Saturday, 30 October 2004

Peak Oil for the Beginner

This was originally published in TU MAI on October 04

I’m a regular Kiwi bloke. Old generation though so I’m a bit set in my ways and find a lot of the new high-tech world a bit daunting at times. I do have a computer though. It seems without email and Google you’re nobody. Even my old mum spends her time ‘on line’ trading for old movies or swapping whakapapa research with people all over the world. Anyway, I got to using my computer and the internet to read about all sorts of amazing things, I had been so proud of my Encyclopaedia Britannica too. Poor thing sits lonely and unused now. Looks great though on my bookshelf.

About five years ago I started reading about oil. I don’t know how I got there, I think I must have been reading some political blurb or some such and something I read got me thinking and asking questions. So I started to search. I started to read. I read for about three months and then I started to buy books. I kept reading. It’s been 5 years now and I am still reading and my bookmarks are like the index volume of my encyclopaedia and my bookshelves are full of books about oil and the politics of oil. I am still reading, still learning. And I am frightened. I am not frightened for me — I am an old fart and shuffling off this mortal coil would be a blessing on the world I am sure. I am frightened for my children and I am frightened for their children and I am frightened for my rellys and friends.

In all my reading I have had to get my head around things I never knew before — I have had to learn about economics, history, sociology and above all the politics of power. I have to admit to a bit of education — I have a degree in science (straight A’s too) and I have most of a degree in surveying which helped get me work in the coal industry for a few years — mostly spent playing cards at the ‘crib’ — some off-cut hole in the ground where we miners had our lunch and smoko, (though of course you can’t smoke in a coal mine). I know a bit about the energy business from the ground down so to speak.

I am frightened because I have a good grasp of what is coming. I can’t tell you the future, I don’t have crystal ball skills (hmm, must Google that), but I can imagine what might eventuate. And what might eventuate, what seems most likely to eventuate, is catastrophe. Utter, total catastrophe. Our world, our wonderful world, of low cost airfares, fantastic quality goods, superb cars, marvellous communications and boundless supermarket shelves is all built on oil or its partner in all ways — gas. All of our food, every single morsel you eat is dependent, heavily dependent, on oil and gas. The world is as we know it only because of oil and gas.

In 1956 a man named Marion King Hubbert (not to be confused with our own Dick Hubbard or Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard) predicted that the USA would ‘peak’ in oil production about 1970 — that was 14 years before the event. He was right, but for more than 14 years he was ridiculed and demonised by other oil people, economists, journalists and politicians. So what’s this ‘peak’? It is a tad technical but it is basically like this — when you have used half of something (like oil) from that point onwards you can only get less. You might have read in the Listener last year (March) an article by an Otago University professor of Geology Richard Sibson titled ‘Falling Off Hubbert’s Peak’. You might browse your local bookstore and spot The End of Oil by Paul Roberts. You might hearken to those who claim that the war in Iraq is all about oil. You might have been following the financial news of late and noticed the link between share market indexes and the price of oil.

Really, to not see how important oil has become to our way of life you just have to be blind. Think about it. Everything in your house, even the entire house, has got to be where it is because it was hauled there with oil. Many many of the things in the house are made of oil — all your plastics, much of your clothing, your paint, all your high-tech gear — is either made of oil or was built with something made of oil or was enabled by the power of oil. All of your food, all of it, even if you are a vegan, even if you only buy GE-free, organics it is only available to you because of oil. Even you gardeners who grow your own can only do so because of oil. All of your fertilisers and herbicides, all of our farming, all of our agricultural commodities, everything, is only as it is because of oil and gas.

And it is going to run out. Not tomorrow and not instantaneously but it will run out. As it starts to run out oil will become more and more expensive. Nations will fight over it. There will be war and famine. The huge populations of the North will seek escape from the increasingly impossible situation there and those who have the money will flee seeking any place that they and their kids might survive. They will flee here. It’s already started. Go ask your local solar energy retailer who they are getting most of their business from and you will find it is rich Americans setting up fortresses on Kiwi farming blocks that they have bought for a song. More and more, as we stay in the dark, those who fear what is coming will seek out this place hoping that salvation from the worst might be found here. What are you going to do about it? What are we going to do about it? We do not have much time — maybe 5 years. In that time you have to establish yourself so well that when the crunch comes you can hope for survival — for you and your kids.