Friday, March 09, 2007

The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End

Stuart Staniford recently wrote two articles at The Oil Drum that are, in my opinion, watershed pieces in the ongoing discussion of resource depletion. Because of the nature of that blog, they are about oil, of course, and specifically about the grandmother of all oil fields in the world - Ghawar. Stuart's first piece was titled "Saudi Arabian Oil Declines 8% in 2006" and gave his explanation for why, using statistical data, he believes that Saudi Arabia is no longer the world's swing producer for oil and is now entering terminal decline of oil production. There was much consternation in response to this article, especially from the staff at The Oil Drum itself, which is more than a bit amusing, considering who was complaining. In response to many of these criticisms, Stuart replied with "A Nosedive into the Desert ...or Why the Decline in Saudi Oil Production is not Voluntary" but again was met with many criticisms, none of which stood up as well under scrutiny as Stuart's own scenario.

Even scientists like Euan Mearns went grasping after ridiculous straws trying to line up various strawmen in an effort to dismiss Stuart's assessment, but as Stuart asked Euan at one point, "Why don't you go ahead and calculate the R^2 of those two series :-)"? Obviously Euan had done no such thing and still has not. Neither have many of the others. Yet Stuart has and has found strong correlations between various factors. Where there is correlation there is often fire, to borrow a phrase, something that the staff of The Oil Drum seem terrified to confront.

But after wading through all the fig leaves the naysayers try to stitch together, you are left with the stunning realization that, if Stuart is correct, then the world has very probably just entered decline in oil production. The "long undulating plateau" that CERA often speaks of lasted just 2 years before we turned south, with the world's largest oil producer, KSA, leading the way. The initial turning does not look to be that much but as another poster who has been accurate thus far in predicting production trends notes, by 2011 the world is going to be experiencing a 7 million barrel per day gap between potential demand and actual production.

We are at the end of the age of cheap oil and we are at the beginning of the end of the age of oil. Now before you really grasp what this means, I want you to look around you where you sit right now as you read this and tell me how much of what surrounds you was dependent on oil to be produced or is even made of oil products like plastics. If you think this portends just an increase of prices at the gas pump then you are missing the point entirely. Already we are desperately trying to find alternatives and these searches are having impacts of their own. Egg prices are up in grocery stores. Why? Because egg producers cannot get enough feed for their chickens, who eat corn, which is being bid up by ethanol manufacturers to put in your car's fuel tank. Corn growers are saying they need to increase corn yields by 25% in one year just to meet current fuel demand plus normal food demand. But have we ever increased corn production by 25% in one year? Can we do it year after year for decades as oil production winds down?

Yes, we are already trading food for fuel. The corn needed to fill up a 25 gallon fuel tanks of an SUV just one time is approximately equal to all the carbohydrates necessary for one human being for one year. Worse, if the US converted every square acre of arable land in the country to producing corn for fuel, we would satisfy less than 16% of our liquid fuel needs (and have nothing to eat at all). The ethanol scam is just one politically perverted response to the overall problem of globally peaking oil production.

So far our civilization has done everything except consider powering down to a lower energy lifestyle. And we still have multiple other options on the table, including several thousand nuclear warheads that could be used in a desperate grab for remaining global oil reservoirs. We've already demonstrated that we're willing to go to war for oil. Iraq is clear proof of this, from the smoking gun map of Iraq being divided up by US oil companies as part of Dick Cheney's "Energy Task Force" which met before the Iraq war even began, to the current attempts to change Iraqi law to give US oil companies ultimate control of Iraqi oil production. How much farther are those in power willing to go? How many strangers half a world away are they willing to kill? How many of our own sons and daughters are they willing to expend to get what they want?

You need to ask yourself these questions and you need to ask them right now. You need to ask these questions of political candidates who suggest that we need more ethanol to continue the American way of life (Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, and other Democrats) or who say that the American way of life is "non-negotiable" (Dick Cheney, George Bush, and other Republicans). Both of those views clearly are not grounded in fact or real science and both of those views must be rejected if we are to move towards a sustainable society.

But I am a realist. When I see the sort of nonsense that politicians do in response to simple problems, I have no hopes whatsoever that any of them will ever react responsibly in a complex, rapidly deteriorating scenario that threatens the very survival of our species. In fact, I expect that watching the response of politicians to multiple real global crises will be sad comedy rather than real statesmanship. Yes, the roller coaster has just reached the top of the climb, folks. Hang on tight because the ride down is just getting ready to start.