Wednesday, May 21, 2008

peak energy and what that means for food

Imagine my shock this morning to open up the headlines and find that a barrel of oil now sells for more than $130 US. It seems that everywhere I turn the concept of peak oil is entering into the American mainstream. I turned on the radio only to hear Michael Klare, author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum as a guest on my local NPR radio program talking frankly about oil and energy issues and just how bad the problem really is. Just a few days ago a good friend, long involved in reducing his families carbon footprint and becoming more self-sufficient, emailed me to say he was deeply trouble to have recently discovered the depths of our energy problems and was frightened by what peak oil might mean for his family and our nation. I told him he should be careful about lengthy readings of Heinberg, Kunstler and Savinar all in one week. ;-)

And after years of organizing my own local screenings of the documentary 'The End of Suburbia' I was asked last week to come and speak after another such screening was organized by political types in my town. This time my thoughts were met not with denial or even much anger but with an odd acceptance. Surly a threshold moment is fast approaching. Shock is what many more will experience as the rising cost of oil and gasoline generates awareness. To be sure those of us involved for any length of time with the issues of peak oil are enjoying an ascension to normalcy as the rest of our country wakes up.

So this morning I'm going to post a peak energy introduction written with Sharon Astyk. This will be a review for those who follow her site and mine but might serve as a place to point those who are interested in learning more. It's very important however that those of us more comfortable with this topic help to shape the emerging conversation as one of opportunity not tragedy. No doubt this will mean doing things differently now and in our future but all is not gloom and doom. This could be an opportunity to address big problems- a catalyst for positive change. With that in mind we must frame this not as 'the end of the world' as my wife joking refers to all discussions peak oil in our home, but as the beginning of something better.


To alcohol- the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems.”

- Homer Simpson

Brewing beer takes about thirty days. There’s the malting and mashing and lautering and boiling, not to mention the hopping and the separation, the cooling and fermentation. Then most beer is filtered before being bottled. And let’s not forget the drinking. Beer has been brewed since the 7th century BC, or perhaps even before, and will probably be brewed until humans no longer walk the face of this planet. As a Whistran Brewery sign describes it, “Beer: So much more than just a breakfast drink.”

The above description makes it sound like an awfully complicated process, but really it’s not. But the procedure does requires adding specific ingredients, including heat, in just the right sequence so as to produce one of mankind’s most beloved beverages. In this way brewing beer is not unlike the process of making oil. A long time ago, a tremendous amount of oceanic plant material lived and died and floated to the bottom of the sea. There it built up into an enormous layer of biological material. Like brewing beer, this process required the combination of specific ingredients in the presence of heat. At lower temperatures it produced oil and at relatively higher temperatures it produced natural gas. In certain locations the oil and natural gas became trapped in porous rock formations conducive to the containment of such materials. You can think of these formations as kegs of energy.

During previous millennia, before we discovered how to make use of these intense energy sources the human population was relatively stable, never exceeding several hundred million. During our most recent experimentation with fossil fuels however, we’ve seen that number increase to just over 6.5 billion people. . Even more important than the growth in population, oil has enabled lavish, consumptive lifestyles in the Global North, so that inequity between rich and poor has grown. The average American consumes 30 times the resources of the average Kenyan.[i]

During the middle part of the 20th century, the United States was awash in oil. Germany, on the other hand, was so desperate for similar fuel that they were forced to take coal and press it into gasoline. Many historians point out that our victory in the World War II was made possible, in part by our easy access to great quantities of oil and it’s abundant energy. Winston Churchill famously said , “”Above all, petrol governed every movement.”[ii] Following World War II, the United States began to utilize this incredible resource at home. James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Long Emergency”, describes America’s domestic use of fossil fuels this way.

“It is no exaggeration to state that reliable supplies of cheap oil and natural gas underlie everything we identify as the necessities of modern life — not to mention all of its comforts and luxuries: central heating, air conditioning, cars, airplanes, electric lights, inexpensive clothing, recorded music, movies, hip-replacement surgery, national defense — you name it.”

Most of us are familiar with regular gasoline fill-ups and the need to drive back and forth from work to home, from the shopping mall to the elementary school. Cheap fuel made easy motoring typical of American life. And although that has begun to change with rising energy prices, we’ve barely begun a great shift. Imagine for a minute how hard most Americans find livingwithout a car. But aside from this most obvious of petroleum uses, there plenty of other ways we use oil in our everyday lives.

It is inevitable when you fill up a mug with beer and begin to drink it that eventually you will reach a point at which your glass is half empty. If you go out with friends to a bar, you are more likely to order a pitcher of beer for all of you to share. Now imagine that around the time that you have drunk half of it, someone announces that it is the last pitcher of beer in the whole world - that we’re all very sorry, we thought we had more, but everyone in the universe has looked in their fridges, and the beer is all gone forever. So now you have half a pitcher of beer and that’s it - no more. Now, what do you do? Do you drink it fast, and have one incredible party, and never drink again? Do you sell what is left to people who will pay you a lot for it? Do you horde it, holding on to it at all costs? Do you ration it out so that everyone gets a fair share? Fight over the rest of it?

There’s likely to be a lot of people who want that beer, and regardless of whether you share it out evenly or unevenly, people’s desire for beer is going to be met with smaller and smaller supplies of beer. Now it is possible that we could reduce desire - that if it gets inconvenient enough, that some of the beer drinkers will decide they like lemonade better anyhow. But no matter how many advertising campaigns praise the wonders of lemonade, quite a few of us are going to notice that it really isn’t quite the same thing as beer, the wonder liquid.
Now the nice thing about beer is that it is not required for human existence (ok, we know some people who will argue with us about this). And in a purely technical sense, neither are oil and gas. But just about every part of our life here in America is dependent upon oil and gas, both of which are most likely near the halfway point of availability. As we mentioned above, oil doesn’t just fuel our cars and heat our homes. Virtually everything we buy, from food, to medicine to clothing to tools has petroleum in it as an ingredient. And everything we do has an energy cost. Much of that energy is supplied by oil and natural gas. And there are a lot of people who want what’s left - even as it gets more expensive, and harder to get out of the ground, and there starts not being enough to go around evenly.

And no one really disputes that someday, the pitcher will be half empty. When one examines the life of an oil well it inevitably follows a pattern that looks a lot like a bell curve. In the beginning, as an oil well starts to operate, it easily extracts oil and production rises steadily. At a certain point in the life of the oil well, typically at about the halfway point of its life, the production of the well peaks. All the easily extractable oil has been pumped out and the well is now working harder to extract oil that is tougher to get out of the ground. From this point on, the oil is harder and harder to extract so production slowly declines each subsequent year.

As individual regions and nations peak in oil production, the world as a whole gets closer and closer to the day when the global oil keg will reach halfway and then enter into an era of declining availability. Currently, 54 of the largest 65 oil producing nations are in decline.[iii] Russia’s production just declined for the first time, and Saudi Arabia, while strenuously denying it, seems unable to meet demand. Large numbers of oil company executives have begun to admit we are at or near an oil peak.

As we peak, oil producing nations begin to hold back more of their limited supplies for their own use. Saudi Arabia, for example, recently announced that it planned to reserve energy for future generations. Again, this is perfectly natural - the US, for example, long past its peak exports virtually no oil - but this means that the declines in availability are greater than the declines in production - if production falls by 2%, exports may fall by 4%. If this happens, as is likely, while demand is still growing, the total shortfall in availability may be quite dramatic. This is called the Export Land Model, pioneered by geologist Jeffrey Brown.

Poor industry transparency makes it difficult to say for sure, but there is little doubt that for those of us not currently receiving senior citizen discounts, peak oil will happen during our lifetimes, probably quite soon. It is not unlikely that the peak in oil (as opposed to “liquids” which include unconventional sources) is already past. This fact might turn out to be an event of even greater magnitude than the discovery of oil itself. In America we have built an entire way of life on ever increasing amounts of energy, especially oil, the liquid fossil fuel that powers 95 percent of transportation in this country.[iv] It’s not hard to see that peak oil will have an enormous impact on us as the global keg party winds down.

Natural gas is the other essential fossil fuel response for how we live our lives in America these days. We use huge quantities of natural gas each year to heat our homes, cook our food and take hot showers. Six out of every ten homes in America used natural gas as a heat source.[v] A natural gas production well experiences a different sort of life cycle. Because it is a gas, it flows out at a constant rate. Unlike an oil well, when natural gas production peaks, it then drops off dramatically (think chugging the pitcher). And in much the same way as with oil regions, natural gas regions reach a peak when the majority of the wells in that region reach their individual peaks. Right now the North American natural gas production appears to be approaching peak. Exxon’s chief executive Lee Raymond was quoted in 2005 saying, “Gas production has peaked in North America.”[vi]

When will our global natural gas supply peak? That is one of the most urgent questions of our time and one to which the answer is not known. It’s unlikely however that the global peak of natural gas production worldwide is very far off. Many analysts expect natural gas to peak about a decade after petroleum. It is important to understand that natural gas is much more difficult than oil to transport over long distances, so what matters most to Americans is the North American gas supply. US natural gas supplies peaked in 1973,[vii] but the US has a NAFTA agreement that requires Canada to sell us much of their gas. All North American gas peaked in 2002, and soon that agreement may leave Canadians short of heating and cooking fuel[viii]

But aren’t we making huge new discoveries every day? You hear about them in the news all the time! In fact, most of the discoveries we’re making are very small in relationship to world oil demand, and many of them will take a decade or more to develop. At this point, we’re using 6 barrels of oil for every new one we discover[ix], and oil discoveries have been declining for forty years. As Julian Darley told us in regards to the much hyped “Jack” discovery (which is under 5 miles of ocean) “we’re digging around in the couch cushions for loose change now.”[x]

So it seems very likely that both our global pitchers of oil and natural gas are about half empty. What will that mean for us? A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy headed by Dr. Robert Hirsch states that,

“Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization. It fuels the vast majority of the world’s mechanized transportation equipment - Automobiles, trucks, airplanes, trains, ships, farm equipment, the military, etc. Oil is also the primary feedstock for many of the chemicals that are essential to modern life.”

So it is not surprising that Dr. Hirsch reports that,” the problem of the peaking of world conventional oil production is unlike any yet faced by modern industrial society.”

Richard Heinberg, author of “The Party’s Over” writing in May of 2006 said,

“Global oil production is peaking-for all practical purposes, now. In the past weeks, the New York Times, Bill Clinton, and the executive vice president of Ford Motor Company (among many others) have stated that world oil flow is at peak. We have even seen one of the major oil companies (Chevron) place ads in multiple magazines and newspapers in order-gently, perhaps, but insistently and conspicuously-to break the news to the American people that the era of cheap oil, and cheap energy in general, is finished, over, done, dead, and gone. And that era just happens to be the only one that Americans alive today have ever known.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers[EAW1] put out a report in September of 2005 that stated, “World oil production is at or near its peak and current world demand exceeds the supply.”[xi] The above-mentioned US Department of Energy-sponsored Hirsch Report says that to deal with the coming peak in global oil production we would need 20 years of devoting virtually all of our national wealth and energies to developing alternative energies and building new infrastructure. The report stated that to do it in 20 years, we’d have to be devoting more of our time and energy than we did to fighting World War II - that is, most of our money, and our time and our industry would all have to be working together to make this giant change in 20 years. Otherwise, there could be major problems - a depression, huge changes in the economy, energy shortages, rationing, rolling blackouts and gas lines, poverty, even hunger. Especially hunger.

So enough with the geology and beer analogies you say. What about food? One of the most troubling ramifications associated with the coming peak in fossil fuels is the roles they play in how we get our food. The model of industrial agriculture used currently to produce much of our food is especially vulnerable to the coming decrease in both natural gas and petroleum availability because it is utterly reliant on cheap energy and fossil fuel derivatives.

Petroleum has made possible the mechanization of much of the labor involved in agriculture. In 1900 roughly 38 % of the population of the United States was actively involved in growing food. By 1950 that number had been reduce to just more than 12 %.[xii] Today less than 2% of the American population does that work. This shift in labor was made possible largely by the harnessing of fossil fuels. Tractors and combines, among other machinery, replaced the human hand in the field. Pumps for irrigation rely on diesel fuel as does the vast network of intercontinental trucking that hauls, on average, each item of food over 1500 miles from where it is grown to where it is eaten.

Petroleum is also the feedstock for the pesticides used to support industrial agriculture and its vast fields of monoculture crops. Seemingly endless landscapes of corn, wheat and soybeans cover Midwestern America and are protected with a combination of chemicals that kill the pests. When you grow a thousand acres of just one type of plant, the bugs that like to eat that plant are drawn to those fields in swarms. Without the ability to fight off enormous numbers of such pests, this system of monoculture probably wouldn’t be possible.

Next there’s the matter of all the nutrients needed to grow our food. We eat an incredible amount corn in our country. A recent Corn Refiners Association study suggests corn is used as an ingredient in almost 4,000 products. This does not include the meat, dairy and eggs that are a derivative of corn used as feed or lots of paper products that include corn.

Author Michael Pollan put it this way in a Mother Jones interview in February 2005.

In addition to contributing to erosion, pollution, food poisoning, and the dead zone, corn requires huge amounts of fossil fuel - it takes a half gallon of fossil fuel to produce a bushel of corn.” To grow the corn on which our current diet is largely based requires providing it with an awful lot of one specific nutrient, nitrogen. The large amount of nitrogen fertilize required to grow corn, is currently created using the Haber-Bosch process of taking atmospheric nitrogen out of the air and putting into a solid state. And this process uses an inordinate amount of natural gas. But as we have already discussed, both natural gas and petroleum are finite resources beginning to enter into a stage of decreasing availability. The short-term effect is likely to be a rise in the cost of our food, especially processed food made from corn. The long-term effect will likely be failure of industrial agriculture to continue to feed the United States and the world.

Taken in isolation, the idea that we’ll prioritize energy for agriculture, or for any one thing or another does make a lot of intuitive sense - as long as we are talking about some discrete, neatly isolated thing. It is easy to think that the reprioritization of resources will be both logical and inevitable - but the problem is that intuitive responses aren’t always right. In actual working systems, there are a host of first priorities, all of them extremely difficult to triage.

The problem is that there are so many highest priorities in any society - do you cut back on police protection? Medicines? Ambulances? Heat for the freezing? Public transport? The transport of relief supplies? Military engagements? In times of radical shortage, prioritizing becomes the struggle of competing priorities, political interests, black markets and a host of other factors, none of which ever quite get what they need

What about renewable energies? Biofuels? Hydrogen fuel cells? The truth is that none of these can replace the energy density of fossil fuels at all. Biofuels, for example, produce, at best, only 1.34 barrels of oil equivalent for every barrel of oil used to produce them.[xiii] That’s not very impressive - oil gives you 30-100 barrels of oil for every barrel used to extract it. And it is possible that the energy return of biofuels is actually much less - that it is negative. David Pimmetal and Ted Paczek have analyzed ethanol, including cellulosic ethanol production and found that they consume more fossil fuels than they produce in equivalent energy[xiv]. And biofuels produce more greenhouse gasses, raise food prices, and essentially put cars in competition with people for basic foodstuffs. If we were to put every single acre of arable land in the US into ethanol production we could run cars for less than half a year. Biofuels have been a disaster for the environment, for the world’s poor, and for the pocketbooks of ordinary Americans who suffer from high food prices.

Hydrogen is a technology that has been “just around the corner” for the last 3 decades, and which shows no signs of getting any closer. It is not, in fact, an energy source at all, but a medium for storing energy, and an inefficient one as well - it is four times less efficient to use electricity to generate hydrogen than it is to just use the electricity directly[xv]

While we support growth in Solar PV panels and Wind production, the difficulty with both of these is the large quantities of reserve capacity, fueled by fossil fuels required to deal with the fact that both are intermittent sources - solar cells only produce energy when the sun shines, wind turbines only when the wind blows. Thus, they both require large quantities of fossil fueled backup capacity - up to 60%.[xvi] Add to this that both remain substantially more expensive than fossil fuels despite rising fossil energy prices, because the comparatively small technological improvements are overridden by the rising costs of the fossil fuels and metals used to make them. [xvii]

While we will almost certainly build out some renewable energy sources, the reality is that our future involves using much less energy than we do now. We have no choice but to cut back radically - and a reasoned, careful, wise reduction will be more just and positive than a haphazard one done by necessity.

All of this makes it much makes it that much more urgent that we get to work now. If we are going to continue to feed ourselves and all the other human being already on this planet without the help of fossil fuels we must begin to make a change now. Yes folks, the house lights are coming up as the partying is winding down. It seems like we might want to sober up before trying to tackle the difficult question of just how best to deal with the problems of peak oil, chief among them fossil fuel based industrial agriculture.

A return to small-scale, sustainable agriculture with a focus on producing our culinary needs and wants locally would reduce our dependency on oil and natural gas in advance of their inevitable decline in availability. One obvious benefit will be the enormous amount of fuel saved by reducing the amount of food shipped all over the country. Fewer refrigerated tractor trailers crisscrossing the country means less oil needed as a nation.

Changes like removing some of the mechanization from our agriculture and reducing or eliminating the use of inorganic pesticides and fertilizers will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and the foreign countries in possession of the majority of what remains of these fuels. Two thirds of the world’s remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East.[xviii] Much of the remaining natural gas is there too. If we needed a great deal less of their oil and NG to grow our own food, we would be less likely to get caught up in deadly conflicts that require huge amounts of money, energy and worse yet, the lives of our men and women in military service. Imagine if we refocused the amount of money and man power spent intervening in Iraq on learning how to again grow our own food without Middle Eastern oil. We could disengage from a region that obviously isn’t interested in our meddling.

Less oil involved in growing our food will also mean more oil available as feedstock for precious commodities like medical equipment and necessary pharmaceuticals. Rather than a drastic decline in the availability of really important petroleum derivatives, removing the fossil fuels from our food could help us more gradually adjust to decreasing stocks of these fuels. Even more important, the health benefits of a more localized, nutritious diet might reduce our need for medical equipment and drugs.

Making this change now rather than waiting until the peaking of fossil fuels creates more severe social disruptions is important because it will take time to learn how to grow our own food without fossil fuel inputs. And it will take time to learn how to cook with whole ingredients and to adjust to a more seasonal diet. These changes will be much easier if we do them now while we have time to adjust rather than more abruptly in a time of crisis.


[ii] Michael Antonucci, Blood for Oil: The Quest for Fuel in World War II, Command:

January-February 1993





[vii] The Story Of Natural Gas:Supply, Demand And A Brick Wall

Enskilda Securities

Institutional Investor Meeting

Kitzb├╝hel, Austria

March 12, 2004

Matthew R. Simmons

[viii] Darley, 183

[ix] Murphy, 8

[x] Darley, Personal Communication, September 25 2006

[xi] Energy Trends and Implications for U.S. Army Installations

Eileen T. Westervelt and Donald F. Fournier ERDC/CERL TN-05-1 September 2005


[xiii] A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service Report number 814 titled “Estimating The Net Energy Balance Of Corn Ethanol: An Update” was published in July of 2002.


[xv] Murphy, 66

[xvi] Murphy 84

[xvii] Ibid, 85

[xviii] The New Petroleum by U. S. Senator Richard G. Lugar and R. James Woolsey

Published by Council on Foreign Relations Jan/Feb 1999

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I think it's nice that people are finally talking about this topic in the mainstream. It's just sad to me that we never take heed of the 'Cassandra's' advice until things start to head downhill, but it's better late than never. Though I must admit, it's odd to go from receiving looks of confusion and 'wow that girl must be on SOMETHING', to scared questions about 'what does this mean for my family'.

I found The End of Suburbia to be a fascinating film. What I liked most about it, was that it wasn't so technical that regular folks can understand it.

You are right though, we are at a point where people are ready to listen. We have to approach this in the appropriate manner. I know many people out there want to fall in to the 'I told you so' mentality, but that gets us nowhere. I think we should take this eye opening time to dispell some of the myths about peak oil, such as technology will fix it and everything will be the same, or someone ELSE is working on it.

Great energy overview!

I think that things are going to get interesting. I guess we can't say that these aren't fascinating times we live in, eh?

Great blog by the way!