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Getting over oil

A recovery model for our oil addiction
photo of a refinery with flames coming from towers in a barren landscape. the sky is darkened by the

The impending global peak in oil production is likely to lead to economic chaos and extreme geopolitical tensions, raising the specters of war, revolution, terrorism, and even famine, unless nations adopt some method of cooperatively reducing their reliance on oil. The Oil Depletion Protocol is one such method – perhaps the simplest imaginable. Under an Oil Depletion Protocol, nations would agree to reduce their oil production and imports according to a consistent, sensible formula. This would have two principal effects: first, it would reduce price volatility and enable nations, municipalities, industries, and companies to plan their economic future; and second, it would reduce international competition for remaining oil resources. As the draft language of the Protocol itself states:

  • The world and every nation shall aim to reduce oil consumption by at least the world depletion rate.
  • No country shall produce oil at above its present depletion rate.
  • No country shall import [oil] at above the world depletion rate.

The governments of Sweden and Iceland have taken the lead in establishing official goals of completely ending their nations’ petroleum dependence, and other nations such as Cuba have made important strides to reduce oil consumption. These efforts can be replicated or adapted by other nations – and in fact must be, if the world is to respond peacefully to the inevitable peaking of world oil production.

While a voluntary agreement to limit oil production and imports would offer the benefits of lower and more stable prices and the reduced likelihood of conflict over remaining supplies, it would also present an enormous challenge to the economies of participating countries. Of course, these will have to be faced in any case. Avoiding the economic challenge presented by the Protocol now will simply mean the acceptance of eventual calamity. Assuming that the former, clearly preferable course of action is chosen, how can nations adjust internally to using less oil? Most modern societies are overwhelmingly dependent on oil for transportation, agriculture, and other purposes. How can that dependence be voluntarily and systematically reduced?

The most obvious strategy to deal with diminishing oil will be replacement of petroleum with other fuels. There is unquestionable need for research and investment with regard to such fuels.

However, every one of the likely replacements has one or more serious drawbacks. All are currently very limited in quantity and will require considerable time and investment to achieve a scale of production equal to a substantial fraction of that of petroleum today, and all entail environmental costs of various kinds. Let us examine some of the possibilities.


Perhaps the biggest problem with substitutes for oil is that they are intended to replace something energy-dense and convenient to use. A single gallon of gasoline contains about 36 kilowatt-hours of energy. By way of comparison, a person working hard can exert, on average, roughly 100 watts of power. A gallon of gasoline is the energetic equivalent of several weeks of human labor.

Renewable biofuels such as ethanol, wood methanol, and biodiesel are well suited to running existing engines. The main drawback is their requirement for arable land for growing crops such as corn, sugar cane, or rapeseed, hence the inevitability of an eventual trade-off between food and fuel. A matter of some controversy is the energy payback from biofuels – that is, whether they require more energy for their production than they yield when burned in vehicle engines. Some studies show a net energy loss for ethanol production, while others indicate a net energy gain, at least for some crops.

There is an old saying, “The grain is for the farmer and the straw is for the land.” One cannot remove all of the production from a field or forest every year without seeing declines in soil fertility. It is possible to remove all production and replace lost nitrogen with chemical fertilizers made from fossil fuels. But it might be a perilous mistake to assume that this strategy can be continued into the indefinite future, much less that it can be expanded sustainably to produce a significant supply of biofuels in addition to food.

Even in the best case, the energy profit from biofuels production is always likely to be small as compared to the energy payback from hydroelectric power or wind turbines, and smaller still when compared to the historic yields from extracting oil and natural gas. While ethanol and biodiesel may prove essential for running some farm machinery and emergency vehicles, the prospect of running a substantial portion of the world’s fleet of seven hundred million cars and trucks on biofuels seems extremely remote.

Solar photovoltaic, active solar thermal, wind, tidal, hydro, wave, and geothermal technologies all produce electricity (passive solar thermal and geothermal can also produce heat energy and hot water for buildings). Thus most renewable energy sources other than biofuels will be suitable for running only electric vehicles, unless investment is directed toward the creation of a sizable infrastructure for using electricity to produce an energy-carrying medium such as hydrogen.

Other fossil fuels

The most competitive replacements for oil in terms of energy delivered are likely to be other fossil fuels – coal, natural gas, tar sands, kerogen (also known as oil shale), and so on. But of course these other fossil fuels share oil’s drawbacks – burning them releases greenhouse gases, and they are non-renewable and thus depletable. Moreover, few of the other fossil fuels start out with an energy density comparable to oil’s; transforming coal, tar sands, or kerogen into liquids takes more energy than does refining petroleum.

Coal is currently turned into far less than a million barrels of liquid fuel per day worldwide. Replacing a significant portion of petroleum with liquids from coal would require a dramatic increase in coal mining investment and infrastructure, with an even more dramatic probable increase in greenhouse gas emissions.


Nuclear fuel is even more energy-dense than fossil fuels; a single kilogram of uranium ore has a typical energy density of 100 kWh per kilogram, about three times the energy in a gallon of gasoline. Mining and refining uranium also consumes energy, and is environmentally disruptive. Nuclear power stations cannot directly replace oil because they produce electricity, not liquid transportation fuels. Over the longer term this problem could be solved by using electricity to produce an energy carrier capable of running vehicles – most likely hydrogen.

The construction of nuclear power plants is expensive and nuclear fuel is becoming more costly with time. As energy consultant Mycle Schneider has pointed out, “The nuclear industry is not even in a position to maintain the number of operating plants in the world. [T]he average age of the operating power plants is 21 years. We have assumed an average lifetime of 40 years for all operating reactors. Considering the fact that the average age of all 108 units that already have been closed is about 21 years, the doubling of the operational lifetime seems rather optimistic.” The replacement of oil with nuclear power presents tremendous obstacles in the forms of enormous investment requirements and the need for the development and deployment of new technologies on an unprecedented scale and with breathtaking speed.


In principle, hydrogen could both store energy produced as electricity from nuclear or renewable sources (using electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen) and provide fuel for cars and trucks. Hydrogen is non-polluting, produces no greenhouse gases when burned, and has a higher energy density by weight than any of the fossil fuels.

However, a hydrogen economy would entail the construction of an enormous replacement energy infrastructure, with new technology for production, storage, distribution, and end use.

Producing hydrogen through electrolysis is relatively expensive compared to production from fossil fuels (most commercially produced hydrogen is today made with natural gas), though in principle, electricity from wind could yield hydrogen at a cost comparable to that of gasoline today.

While hydrogen has a high energy density per unit of weight, it has a much lower energy density by volume. A hydrogen distribution system that attempted to mimic current gasoline distribution systems would require up to 20 times as many delivery trucks to transport an amount of fuel with the same quantity of energy. Hydrogen generation and storage systems and fuel cell technologies all deserve more research funding and will no doubt play a role in the world’s energy future, but we should not imagine that hydrogen will be able to replace oil on a large scale any time soon.

How much of our current oil consumption can we expect to replace using the available alternatives? The answer will depend partly on the levels of investment provided, and partly on how much time remains to begin the energy transition before oil production peaks. It is unlikely that replacement fuels can be made available in sufficient quantity over a reasonable time frame (two decades or less) to supplant likely declines in oil flows.

Since substitution can only partly compensate for our current oil dependence, we must look to conservation as our primary strategy for reducing reliance on petroleum. Conservation can take two forms – efficiency and curtailment. Efficiency measures require investment and yield diminishing returns over time, as each added increment of efficiency tends to be more expensive than the last. However, in the early stages of the energy transition efficiency will almost always be much cheaper than substitution. Curtailment of consumption is the cheapest option in terms of required investment, but carries other kinds of costs, such as the need for behavioral change.

Conservation strategies will need to be applied primarily in the areas of transportation and agriculture – the two economic sectors that depend most critically on oil.

Personal transportation

The personal transportation sector is the largest consumer of petroleum for most (if not all) industrialized countries.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) – a global consortium of 24 countries that works on world energy issues – recently published a report entitled Saving Oil in a Hurry, which divides transportation crisis response policies into two classes: those that provide fuel efficient travel options in addition to driving, and those that restrict existing fuel-intensive travel options. Both can yield reductions in fuel demand. Restrictive policies tend to produce greater reductions, but often carry higher political costs.

Policies that increase the number of travel choices available offer a side benefit in the form of greater elasticity of fuel demand. With more options available, more people can, for example, choose to ride commuter rail to work rather than drive when fuel prices get too high. As fuel demand becomes more elastic, people can respond better to price signals with reduction of demand rather than with fistfights at the gas pump. The key to benefiting from increased fuel demand elasticity associated with additional transit options, though, is having the options in place before a supply crisis occurs.

With modern computer technology and experience at running carpooling programs, it is likely these could be set up much more quickly – and many already exist.

Car co-ops (such as City Car Share in the San Francisco Bay Area, Flexcar in Portland, or the CAN Car cooperative auto network in Vancouver, Canada) still entail the personal use of automobiles, but each car, rather than being owned by one driver, is instead part of a fleet shared among many members.

Hitchhiking is a practice that predates automobiles and is common throughout most of the world. While an expansion of hitchhiking would result in saved fuel, many potential hitchhikers and driving ride-sharers are deterred by concerns for safety, reliability of service, and privacy. Nevertheless, informal networks to promote the practice have emerged in many places.

Since automobiles are among the least energy-efficient means of transportation available, the goal of all nations must be to reduce automobile use to a minimum. From the standpoint of energy efficiency alone, it is clear that the best modes of transportation are human-powered vehicles such as bicycles, and walking. However, bicycles and walking will not suffice for long-distance transportation or the hauling of heavy cargo.

For travel between cities, industrialized nations have increasingly relied on air transport. However, air travel is approximately as inefficient as travel by automobile, and is thus bound to become more expensive and less affordable as oil prices rise. The obvious long-term replacement for air transport would be increasing reliance on transport by rail and ship, both of which enjoy much higher fuel efficiencies. In the case of trains, there is the option, at least for relatively short routes, of operation by electric rather than diesel motors.

photo of a big-city downtown, with a light-rail station and commuter rail, as exemplified in Los Angeles’ Metro system, is a crucial component of
any successful strategy to cope with Peak Oil.

However, the transition away from air transport will be problematic. High ticket prices will tend to reduce non-essential air travel, but will have adverse impacts on tourism and related industries. And in countries such as the US and Canada, where the existing passenger rail infrastructure is incapable of absorbing a substantial increase in riders, considerable time and investment will be required for capacity building.

Within cities there are several options for transport modes between the automobile at one extreme and the bicycle at the other; these primarily consist of alternative-fuel buses, electric buses, surface electric light rail (trolleys), and electric subways, though several imaginative new kinds of transit systems have been proposed. All of these will likewise require time and investment for their installation or expansion.

Since the use of liquid fuels for transportation constitutes such a large share of world petroleum demand, controlled adjustment to declining oil supplies will necessarily incorporate the transformation, shrinking, and elimination of many aspects of modern transportation systems.

Part of such a strategy would be to increase public transit availability and connectivity; but since transportation needs are so directly tied to land-use patterns, a complete rethinking of modern settlement planning, including both the built landscape and the laws that shape it, must also be undertaken. For the time being, the nature of existing settlement patterns will constrain choices regarding mass-transit systems: a viable bus system providing service every 10 minutes requires 15 houses per acre; light rail requires about nine homes per acre. Suburban areas characterized by low-density housing will thus present problems for mitigating the effects of diminishing oil supplies – hence the need to address urban-design considerations as soon and quickly as possible. Settlements that require the least transportation energy tend to be walkable and public-transit oriented, meaning that they are dense, with multiple households living in close proximity.

Walkable settlements are also diverse in their uses, and include residential, commercial, and other uses in close proximity. Ideally, residents of such neighborhoods can in less than 10 minutes walk from home to work, school, or a store, or to a transit stop that will take them to one of these destinations. To encourage neighborhoods such as these, building codes must allow dense, mixed-use settlement. For years, city planners thought dense neighborhoods with little parking and narrow streets led to traffic gridlock. But experience shows that smart, compact development actually reduces car traffic, resulting in more walking and transit use and less demand for fuel. A city built of such neighborhoods discourages the cancer-like overgrowth of highway-oriented, low-density strip development and the resulting death of the city center. Many planners have already begun to see the sense of designing for people rather than cars, and many municipalities already incorporate urban-growth boundaries and targets for residential density increases in their strategies to halt sprawl and better integrate land use and transport.

Public transit works in concert with walkable design. Density and diversity of use create the necessary environment for a successful public transit system, while a healthy transit system creates an environment for dense and diverse living. Designers need to consider both if the urban system is to sustain itself. Good public transit should also mesh into its community with an ample number of intermodal transit options: walking or bicycling should bring the traveler easily to bus or light rail stops, which should connect to rapid transit hubs and commuter rail hubs, which should connect to regional rail.


Modern agriculture’s overwhelming dependence on petroleum constitutes one of the world’s most important vulnerabilities to Peak Oil.

Most fossil fuel used in modern agriculture is not pumped into gas tanks, but instead sprayed onto fields in the form of water-soluble fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer, made with natural gas, accounts for 47 percent of total energy use for corn farming in the American Midwest; percentages for other crops and nations vary, but remain substantial in most cases compared to other energy inputs.

Organic agriculture also has an answer to conventional agriculture’s reliance on petroleum-based pesticides and herbicides. Coordinating planting and harvesting dates to avoid pest species population blooms, properly managing soil nutrients and water, intercropping (in which many different species of plants, including food plants and cover crops, are grown closely associated with one another), and releasing pest predators are just some of the ingenious strategies that organic farmers have developed to reduce their crops’ exposure to pests. Chemical-free pest management requires close observation of each individual site, and human labor to manage them. This suggests that, with declining petroleum availability, the agricultural sector could offer significant growth in employment opportunities.

The thousands of organic farms and gardens that are successfully functioning worldwide demonstrate clearly that agriculture need not be dependent on fossil energy to provide good yields. But agriculture will always require energy. Petroleum-independent food production is labor-intensive, and the mass replacement of fossil energy inputs with renewable ones will require a larger proportion of the population to be directly involved in producing at least some of its own food.

Government subsidies to agriculture currently tend to favor large operations aimed at growing for distant markets. Petroleum-intensive transportation systems that are paid for with government funds also serve to subsidize food systems requiring long-distance transport. These subsidies must be reversed. As the energy to produce and transport food becomes more costly, small organic farms will serve more people more effectively. Reworking the structure of subsidies before energy becomes very scarce will create more food security in the long run.


Altogether, the transition away from petroleum will constitute an immense project for every nation and for the world as a whole. There are aspects of that transition that we have not touched upon, including the need to reduce use of, and provide substitutes for, petrochemicals and plastics.

This project will be costly and will require many years – decades, in fact – of sustained effort. In order to enlist the hard work, cooperation, and creativity of their populations, national governments must educate them about the nature of the energy transition underway, and seek to build consensus around strategic responses to oil scarcity. This educational and consensus-building project must take high priority, be carried forward with a wartime level of effort, and must be sustained indefinitely. Meanwhile, governments must lead by example, making their own operations as energy-efficient as possible.

Again, this project will be far more easily undertaken if nations can concentrate on it without being distracted by having to compete for remaining oil resources, or of having to adapt to frequent, radical shifts in oil prices.

Take Action: The transition to a future of reduced oil supply will require the development of clean, reliable, and renewable energy sources and reduced oil production and consumption. The Oil Depletion Protocol will allow us to accomplish both. For more information, visit

Richard Heinberg is author (with Colin Campbell) of The Oil Depeletion Protocol (New Society Publishers, 2006), from which this article was adapted.


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