Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Peak Oil Apocalypse

Peak oil is to the ecological left what the rapture is to the Christian right.  Some people seem to have a psychological need to believe that history is about to end in a catastrophe that will destroy the wicked. 
I am not denying the obvious fact that oil production will peak and disrupt our economy.  I am criticizing the people who claim that, after oil production peaks, industrialism will collapse and be replaced by local subsistence economies that are much poorer. 
In reality, we have enough clean energy to sustain an industrial economy.  It is estimated, for example, that we could produce all the electricity that America now uses with solar arrays on a land area of 100 miles by 100 miles, so we will obviously not have to close the factories and start producing subsistence by hand.  Of course,  renewable resources cannot support endless growth, but there is enough clean energy to give us all a comfortable standard of living.
We also have enough dirty energy to keep the industrial economy going after oil peaks.  When gasoline prices reach about $5 per gallon, it becomes economically feasible to use liquid coal instead of petroleum.  There is enough coal, tar sands, and shale oil to keep the industrial economy growing for decades after oil peaks - and enough to cause severe global warming.
The constraints of global warming are much tighter than the constraints on fossil fuel resources.  As Bill McKibben points out, we have to limit our carbon emissions to 565 gigatons to keep CO2 concentrations below 450 ppm and avoid the worst effects of global warming, but there are now proven world reserves of fossil fuels containing 2,795 gigatons of carbon, five times as much as we should burn.  The battle against the Keystone XL pipeline is the first of many battles that will show that scarcity of fossil fuels will not automatically limit CO2 emissions, that we have to make deliberate political decisions to limit fossil fuel production to avoid severe global warming.
Now, let’s imagine how those political decisions will go if the peak oil crowd speaks for environmentalists.  Conservatives say that we can maintain our standard of living if we “drill, baby, drill” to produce more oil, if we remove mountain tops to produce more coal, and if we get rid of all environmental regulations that limit energy production.  Peak-oil environmentalists say that we cannot maintain our standard of living: limited energy will make our economy collapse and will make the survivors scrape out subsistence using more labor-intensive methods. If the public is faced with this choice, it will obviously go with the conservatives.
Environmentalists can win the debate with conservatives, if we show that there is enough clean energy to give us a comfortable standard of living, and if we can paint a convincing picture of a better future. 
But if environmentalists focus on an imaginary apocalypse that will inevitably occur after oil production peaks, then the conservatives will win the political debate, and the world will face a real apocalypse caused by global warming.