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Saturday, 28 April 2007

Peak Oil

The global warming prophets like to make graphs showing the world's predicted consumption of oil growing at an exponential rate through 2050. Their point is that we shouldn't be doing that because it will add so much more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and accelerate the warming.


Another group of scientists and researchers reckon those graphs are plain silly because according to them there isn't enough oil left in the ground for us to consume at anywhere near that rate. Instead they predict that within a decade or two we're going to reach a point where oil extraction starts to steadily decrease as the wells dry up. They call that point "Peak Oil".

Some think we've already reached it.

So on the one hand there are predictions of skyrocketing demand and on the other they're talking about falling production. Those of you who owned a car in the 1970's might feel a sense of deja vu reading this. As I understand it at that time the constraint on supply was more political than practical but the effect is predictable: fuel prices went through the roof.

But the potential problem is much worse than high prices. Having a gap between demand and supply literally means there isn't enough oil to go around.

Transport would be the first thing to be affected. I was struck some years ago by a very simple phrase stuck to the back of a semi-trailer: "Without trucks, Australia stops." Think about it for a second or two. Then consider which is more important to you: the tractors and trucks which grow food and transport it to the shops, or the car which you drive to work to earn the money so you can drive to the shops and buy the food. In a world of diminishing oil, which one could you give up first? And what happens when the other one runs out of fuel too?

Oil is also a critical feedstock for industry. According to Wikipedia, it is "the raw material for many chemical products, including solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics; the 16% not used for energy production is converted into these other materials." The cost and availability of all these things and anything which depends on them would also be badly impacted.

It's kind of ironic that the worst predictions of CO2 emissions growth might never come to pass, due to us simply running out of hydrocarbons to burn. Lucky us.

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