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The Aspen Times (Colorado): Experts say oil is slippery situation: Clock ticking on the world’s supply

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
March 29, 2008

ASPEN — Experts might disagree about exactly when the world will run out of the oil that is easily found and extracted, but most agree that it will happen at some point and that humanity should be preparing for that day.

That was one of the messages to come out of the second full day of The Aspen Institute and National Geographic Magazine Aspen Environment Forum, at a panel discussion featuring energy-efficiency guru Amory Lovins, green technology specialist Randy Udall, and Marvin Odum, executive vice-president of Shell Oil. The forum concludes Saturday.

The three took part in a wide-ranging discussion that centered around the concept that “peak oil” is approaching rapidly, moderated by Jack Riggs of The Aspen Institute.

What is peak oil?

Udall, former head of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen and Carbondale, noted that the world is cranking out about 80 million tons of carbon dioxide every 24 hours, a statistic that has focused the world’s attention on global warming from greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

“We’re focused on the smoke,” Udall said of the issue. “Let’s think about the fire.”

He said that in order to produce that much carbon monoxide, the world must be burning approximately 30 million tons of oil, coal and natural gas per day, which he said translates into roughly 140 pounds per week, per person, globally.

Some skeptics, he said, have asked him: “Is ‘peak oil’ a red herring?” That question refers to the veracity of those who maintain the world is headed for economic disruption — and perhaps collapse — if humanity continues to base the global economy on oil, because the world’s supply will be depleted.

“We’re consuming our body weight in petroleum each week,” Udall said in exasperated tones, “so don’t tell me that peak oil is a red herring.”

Udall showed graphics indicating an eight-fold increase in worldwide oil consumption from 1950 until about 2005. Another graphic indicated that oil production in the U.S. peaked decades ago and that 65 percent of the easily extracted oil in the U.S. already has been consumed.

Worldwide, some nations still have undiscovered or untapped reserves, he said, but it is widely held that by the year 2012 or so, the world’s known reserves of oil that can be easily found and exploited will have peaked out, meaning half of the world’s oil will have been used up.

“Energy is an IQ test that most Americans fail,” Udall continued. “We are so clueless, we are so spoiled …”

Even Shell’s Marvin Odum agreed that oil supplies will have peaked out within the next seven years or so, but he said the oil picture may be helped by development of what he termed “unconventional hydrocarbons,” meaning tar sands in Canada, oil shale in western Colorado, coal, and “biomass,” the use or living or recently dead plant life for fuel or other industrial purposes.

“There’s not any silver bullets,” he said, maintaining that societies around the world must rely on a mix of technologies to make up for the oil that soon will disappear.

And an important part of the coming transition, he said, will be to ensure that it can be done without adding to the buildup of greenhouse gases.

Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass and renowned energy efficiency expert, said that the world’s best bet for reducing oil consumption is to concentrate on efficiency — doing the same amount of work with less energy.

He said there is a potential for saving more than 8 million barrels of oil per day simply by switching to the use of super-strong, super-light composite materials to make everything from planes to cars and light trucks.

“It’s like finding a Saudi Arabia under Detroit,” he said of the amounts of oil that could be saved. And, the panelists agreed, that oil would therefore not have to be imported from any of a number of increasingly hostile nations with large oil reserves that help meet America’s demand of about 20 million barrels per day.

Udall and Lovins both agreed that oil shale — the mining of an oil-like substance that can be refined into jet fuel — probably is never going to become economically and environmentally feasible.

And Udall called tar sands “probably the most damaging” of the unconventional petroleum sources, in terms of the environment.

“The tiles are coming off the space shuttle,” Udall said metaphorically, referring to his belief that time is running out and that the world’s leaders are engaged in too much talk and too little action. Maintaining that the oil exporting nations are entering “a period of avid resource nationalism,” he said the U.S. will not be able to count on secure oil imports for much longer, especially given that China is busily tying up oil production as fast as it can for its own exploding economy.

Lovins argued that China, at the same time, is working to increase energy efficiency in its various economic sectors, because “Beijing is scared to death of falling into the same trap we did.” Both Lovins and Odum predicted that China may be a leader in a future shift to more efficient use of dwindling energy reserves, and in the search for alternatives to oil.

A number of topics came up in questions from the audience at The Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center, touching on such topics as the use of the “waste stream” to generate energy; the need to improve the technology for converting AC current, such as the energy produced by solar cells, to DC current for use by conventional appliances; and the idea of discontinuing federal subsidies for oil exploration, which Odum said has already begun as the price of oil has exceeded even the oil industry’s expectations.

Toward the end of the panel discussion, a middle-school teacher offered what she termed “a moment of hope” with a description of school kids eagerly learning about energy conservation and other issues of the day.

“All of them are convinced that climate change is a concern and they want to do something about it,” she told the panel, urging them to come up with ways to tap into the youth movement because “we’ve got millions of minds ready to work on the problem.”

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