Forum sees oil peak as world crisis

Paul Swartz, a former scientist for General Electric and local business leader, says he believes wor

Paul Swartz, a former scientist for General Electric and local business leader, says he believes worldwide oil production either has, or soon will, reach peak production, which he thinks will probably mean the end of modern western civilization generally and the collapse of the American way of life specifically.

He doesn’t think it will take long for this to happen.

“There is a growing insufficiency [of oil] and it’s going to undermine civilization as we know it. Not tomorrow, not in the next year or two, but in the next five to 10 years,” Swartz said.

And he’s not alone. Swartz is the chairman of the steering committee of the Capital Region Energy Forum, known as CREF, a group he says is made up of scientists, business leaders and concerned citizens who meet regularly to listen to speakers and discuss energy issues.

“When the group [was] founded it wasn’t with the intention of founding a group,” Swartz said.

He said the initial membership of CREF was inspired by Saratoga-based author James Howard Kunstler and his book “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century,” much of which is available free online using a Google book search.

Kunstler predicts worldwide cataclysmic results during the 21st century stemming from peaked oil production as well as global warming and other phenomenon. Kunstler, a former journalist for Rolling Stone magazine with no formal scientific training, has long been a critic of suburban sprawl and has predicted its demise before. His record as a Cassandra was tarred after the “Y2K” crisis, in which older computers unable to adjust to the year 2000 were predicted by him, and others, to cause widespread havoc starting Jan. 1, 2000. Those predictions were wrong. He later predicted for several years that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would plummet to 4,000 points. So far it has not.

Swartz’s group, which he said has grown in size to about 183 on its mailing list, with 50 to 75 members who routinely come to meetings, does not believe in peak oil only on Kunstler’s say-so. Swartz said they routinely bring in experts and analyze data to educate themselves on what they foresee as an impending disaster. He said the group’s steering committee is considering becoming more of an advocacy group. “This is the first time that we’re really beginning to promote an issue because so many of us are concerned that we’re going to have a deficiency of oil starting rather soon, the next year or two, and you can see it in the increase in price. It’s not coincidental, it’s not political, it’s not anything except the first winds of a hurricane that says we don’t have a sufficient supply of oil,” Swartz said.


The concept of peak oil was first expressed by Marion King Hubbert in 1956. He was a geologist for Shell Oil who theorized that when world oil production peaks it will begin to gradually decline because of declining pressures under the ground. In the past, an oil well was considered dry when 50 percent of its estimated oil reserves were drained because of the same dynamics inherent in Hubbert’s theory. He correctly guessed when U.S. oil production peaked in the 1970s but predictions using Hubbert’s theory for worldwide production peaks have continually been pushed farther into the future as more oil has been discovered and more unconventional oil, like oil sands and oil shale, have become economically viable.

According to the latest statistics compiled by British Petroleum, one of the world’s largest energy companies, the world recorded the highest-ever daily crude oil production in 2006 at 81.7 million barrels. Some CREF members say that may be the peak of oil production and the only questions that remain are whether production will plateau for a period or immediately begin to decline, and then how steep that decline will be.

Saudi Arabia is often pointed to as the key to whether the world’s production of oil has truly peaked. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Saudi Arabia produced 8.7 million barrels of crude oil, including lease condensate, in 2007, down from the country’s production peak of 9.5 million barrels per day in 2005. The country ramped up its oil production during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its subsequent disruption of oil production there, averaging over 9 million barrels per day from 2003 to 2006 . It has now returned to levels closer, but still higher, than the period from 1991 to 2001.

The question is, did the Saudis drop production on purpose to raise the price of oil, or because they can’t physically pump any more?

“I don’t think we know the answer to that and I don’t think Saudi Arabia is going to tell us the answer to that even if they know,” said Roland Schmitt, a CREF member and former General Electric Co. senior vice president of corporate research and development.

Schmitt departs from what Swartz calls the majority of CREF members in that he thinks the United States should consider more oil drilling in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and the continental shelf off the coast of Florida to stave off peak oil, while developing more alternative energy to preserve economic prosperity.

“We have to reopen the question of drilling in places where we currently tell U.S. firms they can’t drill. Technology has come a long way and it permits you to drill in more environmentally friendly ways,” Schmitt said.

According to the 1998 U.S. Geological Survey, the total quantity of technically recoverable oil within the entire ANWR area is between 5.7 billion and 16 billion barrels, with a mean value of 10.4 billion barrels. Assuming half of that could be recovered before a production peak, the supply would be enough to displace roughly 25 percent of daily U.S. crude oil consumption, about 15 million barrels a day, for about five years, and then a diminishing amount thereafter.

Peak oil skeptics point to new oil discoveries off the coast of Brazil, undiscovered oil reserves in war-torn Iraq as well as new technologies to recover more oil from existing wells and oil from oil sands as reasons that true peak oil is far off.

Contrasting speakers

Monday at 7 p.m. in the St. Joseph Hall of the College of Saint Rose CREF will sponsor an event titled “The Emerging Oil Crisis: What Lies Ahead and How Are We to Respond?”

The event will begin with a lecture by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Richard Alben explaining the concept of peak oil and then two different views of what New York state and the United States should do to combat the potential effects of it.

One speaker, Bill Reinhardt, a senior project manager for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, will argue that if society moves aggressively toward alternative renewable energy sources and energy conservation, disaster can be averted.

“[Peak oil is] a very serious problem but if we really confront it, instead of denying its existence and avoiding taking action, and actually starting to do something about it now we can minimize the problems associated with it,” Reinhardt said.

The other speaker, Clifford Wirth, a retired political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, says American society as its existed over the last 100 years is doomed no matter what is done. He said his study of the potential for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar indicates even massive government efforts to commercialize those energy sources will fail miserably because not enough energy can be drawn from them to compensate for the loss of oil. He says the power transmission grid, nuclear energy and even wind and solar will require too much oil to function without an abundant supply of it.

“The real solution is to put the breaks on the entire consumer economy that we have and use the little bit of fossil fuel energy that we have to focus on necessities,” Wirth said. “One of the things I’m a proponent of is having the National Academy of Sciences study the whole energy policy area to come up with what the best scientists in the country think we should do.”

Wirth will be making the trip to Albany from his home near Mexico City, which he said he moved to in order to better facilitate his wife’s family’s escape from that city when oil production collapses and Mexico falls into chaos. He also said he could no longer live in New Hampshire or the Northeast in general because society there will not be sustainable when oil is no longer available.

Schmitt said he is aware of the great dangers inherent in the possibility of imminent peak oil but he, like Reinhardt, hopes that greater efficiencies in electrical technology and conservation will enable modern society to continue.

“There have been people who have forecast doomsday scenarios frequently in the past and none of them has turned out to be right so far, so I’m a little skeptical of doomsday scenarios,” he said. “Man has found solutions to the problems people have foreseen. I’m hopeful and I think it’s quite possible that we will do that once again.”

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