energy peak oil

Don’t worry, drive on

I’ve been wondering how the Post Carbon Institute might respond to the rumours about the death of peak oil theory that have abounded in recent months. Here’s their latest little video, Don’t worry, drive on. It questions the mainstream story that new fracking technologies have extended the fossil fuel age, and puts the emphasis on high prices. As narrator Richard Heinberg says, you can’t cite the rise of unconventional oil as evidence that peak oil was wrong, because “it’s high oil prices that make unconventional oil worth producing in the first place”.


  1. Unfortunately – if you look at the situation strictly from the neoclassical economic point of view, it is even true that peak oil is not an issue: the price will solve the problem. It doesn’t matter that you produce 950 kg toxic waste for every 50 kg oil produced. It doesn’t matter that it costs a fortune. The invisible hand of the market will solve it. Technically there is no peak oil in the near future. We can turn all of the world’s food harvest into fuel. We can turn all of the world’s forests and marine life into fuel. The energy required for that we simply obtain from a full fledged plutonium economy (and, as Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin foresees it, accept the price of a major city blowing up every decade). Let’s face it: peak oil is an illusion. Technologically we can even make oil from human remains. There are enough of us, after all. Am I being extreme? Or is the foreseeable devastation of the North American continent only the beginning? Laughlin, the nuclear proponent, sees a strong coupling between economic growth and energy consumption. And an efficiency revolution sees unlikely if we continue on this path (production of shale and tar sand oil – let alone synthetic oil – have a lousy energy balance). Let’s assume the coupling stays as it is now, so that 2% growth of the world economy result in two percent increase in energy consumption. Not much, right? It means a doubling approx. every 35 years. over 5 doublings in only 200 years, i.e. 32 times our current energy consumption (what for, exactly?). And within a thousand years it means 28 doublings, or 2.7 *10E8 times our current oil production. Anyone think that there is enough shale oil to meet that? Or even enough theoretical Plutonium breeding capacity? Oh – and at a population growth of a moderate 1.5% we’d have more than five hundred thousand times the current world population in 1000 years, i.e. almost 2 * 10E21 people squeezed onto our tiny planet. But that is a different issue… or is it?

    I think it helps to occasionally project our “growth paradigm” onto historical time-lines. It quickly all gets really, really nasty.

    Last but not least: peak oil always referred to conventional oil and price hikes were among the predictions – as was the exploitation of dirty “non-conventional” sources, a term akin to “non-conventional weapons”, which notoriously are even nastier than “conventional” ones.

    1. A little extrapolation into the future always puts the growth orthodoxy into perspective. But you forget, there’s always space! We’ll mine asteroids and live on Jupiter.

    2. Hi Stefan,
      I don’t think you’re right about some of what you’ve written.
      Peak oil is the peak rate-of-extraction — the proximate cause of which is likely to be economic, but the ultimate cause of which is likely to be the degradation of the oil supply (harder to get) and the consequential high oil prices as a result. High oil prices will trash the economy, which will remove the funding required to maintain high rates of oil extraction.
      While it might be technically (chemically) possible to create oil from human remains, or wood, or water and CO2 it is likely to be a net consumer of energy to do this — where would we get this energy from, and what benefit would it bring us? When a spider gets desperate it can eat its own legs — clearly this is not a sustainable solution (ie. the energy a spider gets from eating its leg won’t allow it to grow a new leg).

  2. Jeremy thanks for that film. Agreed with the general thrust of it. What no one (apart from those of us interested in it),certainly not George Monbiot, takes into account the energy return is falling fast. For this reason we don’t have nearly as much left as we think…

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