Patchwork Design Lab

April 18, 2010

Peak Oil

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 7:23 pm

Of Rates and Volumes

The volume of a sphere is finite, as is its surface area. If you take a single grain of wheat and double it, take those two grains and double them, take those four and double them and so on just 64 times, the number of squares on a chessboard, you end up with more wheat than has been grown in the entire history of humankind. If you just do it 63 times you end up with half that amount, still probably more than all people throughout history have ever consumed. Exponential growth of this kind starts out at a seeming snail’s pace but blows up quite rapidly after a few doublings. Even if the Earth’s entire volume were filled with petroleum, such a steady growth in consumption would use it up in a surprisingly brief period of time, a few centuries. Of course long before that could happen the growing strain on other resources or on the biosphere’s ability to clean up after us would put an end to the whole shebang.

The Earth is not filled with oil. Oil formed over periods in the neighborhood of 100 million years under a very restricted set of conditions and exists only at a particular depth and within rock strata having particular characteristics. Oil resulted from the crushing and cooking-under-pressure of dead algae deposited on the sandy bottoms of shallow seas sometime before T Rex was the latest thing in the ongoing evolutionary extravaganza of predation. Actually, in Pennsylvania there were places where the local oil’s subsurface crock pot had cracked, allowing oil to seep to the surface, but those spots were discovered and drained long ago. More recently, some have claimed that the Earth actually is filled, partially at least, with abiotic oil, oil that was formed below the surface through chemical processes, without the need for the ultimate sacrifice from billions of tiny Jurassic algae. Ilya, a physicist friend (from a small town in the Urals, but currently working in Silicon Valley), and beer maker extraordinaire told me he attended a colloquium at Berkeley about abiotic oil. Turns out it’s a real phenomenon. Problem is, it occurs at a depth of around 100 kilometers.

Now, I’ve worked as a deck hand on a drilling rig. Drilling is a painful process. Every so often the drill bit will crack or wear down to where it has to be replaced. At a decent depth it can take an entire shift just to retract all the pipe, disconnecting each section and stacking them all upright against the derrick, replace the bit, and reassemble the whole thing to get back down to depth with the new bit. I’m not sure the strength of your materials would allow you to drill a 60-mile shaft, or if they would how long it would take to do it. And if you could do it, what kind of a pump would it take to suck that stuff up a 60-mile straw. No such pump exists at this time. Even with biotic oil, the normal kind that rests at more friendly depths of 7500 to 15000 feet, once the natural gas that keeps the oil under pressure so that it comes to you like a trained volcano has been captured or burned off, you have to pump water into the well to keep the pressure up so you can continue to fill your tanks. Abiotic oil is not physically or economically feasible. Even if it were physically doable, you would burn more fuel bringing it to the surface than the operation would yield.

Of the Lifespan of Industrial Civilization

So, to review the bidding, oil is a finite resource that will not renew itself within the lifetime of a species. It is, for all practical purposes, nonrenewable. This means that it can be used up. And given our current economic system and an infrastructure that was designed and engineered to use oil as its essential feedstock, it will be used up, at least to the point where it takes more energy to mine it than it provides after refining.

The same basic argument applies to every other mineable mineral (or mineralized) resource, including coal, uranium, iron, gold, copper, magnesium, molybdenum, phosphorous, etc., etc., etc… Any way you slice it, industrial civilization, at least in any form we can currently conceive, is a one shot affair, a blip, a transient pulse, flash in the pan, parenthesis, choose your favorite metaphor. And that’s a good thing, because from where I sit industrial civilization appears to be a gigantic complex of processes that, if supplied with sufficient fuel, will not stop until the last blade of grass has been turned into toxic waste.

I had intended to talk more about geophysicist Marion King Hubbert and to go into some of the details of his theory and methodology. But that information is out there and readily available. If you want to know more go to The Oil Drum, or The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), or Jay Hanson’s website. Or, you can look up Peak Oil on Wikipedia. The main point is that whatever you may ultimately conclude regarding Hubbert and the details of his theory and methodology, the realities of life remain: a civilization based on perpetual economic growth in a finite world is living on borrowed time. And really very little time when you get down to it.

I’m more interested, at this point, in talking about post-industrial civilization and how to make it bloom amidst the ruins.

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