The treacherous traverse of Hubbert’s Peak
Posted on Sunday, March 25th, 2007

By David Strahan. Published as ‘Climate Criminals’ in Summit, Spring 2007.

Mountaineers are a special class of climate criminal. We clearly have a particular moral duty to protect the icy landscapes we enjoy, and most of us like to think of ourselves as environmentally responsible. But the reality is rather different. When it comes to flying, just like the hordes heading off to the beaches of Magalouf, we remain in stubborn denial about the damage our emissions cause, and carry on regardless.

In a three page article for the Independent entitled ‘The Melting Mountains’, Joe Simpson bemoaned the destruction of classic routes in the Alps from melting ice and massive rockfalls, without a single mention of his own airmiles, still less the helicopter fuel used to haul him off the Dru. At a meeting of the Alpine Club last summer, one speaker regaled us with stories from a lifetime of expeditions and slides showing evidence of glacial retreat, without once making the connection. Ed Douglas reports being canvassed about a plan to climb the Seven Summits by a couple of teenagers who apparently had yet to develop a sense of irony. Their campaign – involving at least seven round trip long haul flights – was intended to raise money for an environmental group called Leave No Trace.

There is of course scant chance that climbers will forego their flights voluntarily, but it is now becoming increasingly clear that soon this will cease to be a matter of choice. The fleeting age of the jet-setting bag rat is about to come to an end, not primarily because of climate change, but because of its stealthy companion oil depletion. Topping out on far-flung hills courtesy of BA or Easyjet will soon be consigned to history because of one apparently insurmountable problem: the peak of global oil production, known in the industry as peak oil or Hubbert’s Peak. These terms are not immediately self-explanatory, but should perhaps be more suggestive to climbers than anyone else. As every ascentionist knows, when you reach the top, there’s only one way to go.

M. King Hubbert was an irascible but brilliant Shell geologist who in 1956 stunned the oil industry by predicting that US oil production would ‘peak’ and go into terminal decline – in either 1965 or 1970, depending on which of two industry estimates of ultimate US oil reserves he employed (figure 1). At the time he made the forecast US production was still rising strongly, and the idea that it might soon start to fall was considered outlandish, so the perennially optimistic oil industry laughed Hubbert to scorn. But he was right: US oil production peaked in 1970, right on schedule, even though half the oil that would ever be produced there was still underground.

Figure 1: Hubbert’s famous 1956 graph predicting that US oil production would start to fall in either 1965 or 1970, when only half the oil had been consumed. The peak arrived, right on schedule, in 1970. The peak in global oil production is widely expected between 2010 and 2020.

Hubbert’s great insight was that oil production in a given region does not ‘run out’ in the way that a car suddenly runs out of petrol, but ‘peaks’ long before the end of the resource has been reached. This is the result of two critical oil industry facts of life. First, oil is mostly found in deeply buried and highly pressurised reservoirs, and it is this pressure that drives the oil up the well to the surface. But as the oil is produced the pressure falls, meaning the oil comes out ever more slowly as time goes on. Second, in the normal course of events oil men look for, discover, and exploit the largest oil fields first, for obvious reasons. This means that as production declines in the biggest fields, increasingly the industry has to scrabble around to make up the loss with smaller and smaller fields. Like the Red Queen oil men have to run flat out just to stand still. Eventually, when about half the oil has been produced, the overall rate of production starts to fall. That’s the third oil industry fact of life, so get used to it.

Oil production is now falling in 60 countries around the world – including once mighty producers such as Mexico, Norway, Indonesia, Columbia, Argentina and the UK, where North Sea production peaked in 1999 and has already fallen by more than a third. The only question is when global oil production will follow the same pattern and go into terminal decline. Most sensible forecasts range from about 2010 to 2020, although if the deranged ideologues in Washington or Tel Aviv attack Iran, the crisis will break far sooner. The British government’s official position is that the peak will not come until after 2030, but as I show in The Last Oil Shock, the oil resource estimates on which this assertion is based are demonstrably over-inflated. Meanwhile, two of Tony Blair’s closest advisors – Sir David Manning, his key foreign policy advisor during the preparations to invade Iraq, and Sir David King, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor – believe that global oil production will peak in a decade or less.

On the graph Hubbert’s Peak may not look too challenging a summit, but the relatively sudden reversal from oil production growth to contraction is likely to produce a potentially devastating crisis, because clean alternative fuels will not remotely fill the yawning supply deficit even for road transport, let alone in the air. For instance, figures from the International Energy Agency show that if Britain used all its arable land to grow biodiesel, we could produce only a quarter of our current road fuel consumption – and of course we’d starve. Alternatively, I calculate that if we decided to run Britain’s road transport system on hydrogen created ‘cleanly’ (that is, by electrolysing water using non-CO2 emitting forms of electricity), our choices would be: 67 Sizewell B nuclear power stations; a solar array covering every inch of North Yorkshire; or a wind farm bigger than the entire south west region of England. In the absence of viable replacement fuels, when global oil production stalls, the price of a barrel is likely to soar to unprecedented levels and push the world into deep recession or worse. That’s why I called it The Last Oil Shock.

The global aviation industry consumes only about 1/8th as much fuel as road transport, but in some ways the problems of replacing jet kerosene are even more intractable. As well as the resource constraints already discussed, there are serious technical obstacles to using clean alternatives in the air. Jet engines could fairly easily be adapted to run on hydrogen, but airframes would have to be completely redesigned to accommodate far bigger fuel tanks. The most likely designs would be of the ‘flying wing’ type, but these are decades away from realization. And biofuels – even if you had enough land – are no use to airlines, since they turn viscous at the low temperatures encountered at altitude, potentially clogging the engines. According to Bob Saynor, a researcher at Imperial College who wrote a paper investigating alternative jet fuels , “In the short to medium term we don’t have realistic and economically viable options”.

As a result, when oil production peaks the consequences will be particularly severe for the aviation industry, which has in any case lost more money since the turn of the century than it has ever made in its entire history. Airlines will drop like flies, and aviation will once again become the exclusive preserve of the rich, if it survives in a meaningful form at all.

Synthetic jet kerosene could be made from natural gas or coal – not in immediate danger of running short – using the Fischer Tropsch process exploited by the Nazis in WWII. However the technology is phenomenally expensive, and the process itself consumes so much energy that the fuels it produces generate up to twice the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional fuels. If coal-to-liquids technology were widely exploited, running out of oil could paradoxically make climate change worse, and this would only accelerate the introduction of climate change policies which will eventually have much the same effect on discretionary air travel as a shortage of fuel.

Personal carbon trading is a system of rationing in which every person’s right to emit carbon (or consume fossil energy, which amounts to the same thing) is steadily reduced every year. It would help combat both climate change and oil depletion, and
has already been discussed at the highest levels of the British government; Environment Secretary David Miliband, tipped to run a new Department of Environment and Energy under Gordon Brown, is enthusiastic. For the Tories, Oliver Letwin is said to be an ‘anorak’ on the subject. It would of course be politically explosive, but it is beginning to look as if this is the only way meaningful cuts in emissions can be achieved. The idea has moved quickly – if quietly – up the political agenda, and could be introduced far sooner than anyone expects. Done properly, this would also eliminate mass air travel in fairly short order.

If Britain is to achieve its target of cutting CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050, then every person will have to reduce their total annual emissions from an average of about 10 tonnes of CO2 now to just 4 tonnes by the middle of the century. Including the effects of radiative forcing, 4 tonnes is roughly equivalent to one round trip flight between London and Kathmandu, even using traditional jet kerosene, and even if you could fly direct. But if you took that flight in 2050, you would then have no ration left over to cover ground transport or home heat and power for the entire year.

So what should climbers do? The cynical response would be to fly as far and as often as possible to bag all those peaks you dream of climbing before the crisis hits or personal carbon trading really begins to bite. But that would be to corrupt the traditional justification for climbing – ‘because it’s there’ – into one that is utterly selfish and self-fulfilling: ‘because it soon won’t be’. The only responsible and sensible approach is to prepare for the last oil shock by starting to reduce your energy consumption right away, and working out what climbing opportunities remain achievable within a contracting energy budget.

Whether due to oil shortage or rationing, I suspect some kinds of travel behaviour will be eliminated almost overnight: jetting off to Banff, as I once did, with half a hundred weight of ironmongery in the belly of the plane for a single week’s ice-climbing; or belting up the motorway from London to the Highlands just for the weekend. But there will still be plenty of opportunities, especially in the early years, provided the fuel reduction is caused progressively tightening carbon rations, rather than a paralysing oil shock. The Alps will still be in reach by train or coach, although probably less frequently as time goes on. At home, personal carbon trading will encourage car-sharing: a trip to North Wales might not be so prohibitive with four ration-holders in the car.

Since personal carbon trading will cover all your fossil energy consumption, extreme conservation around the house might allow you to save rations towards the trips you are still desperate to make. For The Last Oil Shock I worked out that if I left my TV, hi-fi, computer and other gadgets on standby for a year, the electricity wasted would be enough to drive an electric car over 2,800 miles. That’s enough to cover two round trips between London to Chamonix and another up to Hathersage and back. I wouldn’t recommend trying it in a tiny G-Wiz mind you, but you get the drift.

Some climbing professionals are already preparing for these developments. Phil Coates, an International Mountain Leader and cameraman who runs, has led 25 expeditions to the greater ranges in the past 15 years but now plans to refocus his business almost exclusively on Europe. He reckons that soaring jet fuel prices will soon force climbers to take fewer trips and concentrate on hills closer to home – in the Alps and the new eastern members of the EU such as Poland and Bulgaria – and to get there by train. “You’ll still be able to get your mountain fix in Europe”, he says, “but it’s a no-brainer that the days of long haul mountaineering are numbered”.

But the greater ranges may not be entirely out of reach, if you’re tough enough to follow the example of the late Goran Kropp who in 1996 cycled from Sweden to Nepal carrying all his equipment, climbed Everest, and pedalled home again. When I first heard this story I dismissed it as another crazy stunt in a world with too few genuine challenges left. Today I believe he is the only climber ever to have summited that peak in good style: without supplemental oxygen or hydrocarbons. Climbers should embrace this new ethic voluntarily for the sake of the ice. But even if we fail, it will soon be enforced, one way or another.

4 Comments on “The treacherous traverse of Hubbert’s Peak”

Mr. D. Narveson Says:
April 1st, 2007 at 7:39 pm

I just read (4/1/07) your BBC viewpoint article on peak oil, climate change, and economy, and came to your site to learn more. Thanks for your investigations, for letting us know this important information, and for outlining helpful responses.
D. Narveson – Iowa/ USA

Hugh Sharman Says:
May 22nd, 2007 at 9:29 am

I have just read your quite excellent article in the current issue of Prospect Magazine. I have been a “peak oiler” since working offshore Saudi Arabia in 1964 and have more or less built my career on “trying to do something about it”.

That has been difficult. A renewable energy company I formed in the 1970s went bankrupt, mostly due to my managerial incompetence but also because it was quite impossible for the primitive renewable technologies we were trying to market to compete with fossil fuels.

I still totally agree with you that no renewable energy source can begin to fill the gap left behind by depleting conventional oil and gas. A point well understood these days by my friends at OPEC and certainly by President Putin.

Thus, I fear, there really will be resource wars restrained paradoxically but hopefully by the lack of fuel with which to wage them!

We probably only disagree on the imminence of man-caused global warming. In my view, the galloping economic catastrophe that will be caused by peak oil will be so great as to cause the breakdown of normal society and its ability to invest.

Because (I feel) I have little new to learn about peak oil, I am normally resistive to purchasing and reading new books on the subject. I will make an exception in the case of your book because you make your point so exceptionally fluently.

Hugh Sharman

Erik Neumann Says:
August 22nd, 2007 at 6:07 am

I’m a climber of many years, and am somewhat ashamed of all the miles I’ve driven in an SUV to crags around the Western US. I still love climbing, but since becoming (painfully) peak oil aware a year ago, I now mostly get my fix biking to the local rock gym.

I now tend to look at all the outdoor sports as a rather silly, selfish endeavour. (The magazines with their endless ads for more consumption of gear, autos and travel make me ill to look at now). True, there is a heroic and spiritual personal side to climbing. But that’s only if you ignore the damage we have been doing, loving the mountains to death.

To me, a much greater challenge than climbing mountains is to try to find a way of living in harmony with nature. Instead of just visiting wild places during our brief vacations from our industrial jobs that contribute to the environmental (and social) destruction we see accelerating all around us.

To that end, I salute people such as David Holmgren, co-founder of the Permaculture concept. Or the Amish people in America. My ideal of true adventure is now something like creating an eco-farm, taking care of a piece of land, restoring the natural life that once lived there, and finding a “yield” (fruits, veggies, etc) that we can ourselves live from.

Sort of a “biosphere without the sphere”. Now, there’s a challenge far greater than climbing Everest or the latest 5.15 sport route.

Eduardo Says:
May 9th, 2012 at 11:27 pm

Better get a move on if I’m to do my 100 8a routes before I die. Peak oil already happened, Peak coal possibly arround 2025. Main stream media, politicians and general puplic in the dark about the problem. Boy will they will get a shock soon. When the developed world fails to grow again and the developing world growth falters in the next few years people may twig on to fact that sometime is up. Anyway 81 and counting.

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