Oil is over

What happens when petroleum peaks?



Get ready to hear a lot of discussion on the term “peak oil.” What it means is simple: The world’s supply of cheap, readily available oil has reached its apogee—or peaked—and from here to the foreseeable end of the oil economy world demand will consistently outstrip global supplies. What that portends, however, is anything but simple, with predictions running the gamut from full-on collapse to unconcerned shrugs. If there’s light at the end of our petroleum tunnel, it’s a growing interest in some very good things—like getting serious about real conservation, new developments in truly alternative energy, and a blossoming discussion about how and why citizens and their governments must prepare for a more self-sufficient future.

If, like many Montanans, you were out on the highway over the Labor Day weekend, you undoubtedly experienced the rush to get out and camp one last time before summer’s end. You probably saw a lot of massive pickups or SUVs pulling even more massive campers—some with one or two trailers loaded with boats and ATVs as well. One would be hard pressed to imagine these campers, lumbering down the road toward their destinations, as anything but happy—which is an image you may want to remember, since it’s likely to become a lot less common.

If you happened to catch one of those rigs at the gas pump filling the tanks on the truck, the boat and the ATVs, however, you may have seen a grimace or two at the shock of the final price. Even filling the tank on a little Honda Civic costs at least $30, which makes the whole idea of driving hundreds of miles over the weekend seem a lot less joyful than in years gone by. The key words here are “years gone by,” because, if the predictions are correct, our future is going to be much different than our recent past.

If you Google “peak oil,” it won’t take long to find a pile of information on what’s happened since the world turned to the oil vat for its salvation. About a century and a half ago people found out that they could run petroleum through a variety of engines to produce power to replace what had previously taken human or animal labor to accomplish. Estimates are that one barrel of oil can produce the same amount of work it once took eight humans working full-time for a year to do. And then there are all the products made from petroleum, which include fertilizer, medicines and the host of plastics that fill our everyday lives.

If the numbers are right—and more experts every day are agreeing they are—then this cornucopia wrought of fossil fuels has seen its best days. We’re not running out of oil tomorrow or anything like that, but inevitably, in what has been dubbed “the long emergency,” demand will outstrip supply with all the attendant consequences.

For Americans who have grown used to cheap and abundant energy, the most painful consequence so far has been the doubling of gas prices in the last couple of years. But now that the ripple effects of that sudden increase are making their way through the economy, anything that relies on petroleum—and that’s almost everything these days—is going up in price, too.

It’s tempting to blame the giant multinational oil companies and their billions in windfall profits, but the investment-to-return costs are also skyrocketing. In the glory days of oil, on average it took a barrel of oil invested to produce 100 barrels of oil extracted. Although the exact numbers are confidential, some say that, thanks to peak oil, the investment to return ratio could be as high as 10 to 1 in 2006.

Moreover, the geopolitical implications of peak oil are growing harder to miss as oil-producing nations around the globe eye the United States with mounting fear. Iraq has so much oil that Vice President Dick Cheney promised oil revenues would pay for our ill-begotten war there. Venezuela, too, has significant oil reserves and its president, Hugo Chavez, has moved to modernize his armed forces, built a plant to manufacture Kalashnikov assault rifles, and is training his citizenry because he fears a U.S. invasion to take control of the country’s oil supplies. Of course the United States is not the only nation in the world looking for more oil to keep its economy running, and it doesn’t take a seer to foretell increasing conflicts as supplies become more scarce.

So what do we do about it? Well, a growing number of people are saying we must move now, warning that it will take a decade or more to implement systems that can help wean us from the oil spigot. Local food production, for instance, is a much-preferable alternative to trucking our food the estimated 1,500 miles it travels between farm and table these days. Moving away from the heavy petroleum inputs of fertilizers and pesticides would further reduce oil consumption—and produce healthier foods, too.

And just recently, a new advancement in solar technology makes possible a thin film that can be used in roofing and windows to generate electricity at below current retail prices. One of the plants to produce the film is being built in the San Francisco Bay area and is expected to produce enough cells to produce 430 megawatts annually.

Here in Montana, with our vast distances and huge transportation costs, it makes a great deal of sense to move quickly toward such self-sufficiency. Our current energy policies are weak or non-existent in this regard. But with a legislative session coming up, a budget surplus, and peak oil looming, opportunities to do so abound. Now all we need are leaders savvy enough to acknowledge that the Age of Oil is over—and brave enough to do something about it.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

Add a comment