Advertisement
RayBiotech
RayBiotech

Opinion: When the wells run dry

The practice and funding of science may change drastically when humanity enters an era of energy crisis, in which cheap oil is but a distant memory

By | February 16, 2011

It's 2029. You are ready to present your latest data at a major international conference in Paris. You're nervous, but prepared. In the past, attending such a conference would have meant boarding a plane, accompanied by a grad student or post doc, with whom you'd also likely enjoy the cafes and museums of Paris, perhaps making a day trip to visit Monet's gardens in Giverny. But those days are over. You will be attending the conference and making your presentation from your office computer because high fuel prices have made air travel unaffordable for all except the elite.
Image: Wikimedia commons
Your research program has also been circumscribed. Two decades ago, you had a far flung program with international projects, exploring basic biological principles. Now your research, close to home and on a shoe string budget, addresses topics strongly influenced by direct needs of society. All of these changes were a long time coming. With the industrial revolution came massive increases in fossil fuel use, dramatic economic and population growth, and widespread environmental degradation, all of which growing evidence suggests is not sustainable. By the end of the 20th century, about half of ultimately recoverable conventional oil reserves had been used, with the remaining trillion barrels of conventional oil likely lasting just three decades. And though renewable energy sources will clearly play a role in providing energy in the future, they simply cannot provide fuels in the quantities needed to offset the decline in oil production. But while the most hyperbolic doomsayers posit catastrophic scenarios of oil shortage, global conflict, and severe deprivation, the truth is that long before society downsizes in the face of energy scarcity, climate change, resource depletion, and population growth, the way science is done and the role of research in society will likely change drastically. One of the main ways that the average scientist will feel the effects of oil shortages will be as everyone does: by an enormous inflation in the cost of doing business. Most scientific research is expensive not just in terms of dollars, but also in terms of energy. On average, for each dollar researchers spend today, the energy equivalent of about a cup of oil is used. A $1 million grant can consume the equivalent of about 1,100 barrels of oil. In the future, the same amount of dollars will buy significantly less research, and scientists will have to become much more efficient and inventive in doing research. Far flung research projects, particularly common among ecologists and other natural scientists, will also become much less affordable. Trips to distant scientific meetings will also become prohibitively expensive. Electronic conferencing will become the norm. The nature of interaction within the scientific community may change as well. Like the competitive atmosphere already experienced in developing countries, limited resources may lead groups to be less open and to actively exclude other groups. In a time of energy scarcity, societal priorities will also shift, and science will be justified and supported based on the perception of how it is helping solve mounting societal problems. While today basic science is often considered intellectually superior and more elegant than applied science, in coming decades, applied science will become dominant, as research becomes required to preserve the functioning of ecosystems and the services they provide. Natural scientists, especial those in the field of ecology, will have a critical role to play in this bleak future, in which the human economy depends much more on ecological systems. With transport and global trade hobbled, people will have to depend to a greater extent on nearby ecosystems, both natural and agricultural. Highly productive ecosystems have enormous economic value. The natural asset value of the Mississippi delta, for example, has been estimated to be as high as $1.4 trillion. Research on these natural communities will receive more attention, as more food, fuel, and fiber will have to be coaxed from nature in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, degradation and conversion of natural landscapes for other uses, such as agriculture, roads, cities and industry, have already hurt the productivity of many natural ecosystems. And while conservation efforts have helped protect natural areas and biodiversity, researchers must now aim to restore natural ecosystems and their services in these areas. The improvement of soils in an Illinois farm field may not have the mystique of preserving a Yellowstone geyser, for example, but it is critically important to food production. The impending end of cheap oil has enormous implications for many of the ways that scientists, and especially ecologists, operate. These issues have generally gone un-discussed by economists and scientists over the last few decades of energy abundance, but the golden age of science where hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on expensive and far flung research programs to answer basic scientific questions may be coming to an end. A second golden age could dawn, however, with scientists working closer to home on projects that provide for the human population and maintain valuable ecosystem services. Only time will tell. References J. Day, et al., "Ecology in times of scarcity," linkurl:BioScience,;http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1525/bio.2009.59.4.10?journalCode=bisi 59: 321-331, 2009. C. Hall and J. Day, "Revisiting limits to growth after peak oil," linkurl:American Scientist,;http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.6381/issue.aspx 92: 230-237, 2009. linkurl:Free F1000 evaluation;http://f1000.com/1161118?key=dnkmgktdz2qr275 D. Batker, et al., "Gaining ground: Wetlands, hurricanes and the economy: The value of restoring the mississippi river delta," linkurl:Earth Economics, Inc.;http://www.eartheconomics.org/Page96.aspx Tacoma, WA. 98 p, 2010. linkurl:John Day;http://f1000.com/thefaculty/member/2925071722511606 is a Professor Emeritus in the department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at the School of the Coast and Environment, Louisiana State University, and an F1000 member since 2010.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Fuel from Fallow;http://www.the-scientist.com/2010/7/1/66/1/
[July 2010]*linkurl:Schools in energy states flourish;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55511/
[18th March 2009]*linkurl:Greenest of the Green;http://www.the-scientist.com/2007/6/1/29/1/
[June 2007]
Advertisement

Comments

Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

February 16, 2011

Interesting!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

February 16, 2011

Maybe the oil will run out before the entire Mississippi delta is submerged by global warming.
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 3

February 16, 2011

I have been reading that we have forty years of proven reserves of light crude for forty years. Always the same number. Never goes up, never goes down. This experience has had a negative effect on my ability to take such estimates seriously.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 16, 2011

Dr. Chu of DOE has already cancelled hydrogen energy as a source of energy funding.\n\nAsia and Europe are going full speed ahead on hydrogen energy along with lithium fuel cells. \n\nWhat does this tell you ?\n\nThe administration and DOE are out of touch with the future energy of the world.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 16, 2011

Unsaid, but of critical importance here is that humans will still be ignoring the P word.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 24

February 16, 2011

Still waiting for my space bike and jet pack after more than forty years. Come on guys get your act together. I have no faith in the competitive scientific and engineering research system of the past 30 years. \nNecessity is the mother of invention. Cuts will help science, at least the tiny amount of useful science that is conducted anyway. The vast majority is just replication and box-ticking career progression piffle.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 16, 2011

The author wrote: \nA $1 million grant can consume the equivalent of about 1,100 barrels of oil. \nWonder at what cost US$/barrel was this calculation made? 910 US$/barrel ???
Avatar of: Hilary Butler

Hilary Butler

Posts: 15

February 16, 2011

The article says that research would address, "topics strongly influenced by direct needs of society."\n\nShouldn't that be the case, right now?\n\nInstead of indulging in personal ego scratching and luxurious esoteric concepts of no practical use to mankind..., if scientific research had always been based on the direct needs of society, would we be in the position we are now?
Avatar of: Cheryl Scott

Cheryl Scott

Posts: 10

February 16, 2011

I've been thinking about this in relation to the proliferation of cheap plastics throughout society... Especially as I watch the industry I cover (bioprocessing) trending toward more and more disposables/single-use technology in manufacturing. These are only economically feasible so long as plastics are cheaply available -- and plastics are a byproduct of the petroleum industry. What happens to all these plastics-dependent processes when the costs skyrocket due to supply/demand? On one hand, the world will be better off WITHOUT cheaply available plastic (e.g., at least the Pacific Gyre problem would stop GROWING), but on the other... well, no one seems to be thinking or planning for that inevitable future...
Avatar of: PETER J STOGIOS

PETER J STOGIOS

Posts: 2

February 16, 2011

Very interesting topic and I cringed multiple times when reading this article. Nicely done.\n\nI wanted to point out that if public science research funding gets to the point where only applied science is funded, society itself will be greatly imperilled. It is basic science that fuels innovation in all fields and has done so for centuries. Basic science is the foundation for all applied science--without it, there IS no applied science.\n\nI challenge the readers to identify a technology that society relies on whose genesis was not in the search for basic principles of the universe.\n\nEven in the face of mounting energy and resource prices, society should never sacrifice the search for basic truths, which have the greatest power to discover principles that can ultimately develop technologies to overcome those energy/resource constraints.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

February 16, 2011

A sobering read, but encouraging that the topic is actually being discussed. I highly recommend reading the Hirsch report (?PEAKING OF WORLD OIL PRODUCTION: IMPACTS, MITIGATION, & RISK MANAGEMENT?), sponsored by the US Government in 2005. Peak oil does NOT mean that we?re about to run out of oil: it means the end of cheap oil as discoveries and production decline. There, I said the ?P? word. Human beings have a nasty habit of avoiding uncomfortable issues until it is [almost] too late. As noted in the Hirsch report, mitigation efforts started NOW can have profound benefits, not the least of which could be a concomitant reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 16, 2011

Higher oil prices will:\n\n- drive improved energy use efficiency\n- drive extraction from currently uneconomic reserves\n- allow competing energy sources to develop\n\nAlso there is plenty of natural gas from shale and coal remaining.\n\nThe competing energy source are likely nuclear (possibly thorium based) and desert concentrating solar.\n\nLiquid fuels can be synthesised: they are just very convenient energy carriers which we happen to be able to pump out of the ground at the moment. The synthesis process might also include atmospheric carbon capture to offset the CO2 produced when burnt.\n\nAnd of course fossil fuels produce various pollutants: CO2 and other nastier stuff: the sooner we stop burning fossil fuels the better.\n\nEnergy (especially in convenient liquid form) will likely be more expensive in the future but not to the extent that society and science will be crippled.\n\n-- atomsinmotion
Avatar of: Dov Henis

Dov Henis

Posts: 97

February 16, 2011

Wait until the wells run dry ?\n\nAnd until then things have been, are, and will continue to be - fine...\n\n"Hope For 2011 Science?"\nhttp://pulse.yahoo.com/_2SF3CJJM5OU6T27OC4MFQSDYEU/blog/articles/248628 \n\n\nDov Henis\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 29

February 18, 2011

I think it's safe to say:\n1. We are quite a ways away from the absolute depletion of oil\n2. There are numerous and possibly better alternatives to oil as an energy source.\n3. You really should re-check your math on the price of oil.\n4. It is very unlikely that we would completely "run out of oil" without the concomitant run-up in oil prices driving alternate fuels.\n5. If #4 does come to pass, there will be a lot more to worry about than restricted travel to scientific meetings and expensive plastic labware!
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 1

February 21, 2011

Oil is running out now. The developing world is using more and more of it in cars, trains, boats and aircraft. 30% of oil is now used by jet aircraft and the actual amount used will increase as more and more aircraft are built. So even if electric cars, trains and boats take off in a big way (not likely anytime soon), aircraft will drive oil prices through the roof. Note that jet aircraft burn huge amounts of fuel, fuel efficiency increases of only at most a few percent can be got with the next generation of jet aircraft, and nobody has any idea how to make an electric aircraft that could carry any reasonable number of people at any speed. So by 2029 I am sure that flying by jet will be much more expensive then now. Book your intercontinental trips by jet now!!

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement
RayBiotech
RayBiotech

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
R&D Systems
R&D Systems
Advertisement
Life Technologies