Richard Heinberg The Party's Over

From: Al Koop <>
Date: Mon Apr 19 2004 - 11:34:47 EDT

A week ago the question came up concerning the book, The Party's Over,
by Richard Heinberg and what it was about. What follows is an interview
with Heinberg that gives a very good synopsis of his ideas.

Plan War and the Hubbert Oil Curve
An Interview with Richard Heinberg

by David Ross
April 17, 2004


Richard Heinberg is a professor at the Santa Rosa branch of the New
of California, where he teaches courses on Culture, Ecology and
Community. In 1994, his monthly on-line newsletter, called MuseLetter
(, received an Alternative Press Award from Utne
He is the author of five books including, A New Covenant with Nature:
on the End of Civilization and the Renewal of Culture and Cloning the
Buddha: The Moral Impact of Biotechnology. His latest book is titled,
Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003).

David Ross: How important is oil to industrial societies?

Richard Heinberg: It's about as important to industrial societies as
is to fish. We wouldn't be talking right now if it weren't for oil. The
industrial revolution was, basically, all about fossil fuels. Coal came
first, but when oil was harnessed things really heated up. With oil
humankind discovered the cheapest, most abundant source of energy ever.

Energy is everything. Literally. I happen to teach ecology, and in my
we study population and resource balances in nature-which is really just
another way of talking about energy. Human societies, like ecosystems,
fundamentally just energy processing systems. With the industrial
revolution, human beings discovered an energy subsidy like no species
ever found before in the history of our planet.

As a result, we've increased our human population from just a few
million, at the start of the industrial revolution, to over six billion,
three hundred million now. And of course the total is still growing:
adding about a billion people every twelve years at current rates. This
something that's never been seen before. We've added more people just
1999 than even existed in the world just a few hundred years ago. This
is an
indication of the incredible impact that fossil fuels have had on human

Additionally, we've invented all sorts of technologies to take advantage
this energy subsidy through transportation, communications,
etc. Machines now do things that were formally done by human or animal
muscle power. We also do all sorts of things with machines that we
didn't do
at all before. So fossil fuels have changed our way of life, our view of
world, how many of us live on the planet, how we live, and where we

Think of the Arizona desert, for example. How many people could live
without fossil fuels? Not many. But with the enlarged scope and speed of
transportation resulting from oil, we can transport materials and
from where they're abundant to where they're scarce and support a city
Phoenix. We can cut down forests in British Columbia and use the wood in
Southern California, or transport water over long distances, wherever we
need it. So, we end up with cites in places where nature ordinarily
not permit very many people to live. All these things together have
our way of life as we know it today, and oil is central to that way of

Can you talk about the Hubbert oil curve and its implications?

M. King Hubbert was a petroleum geologist whose life spanned most of the
twentieth century. He was the most famous and renowned petroleum
of his time. He worked for Shell Oil Company and also taught at
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UC Los Angeles, and a number of
schools. He was the first geologist to make a fairly accurate estimate
the total ultimately recoverable quantity of oil, first in North
and then later on, in the world as a whole. He also was the first
geologist to understand the principles of oil depletion.

Hubbert realized that, for any given oil province, when about half the
is gone production tends to peak. The reason for that is that we
we go after the easy, cheap oil first, and by the time about half of the
total amount of oil is gone, the cheap, easy stuff tends to run out;
then it
becomes more difficult to extract what's left. So there's a bell-shaped
curve to production that seems to apply across the board. Economic and
political factors can change the shape of that curve: if there's a war
the price of oil changes or a country voluntarily decides to restrict
exports, those can alter the oil extraction profile. But even so, what
up must eventually come down, and so depletion can be mathematically
even if the graph is fairly bumpy.

When Hubbert applied his methods to the United States, which was the
foremost oil producing nation for many decades, he determined that the
halfway point of extraction would occur around 1970. Sure enough, just
Hubbert predicted, U.S. oil production peaked in 1970, and it's been
down ever since. We're extracting about as much conventional onshore oil
the U.S. now as we were in 1940, which is much less than was being
in 1970, and that's the reason that we're more and more dependent upon
imported oil from places like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iraq.

Using Hubbert's method, it's also possible to predict when global oil
production will peak. The scary thing is, the peak is likely not that
off. No one is absolutely sure, because it is impossible to determine
exactly how much oil is yet to be discovered. Some countries have
motives for underreporting or overreporting their reserves. But the best
guesses are that we're only a few years away from the global oil

What will happen when we pass the peak of the Hubbert oil curve?

Once we hit the peak, every year thereafter we will be unable to find
pump more oil. If the demand continues at the present rate or grows, the
supply will be inadequate. And that will have tremendous economic
implications for the whole world. As I explained earlier, our whole
industrial way of life is largely based on petroleum. So either we have
find other energy sources to make up for what we lose from petroleum as
begins to run out, or else we will go into permanent economic decline
vast implications for the economy, food production, transportation, and

Can we find alternative energy sources in time that could replace oil?

That's a surprisingly tough question because there are very few
out there who are really doing good comparative studies of the various
energy alternatives. We have companies that are invested in particular
energy alternatives, that are doing their own studies, but they
understandably have a certain bias. What we need are really objective
studies comparing the alternatives on the basis of a series of clear,
transparent criteria, like: Are they renewable? What's their
cost? What's their energy profit ratio?

You see, it takes energy to get energy. It takes energy to drill an oil
well, it takes energy to manufacture a photovoltaic solar panel. But the
energy profit ratio is different for each of the alternatives, and that
figure needs to be objectively determined. Suppose we were to invest
billion dollars over the next ten years in making a transition to a
economy, and then discovered that, in fact, hydrogen has a lot of hidden
costs. Well, we can't afford to lose ten years and $100 billion dollars
going down the wrong road at this point.

So: Are there alternatives that can replace oil? Well, the answer is: We
't know for sure, but there's little cause for complacent assurance
now. The reason I say that is that most of the renewable alternatives
nuclear, wind, and solar have various drawbacks.

Nuclear power is expensive and dangerous, and the problem of radioactive
waste storage has not been solved. With wind, you can only place
turbines in
certain places (wind is probably the best of the alternatives, by the
in my view). With solar, the sun only shines part of the day, and some
regions are often cloudy. Photovoltaics, right now, are still quite
expensive. I speak from experience: I've got PV panels on the roof of my
house right now. I'm glad I installed that system, but it's an expensive
to go and not very many people are willing to make the investment.

Hydrogen is not even an energy source; it's just an energy storage
Yes, we could run cars on hydrogen, but where are we going to get enough
hydrogen to run millions of autos? Either it has to be made either from
fossil fuels-which are the source of nearly all commercially available
hydrogen today-or from water using electrolysis. But making hydrogen
water takes a lot of electricity; in fact, it takes more energy in the
of electricity than the hydrogen will give you later on.

Again: where will we get all of this extra electricity? We're not going
get it from natural gas, because we in North America are starting to run
of natural gas. Are we going to get it from nuclear, solar, or wind? If
choose any of these alternatives, it means dramatically increasing our
energy budget for electricity production at a time when we're going to
suffering from the economic effects of petroleum and natural gas
We're not prepared to make a huge investment in new electrical
capacity now, and we will be even less prepared then.

How does human carrying capacity fit into the context of the Hubert oil

We have artificially increased the carrying capacity for human beings on
planet earth. Carrying capacity is how many individuals of a given
can be supported by the environment. That number tends to vary,
depending on
weather, rainfall, etc. Carrying capacity changes for just about every
species from year to year. Well, we human beings have found a way to
artificially-and probably only temporarily-enlarge our carrying capacity
with industrial agriculture, expanded transportation networks,
better sanitation, better medical care, etc.

The problem is that this expanded carrying capacity is dependent on a
non-renewable resource, namely, fossil fuels. So this is not permanent
carrying capacity that we've created; this is what William Catton-who
the wonderful book, Overshoot, back in the 1980s-called phantom carrying
capacity. It's carrying capacity that may vanish as fossil fuels
from our lives.

What's the size of that phantom carrying capacity? Nobody knows for
but if we look back to how many people planet Earth supported before we
started using oil, we find it was fewer than two billion. We now have
six billion. So, even granting that we've discovered ways of keeping
alive through better sanitation and so on, ways that might be
using relatively little energy, the fact is that we've probably overshot
carrying capacity, and we may need to find ways to reduce the human load
the environment if we're all going to survive.

Can you talk about the different options for our future as we pass the
of the Hubbert curve?

Plan A, or what I call Plan War is what we're pursuing right now in
Whoever has the most guns and bombs will compete with everyone else for
remaining resources, and use them till they're gone.

Of course, the situation is a bit more complicated than that. Obviously,
U.S. didn't conquer Iraq so that we could just literally build a
directly from Basra to Houston. It's more complicated than that. I think
U.S. has economic and geopolitical reasons for wanting to control the
of global oil, and have its hands on the spigot, if you will. Iraq is a
pivotal country in terms of the future of oil production. It has the
largest reserves, and it's sitting right there between Saudi Arabia and

Saudi Arabia has the largest reserves, but it's politically unstable,
and it
's unclear what would happen in Saudi Arabia if the government there
were to
fall, whether supplies would be cut off at least temporarily. So, having
large military presence next door to Saudi Arabia must make a lot of
in the minds of the geostrategists.

U.S. geopolitics in the Middle East is complex and multi-layered, but
not really an oversimplification to say that it's fundamentally all
oil. The U.S. would not be interested in the Middle East if there
weren't a
lot of oil there, and the main reason the U.S. is interested in places
Africa and South America, again, is for the resources.

So that's Plan A, and it doesn't look like it's going to have a very
ending because one can foresee more and more armed conflicts between
militarized consuming nations and poorer resource-rich producer nations.
eventually, there will be conflicts between competing consuming nations.
China, for example, wants to industrialize. China is using more and more
every year. If the Chinese are going to raise their standard of living
industrialize, they're going to need lots of oil. But if global oil
production peaks, that means the Chinese will be in direct competition
every barrel of oil with the already developed countries like the U.S.
how are we going to work that out? Using nuclear bombs? I hope not, but
right now I don't see any other thinking going on.

Plan B, or what I call Plan Powerdown, would entail some kind of
national and global process for deliberately reducing our dependence on
fossil fuels. It would require changing our economy so it's no longer a
growth economy. It would require dealing with population issues, so that
re putting less of a load on existing resources. It would require
with the problem of economic inequality within and among nations,
the more economic inequality we have, the higher the likelihood of

Powerdown would require changing our whole way of life, going from a
consuming society to an efficient society, going from a growth society
to a
society that's steady-state and even reducing its scale year after year.
That's politically very difficult. The last person to attempt something
that, in this country anyway, was Jimmy Carter-and look what happened to
him, when a political opponent came along promising a return to times of
plenty. Still, if the American people realized what's at stake and what
long-term consequences of their path will be, I think many if not most
be interested in following Plan B.

Plan C is what I call Plan Snooze. This is the real path of least
resistance. It entails doing little or nothing while the problem is
temporarily denied or wished away. There are all sorts of people
us that the market can take care of any resource shortages. Or that all
the intelligent people working on the problem will surely come up with
easy solution. Or that we will see an effortless transition to a

If you watch television and read the newspapers, you will see that this
is a
popular message. It's what the corporations are telling us, and it's
what we
all want to hear: Somebody is going to take care of the problem, so
worry about it. Unfortunately, the problem with Plan C, as far as I can
tell, is it's probably wishful thinking. It merely locks us into the
path we
're already on, which leads us back to Plan A, back to competition for
remaining resources. Plan Powerdown requires hard choices, political
and effort; if we avoid those because we're convinced that there's an
way out, we will squander the little time we have left for maneuvering.
the only option we will likely have left is military confrontation over
remaining resources.

The Hubbert oil peak is predicted to occur in 5-10 years. You've written
that natural gas will go through the same peak in supply even sooner.

In North America, it's happening right now. We're in the middle of a
gas crisis, but you have to read the business pages of the newspaper to
the evidence for that. Alan Greenspan has gone before Congress twice now
say that we have a big problem here, and that he doesn't have the
to it. This summer, Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham convened a blue
panel in Washington to address this. Abraham essentially said: Look
folks, I
need some short-term solutions. And the rest of the day, people from
industry offered long-term partial solutions, but nothing that could
much difference in the next couple of years.

Currently, the market is dealing with the gas shortage through what's
"demand destruction." That means that prices rise sufficiently-and
gas prices are about twice what they were a year and a half ago-to drive
whole industries out of the market, so that the folks can heat their
in the winter. Currently, 20 percent of the fertilizer industry in the
U.S.-which uses natural gas to make ammonia-based fertilizers-is gone
permanently. Another 30 percent is closed down temporarily until gas
go down, which they probably won't. So probably half the fertilizer
is gone. The chemical industries and a lot of manufacturers are
teetering on
the brink right now because they can't afford natural gas at current

So what's going to happen? All those industries are going to go
Fertilizer will be made for us in the Middle East, Trinidad, and other
places that have natural gas, and then it will be shipped here. But even
the natural gas situation is going to get worse because we're generating
lot of our electricity with gas-fired power plants, and it's entirely
possible that, even as soon as later this summer may start to experience
brown-outs or rolling black-outs.

Next summer is likely to be a lot worse, because, as I said, there's no
short-term solution to this. The U.S. has already peaked in natural gas
production, and Canada-we've been importing 16 percent of our natural
from Canada-has peaked this year too. They're forecasting that their
gas production this year will be down 3 percent from last year.

So we're looking at a big problem, and it's not going to be solved by
importing liquefied natural gas in tankers. That will help, but it's
expensive, and years are required to build all the new tankers, the new
special off-loading terminals, etc. The natural gas industry's solution
to get more permits from the government to drill in Colorado, offshore,
etc., but it's unlikely that enough natural gas will be found in those
places to really make that much of a difference. In Colorado, there's
coal-bed methane, which causes huge environmental problems to extract.
Offshore of California and Florida, the estimates of what's actually
are not all that encouraging.

Where can readers go for more information?

If they want more information on natural gas, I would recommend
from Julian Darley of There you'll find audio
video interviews with a lot of very knowledgeable experts on energy
depletion. If you want more information on the social, economic, and
political implications of all of this, go to my website, which is

David Ross is a starving grass-root activist. To help him continue his
send donations to: David Ross,
P.O. Box 591, Arcata, CA 95518
or email him at daveross27@h....
Received on Mon Apr 19 11:35:38 2004

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