Surfing the ultimate peak
Posted on Saturday, December 1st, 2007

First published in Surfer’s Path, November 2007

The two longboards jammed between the hull and the wheel-house seem oddly superfluous. Two miles out in the bay, and sheltered from the choppy Gulf of Mexico by the sandbar of Galveston, the murky green water slaps gently against the hull of our tiny Boston whaler, glinting in the early morning sun. On the face of it the chances of a wave are minimal. But we don’t have long to wait, not only for a remarkable ride, but also the powerful image I’m looking for that illustrates the utter dependence of modern-day surfing on crude oil, and the vulnerability of the lifestyle now that supplies are about to run short.

The surfers who brought me here are even more oil-dependent than most. For James Fulbright, a Galveston-based board shaper and film maker, and his lifelong friends Peter Davis and John Benson, petroleum is fundamental to their grand obsession, a type of wave that can only be found at secret spots way off-shore in the shoals that surround the Houston ship channel.

John scans the horizon with heavy yellow binoculars, and finally spots what we’ve been waiting for: “Here comes the motherlode”, he drawls, “snub nosed and low in the water!” A heavily laden oil tanker has just rounded the point and is steaming fast in our direction. Quickly they slip into a well-rehearsed routine. John takes the wheel, while the other two toss the surfboards over the side and dive in after them. As the 800 foot carrier Isabella draws level, the swell generated by her 105,000 deadweight tonnes hits the shallows and rears up to create a shoulder-high wave, and moments later Peter and James are on their feet. And unlike the beach – where rides are usually measured in seconds – here they’re still surfing two miles, and ten minutes later, as the tanker wave just keeps rolling over the shoals. Their all-time record is 4 ½ nautical miles in 22 ½ minutes. “It’s a real leg cramper”, James tells me afterwards, “you’re totally spent physically and mentally. It’s insane!”

Tanker surfing in Galveston Bay. ©David Strahan.

The Galveston crew may be unique in owing their ride to the momentum of tens of thousands of tonnes of oil – albeit delivered through displaced seawater – but for me the image of a surfer chasing a tanker illustrates perfectly the oil-dependence of the sport as a whole. It is the definition of a free ride.

The carrier leaves us behind, steaming up channel towards the biggest concentration of refineries anywhere in the world, delivering the key feedstock to a petrochemical industry that provides all the materials on which the sport relies: polyurethane and polystyrene blanks, plastic fins and leashes, nylon boardies, neoprene wetsuits, not to mention sunglasses, sunblock, flip-flops, cameras and lenses. Almost all the stuff of modern surfing is made of molecules from some deep underground reservoir, raising profound questions about the future of the sport once the oil supply starts to fail.

The tanker is also heading, ironically, towards the birthplace of the theory that should help predict when that will happen. Forty miles inland and half century ago, at the Shell Research Laboratory in Houston, an irascible but brilliant Texan geologist named M. King Hubbert founded the school of thought now known as ‘peak oil’. (The ‘M’ stood for Marion, by the way. What was his mother thinking?)

In 1956 Hubbert stunned the oil industry by predicting that annual US oil production would reach a peak and then go into terminal decline – in either 1965 or 1970 (see graph). At the time he made the forecast US oil output was still rising strongly, and the idea that it might soon start to fall was considered outlandish, so the ever-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. Since then US oil production has slumped from about 11 million barrels per day to less than 7 mb/d in 2006.

Hubbert’s famous 1956 graph predicting that US oil production would start to fall in either 1965 or 1970, when around half the oil had been consumed. The peak arrived, right on schedule, in 1970. As a wave it doesn’t look too gnarly, but global peak oil – expected some time between now and 2020 – may feel like wiping out at Mavericks. Source: American Petroleum Institute.

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 hs been reached. That’s because of two fundamental facts of oil industry life. First, oil is mostly found in deeply buried and highly pressurised reservoirs, and it’s the pressure that forces the oil up the pipe. So 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 find 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 ever smaller fields. Taken together these factors mean that when about half the oil has been produced in any given country, the overall rate of production starts to fall. That’s the third oil industry fact of life, so get used to it.

The only question now is when global oil production will reach the same point, and increasingly the evidence suggests sooner rather than later. There are only 98 oil producing countries in the world, and output is already falling in about 60 of them – including once mighty producers such as Mexico, Norway, Indonesia, Columbia, Argentina and the UK, where North Sea production peaked in 1999 and has already dropped by well over 40%. Oil output in the Organization of Economic Cooperation Development – the rich nations’ club – has been falling since 1997. And production in the entire world except for OPEC is widely expected to peak by around 2010. Most sensible forecasts for the date of the global peak range from about then to 2020 – although some experts believe it may be happening right now.

To the surfer’s eye, the drop from Hubbert’s peak on the graph may not look too gnarly, but the relatively sudden reversal from global oil production growth to contraction is likely to produce a potentially devastating economic crisis, with soaring oil prices followed by deep recession. For a surf industry based on hydrocarbons in general and petrochemicals in particular, peak oil could still come to feel like taking a beating at Mavericks.

One reason the crisis will be so severe is that oil supplies 95% of all transport energy, and the so-called ‘alternative’ fuels that are widely touted as solutions to climate change will be inadequate to replace it. As I report in The Last Oil Shock, if America diverted all of its massive corn crop into bio-ethanol, it would supply just 12% of its current petrol consumption. In Britain, to run the road transport network on cleanly generated hydrogen would require 67 Sizewell B nuclear power stations (we currently have the equivalent of ten), or a wind farm covering all of South West England – six entire counties. So peak oil will mean a real and growing fuel shortage with the potential to paralyse economies, and we may all soon be kissing our car keys goodbye.

The effects on the supply of industrial materials will be scarcely less dramatic. Concerns about climate change and the environment generally have already spurred some welcome efforts to reduce the reliance of surfboard manufacturing on polyurethane, and diversify into more environmentally friendly and renewable materials. The impact of the closure of Clark Foam has given added impetus. But it is important to understand these developments in the context of peak oil.

A good example is the ‘ecoboard’ concept being developed and promoted by Chris Hines, a founder member of Surfers Against Sewage and now Sustainability Director at the Eden Project – the futuristic botanical garden and environmental education centre at St Austell in Cornwall. “Surfboards used to be made entirely of natural materials rather than horrible lumps of petrochemicals”, says Hines, “and we want to go full circle back to that.” Unfortunately it seems that the limitations of chemistry and natural resources are likely to frustrate this worthy ambition.

The ecoboard idea was born when a balsa tree at the Eden Project had to be felled and Hines used the timber to make a number of cores, which were then laminated with hemp and castor oil resin, to create boards made entirely from natural materials. This produced a decent longboard, but the shortboard was disappointing: “It was pig-heavy and would never have sold commercially”, Hines admits. So the ecoboard went back to the drawing board.

Working with a small group of suppliers and contract board makers, Hines came up with a new model ecoboard that is more of a compromise between the environment and performance. The resin, produced from linseed oil by Sustainable Composites at Redruth in Cornwall, is still almost wholly (96%) renewable, but the hemp has been ditched in favour of fibreglass once again. The balsa core has been replaced with a ‘Biofoam’ blank from Homeblown in nearby Portreath, made from about 60% petrochemical feedstock with the rest coming from renewable sources, most of which (29.5%) is soya oil. That’s about the highest proportion that can be achieved with polyurethane chemistry while maintaining the quality of the foam at the moment, although Homeblown’s managing director Tris Cokes hopes to be able to raise the level of soya oil to 40% eventually. Norman Foster, Cokes’ opposite number at Sustainable Composites, is convinced that further advances will be made in foam chemistry, but reckons the total renewable content of a surfboard is unlikely ever to exceed 55% by weight.

The new formula may be only partially green, but its performance is already winning the approval of pro-surfers. The board was launched at the Boardmasters meeting in Newquay in August, where tag teams for Fosters and Ripcurl fought it out on identical 6-foot boards, and Nathan Hedge for one was impressed: “I really enjoyed riding the eco boards. I found them to be bouyant and fast”, said the winner of this year’s O’Neill Highland Open. “It felt great to be riding a board that is actually great for the environment and our future.”

The ecoboard is of course an encouraging development, but even if it were ever possible to produce a high-performance board entirely from renewable materials, it could never insulate surfing from the effects of oil depletion. The problem is that after the peak there will be intense competition not only for the remaining oil, but also for any natural resources that might fill at least some of the shortfall created by oil depletion. And it won’t just be the surf industry that’s desperate to get its hands on them. Again, as I report in The Last Oil Shock, if America had to produce all of its plastics from agricultural resources, that alone would consume 40% of its biggest crop (corn), or 27% of its top three crops: corn, wheat and soya. And it’s not as if there is any to spare: according to the Worldwatch Institute global grain production has failed to match consumption in 6 out of the last 7 years, so the world is eating into emergency stocks. Peak oil means the world is shaping up for a three way fight between food, fuel and industrial materials over obviously inadequate agricultural resources, in which surfboards – and all the other surfing paraphernalia – are unlikely to be a high priority.

But perhaps the biggest blow to modern surfing life will be in aviation. The global airline 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. 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 not yet any 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”.

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 Germany in WWII, and which the US Airforce hopes will provide 70% of its jet fuel by 2025. However the technology is 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. So running out of oil could paradoxically make climate change worse, and this would only accelerate the introduction of policies – taxes, rationing – which could eventually have much the same effect on discretionary air travel as a shortage of fuel. One way or another the days of the long-haul surf-yuppy with a copy of the World Stormrider Guide tucked into his hand luggage would seem to be numbered.

So what’s a surfer to do? The cynical response would be to jump on a plane and bag all those peaks you’ve ever dreamed of surfing before the crisis hits. But that would contribute to even greater aviation emissions. Assuming you care about global warming and want to cut your carbon footprint as well as prepare yourself for life after peak oil, there are a number of changes you can make that will have at least some impact on both problems.

You could make your next board an ecoboard; it’s clearly not a ‘solution’ but it is a start. A handful of ecoboards made by Laminations and Escape in the UK are now available at shops in Cornwall, and Homeblown in the US have already supplied around 2,000 Biofoam blanks to shapers up and down the West coast. Even if you don’t opt for an ecoboard, says Chris Hines, you should at least make sure your board and its blank are produced in your own country. Transporting such products half way around the world is, he argues, “a form of madness”. In any event this trade may not survive peak oil, so supporting your local industry now makes good sense.

More important than the board you buy is the distance you travel to surf – a point made forcefully by Tris Cokes at Homeblown: “making a surfboard probably burns about 50 pounds of CO2, but jetting off to the Mentawai Islands probably burns 5 tonnes”. Of course nobody wants to give up the idea of surfing those far flung breaks, but Hines stresses that surfers – who generally consider themselves environmentally responsible – should at least travel less frequently and stay longer. “Going to Newquay or Biarritz for the weekend is not good. Going for a week or two is better”. Cokes advice is even sterner: “Stay at home and surf your local break…As long as it’s not mine.”

How you travel locally is also an issue. When peak oil brings soaring fuel prices it will no longer be remotely cool – or even possible – to hunt waves in a gas-guzzling SUV. Yet Hines sees a proliferation of “very silly small willy extenders” on the Cornish coast. “Perhaps you can justify it on safari in Mexico, but you don’t need it in Cornwall.” Now would seem to be a good time to trade in that 4×4 for the most efficient car you can lay your hands on.

And if by now you are terminally depressed, console yourself with the thought that at least you are not as oil dependent as some. The one thing about surfing that is infinitely renewable almost everywhere in the world is the waves – but not in Galveston Bay. At some point in the next few years the wait for rides out in the Houston ship channel looks set to get a whole lot longer.

2 Comments on “Surfing the ultimate peak”

got2surf Says:
December 3rd, 2007 at 10:06 pm

I have chosen not to breed. No child of mine will ever consume one gram of anything. It is BY FAR the single “best” thing ANYONE could do for the environment, or whatever you choose to call this issue.

But I’m supposed to forego pleasure in this life so some ignorant slob can have lots of kids?? Your kids take precedence over my life?? I can’t go to the Mentawai’s so other people’s kids can drive SUV’s, or electric golf carts, or whatever millions of tons of crap all these little darlings are going to consume in their lifetimes?

I have traveled the last several years, thinking they may be my last long flights ever. The oil crisis is coming, no doubt. We’ve squeaked thru for now, but not much longer. But there’s no way in hell I’m giving up the chance to enjoy this life all over this world, my one chance, so that millions of little brats can all get rides to school with Mommy in the SUV.

Think about it: If EVERYONE stopped breeding, over the next hundred years we could quietly and calmly shut down civilization, pile all our toxic crap in the deserts somewhere, and go out nicely. Who would lose? The unborn? I don’t think they’ll mind, really.

cruxrush Says:
January 15th, 2008 at 2:59 pm

Soul brother! got2surf, you rock! How exhilarating to see someone actually mentioning overpopulation. I too sport that good childless-by-choice halo, and I too am catching a plane soon, in my case to go climbing (over two months, like he says in the article!). If everybody would agree to stop flying, I’d stop too, to avoid cooking the planet. But as things stand, if I don’t get my snout in the trough, some other bastard will just take my place. And with almost everybody in total denial of the underlying cause of the problem (the aforementioned overpopulation), the situation is hopeless anyway.

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