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  • Wednesday, October 26, 2005


    Richard Heinberg Lecture: Deep Doo-Doo in Our Future

    I went out with a friend of mine to Smith College and attended a lecture by Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies.

    His lecture didn't really contain anything I didn't know about the whole Peak Oil view. He struck me as relatively sober and not prone to exaggeration. He allowed that the actual moment of peak oil is difficult to pinpoint but he obviously thought it would be on the shorter side of ten years rather than 20-30 years in the future. He seemed to have some good reasons to believe this way.

    His advice? Learn practical skills like farming and cultivate your local resources and neighbors.

    He mentioned a report commissioned by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and usually referred to by the lead author's name, "The Hirsch Report." It was released in February, 2005 and was titled Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management by Robert L. Hirsch (PDF). The DOE liked the report so much that they buried it. For over half a year, apparently it could only be found archived on a California High School website. Project Censored now has a copy, which is at the link above. (I eventually did track down a copy of the report on the National Energy Technology Laboratory's (NETL) Office of Technology Impacts and International Coordination (OTIIC) webpage. It seems like a rather obscure corner to me but what do I know?)

    Let me quote a little from the executive summary:
    Prudent risk management requires the planning and implementation of mitigation well before peaking. Early mitigation will almost certainly be less expensive than delayed mitigation. A unique aspect of the world oil peaking problem is that its timing is uncertain, because of inadequate and potentially biased reserves data from elsewhere around the world. In addition, the onset of peaking may be obscured by the volatile nature of oil prices. Since the potential economic impact of peaking is immense and the uncertainties relating to all facets of the problem are large, detailed quantitative studies to address the uncertainties and to explore mitigation strategies are a critical need.

    The purpose of this analysis was to identify the critical issues surrounding the occurrence and mitigation of world oil production peaking. We simplified many of the complexities in an effort to provide a transparent analysis. Nevertheless, our study is neither simple nor brief. We recognize that when oil prices escalate dramatically, there will be demand and economic impacts that will alter our simplified assumptions. Consideration of those feedbacks will be a daunting task but one that should be undertaken.

    Our study required that we make a number of assumptions and estimates. We well recognize that in-depth analyses may yield different numbers. Nevertheless, this analysis clearly demonstrates that the key to mitigation of world oil production peaking will be the construction a large number of substitute fuel production facilities, coupled to significant increases in transportation fuel efficiency. The time required to mitigate world oil production peaking is measured on a decade time-scale. Related production facility size is large and capital intensive. How and when governments decide to address these challenges is yet to be determined.

    Our focus on existing commercial and near-commercial mitigation technologies illustrates that a number of technologies are currently ready for immediate and extensive implementation. Our analysis was not meant to be limiting. We believe that future research will provide additional mitigation options, some possibly superior to those we considered. Indeed, it would be appropriate to greatly accelerate public and private oil peaking mitigation research. However, the reader must recognize that doing the research required to bring new technologies to commercial readiness takes time under the best of circumstances. Thereafter, more than a decade of intense implementation will be required for world scale impact, because of the inherently large scale of world oil consumption.

    In summary, the problem of the peaking of world conventional oil production is unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society. The challenges and uncertainties need to be much better understood. Technologies exist to mitigate the problem. Timely, aggressive risk management will be essential.
    The Hirsch Report is probably the best evaluation available concerning our oil future. It's about ninety pages in the PDF form but highly recommended. A downer? Yeah, maybe, but if we as a society and as individuals don't start planning for transition now, the options are going to narrow to even more. I suspect we're looking at rather a bad shitstorm and will soon yearn fondly for the days of $3.00 a gallon gasoline.

    Richard Heinberg has an online newsletter and website called Museletter. He seems committed to trying to make a positive change with support for The Depletion Protocol Project. He also has a nice list of recommended links.

    A rather bleak, scary and alarmist site is Peak Oil. Just a glimpse of the home page was enough to depress me. It mostly seem to look for the signs of doom without offering much in the way of positive action.

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