Like Everything Else, Alternative Energy Requires Cheap Oil

Immediate needs for oil may outweigh long-term needs for oil such as establishing alternative energy. (Photo: Ed Suominen / Flickr Commons)

Immediate needs for oil may outweigh long-term needs for oil such as establishing alternative energy. (Photo: Ed Suominen / Flickr Commons)

In February, at Resilience, Frank Kaminski reviewed The World After Cheap Oil by three Finnish energy analysts. The book ranges from the looming shock to an unprepared world to the climate crisis dependence on oil has helped foment to evaluating alternative energy sources. Kaminski singles out two unusual features of Peak Oil that the authors cover. First, the “energy trap.”

It can be summarized thus. Once world oil production begins to decline and the resource goes from being abundant to scarce, the oil that would be needed to reduce society’s dependence on oil is no longer available. This is because, as noted earlier, alternative energy sources sorely depend on oil just for their current production, not to mention the massive build-outs required to make them the dominant fuels. In a world of scarce oil, every ounce of it we possess will have to meet essential needs before those of alternative energy. The trap will become ever more acute the further we move along the depletion curve, since the sacrifice required to invest in renewables will have to come out of an ever-shrinking pie.

In other words, alternative energy is dependent on the availability of cheap oil. Second, Kaminski writes, the authors are:

… know of the mounting evidence that catastrophic climate shifts may already be unavoidable. As for the likely interplay between peak oil and climate change in coming decades, they foresee an ongoing “wrestling match” between the two issues. Though we may undertake earnest efforts on the climate, they will be undermined whenever the economy suffers and we have to burn more fossil energy to restart economic activity.

But, under the category of thank-goodness-for-small-favors, they are also

… well aware of key points in the peak oil argument that are lost on most climate change activists, chief among them the fact that we don’t really have the quantities of hydrocarbons required to bring about the worst climate impacts.

This reminds me of the argument that the nuclear winter following a nuclear war would slow global warming. Pessimism prevails.

As oil supplies shrink, demand will contract, first among the poor and then among the middle class, eliminating scores of nonessential services and businesses in the process. Eventually … we’ll see shortages and rationing. There will be respites in which economic activity will resume at a lower scale than before, but these in turn will bump up against new limits, causing further recessions. … It will also become increasingly hard to invest in more oil-efficient infrastructure.

 

  • deliaruhe

    This argument presumes capitalist control of all fossil fuel extraction and marketing. But if public ownership of all natural resources were the norm, regulating oil supply would eliminate a lot of the economic boom and bust prophesied in this article. Unlike private corporations, state owned business can operate on a steady-state economic model.

    There are lots of uses for fossil fuels without having to burn them — everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals. Supplying the raw materials for these things would be the bread and butter of government owned and operated oil companies, and when cycles in the move toward a full clean energy economy require a temporary boost from fossil fuels, that can be relatively easy to accommodate. That cannot happen within a grow-or-die capitalist model.

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    • daemonman

      I think you missed the point of this entirely.
      First, that when oil is scarce, it is scarce. So those pharm, plastic companies youre talking about would not be able to sell their products cheaply or at all. In fact, who knows, we might have to find alternative sources to petroleum based products as well.
      Secondly, you assume that a state-run capitalism is somehow efficient. It is anything but. Can you imagine the lobbying/corruption of a state owned oil company? Did you see the news about Petrobras? That’s a state owned oil company: one of the most corrupt, stupidly large and inefficient companies on this planet.
      Let me offer a real solution: governments need to start investing in all matters of science and tech, focusing on environmentally friendly materials, infrastructure, water purification, non-homogenous farming methods (permacultures), renewable fertilizers (using human waste as fertilizer – already being done in certain parts of the country), and biggest of all, renewable energy (probably solar). And I mean serious investing on the order of total military spending. Innovation is the only way we can even begin to dig ourselves out of this hole and potentially be able to live in a world with the same level of comfort as we do today.

    • Bazz12

      dellaruhe, you are making the assumption that solar & wind will be the basis, indeed the only basis for energy production. The big catch22 is that solar & wind cannot do the job. Whatever is the backup has to be able to store multiple days supply.
      If just three overcast days are encountered then the system has to be four times larger than needed for one day.
      Some other base load system will be needed before oil & coal leave us.

    • theinitiate

      you really think it’s okay to continue to use plastic?… yes, the medical profession uses it.. and well, I’m not an expert, but I suppose we could continue with that till we figure out something else… other wise.. I am completely against continuing the use of plastic…

  • TenneyNaumer

    There are so many unsupported notions in this post it leaves one breathless.

    • ashermiller

      Once you’ve caught your breath, can you give some examples of these “unsupported notions”? Thanks!

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  • Veronicaaprice2

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