In 1956 Dr. Martin King Hubbert predicted that oil output in the USA would peak by 1970 after which it would go into a steady decline. He was treated with disdain for suggesting such an inconvenient thing, but history has proven him right. In the 1990’s Dr. Colin Campbell, then working on the PetroConsultants database in Switzerland, became alarmed by what he considered as inflated and politicized figures for global oil reserves and in response helped establish ASPO to warn the world of the danger ahead (2), and what lies ahead is PEAKOIL - we are running out of oil.

If his estimates are correct, then at current rates of extraction we would have about 30 years left before most wells run dry, however demand is increasing as emerging economies continue to adopt our oil driven lifestyle (3).


Car Energy Use - Peak Oil

 

So do we have only 30 years left to switch from oil and can we possibly adjust within 30 years ? Perhaps it all depends on when we start. However, it is not just fuel, - what about fertilisers, plastics and chemicals. How do we replace the indispensable burger boxes, coke bottles, and plastic toys we get in McDonnell’s !.

The Oil companies are among the most powerful corporations on the planet with a combined turnover that dwarfs most nations. There’s a vast amount of money involved and replacements for a liquid fuel are now stepping up to the line, 

How about Biodiesel ?, George Mondbiot reports that if the UK auto fleet was powered by biodiesel it would require four times more arable land then exists in the UK (4). Biodiesel has a problem, its land take is just too much. But there are other biodiesel options, new Hampshire university suggests that growing algae in shallow ponds could produce all the biodiesel we need - using 12% of the Sonora desert in the southwest USA would supply all the oil needed for US transportation (5). Perhaps it is true...

But the promised fuel is “hydrogen”. Hydrogen is not really a fuel, effectively it is just a way to store energy. you need energy to make hydrogen. Where will the energy to make hydrogen come from - wind ?, solar ?, wave ?. The energy is unlikely to come from renewables because the balance of power doesn't usually work that way, but that's another story.The most likely source is nuclear, oil shale or coal. 57% of Americas electricity comes from coal, in effect if America moved to hydrogen today it would have a national automobile fleet powered by coal. When you look at it this way, hydrogen doesn't look so clean. King coal is dirty but the technology exists today to drive steam through coal seams deep under ground, lift the carbon and hydrogen and then drive most of the carbon back underground keeping the hydrogen (6). Perhaps the restriction is not so much where the energy comes from but the environments’ ability to absorb the toxins created.

 

Car Energy Use - Peak Oil

Looking down the stairs to the entrance of the Chernobyl Museum Each sign represents one town that no longer exists due to the explosion - Photo; Elmada, Creative Commons, flicker.com.

 

So where does all this fuel go - 57% of global oil output is used by ground transport of which about half is used by the private car (1) .... And as ever we can trust the car to impress, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.

88% of the energy used by the car is lost in heat and friction with only the remaining 12% used to move the car (7) - you often hear it said that the car is 12% efficient - but that’s not really true,

The car itself weighs about twenty times more than the passengers so a further 11.4% of the energy is actually used to move the weight of the car not the person inside it (8) - You can get an idea of the energy lost in pulling around a ton of steel this way - imagine climbing to the top of the Eiffel tower all 321 Meters of it and then dropping a rope to the ground which someone below ties to your car - now try pulling the car to the top (9).

So a full 99.4% of the energy used by the car is lost in heat or moving around over a tonne of steel, the car is about 0.6% efficient - which seems a strange use of the word efficient !

In practice 99% of the oil rigs, 99% of the shipping, 99% of the oil wars - dedicated to supplying fual to the private car is lost.

But it gets worse, now we have to factor in the energy used during the cars construction and recycling (10), plus the energy used on car parking, clover leaf junctions, lube joints, lighting systems, motorways, etc. Plus the replacement tyres, batteries, windscreens and all the other junk that follows the automobile culture - the car simply eats energy. To the nearest percentage point the car is probably zero percent efficient.

 

Car Energy Use - Peak Oil

Photo; Grant Neufeld, Creative Commons, Flicker.com.

 

But to really understand the cars appetite for energy we need to understand “induced” mileage, the automobile creates distance and then offers itself as the answer to the distance it creates. The mileage driven by the private car has increased 500% in the UK since 1960 (11).

There was no shortage of driving in the 1960’s so can we honestly say that our quality of life has risen 500% because of this extra mileage & if this mileage wasn’t essential in 1960 how are we supposed to believe it is essential today ! Does it follow that the more time we spend clinging to the steering wheel the better our lives are or could it be the other way around - that the more time we spend behind the wheel the less time there is to spend with family and community.

We each know examples of this crazy build up of mileage. In a telling example a friend once told me that his baby had been crying, so in response he strapped the child into the back seat of his car and drove around in circles for an hour and a half, because “the movement stopped the baby from crying” - some people have become so badly addicted to the car that when a baby cries there immediate reaction is to reach for the car keys and drive around in circles.

Global warming and exhausting oil supplies give us an urgent opportunity to reconsider the way we use natural resources and also natures ability to absorb the toxins produced. Tinkering with average mpg is about as useful as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The problems are far more fundamental than that. 


Car Energy Use - Peak Oil

Drying tapioca beside a gas flare in Nigeria, Photo; George Osodi, Creative Commons, Flicker.org

Car Energy Use - Peak Oil

Poverty & Danger on the streets of india. Photo; Roochster. Creative Commons, Flicker.org 

It took more than 10,000 generations for the worlds population to reach 2 billion. In the course of a single lifetime - ours - it will hit 9 billion. We are witnessing an unprecedented and massive collision between our civilisation and the earth (12). Sixty years ago the worlds population stood at 2.5 billion of which 20% were malnunourished, today that population has grown to 6.5 billion of which of which 57 percent are malnourished (13). This exploding population is flooding into the worlds cities. The worlds urban population will grow by two billion in the next 20 years (14).

The private automobiles use of energy, resources, and land is incompatible with an exploding population; anyone who believes we can avoid these fundamental questions by producing a slightly cleaner or more fuel efficient car does not really understand the environmental challenge that faces us.