Earlier this month, I was able to attend the final day of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO) USA conference, and it reminded me how far behind we are in preparing for a future in which oil is less readily available than it is now.
Sharon Astyk, who’s an ASPO board member, wrote a helpful Peak Oil 101 post that walks through the concept in some detail, but the basic issue is that there’s a finite quantity of oil in the world, and at some point the rate of global oil extraction will slow. We may have already reached that point, or we may reach it in a decade or so. The important thing is that global demand for oil is increasing while production is or will soon be slowing. Much of the oil that remains is harder to extract, requiring more energy and posing more risks to the health of workers and the environment.
There are different predictions about when and how sharply oil production will decline, but the key point is that we need to figure out how to live with less oil – while continuing progress toward the goal of eradicating hunger and poverty worldwide.
Sharon and her fellow ASPO bloggers have several posts on sessions from throughout the conference, which I recommend to anyone who’s interested in this issue. Here are a few of the key points from the sessions I attended:
Anthony Perl of Simon Fraser University’s Urban Studies Program advocates for “Transport Revolutions” (the title of his book), replacing much of our use of internal combustion engines with electric motors whose power comes from renewable sources. Electricity isn’t as attractive a fuel source as oil, which is particularly energy-dense, but it’s being used successfully to power rail and buses. In general, we should replace much of our road and air travel with air and water travel. (Marine transport, Perl noted, is already the most carbon-efficient way of moving goods, and technologies like SkySail can reduce ships’ oil use further.) This, of course, will mean less reliance on what Perl calls “personally managed travel” and more “collectively managed travel.”
Much as I long for the day when I can ride high-speed rail from DC to New York or Atlanta, I know building such a network will be tough. Not only will the infrastructure be expensive (Perl estimates $1 trillion for a bare-bones HSR network), but getting the necessary right-of-way in valuable and built-up corridors will require endless battles. I’d like to hear more about Perl’s proposal for a Transportation Redevelopment Agency (TRA), which he’s described as “a new federal entity that could play a role of banker and infrastructure entrepreneur similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority.” It would need to be pretty powerful.
Food and Farmers
Sharon Astyk – who’s an author and a blogger at Casaubon’s Book, as well as ASPO board member – focused on what peak oil will mean for global food supplies. She noted that there’s a correlation between rising oil prices and rising food prices, and the recent enthusiasm for ethanol hasn’t helped. When it comes to a competition between people who want to eat the grain directly and people who want to put it in their cars, “cars always eat first.” Meanwhile, world grain production is increasing more slowly than it has in the past, and unchecked climate change will have an impact on agriculture.
The global food system has increasingly relied on transporting food long distances from where it was grown, but rising oil prices will make that less feasible. Sharon asked an important question: How will we grow food where people are?
Energy and the Emergency Pathway
Ken Zweibel, who runs the Solar Institute here at George Washington University, suggests dramatically ramping up US solar energy production, generating much of the energy in the Southwest and distributing it via an improved transmission system and national smart grid. He noted that there’s been a major drop in the prices for solar technologies over the past three years, and solar projects ought to receive better financing terms because they’re less risky than other energy-generating projects.
Zweibel suggested that we shouldn’t look at the US’s history with renewables (which hasn’t been impressive) to gauge their potential, because we haven’t been on an emergency pathway. Once we are on an emergency pathway, they can ramp up much more quickly.
The problem is, we’re facing an emergency, but we don’t have a critical mass of elected leaders willing to do anything about it (and one reason for that is that not enough of their constituents are willing to do anything about it). Overhauling our transportation, food, and energy-generation systems will take time and resources that the US doesn’t seem willing to invest.