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When The Oil Runs Out - Peak Oil and Public Health

  • Published: 2011-08-08 : Author: American University
  • Synopsis: Peak petroleum is the point at which maximum rate of global oil extraction is reached after which the rate of oil production begins to decline.

Main Document

Peak Oil & Public Health: Political Common Ground

Peak petroleum - the point at which the maximum rate of global oil extraction is reached, after which the rate of production begins to decline - is a hot topic in scientific and energy circles.

When will it occur? What will the impact be

While geologists and economists debate the specifics, American University School of Communication professor Matthew Nisbet believes peak petroleum and the associated risks to public health may provide an opportunity to bring conservatives and liberals together in the move toward alternative forms of energy.

"Somewhat surprisingly, conservatives are more likely to associate a major spike in oil prices with a strong threat to public health," said Nisbet - an expert in the field of climate and energy communication. "This could present a gateway to engagement with conservatives on energy policy.

In a forthcoming peer-reviewed study at the American Journal of Public Health, Nisbet and his co-authors find that 76% of people in a recent survey believe oil prices are either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to triple in the next five years. A dramatic spike in oil prices is a commonly recognized outcome of peak petroleum.

Even more telling is that 69% of respondents believe a sharp rise in oil prices would be either "very harmful" (44%) or "somewhat harmful" (25%) to the health of Americans.

According to the survey, strong conservatives were the most sensitive to these possible risks, with 53% believing that a spike in oil prices would be "very harmful" to human health. Similarly, in a separate analysis of the data, those who were strongly "dismissive" of climate change (52%) were the most likely of any subgroup to associate a sharp spike in oil prices with a negative impact on public health.

According to Nisbet and his co-authors, this creates a challenge and an opportunity for the environmental and public health communities.

Peak oil and energy prices are often talked about in terms of economic and environmental impact, but rarely as a public health concern. Nisbet argues that his findings show reason to reframe the debate.

"These findings suggest that a broad cross-section of Americans may be ready to engage in dialog about ways to manage the health risks that experts associate with peak petroleum," said Nisbet. "Peak petroleum may not currently be a part of the public health portfolio, but we need to start the planning process."

The study was co-authored with Edward Maibach of George Mason University and Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 11th Hour, and Surdna Foundation.

Editor Notes: Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.

Some observers, such as petroleum industry experts Kenneth S. Deffeyes and Matthew Simmons, predict negative global economy implications following a post-peak production decline, and oil price increase, due to the high dependence of most modern industrial transport, agricultural, and industrial systems on the low cost and high availability of oil. Predictions vary greatly as to what exactly these negative effects would be. Optimistic estimations of peak production forecast the global decline will begin by 2020 or later.

Pessimistic predictions of future oil production operate on the thesis that either the peak has already occurred, that oil production is on the cusp of the peak, or that it will occur shortly. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says production of conventional crude oil peaked in 2006. Throughout the first two quarters of 2008, there were signs that a global recession was being made worse by a series of record oil prices.

Peak oil would leave many Americans unable to afford petroleum based fuel for their cars, and force them to use bicycles or electric vehicles. Additional options include telecommuting, moving to rural areas, or moving to higher density areas, where walking and public transportation are more viable options. Methods suggested for mitigating these urban and suburban issues include the use of non-petroleum vehicles such as electric cars, battery electric vehicles, transit-oriented development, Car-free Cities, bicycles, new trains, new pedestrian-ism, smart growth, shared space, urban consolidation, urban villages, and New Urbanism.

The writing is on the wall.

Global oil supply can't meet global oil demand forever, necessitating new energy sources and usage practices. Even if technology allowed us to harvest every last drop of oil in the planet, increasing scarcity and rising prices would necessitate widespread change long before we actually run out of oil.


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