus, AGW mitigation measures must first focus on reducing CO2 emissions.

Global Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2004.

Figure 2. Global Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2004 expressed as the percentage of total CO2e. Data from IPCC 4th Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report,

Of course anthropogenic GHG emissions are not the only cause of GCC. Natural causes of GCC include variable sunlight intensity, strengthening greenhouse, increased atmospheric aerosols, and volcanic eruptions. Computer simulations based on real-world measurements show that the natural drivers, solar variability and volcanic eruptions, have actually caused earth’s surface temperature to decrease during the 20th century. Aerosols also cause cooling. As a result, observed global surface temperatures cannot be explained by natural forces alone (Figure 3). Therefore, the only remaining cause of global warming is increased greenhouse gas concentration from fossil fuel burning. (Figure 1) shows an excellent positive correlation between atmospheric temperature and CO2 concentration from 1880 to the present, consistent with the idea that increased CO2 is associated with increases in temperature. Data from ice cores collected in Antarctica demonstrate that this correlation stretches back 420,000 years (Petit, Jouzel et al. 1999). Plotting CO2 concentrations versus temperature anomalies recorded in the ice cores demonstrates that the trend for the “Anthropocene” is distinctly different from the natural trend, showing unequivocally that the atmosphere-climate system has been highly perturbed by human activities (Figure 4). The positive correlation between temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentration shown in (Figure 1) and (Figure 4) suggests, but does not prove, a cause and effect relationship[v]. However, we can say with a high level of confidence that when atmospheric CO2 concentration is high, average global surface temperatures are high, and since the atmospheric CO2 concentration is now higher than at any time during the past 420,000 years, we can expect that temperatures will rise to levels higher than at any time during the past 420,000 years as the global climate system adjusts to the new, higher level of CO2 in the atmosphere.


Figure 3. Comparison of average global surface temperatures that were observed with those predicted by models that accounted only for natural climate forces and not human forces. From Mann and Kump (2009).


Figure 4. State–space view of Antarctic ice-age cycles. From Etkin (2010).


Archer, D., M. Eby, et al. (2009). The Atmospheric Lifetime of Fossil Fuel Carbon Dioxide. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science. 37: 117-134.

Dawson, B. and M. Spannagle (2009). The Complete Guide to Climate Change, Routledge.

Etkin, B. (2010). “A state space view of the ice ages—a new look at familiar data.” Climatic Change 100(3): 403-406.

Faure, G. (1998). Principles and applications of geochemistry: a comprehensive textbook for geology students, Prentice Hall.

Hansen, J. E., R. Rued, et al. (2010) “NASA GISS Surface Temperature (GISTEMP) Analysis.” Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change DOI: 10.3334/CDIAC/cli.001.

IPCC (2007). Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, U.K. and New York, NY, USA, Cambridge University Press.

Joos, F. and R. Spahni (2008). “Rates of change in natural and anthropogenic radiative forcing over the past 20,000 years.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(5): 1425-1430.

Keeling, R. F., S. C. Piper, et al. (2009) “Atmospheric CO2 records from sites in the SIO air sampling network.” Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change DOI: 10.3334/CDIAC/atg.035.

Mann, M. E. and L. R. Kump (2009). Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming. New York, DK Publishing, Inc.

Petit, J. R., J. Jouzel, et al. (1999). “Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica.” Nature 399(6735): 429-436.

Solomon, S., G.-K. Plattner, et al. (2009). “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(6): 1704-1709.

[i] 14C has a half-life of 5700 years, so plant matter that is older than roughly 6 half-lives or 8*5700=45600 years has essentially no 14C.

[ii] Note that it is the changing 14C content of the atmosphere that makes accurate 14C dating of material less than 100 years old impossible.

[iii] see

[iv] Some confusion about GWP values exists because they are sometimes quoted for different timescales. Some studies only look at a 100 year timescale and find that the GWP of CH4 is 73, i.e., methane is 73 time more potent than carbon dioxide. However, if we take the longer term view required by sustainability of, say, 1000 years, the GWP of CH4 drops to 23 because CO2 persists in the atmosphere longer than methane. See Archer, D., M. Eby, et al. (2009). The Atmospheric Lifetime of Fossil Fuel Carbon Dioxide. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science. 37: 117-134.

[v] One complication is that, when viewed at high temporal resolution, ice cores show that atmospheric CO2 increases lag behind temperature increases by several centuries, possibly suggesting that increased temperatures cause high atmospheric CO2 rather than the reverse. However, there is a good explanation for this relationship, one that relies on increases in solar insolation to trigger warming episodes that then become amplified by increases in atmospheric CO2. Variations in insolation (solar intensity) due to Milankovitch cycles are not sufficient to explain the large (6° C) temperature variations of the ice ages. However, they can trigger temperature excursions. If insolation increases, then atmospheric temperature will increase slightly. This causes the solubility of CO2 in seawater to decrease; the ocean begins to add CO2 to the atmosphere, which further increases temperature due to the greenhouse effect, which leads to more degassing, creating a positive feedback loop. This is reinforced by another positive feedback loop in which continental ice sheets melt and recede, exposing land with a lower albedo, leading to increased absorption of solar radiation and heating. The oceans take about a thousand years to overturn and degas, so the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will not peak until roughly a thousand years after the heating episode began.

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Green Construction

A Guest blog by Krista Peterson

Green construction is a new form of construction that is safer for people and the environment and is cheaper over the long term than old construction. Its use follows an era in which residential and commercial buildings were constructed both cheaply and quickly to please owners. Instead of focusing on quality, the goal was most certainly quantity. The materials used in the building of these shoddy and quickly-constructed structures were typically very unfriendly to the environment and contained hazardous products including fibrous asbestos1.

Fibrous asbestos is the only known cause of the disease mesothelioma, which is a rare form of cancer that affects the linings of the heart, chest and abdomen. When asbestos fibers become airborne they can be inhaled or consumed – via eating or drinking – and they will eventually cause a variety of harmful and fatal health problems. Mesothelioma symptoms often resemble the common cold and other basic chest and lung ailments, which makes the victims life expectancy substantially shorter because of the common misdiagnosis.
Asbestos was used in more than 3,000 products during the 20th century, as it was inexpensive and present in large quantities. Perhaps the most common use of asbestos was for insulation. Fortunately, construction workers can now use safer choices to insulate a building. These include:
1. Cotton Fibers – A highly popular material used in the construction of “green” buildings, insulation made of cotton fiber is made using denim and other forms of batted recycled material. As with cellulose, cotton fiber is treated using mild chemicals to make the material fireproof. However, the fiber is completely nontoxic and does not produce any gases.
2. Cellulose – Formed from 85% recycled material, cellulose is a fancy way of defining old shredded newspaper. This material has quickly become one of the most popular forms of eco-friendly insulation throughout the world. The cellulose is treated using safe chemicals to increase its resistance to heat and to prevent growth of mold. It is completely nontoxic and has been shown to decrease utility bills by as much as 20% annually.
3. SPF or Spray Polyurethane Foam – This type of insulation is ideal for those who suffer from allergies as it is sprayed within the areas that need to be insulated. The foam fits very snugly and does not allow mold to grow. These are several different types of foams that are sold but it is agreed that water-based icynene is the best. It contains no polybrominated diphenyl ether that is toxic. This type of foam also lacks hydrochlorofluorocarbons that are greenhouse gases and can catalyze the destruction of stratospheric ozone. On average, the use of SPFs can decrease utility bills by around 35%.

Other substances that were toxic were also used in building construction, which would affect both the health of those who were working to construct the site and those who worked in or resided in the building. Fortunately, the dawn of the 21st century brought many different options when it came to replacing these old products that were used and proven hazardous to human health. These replacements greatly improved the indoor air quality and the general environment for working and living conditions. Additionally, buildings that were well-constructed and were built to be environmentally friendly typically needed less energy to function and consumed less water. This saved environmental resources, and pleased tenants and landlords as the costs of water and electricity were decreased. Thus, green construction is smart construction because it is healthier, eco-friendly, and in the long term more cost-effective than conventional construction.

1. Asbestos is a family of six minerals. The fibrous amphibole forms (amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite) are known to be carcinogenic. However, the cancer risk presented by the most commonly used form of asbestos, chrysotile, is low or nonexistent; see Ross (1984) Definitions for Asbestos and Other Health-related Silicates, American Society for Testing Materials Special Publication 834, pp. 51-104.

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Peak Oil 4: Consequences of Peak Oil

The scale of all human enterprises will contract with the energy supply. We will be compelled by the circumstances of the Long Emergency to conduct the activities of daily life on a smaller scale, whether we like it or not, and the only intelligent action is to prepare for it. – James Kunstler (2005) “The Long Emergency”

Peak oil has already had a major impact on U.S. society. Rising gas prices, and the realization that the gigantic cars manufactured by the U.S. auto industry were unsustainable, caused the collapse of some of the largest corporations in America. The American auto manufacturing industry was so unsustainable that doubling the price of gas caused an almost complete collapse of the industry within one year. Many people lost their jobs, most of them for good. High gas prices in 2007-2008 led to many public protests and riots worldwide [i]. Oil prices are projected to increase substantially in the “business as usual” scenario, from $80.16 in 2010 to $110.49 in 2015 and $121.94 in 2025 ((EIA 2009), Table 16, pg. 88). As the title of Richard Heinberg’s book on peak oil suggests (2005), “The Party is Over,” and life is going to get tougher.

What will the post-peak world be like? It’s hard for us to know. Many people thought the world would collapse because of the year 2000 problem, but it had an insignificant effect on our lives. Still, it’s hard to believe that the change from cheap to expensive oil won’t have big repercussions. Bates (2006) comments “Peak Oil may be the trigger for a global economic depression that lasts for many decades. Or it may not. It may plunge us into violent anarchy and military rule. Or it may not. But if Peak Oil doesn’t wake us up to the precariousness of our condition, divorced from our roots in the soil and the forest, annihilating the evolutionary systems that sustain us and replacing them with brittle, artificial, plastic imitations, what will?”

Peak Oil will cause four types of changes in transportation. From the fastest to the slowest they are:

· Lowered quality of life – e.g. drive less

· Increased energy efficiency – e.g. buy a Prius

· Adapt a new energy supply – e.g. ethanol.

· Changed cultural aspirations- e.g. buy a house in the city, no need for a car.

These four changes will work together to reduce energy demand. Alternative energy will never replace oil for transportation, and we will face a decline in the four ways above ( As a result, many who study Peak Oil believe that people will essentially be stranded in the suburbs due to oil shortages, and will be forced to migrate out of the suburbs (e.g., see the interesting movies “Sprawling from Grace” (Edwards 2009) and “The End of Suburbia” (Greene 2004). However, it seems unlikely that people will abandon the suburbs in response to peak oil, as there will be alternative methods of transportation such as electric cars, which as of 2011 are already becoming widely available.

Peak oil will also reduce food supply and economic capital. As people adapt to preserve economic capital, the changes will become social as individuals work together as communities to adapt to an oil-free, low energy lifestyle. Transport of food and goods currently depends on liquid fuels; Peak oil will sharply curtail transport, creating a gap between supply and demand of food and goods that only increasing local production can fill.

Environmental and Social Costs of Oil Use and Addiction

The environmental consequences of Peak oil and the costs of our oil dependence are well illustrated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling 41 miles off the Louisiana coast in water 5,000 feet deep when it exploded on April 20, killing 11 platform workers. Before British Petroleum (BP) capped it on July 15, 4.9 million barrels of crude oil had gushed from the drill hole, causing widespread damage to shorelines and fisheries. The federal government closed nearly 36% of federally-owned area in the Gulf of Mexico to fishing, costing the fishing industry billions of dollars. The U.S. Travel Industry estimates that the three-year cost to lost tourism could exceed $23 billion. Costs to BP had risen to $3 billion by July 5, 2010.

A clue to how the spill relates to Peak oil is contained in the name: the Deepwater Horizon was in deep water because oil companies had already drilled all of the shallower, easier to drill locations. Drilling for oil is becoming riskier and more expensive as we are forced to mine more extreme environments; the easy oil is already gone.

The social costs of oil use also deserve closer inspection. In his book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” (2008) Thomas Friedman argues that the global dependence on oil has made the oil states powerful, and that power has prevented or even reversed political reforms. In (Figure 1.) the countries that produce more oil than they consume plot in the green “sustainable field,” where we refer to the ability of a country to meet its current needs. Countries in the green field export oil, and countries in the red field must import oil. The dependence of countries like the U.S. on oil from countries in the green field has caused many social problems, including decreased national security of importing states.


Figure 1.

Of the 23 countries that get the majority of their income from oil and gas, none are democracies (p. 105). Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia can treat the U.S. with impunity because oil income has made them powerful. Friedman’s First Law of Petropolitics states “In oil-rich petrolist states, the price of oil and the pace of freedom tend to move in opposite directions… Petrolist states (are) authoritarian states (or ones with weak state institutions) that are highly dependent on oil production for the bulk of their exports and government income ((Friedman 2008), p. 96).” Governments of petrolist states get their money from oil sales, not taxes, and they use the money to placate their citizens through subsidies. If the price of oil plummets (which seems unlikely), governments of petrolist countries like Iran will likely collapse.

In general, the “resource curse” affects third-world countries that sell their natural resources and use the money to develop in unsustainable ways. Typically a minority of citizens controls the resource, and they became fabulously rich while the vast majority of citizens remain destitute. The resulting concentration of power prevents the development of democracy. “Our addiction to oil makes global warming warmer, petrodictators stronger, clean air dirtier, poor people poorer, democratic countries weaker, and radical terrorists richer (p. 81).” Thus the proliferation of bumper stickers in the U.S.: ((Friedman 2008), p. 80): “How many soldiers per gallon does your SUV get?”; “Osama loves your SUV”; “Nothin’ Dumber than a Hummer”; “Draft the SUV drivers first.” Friedman concludes that “The world will be a better place politically if we can invent plentiful renewable energy sources that eventually reduce global demand for oil to the point where even oil-rich states will have to diversify their economies and put their people to work in more innovative ways ((Friedman 2008), p. 107).”

Effects on Transportation and the Economy

Peak oil is likely to strongly hurt businesses that depend on transport by truck or plane. If you are a trucker, work in the airline industry, for FedEx or UPS, or for big box stores like Wal-Mart, you should start formulating a backup plan in case you lose your job. Obviously if you are an investor you don’t want to invest long-term in companies that make money primarily through transportation. New jobs in sectors like local food production will open up to close the supply-demand gap for transported goods.

The post-peak world may be like living in the U.S. during WWII. Americans were resource-constrained, and there was energy rationing (no new cars, limited gas). People grew victory gardens. WWII was an emergency, but not the type we are used to, the kind associated with natural disasters. Rather, it was a “long emergency,” to use James Kunstler’s phrase, and that’s the type of emergency that will confront us. The repercussions and responses to Peak oil will stretch out over years. Yet like natural disaster emergencies, when people band together and work toward a common cause, the Peak oil emergency may help rebuild communities. It may reverse many negative trends of the 20th century such as depersonalization and centralization.

The U.S. is particularly vulnerable to the challenges presented by Peak oil because it has a low population density, and because the U.S. built its cities for cars rather than people, leading to urban sprawl. Australia is even more vulnerable because transportation distances within Australia and to its trade partners are even greater than in the U.S., and it is more dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers to produce its food.

In conclusion, Peak oil is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity in the next several decades. As global oil production decreases and demand increases, the price of oil and of all goods that use of oil or oil-derived energy in their life cycle will skyrocket. Sadly, people will be forced to abandon marginal living areas that petroleum made livable, such as big chunks of Australia. But out of the Peak oil crisis may emerge a new, more rewarding lifestyle, if we prepare for change.

For more information about Peak oil see:

ASPO International: The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas:


Bates, A. (2006). The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times, New Society Publishers.

Edwards, D. M. (2009). Sprawling From Grace: 82 min.

EIA (2009). Annual Energy Outlook 2009, USDOE: 230.

Friedman, T. (2008). Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Greene, G. (2004). The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream: 78 min.

Heinberg, R. (2005). The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, New Society Publishers.

[i]For a sampling from 2007-8 see: Transporters, farmers to protest failure to cut fuel prices in India (, Truckers protest fuel prices in Mexico City (, Scores of bikers in UK have caused rush-hour disruption in a protest against rising fuel prices (, Truckers to protest fuel costs in U.S. (, Hundreds Protest Against Steep Fuel Price Rises in Burma (

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Peak Oil 3: National and Global Production Peaks of Oil and Other Resources

“We’ve embarked on the beginning of the last days of the age of oil.” — Mike Bowlin, Chair, ARCO

“My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.” — attributed to Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Emir of Dubai

“We are not good at recognizing distant threats even if their probability is 100%. Society ignoring [peak oil] is like the people of Pompeii ignoring the rumblings below Vesuvius.” — James Schlesinger, former US Energy Secretary

Geologists have been predicting since the 1950s that oil production would begin to decrease in a matter of decades. When Geophysicist M. King Hubbard predicted in 1956 that oil production in the U.S. would peak in the early 1970s, both the scientific community and the public made him a pariah. However, when production peaked in 1970 as he predicted (Figure 1), many scientists accepted him as a prophet (most of the public remained unaware of his predictions). Many people forget that until the early 1970s the U.S. was, like Saudi Arabia of the 1980s and 1990s, the largest oil producer in the world. However, since the early 1970s the U.S. has become increasingly dependent on foreign countries like Saudi Arabia to feed its voracious appetite for oil. We now rely on unstable third world countries to fuel our cars, and we finance despots and wars to maintain our precious oil supply. Even George W. Bush acknowledged in 2008 that the U.S. is addicted to oil. The effects on foreign countries of the U.S. addiction to oil are very similar to the effects of the U.S. addiction to illegal drugs: the flow of money from the wealthy U.S. leads to corruption, crime, and political instability in third world countries. Our addiction has caused scores of countries and millions of people to suffer. Moreover, our dependence on foreign countries for oil has obviously decreased our national security.


Figure 1. U.S. oil production over time. Equation for Gaussian fit: y = 10955*exp(-0.5*((x-1972.8)/36.21)^2). Data from BP Statistical Review (2010).

Now that the U.S. depends on foreign countries for 2/3 of its oil, we must be concerned not only about the reliability of our existing suppliers but also the natural limits to global oil production. In the year 2008 the world experienced for the first time a spike in oil and gas prices resulting from demand, as opposed to previous price spikes in 1973, 1980, and 1990 caused by global conflicts. Increases in oil prices result in increases in the costs of farming and food. The spike in 2008 occurred because countries didn’t allow the market to correct itself; instead, for decades they subsidized energy and food, keeping prices artificially low ((Friedman 2008), p. 41).

To understand better why we can expect to have future shortages of non-renewable resources such as oil, we refer to (Figure 2), which plots hypothetical production rates of renewable and nonrenewable resources as a function of time. As discussed previously, because there is a finite amount of every nonrenewable resource such as oil, production and consumption inevitably lead to resource depletion. The total amount of a resource that is available (the ultimate cumulative production) is equal to the area under the curve. Resources that are not abundant and that we use rapidly run out quickly so that their resource production curves are very narrow. Resources that we use slowly or that are abundant last much longer, so their curves are wide and do not peak until well into the future.


Figure 2. Hypothetical production rates as a function of time. After Hubbert (1987).

It is the timing of the peak that is of most interest, because any time after the peak the resource will be scarce and therefore be expensive. In (Figure 2) the “unlimited exponential growth” curve can represent human population, while “renewable resource” can represent water production/consumption. As stated by Hubbert, “In their initial phases, the curves for each of these types of growth are indistinguishable from one another, but as industrial growth approaches maturity, the separate curves begin to diverge from one another. In its present state the world industrial system has already entered the divergence phase of these curves but is still somewhat short of the culmination of the curve for nonrenewable resources (1987).”

Note that on the rising limb of Hubbert’s Peak demand drives supply: “the more oil the world economy needed, the more the oil industry could produce… Once we pass the peak, supply begins to dictate demand, meaning that prices start to rise suddenly and steeply, and the people with control of the remaining oil really get to start calling the shots (Hopkins 2008).”

We can apply Hubbert’s approach of constructing resource availability curves to any non-renewable resource on either a local or a global basis. Many countries are already post-peak for production of oil (including the U.S.) and other resources. For example, the U.S. imports 100% of the following resources that it uses: Arsenic trioxide, asbestos, bauxite and alumina, columbium (niobium), fluorspar, graphite, manganese, mica, quartz crystal, strontium, thallium, thorium, and yttrium (Keller 2011). Because we have global trade, local scarcity has not resulted in a crisis. Countries that have a surplus of a resource export it, and countries erase their deficits by importing. The problem occurs when global annual production rate of a nonrenewable resource peaks and then begins to decline. During the decline, resource production cannot keep pace with demand, and resource prices rise. Peak oil may cause shortages of many other resources because oil provides the energy to transport those resources. If the U.S. doesn’t have oil to transport all of the resources that we import, we will have more than just an energy problem.

What nonrenewable resources may become scarce in the 21st century? Hubbert predicted that copper, tin, lead, and zinc would reach peak production within decades (Hubbert 1987). At the current rate of consumption, these metals will be available for 60, 40, 40, and 45 years respectively, and Indium, which is used in LCDs and solar cells, may run out in only 15 years (Ragnarsdottir 2008). Phosphate, which is an essential component of fertilizers, may disappear within the next 60-70 years (Oelkers and Valsami-Jones 2008), which could greatly decrease agricultural productivity and cause widespread food shortages.

It’s not just non-renewable resources that we have to worry about. Certain types of renewable resources have production curves similar to those of non-renewable resources because their renewal rate is less than the harvesting rate. For example, deep (fossil) groundwaters have been in the ground for hundreds or thousands of years, which means it would take hundreds or thousands of years to replace them at natural recharge rates. In many areas of the world, the groundwater extraction rate is much greater than the recharge rate, so the groundwater reserve is shrinking, as made visible by falling water tables in unconfined aquifers. When we use groundwater and other resources faster than they can be replaced, we are effectively mining them, and we can expect the production rate to peak and then decline, as occurred in Saudi Arabia (Figure 3). Consequently, hydrologist Luna Leopold advocated the treatment of groundwater as a nonrenewable resource that we should use only during droughts. The sustainable approach to resource use is not to use renewable resources faster than nature can renew them.


Figure 3. Saudi Arabia Water Supply 1980-2000 in Million cubic meters/year. Data from Abderrahman (2001).

Another renewable resource whose production has peaked is the global wild fish catch, which peaked in the 1980’s due to overfishing (Fig. 1.10). Fortunately the use of aquaculture as a substitute is expanding, which has softened the blow. As human population and resource demand continue to increase, we can expect to see the production of more resources peak and then begin to decline. The important question is, will we always find adequate substitutes as we did for marine fish?

Oil production is now declining in 60 of the 98 oil-producing countries. Most of these countries had a peak in oil discovery 30-40 years before they reached peak production. Similarly, we can expect world oil production to peak 30-40 years after world discovery rates peaked in 1965. World oil consumption has outpaced the discovery of new oil reserves for almost three decades: we now consume four barrels for every one we discover.

Discoveries of oil total about two trillion barrels worldwide, and we already used ~one trillion barrels. That puts us at the center of the production curve where the peak is (often called “Hubbert’s Peak”), so that when we start consuming the second half, production rates will decrease and prices will rise (the curve is symmetrical, so the peak is in the center and the area under the curve to the left of the peak is the same as to the right of the peak, corresponding to one trillion barrels). Furthermore, the first trillion barrels was the oil that was easy to get out of the ground; the second trillion barrels will become increasingly more difficult to mine. The EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Investment) will steadily decrease, and the amount of environmental damage associated with oil recovery will greatly increase.

Andrew Nikiforuk gives good evidence that the world is nearing peak oil in his book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent” (Nikiforuk 2008). He notes that the biggest supplier of oil to the U.S. is no longer Saudi Arabia, but our next-door neighbor Canada. U.S. citizens are happy because there is less risk that money we spend on oil will end up in the hands of terrorists who target us. However, Canadian oil primarily comes from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, and mining of this “dirty” oil creates huge environmental problems, including much higher CO2 emissions per unit energy because large amounts of natural gas are used to refine this dirty oil. Production of tar sand oil emits roughly 100 to 650 pounds of CO2 per barrel, compared with North Sea oil that emits only ~20 pounds per barrel. Nikiforuk (Nikiforuk 2008) calls this “a switch from bloody light oil to dirty heavy oil,” and concludes that it is not in the best interests of the U.S. or Canada.

Several other observations support the idea that global peak oil is near. First, of the 98 oil-producing nations, 60 have already passed their peak (Hopkins 2008), including the U.S., U.K., Norway, Venezuela, and Russia; countries near their peak include Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and China; and countries where production is increasing include Canada (tar sands), Kazakhstan, and seven others. Second, although prices have been very high, giving an incentive to increase production, the production rate has remained steady at 84-87 million barrels per day for the last six years (Figure 4). The evidence is that geology rather than economics or politics dictates production rates. Third, oil companies are drilling in more difficult environments because they have already tapped out the easy targets. For example, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in May 2010 resulted from the extreme pressures below one mile of ocean and four miles of rock where they were drilling. Another supporting observation is that oil companies have not greatly expanded their oil exploration activities even though the price of oil has skyrocketed. Oil companies are now using their vast amounts of money to diversify or buy back their own stocks rather than spending more money on R&D and exploration. This is clear evidence of falling return on investment in exploration, and shows that oil companies are planning for reduced oil production.


Figure 4. World oil production in thousands of barrels daily. Gaussian fit predicts peak production in the year 2026 (y = 85079*exp(-0.5((x-2026)/51.94)^2). Data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy Data 2010.

So when will global oil production peak and then begin a steady decline leading to increasing cost? Oil companies and national governments want investors to be optimistic about the future, so they try to discredit peak oil claims. To get the true story we need experts who are independent of corporate or government interests, who have no personal stake so their opinions are objective, and who base their opinions on facts. Kenneth Deffeyes (2001) argued that the peak would be somewhere close to the year 2005. Using data from British Petroleum’s annual Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, I plotted world oil production through 2009 (Figure 4). The data show that oil production plateaued starting in 2005. The increasing gap between constant supply and increasing demand fueled by countries like China and India caused oil prices to increase dramatically by 2007 before falling in response to the global recession. A Gaussian fit to the production data peaks at 2026[i] (Figure 4). Most other studies that tried to fit the production data and extrapolate it into the future suggested that oil production would peak near 2008-2010 (Figure 5, from Considering that oil production has not increased significantly since 2005, and actually dropped 2.6% from 2008-2009 (BP 2010), these predictions seem accurate. However, as Hopkins (2008) points out, the exact date of the peak doesn’t matter; what matters is that it is near, and we haven’t begun to prepare for it.


Figure 5. World oil production (EIA Monthly) for crude oil + NGL. The median forecast is calculated from 15 models that are predicting a peak before 2020 (Bakhtiari, Smith, Staniford, Loglets, Shock model, GBM, ASPO-[70,58,45], Robelius Low/High, HSM,Duncan&Youngquist). 95% of the predictions sees a production peak between 2008 and 2010 at 77.5 – 85.0 mbpd (The 95% forecast variability area in yellow is computed using a bootstrap technique). The magenta area is the 95% confidence interval for the population-based model.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary” (Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management, February 2005, Page 64). What is crazy and wasteful is that the U.S. and other countries are still building car assembly plants, roads, highways, parking lots, suburban housing developments, and airplanes as though cheap oil will last forever (Brown 2009). We continue to make investments in an infrastructure that will be superfluous shortly after we build it. This is an example of a market that is failing because it does not anticipate even short-term changes.

Many will dispute the assertion that world oil production has nearly peaked. It is possible that the current peak apparent in (Figure 4) is a local maximum rather than a global maximum. Examples of local maximums include the 1973 and 1980 peaks in world oil production followed shortly after by price increases. Both of these local maxima resulted from political events, the OPEC embargo in 1973 and the Iraq-Iran war in 1980. So while resource availability is the primary control, anything that disrupts production and transportation of oil (wars, natural disasters, and politics) can cause short-term fluctuations in production rates and therefore price. However, the current oil production peak is not caused by political events, but by the inability of producers to increase supply.

Others argue that oil production, or at least combined conventional and unconventional oil and gas, will not rapidly decline but will plateau or slowly decline (Cheney and Hawkes 2007). Production of conventional oil and gas may decline steeply. However, substitution with unconventional oil such as tar sands combined with improvements in extraction technologies will slow the rate of production decline for combined conventional and unconventional oil and gas, consistent with the nearly constant production rate of the last six years. Even in this best-case scenario where world oil production plateaus rather than peaks, oil prices will still climb considerably because demand will continue to increase exponentially as the economies of China and India expand at an exponential rate. As noted by Lester Brown, in this era of globalization “where oil production is no longer expanding, one country can get more oil only if another gets less (Brown 2009)”. The U.S. will be competing with China, India, and every other country in the world for oil, which will drive up oil prices.

Some think that increasing domestic production will solve any oil shortage problems for the U.S., but in reality, oil companies will sell any domestically-produced oil on the global market. Despite political claims to the contrary, if the U.S. opened the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling today, when it reached maximum production in roughly 2030 it would supply no more than 1.2% of the total world oil consumption[ii], and therefore would have a negligible impact on oil prices. Furthermore, oil production could not begin until roughly ten years after opening ANWR (yes, it takes that long to build the pipeline, drilling facilities, etc.), and would peak around 2030 before starting to decline, so it won’t help the U.S. for at least ten years. So no, opening ANWR will not solve our oil problem.

The most important question about oil is not how much remains in the ground, but how much can we mine and still maintain economic and energy profits (Hall and Day (2009)). We get an energy profit when we get more energy from the oil we produce than the amount of energy required to produce it. The Energy Return On Energy Investment EROEI of U.S. petroleum declined from roughly 100:1 in 1930, to 40:1 in 1970, to about 14:1 in 2000 (Hall and Day (2009)). For the tar sands that produce a major amount of oil consumed in the U.S. the ratio is much less than 10:1, perhaps even close to 1:1 (Figure 6). As EROEI decreases, the cost per unit energy increases.


Figure 6. From Hall and Day (2009)

Increases in EROEI, supply-demand gap, and price of petroleum will also cause increases for gasoline, because gasoline is produced by distilling oil in a refinery. Gasoline is an amazing substance that we take for granted. Each gallon of gasoline contains 37 kWh of energy, which is equivalent to 500 hours of human work[iii] ( In other words, you could hire 500 people to push your car for one hour and it would get you roughly as far as one gallon of gasoline. Currently that gallon of gasoline costs about $2.50, but to hire 500 people to push your car for one hour at a typical wage of $10/hour would cost you $5000. People say gas is too expensive? It’s the bargain of the millennium, which is why people are burning through it so quickly.

Some argued that gas prices were high in 2008 because the U.S. didn’t have enough refineries, and that the problem of high gas prices would just go away if we build more refineries. If that were true, then the price of gas should be cheaper in most other countries, which are unlikely to all have made the same dumb mistake. Here is a global comparison of gas prices:

Table 5.2: Gasoline Prices for Selected Countries, February/March, 2009

From <;.


Pump Prices


Pump Prices


Pump Prices



India (Delhi)




United Kingdom








South Africa
















South Korea


United States



In most countries gasoline is more expensive than in the U.S.. Iran and Venezuela have anomalously low prices because they are petroleum-producing countries with government-controlled pricing. European countries have much higher prices due to heavy government taxation. Thus, high gas prices are a global problem caused by oil scarcity, and are not caused by a U.S. infrastructure deficiency. We conclude that oil is becoming scarce, that exploration and enhanced recovery are unlikely to relieve that scarcity, and that oil prices will continue to rise as demand increases.


BP (2010). Statistical Review of World Energy 2010, British Petroleum.

Brown, L. (2009). Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. New York, NY, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Cheney, E. S. and M. W. Hawkes (2007). “The Future of Hydrocarbons: Hubbert’s Peak or a Plateau?” GSA Today 17(6): 69-70.

Deffeyes, K. S. (2001). Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Friedman, T. (2008). Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Hall, C. S. A. and J. W. J. Day (2009). “Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil.” American Scientist 97: 230-237.

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

Hubbert, M. K. (1987). Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History. Societal Issues, Scientific Viewpoints. M. A. Strom. New York, NY, American Institute of Physics: 75-84.

Keller, E. A. (2011). Environmental Geology, Pearson Prentice Hall.

Nikiforuk, A. (2008). Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Vancouver, BC, Canada, Greystone Books. file:///C:\Users\ayersj\Documents\My%20Classes\Sustainability\Papers\TarSandsBook.pdf.

Oelkers, E. H. and E. Valsami-Jones (2008). “Phosphate Mineral Reactivity and Global Sustainability.” Elements 4(2): 83-87.

Ragnarsdottir, K. V. (2008). “Rare metals getting rarer.” Nature Geoscience 1(11): 720-721.

[i] According to Deffeyes (2001), production values for nonrenewable resources such as oil are best fit using the Gaussian or normal distribution y=a*exp(-.5*((x-x0)/b)2). This equation has three adjustable parameters: the year of peak production (x0), the amount of oil produced daily during that peak year in millions of barrels (a), and the number of years between the half-maximum points (b). I used the Solver add-in in Microsoft Excel 2010 to minimize the sum of the squares of the residuals (= predicted – measured), known as the chi-squared statistic, by automatically adjusting the values of the three parameters until I obtained the best fit values for global production of a = 85.0, b = 51.9, and x0 = 2026, with r2 = 0.87. I obtained the same results using nonlinear regression in Sigmaplot 11. The calculated peak production of 85 million barrels per day is roughly equal to the production rate from 2007-2010.

[ii] Fear of oil shortages has led to the spread of misinformation, particularly for political gain. Recently a friend said he had heard from several sources that ANWR can supply about 60 years of oil for the U.S.. I told him that I had heard that, given our current oil consumption rate, it was more like a two -year supply (if it were our only source of oil), and that to last 60 years ANWR would have to contain more oil than Saudi Arabia ever had. That night I looked up the statistics. According to the USGS (2001) ANWR holds roughly 10.4 billion barrels. In 2007, the United States consumed 7.54 billion barrels of oil. Thus, it would take only 10.4 bbl/7.54 bbl/year = 1.38 years for Americans to consume all of the oil. For the maximum estimate of 16 billion barrels of oil in ANWR it would take 16/7.54 = 2.1 years. Considering our rate of consumption of oil is continuously increasing, an estimate of two years supply is a reasonable upper limit.

[iii] Actually, if as stated previously “One kilowatt-hour per day is roughly the power you could get from one human servant”, then I calculate that it is 888 h as follows: if E = P*t, then t = E/P = 37 kWh/(1 kWh/d) = 37 d * 24 h/d = 888 h

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Peak Oil 2: Oil Formation, Exploration, and Recovery

To understand why the amount of oil stored in the ground is finite, and the amount that we can retrieve is even smaller, we need to review how oil forms and how we recover it from the ground. The oil stored within the earth initially formed hundreds of millions of years ago when plants used photosynthesis to store the sun’s energy, died, were rapidly buried, and transformed under heat and pressure into oil. The energy stored in oil molecules is therefore ancient trapped sunlight. Oil can form from buried plants only under special conditions in the oil window at approximately 3-6 km depth, and only when oxygen is not present to react with the carbon to form carbon dioxide (respiration). Oil is usually found only in sedimentary rocks that are less than 500 million years old, because land plants did not exist before that time. Because oil takes millions of years to form, it is considered a non-renewable resource.

Oil source rocks are the fine-grained organic-rich sedimentary rocks, usually shales, where oil forms over millions of years. Because it is a low density fluid, oil does not usually remain in the source rocks but tends to migrate upwards through permeable rocks. A reservoir rock such as a sandstone or coral reef has sufficient permeability to let the oil flow into it and porosity (empty space) to store the oil. An impermeable cap rock, often salt beds, can trap the oil beneath the surface. Petroleum geologists look for oil in places where cap rock (salt) lies above potential reservoir rock (sandstone), which in turn lies above potential source rock (shale).

Because oil is “liquid gold,” oil companies have spent billions of dollars perfecting techniques for oil exploration and recovery. Over time, exploration shifted from the surface to the subsurface. Each drilled well provided information about the subsurface. From drill chips, geologists could identify rock types and microfossils and assess their potential as source, cap, or reservoir rock. After drilling a series of wells, a geologist could interpolate the subsurface structures (sedimentary layers, faults, etc.) between wells so they could estimate the depth of reservoir rocks in undrilled locations, and therefore how deep they would have to drill a potential well.

To improve their oil-finding capabilities further, oil companies developed methods for wire line logging, gravity surveys, and subsurface seismic profiling that greatly increased the success rate of expensive drilling and allowed exploration geologists to find small patches of oil at great depth. These techniques greatly lowered the costs of exploration; they also greatly increased the amount of oil delivered to the market. Both factors helped to keep the price of oil low. These techniques were so effective that oil discoveries skyrocketed until 1965 (Figure 1) but have fallen ever since, suggesting that most or all of the abundant oil supplies have been found.


Figure 1. Crude oil price per barrel (2009 U.S. $) over time. Data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2010).

Experts debate how much oil remains, and how much we can recover. In his book “Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage” Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes (Deffeyes 2001) claimed that the total recoverable amount of oil was 2.1 trillion barrels in 2001, and that we had used roughly half of that, so that roughly 1000 billion barrels remained. In 2006 we consumed oil at a rate of 31 billion barrels per year. If that rate remained constant, it would take 1000/31 or ~32 years from the time of Deffeyes’ estimate to consume all of the remaining oil, i.e., we would deplete oil reserves by the year 2033. However, the oil consumption rate is increasing exponentially because population is increasing at an exponential rate. Furthermore, it is not the timing of ultimate exhaustion of the resource that concerns us, but the timing of peak oil production. After oil production peaks, a gap will develop between continuously increasing demand and decreasing supply, and the price of oil will skyrocket (Figure 2). This will occur well before ultimate depletion occurs.


Figure 2. Peak oil and the supply-demand gap. After Keller (2010).

The prospects for finding large new oil deposits to erase the supply-demand gap are not good. Theoretically we can recover large amounts of oil from smaller oil fields, but it is not economically feasible; oil companies make most of their money from giant oil fields. Today ~85% of total production comes from less than 5% of production fields (Deffeyes 2001). Oil companies made all but two of the major oil discoveries before 1940, so the rate of discovery of large oil deposits (spikes in (Figure 3)) has greatly decreased.


Figure 3.

Enhanced oil recovery is also unlikely to significantly increase supply. Primary recovery, which uses natural reservoir pressure, extracts no more than 25% of the petroleum in the field. Enhanced recovery, which requires manipulating the reservoir pressure by injecting gases and liquids, extracts up to 50–60% of the petroleum. Despite more than 50 years of research on how to improve recovery rates, we still leave more than 40% of the oil underground. This is unfortunate, because worldwide we are now abandoning more wells than we are drilling.


Deffeyes, K. S. (2001). Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

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