Concerned about Peak Oil and Canberra's energy future?
What is peak oil?
Peak Oil is the point where the world has reached peak extraction of oil - half of the world's oil supplies will have been extracted and production will forever decline afterwards. The theory and observations began with primarily with the work of M. King Hubbert who in 1956 predicted that conventional oil extraction in the lower 48 states of the US would peak around 1970 – production peaked in 1971.
Extraction from oil fields follows a bell curve. A collection or region of individual oil fields will also follow a bell curve and with enough data a curve for oil extraction for the entire world can be developed. Increasingly evidence is providing a picture that oil extraction has either peaked or will peak by 2010.
Won't we find more?
The short answer is some, but not as much. Global discovery of oil peaked in the 1960s and since 1981 the amount of oil discovered each year has been less than the amount extracted and used (R. Heinberg's Powerdown 2004, p.19 & p.43). There are few areas that haven't been explored and the largest fields are usually discovered early on.
Why is it important?
"Ninety percent of all our transportation, whether by land, air or sea, is fuelled by oil. Ninety-five percent of all goods in shops involve the us of oil. Ninety-five percent of all our food products require oil use" (C. Skrebowski in J. Leggett's Half Gone 2005, p.21). Basically oil is one of the most highly used materials in the modern world. Without it, or more pertinently with reduced amounts of it, significant elements of our systems of transportation, industrial production, and modern agriculture will have to change.
Aren't there alternatives?
Yes - but there are significant issues with alternatives ranging from technological shortfalls to environmental effects to logistical issues to simple shortages. For instance tar sands require vast amounts of energy and water to produce oil and their "development" is environmentally damaging. Ethanol production requires feedstock which will likely compete with food production or otherwise further utilise non-agricultural land and lead to habitat destruction. Another important issue for many alternatives is their Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) - if less energy is returned from the process than is needed to get the energy then it is generally going to be futile. This is an issue for many bio-fuels. Even where the EROEI is greater than one, for alterantive fuels and technology it is almost always significantly less than the EROEI of "easy" oil. When oil was first discovered it had an EROEI of around 100-to-1 - now it is estimated at between 8.4 and 11.1 (for every unit of energy invested in exploration and getting the oil 8.4 to 11.1 units of energy are returned) (see R. Heinberg's The Party's Over 2003, p.124-125).
Where can I find out more?
There is an increasingly large body of groups and information on peak oil and when it may occur. The following list is by no means exhaustive - further sites can be found from these links.