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How Would Peak Oil Affect Your Life?

Photo by Callie Hernandez for KUT News.
Drivers currently clog I-35 in downtown Austin and other highways, but some experts say that could disappear in a matter of decades for lack of oil.

Nationally, gas prices are hovering around $3 a gallon these days. It’s far off the record price of more than $4.10 in the summer of 2008. Remember those days? Well, what about $5 dollar, even $10 dollar a gallon for gas?

To understand the rest of this story, you need to get one concept: peak oil.

It’s a theory that basically says that because there’s only so much oil in the ground, its production will eventually reach its limit, or peak, and then begin to decline. If that happens, the theory goes, and there is no affordable or plentiful replacement, prices will skyrocket, and the world will be thrown into chaos.

“In some cases, the disaster scenario is that we have some sort of ‘Mad Max’ world where we’re driving around shooting each other, fighting each other for the last pockets of gasoline,” said Michael Webber, co-director the Clean Energy Incubator at UT-Austin.

“Mad Max” World, of course, is the worst case. Webber said there are other scenarios that predict a more gradual rise in oil prices, spurring development of alternatives, and gradually weaning the world off oil. But some folks aren’t willing to roll the dice.

“We’re on the Titantic. There’s three bunches of people on the Titanic,” said Tom Davis, who’s is active in a group called Transition Austin. “One, believes the owners, it’s unsinkable, I’m going to go back to the bar and have some more drinks. Another, runs around frantically and says ‘what do I do? What I do?’ And the other says, ‘Hmm, I need to build a lifeboat, but I don’t have the skills,'’. And that’s what Transition’s about: building lifeboats.”

The Transition Movement started back in 2005 in England. It now has more than 300 branches worldwide; 77 of those are in the US. The Austin group is sort of a loose organization of like-minded people who share strategies and skills for the world post-peak.

Think about how many parts of your life are touched by oil. Getting to work, eating breakfast, the clothes you wear, just about everything. Now think about your life without oil. Transition is about getting as self-reliant, sustainable and off-the-grid as possible.

At his studio in East Austin, architect Lars Stanley shows off the solar panels and rainwater collection system on the building. He and his wife have also planted a garden, because without oil, trucking in vegetables from California might not be doable. Stanley has re-made his property to prepare for the Transition.

“Like living and working in the same place, so you don’t have to commute. And then, the materials that are used to build this place, and using these techniques to reduce our use of energy and reduce our footprint,” Stanley said.

Transition is based on the idea that communities will become even more important without cheap energy. Everyone brings different skills, and all of them will be needed. Stanley isn’t naive, though. He doesn’t expect everyone to get on board. Because, he says, in the words of former President George W. Bush, America is addicted to oil.

“And addicts,” Stanley added, “they don’t change until something major, there’s a major intervention. And so, people aren’t going to change until gasoline is $5 a gallon.”

It’s not totally clear when, or even if, that day will come. But even though it was once seen as a fringe theory, peak oil has gained traction in the past few years. A 2009 Austin Energy report warned that a decline in oil production could disrupt transportation, food supplies and the economy in general. Even the US military has speculated how peak oil would impact its operations.

“We’re going to have very serious problems, very quickly,” said Tad Patzek. He’s not some guy with a bunker in his backyard or something. He chairs the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at UT-Austin. And he’s pretty sure the world is not prepared for what he says is an inevitable decline in oil production.

“What we really need to start thinking is how do we change the way we approach transportation of people and goods across the United States and locally, and in order for this to take hold, we need probably a decade, if we embark on a crash program. And we haven’t even started talking about this,” said Patzek.

There are plenty of people who say new oil discoveries can meet the world’s growing appetite for decades to come. Peak oil theorists say the decline could begin anytime between now and 2050…or it may already have begun.

That’s the problem, according to energy watchers, you don’t know you’re falling until you’re over the cliff.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.