"Peak oil" prognosticators have painted pictures of everything from a calm development of alternatives to calamitous shortages, panic and even social collapse as the world reaches its peak of oil production -- and then supplies fall.
But according to the study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California-Santa Cruz, those scenarios assume that an increasingly wealthy world will use all of the oil pumped out of the ground.
Instead, the historical connection between economic growth and oil use is breaking down -- and will continue to do so -- because of limits on consumption by the wealthy, better fuel efficiency, lower priced alternative fuels and the world's rapidly urbanizing population.
"There is an overabundance of concern about oil depletion and not enough attention focused on the substitutes for conventional oil and other possibilities for reducing our dependence on oil," said study co-author Adam Brandt, assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford's School of Earth Sciences.
The study, published in Environmental Science & Technology,describes a variety of mechanisms that could cause society's need for oil to begin declining by 2035. Several earlier studies have suggested that passenger land travel has already plateaued in industrialized countries and is no longer hitched to economic growth. Passenger land travel now accounts for about half of the global transportation energy demand.
Even in developing countries, economic growth has been less oil-intensive than was seen in the West during the past century. China, for example, sells 20 million electric scooters to its citizens each year as part of the government's policy to reduce air pollution. That exceeds total U.S. passenger vehicle sales annually.
"We've seen explosive growth in car ownership in countries such as China," said co-author Adam Millard-Ball, an assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Department at UC-Santa Cruz. "However, those cars will be more efficient than those of the past, and travel demand will eventually saturate as it has in rich countries such as the United States."
Lower oil dependence
Freight and air travel have shown no such break from economic growth. Rich people may not drive more beyond a certain income level, but they do fly more and buy more belongings, as do people moving out of poverty. Even in air travel and freight, though, energy efficiency has begun to improve after decades of stagnation, lowering oil dependence, according to the new study.
"A major uncertainty is whether demand to move goods around the world will eventually saturate, as we've seen in the case of passenger transport," said Millard-Ball.
Price-competitive alternatives to conventional oil are another factor behind the peak in demand. Competition comes from increasing quantities of fuel from oil sands, liquid fuels from coal, natural gas, biofuels, hydrogen and electricity generated from renewable sources.
Technological advances and the high price of oil are helping most such alternatives compete on price. In 2010, the world produced 1.8 million barrels a day of biofuels, six times the amount in 2000. In Argentina, natural gas fuels 15 percent of all cars, due to policies meant to favor the domestic natural gas industry.
The researchers did not try to forecast peak demand's impact on oil prices. But even if oil prices spend much time above the historical upper range of $140 a barrel, the peak in demand will only come sooner than they forecast.
"If prices rise above their current levels for an extended period, we're likely to see even more efforts to improve efficiency and exploit alternatives to conventional oil," said Millard-Ball. "That would hasten the onset of a demand-driven peak."
Impacts of alternatives
The new research, though encouraging, does not describe a transportation future free of worry. Instead, the researchers recommend a shift in attention to the various alternatives to conventional oil.
Policymakers should not rely on oil scarcity to constrain damage to the world's climate. The alternatives to conventional oil emit varying amounts of greenhouse gases, while large-scale production of biofuels could have a disruptive impact on food prices and on local ecosystems where the plants are grown.
"If you care about the environment, you should care about where we are getting these fuels, whether we use the oil sands or biofuels," said Brandt. "Our study is agnostic on what mix of oil substitutes emerges, but we do know that if we don't manage them well, there will be big consequences."
Steven Gorelick, Stanford professor of environmental Earth systems science, and Matthew Ganser, director of engineering at Carbon Lighthouse, are the study's other co-authors.
This is what I wrote in 2006.
Okay, I'm not a scientist or a geologist, or an oil executive.
And I don't think that, what with the earth heating up, we can go on using fossil fuels for all of our energy.
But I don't believe most of the hype about peak oil. First off, this con has been played before. George H. W. Bush, when he was leaving his job as head of the CIA back in 1976, left a report on incoming President Carter's desk saying that the Soviet Union was about to run out of oil. If you know anything about the CIA, it has historically been wedded to the oil industry. Agents and executives have historically passed back and forth. If there had been an official wedding of the CIA and the oil industry George H. W. Bush would have been the little plastic groom on top of the wedding cake.
Since JFK was gunned down in Dallas in 1963 our foreign policy has been all about oil. I'm still not sure how Vietnam fits into all this, but I suspect that someday soon there will be huge deposits announced in the area. Professor Peter Dale Scott identified four coups in 1964 that were backed by the U.S., and they all had something to do with oil. That is, there was oil, the American oil industry wanted it, and the locals were getting uppity.
Well, oil and drugs.
So this is what I know about the oil industry.
When I was back east last fall visiting my 80 year-old mother, one of our tasks was to close an old safety deposit box she'd kept in a bank in the town where she used to live. There wasn't much of value in the box, but there was a letter to my mother from her parents in Mississippi right after the birth of my older sister. This was 1948. My mom's father had sold the oil rights for a piece of property and an oil company had put in a well. In return my mother and her brothers and sisters would share in royalties for any oil pumped from the property.
Well, for most of the rest of the century that well was capped. Figure fifty years that oil was just sitting there. Then a few years ago they started pumping. And they are pumping a lot now.
I know it's one well, one person's observation. But there was always oil there. It was just time to uncap the well and start getting the stuff out of the earth.
We know there are oil deposits all over the place. As I write there are plans for extracting oil out of huge deposits of gunky sand up in western Canada. Back in the 1930s the Germans and the Standard Oil swapped different patents with the Germans ending up with the coal gassification patent. In fact, the Germans did produce quite a bit of their fuel from coal during WWII. So there's a lot of oil that isn't even oil. There's all sorts of processes for making diesel-grade fuel from carbon-based organic garbage. So there's oil in stuff that isn't even oil.
And they keep finding oil. Just last week they announced a big oil find in, believe it or not, Afghanistan! My guess is that you can find oil just about any place around the globe where you find American soldiers.
So what does it mean that much of Iraq's oil production has been offline since the first Gulf War? What does it mean that a war with Iran might shut down the entire region's oil supply? It means that every barrel is that much more expensive. Just imagine them capping all those wells for future pumping.
Remember, Exxon and the other oil companies don't pay for the bills that the U.S. armed forces are racking up. American taxpayers do, or more accurately, their children and grandchildren will. Oil companies may just have another country's army working for them when all the bills come due.
And then they can uncap all those wells that have been sitting around for fifty years or so.
John Boehner’s remarks on recent financial events have attracted a lot of unfavorable comment, and they should. Actually, I think even the stuff most commentators have shied away from — he talks about the Fed “deflating” when I think he means either inflating or debasing, or possibly is doing a Sarah Palin and merging the two — is significant. I mean, he’s the Speaker of the House at a time when economic issues are paramount; shouldn’t he have basic familiarity with simple economic terms?
But the main thing is that he’s clinging to a story about monetary policy that has been refuted by experience about as thoroughly as any economic doctrine of the past century. Ever since the Fed began trying to respond to the financial crisis, we’ve had dire warnings about looming inflationary disaster. When the GOP took the House, it promptly called Bernanke in to lecture him about debasing the dollar. Yet inflation has stayed low, and the dollar has remained strong — just as Keynesians said would happen.
Yet there hasn’t been a hint of rethinking from leading Republicans; as far as anyone can tell, they still get their monetary ideas from Atlas Shrugged.
Oh, and this is another reminder to the “market monetarists”, who think that they can be good conservatives while advocating aggressive monetary expansion to fight a depressed economy: sorry, but you have no political home. In fact, not only aren’t you making any headway with the politicians, even mainstream conservative economists like Taylor and Feldstein are finding ways to advocate tighter money despite low inflation and high unemployment. And if reality hasn’t dented this dingbat orthodoxy yet, it never will.
A relative of mine on a social media site linked to a very racist, ignorant webpage. It's embarrassing. Here's a sample:
Apparently, there are still people, I'm presuming mostly older white people living in the former Confederacy, who think that Obama was born in Kenya. Many think he is an anti-Christ (although at the site there was some disagreement on when the end times were coming), that he wants to take away their guns and all sorts of other crazy things. For example, Paula Deen didn't get fired from the Food Network because she was oblivious to events of the last fifty years regarding race and society and was saying offensive things that hurt the network's ratings, but rather because her high-calorie recipes offended the First Lady. Actually, the website didn't use "First Lady" but an offensive term which I won't repeat here.
When I was in the army at the end of the Vietnam War I was stationed at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. I was a clerk but was temporarily assigned to the Headquarters on base to help with a race relations program the army was instituting then. Racial tensions were boiling in the military and someone in Washington decided it would be a good idea to spread some sensitivity and understanding among the troops. When I returned to my job in personnel the warrant officer in charge of my unit was extremely cool to me. He wouldn't release me to work full-time for race relations because I was "too valuable" but as soon as he saw the opportunity he moved me to an engineering battalion to be their company clerk. The base commander plucked me up within a week and assigned me as an instructor with the race relations program.
During the week I was in the engineering company I had to pull CQ duty one Saturday. CQ means "charge of quarters" and by definition means defending the base or something, but it really meant that I sat in the battalion headquarters and answered the phone while everyone was off for the weekend. Someone must have known of my teaching role because the desk where I was assigned was covered with racist literature. I moved it all to the side and did my shift. A week later I was reassigned to the base headquarters and finished my active duty in the army as an instructor in race relations.
That was forty years ago, in 1973.
1973 was the last of George W. Bush's six years he contracted to serve in the Air Force National Guard. While I was in Fort Devens George W. Bush was in Harvard's Business School forty miles to the east. He wasn't attending National Guard meetings. He hadn't done that for quite awhile. He wasn't excused from his commitment. No, he was AWOL. Actually, when you're AWOL over thirty days you're considered a deserter, but when your dad is a rich man with powerful political connections someone somewhere papers over that kind of thing.
At some point during his time in the National Guard, before he stopped going to meetings and doing his service commitment, he was relieved of flying. Why? There's some evidence that he had lost his nerve. Then again, there was some evidence that he couldn't pass the drug test. There is no evidence that Obama ate a dog while he was growing up.
So what do I do? Do I ignore the racism and ignorance this relative is spreading around? Mostly, that's what I do. But sometimes I can't. I'm embarrassed for my relative. But at this late stage in our lives there is nothing I can do to change her.
It's too bad because there are plenty of things to discuss politically. I've got plenty of complaints about the Obama Administration, but when my relative deals in fantastic, insane fear-mongering instead of what's actually happening in Washington, D.C. there really is no point of engaging in a dialogue. The shame of it all is that she is now at an age where she is dependent on things like Social Security and she keeps voting for the same people who keep voting to cut it. (Really, look at Paul Ryan's budget that the Republicans passed in the House.)
These two illustrations, and many more, were at that website. It's not just the "media" that calls Obama the President. It is a majority of the voters, the Electoral College, and it's the rest of the world. Except for those living in the Confederacy of the Mind.
For a detailed description of Best's findings, see reports compiled by Snopes, The Incidental Economist or Dr. Best's updated research page. But the Cliff's Notes version is this: the vast majority of the reports turned out to be pranks. A couple days later a kid would confess to sprinkling poison (or baking powder, etc) on his own candy in hopes of freaking everybody out. There were also a couple of cases in which a child died while trick-or-treating (or right after) from causes that were unknown for a day or two. For instance, in 1990 a girl died of congenital heart failure, and in 2001 a girl died from a bacterial infection, that had nothing to do with Halloween candy. But in each case, for that moment in time before the coroner’s reports came back, police departments and media outlets went berserk, warning parents to throw away all their children’s candy in the face of a potential poisoning.
There was a sad case in 1970 in which a little boy somehow got into his uncle’s heroin stash and overdosed. It happened in early November, and the family, in an attempt to protect the uncle, sprinkled heroin on the boy’s Halloween candy to make it look like a stranger had done it. The investigation discovered the family's actions, and determined the death wasn't caused by the heroin on the candy -- but again, for a moment in time it looked like a legitimate poisoning. Those couple of days seem to be able to breed a kind of fear that is far more potent than any of the reassurance produced by the reports that a stranger wasn't to blame.
Dr. Best did find one case in which a child died from poisoned Halloween candy -- in 1974, a father killed his own son that way. The father, who was trying to collect on his child's life insurance policy, was discovered, locked up, and sentenced to death. As grim as this is, it’s still a far cry from the evil stranger out to get the innocents at random.
So why? Why do we still think there's a stranger out there? Or that there could be? Or that there once was?
Perhaps it’s simply because the image plays on something so primal -- the worry of a stranger hurting our children -- that all it needs is the occasional suggestion to stay alive. Or perhaps it’s because of Helen Pfeil. A 1960s Long Island housewife who's the closest thing to an origin story that Dr. Best could find.
In 1964, crazy ol’ Helen (ok, she was only 47, but I like to picture her as an old bat) got a funny idea. She thought she’d hassle the kids she deemed too old to be trick-or-treating. Got a little too much hair on your chin? Instead of handing you candy, Helen would hand you a steel-wool sponge thingee. Or a doggie biscuit. Or (judgment fail) a little tablet of ant poison labeled “ANT POISON.” Helen had kids of her own. Her husband thought the idea was a riot. So with a smile and a scold, Helen told each teen who came to her door about the joke. I imagine her shaking her finger, her Halloween take on the old coal-in-the-stocking routine, “too old to be trick or treating missy… here’s what you get!” A doggie biscuit! A clump of steel wool! But still, for the handful of teenagers who came home with ant poison in their sacks, the damage was done. Their parents launched a hunt to find this sicko. Helen Pfeil was arrested. She plead guilty, with her husband cringing in the background, to the sound of the harshest crickets in the land. The gavel.
Could misguided Helen be the source of all our fear?
I titled this post the way I did because I have the scratchy feeling that on one hand even though that fear is useful (erring on the side of caution makes absolute sense when it comes to your child), on the other hand it can grow so large -- this specter, this cloud of collective worry -- that it can do real harm, on a massive scale.