Opinion- 31 Mar 2005




Michael Lardelli Describes The Devil's Handmaiden to Global Warming


There are numerous indicators that we are now very close to the peak of crude oil production. The price of oil has been trending steadily upward since 2002 and declared increases in OPEC production do not match projected increases in demand through economic growth, particularly in China (http://msnbc.msn.com/id/7190109/). Revised hydrocarbon supply projections from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) now predict an earlier peak of combined oil and gas production occurring around 2007. ASPO currently predicts conventional crude oil production will peak in 2005, i.e. now (http://www.energybulletin.net/primer.php).


The true horror of diminishing oil production lies not in having to pay more to drive to work but in the realisation that the “stability” of our current economic model (requiring continuous growth) is based on continuously increasing energy consumption. Once energy consumption can no longer be increased the economic model fails. As if that is not bad enough, it is oil energy and the nitrogenous fertiliser produced from natural gas that underlies the “green revolution” that has permitted the world population to quadruple in the last century (http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/100303_eating_oil.html). Even the recent moderately high oil prices are already disturbing Australia’s grain production (http://www.abc.net.au/rural/news/stories/s1330925.htm). What will happen when oil costs twice or three times the current price?


The immediate response of most people when they learn that oil supplies will soon be decreasing is to assume that some other form of energy production, e.g. nuclear or solar power, will expand to fill the gap. However, no other source of energy has the combination of oil’s high energy density, high energy profit ratio (energy released /energy invested in its production) and utility in transport. A recently published report prepared for the US Department of Energy (http://www.hilltoplancers.org/stories/hirsch0502.pdf) examines what must be done to compensate for decreasing oil supplies in order to avoid deleterious economic consequences. The report predicts that the greatest contributor to energy “sustainability” will be conservation by increased efficiency of energy usage. A large expansion of liquid fuel production from coal will also be necessary. The report predicts that 20 years of preparation before the oil peak are needed to make the necessary structural readjustments to avoid economic difficulty. How such adjustments can be made in the midst of a post-peak economic crisis is unknown.


Depleting oil reserves are actually just a symptom of a greater malaise– an unsustainably large and increasing human population with an ever increasing per capita consumption of energy in the developed world. Population growth not only lies behind the coming energy crisis but also our problems with water supply, pollution, land degradation and habitat destruction. The easy energy from oil combined with our unwillingness as a species to control our own fecundity and our desire to drive endless economic growth on this finite planet has led us into a classic example of population overshoot. Oil energy has allowed us to expand the resource base that supports our current population. However, when this energy decreases, our current population will be unsustainable. The prognosis for the next few decades is not good.


Is there any hope?


M. King Hubbert, the originator of the peak oil idea also took an interest in how human societies could operate sustainably with limited supplies of energy. He described a system for a steady-state economy where an individual’s income is based on available energy (http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/hubecon.htm). It is possible that, in a future where fuel rationing is necessary, distribution of fuel on a tradeable voucher basis (http://www.stcwa.org.au/papers/liquid_fuels.doc) could evolve into an economy with an energy-based currency.


Australia can also be proud of the world-class thinkers that it has in the area of oil depletion and sustainability. Brian Fleay has been warning of the impending crisis since the 90s and has looked particularly at its implications for Australia (http://wwwistp.murdoch.edu.au/publications/projects/oilfleay/oil.html). Bill Mollison and David Holmgren are the originators of the “Permaculture” concept that will be necessary for sustainable food production in a low energy future (http://www.permacultureinternational.org/whatispermaculture.htm). Bruce Robinson
of The Sustainable Transport Coalition of Western Australia (http://www.stcwa.org.au/beyondoil/index.html) is carrying the torch for Australia at the next ASPO conference in Lisbon this year (http://www.cge.uevora.pt/aspo2005/index.php). The sooner Australia’s researchers and educators realise the critical seriousness of oil depletion the sooner they can contribute to shaping public opinion and rational government policy to help the nation through this greatest ever challenge.

Michael Lardelli is a senior lecturer in genetics at The University of Adelaide and a writer and activist on issues regarding oil depletion.