Let's pretend for a moment that Peak Oil(tm) happens...what could be done, today, in 2020?

So, I was in a discussion this weekend with a Peak Oil™ advocate who was, again, touting that we are in the end game of Peak Oil™ and soon, the entire world, economy, society, culture, etc was going to collapse. Apparently Covid is a deep cover plot by all the world powers, but run specifically by China and the US (working together :rofl:) to manufacture this crisis in a bid to either cover up the coming of Peak Oil™ or to try and buy society time before the crash by forcing people to use less oil. Or something. It wasn’t really clear.

Needless to say, my own eyes are sore even now from all the eye rolling, but I thought it might be an interesting discussion about what we could or would do if Peak Oil™ was happening. So, let’s start with what Peak Oil™ is. Basically, Peak Oil™ (as opposed to just peak oil or peak anything) is the theory that oil is rapidly running out and that this will cause the sudden decline of society as we run out of oil and our entire world crashes to a halt. At best, we go back to a 19th century world of steam and horses, at worse, dogs and cats start living together. This isn’t about the reality that oil production might have peaked because of market forces and a transition to another commodity or paradigm, but the rapid downward trend of society due to running out of oil causing prices to rocket up to the point that few can afford to buy it anymore.

So, let’s say that happens. In the next 5 years we find out that the oil is running out and that, in 5 years time the production of oil will drop so low that it’s no longer enough to run even a fraction of the demand, meaning that all industries and transportation that requires oil will be severely impacted. So, a quick Google search indicates that the world oil production per day is around 80 million barrels. Let’s say that in this scenario within that 5 years, that drops to 8 million barrels total production per day for the world, but that this level is sustainable for 20 years, and after that it will drop to 800k barrels a day for the next 20 years, then 80k barrels a day after that. What happens? What could we do?

I know this is kind of a silly OP and that this is complete non-sense, but with all the bad stuff going on today I thought it might be diverting. :slight_smile:

I’m not sure what you’re asking. What could we do, but we have to exclude what we will actually do?

The biggest barrier to transitioning to other energy sources is that gas in the U.S. is so cheap. It should be taxed heavily to reflect the true cost to humanity in environmental impact, and to make R&D in other energy sources more economically viable. I think the best way to implement this would be an irrevocable commitment to gradually raising gasoline taxes to 500% over 30 years. Plenty of time for market-driven R&D and for a market-driven transition of the economy away from oil.

No, doesn’t exclude anything, unless you are seriously saying that this is happening. You can certainly include whatever you like, and you don’t need to exclude anything. Knock yourself out.

Peak Oil probably IS happening because advances in renewable energy, energy storage, and other alternatives are driving the cost of moving away from oil down while scarcer oil deposits that take more and more effort to extract are driving the cost of staying on oil up. This completely ignores any externalities that don’t directly act on the market like pollution, environmental damage due to extraction, etc. But those have a real economic impact too as more people and governments start to care about those externalities and put into place regulations and fees that seek to capture the cost of those externalities and pass them on to the producer or consumer. Combined these factors will certainly make oil less attractive economically as they have already done to coal.

That is all true and based on logic. What I don’t follow is how this will collapse our society, rather than say, see us switch to other forms of energy.

That’s not an accurate description of any prediction of peak oil I’ve ever seen. Peak oil doesn’t mean that oil production drops off a cliff, it means that instead of oil production continuing to increase, it starts to decrease. But it will do so slowly. If we reach peak oil today, then by far the best estimate of where oil production will be 5 years from now is where it was 5 years ago.

2015 was not, as I recall, a resource-starved Mad-Max style dystopia, so we probably shouldn’t expect 2025 to be either.

If we actually experienced a 90% reduction in oil production over 5 years, I expect that the likely result would not be a 19th century existence, it would be World War III. But in the realistic scenario, markets adapt.

Solar power is improving in leaps and bounds. It seems pretty likely that if peak oil doesn’t happen due to actual resource constraints in the next decade, it will basically be a non-event.

The LLNL energy Sankey is helpful for this discussion, which I otherwise don’t have time to contribute to atm. More later, perhaps, as the thought experiment is fun.

That’s a superb graphical representation of the data, thanks.

It’s interesting that although the type of underlying data is completely different, it’s visually reminiscent of the legendary graphic of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, often praised as the best statistical graph ever drawn.


The thing that jumps out at me from that graph is the inefficiency of electricity generation. I’d expect transportation to be inefficient, because when something needs to be mobile it constrains the engineering, and moving things inevitably generates friction and drag. It also makes sense that resdiential would be highly efficient, since a large proportion the output objective is high entropy - when you want to to generate heat, “waste heat” isn’t waste. Is there an obvious intuitive explanation as to why electricity generation is so inefficient compared to residential/commercial/industrial? Is it just the fact that the output objective is low entropy - electrical energy?

This. That’s simply faster than we can adapt something that fundamental to our economy civilization without mass warfare, dislocation, etc.

Although as the OP explained, Peak Oil™ (as opposed to plain old peak oil) is all about the economy driving off a cliff because everybody in charge has their head in the sand, trying to milk the last drop, and oil is already so subsidized that other sources cannot even get out of the starting gate, much less compete. So society drives right over the cliff with no advance planning except at the very margins.

In that sense, debating true Apocalyptic Peak Oil™ is sterile, much as debating a civilization-stopping meteor, Yosemite Verneshot, or similar. Vast numbers die quickly of starvation & strife while small armed bands roam the wreckage. Boooring.

Given the tech of the 1970s that may have been a realistic future scenario. Given 2020s tech, and the (small) advances we've already made toward mass deployment of alternatives, the real future supply cliff (such as it may be) will have some warning slope to it.

Much of the obstacles and arguments against non-renewable now is simply one of scale. We can get there if our back’s to the wall on a 50-year timescale. But right now it’s not (AGW excepted) and so we don’t.

I don’t think some of you are getting the difference here between the reality and the fantasy. I see LSLGuy’s post addresses this so I won’t go into it again except to say we are talking about the fantasy Peak Oil™ theory, not regular market theory of peak anything, including oil. Yes, we almost certainly have reached peak oil at this point, as there are a host of technologies that are poised to supplant it going forward, and as there is less demand there will be less production until eventually it reaches a new level. I doubt we’ll ever stop using oil completely, as there are other uses for it than burning it in cars, but we certainly won’t need 80 million barrels a day.

But THIS thread is about the fantasy as I said. What would happen if the fantasy is what we get? What could we do? Nothing? That seems to be the consensus so far.

Otherlab put together a more granular chart but it doesn’t render very nicely in any browser I’ve tried:

“Yes, we were cheeky in choosing the URL.”

See Carnot cycle for theoretical efficiencies (mid-60s IIRC if you have a cooling tower), but of course a coal plant often is only half that. I’ll let the engineers try to tackle the intuitive why. If nobody shows, it might make a good GQ question.

You also lose ~5% to transmission and distribution.

Well, this goes back to my original question. I don’t know what to make of an OP asking “what could we do” under a hypothetical that apparently constrains us from doing anything sensible. I think @LSLGuy has already said all you can say under that constraint.

If the fantasy happened-- ie if oil production suddenly tanked to a tiny fraction of what it currently is (why? Did a giant stick a straw in the ground and suck it all up? We know roughly how much oil is in known deposits and have a decent idea of how costly it would be to extract. What happened to that oil? What happened to all the oil that we’ve already tapped but decided is too expensive – why aren’t we going back to that?) Then suddenly those alternatives would be EVEN MORE attractive, and we would switch to them even faster.

I mean, if you could somehow get all of humanity to join hands and work together in a spirit of cooperation and brotherhood, we could probably manage to avoid starving and transition to some sort of lower-energy economy. But humans being humans, that won’t happen. The nukes will fly.

I guess we are having some sort of disconnect, since I’m puzzled by what you are asking me. I’m not constraining you or anyone from doing ‘anything sensible’…far from it. I’m asking for opinions in a debate for what you think we could, should or can/would do…sensible or not, as you choose. I’ve set the constraints only on the fantasy Peal Oil™-esque scenario that we are going to drop oil production by an order of magnitude in 5 years, not due to market forces but due to running out of oil. Other than that, knock yourselves out. If you want to say agree with LSLGuy on the part you quoted, that’s fine. It IS kind of sterile wrt the meme of Peak Oil™, and if the things I’ve set are too constraining for a fun debate I’m willing to change them.

Just for the record, I don’t think we will run out of oil…pretty much ever. I do think the peak oil, just like peak anything is not only possible but inevitable…I just don’t think that Peak Oil™ is plausible.

From the Sankey, we see the primary disruption is to Transportation, and secondarily to Industrial. We move cars using liquid hydrocarbon fuels. And we make chemicals from petroleum.

For vehicles, I see our near-term candidates as 1) biofuels, 2) natural gas, and 3) electrification.

  1. I don’t follow biofuels closely, but my impression is that would be very hard to scale up quickly, assuming the required scale is even possible.
  2. Existing gasoline and diesel vehicles could be converted to run off of natural gas. Not for free, but it’s relatively simple technology. This leaves us with an refueling infrastructure problem. We currently have more NG than we know what to do with, assuming our scenario doesn’t include Peak Gas too.
  3. It looks like there are 17 million new car sales in the US each year. With a fleet of some 270M, we’d have to ramp up production and imports ~3x to replace everything in 5 years. That’s assuming we could get enough lithium, cobalt, etc. to make enough batteries in 5 years. More below.
  4. I didn’t list a (4) above but there are obviously longer-term options, e.g using other energy sources to turn air and water into hydrogen, ammonia, DME, etc. Some of which play nice with current ICEs. But I don’t think any of these are feasible on a 5-year ramp.

Option 3) requires more (source agnostic) generating capacity. I don’t have a good sense for how quickly that can be ramped. Per EIA, the plan before 2020 went to shit was to add about 42 GW of capacity this year. Current total capacity is 1.1 TW. If I make a bunch of extremely sloppy assumptions, then we need ~6 quads of usable electrical energy for transportation, which means we’d need to double our generating capacity in five years. 42 GW/year doesn’t cut it; we’ll need 5x that. That seems intractable.

For chemicals, I think the biggest hit is to BTEX. So goodbye coke bottles and polyester suits.

I don’t know ‘why’…I don’t subscribe to the belief that it would or could happen. The ‘why’ is unimportant really. Or the how for that matter.

I guess the real question is, are we close enough to a paradigm shift that if it DID happen we could plausibly switch to it, whatever it is, in a compressed time frame such as the ridiculous order of magnitude production drop in 5 years? I’m not sure, but I tend to doubt it. But that’s what I’m asking…could we? And what is it we could do? I’d say the would is important too, but this assumes the Peak Oil™ers are correct, so would isn’t an option. In the fantasy, it’s going to happen…or is happening. Is apocalypse the only alternative or end result?

Just remember that engaging with people who cannot or choose not to get it is a choice.

Thinking about this some more, 270M cars X $6-12k per conversion does not leave me sanguine about feasibility. Although the price should come down with volume.