My head hurts when I think about peak oil

“Peak oil” is the short hand way for those in the know to talk about a future without easy or economically viable access to oil. It’s called “peak oil” because those that know say that oil production will peak at some time in the future, (probably before my younger kid finishes school, so we’re not talking distant future), and after that, it will go into an irreversible decline.

Some dude described as a Respected Oil Analyst and Oil Industry Veteran Charles Maxwell apparently nicknamed the “Dean of Oil Analysts” (what fun he must have introducing himself at cocktail parties) has forecast peak oil by 2017 or 2018:

A bind is clearly coming. We think that the peak in production will actually occur in the period 2015 to 2020. And if I had to pick a particular year, I might use 2017 or 2018. That would suggest that around 2015, we will hit a near-plateau of production around the world, and we will hold it for maybe four or five years. On the other side of that plateau, production will begin slowly moving down. By 2020, we should be headed in a downward direction for oil output in the world each year instead of an upward direction, as we are today. (

Such a concept seems so extraordinary to me, and so frightening that I can’t really think about it clearly. Every time I try to engage with the problem, to contemplate a world where we don’t have access to oil my brain slips and slides onto easier problems – how to get my son to study for his maths test, what to cook for dinner, changing the education system etc.

Why aren’t politicians in Australia talking about this – at least questioning it, or even denying it? Possibly their brains hurt too. Or is it way too extraordinary to consider within an ordinary political context? Or are they being influenced by oil companies trying to squeeze the last few drops of money out of us before the well (literally) goes dry?

The Sydney Morning Herald this week reported on a research study that found that the more people hear about the scientific evidence of global warning, the more sceptical they become. ( I have to read more about the study to understand it, but it seems that when the media reports on climate change issues it tends to report on “both sides” of the argument – thereby, strangely, reassuring readers that there is an equality between the scientific arguments, and the climate change deniers. Maybe the same problems with media reporting and brain confusion apply to peak oil?

And so I force myself back to peak oil …

Rather than try and grapple with its immensity, this week I’m just trying to look at it in terms of transport, particularly air travel.

Last time I did one of those “How Green are You?” assessments, I’d managed to get down to a very self-congratulatory level of low energy and emissions – no car, water tank, gas heating, etc etc.

But then I had to put in my air travel, and all of a sudden I rocketed back into the ranks of the “could do much much better”.

For my work I travel quite a bit – interstate, within NSW and even, sometimes, thrillingly to another country (even if it is only New Zealand). How do I go about thinking about a future where air travel may not be possible?

Oil provides 40 percent of all primary energy, and approximately 90 percent of our transportation energy. For most airlines, fuel it is the second largest expense category behind labor. As a direct result of the dramatic increases in oil prices, the cost of jet fuel has more than doubled since the beginning of 2004.

Within a few years, or even sooner, oil extraction from wells will be physically unable to meet global demand. Prices will soar, fuelled by market-based panic, further hurting the airline industry. In addition, high oil prices will decrease consumer’s disposable income and dampen demand. The number of cash-strapped airlines will increase.(Dr Alex Kuhlan

This quote, by the way, is from an airline industry website – Airliners – The Best Airplane Information, Aviation Photos and Aviation News – so I guess they’re not going to publish stuff about the death of the airline industry as we know it without due regard for the facts.

In a worst-case scenario, the long-term future for aviation is disastrous. As oil prices continue to rise, the world economy will be confronted with a major shock that will stunt economic growth and increase inflation. The chief economist of Morgan Stanley recently predicted that we have a 90 percent chance of facing “economic Armageddon.” During the transition period to a post oil era, there may be massive disruptions to transportation as the global decline of oil deepens. There will be social unrest and a strong reduction of business and government activity and very serious unemployment. Eventually, a large proportion of the demand for air travel will be almost completely destroyed, with the risk of the aviation adventure going out of business, with the exception of perhaps a handful of airlines. Once again, air travel will be reserved for the rich and for government business and the world will become a larger place again. (

Apart from the complete break down of society as we know it (fingers in ears, na-na-na can’t think about it), my personal response is sadness that my children won’t be able to fly overseas for the big adventures that we had, (and my parents had), in our twenties.

You could argue that I’ve had my share of international air travel. If you include all those people in the third world who will never travel out of their immediate environment, I’ve had well beyond my fair entitlement. But overseas travel is such an exciting part of life for so many Australians who can’t easily just pop across a border to another country, another culture, another way of life. And it would seem that my kids just won’t be able to do it easily, cheaply and safely as we did.

And the point of this blog, and the point of discussing these issues is to think about how we can contribute to the national (and local) responses to these issues.

So let’s look at one alternative to air travel on the eastern seaboard of Australia.

For the about the third time in my half century of living, the imaginatively named Very Fast Train seems to be back on the agenda. (

Having been a committed public transport user for many years, my confidence that a Very Fast train would actually be Very Fast, (as opposed to Quite Fast, or Faster than a Normal Train or even Faster than Walking) is a little low. But the promise of getting to Canberra from Sydney in 50 minutes by train has to be a serious option for a future without air travel. Train travel across continents may be the way that our children and grandchildren get to see the world – perhaps interspersed with the occasional boat trip, or, as Piers suggests, flight in a dirigible (air ship or blimp). (

Obtaining the land corridor that a VFT would travel within was a major obstacle to previous VFT proposals. Conservationists played their part in the debate being concerned about its impact on the natural environment.

If we accept that air travel will become the province of the rich and powerful within a few decades, and if we want our children and grandchildren to have at least some of the travel opportunities that we had, we need to work out some of these planning issues for train travel now. We shouldn’t assume that good decision making will be made in a time of crisis, when important factors like environmental and biodiversity protection are likely to be ignored.

I can’t yet think clearly about peak oil. But I’m going to try use my actions this week to focus on supporting a VFT initiative. Any thoughts?

This week’s action

I’m writing to the

  • NSW Nature Conservation Council
  • Australian Conservation Foundation
  • Environment Victoria

and asking them to take up the issue of train travel between major cities in NSW, ACT and Victoria as a priority – including the impacts on the natural environment of a VFT.


Web pages included in text

I’m reading

Peter Temple Truth Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia 2009. Winner of the Miles Franklin award 2010 – first time a detective/crime story has won.

If you’re going to distract yourself from the end of the world as we know it, you may as well do so with quality escapist literature.


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
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4 Responses to My head hurts when I think about peak oil

  1. Judy says:

    I don’t feel nearly as disempowered as you seem to Jane – mainly because there is so much that each of us can do to help address Peak Oil. (I actually thought that the stats were coming down in favour of us possibly already having passed the peak of production).

    While air travel is significant, the first point of change here in Australia (and particularly in Sydney) is one you’ve already made – reduced reliance on private motor vehicles. Even a reduction in VKTs would help. The contributors to this are manyfold, but governments are acting in the opposite direction:
    * Improving urban design (shops/residential/educational/recreational and services proximity)
    * Increased investment in reliable public transport and active transport (walking, cycling etc) rather than more motorways
    * Increased support for working from home rather than commuting (with support from improved video-conferencing etc)
    * Local food production and a return to acceptance of in-season food, rather than long-haul food purchasing (the old ‘food miles’ argument- although there is some good evidence that sound production somewhere else may produce less greenhouse gases than intense local production); etc, etc, etc

    You are probably doing these already, but the vast majority of people are not.

    Not sure if you’ve seen Peak Oil, The End of Suburbia or A Crude Awakening – all pretty powerful videos that have been shown several times by various groups in our community.

    If you (or others) are ‘already doing it’ then these things may seem pretty meaningless, but I feel our task is to convince others of the urgancy of these changes.

    Air travel is probably the ‘icing on the cake’ but first, let’s bake the cake.

    – Judy

  2. Margaret says:

    I’m with Judy. And don’t forget boats! My parents (and us as kids) went to Europe by boat not plane. It took six weeks each way but maybe one of the benefits will be to slow everyone down a bit. Maybe not as slow as Louise who undertook to go to the last Global Greens conference in Sao Paolo (from Tasmania) without her feet leaving the ground — she did it but it took the best part of a year to get there and back. But then she wasn’t in a hurry!

  3. Jann Zintgraff says:

    I lived in Switzerland during 1974 when there was an oil crisis.The only people allowed to use their cars on sundays were doctors or other emergency workers.This went on for about 2 months .The diciplined Swiss “obeyed” .It became great fun .The streets were full of bicyles ,horses and drays came to town .People in their long red socks took to the hills by train and Finicular and spent sundays walking in the forests and mountains.There was almost a groan of disappointment when things returned to normal….Bring back the horse and buggy I say.Clover Moore is doing her best to build cycle ways [I cycled to Randwick from Paddington for years to work ]I was a damn sight fitter then. Also what about LIGHT RAIL in the city .. so sensible.
    One of the reasons I am so delighted that my daughter is returning from Europe is that I no longer need to live in fear of her being trapped on the other side of the world when the fuel runs out .A long term thought of mine..Thank goodness we have a wonderful multi cultural population here so that when O/S travel is no longer possible at least our children and grand children will have some experience of other cultures ….not quite the same I know …looking on the bright side… Cheers Jann

  4. oildepletionz says:

    there is a great summary of peak oil and its economic implications … with a new Zealand focus at

    the resources page there has all the latest reports tot with hyper links if you wish to delve further

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