Beyond Petroleum

The era of declining fossil fuel consumption

Oilless TransportationA world without abundant and cheap energy is not the future that most Americans imagine, but it is a fact. Bigger and more powerful automobiles, faster air travel, bigger homes, etc. are what most Americans expect the future to bring. None of these things are possible without abundant and cheap oil and natural gas. Some predict a very bleak future. [1][2]

This is a world wide problem. All countries will be affected and cooperation between them is a paramount necessity. However, the United States is the biggest consumer of oil (on a per capita basis) in the world and therefore the most dependent. If we do nothing, our children will inherit a country with a nonfunctioning transport system. If we do nothing, our children will be cold and hungry.

A reduction in energy consumption might be merely inconvenient, or it might be a disaster. It depends on how the problem is addressed. Without oil and gas, farmers can't produce food. Without oil, truckers can't deliver food and people can't get to stores. Without gas and oil, electricity production will be curtailed resulting in rolling blackouts and outages. Without electricity, oil, and gas, people will not be able to heat their homes.

The first step toward a long term solution is energy conservation. This can be done immediately and no new technology needs to be developed. Conservation buys time that can be used to develop a transport system that does not use oil. Also, oil will be needed to build the new transport system. Extreme energy conservation measures will be needed to live with sustainable energy resources.

The Bush Administration certainly has access to oil industry expertise and presumably they are aware of the oil depletion problem. The Bush Administration National Energy Policy Development (NEPD) report does address the problem to a small extent. This, for example, is what it says about CAFE standards:

The NEPD Group recommends that the President direct the Secretary of Transportation to:

  • Review and provide recommendations on establishing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards with due consideration of the National Academy of Sciences study to be released in July 2001. Responsibly crafted CAFE standards should increase efficiency without negatively impacting the U.S. automotive industry. The determination of future fuel economy standards must therefore be addressed analytically and based on sound science.

  • Consider passenger safety, economic concerns, and disparate impact on the U.S. versus foreign fleet of automobiles.

  • Look at other market-based approaches to increasing the national average fuel economy of new motor vehicles.

That could be interpreted to mean that high-horsepower automobiles and SUVs will continue to be manufactured. The automobile industry loves SUVs because they are highly profitable. CAFE standards were put in place in 1975 in response to the OPEC oil embargo. CAFE standards do not apply to SUVs because SUVs are considered to be trucks, not automobiles. Industry lobbyists have succeeded in preserving this loophole. The average mileage of all passenger vehicles has actually declined to 20.4 mpg, mainly because of the poor performance of SUVs. 

The oil based transportation will have to be replaced, but the problem is bigger than that. We use fossil fuel to heat our homes and agriculture depends on oil and natural gas. It is urgent to develop sustainable energy sources soon because it will be a very big job. And it will be easier to do it while we still have oil.

Technological Solutions

Bush Segway DemoMany Americans believe that technology can provide an energy source. It is more likely that technology will be used to reduce energy consumption. A good example of this is the Segway [6] (here demonstrated by President Bush), an electrical device for personal transportation. The same person stated that "We need an energy bill that encourages consumption." [3] He might be speaking for himself or the administration. Clearly, the Bush administration does not regard conservation to be an urgent matter. None of the democratic candidates are urging conservation very strongly either. In fact, at this time (January 2004) very few politicians of any stripe acknowledge the problem of the energy crisis. 

Nuclear fusion is what powers the sun. It has been proposed as an energy source on Earth. [4][5] Several nuclear fusion reactions are possible. The fusion of helium 3 nuclei is of special interest because no neutrons are produced. That means no radioactive waste products. One ton of helium 3 is worth about 5 billion dollars in energy terms. Unfortunately, there is very little helium 3 on Earth. It may be that the easiest place to get helium 3 is the the moon! There are other problems too. It seems crazy to get energy from the moon, but professor Kulcinski makes a good case for it.

Many energy sources will be available in the future. These include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, fusion, and nuclear. None of these have the possibility to bring back the days of abundant and cheap energy afforded by fossil fuel.

[1] http://dieoff.com/ "Petroleum geologists have known for 50 years that global oil production would "peak" and begin its inevitable decline within a decade of the year 2000. Moreover, no renewable energy systems have the potential to generate more than a fraction of the power now being generated by fossil fuels. In short, the transition to declining energy availability signals a transition in civilization as we know it."

[2] The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg. Subtitled "Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies." Available at www.newsociety.com The problem of oil depletion needs someone to sound the alarm and this book may do it.

[3] Trenton, New Jersey, Sep. 23, 2002

[4] http://www.fusion.org.uk/index.html "A simple guide to what Fusion Power is all about, why we need it, and how we hope to achieve it."

[5] http://fti.neep.wisc.edu/neep602/lecture27.html Professor G. L. Kulcinski's  lecture entitled Helium Fusion: A Safe, Clean, and Economical Energy Source For Future Generations.

[6] http://www.segway.com/ The Segway™ Human Transporter (HT) is the first of its kind—a self-balancing, personal transportation device designed to go anywhere people do. It gives people everywhere the ability to move faster and carry more, allowing them to commute, shop, and run errands more efficiently while also having fun. It makes businesses more productive by allowing workers greater versatility, mobility and carrying capacity. It does it all by harnessing some of the most advanced, thoroughly tested technology ever created.

Dude, Where's My Country? -- by Michael Moore. A very popular and frankly political book. But there is a chapter about the era that comes after the oil is gone. It is presented as a nightmare but it brushes against reality in many places.