Un-Peak Oil – The Beginning of the End or The Beginning

June 27, 2012

By Matt Palmer

The End is Nigh. The sky is falling. Oh, and oil may not be peaking, yet.

This past Monday Andrew Revkin wrote in his NY Times Opinion blog, “A Fresh Look at Oil’s Long Goodbye“, about how the growth of oil production from  shale/tight oil plays, particularly in the U.S , and the potential collapse in oil prices, with all kinds of implications for security, international politics, the economy and, without doubt, climate.

Technology is radically changing the energy landscape, not only for alternative energy sources, new wind and solar technologies, but also for oil and natural gas. Forecasting the impacts of this scale of change to the overall energy system is not easy. On oil boom will change global energy dynamics, but at a time when there is a need to reduce carbon footprints, what are the options to mitigate increased use?

The basis of Revkin’s article is a report by Leonardo Maugeri, an oil executive in Italy, and research fellow at the Geopolitics of Energy Project of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Maugeri offers a field by field analysis of investments in oil production that provides detailed support for the emerging picture of an oil boom conveyed in recent reports in The Times, including Jad Mouawad’s article “Fuel to Burn: Now What?” Similar themes echo in Daniel Yergin’s recent book “The Quest.

Your political and ideological leanings will influence how you feel about this new reality of surging oil and gas production. Many will see this as the beginning of the end, some will see it as a way to continue business and usual, and perhaps a few will look on increased energy reserves as an opportunity, a new beginning.

The opportunity in this moment is changing the tenor of the debate around energy. Moving from polarization, vitriol, and evangelical-like self-righteousness to rational, pragmatic, systems thinking based solutions. There is a great quote in Revkin’s article from former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth:

First impressions suggest that this new abundance of fossil fuels will be disastrous for the globe’s climate – but maybe that is too fast a judgment. Instead, maybe this new abundance provides a window of time to better understand and explain the challenges of climate, and the options needed. In any case, this new abundance seems to be a reality, requiring new strategies for those of us who continue the urgent concern for the globe’s climate.

What if this window of time allows us to gain a more in-depth understanding of why we use energy, and the value it adds to our lives? Most reasonable people would agree that no matter what the fuel source, energy needs to harnessed as cleanly as possibly, using rigorous environmental and sustainable practices. Practical attainment of those principles is far more challenging to achieve than one would like to think.

Stepping back we can see that much of the focus of the energy debate is on the production and distribution of the various fuel sources. Oil sands projects, pipelines, shale gas drilling, wind projects, solar projects, biofuels, hydro projects, major electrical transmission lines, and nuclear projects all over the world are facing stronger opposition than ever before. Some blame this on NIMBYISM, but perhaps it is the growing awareness that harnessing all forms of energy for human consumption creates impacts. And, many people do not want to be the ones to live with the impacts.

The prospect of growing world oil reserves is going to scare and upset many people, but how does demand for energy enter into the equation and the discussion? Global population is racing towards 9 billion by 2050, and with that growth will come a rise in energy demand. How do we meet that demand? How can we earnestly and rapidly get individuals, families and communities to address consumption?

If we examine energy production, and distribution from a natural resource perspective, in other words, the amount of natural resources needed to build and maintain the various systems, unless we deal with consumption levels, we have a problem. Especially because alternative energy systems require more infrastructure to harness equivalent amounts of energy compared to fossil fuels because they do not have equivalent energy and power density.

So here is part of my pitch to you, the readers of this blog, the future viewers of the filmed productions of Unintended Consequences: this is a growing community of people who care about energy issues, and the future of our society. As a community we have the power to bring to the fore ideas, conversation, debate, and action. As a community our individual actions combine to make a difference. We can inspire each other, and spread that inspiration to our broader community. Positively.

Technology will continue to change the our energy options. More oil, natural gas, more efficient and cheaper wind and solar technologies. What will fundamentally change the game though, is growing our understanding, relationship and use of energy; our consumption habits. By building our communities, those around us that provide for and sustain our emotional and physical needs, we may find that we no longer try to fill holes within us through consumerism.

This is not a threat to capitalism, or corporate culture, rather it is an adaptive opportunity. Capitalist economies constantly adapt, often rapidly to changing demands and trends. Increasing world oil reserves is not a danger, but an occasion to re-examine oil’s value proposition to the global community. Can more oil help us solve some very complex issues? That question may sound counter-intuitive, but it might be an interesting point of engagement, and it is certainly as controversial as exploiting more oil.

Of course, it will help if everyone starts by parking preconceptions, ideologies, and prejudices at the door.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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