The End of Cheap Oil

At the end of the 18th century, Thomas Malthus predicted population growth would outpace food production, resulting in widespread starvation.  But within 50 years the industrial revolution was in full swing in England, powered by coal-fired steam engines.  In 1866, in Clarion County, Pa., the first oil wells started production and the industrial age truly began.

Malthus’ dreary view seemed overblown.

The astounding differences in daily life between Malthus’ time and ours all result from the availability and use of cheap energy.  The pace of technological advancement is so rapid that the average citizen can’t keep up.  This wizardry — coupled with the mid-20th century “green revolution” in food production — leads many people, unfortunately including many political leaders, to assume that we can invent, exploit and develop our way out of almost any problem.

If we can, it is time to start.

Continued prosperity in the developed countries and any hope of significant advancement in undeveloped countries depend on availability of inexpensive energy.  In the United States, about 40 percent of energy comes from oil.  And we’re running out.  Not out of oil per se.  There’s lots of oil in Canadian tar sands and Colorado shale.  We’re running out of oil we can pump from the ground and market for under $60 a barrel.  Most people alive today will see the end of cheap oil.

Consider the production and distribution of food without that oil.  The tractors that till the soil and harvest the crops across the modern world run on oil.  The energy that transforms raw farm products into neatly wrapped items on supermarket shelves derives, in part, from oil.  The trucks that transport the raw and finished products run on oil.

How much of what the average American uses daily, particularly perishable foodstuffs, has to be inexpensively transported over significant distance? I live in Colorado and I can buy a 5-pound bag of Florida oranges for less than $5.  Absent the current distribution system, it is not unreasonable to think that I would never have tasted a fresh orange had I lived all my life here.

How much of what is readily available today will be priced out of reach if transportation costs double? Triple? Quadruple?

There are alternative energy sources, but none that can now serve transportation needs.  Oil and oil-based fuels are so useful because of their easy portability and relative safety.  It is not difficult to convert engines to use natural gas, but it has to be liquified.  Liquified natural gas in large quantity is dangerous to store, and the expense of refitting fuel stations nationwide to sell it would add significantly to its cost.  What’s more, natural gas will become more scarce and costly, perhaps within two decades after oil.

Hydrogen is often proposed as a safe, non-polluting alternative, but making it in usable form takes more energy than the hydrogen can provide as fuel.  This means an inexpensive, environmentally acceptable and widely available energy source will be required to produce the hydrogen.  No such energy source now exists.  Developing one and building a hydrogen economy will be a huge task.  Coal and nuclear power are sometimes suggested, but nuclear plants are expensive and the environmental problems of coal use and nuclear waste storage are daunting.

Representatives of the oil industry and the Department of Energy say there’s no immediate problem, that discovery of new oil fields, coupled with improved recovery from existing fields, will provide the time we need to find solutions.  But independent petroleum geologists point out that really huge fields, because of their size, are easy to find and no new ones have been found for over a decade.  The world burns oil faster than new oil is discovered — four times faster, according to some reports.

Recovery from existing fields is improving, but it’s still expensive, and money matters.  The end of cheap oil, followed by the end of cheap natural gas, threatens to cripple strong economies and devastate weak ones.

This is a looming crisis and we must work harder to figure a way out.  Otherwise, the Rev.  Malthus and his unhappy vision may yet prove right.


David Bacon, a physician and retired Army colonel living in Denver, has had a long interest in the world’s energy picture.  He wrote this for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

By David Bacon, Prairie Writers Circle

Courtesy of you

The content of this website and the Sierra Club is driven by its citizen volunteers and supporters like you. Join us today and become part of America's largest environmental organization!

Join The Club
Or support our efforts financially:
Donate Now