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Peak oil, keeping reality in mind

Peak oil, keeping reality in mind

By Rich Turcotte March 21, 2012

Ponder what it means that half of all the oil ever burned has been burned over the past 22 years and ask yourself where the supplies will come from to fund the next 22 years.

Thanks to Adam Smith and those who followed him, especially the current neoclassical economic theologians, we’ve seen such an increase in the world’s wealth and population that it’s hard to imagine life before the industrial revolution. Then the world moved slowly, mostly by human and animal muscle power. But with the industrial shift, human life and economy relied on energy-dense fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas.

It’s also hard to imagine that humanity could someday slide back into another age of scarcer and more expensive energy. But that’s a possibility that can’t be excluded from our thinking.

Well here’s the obligatory disclaimer: We’re not running out of oil; at least not for many decades to come. If that were the only issue peak oil focused on, further discussions would be pointless.

But it’s not the only issue….

The bigger picture

As difficult as it is to accept, life as we’ve known it, with the creature comforts imparted by industrial production and infrastructure, will all too soon no longer be the same. Why?
Industrial civilization’s entire economy is based on a finite resource that we treat as infinite. Our current global economy is based on continual growth, and that growth depends on cheap, abundant energy.

Oil which was previously too expensive to exploit, such as deepwater oil, tar sands and oil shale becomes economic in the short term with a rising oil price. With this at play, too the uncritical observer, it might seem as if there’s nothing to worry about in the oil market.

Unfortunately, there is something to worry about, at least if we want a healthy economy.

The new oil reserves we’re now exploiting are not only more expensive to develop across the board, but they also take much longer between the time the first well is drilled and the when the first oil is extracted and refined. That means it takes longer for oil supply to respond to changes in price.
If what we care about are the effects on the economy, it doesn’t matter how much oil is in the ground. Over the last ten years, we’ve see a structural change in the oil market which will continue to have far-reaching effects on the economy even if we manage to increase the amount of oil extracted.

Worldwide, the average EROI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) of oil is down to 20:1 from its original value of 100:1 eighty years ago. This means that our oil-fueled economy has less capacity to generate wealth because an increasing share of the energy that used to be dedicated to producing goods and services is being plowed back into securing energy.

When it doesn’t add up

Even more troubling than oil’s 20:1 global average is the figure for unconventional oil sources — just 5 to 1.
It takes a lot of energy to drill five miles under the ocean and pump crude back to a refinery, or to cook tar sands to extract a usable fuel. The energy wellspring at the heart of our economy no longer gushes a torrent of wealth; it’s a smaller, much-diminished stream.

EROEI matters. As Market Oracle writer Jim Quinn observes,
EROEI is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource. When the EROEI of a resource is less than or equal to one, that energy source becomes an ‘energy sink’, and can no longer be used as a primary source of energy. Once it requires 1.1 barrels of oil to obtain a barrel of oil, the gig is up.

In other words, more effort, more costs, more time, more difficulties in general, less inclination for countries to give up all they have left, increasing demand, less supply day-by-day simply because we’re taking out something that isn’t being replenished — all those factors add up to investing more to get less.

That’s not good math.

For all the optimism in a magic technology fairy riding to the rescue as a result of the wonder of human ingenuity, and for all the hope in the purportedly vast stores of unconventional fossil fuel seemingly ready for extraction, we cannot and will not go back to the means and methods of growth and prosperity we’ve long enjoyed.

No one is falling off the cliff tomorrow or even soon, but the downhill path has been carved out for us.

As Dahr Jamail also noted (from one of the articles referenced above), Oil touches nearly every single aspect of the lives of those in the industrialised world. Most of our food, clothing, electronics, hygiene products and transportation simply would not exist without this resource.

This potentially unpleasant recognition of our dependence on these finite resources and the undertakings necessary to adapt don’t have to mean failure, serious lifestyle decline, or defeat unless that’s what we choose by neglect or fear or passivity.

We have choices.

Everyone’s a stakeholder

It’s not just about political and other leaders. Each of us with concerns about our future prospects, to say nothing for those in generations to follow, must start asking and answering some fundamental questions. To state but one: Where and what are the best opportunities for growth and prosperity, and health and safety, going forward, given the eventual displacement of abundant fossil fuel resources?

Sacrifice, in some measure, is the only way to move forward and sustain ourselves. Insistence on the business-as-usual models will eventually doom us.

In many cases, we’re going to have to create industrial, commercial, cultural, and transportation systems entirely anew (or at the very least re-build extensively). Relying on current conditions, false hopes, practices and customs of the past, or just tinkering along the edges simply won’t work. Just because we won’t necessarily be confronting these realities next month or next year or in three years is not an excuse to postpone the thinking and planning needed.

Eric Zencey adds this sobering thought:
Everything our economy accomplishes, including health care, government, schools, roads, defense, repairing our aging infrastructure and re-engineering our built environment to handle the changed weather that oil use has given us, is going to have to be financed from a much-diminished EROI.

Also not good math.

But we do have choices. Everything depends on whether we approach this as crisis, or opportunity.

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