Living in this time of peak oil

Last week, I received a comment from someone who regularly reads my articles, and compared to ‘the boy who cried wolf’. I would share with you my response to what I take to be a compliment as I would be more embarrassed if I were telling people everything was OK!

A clear and present danger.

A clear and present danger.

The fable of the ‘boy who cried wolf’ stems back to a period of history when human beings were still very vulnerable in a world we could not recognise today. Shepherds and indeed the boy in question were vital for protecting the villagers’ livestock from the dangers of their day.

However, unwise for tricking the villagers, not once, but twice, the fact was they were still living in a world full of danger. The threat of the wolf was always there, despite the villager’s scepticism by the third time the small boy cried wolf yet again.

And so it is too in our modern times that the threat of a quick descending slide down the wrong side of the peak oil graph has never gone away, despite the shale gas or fracking opportunities. In the grand scheme of things, fracking is only a small and very short-term sticking plaster solution to an enormous problem which nobody has an answer too.

A good analogy for fracking is like the nasal cannula pipes used to help dying patients breathe. Delaying the inevitable is the only benefit Shale gas will bring because oil is the pure blood of our modern economies.

Just because I shout very loudly about the dangers of living in an over-stretched oil-based economy, and the next day everything continues as it did the day before, doesn’t mean the threats are not there.

Most people are walking around today, don’t realise we are all in a moment of history where most of us have not yet understood the actual consequences of our modern addiction to oil. We are in a unique moment of denial and still unaware that we will have to find alternative ways to deflect the costs of heating and powering our homes sooner than we want to admit.

Just like the boy who was eventually eaten by the wolf, the clear and present danger was always there, just over the next hill. However, only like this timeless tale, which became famous for teaching children about the perils of dishonesty and can be adapted to our modern age to warn of the dangers of complacency too.

When people hear about such issues time and time again, the tendency to dismiss and ignore continued warnings are brought about by conflicting information and doubt. But when the facts are made clear:

  • The annual new oil discovery rate is barely a third of yearly oil consumption today.
  • Worldwide existing reserve data are unreliable and put everyone into a false sense of security.
  • Technological achievements in oil extraction have mitigated the decline, but it cannot replace the requirement of new large-scale oil fields required to accommodate the higher consumption levels of today.

We can affect the gradient but we can’t affect the direction

Oil production in ¾ of the world’s oil-producing nations has seen relentless decline year on year. We have found and exploited all of the world’s largest reservoirs located in the last century. We cannot make up the difference with the much smaller and harder to reach lakes which we have to rely upon today.

We can see this played out today in the North Sea, as the 1980s bonanza of the most significant oil fields replaced by independent oil companies using George Osborne’s tax breaks to drill for the smaller and harder to extract oil fields which remain. Why else would you need to incentivise it? This situation isn’t about growing production in the North Sea; this is about slowing down the decline.

This story is occurring around the world and not just in our backyard.

Since peaking oil forecasts in the past have been shown to be wrong, people say the problem mustn’t be there, and the calculations and methodology must be faulty, right?

Actually no! Areas of geological uncertainty around the world had always been a problem, alongside over-optimistic data published by oil-producing nations and companies that were designed to instil confidence politically and economically and at best were ballpark figures. This situation means previous data were not accurate to make pinpoint predictions.

Today, however, is different. Most of the planet surveyed, and we know much more about what’s available to us. The areas of uncertainty when making such predictions today is shrinking fast.

In the seventies and eighties, very few countries were in plateau or decline. Today the majority of oil-producing nations is on the plateau, and most are in the decline stages. We can see this in evidence today with Saudi Arabia announcing that they are investing 100 billion to become an alternative technological society by 2020. Preparation for the inevitable!

Depletion is happening worldwide, at a time when global demand is rising. The production numbers are undeniable, and the list of nations falling into the terminal decline category grows year on year. Depletion is imminent and is here, and it is now.

When the ‘boy who cried wolf’ was finally attacked and eaten by the wolf, you can almost guarantee that he’ll be surprised. Although the dangers are very different in today’s world, the fable is just as relevant as it was when the sheep were as valuable as solar panels are today.

The more homes who install alternative energy technologies today will mean fewer families affected by the surprise of an oil supply hiccup or worse.

"Light is life."

Stuart Lovatt 2013-08-09
Founder of Power My Home.