In This Edition: If Life Is A River - Then Here Come The Rapids - So Do We Have An Adequate Liferaft? - And Will We Be Rescued?
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Sludge Report #96
If Life Is A River
Motor cars – both through our need to obtain fuel to power them, and our need for roads to drive them on - bring out the worst aspects of the human spirit.
More wars have been started over oil than probably any other substance.
On a smaller scale debates over road building, and public transport alternatives, are the lifeblood of local body political discussion and dissension.
At a personal level even though we probably know petrol is a carcinogen, do we feel fearful when filling the car at the local service station? Do we choose to bicycle to work?
This morning (see… Methinks Pete Hodgson Doth Protest Too Much and Kangaroos In The Top Paddock Again - Hodgson) , and in fact over the last few weeks, our national political leaders have been waxing long and lyrically over motor car related issues.
The size of our trucks, the number of roads we are building, new thermal electricity power stations, and the future of rail are hot political issues.
But unfortunately throughout all these debates, everybody involved has completely missed the main event.
Rather than debating the merits of petrol versus renewables, more roads versus more rail, Kyoto or not, the politicians, the lobby groups, everybody, should be addressing the one question that really matters, and around which all these other debates will ultimately be decided.
The question that needs our attention, both yours and mine – as well as Helen Clark’s, John Howard’s and George Bush’s - Mobil’s, Greenpeace’s and the Pope’s – is an oldie and a goodie:
How long do we have before we run out of oil?
Then Here Come The Rapids
Q: So how long do we have before we run out of oil?
A: Not as long as you think.
C.D. Sludge has been researching this subject for a fair while as longer time readers of the Sludge Report may recall (see… Sludge Report #61 – Revolution Edition).
Having tried several techniques the following is probably the most accessible way of addressing the question.
Our starting point is the Petroleum Industry’s own PR spin, spun back in 1996. Addressing the question of coming oil shortages the American Petroleum Institute said.
“In 1993, the world's proved reserves were estimated to be just under a trillion barrels - about a 45-year supply of oil, based on current rates of consumption. This estimate represents a working inventory of the world's supply at a single moment in time.
Taking into account probable future oil discoveries, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that between 1.4 trillion and 2.1 trillion barrels of oil remain to be produced worldwide. This amount of Oil would sustain the current rate of consumption between 63 to 95 years.
To be more specific, there is a 95-percent possibility that the world's remaining oil resources could last 63 more years and a 5-percent chance that the world's resources will last another 95 years at recent rates of consumption.”
On its face this does not sound too bad. However it is worth acknowledging at the start that this is not what the Petroleum Institute has been telling its own members.
But assuming for arguments sake that what they say is true, it is nevertheless still no reason for complacency.
Over the decade up to 1995 new oil field discoveries occurred at roughly 25% the rate of consumption.
That is for each year from 1985 to 1995 the people of planet earth used up at least four times as much oil as they found. This means that the reserves are being run down, and that the promised extra trillion barrels of oil mentioned above has not yet been found.
Between 1995 and 1998 oil prices fell to record low levels and the level of investment in searching for oil was reduced greatly.
Since 1995 the global annual consumption of oil has increased by around 25%.
Since 1993 eight years have passed by, during which we burned more oil than ever before.
So lets do a little calculation, 45 years minus 8 equals 37 years, 25% more consumption means at least 25% less time, so lets say around 30 years.
And so the answer to the question: “How long do we have before we run out of oil?”, is probably somewhere between 25 and 40 years. And given that it seems extremely likely that it will take a few more years before the world is ready to acknowledge the inevitable, then the lower figure in many ways looks a far more realistic punt.
In other words, it is reasonable to conclude therefore that the global supply of oil is likely to run out within the life-span of a majority of people presently alive. This is not our grand-children’s problem, it is our problem.
The most wildly optimistic estimate might give us 60 or 70 years of oil left, but only if we stop increasing consumption immediately, which means per capita falls in consumption immediately, which means no more SUVs immediately and most probably sharp increases in prices immediately.
And of course, if we only have 30 years of oil reserves left, then it is highly unlikely that we would be so foolish as to continue to use the substance like water right up to the time we run out.
So Do We Have An Adequate Liferaft?
The questions that arise out of mere consideration of a looming oil shortage are countless.
To kick start the thinking processes, and lets face it, most of us have been blind to this issue for the past two decades, consider the following points:
- most large scale roading projects currently being considered in New Zealand – e.g. Transmission Gully, the planned new Auckland motorways, making SH1 a dual carriageway – will take close to a decade to complete. By which time what will petrol cost? How does that affect the cost-benefit ratio of the Auckland rail project? And what does it mean for the size of the planned Britomart public transport terminus?
- New Zealand’s presently intended path to prosperity revolves around tourism and the trade of agricultural commodities. Airplanes burn oil. So do freighters.
- How sensible is the diplomatic anguish over implementation of the Kyoto protocol in circumstances where there may not be any fossil fuels left to burn in 50 years time anyway? In reality implementing fossil fuel consumption reduction targets far steeper than those contemplated in Kyoto is probably not a matter of choice, but a matter of necessity.
- What will happen to US and European “growth valuation” stocks, not to mention oil and car manufacturer stocks, when the stock analysts and investors realise the reality of a rapidly approaching energy brick wall?
- How sensible is the idea of measuring national success or failure on the basis of GDP growth, when the survival of national states is likely to be dependent not on the ability to consume more, but to conserve and share what little is left?
And Will We Be Rescued?
No doubt before many people are willing to start considering any of the questions above, they will first seek to find a way out. And it is understandable, the idea of not being able to drive the shiny new car to the shiny new supermarket is a little alarming.
Many people Sludge discusses this subject with see their most likely saviour as technology.
And it is true that some work has been done on alleviating the coming crisis.
On BBC’s Earth Report last night a range of alternative paths to fossil fuel consumption were discussed.
First up was BMW’s experimental hydrogen fuel cell car project. The car and bus of the future has already been built. The bus can even be caught at Frankfurt Airport. Both bus and car burn the most commonly available element in the universe, hydrogen, and create water as their by-product.
Unfortunately, as was acknowledged at the end of the item, production of hydrogen fuel is energy intensive. And as 40% of electricity is created by burning oil, running cars on hydrogen created using electricity is not really an option yet, without a major breakthrough. Ditto electric cars running on batteries.
The BBC news item concluded that in order for the car of the future to be a realistic option, it’s hydrogen fuel would most probably need to be manufactured using solar energy.
In Holland meanwhile an enthusiast for alternative transport solutions has been experimenting with community owned shared bicycles. And in France the city of La Rochelle has been experimenting with shared electric cars. Neither scheme looks like a realistic replacement for the motor car.
And so it seems no lifeboats can be seen on the horizon, yet anyway.
In Sludge’s experience a common reaction to the realisation that there are silver bullet technologies available at present to solve the looming crisis is to say. “humans have always found a technology solution in the past, by the time the problem gets serious the technology will appear.”
Sounds good, in theory, I guess.
But on reflection the appropriate response to this sort of logic can be found on the nearest Tui beer billboard.