Oil Depletion: A Catalyst for Change in Design
James Thomas, Portland Principal and frequent speaker on oil depletion
"By 2015, we will need to find, develop and produce a volume of new oil and gas that is equal to 8 out of every 10 barrels being produced today." -- Jon Thompson, President ExxonMobil
"The world is not running out of oilâ€“at least not yet. What our society does face, and soon, is the end of the abundant and cheap oil on which all industrial nations depend." -- Campbell & LaherrÃ¨re
As designers of the built environment, architects and engineers are usually focused on the art and technology of design. We meet the evolving needs of our clients and often use innovative solutions to do so, but we're rarely asked for the longer view of total world resources and how the increasing cost of these resources effects design.
WHY IS OIL IMPORTANT?
Oil is the single most valuable of all the fossil fuels. This is not only because it is the densest and most portable form of stored energy, but also because itâ€™s the most easily processed to create secondary products such as plastic, textiles, or chemicals. While electrical power and building energy are little effected by oil costs, the transportation sector in the USA is entirely dependent on oil and over 50% of US oil consumption goes to produce gasoline, diesel, and aircraft fuel.
WILL WE HAVE ENOUGH?
Existing annual oil consumption is approximately 30 billion barrels of oil or about 80 million barrels per day. Current official projections show a continuous growth of 3-4% in consumption per annum with little change in the role of oil over the next 15 or more years. The world has consumed a total of approximately 900 billion barrels of oil to this date and the most reliable projection for the remaining deposits of conventional oil is for another 900 billion barrels. Non-conventional oil such as oil sands or oil shale are huge potential additional resources but are far more costly to extract both economically and environmentally.
While the ultimate resource is important, the annual production capability is of greater short term importance to the economy and to design decisions we make in buildings. In 1957, USGS petroleum geologist, H. King Hubbert, projected the United States oil production would peak in 1970. Moreover, he characterized all oil production and resource extraction as following a bell curve function with the curve symmetrical around the peak. U.S. production peaked in 1971, and has followed the projected reduction in production ever since.
The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) predicts that world production is projected to peak at roughly 31 billion annual barrels of oil, with a peak year falling sometime between 2006 and 2010.
The implications of this projection are enormous. It means that continuing growth in oil consumption is non-sustainable. Very soon we will not be able to pump enough oil to meet an upward global economic growth profile. Since most nations have not adopted an aggressive strategy for transitioning to other resources, the industrial nations of the world are effectively in competition for a diminishing resource.
The largest remaining oil reserves are located in the most volatile geopolitical regions, the Middle East, the Caspian Sea Region, the South China Sea. As oil prices respond to classic supply and demand imperatives, we can expect to see widespread inflationary pressures on all products and services affected by energy. Based on past history, some analysts believe recessionary effects will begin to occur when the cost per barrel of oil exceeds $60 in present dollars. Once peak production occurs, without reduction in demand, costs will increase.
SUSTAINABLE SOLUTIONS FOR DESIGNERS & BUILDING OWNERS
How should these changes effect our decisions about designs today?
One way is to integrate design to maximize natural daylight and ventilation and minimize mechanical heating and cooling. Today this may be seen as cutting edge, but in the near future it will be seen as a minimum requirement for habitable buildings.
Design teams can also begin to factor in more aggressive escalation factors into engineering calculations, and put into perspective that the implementation of higher first cost technology is an investment with progressive payback.
Risk assessment associated with early adoption of new technology should include the effects not only of higher energy costs, but also of reduced utility infrastructure reliability. In this context, evaluating alternative energy technology should include facility reliability as well as displacement of fossil fuel generated energy.