by Kevin Moore — July 2004
The first oil to be extracted from the ground in large quantities required little effort. It has got progressively harder to find and extract oil
Around 15 years before it happened Hubbert predicted that US oil production would peak and then enter a decline phase around 1970. He was initially regarded as eccentric and not worth being taken seriously, but nevertheless his prediction proved accurate and his analysis has subsequently become accepted
No major oil deposits have been found for over 30 years and no significant fields have been found at all in recent years
Thirty years ago oil geologists predicted that global oil supply would peak and then go into decline some time around the beginning of the twenty-first century
The consensus opinion of oil geologists now is that the world has now used up around half the total extractable oil
The oil that remains in the ground requires increasing effort (energy) to extract and most of it is of a lower quality than that previously extracted
Exact analysis is still impossible and we will only know for certain that oil production has peaked after it has happened, but most oil geologists agree that the peak of global oil production lies in the period 2004 to 2010, with a consensus view regarding 2005/6 as the point of peak.
If the most optimistic forecast is taken, we have around 5 years before the global oil supply goes into [compounding and eventually terminal] decline
If the early peak forecast proves to be correct, then within a few months the supply of oil will begin to decline at a rate of between 2% and 4% per annum.
The price of oil has never reflected its true value to society and has bounced around because of political instability, but has been kept artificially low for decades
In real terms, oil at US$40/barrel is substantially cheaper than it was in the late 1970s. A truly comparable price now would be around US$110/barrel
Once the supply of oil begins to decline we should anticipate an escalating price (initially to $100/barrel) as consumers compete for what is left [and probably reaching $1,000/barrel before 2025]
Superimposed on this gloomy scenario is the rampant growth of the Chinese economy: every month China requires more oil than it did the month before to supply the increasing numbers of factories and vehicles located there
China has been committed to changing from a largely peasant-agricultural society to an industrial-consumer society and has made considerable progress along that path, but still has a long way to go. Resources and the environment will collapse long before it completes the transition
In the meantime, the production of cars in China is increasing rapidly and we hear reports of deals to establish hundreds of service stations across the nation to supply the burgeoning numbers of vehicles
Even if oil supply were to increase by 2% or 3% per annum (a physical impossibility), demand would still outpace supply very soon
We do not know which will hit first, but either demand for oil will outstrip supply while supply is still rising [marginally] or the supply will decline and supply will fail to meet demand very soon
The oil age is therefore almost over: we need to plan for a world in which oil will become increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain and in which there is no replacement for oil
At the very moment that oil supply is about to decline the supply of natural gas has also come into question with the US now dependent on massive imports of gas. New Zealand not far off the same situation
For two decades New Zealand has been converting much of its natural gas supply into petrol and other materials. This whole concept has proven to be a massive failure and will soon no longer be possible
New Zealand has been converting a substantial portion of its natural gas supply into electricity. This is not only wasteful, but also has no long term future
The ongoing supply of gas beyond 2010 for any purposes is highly questionable, with Maui expected to be depleted by 2007 and no replacement found
The NZ electricity transmission system is aging and requires significant maintenance and upgrade; a figure of $1 billion has been suggested
Provision of raw materials for the global consumer economy and provision of food for the ever-rising population is resulting in the stripping of lands and seas.
90% of the population does not realise we have a set of massive problems almost upon us — oil crash, gas crash, debt crash, electricity crash, infrastructure crash, global warming crash, biodiversity crash etc.
Of the 10% who are aware of the problems, 90% do not comprehend the scale of the problems, nor the urgency for implementation of policies that will ameliorate some of the future effects
In other words 99% of the population is blissfully ignorant of what we are in for
Most politicians are equally ignorant, are in denial or are suffering from delusions — hence talk of building more motorways [for completion around 2010-2012, when oil supplies will most definitely be in sharp decline] more international trade, more tourism, a bigger economy etc.
In the western world (particularly Canada and the US) most food is produced on the back of huge inputs of energy, largely derived from oil (The oil we eat); oil is the usual fuel for tractors and harvesters — less oil means substantially less food production and substantially higher prices
In the western world massive amounts of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides etc. are used to maintain food production — less oil means lower yield and lower quality
In countries such as the US grains are grown using chemical inputs, the grains are transported to factory farms where they are fed to livestock. The cost structure of meat production is entirely dependent on cheap oil — expensive oil will result in rapid collapse of this system
Increased world trade has resulted in huge quantities of food being transported from one part of the world to another, but world food stocks have been falling over recent years — less oil means less transport of food (and more mass starvation)
On top of this dismal scenario we must anticipate increasing difficulty in producing food as global warming intensifies droughts and floods
In the globalised society, New Zealand has become dependent on tourism for income — less oil must inevitably mean a massive decline in international tourism
In the globalised society, New Zealand has become dependent on other countries for the basics of existence, such as food and clothing — less oil means higher transport costs and a gradual drying up of world trade (return to sailing ships?)
Fifty years ago every district in New Zealand had a local abattoir for processing animals and animal by products and a local dairy factory for processing milk and milk products. Many districts had a local tannery and local wool processors, local food production and local retailing. Cheap oil encouraged the closure of small processing works and the transport of animals, products and goods over huge distances. Cheap oil has almost obliterated the shoe manufacture and repair trades, tailoring and much of the carpentry trade — the end of cheap oil will annihilate most long-distance transport. But we have lost most of the infrastructure and local skills required to return to the previous largely self-sufficient economy, and have a much larger population to support, so we are now in a worse position than at any time in our history!!!
The vast majority of politicians and business people are totally ignorant of the facts of oil depletion and are ploughing ahead with policies predicated on greater and greater energy use at the very moment when the supply is about to falter. Manukau City has pursued a completely unsustainable growth policy over the past ten years and has encouraged the construction of a massive new suburbia that is almost totally dependent on oil.
Central government, the business community and the media have in general been so obsessed with GDP growth that they have refused to allow any debate that questions the validity of growth or the sustainability of current policies — declining oil supply means that the house of cards must inevitably begin to tumble quite soon
Once oil supply fails to meet demand, business confidence will plummet as energy prices rise and sales fall. Most businesses downsize or will then fail
Ordinary folk will find their costs rising dramatically, whilst their incomes fall or they lose employment altogether
Stock markets will slide dramatically, if not collapse completely
Superannuation funds and endowment mortgages will become more or less worthless
Maintenance of roads will become increasingly expensive and difficult, as asphalt supplies dwindle and fuel costs escalate. Transport as we know it will eventually more or less grind to a halt
The carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere was historically around 280ppm, but since the Industrial Revolution has increased dramatically to around 380ppm and the rate of increase is increasing to the point that is described as spiralling out of control (+2ppm per annum, +3ppm per annum, + 4ppm per annum?)
Climate change is already resulting in increasingly extreme weather patterns. 160,000 people are estimated to have died from the results of climate change last year and that figure must increase [exponentially?]. We are entering unknown territory when we continue to add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but all theoretical analysis indicates that we should anticipate an abrupt climate change (5 to 8oC rise) at some point in the future: Sir David King (Chief Scientific advisor to the UK Government) has suggested that unless there is an immediate check to ever increasing carbon dioxide emissions most of the planet will be too hot for human habitation by the end of this century. We are burning our grandchildren’s future
Catch 22 Number One means that if oil supplies were not about to peak and we could increase our oil use, in line with the economic growth that the Government touts as the way ahead, we would simply exacerbate the global warming problem and bring faster ruination to our agricultural systems
Catch 22 Two means that if we were to switch from oil to coal as our prime non-renewable energy source we would increase the global warming rate faster than ever and similarly ruin our agricultural base.
The general heating up of the planet is already causing unprecedented melting of ice. The release of bound water into the oceans will add to the thermal expansion effect and result in a significant sea level rise. As with most of these matters, no definitive analysis is possible, but we must anticipate around a half metre or even a metre rise over the next couple of decades, putting many currently highly populated regions under water
As oceanic temperatures rise, the coral and plankton systems that support most aquatic life are likely either to become extinct or to be replaced by other less productive species.
Higher water temperatures result in lower oxygen levels and a greater incidence of algal blooms, bacterial blooms etc. The already numerous dead zones in the oceans (the largest an area equivalent to Ireland) will almost certainly increase
Stocks of most commercial fish have plummeted, as fishing fleets have used increasingly technological methods to locate and extract them. Many previously abundant aquatic species are close to extinction. Continued rising temperatures will almost certainly exacerbate the extinction process
It has been estimated that 1 million species (including lions, elephants, gorillas etc) will become extinct within 50 years. Some species, such as orang-utans, are expected to become extinct within 15 years as their habitat is destroyed
New Zealand has been importing numerous highly undesirable pest and diseases since it was first colonised. The rate of introduction has escalated out of control since deregulation and some extremely nasty species, such as varroa mite, have recently been allowed to become established
The switch from a physically active society (walking, cycling etc) to one that is increasingly dependent on machinery, combined with the establishment of a consumer society has resulted in an epidemic of obesity
Rates of asthma and diabetes are surging out of control, as airborne pollution increases and more people drive to takeaways to consume junk food
Although we are citizens of this nation and members of a community, we cannot rely on central government to assist us in establishing a safe, clean and sustainable society and indeed all evidence supports the contention that central government will hinder progress toward a sustainable society, since almost all government policies are predicated on ever more growth and ever more consumption, more trade, more immigration, more conversion of farmland into suburbia, none of which is sane in a finite world and several of which are completely unachievable.
The current situation can best be described as ‘driving society off a cliff’
Over the period Feb 2002 to May 2004 the price of Brent Crude [oil] rose from around $22 per barrel to around $39, causing much consternation to ‘the markets’. The price fell upon the announcement that Saudi Arabia would increase its pump rate to alleviate the shortfall in supply and fell again when power was transferred to the Iraqis and the Norwegian oil strike ended — yet the long term supply situation in June 2004 was worse than that in May 2004. The obvious message resulting from falling oil prices is that there is no problem with supply and that economic expansion can continue unabated. In the short term markets do not reflect real situations and often send totally erroneous signals to the community.
The general public is bombarded by advertisements encouraging sloth, greed and exploitation. In reality humans have evolved over several million years to survive on a diet of low fat and low sugar foods such as roots, berries, nuts etc. that required a considerable effort to obtain. Excessive relaxation and ingestion of food results in severe illness and premature death.
Fear is used as a weapon to drive policy makers toward desired outcomes [usually of greater consumption]. Any suggestion that New Zealand do anything that might upset trading partners is met with howls of protest and the dire warnings that New Zealand will be left out in the cold and will suffer unimaginable consequences
We are told by economists not only that the New Zealand economy must continue to grow but also that we must raise the growth rate in order to climb back toward the top of the OECD table of standard of living, yet there is no evidence whatsoever that countries above us in the OECD table have healthier societies, happier societies or stand a better chance of long term survival than New Zealand. Indeed, several countries that have achieved spectacular growth over the past three decades — Korea and Taiwan being good examples, have little hope whatsoever. Even as these countries go into terminal decline they are still cited as models to follow!
Central government has demonstrated extraordinary stubbornness to address crucial issues realistically. For example on the issue of GE, central government has avowed a determination to proceed in the face of reports from the UK, Canada and Argentina that clearly demonstrate that there is no future in GE. Government assertions that ‘fail safe systems’ will be established to monitor GE are nothing short of ludicrous. The government has no policy on peak oil other than to pretend it won’t happen
Contrary to the assertions of economists and politicians, all real wealth is derived from a healthy and productive land and sea ecosystems. We are currently destroying both at an unprecedented rate
Many uninformed commentators present technological solutions as ready to fill the gap when in fact they are nothing more than red herrings with no possibility whatsoever of being implemented: nuclear energy, the hydrogen economy, tidal power, the ethanol economy are some of the much touted proposals to avoid reality
In the meantime the media presents eco-vandalism as perfectly normal and acceptable e.g. use of SUVs, motor racing. Possum Bourne spent much of his life promoting eco-vandalism and died in the act, yet is worshiped by thousands as a hero
Denial of reality is a prerequisite to the maintenance of the consumer society and to the stability of financial markets
New Zealand is not a low lying country and the loss of land area due to future sea level rise will not be excessive
New Zealand is not tropical, so the storms we must expect in the future may be less violent than in places like Fiji
New Zealand is not a large landmass, so it is less likely to overheat to the extent that Australia or Africa will. Drought will not be a severe as in Australia etc.
New Zealand has a relatively low population (though it is not well distributed) and could return to being self-sufficient in food, provided it can prevent hordes of migrants arriving when things turn really nasty overseas
New Zealand has not adopted too much mechanised, chemicalised agriculture and stands a better chance of returning to a low energy system than most other countries. Having said that, we must anticipate that supplies of fertilisers will become increasingly expensive and difficult to obtain, especially those such as urea, which is manufactured from natural gas, so some land will become infertile.
For the greater part of human history there were no financial markets, no shopping malls, no pension funds. It is perfectly possible to live without any of these things [and indeed it is very likely that we will soon have to]
For most countries it is already too late; their fates are already sealed by excessive populations, lack of resources, large landmasses, poor location, extreme temperature variations etc., but New Zealand probably still has time to prepare for a soft landing. However the window of opportunity will soon be gone (2005?), after which it will be too late to take action and crash will become inevitable
In the 1930s Jews in Central Europe had numerous warnings that their world was about to come to an end. Some fled, but the vast majority did nothing, other than to hope for the best, reasoning that the situation would not get too bad and would start to improve. We know what happened.
Twenty years ago scientists warned of the dangers of global warming and were largely ignored. Suddenly, when it is too late, politicians have begun to wake up to global warming and talk about strategies to combat it, but not actually take any effective action. In practice it will probably take a few major global warming disasters before politicians really become focused on dealing with the problem — at which point it will be far too late of course.
Now we are faced with an imminent catastrophe and the response of government and the media is once again complacency and denial that there is a problem.
As with the global warming problem it will be when it is too late to do anything that government and the media will wake up. Those who wish to act need to do so now.
All the evidence supports the contention that the globalised consumer society is constructed on an extremely fragile base which is about to collapse.
I personally would sleep a lot better if one shred of evidence could be produced that proved incontrovertibly that
At this point of time no evidence has been presented to indicate that we are not on path to total worldwide disaster a decade or two from now. Indeed, policies are in place to ensure that is exactly what will happen.
Logic tells us that it would be extraordinarily imprudent to, for instance, construct a motorway system for petrol driven cars if there is no evidence that there will be petrol at the time of completion, yet this appears to be exactly what is about to happen. Policy decisions appear to be made on the basis of personal whim or dogma, rather than scientific evidence. Sadly, the catalogue of wrong decisions made by politicians in the past would fill many volumes, but a particularly notable example was the decision to construct a chemical plant to convert natural gas into petrol, losing 50% of the energy content of the gas in the process, putting the nation into a severe debt situation that it never recovered from and leading to the premature depletion of New Zealand’s most valuable energy source, whilst doing nothing in the long term to contribute to the New Zealand economy — it simply encourage further wastage of fuel and contributed not only to global warming, but also to the ill health of New Zealanders… the first step along the path to a hard landing!
Let us deal with the hard landing first, since this case is a little simpler. The hard landing involves the following steps
Denying that there is a problem.
Continuing with current policies of greater mechanisation, larger vehicles, more contraptions (leaf blowers, jet skis, air conditioners) replacement of hand tools by power tools (electric screwdrivers etc.) more use of resources (gas barbeque heaters, gas heating for swimming pools instead of solar etc.), more importation of goods, more advertising to sell goods, more billboards, more over-eating of the wrong kinds of foods, (more smoking by adolescents?), more drug use, more consumption of alcohol, more tourism, more low quality housing, more thermally inefficient housing, more consumption of fuel, the sabotaging of cycling, walking, public transport, the failure to address basic issues or to have any real direction.
Embracing a policy that is driven by whatever results in greater consumption and achievement short-term profit goals.
Suddenly finding that the required fuel/gas/electricity needed to keep the consumption machine going is not available and then facing catastrophic collapse.
Being surprised by and trying to halt the failure of businesses and general failure of the economy, resulting in financial crisis, which can only be addressed by massive cuts to services. As more job losses lead to less income for the city, the whole thing spirals down [to oblivion?]. The Manukau approach.
A soft landing can be achieved by a number of steps and the following ideas are neither definitive nor exclusive. However there can be no half measures. The City Council must fully embrace all possible measures to make a massive reduction in energy consumption, since a 10% or 20% reduction in energy consumption will not result in long-term sustainability and will simply extend the period of ‘pain’.
Acknowledge that there is a set of very serious problems looming and that the first (oilcrash) is about to hit very soon, followed by gas crash, then electricity crash. ‘If you fail to deal with reality, reality will deal with you’.
Accept the new reality and try to work with it, rather than try deny the new reality and try to work against it. This means accepting that there are no technical fixes that will allow us to continue on our present path and we must adjust our expectations and lifestyle in line with plateauing and then diminishing fossil energy supplies.
Evaluate of every policy and action to test whether is energy efficient or not and adjust or amend all inefficient policies and actions.
Evaluate of every policy to see if it generates genuine improvements in health and welfare of the citizens of the city or simply generates short term gains
Expect no assistance from central government or the business sector and be prepared for sabotage
Answer the following questions: What is the purpose of the globalised consumer? Will it exist in the future? What will the city council require from beyond its borders? How will the city obtain those things/materials? — work toward providing the solutions.
Ensure that every member of the staff is aware of and has debated the information contained at websites such as www.oilcrash.com, www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net, Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), etc.
Establish an environmental education centre that can promote an understanding of crucial issues, such as energy crash, global warming, ozone depletion etc.
Immediately reduce all speed limits. Until 1920 the vast majority of the population had perfectly satisfactory lives without travelling at more than 30kph The faster a vehicle travels, the higher the air resistance, the more fuel that is used, the greater the emission of undesirable exhaust gases and the greater the carnage when collisions occur. Within Waitakere City boundaries the motorway limit should initially be reduced to 80kph and all through routes initially reduced to 50kph. All minor roads should be initially designated 40kph. After one year these limits should be further reduced to 70kph, 40kph and 30kph respectively. Strict enforcement would be required of course.
Immediately establish cycle, bus and light motorcycle (below 250cc) routes along all major through routes.
Work toward rapid divestment of all oversized vehicles and replacement with the minimum vehicle that will do the job i.e. second hand import Toyota Echo 1litre, Daihatsu Charade or Nissan March. Promotion of motor scooter licence training and the use of scooters and mopeds. Investigate use of electric vehicles for short haul journeys.
Remove all traffic lights from road junctions wherever possible and replace them with roundabouts.
Encourage the use of walking and cycling by providing covered rest stops for pedestrians and providing secure cycle parking at convenient locations.
Put an immediate hold on permits for the construction of condominiums, shopping malls, car parks etc.
Institute an immediate revision of building codes to ensure that all new constructions and renovations take note of solar efficiency i.e. the minimum area of south facing windows, the maximum area of east and north facing windows, wide eaves or other devices to control summer insulation.
Commence the conversion of all council owned buildings to solar heating wherever practical and consider installing solar cell generation of electricity where practical.
Designate all low lying regions and all constricted valleys as no go zones in preparation for sea level rise and increased incidence of torrential storm episodes.
Allocate all undeveloped land to allotment developments to encourage the production of local food supplies. Encourage the planting of productive trees rather than ornamental trees and promote the concepts of permaculture.
Promote local activities by establishing numerous local community centres at walking/cycling distance that can hold dances, social and cultural events rather than trying to establish mega-centres that require participants to travel huge distances. (A church and hall [$500,000 asset] have recently been demolished in Pakuranga to enable a shopping mall car park to be extended!)
Promote waste reduction by banning the use of one-trip/non-returnable containers.
Promote composting of domestic organic waste.
Promote recycling of all other materials = zero waste society.
Promote the collection of roof water for irrigation
Financial disengagement from the loopy policies of other councils
Develop plans to establish flood-proof, hurricane-proof civil emergency shelters and local security measures (hordes of starving Aucklanders arriving at the Waitakere border, refugee camps 2010/12 onwards?)
Everything must become smaller and more local, as cheap energy disappears.
It would be a very brave and determined city council that is prepared to make a stand against the globalised consumer society and a central government that is destroying our lives and our children’s future, yet to fail to do so will result in greater misery for most of the population, commencing perhaps a little as 3 years from now.
Clearly the first step would appear to be to engage in a debate [that the architects of globalisation, consumerism and increased energy consumption appear not to wish to be held]. Yet time is extraordinarily short and if the worst-case scenario holds true [of oilcrash in 2004], we have just a matter of months to take action and cannot allow ourselves to be bogged down by bureaucratic processes.
Obviously there are no easy answers, but none of the problems I have highlighted will go away and all will get progressively worse, so the sooner they are tackled logically, the better it will be for everyone.
I believe it is time for those who do not want to bury their heads in the sand to stand up and be counted. Yet I find myself living in a region of Auckland, in which the city council is unable to respond positively to submissions and has virtually told me that they do indeed intend to bury their heads in the sand and do nothing.
I trust that Waitakere City Council does not intend to do the same.
Environmental Consultant and Educator