Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
Page added on April 1, 2012
Damn, just when we were just starting to have fun we find out our version of the world won’t exist for our kids. Don’t take my word. That’s what four MIT researchers wrote in a presentation to the Club of Rome in 1972. It was later published as a book, The Limits of Growth.
What authors Meadows, Meadows, Randers and Behrens did was run one of the first computer models on exponential consumption of natural resources, which is now the standard way of calculating the longevity of resource reserves. The pegging of peak oil came from the same sort of projections.
I confess that I caught a major infection of Peak Oil Fever a few years ago. It was one of the reasons our family decided to stay on the East Coast. We wanted to explore a more sustainable way of living that might include relocalizing the economy, reskilling the local people, and retooling ourselves to prepare for a drastic reduction of cheap fossil fuel.
So I scoured through everything I could find on the Internet. (There’s a lot.) I learned that there’s enough energy in a single gallon of gas to do the work of one man working 8-hour-days for two weeks. I learned the world uses 80 million barrels of oil a day, and that the U.S. alone uses a quarter of that. And I learned OPEC and others have been lying to the international public, overestimating the size of their reserves.
It occurred to me that a post-fossil fuel sustainability demonstration project might be a good idea. And why not create one out here, on the sleepy East Coast of Canada? In an odd bit of circumstance I ended up in a meeting with Frank McKenna, former provincial premier, former Canadian ambassador to the U.S., VP of TD Bank, etc., and chatted about the idea.
I showed him a graph that tied just about every modern growth pattern (from industry to information) to the exponential use of fossil fuel over the past 150 years. I pointed to the top of the curve, Peak Oil, and the rapid decline, which would become critical in my view by 2040 when the world’s population would still be rising dramatically. I said, “We have about 30 years left.”
He brushed the graph aside and looked at me flatly. He told me that he was sitting on the board of a major oil company and that the crisis isn’t 30 years out. It’s considerably less than that.
That was a bit of a showstopper. I left feeling a bit naïve, realizing that industry guys had been on the same page for decades. And I remembered reading that the CIA had come up with the same conclusions in the 1950s, and some old physics dude, Dr. Albert Bartlett, had been writing about the dangers of exponential growth since 1969 at least.
And now their math is showing up in the news. As I write this the headline at the top of the Huffington Post screams SQUEEZED: Canada’s Gasoline Hikes the Highest in the Developed World, Why is it So Expensive?
Well, duh. We’re running out of the stuff. And oil is the biggest symptom of what’s to come, which many predict as economic Armageddon. There’s the respected work of Lester Brown, Jared Diamond or Joseph Tainter, whose excellent 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies is still a very topical read.
Just off the top here are 12 critical issues we face:
1. Decline of fossil fuel while consumption-production grows exponentially
2. Continuing resource wars, ongoing since 1991 and possibly before
3. Ever-deepening dependence on complexity and technology requiring large energy inputs
4. Centralization of capital-intensive wealth pumps putting control into the hands of a few
5. Widening gap between rich and poor, and a rising poverty line
6. Revoking of civil liberties, spying, preparation for authoritarian control
7. Sell-off of democracy to corporate interests, rise of plutocracies and oligarchies
8. Overshooting the sustainable resource capacity of Earth
9. Weakening of the environmental movement
10. Privatizing and exploiting the commons
11. Decline of public education and of impartial news media
12. Industrial degradation of agricultural land and threats to local food security.
What concerns me, and should concern all of us, is how these important resource issues are being studiously avoided by our national politicians and the mainstream media. And how new policies aimed at social control and the restricting of our rights are being quietly implemented. On Sundays, no less.
On March 16, Barack Obama signed the National Defense Resources Preparedness executive order, which gives the U.S. President the power of command and control over all energy, production, transportation, food, and water resources for national defense and national security — not just limited to war.
Add to that the recent National Defense Authorization Act that allows the president to enter any country in the world to detain and hold any U.S. citizen without trial, and one sees the picture unfolding.
New trade and security agreements with the U.S. will create a more porous border with the States which is a good thing for trade, but not necessarily for the privacy and security of people in Canada, who can now be investigated with shared information — and jointly pursued here –by U.S. police and military personnel integrated with the RCMP.
But it’s not so much what is happening as why. As resources become scarce the U.S. will need to increasingly step up control of its resource empire. Which very much includes Canada — and keeping their free trade door open to our resources and their business interests.
Canada has the highest rate of corporate foreign ownership in the developed world with over 50 percent of our petroleum industry and 50 percent of our manufacturing sector owned and controlled by foreign interests (compared to just 4 percent in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Scandinavia and Italy). Canada’s leading resource companies such as Alcan and Stelco have been sold off. So have large western tar sands projects, to companies such as China’s PetroChina.
And what do we get for the foreign investment? Multi-million-dollar bonus payouts to the Canadian managers who arrange the buyouts. A shift of control out of Canada. The loss of innovation jobs, and the move from a design and production economy to a branch-plant economy of resource suppliers. And an ever more arrogant, risk-adverse, western-energy-focused Canadian business and political elite.
Of course there are government resource royalties, which go into things like the Alberta Heritage Fund. But wait a minute. The province stopped contributing oil revenues to that in 1987. And the fund has only grown from $12 billion to $15.4 billion in the quarter century since then.
But with a population of just 1.3 million more than the province of Alberta, Norway has managed to sock away over $570 billion in revenues from its North Sea oil since 1990. That’s a whopping 3,700 percent more than we’ve saved, and gives a rather unflattering financial picture of who we are as Canadians and how we view the future.
As for my local sustainability experiment? Complete. Fail. The community wasn’t ready. And neither was I, for its resounding apathy.
And that crazy MIT report? It was recently reviewed and its projections for economic and social collapse are right on track for the doomsday timeline. Having watched this since the 1970s, I have to wonder. Is it that we’re stupid? Greedy? Or just can’t wrap our minds around the possibility of a dramatically different future, which doesn’t allow for exponential success?
One thing is certain. If Canada doesn’t wake up soon, the world as we know it, and all our most easily harvested non-renewable resources — including fish, according to Dr. Boris Worm — will be gone before 2050.
Me? I’ll be gone by then, too. And other than buying a hybrid car, I’m officially out of answers for my kids. How about you?