Get Ready for the Peak Experience
By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Monday 30 August 2004
When history looks back, 2004 will turn out to be a remarkable year, and not just for the unraveling of
the lies and deceits of the Bush presidency. Equally as significant is the emergence into public
prominence of certain scientific facts that have long been suppressed.
Two new realities are fast converging on the public consciousness with what may be serendipitous
timing: climate change and peak oil. After years of controversy and denial, there finally seems to be a
solid consensus that climate change is here, it threatens everything from agriculture to human health,
and it will probably turn out to be even worse than predicted.
Peak oil is a still obscure term you will soon be hearing a lot more about. It simply refers to the peak
of oil production. Oil was made over millions of years as ancient life was crushed and buried under the
earth, and they ain't making any more of it - at least not on any timescale that is meaningful to us - so
like any limited commodity (think Picasso paintings or antique porcelain), the supply will rise to meet
demand and then begin to fall. As supply falls, prices will go up, perhaps drastically.
Like a hiker climbing through clouds, we can't know where the peak is until we reach it and feel the
ground falling away beneath our feet. But wait -- why are there clouds? Why can't we see the peak
before we get there? Don't we have monitoring agencies that exist to make predictions about things like
when the oil supply will peak?
As far as the average consumer and SUV buyer is concerned, the climb has been a stairway to
heaven. The coming decline in oil production is something rarely mentioned in public, and when it is, it
is portrayed as something so impossibly far off in the future that there is no sense in talking about it.
The obscuring clouds have been deliberately generated by a collusion of oil industry, financial and
government interests. They don't want us to know that we are about to fall off the world as we know it.
So I was mildly shocked to hear Texas oilman and corporate raider, T. Boone Pickens declare on
NPR's Morning Edition last week: 'The peak is now.'
Pickens is certainly not the last word on peak prediction, but other serious analysts come close to
his views. Petroleum geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, author of the breakthrough book 'Hubbert's Peak,'
predicts the peak will fall on Thanksgiving Day in 2005. Others are more reluctant to pinpoint the peak
and say it may be a few more years yet, but certainly before 2010. That's five, six years at the most to
get our ducks in a row and ready to face a world of vastly accelerating oil prices.
Contrast this news with what governments and oil companies and have been saying. According to the
US Energy Information Agency, oil production won't peak until 2035.
On the corporate side, British Petroleum publishes an annual Statistical Review of World Energy that
is widely cited. Responding directly to the critics who point to an early peak, Lord Browne, chief
executive for British Petroleum wrote in the latest edition of the Review that: "At current levels of
consumption, there are sufficient reserves to meet oil demand for some 40 years and to meet natural
gas demand for well over 60 years." There is no acceleration of oil depletion, he maintained.
But last week the Energy Institute of London released an independent analysis of BP's data showing
that total world production declined by 1.14 million barrels a day last year. On top of that, the analysis
found that the annual rate of decline is accelerating.
Oil companies do not want the word to get out. On August 24th, Shell Oil agreed to pay a $150
million fine for inflating its proven reserves by 4.5 billion barrels. Shell is the third largest oil company in
the world and one fifth of their stated reserves were a lie. They did it to protect their stock value.
From the perspective of climate change, news that oil is peaking sooner rather than later is good
news. We need to end the fossil fuel addiction anyway, and only higher oil prices will tilt the economics
in favor of solar, wind and other renewables.
But we have got ourselves in a very dangerous situation. The potential exists for oil prices to increase
quickly and radically. There won't be much time to manufacture the new energy infrastructure. Belt
tightening will be needed. Economies could turn to dirty coal for a quick energy fix and the competition
for the remaining oil could heat up into further wars.
For this reason, accurate widely disseminated information about energy is absolutely critical. At all
costs, we must not allow the media game that went on with global warming to happen with peak oil.
A recent study ('Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press,' in Global
Environmental Change) examined coverage of global warming in prestigious newspapers such as the
New York Times and the Washington Post. The study found that these 'papers of record' responded to
industry propaganda campaigns to discredit global warming by regularly setting up a handful of industry
trained critics as 'balance' against the larger scientific consensus. Confusion reigned in the public
mind, and a precious decade was lost.
Now Gaia is asserting herself. Seas are turning acid, corals bleaching; vapors and smoke are
bleeding into the stratosphere where all is not well with the ozone skin. Massive forest fires, storms,
floods and heat waves are waking people up. When the news comes in through your window, or tears
off your roof - TV turns irrelevant.
This newfound awareness of global warming will be of great help as we attempt to quickly map out the
path to a new energy future. As we climb down from the peak, the way is perilous and uncertain. There
will be a temptation to go all out for extracting oil and gas from heavy oil shales, tar sands and coal.
This will only dig us deeper into the global warming hole. Knowing that the hole is there will help keep
us on the straight and narrow path to a truly renewable society based on solar, wind, hydro, tidal and
The new energy economy will be diffuse as different technologies are used to harvest the energy
resources particular to each region. Solar and wind are low density energy sources and we will have to
work harder for our energy. Oil's high energy density is what makes it possible for a handful of men to
control it and the politics and economy of the world.
Many will wail and cry that the end of oil means the end of the American Dream. It could mean that,
but only if we let it. The American Dream is not the endless accumulation of stuff and sprawl. The
American Dream is not empire without end and the garrison state. The American Dream is freedom and
the pursuit of happiness.
For too long, we and the world have been chained to the petro-dollar. New possibilities await. Let us
go forward not in fear, but in the spirit of adventure.
Science Magazine: Asia Farmers Sucking Continent
By Andrew Cawthorne
Friday 27 August 2004
LONDON - Asian farmers drilling millions of pump-operated wells in an ever-deeper search for water
are threatening to suck the continent's underground reserves dry, a science magazine warned.
"This little-heralded crisis is repeating itself across Asia and could cause widespread famine in the
decades to come," London-based New Scientist said in a report on scientists' findings at a recent
water conference in Sweden.
The worst affected country is India.
There, small farmers have abandoned traditional shallow wells where bullocks draw water in leather
buckets to drill 21 million tube wells hundreds of meters (yards) below the surface using technology
adapted from the oil industry, the magazine said.
Another million wells a year are coming into operation in India to irrigate rice, sugar cane and alfalfa
While the $600 pumps have brought short-term prosperity to many and helped make India a major
rice exporter in less than a generation, future implications are dire, New Scientist said.
"So much water is being drawn from underground reserves that they, and the pumps they feed, are
running dry, turning fields that have been fecund for generations into desert," it said.
Tushaar Shah, head of the International Water Management Institute's groundwater station in Gujarat,
said there was no control over the expansion of pumps and wells.
"When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India," he said at the annual
Stockholm Water Symposium.
Shah said Indian farmers were taking 200 cubic kilometers of water out of the earth per year, with
only a fraction of that replaced by the monsoon rains.
SUICIDES AND POWER-CUTS
"The same revolution is being replicated across Asia, with millions of tube wells pumping up precious
underground water reserves in water-stressed countries like Pakistan, Vietnam, and in northern
China," the New Scientist report said.
In China's breadbasket, the northern plain, 30 cubic kilometers more water is pumped to the surface
each year than is replaced by rain, it said. Officials have said water shortages will soon make China
dependent on grain imports.
Vietnam has quadrupled its number of tube wells in the past decade to 1 million, while water tables
are plunging in the Pakistani state of Punjab, which produces 90 percent of the country's food, New
In India, "farmers have invested some $12 billion in the new pumps, but they constantly have to drill
deeper to keep pace with falling water tables," it said.
Meanwhile, half of India's traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already
dried up, "bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them."
Another consequence is electricity blackouts, reaching "epidemic proportions" in some Indian states
where half of the power is used to pump water from up to a kilometer down.
To counter the water crisis, some states are placing small dams across river beds in a bid to
replenish groundwater by infiltration, and Hindu priests are organizing farmers to capture monsoon
rains in ponds, the report said.
But the Indian government has gone cool on a proposed $200 billion River Interlinking Project to
redistribute water round the country. "In any case, the water supplied would probably come too late,"
New Scientist said.