Sunday, May 21, 2006

Oil Vey!

Today I am turning over the podium to one of our more conservative hangers-on here at CTTC, the curmudgeon formerly known as Red Dirt. It's a topic near and dear to his blackened heart, and one that really warrants attention. So without further adieu ...

By Red Dirt

“Peak oil” – the term has a vaguely secretive, inside-baseball ring to it. But chances are if you haven’t heard about “peak oil,” you’re going to hear a lot more about it in coming months.

I’ve been bugging my friends on the right, left and in between about “peak oil” since the day I walked into a Barnes & Noble in 2004 and saw a copy of “Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil” on display. I thumbed through its 128 pages, then plopped down on one of those overstuffed chairs scattered throughout the store and read through it in one sitting.

When I was finished, I felt queasy because of the implications of what I’d read. Since then, I’ve had an off-and-on obsession with this theory. And that obsession grew recently when gasoline crept up, up, up.

Here’s the lowdown: Peak oil refers to the peak of world oil supply. There’s only so much of the stuff in the ground. Eventually we will hit a peak of oil production, after which we face an inevitable decline until the last drop is pumped from the last well.

Peak oil theorists -- among them reputable physicists, geologists and oil industry gurus -- imagine a cresting wave of oil production that began about a century ago. As the spigot of oil flows, production levels rise until we hit the peak. Some theorists suggest we’ve already hit the peak. Others say it’s a few years hence. Others argue decades away.

So what? That means once we hit the peak we have another 100 years or so of oil, right? Big deal.


Because in the run up to the peak, we’ve essentially “petro-formed” our First World economy.

Everything now runs on oil. You and I essentially eat oil, since agriculture has come to rely on oil-powered machinery and fertilizers (produced with natural gas) and chemical pesticides for "Green Revolution" yields of grain, veggies and grain-fed animals that we buy in grocery stores. If you eat organic food and congratulate yourself on your P.C. prudence, you’re probably eating oil, too, since it was shipped from across oceans and continents in refrigerated boats and trucks.

Most of your clothing, your car, airplanes, trains, industrial products for home construction, electricity, air-conditioning, everything plastic -- you name it; it’s either a direct petrol-product, created by petrol-chemicals, powered by an oil derivative, or a byproduct of petrol-processing.

That means that as we hit the peak of production, demand has increased exponentially -- not merely a trickle of use like a century ago, but a massive river of demand across the planet. Other nations, such as China and India, now make increasing demands for oil supply as they engage in petro-forming their own economies. Thus the slim “margin of error” we’ve been hearing about the past several weeks for global oil supply.

Peak oil theorists argue that the downward slope of the peak is much more rapid than the climb upwards. Not 100 years, but a matter of decades.

And under that scenario, the intervening decades between the peak (which one scientist suggests has already happened) and zero oil are lean, hungry and mean times.

No margin for error in supply means prices for black gold skyrocket. With only a few million barrels of oil to spare as a supply cushion, any world event can create tremendous price spikes. We've all groused at $3 a gallon. Imagine $4 a gallon this summer, as recently predicted by T. Boone Pickens. What about $6 a gallon?

This is no time to smirk about those driving around in tank-like SUVs. Because the price of everything -- electric and gas utilities, the grocery bill, clothes, a trip to the dry-cleaners, your daily commute -- rises through the stratosphere when oil spikes. If peak oil theorists are correct, even as prices soar, supply will continue to dwindle until nothing's left. Before the last drop of oil is drilled, however, the apparatus for producing oil will have already ground to a halt. And modern civilization will cease to hum along.

Those who disagree with “peak oil” pessimism do not dispute that we'll run out of oil. They argue instead that we can grow our way out this scenario. And they point to the fact that oil has risen exponentially in price since the 1980s -- no “peak” effect has occurred, no constraints on America’s go-go economy. We’re still cruising along.

They have a point.

But if peak oil is a reality, and if we are beginning the rapid descent toward the end of oil, we could actually accelerate the slide by trying to wean ourselves from the stuff. It takes far more energy to produce “a joule” of food in North America than the energy you actually get from the food.

Why is that important? Because it means you must burn up a lot of oil in tilling the land, creating chemical pesticides and fertilizing the crops for “clean” biofuels from corn or other grains that are touted as the next big thing. More energy may actually go into creating the “biofuel” than you actually get out driving a car on fuel that smells like popcorn.

You also burn up a lot of oil if you try to retrofit the economy with new rail lines or hybrid cars, or in manufacturing more solar PV panels (made from silicon, usually created through chemical reactions in industrial furnaces) or colossal wind turbines for “renewable” energy.

Perhaps you burn up so much of the available supply that the world actually runs out of oil before reaching the finish line in the race to move beyond the petroleum age.

At that point, peak oil theorists contend, the slide becomes a steep fall from a cliff.

Of course, there are plenty who argue peak oil is yet another scare scenario in a long line of apocalyptic nonsense. They may be right.

Lots of reasons for the increasing cost of gasoline have been floated. First, it’s Katrina, then tensions with Iran, then new requirements for gasoline mixtures. But no one disputes that supply is incredibly tight, and will grow only more so within the next half dozen years. And few argue that oil is an infinite resource.

And what if the continual run up in prices over the past year comes from an underlying reality of peak oil? Optimists suggest technology will save us, allowing us to transition to a different energy source. I’m hopeful enough to agree.

But I’m also hedging my bets. There are things you and I should be doing this very moment, even if we’re simply witnessing a temporary "super spike" in global oil prices, as some market analysts suggest.

Meanwhile, our political leaders of all stripes have already devolved into demagoguery over gas prices. Don’t look for national leadership from either political party that will be much help during a crisis. If peak oil is real, then you’re on your own.

So as feeble as it sounds, I’m learning how to grow vegetables in my backyard. I started last year, and expanded the effort this year. That’s step number one.

Look, I’m not expecting to feed my family with the meager strawberries or skimpy broccoli heads sprouting in my raised bed. But I am learning a skill that my Depression-era forebears took for granted. And I don’t feel as helplessly strapped down to the wheel of oil’s fortune.

Other steps? How about “de-consumerizing” your life and getting in touch with the local economy? How about “de-teching” your life as much as possible?

My friends like to joke that I’m a neo-Luddite, but I like my iPod as much as the next GenX music zombie. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt my health to mow my lawn with an old-fashioned push-reel mower -- and my grass likes it, too. I’ll never have to fill up a gas can for my lawnmower again. I can mow in my flip-flops. And I’m spewing absolutely zero pollution into the atmosphere.

One thing my lefty friends and I can agree upon: President Bush had a chance to unite the nation right after 9/11 under the banner of energy independence. This was part of the war effort that could have engaged all Americans. That didn’t happen -- but is that any reason to bemoan our “addiction to oil” and do nothing?

If peak oil proponents are wrong, and next week an MIT whiz-kid invents a pocket-sized cold fusion reactor, I’ll be the first to purchase a fusion-powered Hummer.

But events feel twitchy on the global stage right now, don’t they?

There are things you can do. Right now, in your own backyard, for starters.


At 1:54 AM, Blogger Cassandra D said...

I wouldn't bet that a push-reel mower couldn't lop off a toe...
Careful with those flip-flops!

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not only should we grow our own food but maybe we could stop eating so damn much too. We could save up our joules.

At 9:21 AM, Anonymous turtleboi said...

Well, I don't have a backyard, so you'll excuse me while I return to The Cannonball Run on DVD.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Conrad Spencer said...

Great post, Red Dirt. We actually agree for once. Peak oil theory deserves more attention that what it's received so far. I'm not entirely sure where I stand on the idea. I'm environmentally conscious enough to be concerned, but skeptical enough to wonder if this isn't another Y2K or SARS. Still, it doesn't hurt to be careful.

I, too, have a manual reel mower. It's great to not have to worry about filling it with gas or changing the oil. This time of year I also try to buy as much of my produce as possible at the farmer's market. It's not necessarily organic or pesticide free (though some of it is) but you know it didn't travel 2,000 miles to get to you, and it helps out the local economy.

At 1:00 PM, Anonymous Red Dirt said...

On Conrad's note, everyone should consider checking in with the local farmer's market. OSU has expanded downtown on Wednesdays and still has the Saturday market. And Norman has a great market on Saturday mornings as well. And don't leave out the possibility of joining the Oklahoma Food Coop. Lots of organic, fresh made-in-Oklahoma products that aren't shipped long distances. Just go to for more information. You can order online once a month and either pick up your order at several metro locations, or have it delivered.

At 1:07 PM, Anonymous Red Dirt said...

New on peak oil theory today...,1626,ECP_4481_4712233,00.html

At 1:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

can I have your parking space?

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Conrad Spencer said...

Red Dirt--I just came across a book that might interest your vegetable-growing self--"The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" by Michael Pollan. It looks to be about how far removed we are from the nature that produces our overly-processed food, sort of a health book with social and ecological overtones. I have't read the book yet so this isn't a recommendation, just a heads-up.

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Red Dirt said...

Thanks Conrad. Will do.

I just finished reading a great book by the same author - "The Botany of Desire" about the origins of the apple, the potato, the tulip and ... cannabis. Fascinating read.

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Red Dirt said...

Hey turtleboi, front yards work, too. So do patios, apartment balconies or window ledges. Some time, you should check out the the productive vegetable gardens Manhattanites grow on rooftops.

At 4:17 PM, Anonymous flamewhore said...

Mr. Dirt, Where does one find a push-reel mower? Can I buy a new one or do I have to scrounge around estate sales? I have read this is the best type of mower for bermuda grass.

At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Red Dirt said...

No need to buy a rusty old model from a yard sale -- you can buy a brand new one in several ways. You can purchase a model online quite easily. Or you can just pop into a nearby Sears or Home Depot. Sears sells a Craftsman model for $79. And Home Depot sells a model made by Scotts (that's the one I own) with a wide 20-inch-wide cutting swath. Apparently, expert lawn care types consider push-reels superior for grass health. Keep in mind that most push-reels will require you allow your bermuda to grow to about an inch. Nearly all the models I'm familiar with are cheaper and easier to maintain than any gasoline mower. After using mine the other day, a neighbor remarked, "Just why did people stop using these?" Now he's considering purchasing one since his gas mower is creeping toward its last wheezing, fossil-fueled run.

At 6:03 PM, Anonymous flamewhore said...

Thanks for the follow-up Mr. Dirt. I think the most annoying thing is starting the gas powered mowers. The cord is too long for a girl.


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