What is Peak Oil?
"Peak Oil" is the phrase used to indicate that production of oil in a designated area, such as a country or the whole planet, will hit a maximum and will then inevitably and irreversibly decline due to depletion of easily accessible oil. "Peak Oil" discussion also generally includes the associated potentially severe disruption of the established patterns of economic and social stability.
The primary reasons that oil (and its associated resource, natural gas) are so important can be listed easily: transportation, heating and cooking, electricity, plastics, fertilizer. Once one begins to follow the implications, the seriousness of this situation becomes more apparent. Barring any rapid switch to alternatives, which everyone believes would take decades to accomplish fully, disruptions can be significant.
Why Does It Matter? Food - availability of food comes up in several topics below. However, it is worth discussing on its own as well, due to the serious human implications of any drop in world food production. Oil (and natural gas) are used at every stage of food production: they are used to create fertilizer, which is needed to grow with high yields throughout most of the world; energy (oil and gas) are used to pump water for irrigation, and to run farm equipment that helps break up soil, plant crops, and harvest them; energy is used for preparing those food items that may be pre-cooked or processed (everything from butter and cheese through canned, dried, and frozen foods that make life more manageable in different parts of the world).
In one of the most critical steps, gasoline or jet fuel from oil is used to transport foods from farm areas to areas all over the planet. Finally, energy is used to keep food cold, and to cook it as necessary. If these steps break down or become significantly more expensive, people will go hungry. Those on the edge of abject poverty will be subjected to increased risk of starvation or deadly illnesses due to inadequate nutrition. The social and economic impact of these changes to our long-established food systems would cascade throughout the world in a variety of forms.
The component aspects of oil and gas as needed for food production, and some additional aspects, are listed below:
Transportation - the ability to travel economically, including to a work place, for social and family reasons, for education, and of course for pleasure. Transportation is even more critical for food in our current system, as many areas of the world depend on food transported from far away.
Heating and cooking - oil and gas heat are quite popular for homes in colder areas of the developed world, and to a lesser extent in the whole world for businesses. As their cost increases, there will be pressures on how to pay for heat. The same applies for cooking.
Electricity - generating of electricity is more frequently done through natural gas. It seems the peak in natural gas may be a bit further away than the oil peak, but not by more than a few years.
Plastics - yes, plastics were a subject of scorn in the movie "The Graduate", and perhaps rightfully. On the other hand, we have become highly dependent on hydbrocarbon-based plastics for a tremendous variety of needs - food wrapping and packaging, medical equipment and sterilization, clothing, preservation of outdoor surfaces, furniture, and more. Pressure on replacements such as glass, metal, and wood would be intense if plastic becomes unavailable at a reasonable cost, and not all applications can be easily replaced by ANY material.
Fertilizer - modern fertilizers used in global-scale farming are derived from fossil fuels, i.e. oil and natural gas. Much soil on farms is depleted and can only produce at current levels due to generous use of fertilizer. Without fertilizer there is expectation of widespread food shortages.
When Will It Happen?
There is a good deal of debate on timing. More and more analysts believe we are currently at the peak, and that that is the underlying cause of the price increases for oil, not any political or military issues that could have some effect but not a multiplication by a factor of five times in price. Peak oil indicates a somewhat gradual decline in oil production capacity. The United States has dropped roughly 50% in capacity from its peak 35 years ago. What complicates the world situation further is that there is increasing demand from nearly all parts of the globe (especially China and India), and that unlike with the United States which had and has the ability to import oil to replace the shortfall, there is no place outside our planet from which to (realistically) import oil. For those reasons, we will likely continue to feel increasing price and availability pressures on oil and natural gas, increasing year after year.
Lastly, one may ask about tar sands, oil shale, coal, and nuclear energy. Discussing these in detail is well beyond the scope of this summary article, but in a few words, each has problems of net energy (the extra energy produced beyond the energy needed to extract and transport the resource), pollution and global warming (extracting tar sands, for example, requires vast amounts of heat and of water, which ends up highly polluted), and cost.
Well, that is the list of consequences of declining oil and natural gas. None of it would be so important if the Earth had, say, one hundred million people, or even one billion people. But with almost seven billion people, and growing, it appears we are highly dependent on the easy energy provided by oil and natural gas in order to provide sustenance and health for the world's population.
When oil and gas begin to decline, we need to have answers in place already, replacements for most or all of the functions shown above. The lack of such planning and action, already being felt, are what concern those who follow Peak Oil.
In 2006 I started building the PlanetThoughts.org Web site to raise awareness of environmental issues, but I have been in the software field since 1978, working primarily on healthcare-related and not-for-profit organizations, but also for some general commercial companies. I have also long been a supporter of environmental causes.
I am an enthusiastic Tai Chi Chuan practitioner and teacher. This helps balance my brain after sitting at a screen for hours at a time, and lends some balance to life.
In early 2006 global warming and other environmental and energy challenges, as well as escalating wars in numerous locations, became central to my understanding of issues that our whole planet faces, and I wanted to do something with my skills to spread awareness and understanding of environment and energy issues, as well as discuss better philosophies of living, for greater satisfaction beyond consumerism.