In 1956 Dr. Marion King Hubbert
predicted that in the near future, production of crude oil
would peak- i.e. that oil production, being as it is finite,
follows a gradual bell curve that inclines, eventually peaks and begins to go into a decline. He accurately predicted the peaking of oil production in the US
in the mid-1970s1
and we can see now in hindsight that he was right. He also put the peak of world production between 1995 and 2000 and clearly
he was wrong, but predicting the peaking of US oil production with such accuracy was no fluke and according to Professor Ken Deffeyes
University, the world peak has already happened- it happened in 20052
. The upward trends of oil production before 2005 have begun to change
direction and move downwards. This may be a pessimistic view based on a statistical anomaly but the fact we can observe today is that since 2005, global oil
production has been decreasing by the day. The downward trend in oil production coupled with our exponential rise in population means that by 2030, oil
production will be at the same level as in 1980, but the global population will be double. Demand for oil will have at least doubled the rate of supply and
this is peak oil, the Hubbert Peak Theory- Hubbert’s own definition was when demand for oil surpassed its supply; or, to put it another way, when oil
consumption exceeds the amount of oil discovered in a year, that is peak oil.
This is not to be taken lightly or worse, dismissed as the mere unfounded theory of a doomsayer. As a species we cannot afford to risk the possibility
that the theory could be wrong. It could very well be wrong and if it is, much time and effort would have been wasted by all in preparing for life in the new
stone age. But if it turned out to be right, and we put no effort into softening the blow peak oil will deliver, we would be devastated.
Nobody doubts that oil will eventually peak, some day. But nobody seems to be worried about when it will happen. From a purely economic point of view when
the decline begins the price of fuel will rise rapidly and steadily. There is a 20th century simile to what the situation for us might be. In 1973, OAPEC
(the Organisation of Arab and Petroleum Exporting Countries, an amalgam of OPEC (the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, an 11-, formerly 12-
country group originally formed to give the countries who sell the oil to the large oil companies an economic edge in the oil market), Egypt and Syria)
withheld oil from all countries that supported Israel. This happened after Egypt and Syria went to war with Israel, and altho it was
only a 5% drop in oil, in the US alone the price of oil rose by almost 400%. We should expect to see a similar price rise for oil products in the near
The cause of such a steep price rise in oil was that our entire world as concerns our species is based on oil. We are heavily reliant upon it for
everything in our lives. Since the age of industry began oil’s presence was hardly felt until the early 20th century but its rapid spread in popularity
ensured our subsequent dependence upon it. Currently a major world industry deals with the extraction of crude oil and its distillation into its
constituent hydrocarbons. These processes themselves are powered by oil. All industry is run by machinery, which is powered by oil. The computer I am
currently sat at would have required, in its production alone, over ten times its own weight in oil products that powered the machines that put it
The production of a single car uses 20 barrels of oil. This is before we even begin to look at how much fuel the car itself will burn over its life.
EarthTrends calculated that in 2003 global fuel consumption per capita was 174.4 gallons. The US consumes approximately 861,000,000 gallons every day- that
is, 2.84 gallons per capita per day4.
There have been proposed solutions to the world’s dependence on oil products as fuel, for example, biofuels. The advantages cited have been along the
lines of, carbon emissions will be greatly reduced, and it will be a workable alternative to the fuels we are already using. However, biofuels create more
problems than they solve. Professor David Pimentel of Cornell and Professor Tad W. Patzek of Berkley University conducted studies on the EROEI (energy return
on energy invested) of biofuel crops and found that it simply was not worth it5. They found that in every crop they studied (they did not
include sugar related crops or products in their study, which have been found to be relatively economical in terms of energy if not in economic terms) -
corn, switchblade grass, wood biomass, soy beans and sunflowers, the EROEI was between 0 and 1. An EROEI value below or equal to 1 is indicative of an
inefficient production process, where the energy used in the production equals or is greater than the energy in the product. An EROEI value between 1 and 100
but not including 1 is indicative of an efficient production process, where the yield exceeds the energy input.
The reason for this is that all large-scale agriculture needs oil products along every stage between planting and consuming. Aside from the amounts of
fuel needed to run the tractors, fossil fuels are needed for the hydrogen in ammonia-based fertilisers necessary to growing on such a large scale.
Pesticides are also made from oil products. Pimentel calculates that the equivalent of 271 gallons of petrol is used for every hectare of corn grown
6. Only a small part of this is used as fuel for tractors and transportation. The process of reacting natural gas with nitrogen in the air to produce
ammonia requires fuel. And once the corn has grown it must then be delivered by truck to the ethanol plant, where the corn is fermented in water. The
resulting liquid, at 8% ethanol, is then driven to a distillation plant where 99.5% of the water is removed by a series of distillations7.
According to Pimentel, this process uses more energy even than the growing process. So ethanol is not even a supplementary fuel to oil products (with our
current technology it’s certainly not an alternative or replacement) but actually makes the situation worse and drains the earth of oil faster.
Agriculture in general needs oil products to keep it efficient and keep the demand for food satisfied. The same processes apply as with crop ethanol
production and this is the other quite obvious problem with crop ethanol- farm land and resources are relatively scarce, especially when the scarcity of oil
products are taken into account. Compared with the mass of corn that goes into making ethanol, the mass of the final product is very small. In fact, to
produce 25 gallons of ethanol fuel needs an equivalent amount of corn that could feed an individual for an entire year8. It is a hugely wasteful
process. But even if agriculture was able to go on, the trucks that delivered food from farms to supermarkets couldn’t run. Large-scale agriculture would be
utterly useless- unless the trucks ran on alternative fuel, like electricity or hydrogen (or maybe even ethanol, once we have the technology).
But that is the biggest problem when considering alternative energy and fuel sources. These alternative fuels are highly impractical as long as we have
our current technology.
For example there is always mention of hydrogen as fuel. Not only is it cheap and readily available, being as it is the most abundant element in the
universe, it also does not burn, therefore leaving no waste products except for water. The process is very recyclable and very clean.
The problem is however, that while these claims are not lies, they do not give the entire truth about hydrogen fuel. It is tru that hydrogen is the most
abundant element in the universe. But it is not so on our planet. Hydrogen, on Earth, is not very commonly found in its element form. Hydrocarbons and water
all contain hydrogen, but to remove the hydrogen requires lots of energy, the sources of which are the problem to begin with. The production of hydrogen as a
replacement to oil-derived fuels would not help. Then there is the problem of storage. Hydrogen, being as its molecules are so light and small, is very
difficult to store and transport. It cannot be converted to liquid form and any storage container for it would have to be absolutely airtight and the
pressure inside must be regulated as accurately as possible.9
The fuel cells that are being developed as a means to power cars with hydrogen fuel work electromagnetically. Hydrogen is ionised by a platinum catalyst and
loses its electrons, which flow as an electric current. The positive hydrogen ions and the electrons are then sent to be combined with oxygen, to become
water, the fuel cell’s only waste product.
However, to produce enough fuel cells to power every car on the road today (700 million) would require vast amounts of energy and capital, and, of course,
platinum. Our problem is diminishing supplies of power sources.
Similar problems are encountered with the electricity ‘solution’. Dr. Walter Youngquist, in a lecture at Oregon in 2000, said that ‘fifteen gallons of
gasoline petrol in a car's tank are the energy equal of 15 tons of storage batteries’10. It would be near impossible, given our current
technology, to produce cars that ran for any distance greater than, say, weekly grocery shopping. International, cross-continent and cross-country
transportation would be out of the question. A car that ran entirely on electricity would need its battery recharged- unlike hydrogen fuel cells, which do
not store electricity but produce their own electricity as long as they have hydrogen flowing thru them. And the electricity they are filled with must come
from a source on a national scale, and maintaining a supply of electricity of this scale requires oil products.
Actually, not necessarily. There has been much research conducted into alternative energy sources too: wind, solar, nuclear, tidal, coal, for
example, have all been thoroughly researched into. And this question is the crux of the entire peak oil problem. When we find a way to power our world on an
industrial scale using a method that does not rely on oil products, we will have beaten the problem. Because without oil, or equivalent power, the industrial
age will end, abruptly and arguably prematurely. We would have to revert to traditional farming methods, traditional methods of production, We would have to
start the agrarian age over again and build our way up back to the new industrial age. Marx may have well made a correct prediction in his conclusion
(altho not so much in his interpretation of Hegel’s dialectics) when he said that the communist age was soon to follow our current capitalist era.
Because losing the entire source of the power that drove the industrial/capitalist age would devastate our species unless we followed one of two paths: fight
against the reversion and discover revolutionary new technology that will keep our industrial age going in a progressive direction, or embrace the anarchic
reversion and simply accept the dialectic flow for what it is. Our entire global economy may be wiped out because large-scale industry and agriculture,
global transport and global communications would be rendered impossible without oil products- unless we discover new technology. But whatever we decide to
do, the following century should see immense changes in our world’s infrastructure, beginning with vicious wars that are almost certainly to be fought as oil
reserves dry up.
1. Professor Ken Deffeyes, ‘Beyond Oil’, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005
3. Michael C. Ruppert, ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, New Society, 2004
5. http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/NRRethanol.2005.pdf (from Natural Resources Research, March 2005)
7. www.theviewfromthepeak.net- articles by David J. Johnson
8. money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/08/21/8383659/index.htm- Lester Brown, Fortune magazine, August 16, 2006.
9. Dr. Walter Youngquist, Eugene, Oregon, October 2000- http://www.hubbertpeak.com/youngquist/altenergy.htm