Remember Peak Oil? It Never Went Away

Welcome the new four horsemen of the apocalypse: climate, war, peak oil, and cancer.

Rusty Abandoned oil pumps in Texas
Rusty abandoned oil pumps in Texas.

Martina Birnbaum / Getty Images

Remember peak oil? We recently wrote that it's back but according to one of the original "peak oilers," Richard Heinberg, author of the 2005 Peak Oiler classic "The Party's Over, Peak Oil Is Back," it never really went away.

According to the analysis done in the '50s by geophysicist King Hubbert, peak oil was supposed to be happening about now, when production of oil would reach its maximum rate and then start its inexorable decline. In her excellent post—"What is Peak Oil? Have we Reached It?"—Katherine Gallagher described what might happen as peak oil bites:

"A drop in oil supply would lead to a spike in oil and fuel prices, which would affect everything from the agriculture industry to the transportation industry to the technology industry. The consequences could be as serious as widespread famine as food supplies dwindle or a mass exodus from metropolitan areas as the oil supply drops. At its worst, peak oil could lead to massive public unrest, geopolitical upheaval, and the unraveling of the fabric of the global economy."
hubbert's peak

Balfour & Associates

We previously showed this dire rendering of Hubbert's Peak from 2005, which puts us in the middle of confusion and heading into a period of chaos followed by collapse. It didn't quite happen this way, thanks to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and other unconventional oil sources like the Alberta oil 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 sent production soaring but the wells declined rapidly, and the boom was financed with cheap money. But it did let us worry about other things, like climate change. If there was any discussion of peak oil, it was a worry about peak demand rather than supply, where nobody wants the stuff because we have electrified everything. 

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

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

This is ground covered by Vaclav Smil in his book "Energy and Civilization: A History," writing: "To talk about energy and the economy is a tautology: every economic activity is fundamentally nothing but a conversion of one kind of energy to another, and monies are just a convenient (and often rather unrepresentative) proxy for valuing the energy flows. "

Smil also introduced us to the economist and physicist Robert Ayres, who wrote that fossil fuels didn't enable the economy; they are the economy. "The economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services."

Or, as I interpreted it in my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle": "The purpose of the economy is to turn energy into stuff." Following those trains of thought, one concludes that with no oil we have no economy. 

Heinberg then pointed to new research and concludes that we passed peak conventional oil in 2005 and that "tight" oil from shale and fracking, along with unconventional sources like tar sands and extra-heavy oil, are not far behind. Will this lead to chaos and collapse, or can we have gradual and smooth decarbonization of our economies? 

"That depends partly on whether countries dramatically reduce fossil fuel usage in order to stave off catastrophic climate change. If the world gets serious about limiting global warming, then the downside of the curve can be made steeper through policies like carbon taxes. Keeping most of the remaining oil in the ground will be a task of urgency and complexity, one that cannot be accomplished under a business-as-usual growth economy."

But as Heinberg concluded, these measures will not be enough to dig us out of our coming crises. "Keeping the situation from devolving further will take more than just another fracking revolution, which bought us an extra decade of business-as-usual," he said.

In what sounds like me calling for sufficiency—or what others call degrowth—he concluded:

"This time, we're going to have to start coming to terms with nature's limits. That means shared sacrifice, cooperation, and belt tightening. It also means reckoning with our definitions of prosperity and progress, and getting down to the work of reconfiguring an economy that has become accustomed to (and all too comfortable with) fossil-fueled growth."

In the 1970s, reducing energy consumption was all about energy independence from foreign sources. In the 2000s, it was about peak oil. From the 2010s to the present, it has been about climate change. Throw in 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 for doing something about fossil fuels. Perhaps this time, we will.