Toward a Petro-Apocalypse

By Yves Cochet
Volume 15, Number 3 (Spring 2005)
Issue theme: "Facing our geo-destiny: honoring the work of geologist Walter Youngquist"

In a few years, global oil production will decline while demand keeps on growing. The shock from this hunger for oil is inevitable, as long as our economies depend on cheap oil and are unable to sever this dependence.

We can only hope to soften this shock, if starting today our immediate focus becomes a general mobilization of our societies, imposing drastic consequences in all sectors. This anticipation is based on the method of the geologist King Hubbert, who predicted in 1956 that the peak of American domestic production would occur in 1970. This is exactly what happened.

Transposing Hubbert's method to other countries gives us similar predictions today, all the giant oil fields, the only ones that count, see a decrease in production, except in the "black triangle" of Iraq-Iran-Saudi Arabia.

Hubbert's peak, applied to the Middle East, should be reached around 2010, depending on the early or late resumption of Iraqi production and the net growth of Chinese demand.

The most sensitive sector will first be aviation and agriculture, as the cost of kerosene and fertilizers are rather directly tied to the price of crude oil. This without the stabilizing flexibility allowing for time and in other sectors a lowering of gas taxes to absorb the rising costs. Following this, land transportation, tourism, chemical and automobile industries will suffer the depressing effects of oil depletion. To what extent will this produce a general recession? No one knows, but the blindness of politicians and the market panics leave us fearing the worse.

This prophesy is universally ignored, denied or underestimated. There are few who measure the imminence and amplitude of this coming event. Michael Meacher, a former environment minister of the UK (1997-2003) recently wrote in the Financial Times that failing a general crisis of conscience and of immediate worldwide decisions to make radical changes on matters of energy, "civilization will confront the most salient and undoubtedly the most violent upheaval of recent history."

If we nevertheless want to maintain a little decency in life on earth in the years after 2010, according to the geologist Colin Campbell, we need to call upon the United Nations to agree, today, to an accord based on guarantees that the poor countries will have a chance to import some petroleum, to prohibit the profiteering from the shortage of petroleum, to induce energy savings, to stimulate renewable energy. To reach these goals, the global agreement must begin to take the following measures every state will regulate petroleum importation and exportation; no oil-producing country will produce more than the annual scientifically calculated depletion allowance; every country will reduce its oil import by an agreed-upon world depletion formula.

This priority given to economics will displease economists and politicians especially in the U.S. Successive American governments have never permitted the questioning of the American lifestyle. Since the oil shock of 1973-74, all American military interventions can be seen in the light of a fear of insufficient cheap oil. It was the peak of domestic production in 1970 that permitted OPEC to take things in hand and to produce the first shock, simultaneously with the Yom Kippur war. The west then tried to take control once again, holding out the ghost of shortages. It did this less by energy savings than by activating oil fields in Alaska and in the North Sea. In 1979, the Iranian revolution and the second oil shock allowed OPEC to regain its prominence while the West paid dearly with years of recession.

At the start of the '80s, American-renewed control of oil flows passed through the financing and arming of Saddam Hussein against Iran, and through the complicity of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia in increasing the export of crude oil to the West. This made for the counter-shock of 1986, the belief in the West in unlimited oil abundance, the continuation of high-energy consumption until the Iraq wars (1991, 2003) regardless of how many deaths (100,000? 300,000?). And whatever the costs (budget of the Defense Department $400 billion).

The various Balkan conflicts have at their origin and reflect in their outcome the Americans' wish to move Russia to transport oil from the Black and Caspian seas toward parts of the Adriatic via Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania. The geopolitics of oil allows all agreements with Islamist devils, from Central Asia to Bosnia, all cynical connivances with the terrorists, up to the recent trip by Tony Blair to Libya, in order to permit Shell to jack up the volume of its reserves at the cost of several hundred million dollars. The American Peace project in the Middle East, dressed up in humanitarian and democratic considerations, is nothing other than an attempt to get a firm hand on the oil faucets of the region.

More than 30 years of worry about oil have not opened the eyes of American and European leaders to the energy crisis looming in the near future. Despite all that Rene Dumas and the ecologists have been saying since the presidential campaign in 1974, the governments of the industrialized countries have continued and are continuing to believe in cheap oil that is quasi-inexhaustible to the detriment of the climate and of human health due to hothouse gas emissions, instead of organizing the decarbonization of their economies.

Yet, the oil shock that will hit before the end of this decade does not resemble the preceding ones. This time, the game is no longer geopolitical it is geological. In 1977 and 1979, the shortage was due to politics, as decided by OPEC, followed by return of the flows. Today, it is the wells that are declining. Even if the United States could impose its hegemony on all the oil fields of the world (Russia excepted), its army and technology can't do anything against the depletion of conventional oil. In any case, there isn't time enough to replace a fluid so inexpensive to produce, so high in energy, so easy to use, to store and to transport, having so many different uses (domestic, industrial, carburant, raw material ...), and for reinvesting 100,000 billion dollars in less than ten years in another abundant energy source that doesn't exist.

Natural gas? It doesn't have the above-mentioned qualities of oil and will reach its peak of world production ten years after oil, about 2020. The only viable course is immediate oil conservation put in place through an international agreement such as the one outlined above, permitting a prompt cut-off in our addiction to the black gold.

Without awaiting this tricky international agreement, our newly elected regional politicians and soon-to-be-elected European Union representative should make it their priority to quickly put in place the objectives of the agreement at the local level by preparing for decreased oil consumption. If this is not done, the market itself will impose rationing by escalating oil prices, followed by rampant inflation that will affect everything. Soon, with oil at $100 per barrel, it will no longer be a simple petroleum shock, but the end of the world as we know it.

About the author

Yves Cochet is a Green Party deputy from Paris and a former Minister of the Environment in the French cabinet. This column is reprinted from Le Monde of March 31, 2004, translated by Gerda Bikales.