Thursday, December 8, 2011
What Peak Oil Looks Like
There are times when the unraveling of a civilization stands out in sharp relief, but more often that process makes itself seen only in the sort of scattered facts and figures that take a sharp eye to notice and assemble into a meaningful picture. How often, I wonder, did the prefects of imperial Rome look up from the daily business of mustering legions and collecting tribute to notice the crumbling of the foundations on which their whole society rested?
Nowadays, certainly, that broader vision is hard to find. It’s symptomatic that in the last few weeks I’ve fielded a fair number of emails insisting that the peak oil theory—of course it’s not a theory at all; it’s a hard fact that the extraction of a finite oil supply in the ground will sooner or later reach a peak and begin to decline—has been rendered obsolete by the latest flurry of enthusiastic claims about shale oil and the like. Enthusiastic claims about the latest hot new oil prospect are hardly new, and indeed they’ve been central to cornucopian rhetoric since M. King Hubbert’s time. A decade ago, it was the Caspian Sea oilfields that were being invoked as supposedly conclusive evidence that a peak in global conventional petroleum production wouldn’t arrive in our lifetimes. Compare the grand claims made for the Caspian fields back then, and the trickle of production that actually resulted from those fields, and you get a useful reality check on the equally sweeping claims now being made for the Bakken shale, but that’s not a comparison many people want to make just now.
On the other side of the energy spectrum, those who insist that we can power some equivalent of our present industrial system on sun, wind, and other diffuse renewable sources have been equally vocal, and those of us who raise reasonable doubts about that insistence can count on being castigated as “dormers.” More