Friday, August 29, 2003

It’s a certainty that the future will be Green; more in balance with nature, less pollution, based on renewable resources. What is uncertain is how painful the process will be and how much, if any, control over events we will have.

One of the driving forces for this change will be when we reach the peak of oil and gas production worldwide and rollover into decline, which will occur sometime within the next few decades, perhaps as early as this decade. Oil is the most important form of energy we use, making up about 40 percent of the world energy supply. No other energy source equals oil’s intrinsic qualities of extractability, transportability, versatility and cost. The twentieth century revolutions is transportation, industry and food production were fueled by oil.

The practical beginning of the age of oil began in 1901 with the discovery of the Spindletop field in Texas; the first giant oil field ever found. Giant oil fields have driven the industry. Today, the fourteen largest oil fields produce twenty percent of total production; 120 fields produce nearly half of world supply. All of these fields are old and many have already rolled over into decline. The last oil field discovered that was capable of pumping more than a million barrels a day was at Prudoe Bay in the 1970s. Today it produces less than half that amount.

Natural gas poses an even more difficult problem because it cannot easily be shipped overseas like oil; it needs to be chilled to liquid form and then regassified upon arrival. In the U.S. we are essentially limited to what we can produce in North America, and this supply seems to have peaked, in spite of record levels of drilling. Compounding the problem is the fact that most new power plants are designed to use natural gas, giving a big boost to demand.

The most important question for our economic future is when will the production of oil and gas peak and what renewable sources will we replace them with. Virtually everyone in the industry agrees that oil production will peak. The optimists believe we have another twenty or thirty years before peak, but most analysts believe the peak will come in this decade. A few more pessimistic voices believe we have already reached peak.

There are a few possible replacements. Wind generated energy is the fastest growing source of electricity in both the U.S. and Europe although it still makes up a very small percentage of total supply. Automobile companies are pouring tremendous amounts of money into developing a fuel cell powered car, but serious technical difficulties remain to be solved. New advances in photo voltaic cells have made them much more efficient but so far they not competitive with other sources of energy.

Our future is very much a gamble at this point, depending on oil and gas production to keep up long enough for us to develop alternatives. It is not at all clear that we will win the gamble. But it is certain that the future belongs to renewable, nonpolluting energy sources that will mean a much greener world.


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