Since the turn of the 20th century, a succession of outspoken voices has warned of an imminent crisis referred to as “peak oil”. The idea is that once we’ve reached the apex of available oil reserves, oil production can only plateau or decrease, causing energy prices to skyrocket and limiting the development of modern society.
These predictions were often overblown in the popular imagination, and old estimates of remaining oil supplies have been rendered obsolete by new technologies and drilling techniques. After decades of controversy with no actual catastrophe, many folks have been led to believe that oil, and other fossil fuels, will never run dry, and that humankind will be able to continue to utilize them indefinitely.
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Peak Oil: Fact or Fiction?
We still can’t keep drilling forever. As with any finite resource, running out of extractable fossil fuels is inevitable. However, the most recent data suggests that this may not occur for centuries. That doesn’t give us free reign to keep burning fossil fuels, though. We know that fossil-fueled air and water contamination cause millions of premature deaths every year. Greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuels are already warming our planet at an unprecedented rate. Related sea level rise and flooding already threaten roughly 760 million people in coastal areas – numbers which will only increase as the impact of climate change becomes more apparent.
With millions of people losing their homes and millions more lacking adequate access to food and clean water, continuing to use fossil fuels indefinitely is, very simply, not a morally acceptable option. These far-reaching and potentially irreversible consequences will affect generations to come, and the decisions we make now will define the world our kids and grandkids inherit.
To fully deplete the supplies of available and extractable fossil fuels – no matter how long it would take – would wreak havoc on our natural world and on the most basic necessities of human life: clean air, clean water, and fertile land.
The Divest Movement on college campuses around the country is just one example of the push towards cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.
Alternatives to Fossil Fuels: Renewable Energy
There’s one thing that 20th century peak oil scares never took into account: renewable energy. Even as oil companies were developing the techniques for modern fracking, renewable energy was becoming more efficient and reliable – so much so that we are now well on our way to a society powered by the wind and the sun.
Clean, renewable energy sources do not cause pollution nor emit greenhouse gases. These benefits are enough to justify replacing old fossil fuels with wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and geothermal, but there’s far more at play. Cost reductions in wind and solar have made them economically competitive with fossil fuels, so much so that countries like China and India have cancelled hundreds of megawatts of planned coal plants. In some places, renewable energy prices are expected to plunge so low that they will actually be cheaper to run than existing fossil fuel plants.
The Time Is Now
Instead of continuing to seek out ever more dangerous and expensive reserves of fossil fuels, we must continue to invest in the clean, renewable technologies that will take their place. Not only is the development of renewable energy good for our environment, it’s also an investment in plentiful energy supplies for the coming generations. We see more stories every day of countries, businesses and individuals shifting away from fossil fuels, and one thing is clear: The clean energy transition has begun, and it cannot be stopped.