Petroleum Exhaustion Die-Off vs Y2K (psychology) : LUSENET : Running on Empty - The Coming Petroleum Exhaustion Dieoff : One Thread

What are the differences, and similarities, between the psychology of either believing or disbelieving the two "end of the world as we know it" scenarios, y2k (prior to Jan 1 200) and petroleum exhaustion dieoff ? This little note is really meant for people who were well-versed in the y2k debates AND who have read most of the material on

Differences in the events: obviously these are radically distinct. One had a discrete, verifiable time correlated, the other (PE) has a much fuzzier boundary (anywhere from 10 to 60 years or more from now). The question in y2k thus became: can remediation be done quickly enough and well enough, without causing other problems. Some experts and 'CR's' (concerned readers) declared it to be essentially impossible, the code was broken, the problem was 'systemic', the time was too short even if we'd started 10 years ago, etc. Others like Harry Browne held that 'market forces' can handle anything (he was derided by some for his naivete).

In the case of PE (petroleum exhaustion), again presumably geologists are in agreement on the most important outlines of the basic facts: at current rates of discovery and consumption, most recoverable oil will be gone well before the end of this century.

So the only area left to disagree on (possibly) is whether 'market forces' for want of a better term, will ride in on white horses and save the day. It does seem that a great deal of current waste could be squeezed out, with some concomitant economic pain. That might stretch the time of petroleum dependence out longer, allowing more time to come up with something else.

Such as ? Well a number of the articles on examine some possible alterantives, not generaly in great detail, and end up dismissing them as being too expensive (nuclear), too local (hydro, geothermal), or too diffuse (solar). It does seem that the agricultural sector in particular lacks good alternatives.

So, again back to a similarity with y2k, we have a situation that a very small but articulate and oddly persuasive minority is certain is a simple case of a "bacteria in sugar solution" dieoff curve quickly approaching, incontrovertibly so, and on the other side - well, on the other side not really anything. I mean apart from environmentalists, who have a related but distinct agenda, nobody seems to care much. In this the PE situation resembles Y2K - the debate, the problem, and ultimately the solution all seemed to exist in a vacuum, a world of oddballs talking and professionals coding and everybody else just living their lives.

Time will tell. But one thing's certain: if the PE doomers are correct, the precedent set by the y2k doomers is not helpful.

-- scott (, February 27, 2000


Thank you for asking this very important question, Scott. The last time I asked it I was mercilessly derided. I hope you're wearing your kevlar undies.

I've often said, during the two years I've been around here, that Y2K was not the most frightening issue of our day---that it was merely an indicator of our attitudes and outlook, and our approach to problem-solving---small potatoes in the medium term (a generation or two).

As you can see by the oil threads on this board, most contributors' idea of long-term considerations are within a time-frame of a year or two at longest. Not one in a hundred know about King Hubbert's projections or the cautionary admonitions of petroleum geologists not affiliated with the oil corporations or government. This same gullibility seems to extend to global warming, waste mismanagement, water worries, population and other elements of environmental awareness.

Contrary to their usual skepticism of government or corporate pronouncememnts, most seem willing to believe that their near-religious faith in market systems and technology will be justified in the medium term.

Thus are most of the TB2K "doomers" quite the "Pollyannas" when it comes to energy and/or the environment.

-- (First=Last@Last.=First), February 28, 2000.

Facts always beat analysis, in readability too.

-- W (, February 28, 2000.

My dear Mr. Scott,

I am afraid that I must come out as a "polly" in some respects on the issue of future energy needs.

But only if we can get past the whooly certain "collective" reaction by humanity in general.

The transistion will not be easy, but it is coming. And we cannot hold it back. And history shows that mankind, in general, has always reacted violently to SUDDEN changes in their way of life (of the magnitude of which we are faced with).

Don't even contemplate that oil shale will bail us out. The experimental unit at Rifle, Colo (back in the Carter admin.). found that it took, on the order, of three barrels of water to process one barrel of oil. The licquidfying of coal is probably out to, though the Nazis did it in the last stages of WW11.

But the fuel cell! Now that is a viable energy source. And current autos, many of them, can be modified to use them. All you have to do, is get the car manufactors and big oil to divorce one another.

Luck to you on that one.

It is indeed ironic. We, and our various technologys are at the advent of a higher plain. There ARE new and inexhaustable energy sourses all around us. From the sun it's self, to hydrogen/oxygen fuel supplies for cars. And the only reason why it is not out there on the road commercially? Maby because TPTB still haven't figured out how to tax the fuel as it comes by the bucket from a stream and is poured into the electrostylis (sp) unit in the trunk of a car. Or is it the campaign money donated to them? ( the politicans). Your guess is as good as mine about that one.

The reasons why, are as many as the grains of sand (or hands) in one's pocket.

But these hi tech alternates have been tested (successfully) since the 70's in Utah. And there are/where, test units running, and have been running for years on Hydrogen. And there are the modified steam engines (you could not tell it was a steam engine under the hood, when you looked at it)...And An ordinary gasoline motor was used (converted) to a steam engine. It uses any flamable fuel that will pour through a pipe. It will start in 0 degrees temperature (engine cold) and can attain enough steam to begin moving the car in 5 minutes. I was amased when I witnessed that one.

The experimental engines and fuel have been put in Gray Hound size buses and successfully ran.

Power generation can/ may go to Thermodynamics, instead of using a turbine/generator. The process of inducing a current directly into a wire exposed to heat is an "old" well known one.

No...I am optimistic about the generation after ours and the next one...It is they who will go to the stars.

But we still have a rough time ahead of us, before the next phase of technoloy can be put to commercial use.

"As for me...I shall finish the Game"!


-- Shakey (in_a_bunker@forty.feet), February 28, 2000.

Thanks first/last and Shakey. Excellent points of view, may you live long and propser! W, please re-read. The 'facts' behind this post are exhaustively documented at You may disagree with those analysse, but the facts to which the post refers are presented, with the authors' own interpretations of course, at that site. This note was intended, as I stated, for those meeting the "pre- requisite": familiarity with the "factual" side of the petroleum exhaustion die-off argument, presented elsewhere.

-- scott (, February 28, 2000.


Thanks for asking a question I've been wrestling with for a while. Not the 'die-off' aspect per se, but how best to survive the transition personally, what that transition will look like, who will be affected, how they will be affected.

I think there can be agreement on several things:

First is that fuel cells can do an adequate job of powering cars. The oil companies -- the fuel distribution side, at least -- see methanol as a fuel solution. Of course they like can be stored and distributed exactly like gasoline. Their distribution networks are in place. They see profit in that approach. This makes the idea feasible, since big oil is satiated with methanol profits.

Second Individual residences and small apartments, small office complex's, and buildings such as churches can also be powered from fuel cells. This will require life style changes for us in the US -- less use of electricity, more use of available fuels (which might include propane)

Third There are some problems that will require massive changes. How do you power an airplane with a fuel cell? It can be done, of course, going back to propeller driven aircraft, but only at the cost of speed (convenience). How about trains? Ships? How do you supply power to air condition a 30 story glass-walled building that in the summer? Do you? What do you do with the building if you don't?

The solution to these problems will require financial investment, and will also require that some people take heavy financial losses -- don't rush out and buy a 30 story glass-walled office building.

FourthAgriculture is a problem. I can envision a fuel cell powered tractor, but don't know just how to handle the fertilizers we use so much of. Is there a solution? Probably......we just haven't hit it yet. Unfortunately, the agri-giants are spending too much time and money on such things as terminator research.

Fifth, using the 1998 BPAmoco World Energy report as a guide, there are enormous coal resources. This sets up a direct confrontation, in my mind, between survivalists and environmentalists, because the use of all that coal is not without some pollution cost.

This may be factor that is most influencial in determining the die- out factor.

Just my quick, top-of-the-head views. Good thread, and something many of us need to become aware of. Whew, a lot to think about, isn't there. This is a deep and heavy subject.

In my opinion, the transition can be made, but not without great public awareness and the right kind of government involvment. By 'right kind' I mean that the various governments must realize the problem we face and get started on paving the road for solutions to be developed. Unfortunately, most governments think that they are the solution.

-- rocky (rknolls@no.spam), February 28, 2000.

Rocky, thanks for the interesting summary of options. That's excellent. In that list, you mention methanol. This is something that has been analyzed as an option for transport fuel over at (what I consider the most important single website in the world today, which is why I keep referencing it: Turns out that methanol generally takes more energy to produce than it yields. It survives for political reasons (buying corn belt votes). Though recent advances have improved energy return somewhat, it appears that when you factor in the heavy use of petroleum in all forms of agriculture, the degradation of topsoil, and water use, methanol is an extremely unlikely prospect to take over from petro-based products.

Fuel cells may indeed be a great option for individual homes, long as the natural gas holds out ... (its production peak is said to be just a few decades behind oil).

-- scott (, February 28, 2000.

Corrected hotlink:

-- scott (, February 28, 2000.

I would like to suggest that accumulated toxics - landfills, nuke waste, chemical by-products, non-degrading toxic chemicals, herbicide & pesticide & fertilizer tainted run-off water from AgBizness, increasing atmospheric CO2, the atmospheric reservoir of hard to degrade chloro/floro hydrocarbons, etc. - will detrimentally affect human life prior to running out of Oil.

I would like to suggest that the lack of fresh, clean water is at or near crises level over much of the planet.

I would like to suggest that over-crowding is producing psychic and physical symptoms in humans similar to those observable in crowding experiments on animals and plants. This same over-crowding is producing extreme strain upon agriculturally usable top soil & the ocean's fisheries.

The ongoing decline in the nutritive value of food is a recognized fact.

I would say that running out of Oil is one of the lesser of our worries. It appears to me that some of our human problems are settling on the roost right now, with many more on the landing path - any of which, & if accumulated, will certainly cause large scale die off well before the demise of Oil because of Oil's lack. should be required reading for every school age kid on the planet!

-- mitchell barnes (, February 28, 2000.

Mitchell: Good points, all, and I especially agree with your final statement. But reread your list again. Just about every issue you raise is related to the availability of cheap, abundant oil. One of the points of is that the loss of that oil will "solve" in a rather unwelcome and perhaps nasty manner the overpopulation that is the root cause of most of those problems. And it is not, IMHO, the fact that alternatives are available -- fuel cells, methanol, tar sands, solar, wind, and the rest. It is the fact that oil is a * cheap,* convenient, highly portable source of energy. When it ceases to be cheap, life is going to change, and drastically.

-- Cash (, February 28, 2000.

I've just started a board to discuss this issue. It is another Greenspun board at Running on Empty. Not much there now, but some links that might interest some people. Maybe no critical mass will exist for this new board, that's OK, but if you visit you'll at least see links to a couple more active discussions of the topic. I have nothing to gain from this beyond just hoping to see more discussion of what appears to me to be the key issue of the 21st century and human future if any there is to be.

-- scott (, February 28, 2000.


Do you have the numbers for the methanol from coal plant in Kingston, TN? Reading between the lines the process could use a co-located coal fired electrical power generation station, in which the off-peak capacity was used to generate methanol from coal. That is using coal for the generation of electrical power and for manufacture of methanol or synthetic natural gas.

What I haven't been able find in the department of energy hype is the pwer required to generate methanol, and whether it's worth it.

-- rocky (rknolls@no.spam), February 28, 2000.

Rocky: thanks, please take a look at Youngquist article on dieoff, and references on Ethanol cited there (at end of article).

Here's a quote:

Biofuels and the Ethanol Myth

Oil derived from plants is sometimes promoted as a fuel source to replace petroleum. However, a comprehensive study by Giampietro and others (1997) concludes: "Large-scale biofuel production is not an alternative to the current use of oil and is not even an advisable option to cover a significant fraction of it." The facts and experience with ethanol are an example.

Ethanol is a plant-derived alcohol (usually from corn) which is used today, chiefly in the form of gasohol, a mixture of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline. Because it is used to some extent (mostly by federal mandate in certain places and at certain times) it is commonly thought that ethanol is a partially acceptable solution to the fuel problem for machines. However, ethanol is an energy negative -- it takes more energy to produce it than is obtained from ethanol.

Pimentel (1998b) states:

Ethanol production is wasteful of fossil energy resources . . . This is because considerably more energy, much of it highgrade fossil fuels, is required to produce ethanol than is available in the ethanol output. Specifically, about 71% more energy is used to produce a gallon of ethanol than the energy contained in a gallon of ethanol.

Furthermore, ethanol production from corn cannot be considered renewable energy. Its production uses more nonrenewable fossil energy resources both in the production of the corn and in the fermentation/distillation processes than is produced as ethanol energy (p. 5).

Pimentel also points out the negative environmental effects of producing ethanol from corn:

Increasing ethanol production will increase degradation of vital agricultural and water resources and will seriously contribute to the pollution of the environment. In U.S. corn production, soil erodes some 20-times faster than soil is formed.

Located in the premier corn-growing region of the world, scientists at Iowa State University (Reilly, 1988) state that ethanol production is an energy negative. Ethanol production survives by the grace of a subsidy by the U.S. government from taxpayer dollars. Continuing the production of ethanol is purely a device for buying the midwest U.S. farm vote, and may also be related to the fact that the company which makes 60% of U.S. ethanol is also one of the largest contributors of campaign money to the Congress -- a distressing example of politics overriding logic.

-- scott (, February 28, 2000.

Oops, sorry Rocky, wrote before thinking, you wanted meth not eth. I'll post refs shortly.

-- scott (, February 28, 2000.

Scott, I agree that the corn to methanol process is energy intensive. A Coal to Methanol process shows signs of promise. Recognize that coal is an available (for hundreds of years) resource. It appears as if the process uses electricity from a coal fired generation station during the off-peak hours to produce the methanol, at a price of less than 50 cents a gallon.

Actually, the NG reserves wont last as long as the U.S. oil reserves (8.3 versus 10.4 years if we use the BPAmoco 1998 report as a reference). But, a Department of Energy Tech Brief, dated 1994, available at DOE TechBrief

makes the following assessment:

Non-geopressured natural gas (or methane) trapped in brine aquifers deep below the U.S. Gulf Coast is a major energy resource, heretofore largely untapped. Experts estimate these reserves, if accessed, could serve as the United States sole energy source for hundreds, possibly even thousands, of years.

The problem is that extracting natural gas and propane from brine is a technological problem that begs for solution:

Current brine/methane separation methodology involves bringing the brine to the surface in order to collect the gas. The brine is usually pumped back to a geological formation. Unfortunately, salt and other minerals precipitate (due to the temperature gradient between the two depths) and encrust the pumping equipment. The pump often clogs and fails, leading to expensive repairs.

Maybe you have later numbers on the size of the sub-brine NG reserves in the Gulf? I did read where one recent propane problem was attributed to brine, so it might be that those reserves have been tapped.

At any rate, I see a period of extreme discomfiture (at best) as we try to make the change over to a hydrogen based technology.

-- rocky (rknolls@no.spam), February 28, 2000.

If y2k had hit hard, we would have run out faster

-- gas (guzzler@station.gas), February 28, 2000.

One of the best things the average individual can do today is to quit purchasing consumer products (cleaning products, cosmetics, perfumes, personal care products) made with untested, toxic chemicals (and this includes most products sold in grocery stores, drug stores, etc.) and to stop using pesticides (and herbicides, etc.) as much as possible. Switch to old fashioned products like borax, baking soda for cleaning and integrated pest management (IPM) for pests. This cuts back on your own exposure to toxic chemicals (you'll stay healthier in the long run), puts less in the environment, and adds to a burgeoning consumer revolution against the chemical industry's shameful practices. Incidently, many of these toxic product ingredients are petro-chemical in origin. People around the world have already been chemically injured by products they thought were safe to use--some are permanently disabled. Quality of life on this planet is already seriously eroded by these substances (approx. 200,000 of them and growing by a few thousand each year). No one much notices--except those actually harmed, who are then without much of anything in regard to housing, health care,"safety nets," jobs, etc. Imagine if the "whole world" suddenly made you sick... It can happen to anyone. Women, who purchase and use most of these toxic household products, need to become aware--and fast. They make up about 65% of those with environmental illness. And children are most susceptible of all.

-- Amy (, February 28, 2000.

And, as if she were lurking here, one of my favorite people, Dr. Donella Meadows weighs in.

Donella H. Meadows 02.28.00

The February issue of Scientific American tells of a new technology that makes me both rejoice and worry. It looks so great, so likely to relieve a massive environmental problem that there's no way I could oppose it. But on second, third, and fourth thought, I have some doubts.

The technology is called carbon sequestration. It takes carbon dioxide as it is spewed out by a human enterprise (such as a coal-fired power plant) and buries it deep underground or in the ocean. Carbon dioxide accounts for two-thirds of the greenhouse gases our economy emits. If we could put it somewhere other than the atmosphere and keep it there, we could burn fossil fuel without crazing the climate.

We know carbon sequestration can work, because in some places it already does. Natural gas tends to come out of the ground mixed with carbon dioxide, which is usually stripped out at the well and released into the air. But at operations where both gas and oil are produced, the carbon dioxide is often injected back into the well, where it helps push up more oil. This practice pays for itself in enhanced oil recovery. In the United States it sequesters 43 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. That sounds like a lot, but it's less than 1 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

The Sleipner gas field off the shore of Norway is the only one in the world that sends carbon dioxide underground not to bring up more oil, but purely to protect the climate. About one million tons of carbon dioxide per year -- three percent of Norway's total emissions -- go into a sandstone bed 3,000 feet below the sea floor. This venture makes economic sense only because Norway imposes an emission tax of $50 per ton of carbon dioxide. It is far cheaper for Sleipner to bury the stuff than to pay that tax.

If we all were as sensible as the Norwegians, there would be a carbon tax everywhere, carbon sequestration would be economic, and the human-induced greenhouse effect would be slowed. I fervently hope that happens. What worries me is the possibility that that will be the end of the story, that we will relax, thinking we've found a magic bullet that lets us go on driving gas-guzzling SUVs to our hearts' delight.

Bullets only work when there's a single target, one problem, one neat cause, one effect. In this case we have at least two problems, energy and climate, and many causes and effects. Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent climate-changing gas, but not the only one. Climate change is a major side effect of fossil fuel burning, but not the only one. We can't begin to sequester every carbon dioxide molecule coming from burning coal, oil, and gas, but even if we could, we would still have oil spills, acid rain, urban smog, messed up aquifers, strip mines, Middle East security worries, depletion, and all the other headaches associated with nonrenewable, unevenly located, sloppy fossil fuels.

The good is the enemy of the best. Carbon sequestration is only good. The best energy technologies are those that give us light, heat, or motion using much less energy. High-mileage cars. Insulation. Efficient light bulbs and appliances. These innovations don't alleviate just one bad effect, they alleviate them all by reducing (potentially by at least 90 percent) fuel use itself.

Next best, especially after we've reduced energy use through efficiency, are technologies that tap renewable sources. Solar. Wind. Hydro. Hydrogen. Not completely benign by any means, but much more so than the options farther down the list.

Next would be natural gas, especially if combined with carbon sequestration, which does not need to take place in deep earth or deep water. Reforestation and composting store carbon in trees and soil. These forms of sequestration do more than hide carbon dioxide; they also hold water, moderate climate, provide habitat for living things, fertilize soil, look beautiful, and cost little. And can be done by anyone.

If we work our way down this list of preferences, we need never come to oil, coal, or nuclear power.

If there's any magic bullet available to us, it's economic, not technical. It would require us all to be a little smarter than the Norwegians. We'd put a tax not on carbon emission at the end of the pipeline, but on energy production where the pipe begins. The tax would be proportional to the real cost of environmental damage. Zero for energy efficiency. Small for renewables. More for natural gas with biological carbon sequestration (trees and compost); still more for the deep sequestration described in the Scientific American article; and more yet if there is no sequestration. Highest of all for oil, coal, and nuclear.

That may look like a tax, and it could substitute for other taxes, but it really is a fix of a market fault. It takes very real costs, which someone has to pay somewhere sometime -- the cost of climate change, air pollution, acid rain -- and puts those costs into the price of energy where they belong. Polluters pay. Carbon sequestration becomes economic everywhere, as does solar power, and above all energy efficiency. SUVs get 100 miles a gallon or run on hydrogen or both.

A magic bullet in the economy helps all the technological bullets zero in on all the right targets.

- - - - - - - - -

Donella H. Meadows is director of the Sustainability Institute and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.

-- (First=Last@Last.=First), February 29, 2000.

trees near Peacham, Vermont Christopher Alexander argued in his 1977 classic A Pattern Language for countries of no more than a few million people:
"It is not hard to see why the government of a region becomes less and less manageable with size. In a population of N persons, there are of the order of N^2 person-to-person links needed to keep channels of communication open. Naturally, when N goes beyond a certain limit, the channels of communication needed for democracy and justice and information are simply too clogged, and too complex; bureaucracy overwhelms human process. ...

"We believe the limits are reached when the population of a region reaches some 2 to 10 million. Beyond this size, people become remote from the large-scale processes of government. Our estimate may seem extraordinary in the light of modern history: the nation-states have grown mightily and their governments hold power over tens of millions, sometimes hundreds of millions, of people. But these huge powers cannot claim to have a natural size. They cannot claim to have struck the balance between the needs of towns and communities, and the needs of the world community as a whole. Indeed, their tendency has been to override local needs and repress local culture, and at the same time aggrandize themselves to the point where they are out of reach, their power barely conceivable to the average citizen."

The United States is 100 times larger than Alexander thought prudent and indeed most people feel like inhabitants rather than citizens participating in decision-making. ...

-- scott (, March 02, 2000.
I've always looked at the petroleum shortage as a man made collaberation by those who have it. Business conglomerates like stability. The simple idea of running out of a commodity, even oil, would not sit well with them. All of the oil companies boast how much they spend on research and development and exploration. It would be inconseviable to believe that they are just now realizing that their main commodity is dwindling away without planning for that eventuality.

It is no secret that the Germans developed a synthetic fuel for their vehicles during World War II. Several books and movies have used this theme as a main idea.

Significant research has also been done in the area of turbine engineering to replace the internal combustion engine with a turbine engine. However economics play a major part in these decisions. Vovlo created a ceramic turbine engine in the late 1970's that had 44 moving parts. During testing it ran for more than a thousand hours straight without breaking down, overheating or experiencing a failure. (According to an article in Popular Science or Mechanics Illustrated-soory I'm old and can't remember like I used to).

In the 1960's Chrysler experimented with several turbine powered cars and racing cars. They worked and worked well. When the oil crises of the 70's took hold, I searched for years for one of those cars. The point being that other fuels can be used with other engines to replace the engines and fuels we use today. However, the infrastructure supporting these engines contribute so much to the economy that change will not come without a serious fight.

For instance, I don't know how many parts are used to build an internal combustion engine, but I bet it's more than 44.

Personally I think the turbine will eventually replace the internal combustion engine because of simplicity, and the cost of the fuel. A turbine can burn fermented water, or any alcohol based fuel. Naturally, the petroleum conglomerates hate this.

Using fossile based fuels is easy. Change will come when it becomes inconvenient to use them.

Marcus J.

-- Marcus J. Wilson (, February 29, 2000.

Perhaps I'm in the "bacteria in the sugar dieoff" camp. imho, whether we use turbine cars, steam cars, solar cars, or whatever is moot.

Just like some bacteria, humans exude toxic byproducts. We humans are not taking remedial action, perhaps none is possible with many of the toxics.

Running out of petrolium is one of the lesser of our collective worries.

It is my view that our apparent inability to collectively deal with "environmental strain problems" is rooted within the organism. We react to nearby horizon threats, not to far horizon threats. We are unable to sustain reaction to either for any long duration, in fact, the sustainability is of approximate duration of nearby horizon threats.

Our wetware isn't designed to deal with the long term threats of our own toxics byproducts. Paradoxically, if a long term threat is perceived I suggest that the wetware actually makes the situation worse by increasing birthrates.


-- mitchell barnes (, March 02, 2000.

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