Do you remember peak oil? He never left

Do you remember peak oil? We recently wrote that he was back, but according to one of the first “peak oilers”, Richard Heinberg, author of the 2005 Peak Oiler classic “The Party’s Over, Peak Oil Is Back”, he never really faded away.

According to analysis done in the 1950s by geophysicist King Hubbert, peak oil was supposed to occur around now, when oil production would peak and then begin its inexorable decline. In her excellent article, “What is Peak Oil? Have We Achieved This Goal?”, Katherine Gallagher described what might happen during Peak Oil:

“A drop in oil supply would cause oil and fuel prices to spike, affecting everything from the agriculture industry to the transportation industry to the tech industry. The consequences could be just as severe whether widespread starvation as food supplies dwindle or a mass exodus from metropolitan areas as oil supplies dwindle.At worst, peak oil could lead to massive public unrest, geopolitical upheaval and the unraveling of the fabric of the world economy.

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We’ve already shown this disastrous rendering of Hubbert’s Peak from 2005, which places us in the midst of confusion and points us towards a period of chaos followed by collapse. It didn’t quite happen that way, thanks to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and other unconventional oil sources like Alberta’s tar sands. But according to Heinberg, author of the 2005 Peak Oiler classic “The Party’s Over, Peak Oil Is Back,” in fact, it never really went away.

In Resilience, Heinberg noted that fracking may have boosted production, but wells declined rapidly and the boom was financed with cheap money. But it allowed us to worry about other things, like climate change. If there’s been any talk about peak oil, it’s more about peak demand than supply, where no one wants anything because we’ve electrified everything.

But the European energy crisis caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine has put the question of supply back on the table. Heinberg reminds us of the key points of our energy dependence:

  • Energy is the basis of all aspects of human society.
  • Fossil fuels have enabled a dramatic expansion of the energy usable by humanity, in turn enabling unprecedented growth in human population, economic activity and material consumption.

This is the ground covered by Vaclav Smil in his book “Energy and Civilization: A History”, writing: “Talking about energy and economy is a tautology: all economic activity is basically nothing but a conversion from one type of energy to another, and funds are only a convenient (and often rather unrepresentative) indicator for assessing energy flows.”

Smil also introduced us to economist and physicist Robert Ayres, who wrote that fossil fuels don’t save the economy; they or they are the economy. “The economic system is essentially a system of extracting, processing and transforming energy as an energy resource embodied in products and services.”

Or, as I interpreted in my book, “Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle”: “The purpose of economics is to turn energy into things.” Following these currents of thought, one concludes that without oil, we have no economy.

Heinberg then pointed to new research and concluded that we have passed the peak of conventional oil in 2005 and that oil is “tight” from shale and fracking, as well as unconventional sources like the tar sands and extra heavy oil. , are not far behind. Will this lead to chaos and collapse, or can we have a gradual and smooth decarbonization of our economies?

“It depends in part on whether countries can drastically reduce their consumption of fossil fuels in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. If the world is serious about limiting global warming, the downward curve can be accentuated by policies such as carbon taxes, keeping oil in the ground will be an urgent and complex task, a task that cannot be accomplished in a business as usual growth economy.”

But as Heinberg concluded, these measures will not be enough to get us out of our future crises. “To stop the situation from getting any worse will take more than just a fracking revolution, which has brought us another decade of status quo,” he said.

In what sounds like my call for sufficiency – or what others call degrowth – he concluded:

“This time, we’re going to have to start accepting the limits of nature. That means shared sacrifices, cooperation, and belt-tightening. It also means heeding our definitions of prosperity and progress, and getting on board. reconfiguring an economy that has become accustomed to (and only too comfortable with) fossil fuel-fueled growth.”

In the 1970s, reducing energy consumption was a matter of energy independence from foreign sources. In the 2000s, it was peak oil. From the 2010s to the present, it is about climate change. Add new research on particulate pollution and we have the new four horsemen of the apocalypse: war, climate change, peak oil and cancer.

It seems we now have four good reasons to do something about fossil fuels. Maybe this time we will.

Carol N. Valencia