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Dealing With Peak Oil

By Salvatore Cardoni & Dr. Brian Schwartz

23 January, 2010

The power in one barrel of oil is equivalent to 25,000 man hours. By powering our cars and our homes and our everyday products, oil powers our lifestyle. Indeed, since the industrial revolution, our socio-economic paradigm has been largely contingent upon and fiercely addicted to oil. And, folks, that’s a problem. For, you see, oil is a finite resource--it is running out. This is called peak oil, or the idea that humanity’s ability to pump oil out of the ground will eventually peak and then slowly decline.

Enter Dr. Brian Schwartz. He is a Professor of Environment Health Sciences, Epidemiology, and Medicine at the John’s Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is also a Fellow in Health and Peak Oil at the Post Carbon Institute. Recently, he took time to answer questions from TakePart, including how and why peak oil will affect worldwide public health.

Q. How did you come to be involved in peak oil and public health concerns?

Late in medical school I found an outlet for my longstanding interest in the environment and my burgeoning interest in medicine, a specialty called Occupational and Environmental Medicine. After I completed my residency training, I joined the faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Over time, my interests evolved from studying the public health threats of workplace exposures to studying environmental threats to public health. I started a course on climate change and public health at the School in 1997. My colleague, Dr. Cindy Parker, and I started the Program on Global Sustainability and Health at the School several years ago. We have been incorporating peak oil into our courses for years now, and we were both contacted last year by the Post Carbon Institute to be Fellows.

Q. If you could give a broad overview of peak oil, how would you explain it?

Peak oil refers to the idea that the production rate of petroleum will eventually hit a world-wide maximum, and then start a slow, steady, and inexorable decline. The geologic reality of this phenomenon has already been documented in many oil wells, fields, and nations around the world; and once past the peak, no more drilling, increased exploration, new technologies, increased investments, or other interventions can prevent the production declines. As petroleum provides the world with around 35% of its total energy, the world peak production rate of petroleum may also represent the world’s peak of all energy production.

Q. What would you say to those who believe that peak oil is just a theory, one based on anecdotal evidence and vague information?

The reality of peak oil has been demonstrated over and over again at the well, field, national, and regional levels. The U.S. passed its production peak in 1970 and production data document this very clearly; we now produce around 50% of what we produced then. Now, almost three-quarters of oil-producing countries in the world have also passed peak and seen production declines. The data are very clear that once past peak, fields experience production declines of 6-7% per year, and sometimes even more, every year thereafter.

Q. What are the top three challenges that impede making progress on solutions that will help lessen the negative impact of peak oil?

I like to think about how we will experience peak oil the way James Howard Kunstler and others have referred to the “long emergency.” Energy prices in the future are going to be much higher than they are now. We will experience cycles of rising energy prices, followed by impacts on economies; the resulting economic downturns will reduce energy demand, resulting in a decline in energy prices; this will allow economic recovery and then the cycle will start again.

I believe the top three challenges to making progress on solutions are: 1) a lack of public and policy maker knowledge on these issues, and strong resistance to understanding and believing that such a profound threat to everything that many of us hold so dear--our big houses, automobile-centered lifestyles, frequent air travel, access to consumer goods from around the world-- is close at hand; 2) very strong vested interests that will oppose changes in their industries and how they do business; and 3) our amazing lack of preparation for what we are facing, after investing in a built environment, food production system, transportation system, and overall economy that is so heavily reliant on cheap and plentiful oil.

Q. Assuming we haven't already reached peak oil, what is your best estimate on when it might occur?

I believe we are now at the peak of world-wide conventional oil production, which had been flat for around the past five years, until the recent decline with the current economic difficulties. I believe that total oil production--conventional plus non-conventional--will peak in the next five years or so, with some uncertainty because of the severe economic downturn and how fast demand will return, but this will only provide us with a few more years.

Q. What do you think will happen to the US and developing country health care systems in the first 12 months after we get a clear signal we have passed peak?

We need to think about “health systems” in two of its component parts, the health care delivery system and the public health system. These two will be affected differently. After the economic recovery, energy prices will increase. Public health department budgets will be squeezed, emergency medical transport will be more expensive, prices of the many medical supplies derived from petroleum will increase. For developing countries, some aspects will be better and some will be worse. For countries whose systems are not so reliant on cheap and plentiful energy, there may be slower and lesser impacts. But we can envision some real challenges, such as for disaster response, to extreme weather, drought, famine, conflict, earthquakes, and tsunamis, which the world now addresses by huge mobilizations of people, materials, and equipment, usually by air transport.

Q. Some have said that to prevent peak oil-induced economic catastrophe, the world economy would need to begin preparing as much as 20 years in advance. What do you think about this and its implications for health?

In the history of our use of various energy sources, it is clear that transitioning to new energy regimes takes several decades. We cannot go from a system that derives almost 40% of its energy from oil and over 80% from all fossil fuels, to another getting its energy from wind, sun, geothermal, and waves easily or quickly. To replace even one coal-fired power plant can require thousands of windmills. The other problem is that it takes energy to get energy. This concept is called energy returned on energy invested (EROEI), and it is clear that in the future we will be investing much more energy to get our energy. This means there is much less net energy to invest in the economy, and our transportation, food, buildings, and health systems. Thus, each of these will look much different in the future than they do now.

Regarding how this will influence health, I am more concerned about the public health system than I am about the health care delivery system. There are many aspects of individual health that will likely improve as we face the reality of increasing energy prices. I believe we will have to reorganize our communities and our food system; I believe people will use active transport (walking and bicycling) much more frequently than automobiles, and that we will be eating different foods, likely those lower on the food chain (more fruits and vegetables) and fewer of those that are derived from our heavily fossil fuel dependent industrialized food production system (for example, fewer processed foods with added corn sweeteners, less meat because of its much higher energy and water input requirements). These will have health benefits, with lower rates of obesity, diabetes, various cardiovascular diseases, and some cancers.

Concerning the public health system, this has always been the poor stepchild compared to the health care delivery system, in terms of the resources we devote to it. Public health budgets are always squeezed first in economic downturns. I fear the first signal of economic downturns will be that the money we devote to inspecting factories, smokestacks, farms, food processors, and restaurants, for example, for their threats to public health in the general population, will likely be reduced.

Q. What is one action someone can take in less than 5 minutes or for under 5 dollars that will positively affect peak oil?

I think we should not give people the idea that a five minute or five dollar action is likely to positively affect peak oil. Peak oil and its implications are coming soon, if not already here, and there is really nothing we can do to prevent it from affecting us. I would urge people to invest enough time to learn about this issue, become convinced, question the data and grapple with the issue, figure it out, internalize it, discuss it with family, friends, and local officials.

Q. Similarly, what is one action someone can do that would require a considerable amount of time?

Peak oil is going to fundamentally change the way we live. We will be dragged there kicking, screaming, and resisting, but we will get there nonetheless. We will live in different communities, in different houses, eat differently, get around differently, and get our energy from much different sources. I think much of what is coming will provide us with benefits – better diets, better health, stronger communities--so I am not a pessimist about this issue. For now, after coming to terms with the implications of the coming era of energy scarcity, people can begin taking steps in all these aspects of their lives to prepare to live with more expensive energy, and thus less of it, while it is still a voluntary choice.

© 2008-2010 TakePart, LLC

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