03 February 2012

When Is (Was) Peak Oil?

Depending on variations in the definition you use, peak oil may have already happened as late as 2005 (based on an econometric elasticity of oil supply to oil price definition), or may be just five years away, in 2017, as an Australian government report suggests. We are right in the middle of this range at the moment.

We have probably reached a technological point where peak oil does not imply the collapse of civilization as we know it. There are biofuel alternatives, synthetic liquid fuels from coal alternatives, natural gas alternatives, and alternatives in petroleum driven applications that use electricity derived from non-petroleum sources which are sufficient to create a functioning high technology society without petroleum. We may have to transition uncomfortably quickly, a transition might very well lead to a sustained and deep economic slump, but even without oil our economy could return to a state of technology and the standard of living that flows from it would certainly be far superior to the situation in the early 20th century when petroleum started to play a major role in the economy and our daily life in the first place.

The fact that we've used the vast majority of the practical to extract oil reserves of the planet in about a century is embarrassing (and reaffirms the intuition that overhunting theories of megafauna extinctions make sense). The fact that the evidence seems to continue to support the coming or just arrived point of Peak Oil with major real world implications remains one of the single most important factors in explaining what our grand children's world will be like. But, the notions that this will be apocalyptic, or will usher in a new dark ages, seem increasingly far fetched too.

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