Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pushing the Automobile as an Environmental Savior

One of Canada's largest daily national newspapers, The Toronto Globe and Mail, seems to be on a campaign, for whatever reason, intended to convince it's readers that the automobile, not public transit, is a solution to the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Over recent weeks that newspaper's Report on Business has been deriding public transit and praising the automobile for everything from lowering traffic congestion to saving the planet from the evils of climate change. One of the high priests of this insidious campaign seems to be columnist Neil Reynolds. His latest column (Statscan public transit spin is out of control) is a thinly veiled critique of the new report called Commuting Patterns, from Statistics Canada.

This report reviews the statistical changes in the use of public transit in a cross section of major Canadian cities. Those changes have, unfortunately, been minor by any measure and continue to reflect the poor usage and support of public transit in this country. Reynolds seems to be suggesting that the low ridership on public transit systems is, in fact, a reason that they should be dropped and the financing that is wasted on them should be diverted instead to even more development of highways and automobile infrastructure.

The consistency of these types of attacks by The Toronto Globe and Mail in general and Neil Reynolds in particular makes one wonder what automobile company or auto industry association is paying the tab or pressuring for this spurious and patently ridiculous series of columns. If they were being put out by the small newspaper in my hometown with its circulation of under 1,000 I would be inclined to laugh it off and maybe write a scathing letter to the editor. But this is a large national newspaper with a circulation of a million and an online readership that probably rivals that. That is a little too large to ignore and, as a result, a little too dangerous to leave unchallenged.

The Globe and Mail and any other newspaper that engages in such a campaign as is obviously underway in these columns and articles is in large measure, unfortunately, making a major contribution to the car culture that is itself at the heart of so many of our environmental problems, not to mention its contribution to our national health problems, and its major and central contribution to our global diminishing supplies of not just oil but a wide variety of finite resources. It is a major contributor to the ongoing campaign to lead us blindly over the cliff that awaits with peak oil. The careful and wilful manipulation of data and statistics to feed the public love for their automobiles, to push the automotive agenda is unconscionable.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why is There a Shortage of People and Equipment in the Oil Industry?

The common lament of oil executives today, and the increasingly tedious explanation for the drop in oil production, is that there is a shortage of trained people and the equipment needed to increase exploration, development and production to offset declines from older fields. Both shortages, I would very strongly suggest, are born out of the same realities.

What attracts people to most professions is not the mundane. It is the potential for the exceptional, the potential to be part of the big find, the big discovery, the big breakthrough. The simple reality is that the peak in oil discovery was a full half century in the past, production now at 4-5 times the level of new discovery. The last major oil discoveries were nearly thirty years ago. Production of the premium, light-sweet crudes have now been in decline for several years. Overall crude production has already decline with increases in production in recent years coming from alternatives, not from increased crude production. The long decades of major technological development in the oil industry since then, in terms of both exploration and production, have not altered those realities. That is hardly a situation that is going to attract the best and brightest to the profession. It is more likely to attract those who walk in with their eyes closed, who have not bothered to check the landscape before they commit themselves. When you add into the mix the disdain that most people today now feel for the oil industry, the fact that new exploration and development is taking place in some of the most inhospitable regions on the planet, the reality that oil is soon to become a dying industry to which it would be very unwise to hitch your wagon, there should be very little surprise that the industry is having trouble finding qualified people.

And the equipment that is declared to be needed and in short supply is in the same boat. The geography and geology involved in the new oil environment take a tremendous toll on equipment, or require totally new equipment because existing equipment simply can't do the job now required. As with qualified people, why would the companies that build the equipment be investing large amounts in the research, development and production of equipment for an industry which looks increasingly like it will not remain viable long enough for them to recoup their costs? It may be culturally suicidal to use the words peak oil inside the oil industry but it would likewise be suicidal to not be aware of that reality. Corporate culture demands an awareness of the risks to investment and peak oil is unquestionably the greatest risk for new investment in the oil industry.

What the executives of the large oil majors are doing is trying to convince others, like equipment developers, national oil companies, exploration companies and today's students to take the risks that they are fully aware are foolhardy. Those oil executives know what the future of their industry holds. That is clear in their rush to diversify into other forms of energy. They are not going to commit their own profits to further investment they know will have no pay back. The only strategy left open to them was to convince others to make that investment. Failing to convince them to do so, after all, gives them a point of blame to focus on while they run out their term in office and crank up their golden parachutes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Peak Oil: City Survivability

It is probable that one's view of what type of community will be survivable on the other side of peak oil is heavily influenced by that in which they were raised. It is important for you to know, therefore, that I was raised in a small town with a population of about 1,300 with the nearest "significant" community of over 30,000 about thirty miles away and the nearest large city over 100 miles away. I freely admit that my views are biased toward that as the most survivable of post-peak community arrangements but I do not concede that it is rooted solely in my upbringing. It is a bias based on considerable thought, research and in-depth reasoning.

An obvious key to post-peak community survivability is that the further we go beyond peak oil the greater the compromises that have to be made in the usage, allocation and marketing of what oil remains and is available on the world market. It is a reasonable question, in fact, as to whether an "oil market" will or even can persist beyond peak oil. The primary role of marketing, after all, is to create and maintain demand for a product, to ensure that the marketplace absorbs the surpluses that the producers turn out. But the Texas Railroad Commission which controlled world oil prices while the U.S. was the world's primary producer and exporter of oil lost control of the market pricing for oil when the U.S. passed peak. Similarly it looks as though OPEC is losing control of the market price as they seem to have collectively arrived at Peak Oil as well. At the moment, in fact, there seems to be a multilateral tug-of-war to see who is going to control oil prices in the future. In a world of no oil surpluses, however, the greatest need will be to stifle demand, not encourage it. If the massive machinery of the marketing industry can be turned toward stifling demand and developing new, rational consumer expectations it may still have a vital role to play. The likelihood is slim, however, that the oil marketing juggernaut can or will go through such a major turnaround.

You will have to forgive me if the following is repetitious to you but it is a point I am passionate about making. Peak oil is not just about the oil, not about liquid fuels! There are over 300,000 products in everyday usage around the world that are wholly or partially made from or derived from oil and natural gas. Not only does our society run on oil - including, very importantly, our production of food - but it is largely built from oil and built and maintained by the energy derived from oil. Whether we are yet approaching, at, or already past peak oil is irrelevant and the ongoing discussion of "when" is a needless and dangerous diversion. The uncertainty as to when does not in any way mean there is uncertainty about "if". Peak Oil will happen! What is important is that knowing we are approaching the limits of our oil production capacity we should be working to reduce our dependence as quickly as possible while we still have the oil-energy to fuel the required transition away from that dependence. Instead we continue to increase our dependence. As many as 14,000 new products per year are brought on the market which are wholly or partially made from oil or its derivatives. The result is that the closer we get to peak oil the more critical becomes our dependence on that oil and the greater the price we will pay after that peak. There are two lines in a poem of mine that keep haunting me as I see this unfold;
When you've come to the end of the line
And the living hurts more the shorter the time..........

Those lines were written about the physical trials of aging but the deeper I have explored the full implications of peak oil the more applicable they have seemed to me to that issue.

It should be obvious, but seems not to be to many including our political leaders, that cities are not now, have never been nor are they capable of becoming self-sufficient in a fossil fuel deprived world. The heavy concentration of population in cities relies critically on resources from outside the city for its survival. There is generally insufficient arable land within a city to grow the food that the city's population needs. The hard goods required by the city are made of metals and other resources that must come from outside of that city. The goods that the city produces are invariably greater than the citizens of the city can absorb and require markets outside of that city to absorb them. The physical distances within a city, especially modern cities, require some energy-dependent system to move the population about from place to place. And the other factor within a city that keeps cities energy dependent is the vertical development. Cities, especially modern cities where over half the people live in apartments, are built up as well as out. That vertical development requires energy to overcome gravity, a simple reality that is too easy to gloss over in an energy-rich world.

Regardless of the size of the city, thousands of tons of materials flow into and out of the city every day. Even with a drastically downscaled lifestyle hundreds of tons of materials, most importantly food, are going to have to flow into and out of the city everyday if the inhabitants of that city are to survive. Without fossil-energy transportation reliance is going to have to be on other forms of transportation, e.g. rail, water, animal-drawn transport, human-drawn transport, etc. As we are starting to see with oil-producing countries holding back reserves to use in their own futures, however, when there is a future conflict in rural areas surrounding cities of degrading their own resources of soil and water to produce food for the city or preserving those resources for their own future needs the obvious human decision is to hold back supply in order to preserve resources for future use.

The vertical infrastructure of cities will become a serious post-peak liability rather than an asset. A twenty-five storey apartment building without benefit of water raised by pumps, electricity for heating and lighting, and without elevators to move people and goods up and down will not be functional when the energy to do all of those things runs out. Anything higher than three or four floors up simply will not be workable over the long term except for the extremely fit. The most consistent argument in favour of the city as a post-peak community model are based on the efficiencies achieved by concentrating population in a smaller area. But when that density is based on vertical development and that population relies on resources from outside of that city the energy required to achieve those efficiencies of density negate the benefits in an increasingly energy-deprived world.

The increasingly common sealed apartment buildings dependent on mechanized air filtration and conditioning, for example, will be particularly ill-suited for the post peak era, regardless of vertical size. In these buildings windows cannot be opened in order to manage air flow, especially for cooling in the heat of summer. The concurrence of peak oil and global warming do not bode well in this regard.

The other major component of the city's vertical infrastructure, of course, is the office building. In the city center office towers of fifty stories and more are increasingly common. These are almost always sealed buildings and totally dependent on elevators for movement of people and goods.

The average city of one million occupies an area of 500-1,000 square miles. That is an equivalent of 320,000-640,000 acres (640 acres per square mile). Assuming that all of that city space were turned to the production of food (no buildings, roads or other infrastructure) that would mean .32-.64 of an acre per person for food production. The estimates of how much arable land per person is necessary for survival vary from a low of .5 in warm climates where multiple crops per year can be taken from the land to 5 acres or higher in cooler climates limited to one crop per year because of the short growing season. The reality is that over half the space in a city is taken up with buildings and other infrastructure which would mean less than .16-.32 acres per person for food production within the city. Clearly, therefore, even with the most efficient food production techniques possible without fossil fuels means that only a small fraction of the food needed by the inhabitants of a modern city could be produced within the confines of that city.

When any species or group exceeds its carrying capacity within the territory it occupies a number of things may happen to bring population and carrying capacity back in balance. I say its carrying capacity because multiple species may share a common territory when those multiple species do not compete with each other for food or other resources. As long as they do not compete for common resources they can continue to share the territory in relative harmony and balance.

But when the carrying capacity of a region is exceeded by one or more species or groups within that region various scenarios unfold. The members of the group may fight amongst themselves for ever-dwindling resources until they achieve some sort of equilibrium with carrying capacity, a battle that will recur regularly as the population continually rises above carrying capacity. If there is unoccupied territory on the periphery of the region the group may expand into this territory thus temporarily increasing their carrying capacity until an increasing population again exceeds that expanded carrying capacity. The group can go to war or battle with groups in adjacent territories and, if successful, increase their carrying capacity by acquisition of their neighbour's land. The group may recognize the limits and develop a new relationship with the environment of their region such that they can live sustainably within the region's carrying capacity. The group may try to simply carry on business as usual and pay the price as nature reduces their numbers down to the carrying capacity. Regardless of which scenario plays out there will have to be a rebalancing of population and carrying capacity. If the region in question is a city it is not difficult to imagine the various scenarios.

When the region in question is a city, of course, the possible scenarios are the same Cities do not exist in a vacuum. They are invariably surrounded by territories that are occupied by other groups, or are pushed up against natural boundaries such as a coast line, mountains, lakes or similar limits. There is no unoccupied territory on the periphery of the modern city into which it can expand. In fact there is essentially no unoccupied hospitable land left anywhere on earth in which a human population could establish themselves sustainably. Under the present system expansion of a city is accomplished through economic development, surrounding farm land bought up and developed with new suburbs of the city. In time, however, these cities begin to run into each other, the rural land between them all gobbled up. But that form of city expansion is a function of the current, growth-oriented economic system which is unlikely to survive, at least in its present form, much beyond peak oil.

It is difficult to live in our modern, highly-advanced society with our advanced technology, high employment, widespread social safety nets and our unprecedented size and power of the middle class, and comprehend a not too distant future where the most important key to our individual survivability will be, simply, food. But that is the future we are racing toward and the gate-keeper is peak oil. Whether you have money or not or whether that money does or does not have any value will matter very little if you cannot get food. I remember many years ago reading a newspaper story about a man found starved to death in his apartment. There were tens of thousands of dollars stashed in the man's apartment. As food becomes increasingly scarce on the other side of peak oil that may be a scenario played out over and over again with people who have done nothing to prepare because they believed that money would always get them what they needed. Ain't necessarily so.

Just as there is insufficient land within most cities to produce the food needed by the city's population, there is considerable debate whether the planet has sufficient carrying capacity to support the massive global human population that now exceeds 6.6 billion. The global push for biofuels as global crude oil reserves are pushed to the limit to try to keep up with global demand has brought the issue of food and carrying capacity into sharp relief. While energy companies are running ads with messages like "I want to grow my fuel, not pump it" critics the world over, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, are warning that biofuels are creating a dangerous situation that might quickly lead to a massive humanitarian disaster where tens of millions could die of starvation either because their is insufficient food globally or because the poorest of the poor can no longer afford what food is available. The idealist in me believes that access to food must not become the province of wealthy western people and nations alone. With the green revolution we promised the world's poor that they could be fed. The obligation to live up to that commitment must not disappear simply because we need to use their land to produce fuel for our SUVs.

A simply reality that we also too easily ignore in our modern world is that the arable land and the production of food does not exist where the populations that most need that food exist. Our ability to feed 6.6 billion people is heavily dependent on a few small areas of the planet where the soil, chemistry and technology has allowed us to produce food surpluses that can be shipped all over the planet to where the people are that need them. The chemistry, technology and energy through which we produce those surpluses and the energy required to distribute those surpluses all around the globe are already going into an inexorable decline. Peak food is several years behind us and global food production which is already in decline will continue to worsen dramatically over the coming years. Thus far the available global food calories per person have not declined to the level that we are seeing dramatic increases in deaths by starvation and other nutrition-related diseases. But we are definitely at a tipping point and over the next decade the impact of having passed through that tipping point will become headline news on a daily basis, provided the media are not kept from publishing hard truths as they all too often are today.

Cities will definitely not be immune from the approaching energy, food and freshwater crises. The impact on them may be initially disguised, a process that may be underway now. Throughout history politicians and power brokers have lavished their attention and whatever money they could extract from the populace through taxes on the cities. It is very likely, based on what we see in the daily news, that cities will continue to be the objects of their affection. The further that goes, however, the more blatant it becomes, the greater the disparity to what financial and political attention is being spent on the rural community, the greater grows the likelihood that the rural areas and the agricultural community are going to cease being willing partners in maintaining the artificial sustainability of the cities. This has happened many times through history but never at a time when what the rural community has has been so critical to the ongoing survivability of the cities. The balance of power in the equation is very definitely going to be shifting in favour of the agricultural community as peak oil lags further and further behind us. It is unreasonable to draw too many parallels to history in this. Never in a our history, after all, have we headed into an age where every form of energy society uses is going to go into serious and irreversible decline over the course of a single lifetime.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

No Planet for Old Men

We are arriving at peak oil at a time when the largest generation yet in human history is entering statistical old age. Even more important, in most major western nations, it is a generation in which the majority of people have spent their working lives in various service industries, making their living through the neuron-firings of their brains rather than the sweat on their brows. Most have never turned a shovel, plowed a field, dug up a garden, grown their own food, canned, dehydrated or otherwise preserved their own food, harnessed a horse or helped a cow through the difficult birth of a new calf.

I am unusual in many respects. Firstly I was technically born before the arbitrarily-designated beginning of the generally-recognized Baby Boomer generation. It is generally accepted that that generation covers the period 1946-1964. I was born three months earlier in September 1945. I entered the computer software industry, one of those clearly service-oriented professions, in 1963-64 (long before the advent of the PC, computer monitors, GUIs and the internet) and spent thirty-five years in that industry. But unlike most in that industry I have done all of those self-sufficiency things I listed in the opening paragraph and even more, things such as working on farms during my late teens and even earlier if you count helping out on my uncle's farm as often as I could and working side by side with my mother and step father in our half-acre vegetable garden.

Despite my familiarity and comfort with skills that would be important in a post-peak world where self-sufficiency will be critical, I do not realistically expect to be able to achieve, let alone maintain, self-sufficiency in the coming years. In fact I do not expect to be a post-peak survivor. Nor do I at all expect the vast majority of the Baby Boomer generation to be long-term, post-peak survivors. It is one of those things that makes me wish that my non-belief in the afterlife turns out to be wrong so that I could watch from afar as peak oil unfolds...... just to see what happens.

In addition to the massive size of the Baby Boomer generation we are essentially a generation that have lived our lives with a totally unrealistic sense of entitlement. We feel that the lifestyle of relative wealth - relative to the rest of the world - and relative ease in which we were raised and have since lived and made our own way, is a God-given right. We have no sense of history, of the reality that we are the first and probably only generation that has lived in a long enough period of relative peace and economic expansion to have developed that myopic sense of entitlement. But it is the historical exception, not the norm. And the reality of history is very soon going to bite us in the ass and disconnect us from the matrix.

The other unrealistic view that we have developed in this past century is the assumption of a long and healthy life. Peak oil, I believe, will also mean peak life expectancy. Many seem to be unaware of or oblivious to the fact that the average life expectancy in industrialised nations has nearly doubled since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The greater the energy use per person the longer the average life.

That co relation is very definitely not accidental. That increased energy use has been the engine of innovation in human hygiene, human nutrition, human work and, most importantly, human medicine. Two keys to that statistical rise in life expectancy are; a major reduction in infant mortality especially in the areas of premature births and births of children with genetic diseases; and the dramatic improvements in medical care for the aged. Essentially if you can live into your sixties modern medicine can and will be used to keep you around for another couple of decades or longer. A very large proportion of seniors today have become seriously medically dependent, owing their continued survival to the wonders of modern medicine.

Both of these areas will face serious hurdles when we pass peak oil and the energy to continue the medical miracles of the past century - to which we have become accustomed and to which we feel entitled - goes into serious decline. Infant mortality will again be on the increase as access to medical facilities for difficult births declines. The increasingly difficult life that will accompany the decline of global oil availability will also exact a tremendous price on the aging baby-boomer generation and future generations of seniors. The heroic medicine that has been responsible for up to a 10-15 year increase in average life expectancy will be increasingly difficult to maintain as the world's energy resources decline.

I don't want to engage in a debate about creationism or intelligent design nor is this statement intended as an endorsement of either of those two points of view. Our bodies genetically evolved during millions of years where the average life expectancy was under forty years. Nature, for any species, does not expend a lot of resources on maintaining an organism beyond reproductive age. Man is the only living species on this planet that enjoys a lifespan that lasts twice as long as our reproductive period. That longevity is not of nature's doing. It has been of our own making, and it has been strongly linked to our use and expenditure of energy. Just as we have used energy - especially that from oil - to create an artificial carrying capacity 5-10 times greater than the earth's natural carrying capacity, we have used that energy to create an artificial life expectancy more than double the natural life expectancy for our species.

As the energy declines the age to which seniors live in industrialized nations will also go into decline. The artificial life expectancy created by our energy and technology will gradually be replace again by the natural life expectancy for which our bodies have genetically evolved. It is reasonable to assume that the first casualties in this transition will be those whose continued survival has been a result of the most recent and dramatic changes, improvements and innovations that our use of energy and technology have given rise to in this past century. The more medically and technologically dependent among us - which covers a high proportion of the senior population - will be the first to face serious problems as energy declines.

On a personal note..... I have been through two serious medical events in the past year, related to my heart, my circulatory system and my endocine system. The tests alone that I have endured would, if I were paying - I am Canadian and we have a universal health care system - would have added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The medicines that I have been prescribed and to which I owe my continued survival would, without that universal heath care and a good private medical plan, cost hundreds of dollars every month.

I am one of those medically-dependent people that will not fare well during a decline in global energy supplies. I have long accepted that. I continue to write what I write for the benefit of others. I want you to think about the ways in which your life and your survival, now and in the near-term future, are dependent on energy and technology. I want you to think about what you are going to have to do to ensure your longevity when the technology that our heavy of use of energy has allowed begins to disappear. I want you to consider what changes you are going to have to make as you become increasingly responsible for your own continued survival as the "system" that has taken care of you begins to fall apart.