Beyond Peak Oil

Reading the column on peak oil, it occurs to me that homo-something-or-other has been in existence for 2 million years, give or take. Assume that we don’t nuke humankind into extinction or create some other such human made total catastrophe. One might suppose that our descendents could be around for, oh, a few thousands of generations at least.

Why does it seem that we don’t hear much concern about the fact that once we’ve used up all the accessible oil (& possibly coal?) over the next few hundred years there won’t be any such fossil fuels around for our descendents? At least not for the next millions of years until the process completes another cycle.

Our industrial age likely wouldn’t have happened without it, so what happens if other big, but not total, catastrophes send our great-great-grandkids into dark ages where industrial and information age devices fail? Assuming that some standard of living as ours would be desirable, with no more oil around for future civilizations, how could they bootstrap themselves into some semblance of industrial age technologies? Are we the biggest bunch of callous dummies to ever walk the face of the earth? Why is the point hardly ever raised, much less being planned for while there are still sufficient reserves left?

Better yet, are there any long-term solutions we might possibly leave them to try and make sure there is always something left for emergencies?

Ooops! I’m supposed to post a link but I don’t see the column I read posted on the homepage yet. Sorry. Do I have to stand in the corner for speaking out of turn?

“But I can’t afford to take the long view, my competitiors won’t let me.”
Doubtless that’s what the Easter Islander said as he felled the last tree on the island and sealed their descent into canabalism

Here’s the column.

Back in college years ago, the students taken frosh physics were given a video tape lecture by the name of Dr. Albert Bartlett entitled, "The Forgotten Fundlementals of the Energy Crisis " He gave some simple examples of why exponential growth in a finite environment needed to be understood because ignorance of the consequences was so dangerous.

One point in the lecture that stuck with me was to note the phrase “based on current rates of consumption.” As I recall, energy companies in the 70’s were pushing coal as the future choice for energy because 1) It didn’t need importation and 2) we had a *thousand * year supply. (I don’t have the cites as of this moment, but I thought a thousand years was pretty cool at the time). Recently I’ve seen advertisements that now talk about the advantages to coal because 1) it didn’t need to be imported and 2) we had a *500 * year supply. And you’ll note once again that this is “based on current rates of consumption.” :rolleyes:

Cecil pointed out the solution that addresses all problems, including that of our descendants…nuclear power. Fission works now, fusion will eventually be developed. No worries.

Sure, and with luck, by that time we’ll figure out what to do with the tons of high-level radioactive waste we have already. Not to mention the amount that will be generated by all the uranium-fueled Hummers tooling around by then.

Back in college years ago, the students taken frosh physics were given a video tape lecture by the name of Dr. Albert Bartlett entitled, "The Forgotten Fundlementals of the Energy Crisis " He gave some simple examples of why exponential growth in a finite environment needed to be understood because ignorance of the consequences was so dangerous.

Al used this as an example of how physicists are failing to convey imortant principals to even the well educated. I believe it was in a Physics Today today issue within the last two years.

Much as I might want to set aside petroleum for such things as plastics, I agree with Cecil. We will turn to alternatives when cost drives us there. Certainly no one is going to change consumption behavior because of people 2 million years from now. I see little evidence that we change behavior because of people living now.

This is what I don’t get about the “market solves all” arguments. It’s simple math. Exponential growth just doesn’t leave enough time for the market to fix things.

The Joint European Torus fusion development programme, which I have been fortunate enough to visit, has been working for decades on this, and the investment has been absolutely astonishing; NASA-sized budgets that not even the huge energy producers could afford, with the world’s top physicists and engineers working flat-out. And still, nothing.

As of January 1, 2004, for the US:

Estimated total reserves: 496,092 million tons.
Economically recoverable reserves: 268,396 million tons.
Currently mined/developed: 17,955 million tons.
Total production: 1,071 million tons.

Based on current rates of consumption, the real value is somewhere about 250 years. Based on future coal consumption growth, the value is about 150 years. However, the “estimated total resserves” are in the opinion of many to be too low. It is highly possible that the true value of the total and the economically recoverable reserves could be as much as twice what is shown. For all the analysis and core sampling and history, there is still a lot of unsurveyed land with respect to coal resources, and there’s a lot of coal that was formerly written off as being “unusable” that we are building power plants to burn right now.

The real problem with coal, of course, more than anything else is CO2.

Fair enough. I know there was a lot of variability with respect to estimate amount of reserves. I’m a little surprised that amount the amount is ~250 years–does that suggest we’re consuming 4x as much coal with respect to 1975 to 1980? And with respect to the CO2 arguement, it was certainly addressed in class, but when your talking 20 -25 years in the future who cares? (at least at the national level–it was, for most people, “morning in America”)

By the way, Una, kudos for the estimates (I shouldn’t be surprised…) :wink:

Coal production in the US in 1975 was about 655 million tons per year, and in 1980 was about 830 million tons per year. So doing the math, we’re using up coal at getting near to 1.64 times the rate as 1975.

I’ve heard the hyperbolic “thousand years” used in presentations, even recently. If I’m in the audience, I’m the one that eventually gets nudged to stand up and dress down someone by asking Questions and bringing up Issues…

Duuuuuh…That should have been 2004 :smack:

The biggest reason why it isn’t adressed is that it’s unreasonable. It’s the precautionary principal at its most extreme. Yes, there could be some technovirus that stops all technology from working or something as imagined in countless sci-fi stories, but it’s terribly implausible. We might just as easily speculate that a massive combustion of fossil fuels in the Earth results in a catastrophe and use that as justification for burning all the stuff as soon as posible.

It’s the precuatuionary principle gone nuts. Think of the most extreme scenario, no matter how implausible, and work to avoid it. Unfortuntaley if we actually lived by this principle we could never do anything, ever. It is far more likely that we get into a war with China next than that civilisation collapses 1000 years hence. So by the principle you are espousing we need to mobilise right now and damn the fossil fuel expense.

Nuclear power, sidestepping the waste storage issue, isn’t the savior Cecil paints it to be.
Consider crop growth and food distribution. How do you fertilize and control pests on crops with nuclear energy instead of petrochemicals?
How do you distribute food in tractor trailers powered by nuclear energy?
How long until it’s peak uranium instead of peak oil?
Please take a look at with an open mind and get back to us.
(I’d wager that’s the site the article questioner was referring to - it’s the first one that Google returns for peak oil).

RSVP, welcome to the boards.

We have people come in here regularly using or as their reference material. Those sites aren’t particularly scientific and get debunked every time someone references them. You really aren’t providing anything new for Cecil or the regulars at these boards.

As a guest you can’t search, unfortunately, so I have taken the time to do a search for a few of the previous threads for you. Please take the time to peruse them

The end of the oil era: The fall of civilization, or just a bump in the road?
Human Population & Natural Resources
What the world thinks of America
How much nuclear power do we have left
What sustainable technologies exist or nearly exist?

In short reply to your points, which are fleshed out in more detail in the above threads.

Petrochemicals are in no way required for fertiliser of pesticide production.

Fertiliser and pesticides just use petrochemicals as a feedstock. The feedstock is just a convenient source of carbon and hydrogen atoms, nothing more. You can obtain the same carbon and hydrogen atoms from plant biomass or directly form the air if you wish to.

You don’t. You use electric trains, which are already the norm in much of the world. The electricity for the trains comes from nuclear power stations of course,

For distribution to and from the railheads you have two main options. One is the use electric trams and electric lorries, which are also common throughout the world. The other is the use of nuclear electricity to manufacture petroleum from plant biomass for use in diesel or petrol vehicles.

Petrochemicals are in no way required for food distribution.

Using just fast breeders and conventional Uranium supplies we could manage about 400 years. But using seawater and fast breeders we could sustain our society on just nuclear and hydro for about 10, 000 years.

Given the rate of technological change discussing what the fuel situation will be like in 400 years time is pointless. It is even more ridiculous than someone in 1606 trying to discuss the energy situation today. We have that little idea.

So for all practical pruposes there is no peak Uranium.

Are there any operational commercially viable Breeder reactors in the world yet?
Is this a proven technology or is it still in the research phase?
What are the estimates for getting these reactors online?
If they are so wonderful, why isn’t China making use of them yet?
Will they ramp up to usefulness any quicker than developing Solar technologies?
Do you doubt that usuable Fusion will one day be attained?


Oil is not used, as Cecil said, to keep us warm and out of the dark. It is used to power engines in cars, tractors, aircraft, ships, motorbikes, etc

Coal and nuclear are used (oil only to a small extent) to produce electricity for warmth and light. Coal and oil can also be used to produce energy storing hydrogen, which in-turn can also be used to power motor vehicles.

So what will lack of cheap fuel effect?
No more inexpensive air travel, diesel powered farm equipment, inexpensive trucking transport. How will this affect society?

People argue that biofuels are an effective alternative, however that is nowhere near as cost effective as petro-oil, especially when there is demand for arable land for producing food.

FBRs have received much research funding but only limited market support.A “commercial” unit still operates in Russia and prototypes exist elsewhere, notably France, Japan, and India.
China also intends to build a prototype FBR while India and Russia are building FBRs that might be described as commercial.

Oh no, it’s indisputably a proven technology, but as the link says, the commerical operations have all been working prototypes.

No idea, I’m just an amateur with an interest, not an expert. But I don;t hink anyone disputes we can get them inline within the 100+ years we will have from an indisputable oil peak to the first coal peak.

China intends to use them. One of the big drawbacks is that they have “proven to be more expensive to build and operate than LWRs. It is unclear whether this is because most FBRs have been prototypes or if this reflects underlying costs.”

The technology exists, we know it works and we know it yeilds energy. The only question is whether it can be made truly economically competitive against the current cost of coal. ATM even China can import or mine coal more cheaply than it can generate FBR electricity. At some point as coal suuplies dwindle that will no longer be the case. And that was exactly Cecil’s point.

Barring some massive technological breakthroughs solar will never be more than a trivial contributor to world energy supplies. Solar simply isn’t reliable, it can’t produce on demand, it needs large amounts of land area and so forth.

This isn’t a question of whether FBRs can ramp up faster than solar. It’s simply the case that FBRs can replace all fossil fuel energy production if required and do so into the foreseeable future. And that means all, including the fuel used for transport. Solar can’t replace more than about 10% of current fossil fuel electricity demand at the moment, and that is its limit. It can’t replace oil at all to any realistic extent.

We need to keep in mind what wer are discussing here. We are discussing Cecil’s comments about replacing oil. Solar simply isn’t a contender.

On the contrary, I frimly believe we will achieve it, but it may not be for another 200 years or more for all I know. In contrast FBRs are usable technology right now.

Blake, thanks for the detailed reply. Jim and antechinus already mentioned a few of the thoughts I had.
The posts you linked and the alternatives you outlined certainly sound good on paper.
The problem is that we need oil to construct and convert to those alternatives, and very quickly.
Some calculations show that 10,000 nuclear plants would be needed just to cover the energy we get from oil today. Nuclear plants that take 10 years to build at $3-$5 billion each.
The site may not be scientific itself, but the hundreds of supporting reference links to sites like certainly are.
The page in particular has counterexamples for all the ideas you mentioned.
Was there a specific debunking of that site among the posts you linked? Again, the effort is much appreciated.