Peak oil is real. It's now. And it's going to change the way we do business and live, argues Richard Heinberg, one of the foremost peak oil essayists in the United States.
Global oil production rates haven't quite peaked yet but they will in a few short years and the resulting decline will throw the world's petroleum-based economy a serious curveball, said Heinberg, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute in Sebastopol, Calif., and author of eight books, including Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (2004) and Peak Everything (2007).
``The folks who are keeping closest track of [exploratory oil] projects that are coming on-stream and also the declines are saying that by 2010 or 2011 it's going to be very difficult to see any net increases in global oil production,'' he said in a Sept. 10 keynote speech at the Sustainable Packaging Forum in Denver.
As their populations increase and gain access to disposable cash, oil-producing giants like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and emerging producers such as Brazil are seeing exponential growth in domestic oil consumption, offsetting their exports, he said. Meanwhile, U.S. oil production is predicted to shrink from the current 5 million barrels per day to about 400,000 barrels by 2040, he said. Given that the country imports two-thirds of its oil from overseas, that's a big problem.
Heinberg laid out five axioms of sustainability:
c Any society that continues to use critical resources unsustainably will collapse.
c Population growth and/or growth in rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
c The use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.
c The use of nonrenewable resources must proceed at a rate that is declining, and the rate of decline must be greater than or equal to the rate of depletion.
c Sustainability requires that substances introduced into the environment from human activities be minimized and rendered harmless to biosphere functions.
Packaging manufacturers will continue to suffer the ups and downs of a volatile oil environment that in 2008 saw oil cross the $100 per-barrel threshold, climb to nearly $150, then slide back, Heinberg said. If current peak oil theory holds true spikes in global demand driving prices all over the board with no clear cycle the result will be a ``whiplash effect'' in the marketplace, he said.
``If you know the oil price is going to be gradually increasing, then investments in alternative energy become rational and you can start to plan long term,'' he said. ``But if you see the price rise precipitously and then collapse again and again, how confident is that going to make you in making those investments in alternative energy sources?
``Price volatility is actually the worst of all possible worlds. And that's why we need rational, long-term government energy policy. Let's hope we get some of that in the months ahead.''
Heinberg pooh-poohed talk in the U.S. that new offshore drilling and tapping into the ground beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska will save the day for oil-dependent North American producers.
``We're not talking about oil independence; we're not even talking really about reducing imports. We're talking about an extra little bump on the inevitable downward curve,'' he said.
It's not just oil: production of copper, zinc, nickel and other minerals necessary for industry have fallen. Next to oil, competition for access to water is the next threat facing the planet, he said.
``The change cannot be avoided,'' Heinberg said. ``Our choice is whether to undertake it proactively.''
For packaging manufacturers, that means using less excess packaging, reducing their dependence on fossil fuels for power, investing more in bioplastics development and locally sourcing materials to cut down on shipping costs, he said.
``Peak oil could be the end of economic growth as we know it,'' he said, noting the successful businesses of the 21st century will move beyond 20th-century thinking to develop new innovations in design and production to allow for growth in nontraditional directions.
Otherwise, Heinberg said, companies and by extension the people who benefit from them run the risk of ending up like the yeast that consume sugars in winemaking, dying when the feedstock runs out. ``The question is: Are people smarter than yeast?''