National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: Technology Races Depletion

 Few would argue with the proposition that within the next 20 or 30 years our current sources of fossil fuels and other somewhat substitutable liquids will be only a fraction of the 90 or so million barrels a day (b/d) that we are current consuming. Long before then however, fossil fuels are likely to become so expensive that major changes in how we power our civilization are likely to have occurred. Some of this change will come because existing renewable technologies such as wind and solar become more economically competitive. Some changes will come because new technologies will be discovered or developed into sources of energy or methods of saving energy. A few years of global crop failures may be enough to convince a critical mass that there is indeed something to this carbon emissions thing and something has to be done.

In looking at what we will need to maintain some recognizable semblance of our civilization in coming decades, it is clear that we are going to need new sources of energy that can be implemented at a faster pace than is happening with our current crop of renewables. Or we are going to have to come up with major efficiencies in the way we use fossil fuels. We are currently happy with, and can afford, vehicles that burn fossil fuels at tens of miles per gallon, where as with coming technology, hundreds of miles per gallon should be attainable. The missing ingredient is simply that motor fuels are still too cheap to spark a major transition to other forms of powering transportation. For now the political will to drive this spark through taxation is simply not there, particularly in the United States and we will have to wait for market forces to raise prices.

Experts in efficiency tell us that here in America we could get along with a third less energy and never miss it. The Europeans burn half the oil we do in the Untitled States and seem to get along.

Off the radar screens for most of us, however are insights into the pace at which technological developments impacting our future are taking place. One of my favorite websites is the one run by the Green Car Congress which catalogues all the developments announced each day relevant to better efficiency and less polluting energy. Every month there are dozens of announcements from all over the world of new products or claimed technical breakthroughs that could be useful in getting us through to the latter half of this century.

Many of these announcements and claims are so far down in the technological weeds that it is impossible to evaluate the significance of the claims. In the case of cellulosic ethanol (biofuels from non-edible plants) there are so many overlapping claims of progress it is impossible to tell if there is real progress being made towards a useful product and if so, just which technology might be used.

Far more comprehensible are the announcements related to internal combustion vehicles. Here we have dozens of announcements and claims by vehicle and parts manufacturers of more efficient cars and trucks that will be for sale shortly. The general tenor of these announcements is that very efficient cars and trucks could be available by the end of this decade, making the current government goals of 50 or so mpg by 2025 seem rather modest. As most vehicle manufacturers are already doing business in the EU, where gasoline retails for close to triple what it does in the U.S., they are fully cognizant that they must change before another round of gas price increases begins to drive motorists to far more limited use of their cars.

In recent weeks there have been many announcements concerning new electric cars and trucks which can provide transportation with less or even no liquid fuels. Prices of electric vehicles in comparison to conventional cars are coming down rapidly and major improvements in battery capacity and price should make electric cars competitive before the end of the decade.

Every now and again a new idea turns up in the literature that if implemented could lead to a major reduction in the need for liquid fuels. Siemens in Europe is experimenting with a hybrid freight truck that would draw is power from overhead electric lines as trams and electric trains do while traveling between cities and only use their diesels for local roads. While overhead wires and new trucks would be expensive, the advent of such technology would depend on the cost of liquid fuels and perhaps that of liquefied natural gas in the U.S.

Another interesting concept was contained in a Department of Energy grant to develop a natural gas powered vehicle that can use its own engine to pump up the natural gas to the pressures required for on board storage. This would allow a car to be connected to an inexpensive low pressure home natural gas pipe and refill itself without expensive external natural gas pumps. Another project would allow on board natural gas tanks to be created in a shape allowing them to be blended into empty space in a car.

It is impossible to say where and at what pace all this is going. At the minute the OECD is beset with serious economic problems that seem likely to continue in one from or another for many years. How much this will hinder the adoption of alternative sources of energy and energy saving technology is impossible to say. What seems reasonable to conclude, however, is that technology is not stagnant and that numerous developments are underway that reduce the demand for liquid fuels significantly. But then there is global warming. 


Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.