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Oil Has Peaked: Now Begins the Transition

We have officially entered the post-oil age in which the transition to lower energy lives is inevitable.

As The Oil Drum pointed out last week, oil has peaked. We have officially entered the post-oil age in which the transition to lower energy lives is inevitable. (No doubt, pundits and policy wonks will debate this ad nauseum for the far too long, and to them I say, "AAAAAAAAAAAARGH!")

This energy transition can happen gracefully with fore-thought and planning, or, if we continue to consume energy at our current rate, the transition will be brought about faster and meaner than home redecoration by Blackwater. Shaun Chamberlin, author of The Transition Timeline: For a Local, Resilient Future, explores the implication of peak oil.

The following is an excerpt from Transition Timeline :

A 2005 report commissioned by the US Department of Energy concluded that,

"the peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem,"

and that without timely mitigation the economic, social and political impacts will be

"abrupt, revolutionary and not temporary".

The reasons for this are detailed and complex, but ultimately it comes down to this – energy is the ability to do work of any kind, and oil is our most useful and most heavily used source of net energy. The implications of both increasing (and increasingly volatile) prices and actual oil supply shortages will be profound.

The sheer usefulness of oil can perhaps best be summed up with a stunning statistic. A 40-litre fill-up of petrol represents the energy equivalent of four years of manual labour by a person (as peak oil educator Richard Heinberg says, compare the effortlessness of driving fuelled by oil with the amount of muscle power it takes to push a car just to the side of the road). Yet in the UK we currently pay only around £45 for that amount of energy (and in the US they pay less than half that)—we would be hard-pressed to find someone willing to work for us for four years for that sum!

Each 42-gallon barrel of oil yields around 20 gallons of petrol. We have seen that the world currently produces around 87 million barrels a day, so roughly speaking this works out at the energy equivalent of over 240 billion person-days of work contained in the world's daily petrol supply (quite apart from the diesel, jet fuel, heating oil etc. that we also produce from that oil). Our current global petrol supply can do approximately 35 times as much physical work as every person on the planet put together.

We take this available energy for granted much of the time in our everyday lives, but it is as though we had dozens of ‘energy slaves' working for us day and night. It has been calculated that this energy input from oil allows the UK economy to be between 70 and 100 times more productive than would be possible on human muscle power alone.

And in addition to being an abundant, reliable, cheap, super-concentrated form of energy, oil is also a liquid, making it far easier to transport, store and use than solid fuels. There are relatively few options for replacement liquid fuels, and since our vehicles and infrastructure are designed for oil, it would require technical innovation, a large investment of energy and other resources and a timeframe of at least twenty years to create an alternative system.

This incredible energy source fuelled the rapid developments of the 20th century, whether in technology, industry, food yield or transport, and is also the source of the plastics and many synthetic materials that are everywhere around us. Ninety-five percent of all goods in shops involve the use of oil, and ninety-five percent of the UK's food is now oil-dependent. Just to farm a single cow and deliver it to market requires six barrels of oil, enough to drive a car from New York to Los Angeles.

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