We are not addicted to fossil fuels, it’s much worse than that. Oil, coal, unnatural gas, mineral ores and using “renewable” resources faster than they regenerate fueled our population growth from under a billion (before fossil fuels) to seven billion today. Our industrial agriculture system is totally dependent on massive energy consumption to grow and distribute our food.
We are in a paradox: burning these fuels is wrecking the biosphere, but if we stopped burning them our society would crash, which could accelerate ecological damage. There are many worthy efforts to relocalize food production and prepare for living with less fossil energy, but at the rate they are being implemented the fossil fuels will be gone before we are prepared to live without them.
Many environmental groups say we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels in the coming decades to mitigate climate chaos. However, energy use has peaked due to physical constraints, and on the energy downslope our use will continue to decline whether we plan for it or not.
In the United States, energy use from all sources peaked in 2007 at about 101 quads. A quad is a quadrillion BTUs. One BTU is roughly the energy released by a match. In 2012, energy use had dropped to about 95 quads.
2007 was also the year of Peak Electricity in the US. Since then, electricity usage has dropped about ten percent.
Traffic also peaked in the US in 2007, in terms of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). The rising cost of gasoline and economic “recession” ended the increase of car traffic. Roads are still busy, but most are not getting any more congested.
Federal transportation law requires highway expansion plans to consider traffic levels two decades in the future. It’s anyone’s guess how much fossil energy will be available in the 2030s, but it’s clear it will be considerably less than today’s flow. This negates the “purpose and need” for new bypasses and highway widenings, but Peak Traffic has not yet been included in any official transportation plan anywhere in the country.
Domestic aviation also peaked in 2007, again due to rising oil prices that raised the cost of tickets. The leveling off of aviation growth is a bigger shift than the reduction after 9/11.
US oil production peaked in 1970 at about ten million barrels a day. In the past couple years, there has been a propaganda campaign to persuade the public that fracking is going to lead to energy independence. However, while fracking has received lots of scrutiny due to the toxic impacts on aquifers, the fact that fracking is a very short term activity is not as well known. Fracked wells deplete far faster than conventional wells, and the production data shows fracking cannot bring US oil extraction back to the 1970 peak, even if environmental and public health problems were ignored. Fracking and tar sands are “scraping the bottom of the barrel” and have delayed the onset of gasoline rationing.
Coal production peaked in the US in 1999, in terms of energy content. The tonnage of coal mining continues to increase, but the industry is going after lower quality coal, part of the motive for mountaintop removal. In Pennsylvania, where coal mining began, extraction peaked in 1920.
Peak Natural Gas in the US was in 1973. The recent boom in gas extraction is from fracking, but that is starting to peak, just as fracking for oil is peaking. When the fracking bubble bursts, we will have to choose whether to use the remaining natural gas to heat cities in the winter or to burn it for electricity.
Nuclear power has also peaked. Peak uranium mining in the US was 1980. The number of operating power reactors has peaked. Old, worn out reactors are being shut down faster than replacement plans for new nukes.
We are also using “renewable” resources faster than they regenerate. Forests, fish, soil, and fresh water are being depleted everywhere. Part of the needed response to our civilization’s “going out of business sale” would be to implement permaculture strategies everywhere. It would be nice to see environmental initiatives focus more on “Transition Towns” than lobbying politicians. The more we can create practical responses, the more likely we will see broader adoption of ecological policies on the energy downslope.
Using solar energy for twenty years (and wind power for ten) taught me that renewable energy could only run a smaller, steady state economy. Our exponential growth economy requires ever increasing consumption of concentrated resources (fossil fuels are more energy dense than renewables). A solar energy society would require moving beyond growth-and-debt based money.
After fossil fuel we will only have solar power, but that won't replace what we use now. Living on our current solar budget could not be a seamless substitute for digging up a hundred million years of sunlight. We need to abandon the myth of endless growth on a round, and therefore, finite planet to have a planet on which to live. Will we use the remaining fossil fuels to make lots of solar panels and relocalize food production instead of waging Peak Oil Wars?
Richard Heinberg www.PostCarbon.org
- The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality
- Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future
David Holmgren, co-originator of permaculture FutureScenarios.org
- Future Scenarios: How Communities can adapt to Peak Oil & Climate Change
"The dip in global emissions created by the 2008 global financial crisis was ignored by the climate activist community as an inconvenient truth."
- David Holmgren, Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future http://holmgren.com.au
Peak Choice: Cooperation or Collapse
an uncensored guide to Earth, energy, money
by Mark Robinowitz