Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Surviving in the Northern USA after the Last Power Blackout

According to energy investment banker Matthew Simmons and other independent analysts, global oil production is now declining, from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 14%.

This is equivalent to a 33% drop in 7 years. No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always be higher than production; thus the depletion rate will continue until all recoverable oil is extracted.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment.

We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed:

In June I took a trip to Albany to talk to 3 audiences on Peak Oil impacts. In the group that invited me, the Capital Regional Energy Forum CREF), is a physicist who teaches solar energy at a major university, and who had served in the Peace Corps.

He has solar powered just about everything, including a solar powered canoe which we went for long ride in on a lake in the Adirondacks, and a PV solar powered house and pump for his well. He repairs about everything on his house himself and he heats much with passive solar. So the guy knows his stuff. He is no ivory tower academic.

We talked for hours about survival in the northeast after the last power blackout.

It looks "challenging."

Eventually batteries and even the solar panels deteriorate. He thinks that he could store dry batteries with the liquid stored in glass and thus make "new batteries" after they conk out. But eventually the batteries and solar panels give out.

Cutting and moving wood without trucks, horses, and wagons will be a major effort and very time consuming. There are not many horses around and it will take decades to breed enough horses to go around. Horses require food, care, vets, and medicine. No one is making wagons these days locally.

Wood stoves break, just like everything else. You could keep one or 2 extras, but eventually you have none and can't get more, because there is no transportation on the highways.

Asphalt roof shingles need to be replaced, and houses need to be painted and maintained.

Food must be grown in with a short growing season, and all of the farm stuff that used to be in a 1890 Sears catalog is no longer available. Last summer I took a tour of a farm and saw how dependent farming is on oil -- transportation and manufacture of plastic feeding bowls, containers to store grains/feeds, straw, roofs for animals and storage areas, wire, rope, wood boards, cement, fencing, antibiotics for animals, asphalt shingles etc. Seed and hardware used to be available at the local hardware store, no more.

Then there is clothing which is manufactured and transported from afar. Making cloth is a major operation from growing cotton to making cloth. I have studied the textile mills of Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, MA for years, as I used it as an example of the confluence of capital, technology, and labor for a course I taught on Global Urban Politics at the University of New Hampshire. I know that the parts in those factories were manufactured in many places with a vast transportation network. After the last power blackout, those factories will not be built again. And there are not many sheep around, nor animals for making leather clothes. Eventually down coats and comforters wear out, as do blankets. It sounds like just keeping warm will be a major problem.

Potable water is another problem, and sanitation also.

And there will be no modern pharmacies or hospitals.

After auto and air transport end (which could be next week if there is some "untoward activity" in the Middle East), there will be no way of getting here, or from here to there. Bus and train reservations will be backed up for years. You know the old Maine joke, "can you get there from here?" Well this time the answer will be no you can't. I keep reading in the newspapers that some of the folks over there in the Middle East are tired of others getting most of that oil, and that they are trying to shut down the flow of oil to us (:

Wasn't it that guy Murphy who said that if something can go wrong it will.

When the music stops (that is when air and automobile transportation ends) where you are is important, because that is pretty much where you will stay.


BlackMacX said...

Interesting article and thought provoking too. I don't know if we will descend as far as suggested; but I will agree that things will become much harder than anyone in living memory (as a rule) has experienced.

Robert Sczech said...

One danger with peak oil is that people who study it tend to get depressed. Clifford, it sounds like you are depressed!

Seriously, all the predictions which you make will become true one day, the question however is, when. Personally, I doubt that any major disruptions will take place during the next ten years. The reason for my optimism is that oil production is supposed to be still at 50% of today's production by 2030. A decline by 50% sounds dramatic, but in fact it is not because of the terrible waste going on in the economy. Most of the daily traffic is not essential for the functioning of the economy. In fact, the work of most people is not essential for the functioning of the economy. In the US alone, 50% of the oil consumed by the transportation sector can be conserved by eliminating all unnecessary car trips. If I look at my daily mailbox, I see tons of garbage (junk mail) being hauled by the US mail trucks for no meaningful purpose. Most buildings are overheated in the winter and overcooled in the summer. The energy wasted in this area is horrendous.

I see no reason to be overly pessimistic for the coming 10 years. Life will not continue the way it was in the past. It will be more interesting because of all the changes coming, that for sure. I remember vividly my childhood in the early 1950's. Life was very poor in comparison to today. Yet people were happy and enjoying life perhaps more than today. The same thing will happen in the future. We will forget the present very soon.

One final thought. The life of an individual lasts only a finite number of years. Perhaps peak oil is a reminder that civilizations also have only a finite life span. If that is true, we should not get depressed about it. Instead, we should learn to enjoy life to the fullest.

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Hi Robert,

At the top of the blog I wrote:

"Although several years will pass before oil depletion undermines vital systems, it is important to prepare for Peak Oil now, before inflation and economic depression limit the choices that individuals and organizations can make in planning to survive Peak Oil impacts."

By 2050, global crude oil (plus condensate and tar sands) production is forcasted to be down to 17 million barrels per day, from 75 million per day. This means we will then have about 23% of current production. At the same time population will grow substantially and more of the oil extracted will be used in the oil extraction and refining processes. This is documented in my report .

Even by 2015 we will experience major changes, as indicated in these blog entries.

My report reveals many factors that make oil depletion more problematic. One of the most important is that due to declining exports from the oil producing nations, the U.S. and Europe will experience very rapid declining supplies of oil.

As for reducing waste, the developing nations will rapidly consume what we conserve.

People in the 1950s had a national transportation system which delivered food and goods nationwide, they even had that in the 1870s. When the interstate highways go out, there is no more national transportation system millions will starve to death. That time is not so far off.

People can be happier and optimistic if they face the reality and plan for that reality and not for an illusion. If they don't face reality and plan for it, they won't survive.

I am happier than I have been in years and am definitely not depressed. But my state of mind is not important here. Even if I were depressed, the important thing here is the facts and the analysis. Please read my report and the other links here and then respond again.

Although you don't see any reason to be depressed, some people in the U.S. can't pay heating oil bills this winter, and these are the good old days for oil prices go. These people will eat less nutritious food to get through the winter. Soon heating oil will be $10 per gallon, and then $20 per gallon, what are people going to do? Eventually state governments can't subsidize heating oil and maintain the Interstates. Today, some people in the world are starving due to higher oil prices. It is only the beginning.

Robert Sczech said...


I have read your long report on peak oil. It is clear that you have read a lot about this subject matter which makes you an expert on peak oil. My point is not specific but general. I question the ability of experts to predict what will happen in 2030 or 2050. We both know that it is impossible to predict the weather for a longer period of time than just a few days. Regarding predictions of the year in which oil production will peak, experts like Campbell and Deffeyes have erred in the past. I do not say that in order to question the authority of these people, to the contrary, I mention this in order to underline the difficulty of making precise predictions in these matters.

There is no question that peak oil is real. In the end, it does not even matter in which year it will happen. What matters is the following question: Given that the situation we are facing is unique in human history and experience, how do we know with certainty that millions of people will die simply because oil production decayed by 30% or 50%? The people who make these ridiculous statements, do they really understand how the economy works? How the economy will respond to declining oil production? I doubt that very much. Experts fail to understand what happens in today's economy, how can they possibly predict with authority the death of people in 2030? This all sounds arrogant and ridiculous.

The fact is, that all western economies are based on a horrible waste of resources. At least 50% (or more) of the energy used is pure waste. Example: Transporting a human body via a bicycle requires one tenth of 1% of the energy required in order to accomplish the same task with a SUV. Now the purpose of transportation is not the movement of cars. It is the movement of people and goods which is the goal of transportation. In other words, transportation can be accomplished with a tiny fraction of the energy used presently in the developed world. Similarly, it is often suggested that we need 10 calories of energy in order to produce 1 calorie of food. This is nonsense. Food was produced in the past (and will be produced in the future) with a fraction of that energy requirement. However, in the future the number of people producing food will have to increase dramatically. But is that really such a bad thing?

Another example: We know how to build houses which do not require any heating. Yet this is not being done simply because energy is still very cheap. Insulating an existing house does not require lots of capital, only careful work. Yet those people who complain about the high heating cost, do they insulate their houses? Most likely not. Perhaps they should stock up on warm clothing. The sad fact is that the number of people warning about peak oil is much larger than the number of people working on the design of houses not requiring any form of heating.

To repeat: I agree that oil production will decline. I disagree regarding the consequences of the declining oil production. I believe that the wisdom of all experts is not sufficient in order to predict how history will unfold. Our knowledge is very limited. Crucial inventions were and will be made by a tiny minority of people. This minority is usually disjoint from the large set of experts predicting the future.

To understand the problem, we need to read the predictions of Herman Kahn made in the 1960's regarding the future. It all sounds so stupid today, yet at that time it looked so respectable.

Reality is much more complicated than the ability of the human mind to understand it. For that reason, we should be very cautious and modest in our predictions of the future.

Robert Sczech said...


I read your impressive long report. Clearly, you have read a lot of the relevant literature.

I do not question the reality of peak oil and I do accept the predictions that oil production will be down significantly by 2030. However, I question the ability of experts to predict the death of millions of people by 2030 simply because oil production will decline by 50%. My reasoning is as follows.

We all know that it is impossible to predict the weather for a longer period of time than just a few days. Given that the situation we are facing is unprecedented in human history, how can experts predict with certainty the response of the economy to the declining oil production in 20 years given that experts fail to understand what happens to the economy today?

I think people who make these arrogant and ridiculous predictions really underestimate the amount of energy waste in our economies. I think we can easily survive on 30% of our present energy consumption. Life standards will be much lower, but the death of millions is an exaggeration.

Do you remember the writings of Herman Kahn in the 1960's about the future? It all sounds so stupid today, yet at that time it looked so respectable.

Reality is more complicated than the ability of the human mind to comprehend it. For that reason we all need to be very cautious and modest in our predictions of the future.

Thanks for your response.

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Hi Robert,

Unfortunately, once oil production begins to decline, the demand for oil will always be higher than the production. This is due to population growth and economic development in the developing nations, especially in China, India, and the oil producing nations. Thus conservation and insulation of buildings will not slow the rate of global oil depletion. What I suggest is using the oil that we can now buy for preparations for no oil, including building insulation, now.

No forecast of the future can be certain. But it is best to examine the future with the best tools we have available and make contingency plans now, while we have the energy, communications and transportation to do so. The Hirsch report and U.S. General Accountability Office report are written with the backing of some good economists, and they also see danger ahead. If there is not enough oil (or oil is too expensive), there will not be enough oil to produce food (mechanized farming), heat homes, and maintain the U.S. highways. Without food coming to the major cities, starvation is certain.

I agree that we need to be very careful about making these predictions, and it is far better to make errors on the side of caution. I don’t think the predictions are arrogant or ridiculous, rather I think they are made by people who are very concerned about the future for themselves and others.

The design for energy efficient houses and passive solar is well known. The problem is that individuals and communities are not aware that the future requires that they get to work now. Later, it will become more costly as the price of oil goes up and increases the cost of manufacturing, transporting, and installing insulation (everyone uses gasoline to get to work, so the cost of everything will increase).

The largest number of Peak Oil folks are in the relocalization movement (Relocalization Network, linked on this site) and they are working hard on efficiency and conservation. There are far fewer voices like mine that are really sounding the alarm for catastrophe ahead soon. My focus is to warn people that there is danger ahead and time for risk management and contingency planning. I agree with the Relocalization folks, but I see more danger ahead.

yooper said...

Ok, I'm with you on these thoughts...Some people cannot comprehend "overshoot".

yooper said...

Ok CJ, I'm not about to disagree with your thoughts here either. If people cannot comprehend complex, interactive systems, that's just to bad....

I've been following you thoughts over at the drum and now that you've posted over at John's, and have this site going, thought I'd drop by...

Please check my site out at
see what you think... I'll try and answer any questions that you may have...

I have a tremendous amount of formal education/experimention along this line, which has lead me down a path, that I've reluctantly have choosen.

I'd like to learn more of your education and experience regarding the dynamics of decline...

Sincerely, yooper

Anonymous said...

There is a total lack of respect here for human ingenuity at an individual level. If a human being can figure out and adapt to a life that includes oil and its derivative products, a human being can just as easily adapt to a life that does not. Lets not forget how difficult it must have been for the population to go from foot to horseback to car or for the human heart to continue to pump despite an absolute assault of a plentiful and low-hanging food supply that requires little to no physical activity to produce for some consumers. There certainly have been quite a few untimely deaths that have occurred when it comes to these two examples.

This is not an apocalypse event. There is a strategic oil reserve.

As is true today, the individuals who possess ingenuity will rise to the top when they are needed to support the rest. Investment will be diverted. The smartest people in the room will realize that the value of their money is only based on the trust level of the population of individuals that comprise it. If breakdown occurs paper will be useless except for burning and the wealthy will be the emperors without clothes, unable to barter their paper for any true utility. This proves that there is no incentive to continue trading for oil once it has reached astronomical price levels. All that money is better spent elsewhere but it reflects the times. The market adapts as does the consumer because many consumers makes up a market. The cream will do what they always have done at this point and focus their attention and ingenuity on supplying items that reflect the environmental conditions that surround them.

It could be as simple as two sticks to start a fire. It could be as complex as a plastic bowl made from this black stuff that shoots up from the ground. There are a lot of people in this world and everyday the choice is clear; adapt or die.

Anonymous said...

Doc, I believe you will never see the end of our worlds oil supply. So much of our planet has not been explored on the surface, much less the subsurface. Peak Oil Theory was developed to keep prices high and control the industry of man. Good science recquires an open mind.I wish I was out of harms way like you. I don't look forward to seeing the results of your theory on my nation.

Dean Philpot, DMN

JDR Metal Art said...

It's starting to get bad again, June 2010. Plenty of kool aid drinking the everlasting oil supply theory.

Declining Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is the problem. Eventually extracting oil will be chasing after the wind, when it takes one barrel to extract one barrel, you are toast.

A 5% decrease in 70s oil supply drove prices 400% higher.

People in global slums will be hacking each other away for what crumbs remain, unfortunately. None of us are immune from exponential math, I'm afraid. But the sky is not falling, it will still be there long after the last of us are liquidated and we can resume growth. I hope I get to see that point again in my lifetime.