Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

$3,300 a gallon?!?

peak-oil-manSince 2005 the world has never produced more than 85 million barrels of oil a day. The price rose steadily during that period to an all time high of $147 a barrel, and yet the supply never increased. The demand was there, but an increase in the supply never happened. Many geologists feel this represents what is called “peak oil”. They suggest we have hit a plateau where supply and demand will move up and down marginally for a while, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever see much more than 85 million barrels of oil a day produced. As we start to move down the backside of the peak oil curve we’ll actually see less than 85 million barrels a day produced, at a time when billions of the earth’s inhabitants in developing economies will want to start participating in the happy motoring life we’ve lived here in North America. Hundreds of millions of people in China and India are earning wages that allow them to start purchasing vehicles and companies like Tata Motors which is now producing the “Nano” and selling it for $2,500, are determined to get them off of bikes and scooters and into cars.

So, less supply will be available according to geologists who study oil, at the same time there will be increased demand for oil. This is not a good thing. Economists tend to be the ones denying “peak oil”, suggesting the increased demand will create supply. Economists understand markets, but they don’t understand the earth and its ability to give up oil. Geologists understand there is only so much of this finite resource we can get at, and we no longer discover large deposits. The tar sands, which are claimed to have hundreds of billions of barrels locked in the sand, require massive amounts of energy to unlock it and at a certain point the energy return on investment (EROI) will be so low it just won’t make economic sense to bother.

So, are you in shape? Do you own a bicycle? Do you live close enough to walk to work? These are the questions you’re going to have to start thinking about. Fossil fuel energy has been like a slave to us in the developed nations, replacing manual effort and allowing us to pursue non-physical paths like higher education, service sector work and information economy work where we produce ideas and move pixels around on computers. It would appear that with less fossil fuel energy available and more people competing for it, the price is going to rise, significantly, and many of us will not be able to afford as much of it. Hence we’ll be back to doing more things manually.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In my book “Thriving During Challenging Times” I really emphasize the benefits of returning to many of the activities that were part of previous generation’s routines. Hoeing the garden, cutting firewood, using human muscle and sweat to accomplish tasks, rather than gas and diesel fuel is an honorable thing, and one most of us take great joy in. Many of us like physical effort, but since it hasn’t been required to find food or get around, we’re forced to expend calories in unproductive ways, jogging, working in weight rooms and climbing stair masters. You’re not going to have to be spending so much on running shoes and health club memberships because you’ll be getting more exercise on a daily basis accomplishing basic tasks. This is a good thing.

Canadian geoscientist David Hughes has an excellent explanation of just how valuable this fossil fuel slave we have at our disposal really is. If you are in good shape, an average fit adult male can produce about 100 watts of energy in an hour.  That would equal 360,000 joules of energy while a barrel of oil contains six gigajoules or six billion joules of energy. If you were to put the average male on a treadmill and wire it to a generator and gave him breaks and holidays and weekends off, it would take him 8.6 years to produce the same amount of energy as a barrel of oil. If you paid him minimum wage you would have to pay him $138,363 for that amount of work. So a barrel of oil, which today is trading around $70 per barrel, should really be worth $138,000 a barrel. If that were what you were paying for oil, a gallon of gas would cost about $3,300. The American economy went into a tailspin when gas hit $4/gallon (thanks for spotting error Paul!).  The Walrus Magazine recently had an excellent article on David Hughes perspective on where we’re at in terms of energy.
http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2009.06-energy-an-inconvenient-talk/1/

Thomas Homer-Dixon in his book “The Upside of Down” uses another analogy. To illustrate the huge amount of energy by volume and weight that oil possesses, he points out that 3 large spoonfuls of crude oil contain the same amount of energy as eight hours of human manual labor and that when we fill our car with gas we’re pouring into the tank the energy equivalent of about two years of human manual labor. The mind boggles!

I experience this in the garden on a regular basis. I try and keep the weeds down by hand, hoeing as large a section as I can each day as time permits. But after the last couple of weeks when I’ve been trying to finish my book and the rain is causing the weeds to germinate like crazy, I know a bit of gas in the rototiller will save me many, many hours of real effort doing it manually.

I hope the description of the amazing energy density of oil gives you an appreciation for why our lives have been so great with fossil fuels doing so much of our grunt work. Fossil fuels were a one-time endowment to the planet and they’re running out. I hope every time you push on the accelerator of your car you’ll have an appreciation for the amount of energy that is being burned to move that 3,000 pound piece of steel. And I hope you’ll realize that peak oil is not some abstract scientific theory that won’t have any impact on your life. It is going to have a dramatic effect and it’s going to start very soon, so you should be starting to think about how to reduce your dependence on it. Our books are an excellent place to start.

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