Bill Rees speaks with Darley

MediaDr. William Rees: How did you become concerned about peak oil?

Q1. How did you become concerned about peak oil?

Well my concern about energy generally dates from my interest as an ecologist and the whole question of energy in ecosystems. And of course I'm a human ecologist; I think probably the only one in Canada who actually studies human beings as a species of organism in ecosystems. And energy is the prime motivator of all biological activity of course. And so the laws of thermodynamics have been fundamental to my understanding about ecosystems work.

And the more I became interested in the human dynamic, and the fate of human societies, the more it struck me that the great leaps forward of human population for example always coincided with improvements in people's energy getting abilities. Essentially food getting abilities initially, as we shifted from the Paleolithic to the new Neolithic; from stone to metal weapons population leaped upwards. The next great leap forward was with agriculture. And again this provided a vastly greater supply of bio-energy to human beings. But the real huge leap forward didn't occur until the middle of the 19th century with the massive expansion with our use of fossil fuels.

And so today we have a global culture. We've had a virtually a 4 fold increase in population in the last century. And I began to realize a decade or two ago that it was almost entirely the result of our having tapped into a non-contemporary stored source of solar energy, namely fossil fuels. So here we have this enormous global structure bursting ahead anticipating another 4 fold growth increase in economic activity in the next 50 years or so. But all of it is dependent on a depleting source of energy - the fossil fuel reserves.

And so it naturally ultimately lead me into wondering just how far can we go on fossil resources. And so that's the basic history of my interest in energy as an ecologist initially. And then recognizing how fundamental energy is to everything in industrial society and the fact that we're dependent on a depleting source of that energy.

Q2.   How has 'peak oil' affected your own work?

I've developed a technique that is now being used widely around the world to assess the sustainability of the human enterprise. It's called Ecological Footprint Analysis. Basically it's a method of identifying the total area of productive ecosystems required to produce the resources that a defined population requires and to assimilate the wastes that that populate generates in the course of it's normal activities. So a population can be anything from an individual to a city to a country even the whole world. And we've developed a very elaborate method of ascribing a land area to virtually all of our major consumer items. And also of course I've mentioned the assimilative waste capacity that we need to incorporate into a land area estimate of some kind or other.

And energy is a major component of this. One of the major problems facing the world today of course is potential climate change because of the accumulation of green house gasses. This implies that the so called carbon sink function of ecosystems has been filled and indeed is overflowing . So one of the components of our ecological footprint calculations initially was to determine what would the carbon sink area need; how much dedicated carbon sink forest or agriculture land would you need in order to assimilate the current output of carbon dioxide originating from fossil fuel. And it's an enormous proportion of our footprint, probably over half in North America for example, is just the assimilative lands.

Well we were criticized for this, as the people said "well that's not a real land use." "Well of course it's a real land use" would be my first response. You have to think as much of waste disposal as resources in any kind of ecological planning. But moreover people said "well because the land isn't there, it's merely hypothetical." But again that merely proved our point that we're overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet. We are living on a bigger planet than we've got in a sense. And that shows up because we're both drawing down reserves on one hand and filling up our sinks to overflowing on the other.

So the alternative was to begin to look at different ways of computing this energy footprint. How much land would have to be in crop production for example if we were to move from stored carbon in fossil fuel to contemporary biomass ethanol production for example. And it turns out that the footprint would be even vastly larger. Just to give you one illustration of this. If we were to produce ethanol using the most efficient methods developed in the United States at this point, just to power the American automobile fleet, we would have to grow corn on an area of land larger than the continental United States to do nothing but produce ethanol for automobiles. And indeed that is an under-estimate because it doesn't include the enormous fossil energy required to grow the corn. So the more I started looking at this and some of the alternatives to fossil fuel, I realize that many of the more heavy, even larger footprints in terms of the quantity of energy and matter and land area that would have to be dedicated in that case to producing a crop, or that would have to be covered with windmills, or with photo-voltaic cells, or whatever it might be, it doesn't matter at which alternatives you look at, there's an enormous commitment of energy, of material and of course then of land area required. Because most of the alternatives to fossil fuel have very low energy density. So we need very large areas to collect that energy into usable form.

Q3: How are official institutions such as governments handling 'peak oil'?

Bill Rees: Well, as I got more and more into looking at the dependence of western technology, western society really, on fossil fuels, obviously the whole question of when the peak of production would occur keeps coming up. And the amazing thing to me was the enormous disparity between official estimates, often by government agencies, and what some independent petroleum geologists were saying, for example. To make a long story short I was really startled to find as much as a decade ago that predictions for the peaking of oil, conventional oil production in the world, might be as early as right now, 2002 or 2003, thereabouts. And even the furthest out estimate was around 2017 I believe at that time. Well, now many of the independent estimates from people like Jean Laherrere in Paris and Colin Campbell in Britain, several in the United States put the peak at around 2010 for just conventional crude oil, and perhaps if we add up all the liquids as late as 2015. And natural gas, to my astonishment, was not that far behind, perhaps five years after that.

So here we have this enormously complex society growing at 2 or 3 or 4 percent per year, probably half to three quarters of the world can’t even claim to be into the petroleum era yet. We’re all assuming we can carry on more or less as we are and extend the benefits of the petroleum age to the rest of the world. And it looks as if the production of most of our most accessible, and certainly our cheapest, sources of petroleum and natural gas will peak within a decade or two at the most.

The science of this is very interesting, and the reason why governments seem to be completely ignorant, and they’re not ignorant of this, but they simply just don’t believe it. And I guess in my own correspondence with the energy ministry in Canada my impression is every time I try to argue a case that we should be taking much more care of our remaining fossil reserves I get back letters written obviously by senior officials within the ministry essentially showing them to be in thrall of energy economists who are arguing that as prices rise we will simply go out and find more. So that’s the standard response in economics, of course. As supply declines the price goes up and we produce more of whatever it is in decline. But of course, oil and natural gas aren’t something we are making at all. We’re simply extracting it from reserves and we’re not going to be able to extract from reserves that aren’t there.

So I began to look back at this and at some of the reasons for the more pessimistic views on this and they date from early predictions by Hubbert in the United States. If we look at the US in the early 1950’s for example at that time was the world’s largest oil producer and it was on an exponential growth curve in terms of the output of fossil fuel. The private automobile fleet was growing. It was the post-war period of great ebullience and optimism. Hubbert, nevertheless, looking at records of individual, some 22 or 23 oil producing geological provinces in the United States, came out with an astonishing prediction that US oil production, or extraction to be more accurate, would peak in 1970 or thereabouts. Now that was only 15 years away from the time he made this prediction and people thought he was daft. He was virtually laughed out of the respectable circles. Nevertheless, this turned out to be an absolutely accurate prediction and it’s one of the most astonishingly accurate predictions anyone has ever made, I gather, in the gas and oil sector. At least, that’s how it looks to me, as an amateur from the outside. US production then peaked in 1970.

His data and his analysis were based on the fact that discovery peaked some 40 or 45 years earlier in the 1920’s in the United States. So what he had done was to build a model that showed that inevitably a peak of extraction would follow a peak of discovery. And in the case of the United States beginning in late 1800’s oil discovery is accelerated and accelerated but reached a maximum in the 1920’s and then declined rapidly after that in seeming unrelation to the number of wildcat wells being drilled. He put that together with some other data and hypothesized that there also must then be a peak of extraction, and indeed it occurred when he said it would, plus or minus a year or so.

Well, we now have much more sophisticated data for oil fields all around the world; we have a number of independent teams taking a look at this using extractions or extrapolations and advances on the Hubbert kind of analysis. And what they are showing us is, and again recognizing that globally if we accumulate all of the discoveries in all the oil producing countries around the world, the peak of discovery was in the early 1960’s. Well, we’re already forty some years past that peak. It turns out that obviously demand has been rising through this whole period of time and it was early in the 1980’s that the annual consumption of oil began regularly to exceed the rate of new discoveries of recoverable reserves, and nothing’s changed in the interim period. So for the last twenty years at least we have seen, each year, far more oil consumption than additions to recoverable reserves.

So again, putting all of this together the general presumption, or not presumption but extrapolation by several independent sources, suggests that conventional oil will be peaking within this decade or perhaps a few years after that. It depends a great deal of course on the state of the economy. If we go into a great global slump as a result of a war in Iraq, for example, then the peak may flatten out and last for a decade or more. So we can hypothesize any number of things that might change this but all else being equal it looks as if the world’s on course to peak in the next decade or so. And we simply don’t have in the pipeline, because of government, I suppose almost inability to assimilate the independent analyses, we just don’t have anything that is a suitable substitute for oil at the present time. In fact, the aggregate contribution of all of the alternatives doesn’t seem to be a particularly joyful option, in that we’re really going to be left high and dry in some uses. For example, almost all of the alternative forms of oil generate electricity of one kind or another, and although in quantity terms one might hypothesize that there’s plenty of energy out there, it’s quite another to deliver it in a form that’s useful for many of the kinds of uses. You’ll never fly an aircraft on any known electricity technology, for example.

MediaDr. William Rees: How did you become concerned about peak oil?