Thursday, March 23, 2006

Peak Oil Millenarianism has become a trove of good energy topics. As I was reading their take on Peak Oil, a subject on which I've ruminated extensively here, I had a minor revelation: Peak Oil is shaping up as the next Y2K. By that, I'm not just referring to the potential consequences of a peak in global oil production, which some forecasters predict will occur within the next few years. I see the resemblance to Y2K in much broader terms, as a major phenomenon with dramatic, but highly uncertain outcomes, operating simultaneously on the levels of reality and perception. That makes it even more interesting, but also more problematic.

  1. Though hardly as precisely specified as midnight January 1, 2000, Peak Oil threatens us with an imminent global systemic breakdown. The Salon article suggests that our food supplies could dry up, workers' jobs vanish, and the world descend into chaos and resource wars. This sort of thing gets your attention.
  2. As with Y2K, it's possible that if we were to undertake the anticipatory remedies that experts prescribe--in this case massive investments in energy efficiency and alternative energy production--it might be impossible after the fact to ascertain whether Peak Oil would have ever caused the outcomes that have been predicted, and we'll be saddled with second-guessing about whether we should have bothered.
  3. Peak Oil also seems to be spawning a survivalist mentality, demonstrated at least anecdotally by the San Francisco lawyer who has set up a website devoted to this and plans to "drop out" to a remote, self-contained farm.
  4. Peak Oil, like Y2K before it, has become a publishing and media goldmine.
  5. The final similarity may be the most sobering. We're going to know soon enough whether the pessimists or the optimists are right. It could turn out to be a major upheaval or an embarrassing fizzle. This won't be as black and white as it was for Y2K, but if we get to 2010 without an observable Peak--or unambiguous evidence of one in sight--the window of belief in this phenomenon, which has been around for decades in various forms, will likely close for another generation.

Whatever its scientific foundations, it's clear that Peak Oil feeds the innate human tendency towards millenarianism and catastrophism. There's even some recent thought that those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s may be particularly predisposed to this, having experienced oil shocks, Vietnam, Watergate, the Cold War, the Iran hostage crisis, and, I would add, dozens of cheesy disaster movies.

There is some good news, though. The fundamental basis of Peak Oil theory is that once the Peak hits, we will still have half the world's oil left, a quantity equal to all the oil used from Drake's Well in 1859 until the Peak year of 20xy. Look at the most aggressive Hubbert curves and you will see that for 20 years after a peak we'd still have as much oil as we used in the 1980s, and for another decade or two there'd still be as much as we used in 1960. In addition, there's a lot of empirical evidence that a global peak would not come in the form of a sudden collapse, but a long, gradual plateau. M. King Hubbert's original contribution was in accurately predicting the year of peak US oil production, but his assessment of the subsequent rate of decline was overly pessimistic.

We would still face severe economic shocks, should a Peak occur soon. Oil prices would spike, even before an actual Peak, the first time that demand growth permanently outstrips the growth in supply. But that's a very different proposition than the simplistic notion of the taps suddenly running dry. Current global oil reserves stand at 1.2 trillion barrels, while annual global consumption is running at roughly 30 billion barrels. Even after discounting OPEC's reserves by half, I take some comfort from the fact that the US has produced a cumulative 192 billion barrels of oil from proved reserves that never exceeded 40 billion barrels.

There may be one more analogy to Y2K. It's generally accepted that, although Y2K never manifested in its worst form, anywhere, the precautionary investment in upgraded information and communications technology has paid enormous dividends. Premature assumptions of an imminent peak in global oil production may be just what's needed to galvanize governments and consumers to begin the decades of preparations that the SAIC report on Peak Oil suggests are necessary to avoid its worst consequences. So while I'm a skeptic, I also see that a bit of Peak Oil hype now might not be the worst thing in the world, unless it sets up a backlash after the next set of milestone dates passes without a Peak.

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