PART ONE: WHAT IS PEAK OIL? — By David Lankshear
If you plot the mining of oil from a specific oil field over time, the volumes of oil extracted follow a rough bell curve. Production starts off slow, then as more and more wells are drilled volumes increase until about halfway through the field’s life production plateaus. This is the maximum output you will ever produce from that oil field. This marks the beginning of the end of that oil field’s life. Soon, the oil field goes into decline as the deeper oil takes more energy to extract, and is more expensive to process. All the light sweet crude is gone, and you are now into the heavy crude. You have moved from a growing output of cheap oil to a decreasing output of poor quality oil. This trend can be observed for one field, a collection of fields, a state, an entire nation, and estimates can even be made for the whole world.
Many are saying we are on the peak of world oil production. The “peak” is the most oil we will ever produce annually; only from our immediate vantage point it looks more like a plateau. We may find that 86 million barrels a day is the ceiling of what humanity will ever produce. OPEC have promised to raise daily output a number of times over the past 18 months, but just cannot. In just a few short years we may be able to see the beginning of the energy down slope.
If we really are at peak oil production, it means we have burnt all the easy to access oil, all the “low hanging fruit”. As National Geographic puts it, “Humanity’s way of life is on a collision course with geology — with the stark fact that the Earth holds a finite supply of oil… The peak will be a watershed moment, marking the change from an increasing supply of cheap oil to a dwindling supply of expensive oil.” (National Geographic, June 2004, page 88.) New discoveries will not save us. Discovery peaked in the 1960’s, and so we are now consuming 4 barrels of oil energy for every barrel discovered.
The Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, John Anderson, and celebrity scientists Dr Karl Kruszelnicki of Australia and David Suzuki of Canada have stated that they believe we are near the peak. Yesterday Exxon-Mobile quietly announced that all non-OPEC oil producing nations would peak in the next 5 years. The world will then rely on OPEC to supply any increase in demand — which they apparently cannot do. The same article also stated that oil demand would increase by a million barrels per day each year after 2010. With China and India coming online as oil consuming nations, demand for oil has never been higher. It appears demand has already caught supply, and the price of oil is rising as a result.
But what will happen as oil extraction actually slows down each and every year after the peak? Put simply, the economic consequences will be catastrophic. It will be like the 1970’s oil crisis, but this time it is here to stay.
Oil is the lifeblood of our civilization. Not only does oil provide 90% of transport energy, but it also provides the feedstock for our chemical and plastics industry, the bitumen for our roads, pharmaceutical inputs, and most importantly oil provides the raw ingredients for making pesticides. Oil is food. Some have calculated that it takes ten calories of oil and gas energy to make just one calorie of food energy. (Google “Eating Fossil Fuels”).
The cost of everything that depends on oil will rise. Airlines will become unaffordable to the average citizen and will bankrupt as a result. Once the airlines stop flying the world’s largest employer, international tourism, takes a severe economic hit. Some smaller nations dependent on tourism will become bankrupt. The flow on effects of oil prices skyrocketing out of control will throw us into the Greater Depression. We have left adjusting to the post-oil era too late. Indeed it mystifies me that governments still allow oil dependent suburban sprawl to creep ever further into once profitable agricultural areas.
Hang onto your hats, there’s more. Industrial agriculture is so utterly dependent on oil for both pesticides and transporting NPK fertilizers to our farms that many peak oilers believe humanity is already in a state of worldwide overshoot. The “die-off” community (see dieoff.com) basically think our situation is comparable to bacteria in a Petri dish, which has doubled again and again until it is about to hit the walls of the dish. When that happens, the growth medium runs out and the bacteria starve. They argue that oil is the growth medium that has enabled the human population to reach 6 billion. Without oil inputs our farms have only dead dirt and our crop yields will collapse. The human population may have to “adjust” to pre-industrial revolution agricultural numbers. Die-off.
I will not expand on the many die-off scenarios that illustrate the potential for anarchic collapse and resulting starvation. I do not hold that die-off is inevitable. However, when a conservative Republican Senator with a previous career in science teaching can stand up in the American Congress and quote: "Dear Readers, civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon", we know that something is awry. (See www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net). Indeed, if oil depletion is imminent then the outlook for civilization really does appear far more alarming than even the Pulitzer Prize winning Jared Diamond has visualized in his book, “Collapse”. He hardly mentions peak oil, even though he highlighted Australia as being on the knife- edge of collapse because of our poor soils.
THE TECHNICAL ISSUES
Right now I bet you are trying to remember every renewable energy scheme you have ever come across. I’ve been there, madly scouring the internet day and night studying wind, solar, bio-mass, geothermal, tidal, wave and OTEC energy. There are some truly remarkable schemes to harness renewable sources of energy. (My favourite is the 1 kilometre high Solar Chimney just for its sheer audacity, engineering beauty and simplicity.)
However, the technical challenges are vast. Let me help you start asking the right questions before you assume you have an easy solution.
EPR is the Energy Production Ratio. It asks how much energy you get back for all the energy you put in to building the power plant, transporting materials, etc. For example, in the early days of oil mining you just drilled a well and hit a gusher, allowing the EPR to be as high as 100. That’s 100 times the Energy Returned on the Energy Invested. (Also known as ERoEI). A little exploration and drilling and you had an EPR of 100. Now that oil fields are so hard to find, and so expensive to drill (such as deep sea beds) the EPR of oil is only about 8, which is also another indicator that oil is about to peak. (Remember it costs more and more energy to get the last few scraps of oil, and so the energy profit ratio starts to decline after the peak.)
But what are the EPR’s of renewable energy? Some studies argue that solar cells are net energy losers! The solar cell energy payback studies often omit such basic energy inputs as the energy required to construct the solar cells factory. That’s a bit like ignoring the dome of a nuclear power plant, or the deep-sea rig used to mine the oil! Even so, this is how the EPR figures are often “cooked”. When the energy costs are properly measured, some conclude that solar cells are merely converting cheap fossil fuels into expensive silicon cell electricity.
In a similar fashion the EPR for many alternatives is poor.
Most bio-fuels have a poor or negative EPR because of the high-energy input from oil pesticides and gas manufactured fertilizers. Hydrogen has a negative EPR, you have to burn more electricity to manufacture it than you get back in the hydrogen. (Second law of thermodynamics.) The EPR is one of the most important questions when considering alternative energies.
Will the renewable energy produce the volumes of fuel we need? Some people recommend bio-fuels, but my current figures tell me that growing any crop for fuel would quickly compete with farmland and still only give us a tiny fraction of the transport fuel we need. It becomes a choice between fuel and food, to mention nothing of the dangers of damaging more soil. Always check if the renewable energy can satisfy the sheer quantities of today’s energy use.
I mentioned depleted soils above as one example of whether or not an energy source was sustainable. There’s no point getting hooked on bio- diesel if within a few years the soil dies and fuel crops fail. There’s no point building hundreds of expensive nuclear power plants if we then reach peak uranium in few decades.
4/ Ease of transportation. Is the fuel easy to move and freight? Even if you managed to manufacture enough hydrogen, how do you move it? Hydrogen leaks. It needs to be condensed and frozen. It needs a different piping infrastructure. Shipping hydrogen requires a completely different and much more expensive tanker, and the road freight of hydrogen is also problematic.
SUMMING UP THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGES
There are many other questions of cost, time to implement, and infrastructure needs. What will we use to replace plastics? What about power backup for when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine? If we want industrial civilization to survive these technical issues must be solved quickly as we prioritise the remaining fossil fuels into renewable energy.
We do have some amazing new technologies. We also have eco-city designs that save energy, are better for the environment and health of citizens, and would allow a very comfortable lifestyle in a city designed around communities and moving people, not cars. Yet it is all too little too late. After carefully investigating this matter for nearly a year now, I have become increasingly alarmed at how difficult it will be for our society to wean itself off our oil addiction. The Hirsch report to the US Department of Energy concluded it would take 20 years to wean off oil. Yet our governments are still sleepwalking into this crisis.
Peak oil leaves me questioning the ethical basis of our whole first world way of life. Sustainability is now a matter of conscience affecting a Christian approach to social justice and poverty. This planet has limited energy resources that the first world has largely consumed at the expense of developing nations. Furthermore, we are taxing the next generation and leaving behind problems with pollution, topsoil degradation, depleted fisheries, rare mineral depletion, water table depletion, clear felling of old growth forest, erosion, and global warming. My own personal Christian response to peak oil is best described by the following quote. “If I cannot extrapolate my standard of living to the whole world and still find nature flourishing, my standard of living is immoral." (John Carmody, Ecology and Religion, p. 134.)
PART TWO: A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE — By Neil Cameron.
The spectre of Peak Oil is certainly scary - it promises us an uncertain future. But how should we as Christians react to both the current threat of Peak Oil and to its potential consequences?
1. Remember that God has sent Christ.
"In these last days (God) has spoken to us by his Son" - Hebrews 1:2
Throughout Christian history, it has been the death and resurrection of Christ that has sustained the church and individual Christians through times of trouble. The work of Christ on the cross - to die as our sin-substitute - was at the heart of the Apostles' message. Paul, Peter and the other New Testament writers spoke in great detail of Christ's work despite all the hardships of living in the Roman Empire of the first century. Although threats like Peak Oil may give us concern, we must always return our prime focus to the cross. Regardless of how our lives may be changed by the ravages of economic recession - and even potential war - it is the sure hope of eternal life, given to us by God the Father through the death and resurrection of his Son, that gives us the strength to endure.
2. Be wise in our understanding.
"He who gives thought to a matter will discover good, and blessed is he who trusts in the LORD" - Proverbs 16:20
Of all people, Christians should take the lead in being informed about the truth of Peak Oil. Peak Oil has already become a magnet for post-apocalyptic survivalists who are convinced that western society is on the brink of collapse, and have stocked up tinned food and ammunition for that coming day. While there is a slight chance that this may occur, the majority of Peak Oil experts speak of a more gradual decline over a longer period of time. As Christians, we must never make judgements based upon inadequate facts. The last thing the world needs from the church are another bunch of loonies predicting the end of the world. Be informed. Check the facts. The Peak Oil movement is full of its own disagreements, and the authors of this article themselves disagree over certain points, so it will be of great help to you and your friends if you have all the basic facts at hand.
3. Be grateful for everything God has given to us.
"The Earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein" - Psalm 24:1
The last 100 years of human history has seen more wealth generated than at any other time. International trade and capital investment has boomed. At the same time, standards of living have increased dramatically, with historically low infant mortality rates, decreased costs of food and clothing, higher rates of education and greater opportunities for personal advancement. That is our situation - those of us who live in modern industrialized nations at least.
It is tempting, then, to believe that it is our own hard work and talent that has achieved this. But none of the last 100 years would have occurred without the availability of a cheap source of energy. Oil, while a statistically minor component of the modern economy, is an essential resource that ensures that energy is available to run the transport of goods that underpin global trading. With the imminent and permanent increase in oil costs (due to the natural decrease in supply outlined above), our global economy will be forever changed.
Oil, along with other resources, is part of God's creation. The advantages we have had over the last 100 years are due to God's provision of oil in all the right places, as well as endowing human beings with the ability of inventing ways to use it. The relative wealth and peaceful world that industrialized nations enjoy are not the result of our own strength - it is entirely due to the blessings of God. That God has provided only a limited amount of oil is not an oversight on his part. The facts, however, point to a failure on our part to use his gifts wisely. The effects of Peak Oil will hopefully expose to the world our sin and shortcomings, and provide an opportunity for many to search out the real meaning of life - an opportunity that we can use to proclaim the cross, and for people to respond in heartfelt repentance and joyful faith.
4. Change our economic focus.
"The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the maker of them all." - Proverbs 22:2
In the last 50 years, modern Christianity has been deeply affected by Marxist teachings on one hand, and a form of unrestrained capitalism on the other that has led to the rise of churches that teach "prosperity". While proponents of both beliefs have done so out of love for their fellow man, it unfortunately mirrors much of modern economic thought - in this sense, they are worldly teachings that have been imbibed by the church.
Having an opinion about economic issues isn't necessarily wrong - it becomes a problem when those issues become an integral part of a person's Christian faith that those who are from the alternative view become "the enemy". For the church to survive the coming crisis that Peak Oil speaks about, we must all first return to the God's word - the Bible - as the sole authority and standard by which our faith is determined, rather than any worldly philosophy. Secondly, we must encourage loving engagement and honest debate within the church about how we as Christians can help those who will undoubtedly suffer from the coming economic crisis. This is more than just advocating a particular economic philosophy (such as Marxism or Economic Neoliberalism), but working out the best medium between the two, without denying the truths found in Scripture.
"I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may live a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way." - 1 Timothy 2:1-2
The future of our world is ultimately in the hands of God, but there is no doubt that people in positions of power - those in government and those in business - can make decisions that will make the coming crisis more bearable. Alternatively, they can also make it worse. So we should pray that God gives these people wisdom to do the right thing. We should pray for our church leaders, that God gives them wisdom to speak God's word and preach God's gospel, and not offer unbiblical and impractical solutions. We should also pray for ourselves and our families, that God will sustain us and give us wisdom to make the right decisions.
David Lankshear and his wife Joy run Lankshear Design, a graphic design business that does work for Matthias Media and other Christian publishing companies. David is the creator of www.eclipsenow.org, one of the top information websites about Peak Oil. David and Joy attend Christchurch, Gladesville, in Sydney.
Neil Cameron is married to Anna, and is a high school English and History teacher. He is also a graduate of Sydney Missionary and Bible College. Neil and his wife attend Charlestown Presbyterian church in Newcastle, where Neil is an elder.
This article first appeared in Zadok Perspectives issue 88 www.zadok.org.au
© 2005 David Lankshear and Neil McKenzie Cameron
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.