Peak Oil — a Christian response

This article is a whirlwind tour of the western over-consumption of resources, the end of the oil age, and the potential collapse of civilization as we know it. Do I sound like a “Left Behind” apocalyptic outsider? Let me assure you that none of this discussion begins with Revelations. Instead, it begins with the dry mathematics of oil production plotted on a graph.

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.

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.
1/ EPR.
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.

2/ Volumes.
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.

3/ Sustainability.
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.

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.)


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.

5. Pray

"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

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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.


Eric said...

I learned about the potential oil crash about 5 years ago and it had such an effect on me that I forced myself to ignore it. Two days ago I revisited the subject and once again, I'm nearly paralyzed with fear of the inevitable future. Despite the familiar old tactic of grasping for straws of hope (a.k.a. googling renewable energy, oil reserves, etc.) I feel as if someone just told me that myself and everyone I know will die sometime in the next 2 to 8 years of violence, sickness, or starvation. As a Christian i'm torn between the 'just pray and trust God' mentality and my human instinct that wants to drop everything and hole up in a self-sustaining community. The next few years are going to be very different to say the least, but I appreciate you taking the time to write this article, it's definitely helped me in my outlook on the situation.

Eric said...
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Dave Lankshear said...

Thanks for sharing that with us Eric — I must say that I went through a very similar stage of depression and terrible, mind numbing anxiety. There's a lot of good Christian stuff to read now, see also my blog down in my links list under "Christian stuff" where I list certain peak oil papers by ministers, and even ethics Lecturer at Moore College Dr Andrew Cameron.

But the future is uncertain, and I don't know. I still think there is hope for a better, cleaner, greener world – but if the denial or "consensus trance" continues much longer, well, each year we procrastinate the 7 r's of sustainability seems to me to be another 5% probability increase towards a "Mad Max meltdown". I hope I'm wrong.

Eric said...

So a few days and many prayers later, I started noticing a trend on some of the more prominent peak oil websites and their forums: No one is talking about solutions. No one is taking action except to save themselves. The most outspoken of which usually have post signatures like 'Raiding eco villiages' and 'watching the die-off is fun, better with buttered popcorn'. They suck you in with graphs and figures and news stories that support their claim. They tell you all you can do is stockpile and make sure you don't miss the last train out of town. They tell you to simply out-survive the sick and the weak. Not in any of this have I seen something positive. Where are their efforts for change? Anytime someone brings up an idea it is promptly shot down by a swarm of responses that cite compelling news stories, show you more charts and graphs, or point to posts by other doomers. Even the destruction of demand will contribute to apocalypse. This absence of any form of hope has caused me to conclude that they are just a bunch of miserable people (and I say that in the most polite sense, as I have been miserable as one of them) that are enjoying each other's company.

They have valid facts and good arguments. Peak Oil is real. It will likely prove to be the most dire crisis of our time. Our way of life will change. Millions or Billions could die - But that is the *worst case scenario*. So a report says we need 20 years to smoothly transition - shall we waste the 5-10 that we have sulking in our computer chairs? They talk so much about survival of the fittest, having that 'can-do' attitude that will keep you alive after the crash. Why don't we see more of them applying that attitude right now? How many of them could be making impacts and prompting change all over the world? Wouldn't that prove their will to survive? Moreover, it would prove that they really care about their fellow man. Sadly, I sometimes think that some of them wouldn't really appreciate an outcome that didn't involve death and disaster.

So I'm refusing to believe that there's nothing we can do, and I am so thankful that there are at least a few who have gone through what I have and fought to stay positive. Here's a good example: http://peakoildebunked.blogspot.com/2006/07/307-confessions-of-ex-doomer.html

Of course, this is the other side of the spectrum, but if you really think about it, is it any less outlandish than the total collapse of industrialized civilization? Any less possible? I don't know why, but it's just so much easier to fall in with the doom crowd. If you think for yourself and look a little deeper, not taking everything they say for it's face value, things aren't so impossible after all.

And in all of this I haven't even touched on the fact that our God is in control of everything. Should the worst come to pass, He can and may save us, but even if He doesn't He still deserves all our praise. He is truly the hope of the nations, and that truth will become more and more clear as we realize how easy we've had it this century, how our creature comforts have kept us from relying on Him.

Dave Lankshear said...

So true Eric. My page "Peakniks, doomers, and collapse" details some of the replies. The "Confessions of an ex-doomer" is interesting, and I've found myself arguing so many of his points in so many peaknik forums that I've sort of given up... even at Sydney Peak Oil – which I started — the doomers have taken over. But do check out my page above, because I've linked to some great quotes from Worldchanging on the nature of Apocalyptic outsiders.

I think some of them are just bored with life and like to scare each other with late night ghost-stories of collapse and mayhem. They feel alienated by modern society, and peak oil becomes a 'faith' system for them. It's very annoying.

On the other hand, I sometimes find myself agreeing with them... but only in the sense that some of their scenarios are possible, not that they are inevitable. If we are really, really stupid, some of these collapse scenarios could happen... but I'm pretty sure we are just facing a Greater Depression.

Sydney Peak Oil did some good stuff (before the doomers took over), and we ran a briefing to our state government in mid-2005. They were minority parties like the Christians and the Greens. Some started getting a bit agitated and shaky as the ramifications sunk in. Some realised it was probably going to start on their watch! Other than a little rant in the legislative council then next day, nothing happened.

I personally briefed Maxine McKew during last year's election. She defeated the PM in his own seat... only the 2nd time that's happened in Australian history! 3 days after I briefed her she was in a room of CEO's briefed by Dr Roger Bezdek, Co-author of the Hirsch report. But did peak oil get a mention during the election campaign? No... politicians can't talk about it.

I know that most of our Federal and State politicians have been briefed on this. They SHOULD be able to do the math! It's not that hard! Non-OPEC peaked (about half the oil world), OPEC secret... just saying "trust me", demand rising but supply not able to keep up... they SHOULD be able to see the crisis coming! But which politician is going to say "Vote for me, I'm the guy saying the next 20 years could really suck!"

It just doesn't sell... that's what my wife and I have decided.

So there are things we can do very quickly once the crisis hits, and that's where we should be focusing. See my 7"R"s under the solutions tab of my blog.

Eric said...

Yeah it definitely looks bleak at times, but the more I look, the more I find that says we do have more than a good chance of survival without all the economic and social upheaval. For starters, this PDF is probably the most intelligent and accurate rebuttals to doomer thought that I have seen (although it was intended to be a rebuttal to 'twilight in the desert'):

As far as alternatives go, Have you come across anything on the magnetic engine? There are various forms, but believe it or not, it's proven free energy, it defies the laws of physics and there are several open-source projects that allow you to build them yourself. There are also quite a few companies getting ready to start production, one being a backyard scientist from Australia. Google magnetic engine, newman engine (requires a small power source, but has exponential yield), perendev magnetic motor, tesla to name just a few. Check out the videos on youtube, it's literally exploding right now. This tech has been around for a while, but allegedly has been surpressed by the energy companies, and for good reason! Can you imagine totally free energy with such a minimal investment? No more power bills for anyone, less reliance on infrastructure? It's amazing to think about the possibilities. Here are just a few of the videos:

I know there are problems with the time it takes for everyone to migrate to a new technology, but this one is very promising in that it's mechanically doing the same thing (spinning really really fast) that our current transportation technologies and electronic generators use. It's sort of a drop-in solution, with some modification, but very do-able even for a savvy DIY'er.

On the subject of 'doing something now' about peak oil, check out this: http://www.water4gas.com

The website is a little hokey, but it's basically electrolysis powered by your car battery that produces HHO gas on-demand and it's injected into your fuel intake. There are lots of people now forming groups in the U.S. on weekends to show off their HHO car mods that give 50-300% increase in fuel efficiency, using parts from the local hardware store. It even qualifies you for a tax rebate in some states. All of this for minimal time investment and as low as $5. It's really a simplified, on-demand version of the Joe's Cell. And I know you're probably thinking, what's the EROIE? It's gotta kill your alternator right? actually, the net gain in efficiency is greater than the energy it takes for the electrolysis.

Now i've seen several posts on peak oil forums talking about how we'll never switch to hybrids quick enough to make a difference. Think again! There are thousands of people that say this is for-real, and I'm going to find out for myself. If it is, do you know a single person, rich or poor, that wouldnt drop $100-200 to have some local mechanic install this for them? I say it's extremely probable. I'm going to be modding my old car next week and if it really works I'll be doing EVERYTHING I can to publicize and promote it.

For all the negativity I've seen regarding placing faith in Humanities ingenuity and the inability of the soaring oil price to set people in motion to look for alternatives, it's incredible that all these average joe's, not the highly paid corporate research scientists, are coming up with the things that may just change the world.

Dave Lankshear said...

I don't believe the free energy stuff for one moment. Wal-Mart and other corporations would be rushing to produce the cheapest version, and we could then do anything... green the deserts, build food towers (google it), terraform deep underground Moon caverns, terraform Mars. We'd be "demigods".

The hydrogen thing: exactly right... the ERoEI's the issue, and I'm having trouble with that concept as well.

There are amazing new renewable energy technologies with OK ERoEI's... but they produce electricity, not liquid fuels. So they'll require trams, trains, and trolley buses. Trolley buses can be built the quickest and permanently move a region off oil.

But here's the big one, if we REZONE our cities around "dense and diverse" city design, then we can permanently wean off oil and global warming at a fast rate. Electric cars and hydrogen have trouble with various rare metals, and each EV has already consumed half the energy it will ever use just being built!

So if we think more holistically, we can design FANTASTIC, high tech, green wonderland cities to live in. And this can be done in about 20 years. See my page "Rezone" for more....and the social and community benefits are great as well. I'm talking about New York city and Sydney becoming high-tech and wonderful places to live, that are "more European than Europe" in their design.

I've met some of these people, and they are quite optimistic. There's a lot we can do.

So don't think about energy efficient cars any more, although they will have their place for emergency services etc... but think about energy efficient cities. We build

Crofter Andrew said...

For positive solutions you could read 'Transition Towns' by Rob somebody. It's more about how to encourage lifestyle change than technological fixes. Not from a Christian perspective, but interesting nevertheless.

Neil said...

We have written a book as a Christian response. See http://www.theoillamp.co.uk/

Neil said...

We have written a book as a Christian response. See http://www.theoillamp.co.uk/

William Belcher said...

"Precious treasure and oil are in a wise man's dwelling,
but a foolish man devours it." Proverbs 21:20