“Peak oil” was one of the first terms I learned when I became active in environmental advocacy. There are a variety of definitions, depending on who you ask and how much money they’ve invested in the oil industry, but most parties agree that “peak oil” is the point at which the world exhausts the past bit of “cheap,” “easily-accessible” oil the planet has to offer.
Sure, there will still be oil left underground somewhere, but only the ultra wealthy will be able to afford it. This is why, in many minds, peak oil = the end of oil.
When the idea of peak oil is discussed, it’s traditionally been met with a mixture of shock, awe and terror. In case you haven’t noticed, most of the developed world is pretty addicted to oil. The idea that it could run out, probably within the next generation or two, doesn’t sit well with those who can’t imagine producing power or plastic any other way.
According to a recent study from Stanford University, however, our fear of peak oil might be a little premature. It assumes that consumption will continue to skyrocket until the very last drop is squeezed from the earth. Surprisingly, the study concludes that a variety of economic and societal factors will collide, forcing a switch to alternatives before that point.
Published in Environmental Science & Technology, the study’s authors point out at least 3 different mechanisms that give them reason to believe that we’ll be done with oil before it’s done with us.
1. Declining Passenger Travel
There’s no denying that mobile technologies have made it easier to work, play and connect without traveling around the world. The workforce is increasingly made up of remote and freelance workers who can work from anywhere there’s a laptop and an internet connection. Need to have a meeting with a client in Des Moines? Just hop on Skype instead of a plane.
“Several earlier studies have suggested that passenger land travel has already plateaued in industrialized countries and is no longer hitched to economic growth,” explain the authors. “Passenger land travel now accounts for about half of the global transportation energy demand. Even in developing countries, economic growth has been less oil-intensive than was seen in the West during the past century.”
2. Competitive Green Alternatives
Cleaner, more environmentally-friendly methods of producing fuel and electrical energy appear on the market every day. Although “oil is cheaper” has long been the battle cry of the fossil fuel crowd, it holds less weight with every passing day. Solar and wind power are both approaching grid parity with blazing speeds, as we reported last month, and technologies for storing the energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines are developing just as quickly.
“Technological advances and the high price of oil are helping most such alternatives compete on price,” write the authors. “If prices rise above their current levels for an extended period, we’re likely to see even more efforts to improve efficiency and exploit alternatives to conventional oil. That would hasten the onset of a demand-driven peak.”
Then there’s the auto industry itself, which has made a decided shift toward hybrid and electric vehicles. In 2012, analyst firm Mintel estimated that “sales of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars in the US would exceed 535,000 units in 2013, a sizable increase on the 440,000 sold last year. Sales of hybrids and electric cars rose 73 per cent in 2012, making it the fastest growing segment in the US auto market.”
3. Climate Awareness
Thanks to the tireless work of climate activists, and people like you and me who talk with our friends about how personal choices affect the climate, awareness is growing. And slowly, but surely, that awareness is turning into action.
Just look at the way grassroots activism has blown the lid off of the Keystone XL pipeline and the larger debate over the Canadian oil sands. Or the global divestment movement that has seen dozens of universities, religious organizations and City governments pull their money out of the fossil fuel industry. We’ve even seen the President of the United States announce a “climate action plan,” the first time in American history that human-accelerated climate change has been formally addressed as a national issue.
The study forecasts global oil demand through 2100 under a variety of scenarios for economic growth, population, efficiency gains and fuel substitution. Interested parties can input their own assumptions into the study’s model here.
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