Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource, so the volumes of oil being pumped out of the ground will therefore eventually reach a maximum and then inevitably decline. This has already happened in many individual countries, including the US—which once was the world’s foremost oil-producing nation. The global maximum may already have been reached in 2008; in any case, it will almost certainly arrive in the near future.
In a nutshell, peak oil is not about running out of oil, it is about running out of cheap oil. It is the historic moment when the world shifts from harvesting the “low-hanging fruit” of high-quality petroleum to having to drill for smaller deposits in inconvenient places, or to using low-quality substitutes like tar sands, that have horrible environmental impacts and are very expensive to produce.
Over the past few decades, the ready availability of cheap oil has fueled the growth of industrial economies. All the key elements of our society – transportation, manufacturing, food production, medical systems, heating and air conditioning, construction – are highly dependent on oil.
According to the Hirsch Report, prepared for the US Government in 2005:
“The peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking”.
(Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management, Robert Hirsch, SAIC.)
Technology is often heralded as the panacea for fossil fuel depletion. However, a careful review of technological “solutions” indicates their immaturity; their disastrous environmental consequences; or their inability to supply energy on the scale we are accustomed to. We could wait for technology or government to solve the problem for us (a rather high risk option) or we could take the matter into our own hands.
Many schemes are being put in place in place to respond to the challenge of peak oil at the global and national levels. These responses can be read here. Transition Initiatives are part of this response, at the local, community level. Transition Initiative are not the only thing that needs to happen, but they are a key part of the solution.