Heinberg, 7-26-22

The essay that follows is out of chronological order in this blog’s scheme of things. It’s author, a founder of the Post Carbon Institute, sent it out (most recently) yesterday or the day before. It is also out of order in that the important money that keeps newspapers, magazines and broadcast and cablecast shows going and officeholders elected and appointed and  the major political parties hanging on want to hear nothing of its message, and hence it hasn’t gotten out. People who don’t like to read can skip the essay and find “The End of Suburbia” (circa 2005) on the Internet and watch it instead, or first. — MCM

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Will Civilization Collapse Because We’re Rusnning Out of Oil?

By Richard Heinberg | Post Carbon Institute

Will civilization collapse because it’s running out of oil? That question was debated hotly almost 20 years ago; today, not so much. Judging by Google searches, interest in “peak oil” surged around 2003 (the year my book The Party’s Over was published), peaked around 2005, and drifted until around 2010 before dropping off dramatically.

Well, civilization hasn’t imploded for lack of fuel—not yet, at least. Instead, oil has gotten more expensive and economic growth has slowed. “Tight oil” produced in the US with fracking technology came to the rescue, sort of. For a little while. This oil was costlier to extract than conventional oil, and production from individual wells declined rapidly, thus entailing one hell of a lot of drilling. During the past decade, frackers went deeply into debt as they poked tens of thousands of holes into Texas, North Dakota, and a few other states, sending US oil production soaring. Central banks helped out by keeping interest rates ultra-low and by injecting trillions of dollars into the economy. National petroleum output went up farther and faster than had ever happened anywhere before in the history of the oil industry.

Most environmentalists therefore tossed peak oil into their mental bin of “things we don’t need to worry about” as they focused laser-like on climate change. Mainstream energy analysts then and now assume that technology will continue to overcome resource limits in the immediate future, which is all that really seems to matter. Much of what is left of the peak oil discussion focuses on “peak demand”—i.e., the question of when electric cars will become so plentiful that we’ll no longer need so much gasoline.

Nevertheless, those who’ve engaged with the oil depletion literature have tended to come away with a few useful insights:

* Energy is the basis of all aspects of human society.

* Fossil fuels enabled a dramatic expansion of energy usable by humanity, in turn enabling unprecedented growth in human population, economic activity, and material consumption.

* It takes energy to get energy, and the ratio of energy returned versus energy spent (energy return on investment, or EROI) has historically been extremely high for fossil fuels, as compared to previous energy sources.

* Similar EROI values will be necessary for energy alternatives if we wish to maintain our complex, industrial way of life.

* Depletion is as important a factor as pollution in assessing the sustainability of society.

Now a new research paper has arrived on the scene, authored by Jean Laherrère, Charles Hall, and Roger Bentley—all veterans of the peak oil debate, and all experts with many papers and books to their credit. As its title suggests (“How Much Oil Remains for the World to Produce? Comparing Assessment Methods, and Separating Fact from Fiction”), the paper mainly addresses the question of future oil production. But to get there, it explains why this is a difficult question to answer . . .  READ MORE . . .