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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 4, 2003

Peak in oil production may spark global crisis

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Columnist

The author of a new book on the world's energy situation says the global energy crisis will come, not when we run out of oil and coal, but rather when we start to run out.

That's when the demand outstrips the ability of new discoveries and increased exploitation of existing resources — when prices rise and societies begin to seriously compete for what's left.

For Hawai'i, a state whose electrical power is generated almost entirely from fossil fuels and whose main industry demands plentiful, affordable supplies of aviation fuel, the results could be catastrophic.

"When the global peak in oil production is reached, there will still be plenty of petroleum in the ground. ... But every year from then on, it will be difficult or impossible to find and pump as much oil as the year before," wrote Richard Heinberg in "The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies."

Heinberg suggests that it is too late to make the transition from oil, coal and natural gas to renewable resources without severe social consequences. He figures the peak of oil production will come during the period from 2006 to 2015, and that supplies will decline by 2 percent each year thereafter.

"The energy transition of the early 21st century will affect nearly everything that humans care about. No person or group will be untouched by this great watershed," he wrote.

Oil and its products move us, heat and cool us, do our work for us, and even fertilize our agricultural fields. The author says that the switch over to other sources of energy on a large scale can't happen immediately.

"An easy transition might have been possible if the nation had begun the project in the 1970s and continued it consistently and vigorously through to the present," Heinberg wrote.

The author says families can reduce the effects of the crisis if they reduce their own power use through energy-efficient strategies, consider living in locations where energy efficient strategies are possible, reduce debt and explore growing as much of their own food as possible. Societies should study their food production and distribution systems, promote alternative energy solutions and even mandate water conservation programs, since much of the nation's water is pumped and treated using energy.

Heinberg concedes that there are critics of the oil-peak scenario, who say that new sources continue to be found, and that new technologies will continue improving extraction. But he says society will be taking severe risks by ignoring what he calls its energy Cassandras — so named after the Greek seer whose accurate prophecies were not believed.

Jan TenBruggencate is The Advertiser's Kaua'i bureau chief and its science and environment writer. You can call him at (808) 245-3074 or e-mail jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.