Peak Oil—The Top 11 FAQs


Richard Heinberg

I’ve been giving lectures on Peak Oil for over a decade now, and always look forward to the question period after the main show. It’s an opportunity to interact with the audience, and to see where my presentation may need tweaking or where my thinking may be shallow or incorrect.

Now Post Carbon Institute is offering a tool to help others who wish to give presentations about our global sustainability crisis—a beautiful PowerPoint called “YOU ARE HERE: The Oil Journey,” featuring a script and images that are geared to a general audience with little prior understanding of the issue. Presenters of “YOU ARE HERE” are likely to be bombarded by a lot of the same questions I’ve heard over the years, so I thought it might be helpful if I compiled some of those.

Here are the top 11, along with brief sample replies and some resources for further reading.

1. But what about natural gas? I’ve heard we had a 100 year supply. Can’t we use natural gas in place of oil? Won’t natural gas be a good “bridge fuel” to get us to a green, growing energy economy?

A: Actually, U.S. proven reserves of natural gas amount to only about 12 years’ worth of supply. More gas resources will no doubt be discovered, thus adding to those reserves, but most of the new sources will be in “tight” shale deposits, where production costs and depletion rates are high. Currently there is a shale gas supply glut due to very high rates of drilling a few years ago, when natural gas prices were several times their current level. But now that gas is so cheap, the producers that specialize in shale “fracking” are actually losing money; therefore they’re cutting back on drilling. In a year or two we will see declining production and higher prices. Bottom line—while it’s true that new technology has increased natural gas supplies over the short term, the long-term outlook is more complicated. Natural gas is a depleting fossil fuel, and technology cannot change that fundamental fact. Natural gas will not substitute in any meaningful way for increasingly expensive oil, because very few vehicles currently are able to use natural gas and it will take decades to change that situation—and gas supplies won’t be sufficient even if we could retrofit existing vehicles fast enough. Moreover, the climate impact of producing and burning gas from shale deposits is no better than that of mining and burning coal—so the environmental argument for using more natural gas doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Further reading: Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?

2. I’ve read about the extraordinary potential for “tight oil”—petroleum trapped in low-porosity rocks like shale, that’s produced by hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling. Apparently so much of this is coming from North Dakota now that it’s causing total U.S. oil production to increase. Some people are even saying that America could be oil independent within a few years.

A: Yes, tight oil production in North Dakota is booming—but why? Geologists have known about the Bakken oil deposits for a long time, and have had the technology to get the oil out of the ground. But costs of extraction were too high to justify drilling. Now that rates of global crude oil production are stagnant, oil prices are very high—and that makes production of marginal sources like tight oil economically viable. And that in turn means continued production from these sources depends upon continued high oil prices: if the price level falls, production will slow. Several analysts have described recent claims for reserves and potential production rates from tight oil plays as overoptimistic. A realistic forecast shows U.S. crude oil production continuing to increase for the next decade (as a result of additional tight oil and deepwater production), but then resuming its decline. In this most-likely-case scenario, U.S. crude oil production in 2020 will not come close to matching the peak it achieved in 1970. Unless Americans reduce their oil consumption significantly, the nation will still be hooked on imports.

Further reading: Jonathan Callahan, The Bakken: A Modern-Day Gold Rush; Gail Tverberg, Is Shale Oil the Answer to Peak Oil?

3. What about coal? I heard we have a 250-year supply. Won’t coal keep our economy growing, even if the environmental consequences are awful?

A: Several recent studies (including ones by the U.S. Geological Survey) have concluded that coal supplies for the U.S. and the world as a whole have been exaggerated. Enormous amounts of coal exist, but the great majority of it is unlikely ever to be mined because of its depth, the insufficient thickness of seams, and the quality of the resource. As with other fossil fuels, we have already picked the low-hanging fruit. Two recent studies conclude that global coal output could peak within the next decade or so. Meanwhile, as China’s consumption grows (that country now uses 4 billion tons per year, fully half the world’s production), coal prices are set to increase substantially even in countries that are self-sufficient in supply, like the U.S.

Further reading: Richard Heinberg, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis, Introduction and Chapter 8; Heinberg and Fridley, “The End of Cheap Coal,” Nature, Vol. 468, November 18, 2010

4. Then what about nuclear? Couldn’t modular/thorium/breeder reactors power the world for centuries?

A: Too expensive and too risky. A detailed report in a recent issue of The Economist magazine—not known for an anti-nuclear stance—called nuclear power “the dream that failed,” and concluded that its role in the foreseeable world energy picture will never be more than marginal. The ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Japan has led that country to abandon nuclear power, and Germany is following suit. Even though China appears to be doubling down on its nuclear bets, from a global perspective the industry is essentially moribund.

Further reading: The Economist, Special Report, Nuclear Energy: The Dream that Failed, March 10-16, 2012; Tom Murphy, Nuclear Options

5. Isn’t the real problem human population? What’s a truly sustainable human population? Won’t there be a huge die-off?

A: Yes, population is a vitally important issue. Population growth exacerbates every problem facing us. As the global economy stagnates or contracts, declines in per-capita output can be reduced by policies to rein in population growth. Moreover, a good argument can be made that family planning investments will benefit the poorest nations first and foremost, since large, poor families tend to spend all their income on food and shelter, leaving no surplus for education or the formation of a small business. But while good population policy is desperately needed, it is no cure-all: changing demographic trends is a slow process, and many of the challenges facing us will converge over the course of the next couple of decades—far too quickly to be adequately addressed by reducing birth rates. So we need to think systemically to address a range of economic and ecological issues simultaneously while doing our best to support seven billion humans and counting.

Further reading: Bill Ryerson, Population: the Multiplier of Everything Else, in Heinberg and Lerch (eds.), The Post Carbon Reader.

6. When I think about all of these challenges, I just get overwhelmed. Where do we go for hope?

A: First, address your mental state. If you’re emotionally overwhelmed by information about climate change and resource depletion, you may need to ration your news intake so as to increase your effectiveness at helping tackle these enormous global problems. Spending hours a day in front of a computer screen feeds depression. Take time off, go outdoors, do some gardening, and interact with other people face-to-face. You will probably find inspiration in community resilience-building projects, where you can see and touch the results of your and your friends’ efforts. Cultivate a creative hobby and spend time in nature. Your efforts to save the world will be far more effective if other people perceive your mental and emotional state as being grounded and balanced. That doesn’t mean you should deny and suppress the pain and fear that any healthy human inevitably feels when contemplating the fix we’re in. Allow yourself to feel those emotions (otherwise you’ll be detached and inauthentic at best, unhinged at worst), but don’t wallow.

Further reading: Kathy McMahon, The Survival Mindset; Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

7. I’ve been thinking this way for years. The problem is all those people who don’t “get it.” How do we convince them?

A: I wish I had a sure-fire answer to that one. Sometimes simple persistence pays off. If people have dug themselves into a certain worldview, it may take time for them to change their views. It’s important for you to have the facts at your command, but it’s just as important to create “frames,” as George Lakoff calls them—stories that make sense of the data. Often simple metaphors, such as “low-hanging fruit,” help people grasp the essential character of situations that might otherwise require lengthy explanation. It’s also important to tailor the message to the audience: if you understand where other people are coming from, it’s much easier to connect with them. Unfortunately, there are many people who are completely invested in maintaining a cornucopian view of the world, and there may be no way of reaching those people. Don’t waste your time on them; focus your attention on people who can be educated.

Further reading: George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant!; Andrée Zaleska, How to Talk to Your Friends about Climate Change, ; Kurt Cobb, Peak Oil and Four Principles of PR; Peak Oil and Mass Communication

8. Isn’t the real problem one of distribution? If wealthy Americans didn’t consume so much, there’d be enough for everyone. Similarly, if the “one percent” weren’t siphoning all the world’s wealth, we’d all be doing fine. Shouldn’t we just be fighting for fairness?

A: As long as our economy is set up in such a way that it requires continued growth in order to function, then even if we distribute wealth fairly we will hit resource limits and fail. That’s not to say that equity is unimportant. As the national and global economy inevitably shift from growth to contraction, more equitable distribution will be necessary if we are to maintain social stability. If distribution of wealth becomes even more inequitable (and that’s the current trend), people will rightly conclude that the system is unfair and not worth saving. They will rebel, and governments will crack down brutally to maintain the status quo. The result will be a chaotic, violent collapse of the entire system. It doesn’t have to end this way. If wealth is more evenly distributed as a result of reform, and if everyone is encouraged to understand the challenge facing us, then people can be persuaded to make shared sacrifices in order to build an economy that fits within Earth’s limits.

Further reading: Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone; Cecile Andrews, Everyone Is a Victim of Inequality

9. Aren’t the oil and car companies sitting on patents for free energy devices or carburetors that get 100 mpg? Can’t we solve our energy problems just by defeating these evil corporations?

A: I’ve heard stories about suppressed energy technologies, but have been unable to verify them. Typically the stories entail oil or car companies buying up patents and hiding them, but every patent ever issued in the U.S. is freely searchable, so it should be easy enough to find these “suppressed” inventions. On the other hand, many machines that have been patented don’t actually work, and that’s why they haven’t been commercialized. Now, it’s true that the automobile industry actively discouraged the development of new safety features, including seat belts, and also lobbied Congress for decades to delay energy-efficiency regulations. Moreover, the oil companies have spent enormous sums in efforts to distort and mute both the scientific research and the public discussion regarding climate change. Such corporate abuses must be brought to an end, and I support activist efforts to do that. However, even if they succeed, that won’t solve the basic problem: we’ve become addicted to energy sources that are unsustainable, and there are no “silver bullet” alternatives that will enable us to maintain economic growth such as we’ve seen over the past century.

Further reading: Rob Hopkins, Film Review: Why ‘Thrive’ is Best Avoided

10. The problems seem so huge, the solutions so small. How can little efforts like Transition Towns hope to deal with war, resource depletion, and climate change, if national governments can’t?

A: There are two answers to that question. First: We have to do what we can. Yes, fundamental national and international reforms are needed to deal with global problems like climate change and resource depletion, and activist efforts to address those issues are needed now more than ever. But we are seeing a general deterioration in the ability of our national political system to respond both to converging global problems and to the public’s concerns. Reforming our own national government is a big, multi-decade job, if it’s even possible to accomplish. Our economic and environmental problems will not remain on hold while we put the country’s political system in order, so we have to accomplish what we can where we have more leverage—at the local level. Second: There are good reasons for working at locally anyway, regardless of difficulties in achieving national and international reforms. Localization is inevitable as transport fuels become more scarce and expensive. If we don’t increase local self-sufficiency proactively, the reversal of globalization will result in the collapse of essential support systems—so building local food systems should be our first priority. Also, local organizing creates the necessary basis for political, social, and economic change at higher levels.

Further reading: Megan Quinn Bachmann, From Globalization to Re-Localization

11. Innovation has solved problems and opened opportunities for us in the past. Why would you think that innovation can’t solve all our problems now? Don’t we just need to put more money into research?

A: Innovation will be essential to our adaptation to our new economic reality. Some new technologies (such as renewable energy and ways to use energy and resources more efficiently) will need to expand significantly. But every technology has its costs. Economies cannot grow forever, even if they are based on renewable energy. We must adjust to the fact that our own civilization has reached limits with regard to population, water, soil, raw materials and energy. In the end, our adaptation will require as much social innovation as technological change, as we learn to live with less, and to live more equitably.

Further reading: Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, Chapter 4.

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