Photograph by Michael Amsler
Texas Tea: Richard Heinberg thinks we may have already drunk too deep.
If peak oil theorists are correct, our dependence on oil is not only foolish, it’s lethal. Does modern civilization have just two choices–change or perish?
By R. V. Scheide
“No blood for oil!” antiwar activists cried worldwide in the months leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. Their pleas fell mainly on deaf ears, dismissed by various government officials and media pundits who assured Americans that in the wake of 9-11, U.S. foreign policy had become far too complex to sum up in such a simple, outdated slogan. “No blood for oil!” the activists doggedly insisted, drowned out by the technological thunder of shock and awe.
That might have been the last the general public heard of the phrase if not for an unexpected turn of events that began not long after President George W. Bush crowed “mission accomplished” on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln one year ago: the price of oil began rising, and gasoline followed suit. Heading into Memorial Day weekend this year–the second-largest driving holiday of the year in the United States–the average price for a gallon of regular grade gasoline in had climbed 58 cents to $2.05 per gallon, the highest in two decades.
What a difference half a buck per gallon makes! Oil was back in the news. The financial community panicked. Supply shortages and reduced refinery capacity were pushing prices up; analysts warned that any long-term rise in prices would threaten the global economy’s fledgling recovery. Saudi Arabia, already pumping millions of gallons per day beyond its quota, promised to pump even more to increase supply, but the price still gushed to nearly $40 per barrel. That didn’t deter a record number of Americans, including an estimated 4 million Californians, from hitting the road for the holiday weekend.
As travelers settled down to family barbecues, terrorists linked to al Qaida attacked an oil-industry compound in Saudi Arabia, murdering 22 Western employees housed at the facility and casting doubt on the security of Saudi oil fields. No production facilities were damaged, but by the end of the first trading day after the attack, oil had jumped a record $2.45 during the session, reaching $42.33 per barrel and showing no signs of slowing its ascent.
Suddenly, after the terrorist attack, “No blood for oil!” didn’t sound quite so silly. Almost overnight, mainstream media discovered a global oil shortage. The media have yet to state a direct connection between the shortage and the blood that’s currently being spilled in Iraq, but it’s getting warmer.
In recent weeks, major outlets including CNN, the New York Times and National Geographic have run prominent features on “peak oil theory,” until recently a little-known concept outside the circles of petroleum-industry geologists and hardcore conservationists. The theory’s implications are literally nothing short of apocalyptic, which makes its recent dissemination by such mainstream sources even more worrisome. No blood for oil? If the peak oil theorists are correct, we are about to enter an age that makes that price seem like a bargain.
In fact, this age may already be upon us.
The Party’s Over
When Santa Rosa author Richard Heinberg first encountered peak oil theory in the late 1990s, he had a revelation. Somehow, he’d previously managed to write A New Covenant with Nature: Notes on the End of Civilization and the Renewal of Culture without listing “oil” or “energy” in the index–he’d hardly touched upon the subjects in the book. His revelation was that when it comes to the end of civilization as we now know it, oil and energy are the primary areas of concern.
Sitting in a meeting room at Santa Rosa’s New College of California campus, where he teaches courses such as “Energy and Society” and “Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community,” Heinberg, one of the nation’s leading experts on the ramifications of peak oil theory, humbly explains how just a few short years ago, he knew very little about it.
A self-described generalist who now drives a biodiesel Mercedes Benz, he immediately set out to learn everything he could about the subject. He studied peak oil theory, attended many obscure energy conferences and eventually published The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies in 2003. Peak oil theory, originated by the late geophysicist M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, figures prominently in the book, which begins on an exceedingly ominous note:
“The world is changing before our eyes–dramatically, inevitably and irreversibly. The change we are seeing is affecting more people, and more profoundly, than any that human beings have ever witnessed. I am not referring to a war or terrorist incident, a stock market crash, or global warming, but to a more fundamental reality that is driving terrorism, war, economic swings, climate change and more: the discovery and exhaustion of fossil fuel resources.”
Simply stated, peak oil theory holds that total annual global oil production over time, from the oil industry’s beginning in the mid-1800s to its predicted end sometime within our own century, conforms to the familiar bell-shaped distribution curve when graphed. Production rises steadily until reaching the graph’s peak, at which point half of the world’s total oil supply will have been used up. Once the peak is reached, annual oil production begins steadily declining, unable to keep up with rising global demand, and the price skyrockets, leading to widespread financial instability.
Could we be peaking now?
“The short answer is that no one knows,” Heinberg says, adding that the peak can’t officially be declared until global demand exceeds production, which hasn’t occurred yet. While one group of scientists predicts the peak could occur anytime between now and 2008, the current consensus is sometime between 2006 and 2016. Heinberg has seen government estimates as high as 2035, which he says is extremely optimistic. “Those of us who study it think it will be sooner rather than later,” he said. “It’s starting to look like 2007.”
From the point at which the peak occurs, the competition for the remaining half of the world’s oil will grow more intense. Depending on how it’s managed, there could be anywhere from 20 to 50 years’ worth of oil left in the ground. Heinberg firmly believes that how we manage this oil during the coming decades will determine, for better or worse, the fate of humanity.
The problem, as Heinberg sees it, is that oil has been too good to us. Since petroleum helped spark the industrial revolution, the global population has exploded, from less than 2 billion people in post-industrial times to more than 6 billion today, stretching the planet’s natural carrying capacity. Without oil fueling machines and factories and farms, such large numbers cannot be sustained. When the oil peak hits and the shortages begin, civilization will be faced with the delicate task of determining who survives. It’s hard to get any closer to trading blood for oil than that.
“The entire economy runs on oil,” Heinberg says. “The adjustments are not going to be easy.”
Indeed, the worst case scenarios are terrifying: genocide on a scale never before seen, as control of the remaining oil divides along racial, ethnic and national boundaries. Even the best-case scenarios, all of which require unprecedented levels of international cooperation, political courage and public participation, offer grim life-and-death choices. There’s simply no readily available source of energy that can replace oil as it steadily declines over the coming decades. Alternative sources such as wind, solar and tidal power, if applied on a massive scale, will help, but they won’t fill the energy gap.
Nuclear power may be part of the solution, but it can’t be the only solution: the uranium supply is expected to peak by 2100. In fact, all of these measures put together won’t be able to make up for the energy lost through oil depletion. Civilization appears to be on a nonstop collision course with a second Dark Age.
Nevertheless, Heinberg manages to end The Party’s Over on a positive note, present-ing an ambitious “complete redesign of the human project,” an immediate about-face “from the larger, faster and more centralized to the smaller, slower and more locally based; from competition to cooperation; from boundless growth to self-limitation.”
“If such recommendations were taken seriously,” he insists, “they could lead to a world a century from now with fewer people using less energy per capita, all of it from renewable sources, while enjoying a quality of life that the typical industrial urbanite of today would perhaps envy.”
Sounds kind of like west Sonoma County on a Friday night. Of course, it was written a couple of years ago, before the invasion of Iraq, before oil pushed past $40 a barrel, before Heinberg gained a fuller under-standing of the complex interconnections between money, oil, food, water, population growth and pollution. People who study the oil peak have a saying: The more you learn, the worse it gets.
That’s true in Heinberg’s experience. His latest book, Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, due out this month, presents civilization with four possible paths to the future. Foreshadowing the black humor sure to be found in the dark days ahead, only one of the paths leads to anything remotely resembling civilization as we know it, and as it turns out, the United States is already a long way down the wrong path.
Oil Gets in Your Blood
Peak oil theory is one of those subjects that just gets into certain people’s blood. When someone with a willingness to test the truth of his own convictions tackles the subject, obsession often ensues. Santa Rosa resident Mark Savinar is a case in point.
A year ago Savinar, 25, had just completed law school and was waiting for the results of his bar exam. While researching on the Internet the role of drug money in the global economy, he ran across a reference to peak oil theory. Intrigued, he studied more and suddenly everything fell into place: the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the invasion of Iraq, the whole war on terrorism. “Oil made it all make sense,” he says over orange juice at a downtown Santa Rosa cafe.
Savinar gathered some of the research he’d collected and posted it on his website, expecting to get maybe 10 hits from likeminded visitors. He got 800 visits the first week and a $250 donation. “This is what I should be doing,” he said to himself. He passed the bar, but he’d already found a new calling: preaching the peak oil gospel on the Internet. Instead of entering law practice, he built up his website, and now www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net is the top linked peak oil site on Google.
“I wasn’t going to hitch my wagon to something that wasn’t going to be around,” Savinar says, underscoring just how seriously he believes the oil crash is coming–there will be no need for lawyers after civilization collapses. His mission is to prepare as many people as he can for the catastrophe to come.
Savinar doesn’t ask readers to take just his word for it. In addition to providing links to reputable peak oil research, he includes quotes from members of the Bush administration who fully acknowledge that the crisis is coming, if it’s not here already.
“The situation is desperate,” Bush energy advisor Matthew Simmons said in an interview with online magazine From the Wilderness in August 2003. “This is the world’s biggest serious question.” Asked if it was time to include peak oil in public policy debates, Simmons said, “It is past time. As I have said, the experts and politicians have no Plan B to fall back on.” Is there any solution to the crisis? “I don’t think there is one,” Simmons said. “The solution is to pray.”
In 1999, before he was elected vice president and was still CEO of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest providers of products and services to the oil industry, Dick Cheney slipped a little peak oil theory into his own economic projections at a petroleum conference in London.
“By some estimates, there will be an average of 2 percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a 3 percent natural decline in production from existing reserves,” Cheney said. “That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day.”
As Savinar points out, that’s six times the amount currently pumped daily by Saudi Arabia, one of the few countries still possessing excess capacity. Where does Cheney think we’re going to get the extra oil? Does the Bush administration even have a plan?
They haven’t announced it publicly, but with a little creative connecting of the dots, it’s not too hard to decipher how the Bush administration plans to deal with the crisis. One of the first things Cheney did after taking office, besides meeting in secret with energy industry leaders, was to make “energy security” a national priority. Even before 9-11, Cheney strongly advocated invading Iraq, ostensibly to rid the world of an evil tyrant, but no doubt with an eye on the Iraqi oil fields, the second largest reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia’s. Indeed, detailed maps of the Iraqi oil fields are among the few items that have been publicly released from his secret energy meetings.
After 9-11, it was immediately clear to intelligence officials that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had not played a role in the terrorist attack. Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushed for the invasion anyway, and thanks to some trumped-up intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the administration was able to cajole Congress into approving Bush’s “preventive war” doctrine; by March, 2003 the invasion was on.
More than a year into the conflict, no WMDs or connections to the 9-11 terrorists have been found; the Iraqis have welcomed their “liberators” with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades instead of open arms; widely disseminated photographs of American prison guards torturing Iraqi detainees have shamed the United States in front of the world; and more than 800 American soldiers have died, not to mention some 10,000 innocent Iraqi civilians.
That doesn’t sound like much of a plan, as the Bush administration’s detractors have increasingly pointed out. But as Savinar says, oil makes it all make sense. Another dot to connect: Cheney is now being investigated for allegedly participating in secret dealings that granted his former company, Halliburton, the contract to rebuild Iraq’s oil industry. Suppose the goal all along was to seize control of Iraq’s oil reserves?
“The reason we don’t have an exit strategy is that we don’t plan to leave,” says Savinar. There’s an estimated 20- to 30-year supply of oil in Iraq’s reserves, and the longer it stays in the ground, the more valuable it becomes. Heinberg is inclined to agree that the United States has no intention of leaving Iraq, pointing to 14 permanent military bases that have been built there since the war started. These bases complete a line of military outposts stretching through Afghanistan, all situated near areas where large reserves of oil are known to exist.
Heinberg says this is the wrong path we have chosen, the path of cutthroat competition that treats blood and oil as commodities to be freely traded, as if neither had its own intrinsic value. As far as Heinberg is concerned, it is the road to ruin for us all.
Last One Standing
Sitting in the New College meeting room, Richard Heinberg hardly looks like a prophet of doom. Thin, with a sparse beard and impish face, he enjoys playing violin with his wife in their energy-efficient home. He grows much of his own food and doesn’t mind that his car’s exhaust smells like French fries. Once, he thought individuals living in this manner might be the solution to the impending oil shortage. But the more you read peak oil theory, the worse it gets.
“We can reduce personal energy usage, live closer to work, grow our own food, reduce our consumption,” Heinberg says. “Beyond that, there are limits to what individuals can do. Ultimately, there is no personal survival without community survival.”
In Powerdown, the path to community survival is similar to the suggestions presented in The Party’s Over. There’s more of an emphasis on population control, both to reduce energy demand and the pain and suffering of starvation caused by declining global food production. The United States can and should immediately begin developing large-scale alternative-energy systems using wind and solar power.
Nations need to begin cooperating with one another instead of competing for scarce resources. Wealthy countries like the United States must be willing to share resources with more needy nations. Collectively, we all have to “powerdown,” reducing energy consumption to the bare minimum, perhaps as much as 80 percent in the long run.
It’s been done before, albeit on a smaller scale. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba, which imported almost all of its oil from the U.S.S.R., suddenly faced an annual energy shortage of 25 percent. Fidel Castro’s communist government immediately went to work, breaking up the country’s large factory farms into small plots of land, encouraging city dwellers to move to the country and become organic farmers. Millions of bicycles were imported from China; cars were banned from certain roadways. The reforms worked, and by the end of the 1990s, Cuba had pulled itself out of what could have been a major depression.
Such a plan might work on the global level, Heinberg believes, but there are major obstacles, the primary one for the United States being that some of the methods will smack of communism. “It would require a command-and-control economy and a WW IIlevel of effort,” Heinberg says.
He’s not too optimistic that’s going to happen. Even communist countries like China have become addicted to industrialization. The very same brand of bicycles Cuba imported used to pack the streets of Beijing. Just last month, the Chinese government banned bicycles from the city to make more room for cars, the fruits of its rapidly expanding economy. India likewise is enjoying an economic boom, and the recent industrialization of both countries is putting enormous new demands on the global oil supply. The world seems inevitably drawn toward the wrong path, the one Heinberg calls “last one standing.”
“If the leadership of the United States continues with current policies, the next decades will be filled with war, economic crises and environmental catastrophe,” he writes in Powerdown. “Resource depletion and population pressure are about to catch up with us, and no one is prepared. The political elites, especially in the United States, are incapable of dealing with the situation.”
Some, of course, will find all this doom and gloom overwhelming and choose to ignore it, traveling down Heinberg’s third path, which he dubs “waiting for the magic elixir.” He writes, “Most of us would like to see still another possibility–a painless transition in which market forces come to the rescue, making government intervention in the economy unnecessary.”
Sorry, that just ain’t gonna happen, at least according to peak oil theorists. Heinberg additionally doesn’t hold out much hope that the United States will be able to turn from the “last one standing” path anytime soon, and he admits that it may already be too late anyway. His plan to “powerdown” will take decades to enact, and the world may not have that much time left. However, when the collapse truly appears imminent, there’s one last path to follow.
“This fourth and final option begins with the assumption that industrial civilization cannot be salvaged in anything like its present form, and that we are now living through the early stages of disintegration. If this is so, it makes sense for at least some of us to devote our energies toward preserving the most worthwhile cultural achievements of the past few centuries.”
He calls that path merely “building lifeboats,” and if it creates a sinking feeling in the pits of readers’ stomachs, perhaps it’s intended.
In a world that continues to trade blood for oil, this may be the only avenue of escape left.
Richard Heinberg appears in discussion after the documentary, ‘The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream,’ on Wednesday, June 16, at 7:30pm. New College of California, 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa. Free; donations requested. 707.568.3093.
From the June 9-15, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.