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Contact: email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com
Created 2006/03/17, modified 2010/04/24

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What is likely to happen as the oil runs out?
End of petroleum meets greenhouse
Environment meets economics
Cities
Temptation of war
Index
 
 

The major global problems that we are facing:

Climate change;
Declining petroleum supplies;
Declining world food production;
Destruction of habitats;
Loss of wild foods including, in particular, fish stocks;
Overpopulation;
Increasing environmental impact of each person;
Overcommitted water supplies;
Loss of soils and soil fertility;
Declining phosphate supplies;
Loss of biodiversity;
Spread of weeds and pest animal species;
Rising sea levels.

More big problems and more detail elsewhere.

Introduction

As I started work on this page I heard a statement on the radio that "every family's worst nightmare is a home invasion". I suspect that while this may be true in Australia in 2006, a home invasion will be trivial compared to the upheavals that we will have to endure with climate change, overcommitted water supplies, rising sea levels, and declining petroleum supplies. Not only all these in themselves, but because large areas of the earth that are at present highly populated will become uninhabitable – due to rising sea levels, declining rainfalls, or perhaps just intollerable temperatures – great migrations will take place from these places with terrible consequences to the displaced people and their neighbours.

I have previously written about the oil supply running out, mainly in terms of what oil is likely to be substituted with, and greenhouse/climate change.

Getting properly started on this page has been more difficult than most of the Net pages I have written. While I have very little doubt that society will be greatly effected by such things as those listed above, I find it very difficult to imagine the detail of the changes we will face.




What is likely to happen as the oil runs out?

 

The impact of horizontal drilling combined with 'fracking'

The development of the ability to drill to a given depth and then turning the drill to produce a horizontal hole through a 'tight' formation containing gas or oil, and then to release some percentage of the hydrocarbon by 'fracking' has delayed the 'end of oil'.

In 2014 it remains to be seen how long this will put off the inevitable, and what environmental problems will be caused.

Gas

Will liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or compressed petroleum gas (CPG) replace oil? I believe that global reserves of gaseous petroleum are not great enough to fill the gap for long. Gas, at best, may provide a partial and temporary filler while oil declines.

Tar sands

The mining of tar sands by the big old oil companies is happening in the Canadian province of Alberta and there are large tar sands deposits in Jordan. Mining can be by open cut or, when the tars are too deep, 'in situ', by drilling wells and flushing out the tars out with copious quantities of steam. The process of extracting the tar from the sands and then converting it into something that can be burned to run an engine is expensive and very environmentally costly in energy requirements and the amount of toxic wastes that have to be disposed of. (See New Internationalist, April 2010, for several informative articles on the subject.)

Energy return on investment (EROI)

EROI is an important concept in the energy industry. It is defined as the ratio between the useful energy got out of a process against the energy needed for that process; in simple terms, energy out against energy in. As an example, petroleum in the past has typically had an EROI of around 30:1, that is, thirty units of energy obtained from the oil or gas for each unit of energy consumed in finding, pumping and refining the oil or gas. (The EROI is often written as a simple number, ie. 30 rather than 30:1.)

Importantly the EROI for petroleum is declining as more wells have to be drilled, more pumping done, more high-tech processes used, to obtain the same amount of oil.

It has been suggested that if EROI for our most important energy sources gets down to 10:1 it will begin to have a heavy impact on the modern way of life.

Studies on EROI for many of the energy industries have been reported on The Oil Drum. I have discussed EROI in greater depth elsewhere on these pages.

I have discussed some of the points of this section in A sustainable transport system and Peak Oil.
It depends largely on the order in which these problems are going to hit us. Current indications are that, while water supply problems are already on the increase, declining oil supplies, with steeply increasing prices, will be the first to have great world-wide effect.

Steeply rising oil prices will cause unprecedented impact on the global economy. Modern agriculture, transport, and mining are greatly dependent on cheap oil. The burning of petroleum is also one of the major greenhouse gas producers; so one might expect that one of the early effects of declining oil would be at least a temporary decline in the amount of greenhouse gasses going into the atmosphere, however, the advent of large scale development of 'fracking' and coal seam gas, with increased leakage of methane into the atmosphere, may well cause an increase in the release of greenhouse gasses.

Liquid and gaseous fuels can be made from coal, shale oil and tar sands (see the box on the right). All these fuels produce even more greenhouse CO2 per unit of energy obtained than does conventional petroleum. Liquid fuels cannot be made from coal, oil shale, or tar sands if climate change is to be limited; it's as simple as that. Greed and short-term profits are stronger movers of industry and government than long-term sustainability and our environment, but there is another factor involved, Energy Return On Investment (EROI) (see the box on the right); the ratio for free-flowing petroleum has been around 30:1, that for tar sands is much closer to 2:1. It may well be that the extraction of liquid fuel from tar sands will be found to be uneconomical.

So, what will happen as oil prices rise and airlines have to increase their ticket prices, long distant trucking becomes uneconomical, and international shipping costs go through the roof? In the early stages we will probably see:

  • A steep decline in the use of the private car and increased walking, cycling and use of bus, train and tram transport;
  • A steep decline in air travel;
  • A steep decline in international tourism;
  • A move from road to rail transport for freight (rail is much more energy efficient);
  • A move toward sail-powered shipping;
  • A decline in mining with consequent rises in metal prices;
  • A steep decline in the long-distance movement of materials and a consequent great increase in reliance on local foods, manufacture, and supply;
  • A trend away from highly mechanised farming toward more labour-intensive farming;
  • A forced increase in recycling and reuse;
  • An increase in renewable power, such as wind and solar;
  • An increase in ethanol (and methanol) production;
  • Increased use of wood as a heating fuel;
  • A move toward obtaining liquid fuel from wood.
Any replacements for oil will take time to achieve. In the mean time there will be heavy impacts on the world economy.

The present globalised food production and distribution will collapse as the oil runs out, we will develop more self-sustainable communities.

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What effect will the end of petroleum have on greenhouse?

More expensive petroleum will result, in the short term, in decreased fossil fuel burned and consequent reduction in greenhouse carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Not only will there be a direct feedback, eg. people will use their cars less as the fuel price rises, but there will be multiplying effects, for example:-
  1. Mining costs rise because mining uses large amounts of petroleum. This will lead to –
  2. Higher prices of metals, which will lead to –
  3. Higher prices of machinery (manufacturer's costs will also increase due to the petroleum that they use);
  4. Producing fertilizer requires large (fossil fuel) energy inputs, so the cost of fertilizer will rise;
  5. The combination of higher machinery, fertilizer and fuel prices will greatly increase farmers' costs so farm produce prices will have to rise proportionately;
  6. The cost of delivering that produce to markets will rise because of higher fuel prices.
So it seems that the cost of foodstuffs will rise by a much greater percentage than fuel prices. The costs of most consumables will rise for similar reasons to foodstuffs costs. The resulting greatly increased cost of living will make people cut their discretionary spending, including fuel for their cars and other non-essential travel costs.

It seems to me likely that these accumulating effects will cause major upsets to the global economy, with probably deep economic depression.

In time people will look to unconventional petroleum sources as a source of energy. Many of these are more greenhouse polluting than petroleum; so the loss of petroleum will not necessarily result in less greenhouse carbon dioxide being produced in the long term.

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Combinations of environmental and economic factors

What if the price of fuel rises significantly in an area where the water supply is already heavily committed and where rainfall is declining because of climate change? Access to groundwater, which would reduce the reliance on rain, will be reduced because of increased pumping costs; the same would apply to water from desalination.

Compounding of effects such as this will happen in some places and will be much worse for the inhabitants of those places than one effect alone.






Cities

Modern cities have largely been designed to suite the motor car and cheap liquid fuel. There are wide multilaned roads, shops are out of walking range of housing, their viability depends on the cheap transport of goods and materials into cities from a large surrounding rural area.

This is all going to change. As energy-efficient public transport replaces private cars (usually transporting only one person at a time) the need for multi-lane roads will greatly diminish; the need for paths suitable for cycling and walking will increase. As private cars become too expensive to fuel there will be an increased demand for old-style corner delis and local supermarkets within walking or cycling distance rather than huge shopping centres within driving distance.

As the cost of transport increases I suspect that smaller regional cities will become more viable than larger cities. Electric rail will become very important as a way of moving goods into cities.

As the price of food rises there will be a trend back toward the vegetable garden in the back yard. How will this effect those houses that have been built on such small blocks that they have no significant back yards? I suspect that, again, larger cities will go into decline and smaller cities where land is more affordable will prosper. What will happen to the large areas of deserted housing that may develop in big cities?

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Employment

Recessions and depressions caused by economic downturns following unaffordable fuel prices seem very likely. I suspect that people will quickly discover that they can do without many non-essentials; this will result in the loss of jobs, especially in cities.

On the other hand, with the use of machinery being minimised everywhere (and on farms and market gardens in particular) because of the costs of running it, there will be a greatly increased demand for labour, especially outside of the cities.






Industry

Large centralised industries will, in at least some cases, tend to be replaced by smaller decentralised industries.

For example, at present wheat is carted long distances to large flour mills, from there the flour goes to large centralised bakeries, the bread is carted to large shopping centres, and finally people drive their cars to buy their bread. There is much more use of transport involved in this system than there needs to be. Smaller flour mills could be placed closer to where the wheat is grown, smaller bakeries could be spread around, and smaller shops closer to where people are living.






The temptation of war

If a powerful nation is in trouble because of declining access to petroleum will it be able to resist taking petroleum from a weaker neighbour by force? Consider the Iraq War.





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On this page...
Cities
Employment
End of petroleum meets greenhouse
Energy return on investment
Environment meets economics
Industry
Introduction
Tar sands
Temptation of war
What is likely to happen as the oil runs out?