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Energy Insights:55: Peak oil

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55: Peak oil


According to an October 2004 New York Times article entitled "Top Oil Groups Fail to Recoup Exploration Costs:"

  • . . . the top-10 oil groups spent about $8bn combined on exploration last year, but this only led to commercial discoveries with a net present value of slightly less than $4bn. The previous two years show similar, though less dramatic, shortfalls.

In other words, significant new oil discoveries are so scarce that looking for them is a monetary loser. Consequently, many major oil companies now find themselves unable to replace their rapidly depleting reserves. A June 2006 report indicated the world's biggest five oil companies are now "focusing on developing existing reserves." That's a nice way of saying "there aren't enough significant sized oil fields left to find to make it worth our time and money to look for them."

Take a look at the above chart. During the 1960s, for instance, we consumed about 6 billion barrels per year while finding about 30-60 billion per year. Given those numbers, it is easy to understand why fears of "running out" were so often dismissed as unfounded.

Unfortunately, those consumption/discovery ratios have nearly reversed themselves in recent years. We now consume close to 30 billion barrels per year but find less than 4 billion per year.

In light of these trends, it should come as little surprise that the energy analysts at John C Herold Inc. - the firm that foretold Enron's demise - recently confirmed industry rumors that we are on the verge of an unprecedented crisis.

"What about that giant oil find in the Gulf of Mexico? It's suppossed to be huge."

Chevron's recent find in the Gulf of Mexico, nicknamed "Jack 2", is estimated to hold between 3 billiion and 15 billion barrels of oil. Let's assume, for the sake of illustration, Chevron's most optimistic estimate of 15 billion barrels is the most accurate estimate. A fifteen billion barrel field puts the global peak (the halfway mark) off by 7.5 billion barrels. This is less than a four month supply at current rates of consumption. At projected rates of oil consumption for the year 2015 it's less than a three month supply.

This does not even account for the fact this "huge find" is almost 6 miles below the ocean and thus much more expensive to develop than traditional oil fields where the oil typically bubbles up to ground level when first discovered.

The truth is the Jack 2 field is really a sign of how desperate Big Oil companies are getting when it come to replacing their rapidly dwindling reserve base. There is no reason to look for oil 270 miles off the coast and 6 miles below the ocean surface unless cheaper and easier to extract sources have already been exhausted. This is the whole point Peak Oil "chicken littles" have been making for nearly 50 years: once the peak is reached oil will still be available but only at a tremendous energetic and financial cost.

"How Can I Be Sure This Isn't Just More 1970s Doom-and-Gloom?"

The oil shocks of the 1970s were created by political events. In 1973, OPEC cut its production in retaliation for US support of Israel. In 1979, Iran cut its production in hopes of crippling "the great Satan."  In both cases, the US was able to turn to other oil producing nations such as Venezuela to alleviate the crisis. Once global production peaks, there won't be anybody to turn to. The crisis will just get worse and worse with each passing year.

The evidence of an imminent peak in global oil production is now overwhelming:

  • Ninety-nine percent of the world's oil comes from 44 oil producing nations. At least 24 of these nations are past their peak and now in terminal decline.

  • Global production of conventional oil has essentially plateaued since the year 2000.

As far as "doom-and-gloom" consider what widely respected Deutsche Bank had to say about Peak Oil in a recent report entitled, Energy Prospects After the Petroleum Age:

  • The end-of-the-fossil-hydrocarbons scenario is not therefore a doom-and-gloom picture painted by pessimistic end-of-the world prophets, but a view of scarcity in the coming years and decades that must be taken seriously.

The Australian Financial Review echoed the sentiments of Deutsche Bank in a January 2005 article entitled, "Staring Down the Barrel of a Crisis":

  • The world's oil production may be about to reach its peak, forever. Such apocalyptic prophecies often surface in the middle of the northern hemisphere winter. What is unusual is that this time the doomsday scenario has gained serious credibility among respected analysts and commentators.

Given the credentials of those sounding the alarm the loudest, it is extremely unwise for you to causally dismiss this as just more "1970s doom-and gloom."

"What About the Oil Sands in Canada and the Oil Shale in the American West?"

The good news is that we have a massive amount of untapped "non conventional" oil located in the oil sands up in Canada.

The bad news is that, unlike conventional sources of oil, oil derived from these oil sands is extremely financially and energetically intensive to extract. Whereas conventional oil has enjoyed a rate of "energy return on energy invested" (EROEI) of about 30 to 1, the oil sands rate of return hovers around 1.5 to 1.

This means that we would have to expend 20 times as much energy to generate the same amount of oil from the oil sands as we do from conventional sources of oil.

Where to find such a huge amount of capital is largely a moot point because, even with massive improvements in extraction technology, the oil sands in Canada are projected to only produce a paltry 2.2 million barrels per day by 2015. This doesn't even account for any unexpected production decreases or cost overruns, both of which have been endemic to many of the oil sands projects.

(Update 8/15/2006: Oil Sands Production Costs Skyrocket)

More optimistic reports anticipate 4 million barrels per day of oil coming from the oil sands by 2020. Even if the optimists are correct, 4 million barrels per day isn't that much oil when you consider our colossal and ever-growing demand in conjunction with the small amount of time we have left before the global peak:

  • We currently need 83.5 million barrels per day.

  • We are projected to need 120 million barrels per day by 2020.

  • We will be losing over 1 million barrels per day of production per year, every year, once we hit the backside of the global oil production curve.

The huge reserves of oil shale in the American west suffer from similar problems. While Shell Oil has an experimental oil shale program, even Steve Mut - the CEO of their Unconventional Resources Unit - has sounded less than optimistic when questioned about the ability of oil shale to soften the coming crash. According to journalist Stuart Staniford's coverage of a recent conference on Peak Oil:

  • In response to questions, Steve guesstimated that oil shale production would still be pretty negligible by 2015, but might, if things go really well, get to 5 mbpd by 2030.

Disinterested observers are even less optimistic about oil shale. Geologist Dr. Walter Youngquist points out:

  • The average citizen . . . is led to believe that the United States really has no oil supply problem when oil shales hold "recoverable oil" equal to "more than 64 percent of the world's total proven crude oil reserves." Presumably the United States could tap into this great oil reserve at any time. This is not true at all. All attempts to get this "oil" out of shale have failed economically. Furthermore, the "oil" (and, it is not oil as is crude oil, but this is not stated) may be recoverable but the net energy recovered may not equal the energy used to recover it. If oil is "recovered" but at a net energy loss, the operation is a failure.

This means any attempt to replace conventional oil with oil shale will actually make our situation worse as the project will consume more energy than it will produce, regardless of how high the price goes.

Further problems with oil shale have been documented by economist Professor James Hamilton who writes:

  • A recent Rand study concluded it will be at least 12 years before oil shale reaches the production growth phase. And that is a technological assessment, not a reference to the environmental review process. If it takes 15 years to get an oil refinery built and approved, despite well known technology and well understood environmental issues, viewing oil shale as something that could make major contributions to world energy supplies in the immediate future seems highly unrealistic.

"What About So Called 'Reserve Growth'"?

In recent years, the USGS and other agencies have revised their estimates of oil reserves upwards. Peak Oil "deniers" often point to this revisions as proof that fears of a global oil shortage are unfounded. Unfortunately, these upwards revisions are best classified as "paper barrels", meaning they exist on paper only, not in the real world:

A.USGS Poor Track Record

As recently as 1972, the USGS was releasing circulars that estimated US domestic oil production would not peak until well into the 21st century, and possibly not until the 22nd century. (See Theobald, Schweinfurth & Duncan, U.S. Geological Survey Circular 650)

This was despite the fact US production had already peaked in 1970, just as Hubbert had predicted. Richard Heinberg reminds us, "in 1973, Congress demanded an investigation of the USGS for its failure to foresee the 1970 US oil production peak."

In March 2000 the USGS released a report indicating more "reserve growth." Colin Campbell responded to the report by reminding us of the ludicrous estimates put out by the USGS in the 1960s and early 1970s:

  • Let us not forget that McKelvey, a previous director of the  USGS, succumbed to government pressure in the 1960s to discredit Hubbert’s study of depletion, which was subsequently vindicated in the early 1970’s after US production actually peaked as Hubbert had predicted. It did so . . . in a very damaging report . . . that successfully misled many economists and planners for years to come.

These deeply flawed upward estimates were released because the USGS is a political organization and optimistic estimates are looked upon favorably by both politicians and the markets.

B.EIA Admits Cooking Its Books

In 1998, the EIA released a report showing significant oil reserve growth. In a footnote to report, the EIA explained:

  • These adjustments to the estimates are based on non-technical considerations that support domestic supply growth to the levels necessary to meet projected demand levels. (EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 1998, p.17)

In other words, they predicted how much they think we're going to use, and then told us, "Guess what, nothing to worry about - that's how much we've got!"

C.OPEC's "Spurious Revisions" AKA "Cooking the Books"

During the 1980s, several OPEC countries issued some rather "interesting" upwardly revised estimates of their proven reserves of petroleum. Ron Swenson, proprietor of the website explains:

  • Many OPEC countries have been announcing reserve numbers which are frankly very strange. Either their reported reserves remain the same year after year, suggesting that new discoveries exactly match production, or they have suddenly increased their reported reserves by unfeasibly large amounts.

The table 1/2 way down this page graphically illustrates Swenson's points. How were such large increases in reserve size possible without correspondingly large discoveries? The answer is quite fascinating as it connects to the Reagan administration's amazingly simple strategy to collapse the Soviet Union: bring down the price of oil. Professor Richard Heinberg explains:

  • Soon after assuming office in 1981, the Reagan Administration abandoned the established policy of pursuing détente with the Soviet Union and instead instituted a massive arms buildup; it also fomented proxy wars in areas of Soviet influence, while denying the Soviets desperately needed oil equipment and technology. Then, in the mid -1980s, Washington persuaded Saudi Arabia to flood the world market with cheap oil. Throughout the last decade of its existence, the USSR pumped and sold its oil at the maximum possible rate in order to earn income with which to keep up in the arms race and prosecute its war in Afghanistan. Yet with markets awash with cheap Saudi oil, the Soviets were earning less even as they pumped more. Two years after their oil production peaked, the economy of the USSR crumbled and its government collapsed.

(See also, Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy to Hasten the Collapse of the Soviet Union by Peter Schweizer)

While Reagan's strategy to collapse the Soviets was as simple as it was effective, it came with a catch: the amount of oil an OPEC nation such as Saudi Arabia could pump was tied to the amount of proven reserves it reported as compared to the other OPEC nations. The only way Saudi Arabia could continue to flood the market in support of Reagan's strategy was to revise its oil reserve estimates upwards. (If they had not done so, the Reagan adiministration would have withdrawn their military support of the Saudi Royal family.)

In order to stay competitive under OPEC's proportional export rule, the other OPEC nations issued similarly bogus upward estimates. Thus most, if not all, of the so-called "reserve growth" in the Middle East is only on paper, not in the ground.

"If the environmentalists get out of the way, can't we just drill in ANWR?"

While some folks desperately cling to the belief that oil is a renewable resource, others hold on to the equally delusional idea that tapping the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve will solve, or at least delay, this crisis. While drilling for oil in ANWR will certainly make a lot of money for the companies doing the drilling, it won't do much to help the overall situation for three reasons:

  • Reason #1. According of the Department of Energy, drilling in ANWR will only lower oil prices by less than fifty cents;

  • Reason #2.  ANWR contains 10 billion barrels of oil - or about the amount the US consumes in a little more than a year.

  • Reason #3. As with all oil projects, ANWR will take about 10 years to come online. Once it does, its production will peak at 875,000 barrels per day - but not till the year 2025. By then the US is projected to need a whopping 35 million barrels per day while the world is projected to need 12 million barrels per day.

"Won't the market and the laws of supply and demand address this?"

Generally, when a commodity becomes scarce the price goes up. This causes people to use less of the commodity and begin look for alternatives for it. Unfortunately, energy is not just any commodity. As it is the very basis for all economic activity, including the generation of alternative sources of energy, it is nowhere near as "elastic" as most commodities. Economist Andrew McKillop explains:

  • One of the biggest problems facing the IEA, the EIA and a host of analysts and "experts" who claim that "high prices  cut demand" either directly or by dampening economic growth is that this does not happen in the real world. Since early 1999, oil prices have risen about 350%. Oil demand growth in 2004 at nearly 4% was the highest in 25 years. These are simple facts that clearly conflict with received notions about "price elasticity". World oil demand, for a host of easily-described reasons, tends to be bolstered by "high" oil and gas prices until and unless "extreme" prices are attained.


As mentioned previously, this is exactly what happened during the oil shocks of the 1970s - shortfalls in supply as little as 5% drove the price of oil up near 400%. Demand did not fall until the world was mired in the most severe economic slowdown since the Great Depression. The only thing that alleviated the economic crisis was the discovery of the world's last few "elephant" sized oil fields in the North Sea and Alaska as well as increased production from nations like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Once global oil production peaks (if it hasn't already) turning to new sources of supply won't be an option.

As affordable oil is necessary to power any serious attempt  at at a global switchover to alternative sources of energy, these  "extreme" prices will severely hamstring the ability of the market to handle these problems. The economic fallout from such high prices will likely raise geopolitical tensions (i.e. war) thereby futher hampering the development of large-scale alternative sources of energy.

For more information on the inabilty of the free market to adapt to this situation, check out the following articles:

The Markets React to Peak Oil

Fundamental Errors of Free Market Ideology w/ Energy

"What about this theory that oil is actually a renewable resource?"

A handful of people believe oil is actually a renewable resource continually produced by an "abiotic" process deep in the Earth. As emotionally appealing as this theory may be, it ignores most common sense and all scientific fact. While many of the people who believe in this theory consider themselves "mavericks,"respected geologists consider them crackpots.

Moreover, the oil companies don't give this theory the slightest bit of credence even though they are more motivated than anybody to find an unlimited source of oil as each company's shareholder value is based largely on how much oil it holds in reserve. Any oil company who wants to make a ridiculous amount of money (which means all of them) could simply find this unlimited source of oil but refuse to bring it to the market. Their stock value would skyrocket as a result of the huge find while they could simultaneously maintain artificial scarcity by not bringing it to the market.

Even if the maverick/crackpot theories of "unlimited oil" are true, they aren't doing us much good out here in the real world as production is declining in pretty much every nation outside the Middle East.

It certainly isn't doing us any good here in the United States. Our domestic oil production peaked in October 1970 at 10 million barrels per day. It has since declined a little bit each year and now stands at about 5 million barrels per day. This is despite the fact that the US oil exploration companies have more money, more muscle, and more motivation to find oil than anybody other than God. If oil is a renewable resource, why isn't it renewing itself here in the good ole' US of A?  (See "Show Me the Oil")

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Ultimately, the energy-intensive industrial age may be little more than a blip in the course of human history:
Graph: The Energy Curve of History?
Source: Community Solution
Peak Oil Breaking News
Dear Reader,  

Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists,  bankers, and  investors in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global "Peak Oil."

"Are We 'Running Out'? I Thought
There Was 40 Years of the Stuff Left"

Oil will not just "run out" because all oil production follows a bell curve. This is true whether we're talking about an individual field, a country, or on the planet as a whole. 

Oil is increasingly plentiful on the upslope of the bell curve, increasingly scarce and expensive on the down slope. The peak of the curve coincides with the point at which the endowment of oil has been 50 percent depleted. Once the peak is passed, oil production begins to go down while cost begins to go up.

In practical and considerably oversimplified terms, this means that if 2005 was the year of global Peak Oil, worldwide oil production in the year 2030 will be the same as it was in 1980. However, the world’s population in 2030 will be both much larger (approximately twice) and much more industrialized (oil-dependent) than it was in 1980. Consequently, worldwide demand for oil will outpace worldwide production of oil by a significant margin. As a result, the price will skyrocket, oil-dependant economies will crumble, and resource wars will explode.
   (Graph: Dr. C.J. Campbell/Petroconsultants)
The issue is not one of "running out" so much as it is not having enough to keep our economy running. In this regard, the ramifications of Peak Oil for our civilization are similar to the ramifications of dehydration for the human body. The human body is 70 percent water. The body of a 200 pound man thus holds 140 pounds of water. Because water is so crucial to everything the human body does, the man doesn't need to lose all 140 pounds of water weight before collapsing due to dehydration. A loss of as little as 10-15 pounds of water may be enough to kill him.

In a similar sense, an oil-based economy such as ours doesn't need to deplete its entire reserve of oil before it begins to collapse. A shortfall between demand and supply as little as 10-15 percent is enough to wholly shatter an oil-dependent economy and reduce its citizenry to poverty.

The effects of even a small drop in production can be devastating. For instance, during the 1970s oil shocks, shortfalls in production as small as 5% caused the price of oil to nearly quadruple. The same thing happened in California a few years ago with natural gas: a production drop of less than 5% caused prices to skyrocket by 400%.

Fortunately, those price shocks were only temporary.

The coming oil shocks won't be so short-lived. They represent the onset of a new, permanent condition. Once the decline gets under way, production will drop (conservatively) by 3% per year, every year.

That estimate comes from numerous sources, not the least of which is Vice President Dick Cheney himself. In a 1999 speech he gave while still CEO of Halliburton, Cheney stated:

By some estimates, there will be an average of two-percent
annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead,
along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline
in production from existing reserves.That means by 2010 we
will need on the order of anadditional 50 million barrels a

Cheney's assesement is supported by the estimates of numerous non-political, retired, and now disinterested scientists, many of whom believe global oil production will peak and go into terminal decline within the next five years. Many industry insiders think the decline rate will far higher than Cheney predicted in 1999. Andrew Gould, CEO of the giant oil services firm Schlumberger, for instance, recently explained:

An accurate average decline rate is hard to estimate, but an
overall figure of 8% is not an unreasonable assumption.


An 8% yearly decline would cut global oil production by a whopping 50% in under nine years. If a 5% cut in production caused prices to triple in the 1970s, what do you think a 50% cut is going to do?

Other experts are predicting decline rates as high as 10%-to-13%. Some geologists expect  2005  to be the last year of the cheap-oil bonanza, while many estimates coming out of the oil industry indicate "a seemingly unbridgeable supply-demand gap opening up after 2007," which will lead to major fuel shortages and increasingly severe blackouts beginning around 2008-2012. As we slide down the downslope slope of the global oil production curve, we may find ourselves slipping into what some scientists are already calling the coming "post-industrial stone age."
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Furthermore, if oil fields really do refill themselves, why aren't advocates of the abiotic oil theory hiring themselves out to independent oil exploration firms? They could becoming fabulously wealthy by helping these firms locate and profit from the magically refilling fields. Perhaps the reason abiotic-oil advocates aren't hiring themselves out to oil companies is because the abiotic-oil theory is little more than clever oil company propaganda. Journalist Paula Hay explains:

If millions of people got the picture that Peak Oil is
imminent, they would surely begin to take steps to protect
themselves and their families—to powerdown—and decline
would be slowed as a result of all those peoples’ aggregate
actions. It would be a classic market response to new

Big Oil cannot allow this to happen if it intends to keep its
profits sky-high. If people believe that oil is abundant
forever; that they are being screwed by Big Oil; and that
the government will step in any moment to save them, they
have no incentive to powerdown.

Abiotic oil propaganda, coupled with finger-pointing at the oil
industry, is a perfect ruse to ensure people don’t start
powering down. Peak Oil is not the oil industry’s propaganda.
Abiotic oil is the oil industry’s propaganda.

Interestingly enough, five of the seven policy recommendations made by outspoken abiotic oil advocate Jerome Corsi in his book "Black Gold Stranglehold" sound like taxpayer funded giveaways to Big Oil: (commentary in italics added)

1.  Promote scientific research to investigate alternative

2.  Expedite leases offshore and in Alaska to encourage
    oil exploration. (Who benefits from this?)

3.  Provide tax credits for deep-drilling oil exploration.
    (Who benefits from this?)

4.  Create an oil research institute to serve as a
    clearinghouse of oil industry information. (Who benefits?)

5.  Develop a public broadcasting television series
    devoted to the oil industry. (Who benefits from this?)

6.  Reestablish a gold-backed international trade dollar.

7.  Establish tax incentives for opening new refineries in
    the U.S. (Who benefits from this?)

With the exception of numbers one & six, Corsi's policy recommendations read as though they came from an oil-industry wishlist. That Corsi would so vigorously advocate tax breaks for the oil industry should come as little surprise: in 2004, he coauthored the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" attack book that many believe helped the tax cut-obsessed and oil industry-backed Bush administration stay in office.

In his book, Corsi cites the Eugene Island 330 oilfield as proof that oil fields refill themselves. Apparently he or his research staff failed to do a google images search for "Eugene Island 330." If he had performed such a search, he would have come across the following graph which plainly shows Eugene Island 330's oil production in decline for the past 25 years. Corsi's primary example of a "refilling field" is only producing about 1/6 the amount of oil it produced at its peak:

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Topics Covered on Page Two Include:Alternative Energy, Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Wave, Hydrogen, Nuclear, Coal, Ethanol, Biodiesel, Thermal Depolymerization, Solar-Nanotechnology, Space-Based Solar Arrays, Hybrid Vehicles, Conservation and Energy Efficiency, Jevon's Paradox, Wars in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela, the Military Draft, Possible Solutions and Ways to Prepare.
US Domestic Oil Prouction 1930-2050
Graph Courtesy of ASPO
Peak Oil is also called "Hubbert's Peak," named for the Shell geologist Dr. Marion King Hubbert. In 1956, Hubbert accurately predicted that US domestic oil production would peak in 1970. He also predicted global production would peak in 1995, which it would have had the politically created oil shocks of the 1970s not delayed the peak for about 10-15 years.

"Big deal. If gas prices get high, I’ll just  drive less. Why should I give a damn?"

Because petrochemicals are key components to much more than just the gas in your car. As geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer points out in his article entitled, "Eating Fossil Fuels," approximately 10 calories of fossil fuels are required to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten in the US.

The size of this ratio stems from the fact that every step of modern food production is fossil fuel and petrochemical powered:

  • Pesticides are made from oil;

  • With the exception of a few experimental prototypes, all farming implements such as tractors and trailers are constructed and powered using oil;

  • Food storage systems such as refrigerators are manufactured in oil-powered plants, distributed across oil-powered transportation networks and  usually run on electricity, which most often comes from natural gas or coal;

In short, people gobble oil like two-legged SUVs.

It's not just transportation and agriculture that are entirely dependent on abundant, cheap oil. Modern medicine, water distribution, and national defense are each entirely powered by oil and petroleum derived chemicals.

In addition to transportation, food, water, and modern medicine, mass quantities of oil are required for all plastics, all computers and all high-tech devices.

Some specific examples may help illustrate the degree to which our technological base is dependent on fossil fuels:

  • The production of one gram of microchips consumes 630 grams of fossil fuels. According to the American Chemical Society, the construction of single 32 megabyte DRAM chip requires 3.5 pounds of fossil fuels in addition to 70.5 pounds of water.

  • The Environmental Literacy Council tells us that due to the "purity and sophistication of materials (needed for) a microchip, . . . the energy used in producing nine or ten computers is enough to produce an automobile."

When considering the role of oil in the production of modern technology, remember that most alternative systems of energy — including solar panels/solar-nanotechnology, windmills, hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel production facilities, nuclear power plants, etc. — rely on sophisticated technology.

In fact, all electrical devices make use of silver, copper, and/or platinum, each of which is discovered, extracted, transported, and fashioned using oil-powered machinery.  For instance, in his book, The Lean Years: Politics of Scarcity, author Richard J. Barnet writes:

To produce a ton of copper requires 112 million BTU's or the
equivalent of 17.8 barrels of oil. The energy cost component
of aluminum is twenty times higher.

Nuclear energy requires uranium, which is also discovered, extracted, and transported using oil-powered machinery.

Most of the feedstock (soybeans, corn) for biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol are grown using the high-tech, oil-powered industrial methods of agriculture described above.

In short, the so called "alternatives" to oil are actually "derivatives" of oil. Without an abundant and reliable supply of oil, we have no way of scaling these alternatives to the degree necessary to power the modern world.

(Note: alternatives to oil are discussed in depth on Page Two)

"Is the Modern Banking System Entirely Dependent on Ever-Increasing Amounts Cheap Oil?"


The global financial system is entirely dependent on a constantly increasing supply of oil and natural gas. The relationship between the supply of oil and natural gas and the workings of the global financial system is arguably the key issue to understanding and dealing with Peak Oil. In fact this relationship is far more important than alternative sources of energy, energy conservation, or the development of new energy technologies, all of which are discussed in detail on page two of this site.

Dr. Colin Campbell presents an understandable model of this complex (and often difficult to explain) relationship:

  • It is becoming evident that the financial and investment community begins to accept the reality of Peak Oil, which ends the first half of the age of oil. They accept that banks created capital during this epoch by lending more than they had on deposit, being confident that tomorrow’s expansion, fuelled by cheap oil-based energy, was adequate collateral for today’s debt. The decline of oil, the principal driver of economic growth, undermines the validity of that collateral which in turn erodes the valuation of most entities quoted on Stock Exchanges. The investment community however faces a dilemma. It desires to protect its own fortunes and those of its privileged clients while at the same time is reluctant to take action that might itself trigger the meltdown. It is a closely knit community so that it is hard for one to move without the others becoming aware of his actions.

  • The scene is set for the Second Great Depression, but the conservatism and outdated mindset of institutional investors, together with the momentum of the massive flows of institutional money they are required to place, may help to diminish the sense of panic that a vision of reality might impose. On the other hand, the very momentum of the flow may cause a greater deluge when the foundations of the dam finally crumble. It is a situation withou precedent.

Commentator Robert Wise explains the connection between energy and money as follows:

It's not physics, but it's true: money equals energy. Real,
liquid wealth represents usable energy. It can be exchanged
for fuel, for work, or for something built by the work of
humans or fuel-powered machines. Real cost reflects the
energy cost of doing something; real value reflects the
energy expended to build something.

Nearly all the work done in the world economy -- all the
manufacturing, construction, and transportation -- is done
with energy derived from fuel. The actual work done by
human muscle power is miniscule by comparison. And, the
lion's share of that fuel comes from oil and natural gas, the
primary sources of the world's wealth.

In October 2005, the normally conservative London Times acknowledged that the world's wealth may soon evaporate as we enter a technological and economic "Dark Age." In an article entitled "Waiting for the Lights to Go Out" Times reporter Bryan Appleyard wrote the following:

  • Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don't seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things.

  • Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children . . . growth may be coming to an end. Since our entire financial order — interest rates, pension funds, insurance, stock markets — is predicated on growth, the social and economic consequences may be cataclysmic.

If you want to understand just how cataclysmic these consequences might be, consider the current crisis in the UK as a "preview of coming attractions." The London Telegraph has reported:

  • The Government has admitted that companies across Britain might be forced to close this winter because of fuel shortages. "The balance between supply and demand for energy is uncomfortably tight. I think if we have a colder -than-usual winter given the supply shortages, certain industries could suffer real difficulties." The admission was made after this newspaper revealed that Britain could be paralysed by energy shortages if the winter is colder tha average.

  • The Met Office says there is a 67 per cent likelihood of prolonged cold this year after almost a decade of mild winters. That, coupled with high fuel prices, raises the fear that industry will not be able to cope.

The severe consequences of these relatively small shortfalls between supply and demand (less than 5%) have prompted the UK government to look into draconian energy conservation measures that would be enforced via house-to-house searches by a force of "energy-police."

Parts of the US are facing similarly dire possibilities. In December 2005, US News and World Report published a six-page article documenting some potentially nightmarish scenarios about to descend on the US. According to the normally conservative publication, people in the northeastern US could be facing massive layoffs, rotating blackouts, permanent industrial shutdowns, and catastrophic breakdowns in public services this winter as a result of shortages of heating oil and natural gas.

This is happening despite the fact we are probably at least a few years away from seeing the peak in either oil or natural gas production. You have to ask yourself, "what's going to happen when the 'real problems' start showing up?"

"What does all of this mean for me?"

What all of this means, in short, is that the aftermath of Peak Oil will extend far beyond how much you will pay for gas. To illustrate: in a July 2006 special report published by the Chicago Tribune, Pullitzer Prize winning journalist Paul Salopek described the consequences of Peak Oil as follows:

  • . . . the consequences (if true) would be unimaginable. Permanent fuel shortages would tip the world into a generations-long economic depression. Millions would lose their jobs as industry implodes. Farm tractors would be idled for lack of fuel, triggering massive famines. Energy wars would flare. And car-less suburbanites would trudge to their nearest big-box stores--not to buy Chinese-made clothing transported cheaply across the globe, but to scavenge glass and copper wire from abandoned buildings.

Journalist Jonathan Gatehouse summarized the conclusions of Oxford trained geologist Jeremy Leggett, author of The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and the Coming Financial Catastrophe, in a 2006 Macleans article as follows:

  • . . . when the truth can no longer be obscured, the price will spike, the economy nosedive, and the underpinnings of our civilization will start tumbling like dominos. "The price of houses will collapse. Stock markets will crash. Within a short period, human wealth -- little more than a pile of paper at the best of times, even with the confidence about the future high among traders -- will shrivel." There will be emergency summits, diplomatic initiatives, urgent exploration efforts, but the turmoil will not subside. Thousands of companies will go bankrupt, and millions will be unemployed. "Once affluent cities with street cafés will have queues at soup kitchens and armies of beggars. The crime rate will soar. The earth has always been a dangerous place, but now it will become a tinderbox."

  • By 2010, predicts Leggett, democracy will be on the run. As with the Great Depression, economic hardship will bring out the worst in people. Fascists will rise, feeding on the anger of the newly poor and whipping up support. These new rulers will find the tools of repression -- emergency laws, prison camps, a relaxed attitude toward torture -- already in place, courtesy of the war on terror. And if that scenario isn't nightmarish enough, Leggett predicts that "Big Oversight Number One" -- climate change -- will be simultaneously making its presence felt "with a vengeance." On the heels of their rapid financial ruin, people "will now watch aghast as their food and water supplies dwindle in the face of a climate seemingly going awry." Prolonged droughts will spread, decimating harvests.

In other words, if you are focusing solely on the price at the pump, buying a Totyota Prius, or getting some of those energy efficient light bulbs, you aren’t seeing the bigger picture.

"Is the Bush administration aware of this?"

Of course they are.

As mentioned previously, Dick Cheney made the following statement in late 1999:  

  • By some estimates, there will be an average of two-percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day.

To put Cheney’s statement in perspective, remember that the oil producing nations of the world are currently pumping at full capacity but are struggling to produce much more than 84 million barrels per day. Cheney’s statement was a tacit admission of the severity and imminence of Peak Oil as the possibility of the world raising its production by such a huge amount is borderline ridiculous.

A report commissioned by Cheney and released in April 2001 was no less disturbing:

  • The most significant difference between now and a decade ago is the extraordinarily rapid erosion of spare capacities at critical segments of energy chains. Today, shortfalls appear to be endemic. Among the most extraordinary of these losses of spare capacity is in the oil arena.

In light of this information, Cheney knew the only way for Western oil majors to stay oil majors was to use force to grab what's left in the Middle East and then give the contracts to pump that oil to the oil majors. Four years after the invasion of Iraq, this is exactly what is happening. U.K. Independent journalist Geoffrey Lean writes:

"So where is this oil going to come from?" Cheney asked. His answer: the Middle East was "where the prize ultimately lies".

  • Lest there be any doubt about what was at stake, the man who was to become one of the most powerful proponents of the invasion of Iraq went on: "Oil is unique because it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear ... The Gulf War was a reflection of that reality."

  • Well, seven years on, Mr Cheney's solution to the impending oil crisis is well on its way to being implemented. In the aftermath of another war, Iraq's Council of Ministers is today expected to throw open the doors to the country's oil reserves - the third-largest in the world - to private companies, the first time a major Middle Eastern producer has ever done so.

  Source: U.K. Independent

Not surprisingly, George W. Bush has echoed Dick Cheney’s sentiments.  In May 2001, Bush stated, "What people need to hear loud and clear is that we’re running out of energy in America."

One of George W. Bush's energy advisors, energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, has spoken at length about the impending crisis. For instance, in an August 2003 interview Simmons was asked if it was time for Peak Oil to become part of the public policy debate. He responded:

  • It is past time. As I have said, the experts and politicians have no Plan B to fall back on. If energy peaks, particularly while 5 of the world’s 6.5 billion people have little or no use of modern energy, it will be a tremendous jolt to our economic well-being and to our health — greater than anyone could ever imagine.

When asked if there is a solution to the impending natural gas crisis, Simmons responded:

  • I don’t think there is one. The solution is to pray. Under the best of circumstances, if all prayers are answered there will be no crisis for maybe two years. After that it’s a certainty.

In May 2004, Simmons explained that in order for demand to be appropriately controlled, the price of oil would have to reach $182 per barrel. Simmons explained that with oil prices at $182 per barrel, gas prices would likely rise to $7.00 per gallon.

If you want to ponder just how devastating oil prices in the $200/barrel range will be for the US economy, consider the fact that one of Osama Bin-Laden's primary goals has been to force oil prices into the $200 range

Oil prices that far north of $100/barrel would almost certainly trigger massive, last-ditch global resource wars as the industrialized nations of the world scramble to grab whatever oil is remaining. This may explain why the director of the Selective Service recently recommended the military draft be expanded to include both genders, ages 18-to-35.

A March 2005 report prepared for the US Department of Energy confirmed dire warnings of the investment banking community. Entitled "The Mitigation of the Peaking of World Oil Production," the report observed:

  • Without timely mitigation, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), accompanied by huge oil price increases, both of which would create a long period of significant economic hardship worldwide. Waiting until world conventional oil production peaks before initiating crash program mitigation leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for two decades or longer.

The report went on to say, emphasis added:

  • The problems associated with world oil production peaking will not be temporary, and past 'energy crisis' experience will provide relatively little guidance. The challenge of oil peaking deserves immediate, serious attention, if risks are to be fully understood and mitigation begun on a timely basis.  . . the world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the  problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions were gradual and evolutionary. Oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.

As one commentator recently observed, the reason our leaders are acting like desperados is because we have a desperate situation on our hands.

If you've been wondering why the Bush administration has been spending money, cutting social programs, and starting wars like there's no tomorrow, now you have your answer: as far as they are concerned, there is no tomorrow.

In 2003, the BBC filmed a three-part, relatively apolitical, documentary entitled "War for Oil" about the role the Bush administration's knowledge of Peak Oil played in their decision to invade and occupy Iraq. As the documentary explains, in private the Bush administration sees the war in Iraq as "a fight for survival." From a purely Machiavellian standpoint, they are probably correct in their thinking.

For what it's worth, Bush's Crawford ranch is completely off-the-grid and equipped with the latest in energy saving and renewable power systems. It has been described as an "environmentalist's dream home." The fact a man as steeped in the petroleum industry as Bush would own such a home should tell you something.

On a similar note, Dick Cheny's personal investments indicate he (or more accurately, whoever handles his money) is expecting economic collapse.

Neither Bush or Cheney (or really, any administration) can be honest with the American people about the severity of what we're facing. If they were honest with the country, half the nation would refuse to believe them while the other half would likely panic.

"How Do I Know This Isn't Just Fear-   Mongering by Loony-Environmentalists?"

If you think what you are reading on this page is the product of a loony-left nut, consider what Representative Roscoe Bartlett (Republican, Maryland) has had to say in speeches to Congress or what billionaire investor Richard Rainwater has had to say in the pages of Fortune Magazine.

On March 14, 2005 Bartlett gave an extremely thorough presentation to Congress about the frightening ramifications of Peak Oil. During his presentation Representative Bartlett, who may be the most conservative member of Congress, quoted from this site extensively, citing the author (Matt Savinar) by name on numerous occasions, while employing several analogies and examples originally published on this site. You can read the full congressional record of Representative Bartlett's presentation by clicking here.  You can view a video of Bartlett recommending the article you are now reading to Resources for the Future, an extremely influential DC think tank, by clicking here.

On April 19, 2005 Representative Bartlett was interviewed on national television. Again, he referenced the article you are now reading:

  • One of the writers on this starts his article by saying, 'Dear Reader, Civilization as we know it will end soon.' Now your first impulse is to put down the article. This guy's a nut. But if you don't put it down and read through the article, you're hard-pressed to argue with his conclusions.

On May 12, 2005 Representative Bartlett gave another presentation about Peak Oil on the floor of the House of Representatives, stating that this website "galvanized" him. On July 19, 2005 he had the following to say:

  • Mr. Speaker, if you go to your computer this evening and do a Google search for peak oil, you will find there a large assortment of articles and comments. Like every issue, you will find a few people who are on the extreme, but there will be a lot of mainstream observations there.

  • One of the articles that you will find there was written by Matt Savinar. Matt Savinar is not a technical person. He is a lawyer, a good one, and he does what lawyers do. He goes to the sources and builds his case. Matt Savinar could be correct when he said, "Dear Reader, civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon.''  I would encourage you, Mr. Speaker, to pull up his article and readit. It is really very sobering.

In subsequent speeches, Representative Bartlett read large excerpts of this site verbatim into the official US Congressional record.  He has also frequently quoted a surprisingly frank September 2005 report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entitled "Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Amry Installations." The report candidly explains among other things, that:

  • . . . energy consumption is indispensable to our standard of living and a necessity for the Army to carry out its mission. However, current trends are not sustainable. The impact of excessive, unsustainable energy consumption may undermine the very culture and activities it supports . . .

Bartlett isn't the only prominent conservative extremely concerned about these matters. According to the December 26, 2005 issue of Fortune Magazine, Richard Rainwater, a multi-billionaire investor and friend of George W. Bush, reads this site regularly. In an article entitled "Energy Prophet of Doom" Fortune reporter Oliver Ryan writes:

  • "Rainwater," the voice on the phone announces. "Now, type L-A-T-O-C into Yahoo, and scroll down to the seventh item." Rainwater doesn't use e-mail. Rather, he uses rapid-fire phone calls to spread the gospel he discovers every morning on the web. One day it might be the decline of arable land in Malaysia. The next it could be the Olduvai theory of per capita energy consumption. "L-A-T-O-C" stands for, a blog edited by Matt Savinar, 27, of Santa Rosa, Calif.

The Fortune article goes on to quote Rainwater as saying:

  • The world as we know it is unwinding with respect to Social Security, pensions, Medicare. We're going to have dramatically increased taxes in the U.S. I believe we're going into a world where there's going to be more hostility. More people are going to be asking, 'Why did God do this to us?' Whatever God they worship. Alfred Sloan said it a long time ago at General Motors, that we're giving these things during good times. What happens in bad times? We're going to have to take them back, and then everybody will riot. And he's right.

Apparently, Richard Rainwater and Alfred Sloan aren't the only people expecting large scale civil unrest in the foreseeable future. In January 2006, the Department of Homeland Security gave Halliiburton subsidiary Kellog, Brown, & Root a $400 million dollar contract to build vast new domestic detention camps. While the camps are ostensibly being built to house and process an "emergency influx of immigrants", one can't help but suspect they will be used to house domestic citizens who respond to the economic fallout of declining oil production by taking to the streets. 

"How is the oil industry reacting to this?"

If you want to know the truth about the future of oil, simply look at the actions of the oil industry.  As a recent article in M.I.T.'s Technology Review points out:

  • If the actions - rather than the words - of the oil business's major players provide the best gauge of how they see the future, then ponder the following. Crude oil prices have doubled since 2001, but oil companies have increased their budgets for exploring new oil fields by only a small fraction. Likewise, U.S. refineries are working close to capacity, yet no new refinery has been constructed since 1976. And oil tankers are fully booked, but outdated ships are being decommissioned faster than new ones are being built.

Some people believe that no new refineries have been built due to the efforts of environmentalists. This belief is silly when one considers how much money and political influence the oil industry has compared to the environmental movement. You really think Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush were going to let a bunch of pesky environmentalists get in the way of oil refineries being built if the oil companies had wanted to build them?

The real reason no new refineries have been built for almost 30 years is simple: any oil company that wants to stay profitable isn't going to invest in new refineries when they know there is going to be less and less oil to refine.

In addition to lowering their investments in oil exploration and refinery expansion, oil companies have been merging as though the industry is living on borrowed time:

December 1998: BP and Amoco merge;
April 1999: BP-Amoco and Arco agree to merge;
December 1999:  Exxon and Mobil merge;
October 2000: Chevron and Texaco agree to merge;
November 2001: Phillips and Conoco agree to merge;
September 2002: Shell acquires Penzoil-Quaker State;
February 2003: Frontier Oil and Holly agree to merge;
March 2004: Marathon acquires 40% of Ashland;
April 2004: Westport Resources acquires Kerr-McGee;
     July 2004:  Analysts suggest BP and Shell merge;
April 2005: Chevron-Texaco and Unocal merge;
June 2005: Royal Dutch and Shell merge;
July 2005:  China begins trying to acquire Unocal
June 2006: Andarko proposes buying Kerr McGee

While many people believe talk of a global oil shortage is simply a conspiracy by "Big Oil" to drive up the prices and create "artificial scarcity," the rash of mergers listed above tells a different story. Mergers and acquisitions are the corporate world's version of cannibalism. When any industry begins to contract/collapse, the larger and more powerful companies will cannibalize/seize the assets of the smaller, weaker companies.

(Note: for recent examples of this phenomenon outside the oil industry, see the airline and automobile industries.)

If you suspect the oil companies are conspiring amongst themselves to create artificial scarcity and thereby artificially raise prices, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Question #1. Are the actions of the oil companies the actions of  friendly rivals who are conspiring amongst each other to drive up prices and keep the petroleum game going?


  • Question #2. Are the actions of the oil companies the actions of rival corporate desperados who, fully aware that their source of income is rapidly dwindling, are now preying upon each other in a game of "last man standing"?
You don't have to contemplate too much, as recent disclosures from oil industry insiders indicate we are indeed "damn close to peaking" while independent industry analysts are now concluding that large oil companies believe Peak Oil is at our doorstep.

As the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently observed, even ExxonMobil is now "sounding the silent Peak Oil alarm." In their 2005 report entitled, "The Outlook for Energy", ExxonMobil suggests that increased demand be met first through greater fuel efficiency. The fact that ExxonMobil - one of the largest oil companies in the world - is now recommending increased fuel efficiency should tell you how imminent a crisis is at this point.

Equally alarming is the fact that Chevron has now started a surprisingly candid campaign to publicly address these issues. While the campaign fails to mention "Peak Oil" or explain how a drastically reduced oil supply will affect the average person, it does acknowledge that, while it took 125 years to burn through the first trillion barrels of oil, it will only take 30 years to burn through the next trillion. 

"How do I know Peak Oil isn't Big Oil propaganda that is being used to create artificial scarcity & justify gouging us at the pump?"

If Peak Oil is "Big Oil propaganda" (as some claim), why did Sonoma State University's Project Censored declare it one of the most censored stories of 2003-2004? Surely, if "Peak Oil is Big Oil propaganda", Big Oil would have found a way to get it off the pages of under-funded publications like Project Censored and onto the pages of the mainstream papers and into the 24/7 cable news cycle years ago.

Likewise, if "Peak Oil is a myth propagated by the greedy oil companies to justify high prices", why didn't any of the greedy oil company CEOs offer "the peaking of world oil production" as a partial justification for high gas prices when they testified before Congress about high gas prices?

Yet "Peak Oil" was never mentioned during the hearings by either the executives or the Senators questioning them. Given the obvious importance of the issue, any reasonable person can't help but to ask, "Why the heck not?"

The answer is simple: the true consequences of Peak Oil cannot be acknowledged in such a highly public forum without crashing the financial markets or begging the obvious yet politically-dangerous and "patriotically-incorrect" question:

Is the war in Iraq really a war for the world's last remaining
significant sized deposits of oil?"

Although the answer to this question should be obvious, broaching the issue in such a highly public forum would bring more skeletons out of Dick Cheney's energy task force closet than any sane member of the Senate, Republican or Democrat, would ever want to face. (Would you?)

Finally, if Peak Oil was just "Big Oil" propaganda, why is Exxon Mobil (one of the biggest oil companies in the world) spending millions of dollars on its anti-Peak Oil advertising campaign?

The answer is simple if you understand how publicly traded oil comapnies work. An oil company's share value is dictated first and foremost not by the price of oil but by how much oil that company reports having in reserve. A company can't admit its reserves are peaking or it risks seeing its share price drop relative to other companies who report more abundant reserves. Big Oil companies are thus motivated to over - not under - report how much oil they have in reserve.

Shell, for instance, is now being fined $500 million for having grossly over-reported its reserves. On a similar note, Kuwait is believed to have over-reported their reserves by as much as 50 billion barrels while many believe Saudi Arabia has overreported its reserves by as much as 200 billion barrels.

If claims that "peak oil is just oil company propaganda to promote artificial scarity" were true these companies and nations would have been under-reporting instead over-reporting their reserves all along. They over-reported because they wanted to convey an atmosphere of abundance as this is conducive both to getting the public to keep on buying and to attracting investors. If people knew the truth, they would likely begin drastically curtailing their consumption of oil, which would drive the price down. Consumers are unlikely to take such actions so long as they perceive the current price spikes as just "more of the same old-same old" and are confident about the future.

"Can't we just explore more  for oil?"

Global oil discovery peaked in 1962 and has declined to virtually nothing in the past few years. We now consume 6 barrels of oil for every barrel we find.

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