Peak Oil: Chapter 2

  Peak Oil Overview

     Evolutionary psychology and peak oil:
      A Malthusian inspired "heads up" for humanity.

          -- by
Michael E. Mills, Ph.D.

Chapter 2: Peak oil as a an example of human ecological overshoot.


    "We know that we cannot sustain a future powered by a fuel that is rapidly disappearing.
       ...breaking our oil addiction is one of the greatest challenges our generation will ever face.
       ...This will not be easy."
           -- Barack Obama,  August 4, 2008

"Those of use who are alive today have always taken fossil fuels for granted.
We've always had them around. It doesn't matter if you are 20 years old
or 70 years old, we've all grown up during this unique, historic period
of cheap abundant energy from coal, oil, and natural gas."

Richard Heinberg, from the film Blind Spot

" oil supply (is peaking) lower and sooner than had been contemplated earlier."
        -- Allan Greenspan, Wall Street Journal, 12/15/2007

One of the most critical finite energy resources are fossil fuels, which
provide a cheap, dense source of energy to power technological/industrial

"Peak oil" is the point when 1/2 of extractable world oil has been extracted.

A related concept is "peak oil production,"  when oil production starts
an inexorable decline, causing oil prices to increase.   Here, the term "peak oil" will
refer to peak oil production.

The amount of oil produced by a particular oil field, or a region, shows a
regular pattern: first oil production increases, then it reaches a peak, and,
finally, as the oil field begins to dry up, oil production starts an
inexorable decline.





This "bell curve" pattern of oil production, called the Hubbert curve,
is also true for world oil production as a whole.



Below, the countries in red are already past their oil production peak;
those in green have yet to pass peak (but most will in the next 5 or 10


(Source: To see an interactive atlas the
above graphic, click here.)


Source: 2007.pdf


Global rates of discovery of new oil fields has been on a terminal
decline since 1964.


Source:  ASPO

The graph below suggests that we may be on a "bumpy plateau" for a while before we
start down the inexorable down slope of the bell shaped Hubbert curve.



          Source: Oilwatch_august2010_5.png


On a per-capita basis, we are already well past the per-capita oil production peak.


              Source: Association for the Study of Peak Oil (APSO)



Below are some projected worst, mean, and best case scenarios for
future world oil production.

               ;        Image hosted by

                        Graph of  Actual and Projected World Oil Production
                         (Source: Dr. C. J. Campbell)


In the long view, humans will have devoured the entire world's oil
reserves in only about 150 years.  (Our descendants may not
be too happy with us.)




Here is a brief video overview of the problem:





In November, 2010, the International Energy Agency, which has a history
of rather optimistic oil production forecasts, finally came to a rather grim

Source: already-passed


The U.S. military is aware of the problem.  The 2010 Joint Operating Enviornment
stated: "By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and
as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day."

Source: supply

A New Zealand Parliamentary report recently came to many of the same




And, disturbing news items about Saudi Arabia reaching peak oil:


Source: wikileaks





A Related Problem: What Happens When World Oil Demand
Outstrips Production?

Price increases.   Very, very unpleasant price increases.  Prices that
never go down again -- that (in real terms) always trend up.


ource: http://www.aspo-






There are three very important "take home" messages.

Below are very important facts to fully comprehend. 

The first:

1. We are already beyond, or at, both of these  inflection points now:

  • Peak oil production
  • Oil demand/production crossover

But what about transitioning to renewable energy sources?

That would be a good idea.   But we should have started 30 years ago
to avoid a very difficult energy transition period.

Ready for the second take home message?    Be sure you are
sitting down, because the first time this really sinks in, it feels like taking
a punch to the gut:

2. We have, as of now, no renewable energy source, nor combination
of sources
, that can scale up quickly enough, or provide anywhere
near the energy equivalent of oil, to avoid a severe, worldwide
energy shortage.

Sorry to break the news. 

Let's take a moment to re-read and digest that second take home message
(and its implications).

    "There is no quickly scalable and energy-equivalent substitute for oil"
in terms of its energy density,  EROEI (energy returned on energy
         invested, or "net energy"), transportability, safety, range, infrastructure, and cost. 

This is quite a tragedy.  Today, the production of one calorie of food requires about ten
calories of oil energy. Since food production is so dependent on energy
production, following an energy famine will be a food famine.  Many
poor people, especially in developing countries, will literally starve to death as oil
energy depletes.


The third take home message:

3. Even if we had renewable energy sources to provide the equivalent
energy of oil at the same cost, our entire economic infrastructure
is oil, not electron or hydrogen, based.  The economy might not
be able to work as well on non-oil based energy.  For example, could
airplanes, or large mining trucks, be run on batteries?


So there are very sobering economic and social risks starting now, and exacerbating
over the next several decades.

For the past century, oil has been an essentially free source of extremely
dense and useful energy.   Poke a hole in the ground in the right location,
and you get an unparalleled source of energy.  And, it can also be used to make
a variety of products such as plastics, tires, asphalt for roads, medicines, etc.
That is, when we are not burning it.

"I was a firm believer in solar, wind, and geothermal energy until a few
years ago, and I still believe they will help individuals. But no combination
of these "renewable" technologies will make a notable difference at the
level of 300 million Americans, much less the 6.5 billion people in the world.

 ...No alternatives scale, and we're out of time. We made the important
decision about energy policy at two critical junctures in American history:
(1) shortly after WWII, when we created the interstate highway system
and the suburbs to build a way of life that had no future because it relied
completely on ready supplies of a finite resource, and (2) in 1980,
when we dismissed conservation at irrelevant..."
Professor Guy McPherson (see this link, as well as his blog)


But what about hydrogen, and the coming "hydrogen economy?"

Take another deep breath.   Hydrogen is not a source of energy (like oil is). 

You can't poke a hole in the ground and "strike hydrogen."  It actually takes
another source of energy (such as electricity) to make hydrogen.  
Hydrogen is just a "storage medium" for energy, like a battery.
And, it is less energy efficient than a battery.


Energy Efficiency of Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars vs. Battery Electric Cars:

Source: s._Hydrogen_EV.png/753px-Battery_EV_vs._Hydrogen_EV.png


But what about other sources of renewable energy?


Oil is extremely energy dense. The energy in 13 gallons of gasoline (about a
tank full for most compact cars) is equal to the combined work of 1,000 people
over an entire day.

Source: aleklett/powerpoint/20100609_Aleklett_kva.pdf


One barrel of oil is equal about 25,000 hours of human labor.


In one year the entire world produces about 1 cubic mile of oil (2006 data).  It would
take 50 years of energy production by each alternative energy source below to
accumulate the equivalent energy in 1 cubic mile of oil that the world uses now in one year.


Source:  and 


In one year, to produce the energy equivalent of 1 cubic mile of oil, it would take: 

               200 Three Gorges Dams, or,
            2,600 Nuclear Power Plants, or,
            5,200 Coal Fired Plants  (not good for global warming...), or,
      1,642,500 Wind Turbines, or,
4,562,500,000 Solar Panels

             Also see:  can renewable energy make a dent in fossil fuels?


The transition to renewable energy has barely started.

How much do we now rely on renewable energy?  Not much.

Here is a pie chart view:


Source: 54.html


Source: world_primary_energy.png

Note in the above graphic the tiny sliver of red along the top (see the
arrow) -- that is the portion of our energy that we get from wind, solar, and
geothermal combined.

Renewable energy cannot "self-bootstrap."

Renewable energy is not self-renewable.   As of now, we need oil to build and
maintain renewable energy infrastructure.

Solar panels cannot be built with just the energy from solar panels.  The same is
true for all other sources of renewable energy -- hydroelectric dams cannot be built
from the energy of other hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants cannot be built
with the energy from other nuclear power plants, etc.   

Sad bottom line:  all renewable energy requires oil energy to build and maintain.


Over their lifetime, some renewable energy sources may actually be energy sinks.

Physics professor Goncalves da Silva has argued in an article titled The fossil energy/climate
change crunch: Can we pin our hopes on new energy technologies?
that not only are many renewable
energy sources dependent themselves on oil energy, but some renewable energy
sources may actually take more energy to create, deploy and maintain than the energy
they provide during their lifetime.  For example, the overall energy costs of a solar panel may be
higher than the energy provided by it over its lifetime.   It may take technological breakthroughs
over several decades to increase the efficiency and energy density of some renewable energy
sources to make them a net positive energy source.

Here is an excerpt from an article that summarizes his conclusions:

" ...(da Silva argues) that "the new technology may actually be an energy
sink, instead of an energy source... " Consequently, he says that " displace
massive quantities of fossil energies will be a slow process, extending over
many decades," and that we should "not place undue hope in new energy
technologies to save the world from fossil energies until well after many
decades of deployment."

Reference: Goncalves da Silva, C.E.T. 2010. The fossil energy/climate change crunch:
Can we pin our hopes on new energy technologies? Energy 35: 1312-1316


Reaching peak oil production is bad enough.  But it gets worse...

   ...additional factors that will likely further exacerbate the problem:

1. China and India are now growing massive middle classes. 

They want cars, and this desire will substantially drive
up the worldwide demand for oil.   

The State of California consumes more oil every year than does
the entire country of China (
source).   Populations:  California, 37
million; China, 1.3 billion.  Only about 1 out of 70 people in China
currently own a car.   The rest would like to. Car sales in China are
up more than 800% since 2000 (


Source: consumption/


China has recently gotten a jump start on developing renewable energy industries,
as noted in this
video clip from the Science Channel program Powering the Future:





How ironic it would be if we switched our dependency on foreign countries
for our oil to foreign sources for our renewable energy technology
and manufacturing.


2. As noted above, current renewable energy sources are far less "energy dense"
than fossil fuels, and they are not rapidly scalable.


For example, we might hope that the batteries in electric cars could store
as much energy as does a tank ofgasoline.    No, they don't come close.

Today, the advanced Tesla Roadster has a lithium-ion battery pack weighing
900 pounds, which delivers just 190 MJ of energy. In contrast, a 10-gallon tank
of gasoline weighs 62 pounds and delivers 1,200 MJ of energy. To provide
the equivalent energy to a typical gasoline car, an electric-car battery pack would
need to consume resources weighing 5,700 pounds, nearly the weight of the
last Hummer model.
-- David Fridley.  

Table comparing the energy densities of some alternative fuels
(energy density by weight):

Source:  Kurt Zenz House and Alex Johnson, "The Limits of Energy Storage Technology," Bulletin
of the Atomic Scientists Web edition, January 20, 2009, edition/columnists/kurt-zenz-house/the-limits-of-energy-storage-technology.
Also reproduced here:


Table comparing the energy densities of energy sources by amount
of land area required.

Source:  Do We Have the Energy for the Next Transition?  (2010, August 13) Science, vol. 329, p 781.

A few relevant quotes regarding the energy density of alternative fuels:

No combination of conservation measures, alternative energy sources,
and technological advances could realistically and economically
provide a way to completely replace [oil] imports in the short or medium term."
    -- Stuart McGill, Exxon Mobil Senior Vice President

"Based on everything we know right now, no combination of (renewable
energy sources)... will even permit us to operate a substantial fraction
of the systems we currently run -- in everything from food production and
manufacturing to electric power generation...   We are in trouble."
  - - James Howard Kunstler, "
The Long Emergency"

"No combination of renewable energy systems have the potential to
generate more than a fraction of the power now being generated
by fossil fuels."

  -- Jay Hanson

"In our own day, we must eventually  move to lower grade energy
resources as we slowly run out of oil.  Therefore, we might expect
the transition from oil to oil alternatives to be a decisively less
successful energy transition than previous energy transitions in
history, since all the previous transitions were from low grade to
high grade energy resources, and the coming oil transition is from
a high energy resource of oil to lower grade energy resources."
Professor Douglas Reynolds, oil and energy economist

"If someone, somewhere, comes up with a source of
power that is safe, inexpensive, and for all intents and purposes
inexhaustible, then we, the Chinese, the Indians, and everyone
else on the planet can keep on truckin'. Barring that, the car of
the future may turn out to be no car at all."
-- Elizabeth Kolbert,
Running on Fumes, The New Yorker, 11/5/07

3. Oil Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI), or "net energy,"  is falling. 

...society's excitement about tar sand is like an alcoholic coming into a
bar and finding the taps have run dry. But after years of customers
spilling beer on the carpet, he knees down and tries to wring out
a few drops of booze from the carpet.
      -- Frederic Malter


The real underlying problem is not peak oil, but declining oil "net energy"
or "EROEI" (Energy Returned on Energy Invested).

This is one of the most foundational peak oil concepts to understand.
It doesn't matter how much oil is in the ground -- what matters
is how expensive it is to get it, as well as how fast you can get it
out of the ground (the flow rate).

To get 100 barrels of oil in 1930, it took only 1 barrel of oil energy.
In 1970 the ratio had dropped to about 30:1.  Now that ratio has fallen to
about 10:1.  Once this ratio falls to 1:1, it will take more than one barrel
of oil to extract one barrel of oil.  Game over.
(More info here and here; also see "Why EROI Matters" by Professor
Charles Hall, and Net Energy and Jevons' Paradox, John Michael Greer.)



With the EROEI of oil declining, we might hope that we could turn to
other, alternative energy sources with equal, or higher, EROEIs.    As of
now, we have no such alternatives.



Source: Postcarbon Institute


Source: Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy, by David Fridley

Note the EROEI of ethanol.   Surprisingly, it is an energy sink -- it consumes
more energy to produce ethanol than it provides.

Here is a video clip that explores this topic from the Science Channel program
Powering the Future:


                                     < param name="allowFullScreen" value="true">

So, more important than peak oil is "peak net energy."

Note in the following charts how rapidly the EROEI for oil declines
after peak oil.   The Hubbert Curve is symmetrical; unfortunately,
the Net Energy Hubbert Curve is not -- it looks more like a shark fin.  The downside
of the curve is more like falling off of a cliff.


The above net oil energy graph, once its implications sink in,
is shocking and disturbing.


The Net Energy Cliff for Domestically Produced U.S. Oil

Source: 311063


Total domestic U.S. domestic oil projection (EIA) in mbpd (black) with sensitivity
on net available to society (green). 

Could U.S. domestic "net oil energy" fall to zero by 2022?



4. Oil exporting countries will reduce (or stop) exporting oil when they cannot
meet their own growing internal demand for oil. 


Because the U.S. reached peak oil in 1970, as noted above,
our domestic oil production has declined ever since.   Where did
we get the oil we needed after that point?  From foreign countries.



Today the U.S. sends over 700 billion dollars a year to foreign
countries to purchase oil.   Our economy can't take that
kind of financial hemorrhaging for long.

Further, as those foreign countries reach peak oil, and their own
oil production begins to decline, they will have less oil to export. 

For example, the U.S. gets much of its oil from Mexico; however
Mexico will be unlikely to meet its own internal demand for oil
within a decade -- there will be none left to export to the US.   
(See "Net Oil Exports and the Iron Triangle" by Jeffrey Brown.)

Compared to 2007, in 2008, Mexican oil production dropped 6.4% and
their oil exports fell by 14%.
(Source: Production.php).




Also see the article: Time Running Out for Energy in Mexico


The "Export Land Model" by Jeffrey Brown suggests that, as world
oil production declines, while at the same time world oil consumption
increases, the amount of oil available for export from oil producing
countries to oil importing countries will decrease over time.


Source: 05-20.html


Ironically, as U.S. oil production further declines, we will
become increasingly dependent on oil imports in the future. 
(While our politicians continue to talk about oil independence as
if that was a realistic possibility...)



Source: GraphOilogy February 27, 2006

So the next time you hear a politician talk about U.S. fossil fuel
energy independence...  well, you get the idea.

And, it will be a problem for all oil importing countries.



5. Higher Oil Prices Cause Price Inflation.

As the cost of energy rises, the prices of everything else made with
oil and oil energy also rises.  What is made of oil, or made using oil
energy?   Almost everything we use today (More info here.)

6. Oil hoarding.

Once it becomes clear that world oil production is on an inexorable decline,
and that oil prices are on an ever upward trend, oil hoarding will begin.
Some oil may simply not be for sale, at any price. 



Oil prices (in real terms) will spiral upward in a self-reinforcing, yet
volatile, feedback loop.  (More on this: see this article.)

Should the oil markets themselves begin to 'connect these dots'
then all our lives are going to be impacted violently and
immediately. soon as Peak Oil is recognized that for all practical
purposes the situation is already upon us, then a fast and vicious
"resource grab" will be initiated. The price of oil in the markets will
begin to rise dramatically. This will initiate a circular hedging
hoarding mentality in large end-users, governments, and
multi-nationals. This will then have a myriad of devastating effects...


Taken together, all of these factors will make the transition to renewable energy
very painful and difficult.  

Here is a brief video clip that explores our denial about oil depletion as our
"blind spot."   All of us alive today have always had access to relatively cheap
and energy dense oil and gasoline.  It is hard to imagine a world without it.

Trailer from the film Blind Spot:



Continue to Chapter 3: Possible economic and social scenarios following peak oil