Rex Weyler: Peak oil means sooner or later we'll wake up to a new normal

By Rex Weyler

Don’t be fooled by low oil prices. Cheaper gasoline does not mean that we now have plenty. Oil prices plummeted with the crashing economy, like everything else, but this does not change the fact that the peak rate of global oil production is now probably behind us. In fact, low oil prices make it more likely that global oil production will never again exceed the long plateau from 2005 to 2008.

The International Energy Agency reports that the top 800 oil fields on the planet are in steady decline. The current low price of oil has not slowed this decline, but it has slowed energy investment. The IEA says flatly, “Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable.” Martin Payne, former chair of the American Petroleum Institute’s Houston chapter, says, “We can’t keep liquid fuel supply flat, let alone grow it.” The party’s over. It is time to get back to real life.

Less energy equals less economic growth. If that sounds too simplistic, check the energy and production history of any nation on Earth. Over the coming decades, our society will discover something we do not yet quite understand although the evidence surrounds us. We will learn that the root of our financial crises is not just greed and deceit, but the actual biophysical constraints of what Earth can supply to fulfill human desires.

We dream of innovations that might indemnify us from nature’s laws—“clean” coal, a nuclear renaissance, or solar panels—but sooner or later we’ll wake up to a new mode of normal behaviour: living within the limits of nature’s bounty. For the B.C. Lower Mainland, this is an opportunity to prepare stable communities for our children and grandchildren.

The climate news over this past year provides all the evidence we need to accept this new reality. We know we have to burn less fossil fuel anyway to prevent runaway global warming. Ten years of climate meetings and Kyoto handshakes have had zero net effect. Global carbon-dioxide emissions continue to rise. The world’s climate scientists are so concerned that they’ve called an emergency meeting in Copenhagen in March. They say that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and actual warming have exceeded even their most extreme earlier predictions.

We learned this year that the Arctic permafrost is melting, releasing methane that increases warming. Forests are dying in the heat—like our B.C. pines—and therefore absorb less CO2. Australia is burning, East Africa is baking, and the southwest United States experienced epic drought this year. Our salmon die in warming rivers, and reduced snowpacks supply less water. On the Cowichan River, desperate citizens have been driving salmon upstream in trucks due to low water flow. Climate scientists now predict at least a five to six metre sea-level rise this century. Adios Richmond, Vancouver airport, Surrey, and the port of Vancouver.

Depressing? Only if one clings to the dream, unable to fully wake up. To see the real solutions, we have to change the way we understand the problem. This will demand a paradigm shift as dramatic as when Copernicus pointed out that the universe did not revolve around the Earth. The answer will be in localization, based less on foreign-made goods, debt, and commuting, and more on friends, local food, and community cohesion. The new normal will be about improving the quality of life without consuming more stuff.

The best news is that we could hardly be in a better place to fashion a genuinely sustainable community for our children and grandchildren. We have a rich environment and several farsighted civic governments in the Lower Mainland, actively investigating genuine solutions.

If we cease eroding and selling off our natural capital, preserve our farmland, build low-energy public transport, and recover energy from our waste, we might discover that the new normal is a golden opportunity to make changes that we will have to make anyway. We may discover that we can have much richer lives with far simpler means.

Rex Weyler is a journalist and a member of the Vancouver Peak Oil citizen planning group.

More on peak oil:
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson promises action on peak oil
Vancouver’s long commuters face problems of peak oil
Peak-oil spike reshapes the suburbs
Is B.C. ready for peak-oil refugees?
Preparing for peak oil

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2 Comments

Epicurvegan

Feb 27, 2009 at 8:26am

Fantastic article! We all need to think about peak oil as seriously as many of us think about getting our cup of coffee in the morning. Rather than continue to be willfully ignorant about this issue, perhaps it wouldn't be nearly as frightening if we all made strides to become more self-sufficent and informed about what we can do. We all need to come to the conscious realization that convenience is far overrated and simply not worth making this impending catastrophy even worse than it already is.

dobermanmacleod

Feb 28, 2009 at 2:44am

For those who believe in peak oil, I suggest you watch the video "The Energy (Non)Crisis." Furthermore, peak oil very bad for global warming because less oil to burn means more coal will be mined and burned for energy. Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, has estimated that capturing and burying just 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted over a year from coal-fire plants at current rates would require moving volumes of compressed carbon dioxide greater than the total annual flow of oil worldwide -- a massive undertaking requiring decades and trillions of dollars. "Beware of the scale," he stressed.