Experts Discuss a Future Beyond Oil

More than 200 scientists, policymakers, non-profit leaders, and concerned citizens convened in Washington, D.C. from May 7–9 to discuss the consequences of “peak oil” production, the point when the maximum amount of oil that can be extracted from the Earth is reached. The conference, titled “Peak Oil and the Environment,” was hosted by the University of Maryland’s Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology program and included 21 presenters from a variety of backgrounds, including James Hansen, Director of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies, environmental writer Bill McKibben, and Montana governor Brian Schweitzer. Discussion centered on both the challenges and opportunities of a post-peak oil era, which many experts agree will occur within the next 20 years, signaling the beginning of the end for the oil-based economy.

Some experts pointed to the importance of careful planning for the post-peak era. NASA’s  James Hansen recalled the success of worldwide efforts in the 1980s and 90s to halt the production and use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), as proof that public outcry on an environmental issue can lead to effective results. According to Hansen, with even a moderate 30 percent increase in transportation energy efficiency, a leveling-off and eventual decline of emissions is feasible. The global climate could then remain within 1 degree Celsius of the current temperature, a level records show is unlikely to have cataclysmic effects. If, however, the climate changes by 5 or 6 degrees Celsius, a 50–90 percent extinction rate can be expected, said Hansen.

Participant Lester Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, emphasized the need to restructure the entire global economy, noting that the current trajectory cannot be sustained as the populations of China and India continue to expand. Writer Bill McKibben, meanwhile, was one of many contributors advocating for seemingly small changes that can have big effects, such as urban agriculture efforts and increased use of bicycles. And Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer proclaimed that, “alternative energy is good business,” explaining that in areas of Montana, coal-powered electricity is $3 more expensive per megawatt than wind-generated electricity.

Participants also discussed alternatives to oil such as solar power, hydropower, biofuels, coal, and nuclear energy. Although certain suggestions created controversy, there was general consensus that a combination of conservation, increased efficiency, and alternative energy sources will be necessary to effectively manage an economy beyond oil’s peak.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.