Richard Heinberg on Peak Oil, Portland – 20-Jan-2006

Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over and Powerdown (both on the challenge of peak oil), spoke in Portland, OR last night. Here are a few of my notes on the talk.

Basically he made the case that global peak production of oil is going to happen soon (if it hasn’t already), and cited a number of recent findings on the subject (allowing for variation of opinion going all the way out to 2025 or beyond). A startling graph of projected North Sea oil depletion paralleled the US production curve (which peaked in 1970). And I think it was stated that something like 33 of 48 oil producing countries are now in decline (includes the US, Indonesia, UK, etc.)

He cited a 2005 report by Robert L. Hirsch on the “Peaking of World Oil Production” which was instigated by the US Dept of Energy, and contains the following in its executive summary:

The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented.

‘Unprecedented’ is a scary word in this context. And mitigation will be expensive and is probably already long overdue…

On the topic of ‘what can be done’ Heinberg proposed a few ideas. The major one was the concept of an international Depletion Protocol, which would involve producing countries signing on to cut back on production of oil, and importers to cut back on imports, both based on a global depletion percentage. He argues that this would help to stabilize the oil market, and thus be in both national and commercial interests. I’m a little skeptical given the huge incentive to fudge the numbers (as has happened with OPEC for years). Certainly we are already seeing a fair amount of turmoil in the oil markets, and it’s unlikely to settle down!

He said that the ‘rational expectation’ for the future after the peak is realized would be repressive fascism in the US and global oil war, but that he personally couldn’t give in to that expectation. However when asked about the impact of consumerism, Heinberg first, perhaps a bit facetiously, mentioned ‘banning advertising’ (which sounds pretty repressive to me!).

He also talked about the possible use of quota rationing with trading allowed, saying that he preferred that to simply letting price rise, which would have harsh social equity ramifications on the poor. I presume he envisions a system where perhaps each registered car owner would get coupons to buy a certain amount of gas at the market price, but could sell those coupons if they weren’t needed.

Heinberg felt that the time had already passed for a fuel tax to be politically possible. And clearly the current administration has no interest in mitigation strategies. So the message is that it’s going to be up to local groups to take action.

Local folks in Portland have a peak oil group at:

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