Richard Heinberg discusses the challenges, threats, and opportunities of a world on the brink of irreversible declines in oil production.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 26, 2007
These days, Richard Heinberg is an amazingly busy man. In addition to his teaching duties at the New College of California and his ongoing essays and lectures on peak oil, he has been promoting an idea he first heard from Colin Campbell about a simple protocol that he believes will help countries to prepare for, and adjust to, the coming declines in global oil production.
The Oil Depletion Protocol is deceptively simple: oil importing countries reduce their annual imports by the global depletion rate; and oil exporting countries reduce their annual exports by their national depletion rate. That's also the title of his latest book, an in-depth examination of the protocol and its ramifications.
It depends on honest field-by-field oil reserve analysis and open, transparent administration, and it works best if every major oil-producing and -consuming country adopts it, but Heinberg believes it will give every country the best opportunity for making sound decisions based on accurate information and predictable (albeit steadily declining) supplies of oil.
The book itself is a marvel of clarity and economy, packing a detailed analysis of a complex situation into a very readable 151 pages (plus appendices and notes). His calm, lucid style and cant-free delivery take the reader from a grand overview of the framework right down to the methods by which individual communities can plan for the end of cheap, abundant oil.
In his previous books, The Party's Over and Powerdown, Heinberg described the concept of peak oil and explained why you should be concerned about it. In The Oil Depletion Protocol, he offers the closest thing I've seen to a way out. It may well be the most important book you read this year.
Heinberg agreed to an email interview with Raise the Hammer (we first interviewed him back in January 2005) in which he confronted some of the challenges such a Protocol will encounter as its advocates seek to implement it worldwide.
Ryan McGreal, Raise the Hammer: Coal is cheap and abundant. Other than the fact that it would increase CO2 production, can countries resist ramping up coal-to-liquids programs to replace declines in conventional oil?
Richard Heinberg: Actually, future global coal production is routinely overestimated. That, at least, is the conclusion of an as yet unpublished study by the Energy Watch Group of Germany.
That team has found that in the countries where coal reserves are well reported, the size of resources has been downgraded dramatically in recent years. There are other countries that have not changed reserves reports for decades, and it appears that those numbers are probably even more inflated than oil reserves numbers for OPEC.
The study concludes that global coal production will peak in 10 to 20 years. I'm tracking a Dutch study-in-progress where the researchers are using different criteria, and their preliminary results confirm the German study.
All of this has enormous implications for the climate debate (which is mostly about coal) as well as discussions about substituting coal-to-liquids for diminishing oil. Ultimately we are facing not just a liquid fuels crisis, but a general energy crisis.
Oil, coal, and natural gas together supply over 85 percent of the world's energy. All will peak in production within the next 20 years. The world had better start thinking about how to get along with less energy.
RTH: In the 1980s, when OPEC changed its rules to limit oil production based on reserves, most of its members suddenly increased their stated reserves so they could produce more under the new rules. What is to stop countries from similarly 'cooking the books' under an ODP? Alternately, how can we prevent the ODP executive itself from being susceptible to politicking and corruption?
RH: There's always the likelihood that an agreement like this could be undermined by plain old-fashioned corruption. I think a lot would depend on how the secretariat was set up. That body would have the responsibility of monitoring oil reserves, production, exports, and imports.
Obviously, if it were made up only of oil industry representatives, or representatives of the importing nations, that would skew its operations. It would need representation from producers and the environmental community as well.
But it would work best if its operations were de-politicized as much as possible. The objective should be good science and responsible accounting. The more transparency, the better.
RTH. Why will developing countries accept an ODP? They stand to lose the most, watching rich countries continue to import the same proportion of total oil while they make do with less, as in the past.
RH: The less-industrialized countries will have to come to understand (if they don't already) that the whole "development" game has been a ruse almost from the beginning.
The promise that ultimately all countries would be industrialized, with everyone living like middle-class Americans, was always an unrealizable goal. There just aren't enough resources on the planet; we'd need a couple of extra Earths to supply the raw materials. So with or without the ODP, the goal of "development" in the classical sense is unrealizable.
But the question remains, how should the remaining fossil fuels be allocated? At first thought, it might seem that the fairest answer would be - equally, so that nations that have not had the opportunity to benefit from the energy bonanza can do so at least to a certain extent. But that actually may not be the best answer.
First, is that even possible? It's one thing to ask the industrial nations to share the wealth while they are enjoying prosperity and relative stability. They haven't done very much sharing over the past few decades while their economies have continued to grow.
Now those nations are headed into a historic period of contraction. They will have less energy to do everything they need to do, and the result will be an endless and bottomless recession, high unemployment, the bursting of several persistent financial bubbles, and worse.
Energy is like oxygen to the economy. What are the chances of wealthy nations suddenly deciding to share some of their air (i.e., offer less-industrialized nations a larger share of the world's fossil fuels at discount prices) just as they realize that the supply is being choked off?
We can piously sit and declare that this is what they should do, but the fact is that they won't. It's just not going to happen.
Even if it were possible, that may not be the best thing for the less-industrialized nations anyway.
Until now, increased fossil fuel consumption has meant increased wealth. Simply having fossil fuels doesn't equate to wealth (just look at Nigeria), but consuming them does.
However, we are entering a new era. Using fossil fuels has led to structural economic dependency on those fuels. Industrialized nations can't live without them - for transportation, agriculture, chemicals, plastics, and so on. And that dependency becomes an enormous problem as the supply starts to dry up.
Suddenly new rules apply. Now the biggest fossil fuels users are the ones who are most vulnerable to economic, social, and political collapse. So at this moment in history would it really be a favor to less-industrialized countries to offer them proportionally greater access to fossil fuels? That would just lead to more dependency and therefore vulnerability.
If the industrialized countries wish to help the less-industrialized countries, one way to do so is to transfer all renewable-energy technologies free of intellectual property rights for domestic implementation.
Meanwhile, the poorer countries will probably be abiding by the terms of the Protocol whether they try to do so or not, simply because oil prices will be rising, forcing them to cut back on imports. This is already happening.
Why not make a virtue out of necessity by formally adopting the Protocol, thereby putting political pressure on the major petroleum consumers - who are the ones the Protocol is really aimed at anyway?
RTH: Could an ODP still work if key nations - like Saudi Arabia or the USA - refuse to participate?
RH: It certainly would not work as well. In order for the world to benefit optimally, the Protocol would have to be adopted by the foremost oil producers and especially the largest consumers.
Nevertheless, any country that abides by the Protocol will benefit from it. That country will be able to plan its transition away from oil, rather than being subject to the vagaries of the market. Until a nation deliberately reduces its oil consumption, that transition cannot really get the transition underway.
Merely investing a bit here and there in energy alternatives is like trying to kick the heroin habit by lining the kitchen shelves with beer, coffee, cigarettes, and other mildly addictive substances. The only action that will break heroin addiction is a deliberate reduction or cut-off in the use of the stuff. The same is true with oil, and that's what the Protocol is aimed to do.
RTH: Is it possible to convince the USA that it cannot prevail by going alone and extracting the energy it demands by force? I have in mind George H. W. Bush's infamous pronouncement, "The American way of life is not up for negotiation."
RH: I think the USA is learning a very painful lesson in that regard in Iraq. If America's thirst for oil is an irresistible force, Iraq is an immovable object. Something's got to give, and ultimately it will be the American way of life. It is unsupportable.
The only question is, will Americans let it go proactively and in a coordinated way, or will they press the limits of debt and militarism until their system simply collapses chaotically and brings the rest of the world down with it?
Only a few years ago most Americans would have found that framing of the alternatives to be far too dire. Today, my sense is that a substantial majority would agree. But the political and financial systems that control policy have a tremendous momentum behind them.
Americans desperately need leaders who will tell them the truth. I wish I could say I see someone on the horizon. Maybe Bill Richardson of New Mexico; certainly not Hillary or Obama or Rudy. In any case, the failure of the Iraq project is plain and absolute, and it will have enormous repercussions on America's future and the world's.
RTH: Hamilton, Ontario hired energy consultant Richard Gilbert to prepare a Peak Oil report for the city. One of his recommendations is to invest in tethered, or grid-connected, vehicles, since it is more energy efficient than fuel cells. What do you think of this idea?
RH: The best strategy for transportation is to electrify it. There are two reasons for that.
First, electric motors are extremely efficient. That's why electric cars are less polluting than regular cars even if you factor in the emissions from the coal power plants that are producing the electricity.
Second, there are many ways of generating electricity, but not many sources for liquid fuels to power internal combustion engines. Solar, wind, tidal, wave, geothermal, and microhydro all produce electricity.
For liquid fuel sources we have oil, natural gas, coal, tar sands, and biofuels. All of those are limited in quantity and have environmental consequences - in most cases severe ones.
Just about everyone who looks at the data comes to the same conclusion: electrify transport!
As for fuel cells, they're just not ready for widespread use. Several technological breakthroughs are needed. But one good breakthrough in electricity-storage technology will make fuel cells redundant anyway. And it appears as though we may see some new battery or super-capacitor technologies in the next few years.
RTH: It looks like a higher proportion of North Americans will be working to produce food in the future. Do you have any ideas on how to prevent a reversion to feudal organization - narrow ownership of land and wealth accompanied by widespread sharecropping, indentured servitude, and so on?
RH: The only way to do that is through deliberate, proactive policies to enable people to farm on a small scale profitably. That means land reform, education, and low-interest loans. It certainly can be done, but it will take some imagination and political will.
The result, in the best instance, could be a realization of Jefferson's ideal agrarian democracy. This is why I have been talking to organizations like the Ecological Farming Association, the Soil Association, and the National Farmers Union of Canada - to get them to start working together to advocate such policies.
This is not just a matter of increasing the market share for organic produce (which is the level of discourse where these sorts of organizations sometimes tend to get stuck), it is a matter of social and economic survival.
Without post-petroleum agricultural policy, we will see not only a new feudalism, but a return to the historic norm of recurrent famines.
RTH: I just read The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook by Albert Bates [you wrote the foreword]. The author advocates local, small-scale, individual- and community-based responses to energy depletion, stating that he doesn't believe governments are capable of doing the right thing. To what extent do you think such an organic, decentralized mode of adaptation can be successful? What structural challenges would local responses face?
RH: It is very likely that governments won't respond to the challenges before us, and so the task of adaptation will fall to individuals, families, and small communities. But I'm not giving up on governments, because if they do act responsibly they can avert an enormous amount of suffering.
If they don't, we will be facing societal collapse on a scale never seen in human history. It is within that context that communities and families would have to pursue their decentralized efforts. It's not a pretty picture, and it could well include the emergence of local gangs and warlords, resource raids, and so on - the stuff of dystopian literature.
Humans certainly are capable of cooperation and sharing, and small, decentralized communities seem to support that kind of behavior. So I'll all in favour of what Albert Bates advocates. I would simply add that those communities will have a much easier time of it if our existing governments and economic institutions let go of power gracefully, and support local adaptive efforts.
It may be unrealistic to think that all of them will do this, but it is not impossible in principle. Even a few successes here and there will justify efforts invested in lobbying and politicking. But not everyone needs to be involved in that sort of work.
Most folks will probably be better off honing their gardening skills, lowering their fossil fuel dependency, and getting to know their neighbors.
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