The World's 'Peak Oil' Crisisl: Part 2
By Congressmember Roscoe Bartlett
July 5, 2005

The World's 'Peak Oil' Crisis: Part 2
Hon. Roscoe Bartlett / US House of Representatives

What now? Where do we go now? Matt Savinar, who has thoroughly researched the options, and this is not the most optimistic assessment, by the way, but may be somewhat realistic, he starts out by saying, Dear Readers, civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. I hope not. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse Bible sect or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is a scientific conclusion of the best-paid, most widely respected geologists, physicists and investment bankers in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by the phenomenon known as global peak oil.

Why should they be terrified? Last year, China used about 30 percent more oil. India now is demanding more oil. China now is the second largest importer of oil in the world. They have passed Japan. When you look at how important oil is to our economy, you can understand the big concern if, in fact, we cannot produce oil any faster than we are producing it now and there are increasing demands, as there will be, for oil. In our country, for instance, we have a debt that we must service. It will be essentially impossible to service that debt if our economy does not continue to grow. So there are enormous potential consequences, which is why he says that these people are absolutely terrified by the phenomenon known as peak oil.

The Green Revolution and the Curse of Compound Interest
But what we have done with the green revolution is to permit the population of the world to double and double again. So if we cannot now make sure that we stabilize population and bring it to the point where it can be supported by a technology where there is not what was ordinarily perceived as an inexhaustible supply of oil, there will simply be more people out there to be hungry and starved if we cannot meet their needs.

This growth cannot be sustained forever. Albert Einstein was asked what is the most energy-intensive thing in the world? He said, 'It is compound interest.''

That is what we have here in this exponential curve. And by the way, we, and when I say "we,'' I mean the world, have been using oil as if our economy could just continue to grow on this unlimited exponential curve. It goes up and up forever and ever.

Obviously, there is not an inexhaustible amount of oil in the world. In actual practice, the renewable resource curve is likely to be nowhere near the peak of the exhaustible resource curve, energy.

One barrel of oil, 42 gallons of oil, equals the productivity of 25,000 man-hours. That is the equivalent of having 60 dedicated servants that do nothing but work for someone. A gallon of gas will drive a 3-ton SUV 20 miles at 60 miles an hour.

There is just nothing out there in the alternatives that have anything like this energy density. There is only so much wood to cut. Easter Island had that experience. When they cut the last tree, they totally changed the ecology. The grand Cedars of Lebanon that built the temple, that is now largely a desert because they cut the trees, they changed the environment, they changed the climate.

We must not squander the opportunity that we have. Jevons Paradox becomes applicable here. The Jevons Paradox says that frequently when [people work] to solve a problem, they really make the situation worse. The challenge, then, is to reduce consumption ultimately to a level that cannot be sustained indefinitely without succumbing to Jevons.

Avoiding the Jevons Paradox
Bartlett on a Segway. One way to segue into a Post-Carbon future?
How do we buy time, the time that we will need to make the transition to sustainability? Obviously, there are only two things that we can do to buy time. One is to conserve, and the other is to be more efficient. Our refrigerators today are probably twice as efficient as they were 20 or 30 years ago. But instead of a little refrigerator, we have a big one. Instead of one, we may have two. So I will bet we are using as much electricity in our refrigeration as we ever used.

Remember several years ago when there were brownouts, blackouts in California and we were predicting, boy, the next year is really going to be rough? Do the Members know why it was not and we did not see any headlines about blackouts in California? Because knowing that there was a problem, the Californians, without anybody telling them they had to, voluntarily reduced their electricity consumption by 11 percent.

And, finally, we must commit to major investments in alternatives, especially as efficiencies improve. We have got a solar breeder that, by the way, is about 5 miles from my home. It was built by Solarex and is now owned by BP. They know that oil is not forever. They are now the world's second largest producer of solar panels.

A few years ago, the largest buyer of solar panels in the world was Saudi Arabia. Why would Saudi Arabia, with the most oil in the world, be the biggest purchaser of solar panels in the world? They figured out that solar panels were better for them in producing electricity than oil because they had widely distributed communities that were very small. They knew that in their small communities, widely distributed, they would be better off with distributed production.

By the way, just a hint to our people who are concerned with homeland security, the more distributed production we have, the less vulnerable we are going to be to terrorist attacks on our power infrastructure.

Transition to sustainability will not happen if left applying market forces alone. Everyone must be part of the effort or Jevons Paradox will prevail. The market will, indeed, signal the arrival of peak oil. To wait until it does, however, is like waiting until we see a tsunami: by then it may be too late.

If the problem of Social Security is equivalent to the tidal wave produced by the hurricane, then this peak oil problem is equivalent to the tsunami. It will take a sustained, conscious, coordinated national and even international, effort.

The hydroelectric and nuclear power industries did not arise spontaneously from market forces alone. They were the product of a purposeful partnership of public and private entities focused on the public good. This is what we have to do relative to alternatives.

Time, capital and energy resources are all finite. We have only so much time until it would be too late to avoid a real problem. Capital is limited and energy resources are certainly limited.

This time it will not be like the seventies. The big difference between now and the seventies is that in the seventies, we were nowhere near the top of the curve, so there was always the ability to expand, to surge. If, in fact, we are now at peak oil, there is no such ability remaining.

Needed: A 'Manhattan Project' for Renewable Energy
Is there any reason to remain optimistic or hopeful? Let me go back to Matt Savinar, that not-too-optimistic journalist. "If what you mean is there any way technology or the market or brilliant scientists or comprehensive government programs are going to hold things together or solve this for me or allow for business to continue as usual, the answer is no. On the other hand, if what you really mean is there any way that I still can have a happy, fulfilling life, in spite of some clearly grim facts, the answer is yes. But it is going to require a lot of work, a lot of adjustments, and probably a bit of good fortune on your part.''

So we have got to reduce demand so that prices do not get so high that it is impossible to invest the capital necessary to develop the alternatives, using existing conventional technologies to make the transition as new technologies are developed.

Additional benefits include business opportunities, lots of business opportunities we do not even dream of. That same thing could happen if we had a Manhattan type project focusing on renewables, potential worldwide markets, if we are the leader, and we have every reason to be the leader because we have the biggest problem.

I was in Europe a month or so ago, and their comment was somewhere between anger and disdain. "You are still only paying $2 a gallon for gasoline in your country.'' It is $5.50 or $6.00 a gallon there. And they are not unmindful that this one person in 22 in the world is using 25 percent of the world's energy. We have a real opportunity to be a role model.

There are tar sands in Canada, there is oil shale in this country. I have heard it takes six barrels of oil to get one net barrel of oil out of these tar sands and oil shale. There is an awful lot there, but there are considerable environmental costs and enormous economic costs to develop it.

Of course the real challenge is to have everybody agree on what the facts are. I suspect a big percentage of the people that might read or listen to what we say this evening had not even heard of peak oil.

We really had about 30 years warning that this was going to happen. When M. King Hubbert predicted oil would peak in this country in 1970 and it did, and 5 years later, certainly by 10 years later we knew absolutely he was right. We paid no attention.

As a matter of fact, the people that were talking about this until very recently have been quickly relegated to the lunatic fringe. If I had been up here 3 or 4 years ago talking about this, someone may want to relegate the two of us this evening to the lunatic fringe.

Had we paid attention to M. King Hubbert and not relegated him to the lunatic fringe, and he was right as evidence indicates on his prediction from 1970, had we paid attention to him we would have had at least 20 years headstart, and then we could have done it alone in this country because we are so big and use so much of the world's energy.

Hoping to solve our energy problems with fusion is a bit like you or me hoping to solve our personal financial problems by winning the lottery. That would be real nice. I think the odds are somewhere near the same.

Tonight when you go home, every fifth home and every fifth business would be dark if we did not have nuclear. It produces 20 percent of all of our electricity. But there is not all that much fissionable uranium in the world, so we are not going to get there with light water reactors. (By the way, it takes a lot of oil to build a nuclear power plant.)

At some point, you pass the point of no return where there is not enough readily available high-quality fossil fuels to support our present economy while we make the investment we have got to make to transition to these renewables. And then we come to true renewables: solar, wind, geothermal, ocean energy. All of these suffer.

I am a big supporter of these. I had the first hybrid electric car in Maryland. I had the first one in the Congress. I have a vacation home that is off the grid and totally powered by solar. And I am going to put in a wind machine.

But the energy density here is very low. And it is intermittent. It takes a lot of solar panels to produce the electricity that you use in your home. It takes 12 of them to power your ordinary refrigerator just as an example. Wind machines now produce electricity at 3 1/2 cents a kilowatt hour. That is getting competitive. A whole lot of them in California. They are in West Virginia. We are putting some up on Backbone Mountain in western Maryland.

There is not a single chimney in Iceland because they do not need them. They have got geothermal. They have a little bit of it in the West. But for most of the world that molten core is far too deep for us to tap.

I suspect that our hour is about up, and this is maybe a good place to end. There are lots of challenges here. There are lots of opportunities here.

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