Peak Oil 102: What To Do Now

Primary Energy Use By Fuel - 1980-2030 Source: (Renewables is the thin red line atop this graph)

Uncontroversially, U.S. domestic oil production has been declining for roughly 40 years now, yet public policy still subsidizes its consumption (see Peak Oil 101), and, as every free-market economist will tell you, a subsidy means we over-consume it.

What could solve the growing divergence between our domestic energy supply and energy demand?

We could continue what we have been doing:

  • Subsidizing oil ($300 – 550 billion annually — this last is from the Financial Times)
  • Fight resource wars for overseas oil

Or we can start building a society with more sustainable policies:

European building codes require the “passivehaus” standard of construction. Essentially, building to this standard means a building consumes no net energy.

Amory Lovins reports that conservation is competitive with conventional energy sources now, and enlightened companies understand cutting waste gives them a competitive edge.

A recent U.N. study found that raising livestock caused more climate change than all human transportation combined. Currently U.S. agriculture is not even “solar.” We burn ten calories of petroleum to produce one calorie of food.

Anna Lappé’s Diet for a Hot Planet systematically debunks all of the objections from the unsustainable industrial agriculture that currently dominates our food supply. Objections that food would necessarily be more expensive, or less plentiful are all demonstrably false.

Public policy has an enormous impact. Farm subsidies amount to 40% of U.S. agricultural income. Michael Pollan quotes one farmer saying “It’s just like laundering money for Cargill and ADM” (two agribusiness giants).

How sympathetic are Cargill and ADM to American consumers? Not too long ago their executives did some jail time for an illegal conspiracy to fix prices.

Personal action here would have enormous impacts. Despite what you hear about our population eating less meat, livestock consumption is up five-fold since the 1950s. See Dr. Barnard’s healther diet  here.

Building cities in sprawl — so all the different “uses” (stores, homes, offices, etc.) are in widely separated locations has been the American development pattern for the last half century. That does not, however, follow traditional settlement practices. Traditionally, neighborhoods mix uses — a corner store with offices or residences upstairs is common. They also connect the different uses with pedestrian-friendly streets. In England, even highways come with foot paths.

Public policy is important here, too. The misguided sprawl planning and building codes need to be replaced by “Smart Codes.” If FNMA changed its loan underwriting standards to require smart codes guide any new development, the U.S. would stop building sprawl, and start building traditional villages virtually overnight. It takes one to raise a child, you know.

Such development would not only have the beneficial effect of reducing vehicle miles travelled (between one-third and two-thirds), it would make the inhabitants healthier (they could walk to real destinations), and would lay the groundwork for transit. Who believes transit will ever work in sprawl if people can’t walk to the stops?

As for those 100-mile-per-gallon cars, we have them now. They’re called “buses.” Building sprawl insures all transit must be subsidized. In traditional mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, transit can actually be profitable. Bicycle amenities would help existing sprawl. Current transportation spending favors highways above all else, though.

Skeptics may believe transitioning to renewables is impossible, or would mean a return to stone-age living, but Europeans and the Japanese live modern-age lives consuming only half the energy the U.S. does per dollar of GDP. It’s more than possible; it’s necessary.

Adam Eran


  1. Adam Eran says

    Also worth a look in this connection:

    Mr. Weinstein’s comment that “Peak Oil” embodies some kind of dogma remains a puzzle. Is there still some kind of debate about whether the earth and its resources are finite? Really? Even if the planet has some creamy nougat of oil at its center, it will, of necessity, run out of all resources at some future time. This is the famed “dogma” called “The second law of Thermodynamics,” or “entropy.”

    In any case, there is literally zero controversy that U.S. domestic oil production peaked in 1971, and has been in decline ever since. The fact that it imported 30% of domestic consumption in 1971 and currently imports 70%, and that prices went from 1971’s $2/bbl to the current $90/bbl also indicates this is not speculation or ideology. It’s what we like to call “fact.”

    I won’t dispute climate chaos is a likely outcome from continuing to burn lots of petroleum, or that there’s an abundance of energy available in renewables or consdervation. Unfortunately Exxon has been putting out millions for its biostitutes to put out some counter-narrative — roughly like the tobacco industry did when it became clear its product produced cancer. Hence my preference for an argument that provides a solution for exactly the same problem as climate change without the troublesome, and well-funded denialist opposition.

    Seriously, the idea of peak oil, whether in individual oilfields or in the production from countries is hardly controversial. Try the March 1989 Scientific American (“The End of Cheap Oil”) for a full discussion of this concept. (it’s at, not a website for the faint of heart, incidentally.)

  2. says

    Two brief key points which well-intentioned and mostly on-target articles like this one tend to miss.

    (1) The biosphere gets 99.98% of its required energy free from the sun. Because this energy flow is free – and mostly not diverted temporarily into intentional human projects – it’s fashionably not counted in either govt or corporate or earnestly ideological treatments. The .02% of energy that is marketed in concentrated form gets all the publicity, and all the serious talk. By the way, the humongous amount of free energy, even if not tapped otherwise, is in fact absolutely REQUIRED for human life: it’s main inevitable use is to support earth’s surface temperatures, to keep us way above absolute zero.

    (2) ‘Peak oil’ – if it means anything at all – is a term which expresses the dogma that at some time, in the past or near future, annual oil production will peak, and ever after will be ever less.

    But the necessity for getting by more efficiently with less oil does NOT depend AT ALL on whether such ‘peak oil’ is a correct description of oil production history.

    The simple aims of moderating climate change and averting its worst possible consequences are reasons enough to use less carbon-fuel energy sources. The ‘peak oil’ term and dogma are cute ideological trimmings, but needless and thereby misleading.


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