There is nothing but “Sad News for Peak Oil Disciples” these days, according to the Financial Post.
The latest example: Leonardo Maugeri, a fellow in the Geopolitics of Energy Project at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs—and a long-time critic of peak oil analysis—has just published a new report, Oil: The Next Revolution, in which he forecasts a sharp increase in world oil production capacity and the risk of an oil price collapse. His report has triggered a spate of press articles with titles like “No Peak Oil In Sight," "Potential U.S. Oil Boom Shakes Up Energy Politics,” and “Peak Oil Is Simply Not a Threat Anymore.”
These follow on the heels of a string of other articles touting increasing production of oil from “tight” shale deposits in the U.S.—pieces with titles like “Has Peak Oil Peaked?” and “Is ‘Peak Oil’ Idea Dead?” And those in turn ride the slipstream of Daniel Yergin’s widely feted book The Quest, which provided last year’s fodder for an anti-peak oil media frenzy.
The recent deluge of cornucopian triumphalism has provoked a few thoughtful responses, including, “Has Peak Oil Idea . . . Peaked?” and “Is Peak Oil Dead?”, both of which carefully sift the evidence and conclude that world oil production is better understood when viewed through the depletionist lens than through the rose-colored glasses of the peak oil naysayers.
No doubt peakists will continue to produce thoughtful, well-reasoned and fact-filled articles elucidating the precariousness of global energy supplies. Nevertheless, the sheer number and media prominence of “No Peak Oil” pieces (in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and even on NPR) is having an effect. Depletionist sites are seeing declining Web traffic. And while far more people now have heard of peak oil than was the case just a few years ago, many mistakenly believe that its core assertion has somehow been “debunked.”
Those of us who have been around this discussion for more than a decade—from the days when petroleum geologist Colin Campbell coined the phrase “peak oil,” and the movement consisted mostly of daily discussions on an obscure e-mail list-serve—have seen it grow into a social phenomenon of sorts, with books, newsletters, websites and organizations devoted both to analysis and citizen activism. Evidently growing public concern about the inevitable decline in world oil production has rankled some powerful people, who’ve been knotting their ropes in search of a bit of favorable data (declining oil prices, rising production) to use as the pretext for a public lynching.
The cornucopian mindset is certainly rife among leaders in the oil industry (Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, recently said of climate change and energy security, “We [humans] have spent our entire existence adapting. We’ll adapt ... it’s an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution”). But a similar inability to imagine anything but happy endings is widespread also among many environmentalists, as I learned last weekend at the Aspen Environment Forum, where I debated Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees and The God Species. While environmentalists are often accused of being alarmists, they can also evince a strain of can-do techno-optimism. Stewart Brand (founder of Whole Earth Catalog), who was another speaker at the conference, has morphed into a pro-nuclear, pro-geo-engineering, bright-green futurist. Jim Kunstler, likewise at Aspen, summed up his take on the event: “The techno-narcissism flowed like a melted Slurpee ...”
In the course of our debate, Lynas more than once cited a litany of failed forecasts from pessimists, starting of course with Malthus. Similarly, Daniel Yergin has scored points by claiming that prophecies of a peak in world oil production have proven wrong again and again for a century or more. It’s strange that the failed forecasts of optimists get comparatively little public attention, given that they are at least as numerous. The most relevant example: around 1998, when the modern peak oil discussion was just hatching, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) all issued forecasts that world oil production would grow steadily to achieve 120 million barrels per day by 2020, while prices would remain at the level of $20 per barrel (in 1998 dollars) even beyond that date. In 2004, when it was already clear that those forecasts had no chance of being realized, Daniel Yergin declared that oil prices would stay at $40 per barrel for the next 15 years. Neither the IEA, nor the DOE, nor the USGS, nor Daniel Yergin foresaw a situation in which crude oil production would flat-line for seven years beginning in 2005, or in which prices would whipsaw to record highs of up to $147 a barrel as they did in 2008. Yes, some of the peak oil forecasts for world oil production declines starting in 2005 or 2008 have proven premature, but it’s pretty obvious that the peakists had the more accurate and useful take on world petroleum prices and supply levels during the past decade. So it’s humanly understandable why resentment has been building among the Yergins and Maugeris of the world.
And so a spurt of new production from “tight” shale deposits now serves as a pretext to declare victory. The peaksters should have seen it coming, after all: high oil prices do indeed trigger increases in reserves and production from lower-quality resources. Indeed, some of the better analysts did see it coming. I recall Jeremy Gilbert, the former BP chief petroleum engineer, speaking about the potential of new production technology at an Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) conference a couple of years ago. “The current fields we are chasing we’ve known about for a long time in many cases,” he noted, “but they were too complex, too fractured, too difficult to chase. Now our technology and understanding [are] better, which is a good thing, because these difficult fields are all that we have left.”
The peak oil debate is not a sporting event. What matters is not which side wins, but what reality awaits us. Will we see a continuing plateau in global crude oil production? How long will it last? How big a proportional contribution to total liquids production will we see from tar sands, shale and other unconventionals? What will be the climate impact as the world’s petroleum supply is increasingly derived from lower-grade resources? And what will be the economic impact?
We at Post Carbon Institute hope to sort out some of the technical issues related to unconventional oil in a report (forthcoming in September) by David Hughes, a follow-up to his 2011 reality check on U.S. shale gas production. But the bigger environmental and economic questions will no doubt continue to generate uncertainties for some time.
Still, there are a few observations that no serious energy analyst can dispute. Oil exploration and production costs are skyrocketing (Bernstein Research estimates that this year the industry needs prices in the range of $100 a barrel to justify new projects). The super-giant oilfields that still account for 60 percent of world crude production are aging, and so the more modest contribution of unconventionals, which are expected to be both expensive and slow to come on line, must push against a tide of depletion and decline. It’s only a question of when the overall global production decline begins, not if. Meanwhile, some of the fuels (ethanol, natural gas liquids) counted by IEA and EIA in the “all liquids” category have significantly lower energy content per unit of volume than regular crude oil; thus an increase in barrels-per-day of “all liquids” does not necessarily mean an increase in the amount of energy delivered to society. Further, all the unconventional liquid fuels (including biofuels, tar sands and “tight” oil) offer a low energy return on the energy invested in producing them. Therefore, even if the number of barrels of liquid fuels delivered to market is still gradually increasing, the amount of useful net energy being made available by the petroleum and biofuels industries, when energy costs are accounted for, is probably already declining. And this is almost certainly true in the U.S.—the poster child for unconventional oil production. Finally, available global crude exports are declining rapidly as producing nations use more of their oil domestically—leaving less each year for importing nations like the U.S., Europe and China (this rate of decline is far greater than the relatively minor rate of increase in worldwide “all liquids” production).
Meanwhile, soaring oil prices and plummeting real energy yields from liquid fuels have already left economic carnage in their wake, as a fragile global financial system perched on a Matterhorn of debt has been dealt blow after blow by the failure of the real economy to expand as expected. It turns out that industrial production and global trade depend on energy, not just credit and confidence. June saw weaker oil prices—but this was due to an accelerating erosion of world economic strength (leading to expectations of falling oil demand), not to moderating petroleum production costs or substantially increasing production.
As many peakists have been saying all along, we’ll know for sure precisely when global oil production peaks (in terms of rate of production in barrels per day) only when we can see a steady decline in the rear-view mirror. But by then it will be too late for society to prepare for the economic impacts of peak oil. So is the peak oil “movement”—not as an exercise in analysis, but as an effort to warn the world and prevent catastrophe—doomed to failure? Maybe. But by the same token so is most of, if not the entire, environmental movement. We will not substantially change our collective behavior until crisis is upon us.
But even if we cannot avert a crisis, we can prepare some portion of the populace for the aftermath. We can build community resilience. We can seed the public conversation with information that will undermine the inevitable, reflexive effort to blame economic unraveling on handy scapegoats. Also, the future will be better if we protect at least some species, some habitat, some wild places, some water and some topsoil before the energy-led crash of the economy, so that we have an ecological basis for ongoing existence in the absence of cars, planes, iPads and cheap, abundant fuel.
In short, things will go better for us if we resist denial rather than engaging in it.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>