Peak Oil, part 3: discussing the solutions
1. Peak Oil is coming, very likely sometime in the next 20 years. It could happen today. This will force a major transition in the global economy; as a “crash program” for adaptation will take roughly two decades. We need to start now.
2. We need much more data and much better analysis in order to develop national policies to prepare for Peak Oil.
Note: these articles do not forecast oil prices or the date of peak oil.
Part I generated a large volume of emails, more than anything else I have written. This chapter continues with some of the most frequent comments, along with my replies.
3. We’ll run crash programs for adaptation just as we mobilized for WWII.
WWII is not a valid model for crash programs preparing America to face Peak Oil. We rapidly and easily mobilized for WWII because WWII followed the Great Depression. Very roughly, a quarter of our resources – people and manufacturing capacity – were idle. The adaptation to WWII stimulated the US economy (esp. as the bombs produced landed elsewhere).
The crash programs to prepare for Peak Oil will operate with a fully functioning economy. Allocating resources means diverting them from something else. Probably consumption – consumer spending and government services for people.
4. There is no need to collect more data and do research. The solution is simple!
It is disturbing that I received so many emails saying this. Unfortunately, preparing for Peak Oil will be extraordinarily complex. It is screwing up that will be simple.
We have many ways to prepare for peak oil: tap new oil fields (ANWR, offshore US), Alaskan natural gas, kerogen (AKA “oil shale”), converting coal to liquid fuel (CTL), biofuels (e.g., corn to ethanol), electric vehicles (e.g., hybrids or pure battery-powered cars).
Some options involve unknowns. Does converting corn to ethanol generate more energy than it uses? Can kerogen and cellulosic ethanol become commercially viable sources, and how soon? Do we have sufficient coal reserves to support a massive CTL program. How much of our coal is bituminous, how much is the BTU equivalent of kitty litter? Spending money before learning the answers, as we have done with corn to ethanol, burns time and money and do not have.
All of our options are expensive, in many dimensions
Government: Many require government involvement: funding for research, tax credits or loans for development, regulation for safety and environmental impacts. Hopefully we will avoid Canada’s mistakes exploiting its bitumen (“oil sands”), which are making sections of Alberta look like the surface of the moon.
Time: All operate over different time scales. Some are fast. Some involve new technology, which almost always requires decades to move from the laboratory to widespread commercial use (e.g., nuclear power, microwave ovens). Some use existing engineering, but require long lead times to build complex chains of resources. Crash programs can easily crash if not well planned.
- A rapid shift of the US vehicle fleet to hybrids requires building the ability to service them in local repair shops (training technicians, manufacturing and distributing the equipment), and recycling their carcasses (we’ll need the rare metals).
- Building nuclear power plants requires creating the schools to train the engineers (many shut down during the past 25 years), building recycling and storage facilities for the waste products, and a massive expansion of uranium mines – or even building breeder reactors.
Choices: The adaptation to peak oil will require public policy choices, difficult trade-offs. We do it with some combination of the following: cheaply, with high quality, rapidly, safely, low risk, low environmental impacts, and high degree of autarky (“energy independence”). We cannot have them all. With poor planning we could easily have none of them.
Look at the long series of failures that was US energy policy in the 1970’s. Rationing. Price controls. Massive CTL projects, all eventually abandoned. Decades of support for fusion, with little to show for it (a classic example of support for a premature technology, a larger scale repeat of the Pentagon’s attempt to build an atomic powered airplane).
Balancing all these factors on programs of national scale will require massive modeling and planning. The software engineering industry has lessons for us about managing large, complex projects involving new technology. Their failure rate is horrifying. Many are completed and thrown out. With some forethought the multi-decade adaptation to peak oil can avoid such a fate.
Unfortunately, now we are running the “no research, no planning, hope for the best” strategy. It might work, as some say that God helps children and fools.
Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
For more information about Peak Oil
- When will global oil production peak? Here is the answer! (1 November 2008)
- The most dangerous form of Peak Oil (8 April 2008)
- The world changed last week, with no headlines to mark the news (25 April 2008)
- Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off (8 May 2008)
Here is an archive of my articles about Peak Oil.
Here are other resources about Peak Oil.