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Peak oil era will be hard on Hawaii

by Man­fred Zap­ka and Jim Dator
Star-Bul­letin [1]

Edi­tor’s note: In the next decade or two, a glob­al ener­gy cri­sis will be thrust upon us; the changes it brings will be felt first in Hawaii, pos­si­bly with a more dev­as­tat­ing effect here than in the rest of the world. Hawaii must begin prepa­ra­tions now to cush­ion the effects, say the authors of this cau­tion­ary essay. The writ­ers are a Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii polit­i­cal sci­en­tist and a UH-edu­cat­ed civ­il engi­neer. In addi­tion, it was signed by 21 oth­ers rep­re­sent­ing a range of sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­plines in Hawaii; three chose to sign as pri­vate cit­i­zens.

DURING the past months “peak oil” has been the sub­ject of a heat­ed dis­cus­sion in the media, includ­ing in Hawaii. The state’s ener­gy secu­ri­ty is too impor­tant for us to allow dis­cus­sions of future ener­gy options to become a bat­tle about peak oil, pro or con.

Peak oil ought to be under­stood as a help­ful sci­en­tif­ic tool to mod­el the deple­tion of con­ven­tion­al oil reserves and to devel­op a sense of urgency for tak­ing steps to mit­i­gate its effects. The peak­ing of indi­vid­ual oil fields and oil regions has been observed always to fol­low a sim­i­lar pro­duc­tion curve. Glob­al peak oil is sim­ply an extrap­o­la­tion from what is known about indi­vid­ual field deple­tion.

The arrival of peak oil does not mean that we have run out of oil. Rather, it means that pro­duc­tion rates will start an inevitable decline. When peak oil arrives there will still be a huge amount of oil in the ground, yet the abil­i­ty to get it out at rea­son­able cost and ener­gy will decrease as the reserve deple­tion accel­er­ates. Peak oil does not sig­nal the end of the world, but the start of a new chap­ter for the glob­al com­mu­ni­ty.

No seri­ous oil ana­lyst dis­putes the fact of peak oil. The debate is about when, not if. Most pub­lished peak oil dates are between 2010 and 2017, give or take a few years. There is near-uni­ver­sal agree­ment that our cur­rent pro­duc­tion base of con­ven­tion­al oil is declin­ing at a rate of 4 per­cent to 8 per­cent per year while demand is grow­ing at a rate of about 2 per­cent per year. The evolv­ing demand-sup­ply gap has to be filled with new con­ven­tion­al oil, uncon­ven­tion­al oil, non­pe­tro­le­um sources and con­ser­va­tion.

ALL OF THESE can play a role, but all take con­sid­er­able time, mon­ey and effort — and require prompt deci­sions and actions that have not yet been suf­fi­cient­ly con­tem­plat­ed, much less made. More­over, any deci­sions about alter­na­tives to oil need to be made after assess­ing their impact on every­thing else in Hawaii. For exam­ple, should we use our land for upscale hous­ing for the rich, or for “afford­able hous­ing,” or to grow food, or to grow bio­mass for fuel? Do we have enough land to sat­is­fy all demands via the mar­ket, or do we need to devel­op poli­cies that, togeth­er with the mar­ket, allo­cate uses?

The most promis­ing response to peak oil is time­ly migra­tion to new sources of ener­gy sup­ply and seri­ous con­ser­va­tion. Accord­ing to a U.S. Depart­ment of Ener­gy-spon­sored study, peak oil mit­i­ga­tion efforts need to start at least 20 years before peak oil occurs to avoid seri­ous sup­ply short­falls. The study fore­casts cat­a­stroph­ic eco­nom­ic and human con­se­quences if mit­i­ga­tion is delayed until the fuel crunch arrives.

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HAWAII HAS one of the high­est rates of per capi­ta oil con­sump­tion in the world. Our rate in Hawaii is twice that of the U.S. aver­age; four times the aver­age of Europe and 28 times that of Chi­na. More­over, oil not only fuels our trans­porta­tion and elec­tric­i­ty-gen­er­at­ing plants, it also fuels the air­planes that fuel our tourist-based econ­o­my and the ships that bring in almost all of our food and con­sumer goods. Un- or insuf­fi­cient­ly mit­i­gat­ed oil sup­ply short­falls will hit Hawaii much hard­er than almost any oth­er place in the world.

There are sev­er­al sup­ply and demand-side oppor­tu­ni­ties for Hawaii that are attrac­tive and make eco­nom­ic sense. While some might appear to be “uneco­nom­i­cal” now under assump­tions of ever-increas­ing ener­gy sup­plies and a healthy econ­o­my, they will prove to be pru­dent and for­ward-look­ing reme­dies in the years and decades to come. Hawai­i’s hope for a sus­tain­able future is best served through seri­ous and mean­ing­ful plans to mit­i­gate our over-depen­dence on oil before any sup­ply short­falls appear.

BUT LET’S pre­tend that there are “huge new oil resources” — as yet undis­cov­ered reserves or new rev­o­lu­tion­ary oil tech­nolo­gies for increased extrac­tion rates (even though there actu­al­ly is lit­tle chance that we will find the “10 new Sau­di Ara­bi­as” that we urgent­ly need in the next two decades).

With unabat­ed car­bon release through the burn­ing of fos­sil fuels, glob­al warm­ing still threat­ens Hawaii in tan­gi­ble forms. Ris­ing sea lev­els with­in the cur­rent­ly antic­i­pat­ed range will inun­date wide stretch­es of land that are home for many res­i­dents of Hawaii — some of the most expen­sive real estate and beau­ti­ful coast­line in the world. Crit­i­cal trans­port infra­struc­ture (air­ports, har­bors) and fresh water also will be affect­ed by sig­nif­i­cant­ly ris­ing sea lev­els. Low­er­ing our con­sump­tion of fos­sil fuels is one pru­dent and urgent response to glob­al warm­ing.

Devel­op­ing tech­nol­o­gy and poli­cies to low­er oil depen­dence is a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for Hawaii. Not tak­ing the peak oil seri­ous­ly or adopt­ing luke­warm mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures might prove to be the most cost­ly mis­take we will ever make.

Man­fred J. Zap­ka is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii. He works as a con­sult­ing engi­neer and writes on issues con­cern­ing tech­nol­o­gy and change sce­nar­ios for the peak oil era. Jim Dator is pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii-Manoa and direc­tor of the Hawaii Research Cen­ter for Futures Stud­ies.