Running on empty: the end of oil as we know it

Many of the world’s top energy experts attending ASPO-USA’s annual peak oil conference in Washington, D.C. this week agree that the era of low-cost, easy-to-get oil has come to an end just as global demand will start to accelerate. That’s why oil and gas companies are trying to extract oil from shale formations and drilling miles down in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Recent reports from government and military agencies in the United States, Great Britain and Germany  all point to shrinking oil supplies as a growing reality fraught with potentially drastic consequences —resource wars, price shocks, shortages of fuels and vital goods, and broad economic decline.  

Peak oil and energy depletion represent a stark challenge to long-held assumptions that underlie the American way of life.  Without affordable energy to drive our economy, we can expect price spikes and economic crises to be the new normal. The Pentagon’s Joint Operating Environment Study uses the bleak language of war and collapse. These are not the ravings of “Chicken Little” alarmists; these are cold sober calculations from the minds of the best scientists and energy analysts on the planet.

While the debate about Peak Oil is over, the work of addressing the enormous challenge of energy depletion has barely begun. Time is not our friend on this issue.  We are watching a race between oil depletion and new technologies, and depletion is winning. It is time for bold and wise action. We must immediately focus government policy and public awareness on mitigation strategies that are guided by the principle of “net energy” and choose the technologies that offer the highest energy return over the energy required to produce it. 

Of course, the smartest and most readily available strategy is energy conservation. The greatest single source of “energy return” comes from what some have dubbed “negawatts” – the energy we do not burn and consume.  However, thus far, serious conservation strategies have received only lip service and relatively little government or private sector investment. The immense power of conservation should not be underestimated – such solutions include higher fuel efficiency standards for our cars and trucks; car sharing; more efficient design and construction of our homes, workplaces and urban centers; and innovative recycling and reuse programs. These approaches represent the low-hanging fruit of Peak Oil mitigation.

With the arrival of Peak Oil, many of the old ways of doing business are no longer feasible. Instead of building more highways, we must expand public transportation and make it more appealing, accessible and affordable. We must also change the paradigm around how we produce and transport food, raw materials and manufactured goods. Investments by governments and the private sector must be designed to bring manufacturing and food production processes closer to our homes. Globalization is likely to emerge as a failed strategy. 

There are no silver-bullet-techno fixes at this time. We must immediately develop a bold national energy program that combines increased conservation, improved efficiency, effective alternatives, and prudent exploration and production. Such a program must be driven by the technological and moral equivalent of the U.S. moon shot. The Peak Oil crisis is the 1st   energy supply challenge of the 21st century. We can’t leave this problem to our children and grandchildren. America must face the challenge now, head-on, with the same courage we have brought to great national crises. There is no time or energy to waste.

Jim Baldauf is a Co-founder and President of the non-profit, non-partisan Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas-USA (ASPO-USA). The group is holding its 6th annual Peak Oil Conference October 7-9 in Washington, D.C.