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Walter Kohn and Tam Hunt: A Call to Action on Peak Oil

Global recession is just the calm before the storm of ever-increasing demand for energy

By Walter Kohn and Tam Hunt |

We are being lulled to sleep by temporarily low oil prices caused by the global financial crisis. In fact, low prices may lead to an increased level of consumption and accelerated exhaustion of oil reserves.

Walter Kohn
Walter Kohn

“Peak oil,” the point at which global oil production peaks and then rapidly declines, is still not sufficiently on the minds of the American public and policymakers. We don’t know exactly when peak oil will arrive, but it is very likely to occur within 10 to 20 years. Some say that it may even be here now — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, wrote in a 2005 report: “We are at or near a peak in global oil production.” Peak oil should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind — here’s why:

As soon as the global economy recovers, we can expect oil and other fossil fuel prices to shoot right back to where they were last summer, and probably far higher. The International Energy Agency, or IEA, formed in the 1970s to act as an energy watchdog for Western nations, stated in its 2008 World Energy Outlook:

Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable ... The future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply.

This is a call to action of the most urgent kind and we dare not ignore it.

U.S. oil production peaked in 1970 and has declined ever since, apart from a small and short uptick in the late 1970s, and oil imports have increased steadily. We now produce half of what we produced at our peak and import about 60 percent of our oil.

Tam Hunt
Tam Hunt

What is the global situation? The United Kingdom struck oil in the North Sea in the 1970s and became a major world producer. But oil production peaked without warning in 1999 and the U.K. suddenly transformed into an oil importer from an oil exporter just seven years after its oil production peaked. U.K. North Sea oil production is now down almost 50 percent from its peak. The same pattern occurred in Indonesia, formerly a member of OPEC. Norway, Russia and the majority of other oil producers are also past their peak. This is why the IEA regards the situation as so dire: existing oil fields are declining rapidly and new oil fields are not coming online quickly enough to replace them. The IEA concludes that we need three or four additional Saudi Arabias to meet projected demand by 2015! Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a respected oil forecasting firm that has been very skeptical of the peak oil discussion, also recently forecast that 8 million barrels per day of oil projects have been canceled or delayed since the global recession hit, exacerbating the midterm situation further.

Oil production is not the only issue, however. Natural gas production will follow a similar production decline, probably just a few years behind the oil production decline. Natural gas currently constitutes about one quarter of the world’s energy consumption, so this cannot be forgotten in the discussion.

As we’ve seen with food exports such as rice, when fears grow over the domestic availability of key resources (like food, oil or gas), nations will change export policies overnight: last year, Thailand, the world’s second largest exporter of rice, temporarily outlawed rice exports. The same thing could very well happen in oil- and gas-exporting nations: as soon as the global economy recovers and the supply shortage becomes clear, major exporters can simply forbid exports, keeping their precious oil and gas for their own use.

Similarly, some countries’ oil and gas exports are already declining quickly. Mexico, while struggling with a major drug war, saw its oil exports plummet more than 20 percent in 2008 due to the decline by 33 percent in just one year of its major field, Cantarell. Mexico is the third largest supplier of oil to the United States. Mexico’s oil revenue has fallen off a cliff as its oil exports and oil prices more generally have plummeted. As much as 40 percent of Mexico’s government funding is from oil revenue. Clearly, Mexico is facing a formidable future and may not survive as a functioning nation, a conclusion also reached by the U.S. military’s Joint Forces Command in a 2008 report.

The time is now to invest heavily in alternatives to oil and gas, such as energy efficiency, conservation, renewable energy and more efficient transportation. Our own dream is a sustainable energy future powered predominately by solar and wind energy, backed up with energy storage and baseload geothermal, biomass and hydro power. Much is happening in these areas already — and this is hopeful: the Obama administration has budgeted billions of dollars for these efforts and has made energy reform one of its three top priorities. Individuals and communities around the world are also springing into action through various initiatives.

But much more needs to be done. As the IEA concludes: “What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution.”

Walter Kohn is research professor of Physics and Chemistry at UCSB and a Nobel laureate in Chemistry in 1998. Tam Hunt is a private energy consultant and a lecturer in renewable energy law and policy at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.




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» on 06.01.09 @ 08:29 AM

California imports 1/2 of its oil.  The state finances are busted.  Santa Barbara County is firing good teachers because they are broke. Santa Barbara has enough resources from offshore oil that can be extracted through slant drilling from land with no offshore spill risk to make CA oil import independent for 30 years. The royalty monies would pay for a large part of the money required to pay for the “investments” in renewables that Tam Hunt likes to write about. Offshore production has also been drying up our largest source of hydrocarbon pollution, the natural offshore oil seeps, 2nd largest in the world.  Don’t believe it?  Ask any long time Santa Barbara resident from the 1950’s and 1960’s, they will tell you there is far less oil on the beaches now then back then. That’s a fact folks. We now know why. Its called oil extraction Tam. Santa Barbara would receive enough royalty money to pay for the conversion to renewables and fund education and other needed services. But he opposes any land slant drilling into state waters. Why? He says, “we have to invest in renewables”. Ah, but the oil and gas revenues would pay for the conversion rather then going into more debt. And no matter how fast we move to renewables, we’ll still need to import oil and gas for the next 30 years. So why not extract it in the one place in the country it actually has and will benefit the environment to extract it? So, it turns out that to some people and organizations it more important to say you’re against oil production (even though they will use it every day for the rest of his life in other non-transportation uses), then to be for renewables using any oil revenue. Its kind of amazing the lack of logic that gets applied in Santa Barbara to an obvious energy solution to the County’s budget and our biggest source of funds too pay for renewables, while reducing our biggest oil seep hydrocarbon pollution source. And how does the article imply we pay for this renewables conversion over the next 30 years(think trade deficit)while peak oil will make oil far more expense, draining the money we need to pay for renewable investments? Just borrow the money from China to pay for the oil imports! Nice, real nice solution.

» on 06.01.09 @ 09:27 AM

So why are we not pursuing nuclear energy as a solution, Professor Kohn and Mr. Hunt?  Do we have to be lectured about plutonium and half-lifes?  Please don’t bother.  We know you want wind and solar, and can only scoff, because it is not THE solution.  Now that the world is going nuclear: to wit, N Korea and Iran, let’s go for it as the only true solution to our energy challenges.  Vive la France!

» on 06.01.09 @ 09:46 AM

Well…this long time Santa Barbarian says that the amount of tar on the beaches is about the same…depends on the beach and time of year.  Sorry, but 60 years of experience is 60 years of experience.

» on 06.01.09 @ 10:39 AM

Bravo to SB Common Sense and to Earl Meyers!  In order to solve our energy problems ALL forms of energy must be used.  A combination of slant drilling in state waters, coupled with nuclear plants would go a long way towards California’s energy independence, not to mention solving fiscal problems as well.  Sadly, commom sense is sorely lacking in our elected officials, and the majority of those who keep re-electing them.

» on 06.01.09 @ 10:41 AM

SB Common Sense is absolutely correct, but Tam seems to be one of the many enviros who fail to comprehend economics, physics, and the art of compromise.  I keep wondering if education in “environmental science” is really a scientific education or just a political one.

» on 06.01.09 @ 11:14 AM

If you haven’t seen a large reduction in the oil and tar seepage on Santa Barbara beaches in the last 50 years, then you haven’t been going to the beach or aren’t honest…The readers can inquire and judge.  Trying to keep the fiction going that oil production doesn’t reduce the seepage in Santa Barbara just shows that some people don’t mind sacrificing the truth for trying to sustain a glib “all oil production is bad” nonsense…

» on 06.01.09 @ 11:19 AM

The solution is Nuclear, Geothermal, Coal, Hydro and Solar PV in that order. Wind isn’t even a factor given its lack of reliability. Solar falls in this category too but populating the thousands of square miles of roof tops with PV cells would be a great way to augment the stead state energy sources without whacking birds with enormous wind mill blades. We have a civilization that has advanced to the point of requiring more energy than the planet can sustain in a renewable manner. Add to that the fact that the world’s less advanced civilizations want what we have and all Tams solutions become a recipe for worldwide starvation and poverty. They are simply untenable and even if we reverse our civilization to the simplest agrarian culture. Mind you the reason Tam is able to postulate such proposals is because he lives in a petroleum fueled culture that alleviates him from the mindless drudgery of subsistence living. How many of our white, idle wealthy, limousine liberal, intellectuals would like having to spend all their waking hours tolling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads? The reason science has advanced is because we have liberated humans from the drudgery and slavery of subsistence survival largely due to the advancement of energy production and distribution (first done with agriculture). The biggest loser in reverting to the Stone Age is the loss of time spent on intellectual pursuits by the common man. Sorry Tam, I choose to keep humankind going in the other direction giving all human beings the independence we now enjoy in our petroleum fueled civilization. Yes our carbon stocks are running out, so let’s replace them with something that is better not backwards.

» on 06.01.09 @ 11:34 AM

The only practical call to action is to rid ourselves of nuisances like these guys and slant drill for more oil and stop impeding nuclear energy simply because Russia doesn’t know how to properly and safely build a reactor! Every other country is doing it, if anyone knows how to do it safely it is the United States. But we are too full of ignorant whackos like Tam Hunt who think somehow we will find a way to run everything (including planes trains factories and automobiles) on windmills and solar panels alone. If that were even realistic, every square inch of real estate would have nothing but. Already there is a silicon shortage because of the mad dash for solar panels, what happens when we reach peak silicon??

» on 06.01.09 @ 12:23 PM

Any gains from energy efficiency, conservation, and alternate energy will quickly be overtaken and canceled by increased demand from population increases (immigration and birth rate) and increased consumption from developing countries (India, China) as our manufacturing is transferred to them because of the ridiculous environmental standards imposed by this kind of thinking.
Their standard of living increases while ours declines because of our sacrifice, meaning their energy demand increases with much less regulation. There is no net pollution savings for the planet, but instead, a net increase in emissions from countries who simply don’t care about the environment. America always makes the sacrifices while other countries gain economically, putting us at further security risk. Put that in your pipe and smoke it Tam and stop blowing the smoke up our @$$.

» on 06.01.09 @ 12:25 PM

“The same thing could very well happen in oil- and gas-exporting nations: as soon as the global economy recovers and the supply shortage becomes clear, major exporters can simply forbid exports, keeping their precious oil and gas for their own use.”

SO WHY ARE WE NOT PRODUCING OUR OWN??
Answer: Because of people like Tam

» on 06.01.09 @ 12:27 PM

“U.S. oil production peaked in 1970 and has declined ever since, apart from a small and short uptick in the late 1970s, and oil imports have increased steadily. We now produce half of what we produced at our peak and import about 60 percent of our oil.”

Why is that?
Answer: Because of people like Tam!

» on 06.01.09 @ 02:58 PM

Wind Turbines in Europe Do Nothing for Emissions-Reduction Goals

http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,606763,00.html

Solar panels ‘take 100 years to pay back installation costs

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/solar-panels-take-100-years-to-pay-back-installation-costs-917202.html

» on 06.01.09 @ 08:41 PM

A number of commenters have simply assumed that I am personally against all offshore oil drilling. This is not the case. I personally support the PXP application for slant drilling into state waters - as did my former employer the Community Environmental Council, Get Oil Out!, the Environmental Defense Center, and many other enviro groups. I supported this application because PXP was offering a number of concessions that made it very hard to object to the project from an already existing offshore oil platform.

But this ignores the broader point: no amount of offshore oil drilling will solve the problem. And this is the stark conclusion of the IEA report and other analyses. Any increase in unconventional oil production cannot hope to keep pace with the ongoing declines in conventional oil production. Period. Accordingly, focusing on oil drilling is a distraction from the real solutions, plain and simple.

We need to transition quickly to renewable energy solutions b/c these will be long-lasting and are teh ultimate endpoint (unless some other totally unknown power sources come along, which we can’t rule out).

Re the articles from Germany and the UK, these are highly inaccurate. The Spiegel article author clearly does not understand how the European Emissions Trading scheme works. Emissions limits are in fact adjusted in each compliance period, directly contradicting the key point of the article. That said, I’m not a fan of the EU cap and trade system and not a fan of a similar system for the US. These cap and trade systems have far too many problems. But this does not mean that wind power is not a big part of the solution - to the contrary, wind power is the crown jewel of the renewable energy crown because it is here today, cost-effective (quite cheap), scaleable and capable of being installed in many areas around the country.

Re solar paybacks, the Rics analysis is way off-base, even adjusting for the less sunny climate of the UK, as Leggett points out in the article. Solar is still a lot more expensive than wind, but it is dropping rapidly. What would have cost a homeowner about $15k in California (the final cost of a home system after rebates and tax credits) now costs about half that b/c panel costs are dropping rapidly and the tax credit cap has been removed. As such, the payback period for a homeowner can be as little as 5-8 years (when the high tier rates are shaved, as is the case with any smartly installed system).

» on 06.02.09 @ 09:29 AM

“U.S. oil production peaked in 1970 and has declined ever since, apart from a small and short uptick in the late 1970s, and oil imports have increased steadily. We now produce half of what we produced at our peak and import about 60 percent of our oil.”

Why is that?
Answer: Because of people like Tam!

» on 06.02.09 @ 12:32 PM

With people like Obama in charge, it is perfectly acceptable that Iran can develop nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes” (yeah right) But WE have to rely on windmills and solar panels!! This country has been taken over by self sacrificing fools.

» on 06.02.09 @ 08:23 PM

If we don’t drill our offshore oil, some other country will slant drill from international waters and then sell us our own oil.  Brilliant, huh?  Wake up, enviro-idiots.

» on 06.02.09 @ 11:31 PM

We will not have to contend with over population because as oil production dwindles so will food production.  This is going to cause a die off for the human race.  As usual the very young are the the ones who will suffer most.

» on 06.03.09 @ 07:26 AM

Superb article excluding it does not address the true reason for all finite natural resources peaking soon.  Humans inability to stop breeding.  The planet has a virus and we are it.  The planet will over heat for a while and the virus will go away.

Nature buried the majority of these toxic, finite elements deep under the earth and the seas for a reason.  It’s just that the human species is smart enough to be dumb enough to extract/burn them and throw the delicate balance of the biosphere out of whack which is the true problem.

» on 06.03.09 @ 06:14 PM

Don’t worry about all the criticism by morons in this board.  Yes there is oil in the ground, yes many other types of fuels are good, but you are correct sir.  There is to much oil fields in decline and we don’t have enough oil even if we “drill baby drill” to keep rates at the high of July 2008.  We have reached and passed world peak oil.  Nothing the couch potato crowd can say will change it.  Facts are on the side of the writers of this article.  There may be to many wondering about what will happen and is bound to happen.  Higher prices, unworkable government solutions and depression will slow down things for a while.  Finally austerity measures will go into effect as we go into a long gradual decline in power and credit and new wealth is destroyed.

If we don’t get into a war, or lose everything to others, we’ll have to adapt.  We’ll likely give up heated housing for sleeping in unheated housing and not drive much if at all.  We’ll walk or be bused to work.  We’ll keep the green revolution of industrial farming going, but have fewer locally produced products, more like the 1930’s depression.  Things will get bad in some areas, until people adapt and learn to cope.  WE may enjoy the simple things.  We’ll be luck if our military and independence lasts.

» on 06.03.09 @ 08:28 PM

Tam you consistently leave nuclear off the table. I know you and the left love to hate nuclear power because you fell in love with Hanoi Jane in the “China Syndrome” and that movie became the inspiration for a generation of corporation hating commies, but really you don’t strike me as a complete dunce, brainwashed by your tenured, socialist, government payroll junkie college professor, so what gives? You know damned well that we cannot produce enough power using non-steady state sources like wind and solar to make up for petroleum (non-steady state means power is only generated when the wind blows or the sun is out, so some other means of generation must be use to make up for it). And no we will not be able to store surplus wind and solar power in batteries because you already know we can’t build enough batteries to do it. I really want to know what your real motivation is. In fact feel free to speak for all the other “alternative energy” nuts that unanimously reject nuclear power as an alternative. My God man, what are you people thinking? What in the world are you advocating, that we all live in Tee Pees and pick berries for food? Please illuminate us and provide us with the data to support your complete absence of nukes.

» on 06.04.09 @ 09:45 AM

AN50, see this piece on nuclear, which I wrote a couple of years ago. Since I wrote this piece, new economic data have come in showing that nuclear is becoming even more expensive for a variety of reasons. Simply put, nuclear power makes no sense based on economics alone. It would be far better to simply invest in energy efficiency and thereby reduce demand, which has the exact same effect on the reliability of our electric grid as new baseload generation. Actually, it’s far better b/c nuclear power plants are not as reliable as supporters believe: unplanned outages of 1,000 MW nuclear plants (as happens all the time) are a severe strain on the grid. Last, backing up variable power resources such as wind and solar is not as difficult an issue as many believe - and will not be an issue at all on the mainland US for another decade or more because we are currently at far too low a penetration level for backup of these power sources to be required at this point (“resource adequacy” requirements that apply to all utilities allow up to 15-20% penetration of variable resources without building out new backup generation, contrary to common belief).

My piece on nuclear power: http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article_display.cfm?a_id=1254

» on 06.05.09 @ 12:30 AM

AN50, see this piece on nuclear, which I wrote a couple of years ago. Since I wrote this piece, new economic data have come in showing that nuclear is becoming even more expensive for a variety of reasons. Simply put, nuclear power makes no sense based on economics alone. It would be far better to simply invest in energy efficiency and thereby reduce demand, which has the exact same effect on the reliability of our electric grid as new baseload generation. Actually, it’s far better b/c nuclear power plants are not as reliable as supporters believe: unplanned outages of 1,000 MW nuclear plants (as happens all the time) are a severe strain on the grid. Last, backing up variable power resources such as wind and solar is not as difficult an issue as many believe - and will not be an issue at all on the mainland US for another decade or more because we are currently at far too low a penetration level for backup of these power sources to be required at this point (“resource adequacy” requirements that apply to all utilities allow up to 15-20% penetration of variable resources without building out new backup generation, contrary to common belief).

My piece on nuclear power: http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article_display.cfm?a_id=1254

» on 06.05.09 @ 07:17 AM

AN50, see this piece on nuclear, which I wrote a couple of years ago. Since I wrote this piece, new economic data have come in showing that nuclear is becoming even more expensive for a variety of reasons. Simply put, nuclear power makes no sense based on economics alone. It would be far better to simply invest in energy efficiency and thereby reduce demand, which has the exact same effect on the reliability of our electric grid as new baseload generation. Actually, it’s far better b/c nuclear power plants are not as reliable as supporters believe: unplanned outages of 1,000 MW nuclear plants (as happens all the time) are a severe strain on the grid. Last, backing up variable power resources such as wind and solar is not as difficult an issue as many believe - and will not be an issue at all on the mainland US for another decade or more because we are currently at far too low a penetration level for backup of these power sources to be required at this point (“resource adequacy” requirements that apply to all utilities allow up to 15-20% penetration of variable resources without building out new backup generation, contrary to common belief).

My piece on nuclear power: http://www.energypulse.net/centers/article/article_display.cfm?a_id=1254

» on 06.05.09 @ 08:27 AM

Thanks for the reply Tam. However your article sounds more political than engineering based. We know the costs of mining uranium are going to escalate but we also know that some spent fuels can be run through breeder reactors and developed into much higher grade fuels (and more of it). We also know that much of the cost of producing nuclear powered electricity is related to regulatory policies relating to irrational fear rather than actual production costs. And we also know that even if we keep those regulations in place costs will go down as the number of plants increases and technology advances enable far safer operation at much lower cost (the costs you mention are most likely based on technology that is 30 years old, before PC’s the web or any of the other great technology leaps we have made since your favorite movie). Storage of wastes is a political issue not technological or geographical, so like most of the nuclear debate if you use artificial politically induced restrictions then you are not looking at the problem fairly or practically. The fossil equation you use and the GHG emissions gets back to the whole global warming debate Tam, and quite honestly that should not be part of the equation at all until the debate is settled, which may not happen for decades. It is true that nukes are high value targets for terrorist but Tam so are your wind mills and quite frankly a solar array farm can be taken out quite easily with a bag of bee bees dropped from a low flying plane at much less risk to the terrorist. So handicapping our energy production for something that might happen or not is, well, really lame. I disagree with you that we can make up the difference with efficiency and reduction, show me your data. As an electrical engineer I’ve spent my career doing just that. What we in the industry discover most often is that we tend to find more uses for the energy we save rather than cutting back on use all together. And that gets back to my earlier question about what kind of civilization you envision us living in, subsistence and retrograde or advancing and including more of humanity. Keep in mind we are having this debate here because cheap abundant energy has liberated us from the drudgery of subsistence living. If we want the rest of the undeveloped world to share in this great liberation then we are going to need massive amounts of new energy sources that are steady state to be the main sources rather than backups. And yes backing up or storing surplus at the renewable farms is difficult, unless you are storing that surplus electricity in the form of high density hydrocarbons (gasoline, kerosene, etc…) which violates your GHG religion. Hate to say it but you global warming guys are going to find that your new religion is going to cause your new energy régimes a lot of trouble. Best leave the GW debate to the scientist and the solar system and concentrate on those things you have real power over. Best of luck in your new career but please leave the political ideology aside and keep it scientific.

» on 06.05.09 @ 05:14 PM

Hey Editor, I notice on several postings a sizable delay, sometimes resulting in double posts by us impatient responders. Anything to do with the web site or are we working you to death over there at Noozhawk? Just curious. Cheers!
BTW I believe you guys are kicking all the other nooze daily’s in the arse. Keep up the good work!

[Editor’s note: Sometimes my real job gets in the way of the fun stuff. Sorry about that, but thanks for the kind words and for your support.]

» on 06.06.09 @ 11:45 AM

We will someday reach peak oil so therefore let’s stop producing and using it. Is that the jist of what Tam is trying to say here? What idiotic reasoning.

» on 06.07.09 @ 03:48 PM

Nuclear is one step to solving our energy needs. But we would need to build one nuclear plant every other day for the next few decades to keep up with demand.

Nuclear, Geothermal, wind, renewable biomass (algae-based) and especially solar must all work together. Projecting for increases in efficiency in solar technology in the next decade, we could power a significant amount of US demand with perhaps a few hundred square miles in New Mexico desert.

This does not mean abandoning our current oil resources in any way or stopping drilling—but government policy will need to direct renewable research because keeping low-priced gas will not have the market correct for it.

We can continue to use oil, but plan for a future run on solar, nuclear, biofuel, hyrdo, geothermal, and clean coal as well.

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