Wednesday June 20, 2012
The Perfect Storm of Energy, Culture, and Population
by Michael Chapdelaine
America is feeling the pain of oil depletion foreseen since 1956. Dr. Marion King Hubbert correctly predicted that production of oil from conventional sources within the continental United States would peak in the timeframe of 1965 to 1970; the peak occurred in 1970. This occurrence gave the Arab oil embargo (initiated on October 17, 1973 and lifted on March 17, 1974) meaningful effect; the United States could no longer meet domestic demand absent receipt of foreign oil shipments. By 1975, in the stagflationary wake of America’s first energy crisis, Dr. Hubbert’s detractors accepted his calculations and admitted their previous optimism was faulted.
Dr. Hubbert further predicted in Noel Grove’s article “Oil, the Dwindling Treasure,” appearing in the June 1974 issue of National Geographic (pages 792-825), that production of oil from conventional sources would peak worldwide in 1995. This did not come to pass, not because Dr. Hubbert’s methodology was wholly flawed, but partly because the contingent “current trends” he observed did not hold. The oil crises of the 1970s – the second crisis hit in 1979 alongside the Iranian Revolution – reduced global economic growth and encouraged conservation. Consequently, a decrease in oil consumption persisted through the first half of the 1980s and delayed the peak.
Of course, Hubbert’s second prediction was more ambitious and complicated. Registered geologist, geophysicist, engineer and oceanographer L.F. Ivanhoe further contextualizes Hubbert’s global prediction by recounting his meeting with him to Dr. Colin Campbell in Campbell’s The Coming Oil Crisis:
[Hubbert] was a man of superior intellect. He explained that he was interested in the lifespan of oil, recognizing that production had to start at zero, rise to a peak before ending at zero. …He said that he did not predict global ultimate production as such but simply used the 2.0 trillion Ultimate as a model upon which to build a global depletion curve that the general public could understand.
Dr. Campbell clarifies the critical point, if it seems esoteric, that oil is a finite resource, not that the peak’s occurrence precisely matches fickle 1995, 2005, or 2015 expectations. Numerous, prominent geophysicists, geologists, and petroleum engineers have subsequently recalculated Hubbert’s prediction with the advantage of data unavailable to Hubbert. The verdict: it is near time for global production to peak; some report it has occurred already.
Crude prices are trending upwards and American consumers expect relief as the rise becomes more acute and persistent. Unfortunately, the public’s reflexive consensus is unfounded accusations of oil companies price gouging and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) sticking it to America. Pretentious commentators in mass media hastily give attribution to the ubiquitous “geo-political tensions.”
Oil is one of the most precious resource endowments for humankind. At the March 28, 2008 closing price of $105.62 per barrel (66.4¢ per liter or 1.96¢ per ounce), oil is a relative bargain! The American people pay more (3¢ per ounce) for a 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola® soda; it hardly has the importance or versatility of petroleum. This demonstrates the utter dependency of humanity on oil. Consumers don’t holler about soda price gouging and demand political action even though the effervescent beverage retails near $161 per barrel.
Field ownership excluding American corporations has steadily progressed since widespread oil nationalization began decades ago. This inherently limits culpability of American oil companies with respect to price.
Oil companies nowadays invest little in the way of exploration because it is a well-known fact that there isn’t much oil left to find; the peak of discovery was in the 1960s! It is not that they conspire to elevate prices by neglecting the search for more oil; rather, they won’t waste time and money looking for resources that don’t exist.
Regardless of how much oil is available, OPEC will generally act in a way that is beneficial to its membership, as it is their purpose. It so happens that there is currently very little, if any, spare production capacity. OPEC and otherwise, many of the world’s largest oil fields – like China’s Daqing, Mexico’s Cantarell, and Kuwait’s Burgan – have passed their most productive years.
It is not American antagonism towards Iran or a kidnapping in Nigeria doubling, tripling, and quadrupling light, sweet-crude prices; these are secondary drivers, at best. In other words, “tension” with “rebels” may temporarily take crude prices from $95 to $110 per barrel, but it did not lead from $15 to $90 per barrel.
Republican Party members will often propagate the misconception that America could achieve independence from expensive, foreign oil and meet her energy needs “if only those damn, tree-hugging environmentalists would get out of the way and let us drill for oil in Alaska.” Two spots in the Arctic have drawn the most attention in recent years for their oil and natural gas potential, albeit seriously limited:
A special interest Website devoted to the commencement of drilling is http://www.anwr.org/. They fail to offer the whole truth of the matter; one that is far different from the promising picture painted.
According to Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) while serving in the House of Representatives from 1993 to 2007:
The average estimate for economically recoverable oil in ANWR is 10.3 billion barrels. That is double the amount of all the oil in Texas, and almost half the total U.S. proven reserves. When we send our hard-earned money overseas to import oil, we send American jobs and American national security right along with it.
Representative Pombo’s seemingly heartfelt and cogent statement capitalizes on the ignorance and appeals to the emotions of the American electorate. His contention does not stand even a soft analysis; one need only consider the oil available against oil consumed. He also distorts the argument by suggesting the amount of oil in ANWR surpasses that which lay in virgin Texas ground; Texas past its peak in 1973.
While the Federal Government estimates that at least 5.7 billion barrels of oil – and possibly as many as 16 billion barrels – may be recoverable from the Arctic refuge, environmentalists contend the refuge contains no more than 3.2 billion barrels, but neither is enough to dramatically ease the country's reliance on imports!
The USGS estimates that it contains a mean expected value of 10.3 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. To put that into context, the potential daily production from ANWR's 1002 area is larger than the current daily onshore oil production of any of the lower 48 states. ANWR could conceivably produce nearly 1.4 million barrels of oil, while Texas produces just more than one million barrels a day, California just less than one million barrels a day and Louisiana produces slightly more than two hundred thousand barrels a day. Alaskan natural gas production could add 1.1 to 1.5 trillion cubic feet per year to U.S. natural gas supplies.
Many self-described conservative Americans are of the opinion, “I don’t care if it's 3.2 or 16 billion, or 1 barrel of oil. It’s our oil, and it means fewer dollars to those Middle Eastern terrorist maniacs who take our money and then use it to kill us. After all, ANWR is nothing but ice in the winter and mosquito-infested tundra in the summer.” This attitude demonstrates a lack of even a rudimentary understanding of all the factors involved. Aside from the challenges of worthwhile production in the frozen north of Alaska, they display no grasp of the ecological function of this climate, terrain, and the life found there. Many times, these same people drive gas-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) on their way to enjoy hunting and fishing vacations in remaining wild lands. They assume nature can withstand reckless assaults on all fronts and always rebound without consequence.
However, oil development brings along increased sea shipping traffic, pipelines, roads, buildings, noise, fires, and oil spills. These factors can, individually or en masse, devastate fisheries, poison the land, and force native hunters to abandon their ties to their ancestral home and enter the broader cash-based economy. Magnificent creatures, such as polar bears, wolves, walrus, bowhead whales, musk ox, caribou, and snow geese, all inhabit these pristine areas. The ill effect of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill extends beyond the duration of front-page news.
3 Alaska Cannot Deliver Anything Close to Oil Independence
Arguing on behalf of natives and wildlife is hardly enough to deter those holding tight their social and ecological indifference. Fortunately, an incontrovertible economic argument also exists to affect intellectual sobriety.
Even two generous assumptions can’t bolster the argument for drilling. First, the number of people in this country freezes – cessation of all immigration and reproduction – near the 2006 figure of 300 million. Second, the most optimistic oil reserve estimates are correct, i.e., there are actually 16 billion economically recoverable barrels. Assuming both, a basic calculation reveals the U.S. would enjoy its “oil independence” for a mere 769 days, or just about 2 years.
Obviously, brief independence would obligate returning right back to the consumption of foreign oil. Still, most experts forecast the expected “peak” in global production sometime between 2005 and 2020 and afterward, a steady “depletion” rate near 3 percent, i.e., the world will produce about 3 percent less than it did the previous year for about 150 years. One must keep in mind that demand will increase – a function of population and high-consumption lifestyle – concurrent with the production decrease!
The outlook for ANWR natural gas supplies is even bleaker; they would last about a year and a half.
Of course, oil fields take time to develop their productivity; all the ANWR oil could not be extracted in such a short time. This fact necessitates a continuation of purchasing foreign oil concurrent with this “liberating” domestic solution. Production estimates from the National Defense Council Foundation “for the first fifteen years” achieve a peak yearly output of 1.64 million barrels per day about nine years into the development, which would supplant only 7.9 percent of America’s needs (circa 2005) supplied by imported foreign oil. Thereafter, production would decline.
Interestingly enough, their estimates are based on a very optimistic assumption of 16.57 billion recoverable barrels. They also conveniently fail to mention that “for the first fifteen years” is arguably the only fifteen years, unless a greater percentage of the proven reserves become recoverable.
If one does the math, a similar outlook develops with the Chukchi Sea. It cannot deliver America oil independence, or anything approaching it, on its own or in conjunction with ANWR reserves, concurrently or in series.
In facing the truth about ANWR’s potential to deliver American energy independence, the harsh and persistent broader reality one must look toward is modern consumer culture’s profound and unrelenting demand for finite, natural resources. Economic determinists – not typified by the Austrian school of thought – are entranced by the fantasy of perpetual growth within a finite system and usually put their faith in scientists and engineers to promptly develop technical solutions when the markets call for them. Yet when presented an unfavorable outlook, many economists will enthusiastically, but without basal qualification, dismiss the science. To quote geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, from the October 16, 2005 USA Today article “Debate brews: Has oil production peaked?” by David J. Lynch, “They [economists] believe if you show up at the cashier’s window with enough money, God will put more oil in the ground.”
American culture is now so dependent on growth for social and economic stability that it is, literally in many minds, inconceivable to entertain a retraction toward some equilibrium. As the technocratic Dr. Hubbert acknowledged in his 1976 paper, Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History:
Our principal constraints are cultural. During the last two centuries we have known nothing but exponential growth and in parallel we have evolved what amounts to an exponential-growth culture, a culture so heavily dependent upon the continuance of exponential growth for its stability that it is incapable of reckoning with problems of non-growth.
So it is that many people tend to ignore or vigorously reject the unsustainable track of humanity.
Failure to wean ourselves from oil and abandon the contemporary culture of mindless consumption will result in a broad and deep economic depression. Imagine society reliant on automotive transportation unable to reach their usual places of employment, food undelivered, crop yields reduced, aircraft fleets grounded, and commerce grinding to a halt.
If one lacks foresight, think along the lines of rioting, looting, hoarding, rationing, starvation, frequent and severe fuel shortages and price hikes, and all-around chaos. While some may be comforted in that oil won’t be depleted for another century, the interim will be hellish for most.
The consequences of profligate burning of fossil fuels also include a national and international ecological crisis. As oil depletion mates with climate change and depression of human economy, a persistently apathetic public should be ready to embrace crumbling concrete, brown skies, violent and erratic weather, pestilence, famine, civil unrest, intranational and international warfare, unhealthy life and premature death.
Of course, the analysis cannot exclude population, as the energy challenge is not exclusive and both factor in to human alteration of our little, blue world to an inhospitable wasteland. It is common for a discussion of human population to elicit a reflexive reaction of horror; there is in some minds no sanity to the mere suggestion that boundaries or limits apply to the human species.
Notwithstanding, all the aforementioned problems are exacerbated by overpopulation; the end result is misery, economic stagnation, vicious employment competition and decreased opportunity, pollution and disappearance of national heritage, crime, regularly repeated infrastructure failure and inadequacy, and loss of individual freedom. The illegal alien invasion of the United States, mostly from Mexico, has a profound impact on medical care, employment, education, electricity, sewage treatment, waste management, and transportation. While this exodus alleviates population pressure in Mexico, it impairs quality of life in the United States. It is, therefore, not simply a question of the number of people that can exist within given borders, but also of the kind of existence.
The growing population mandates that the economy be in constant condition of growth, which is exceedingly difficult in the near term, if not impossible in the long term to achieve. Overpopulation also obliterates the ecological balance necessary to preserve the overall health and vitality of humanity and wildlife alike. While some people cannot see the inherent beauty and right of non-human life forms to exist and flourish, they ought to recognize the simple wisdom of placing a high importance on environmental matters and preservation for selfish reasons. In other words, if the environment of the natural world suffers and perishes, you suffer and perish. Humanity breathes smog that instigates asthma while swimming in water that burns the flesh connected to beach shores that are neither pristine nor secluded.
“There’s still a lot of open space left in the world,” say those prescribing to wishful thinking or residing in psychological states of denial or willful ignorance. It is, though, incorrect to equate seemingly open, “unused”, or undeveloped spaces with resource rich land suitable to human habitation under modern conditions. It is not land area that is the key criterion for determining whether a region is overpopulated, but carrying capacity.
The average American's “ecological footprint” – the term used for the strain an individual endowed with average amounts of resources, i.e., land, water, food, waste, etcetera puts on the environment – is about 12 acres (0.0485 km²), an area far greater than that taken up by one’s residence and workplace. In America, when population density exceeds 1 person per 0.0485 km² (20.6 people per km²), the nation is too crowded (based on an average of our territorial carrying capacity) for the maintenance of current living standards. As of 2006, there are 33 people per km² of American territory, around 60 percent overcapacity.
Based on the American ecological footprint, the boundaries of the United States of America should contain no more than 188 million people, a number not seen since the 1960s. Incidentally, Americans have been complaining about the decrease in the overall quality of life over the past few decades. Democrats, particularly of the socialist and welfare liberal variety, interpret this steady decline as due to a never before seen need for “nationalized health care”, “housing assistance”, and other entitlement programs.
With all the advances in technology and theoretically improved efficiency, one might ask, “Why haven’t the lives of the public unequivocally improved?” Quite simply, the continually growing demands from relentless population growth offset technological improvements.
For instance, health care has advanced and agricultural productivity is the highest in human history but people are sickened and diseased from pollution, sedentary lifestyles, crowding stress, and chemical additives in their food products. To offset the lifelong effects of exposure to pollutants requires more medicine. The need for medical care becomes more than people can afford, so they look to their governments for subsidies. More people require agricultural productivity to be raised even higher; that requires more fertilizers and tampering in the form of genetically engineered crops and more industrialization of farming.
One might also ask, “Why doesn’t vehicular traffic ever subside for more than a few years in the wake of infrastructure upgrades and roadway expansion?” It never subsides because the population quickly outpaces these improvements. The improvements contribute their part into the bigger problem by (1) reducing the amount of open spaces and (2) making room for more people. Again, the apparent “progress” of civilization becomes a part of the problem while the underlying problem is not resolved.
This cycle perpetuates unforeseen or ignored long-term ill effects on people and the environment.
For all our apparent intelligence and sophistication, humans still submit to emotion in times when reason must rule. We should long since have realized that even our own population is a part of and subject to the rules of nature. Accordingly, we cannot logically deny the need for policies and sensible practices – like abstinence, contraception, and/or family planning – intended to limit and manage our numbers at a sustainable figure. However, we ignore reality for short-term convenience, even though history has demonstrated in lesson after lesson the consequences of overpopulation to both man and beast. Consider a swarm of locusts: it devours all available food within reach but also ensures death from starvation.
Our greed, arrogance, and indifference drive us to procreate, expand, and consume without self-restraint. Mankind fool-heartedly believes we are above the rule of natural law, that our wisdom and clever designs reign supreme; but, we cannot perpetually outwit Mother Nature and her eventual retribution will be swift and unforgiving.
Ron Paul 2008
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