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‘Peak oil’ is here. Now what? Image

Friday May 9, 2008

South County Independent RI: ‘Peak oil’ is here. Now what?


Last week, noted author Richard Heinberg, a world authority on oil depletion, spoke at the State House before a small group of lawmakers and members of the general public. Heinberg’s talk was entitled “Going, Going, Gone,” and addressed specifically the issue of “peak oil,” and the imminent decline in the availability of inexpensive fossil-fuel based energy. It is safe to say that the short piece on the evening news documenting Heinberg’s appearance may have been the first introduction to the concept of peak oil for many Rhode Islanders.

Heinberg, the author of books such as “The Party’s Over,” “Powerdown” and “The Oil Depletion Protocol,” described how there are all indications that the global production of crude oil has peaked or will do so in less than a decade. He is not alone in this belief. James Schlesinger, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, energy secretary, defense secretary and head of the CIA, has stated publicly that crude oil is peaking. He is joined by investment giants like Matthew Simmons, T. Boone Pickens and Warren Buffett, industry CEOs such as Jeroen van der Verr of Royal Dutch Shell, and eminent petroleum geologists such as Colin Campbell and Princeton’s Kenneth Deffeyes.

What does it mean that crude oil is peaking? Essentially it means that the world has used half the oil available to extract and will enter a permanent decline, even as world energy demand is rising, with new economic powerhouses China and India growing at an alarming rate. Peak oil does not mean we are on the verge of running out of oil; the overriding implication is that we are entering a period of relentlessly rising prices and ultimate shortfalls. This is ominous for economies and for individuals facing a seeming perfect storm of hardships financial and otherwise. Talk to a poor mother trying to fill her oil tank through a northern winter, or to a fisherman paying $6,000 in diesel fuel costs to get to and from Georges Bank, to a South American peasant thrown off his land to make room for “palm oil for biofuel” plantations, or to a native Athabascan woman watching as Alberta tar sands operations lay waste to formerly pristine ecosystems over an area the size of Florida.

As Heinberg’s numerous graphs and charts ably demonstrated, proposed “solutions” such as new drilling in Alaska or the Arctic, or mining the tar sands of Alberta, or turning corn and palm oil into fuel, or turning coal into liquid fuel, will do little to replace the energy the world currently derives from crude oil. Scaling up nuclear power to the point where it can replace fossil-fuel energy would take decades and will result in an earlier peak and decline of uranium stores. And let’s not forget the 700 million cars in the world that run on gas or diesel. The practical application of hydrogen fuel cells to automotive transport is also decades away.

The crucial development of alternative and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar will also take decades (and trillions of dollars) to scale up to where these sources would provide significant amounts of energy in relation to that now derived from oil and gas. These are the hard realities, even as the runaway climate change effect of fossil fuel emissions brings its own set of imperatives to drastically and immediately change our energy use. Peak oil activists and climate change activists are now realizing the potential in collaboration, since the response to both problems is to learn to run the world on much less fossil fuel.

All of this raises a question: If a growing number of experts say that peak oil is imminent, if this peak implies massive economic consequences, and if any switch to an economy that is not largely based on fossil-fuel is decades away at best, what is a community to do? There are more than 190 groups in towns and cities worldwide, driven by peak oil and climate change concerns, working to prepare their communities for a transition to a post-oil economy, emphasizing radical conservation, local food production, locally generated energy and sustainable local business.

Back in 2004, the South Kingstown Justice and Peace Action Group (SK JPAG) showed a film in Peace Dale called “The End of Suburbia,” a groundbreaking documentary about peak oil. More recently, we have been doing multiple screenings of a sequel to this film, called “Escape from Suburbia,” which deals with community responses to energy decline. This has resulted in productive discussion and more public interest. We have now started a Rhode Island sustainability/localization project called PostCarbon Rhode Island, and a Web site found at This is an attempt to build on the many assets some Rhode Island communities already possess, like community-supported organic farms, a growing local food movement, walkable neighborhoods and much more.

Our next meeting of our peak oil/sustainability discussion group will be Saturday, May 17, from 3 to 6 p.m. at Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown. This meeting will include members of Westerly’s newly formed peak oil task force, local farmers and anyone interested in building a more resilient community in the face of energy challenges.

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