Transportation: How long can we adapt before we fall off the Net Energy Cliff?

[ I first published this in 2014. After re-reading it when damnthematrix republished it recently, I saw corrections and updates that needed to be made, so here is the improved version.

Keep in mind that  I am wildly speculating, there are too many factors to predict the future. I have guesses about when the crash will start and how fast it will take, but I don’t really know.  This is a unique crash – there has never been a fossil-fueled civilization in the past, and there never will be again.  It’s back to the eternal wood and muscle power of the past.

Let me know if you think I left any important factors out, correct any errors, or other feedback in a comment.  Perhaps you will agree with me that this is going to be a Fast Crash, and possibly faster than any previous fall of a nation in history. 

The idea that it took centuries for past civilizations to crash is a myth, see my book reviews of Peter Turchin, who studies the cycles of history.  It takes about 20 years.  What historians do is look for changes in society that led to the crash, often centuries before.  Historians of the future will probably be puzzled why societies did nothing to prepare for the time when finite fossils inevitably peaked and declined and write endless books about how that could have happened and the immense speed at which civilization hit the proverbial wall.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]


The problem we face is a liquid fuel crisis.  Absolutely essential vehicles, such as agricultural tractors and combines, railroads, and trucks run on diesel fuel, ships on bunker fuel.  They can never be battery or fuel-cell operated or electrified, nor do we have the decades it would take to build a new fleet running on something other than diesel, or convert the existing fleet to run on coal (liquefied) or natural gas.

We KNOW relentless energy decline is going to start any day now because global peak oil production was reached in 2005  and instead of preparing 10-20 years ahead as Hirsch recommended in his 2005 Department of Energy Peak oil study, we’ve done absolutely nothing, so the situation has gotten worse.

Non-essential Transportation Fuel can be given to Trucks & Trains (see Table 1 below)

1) Today, 67% of transportation fuel is used by non-essential vehicles. Cars (28%) and light trucks (26%) use 55% of transportation fuel.  All of that 55% could be shifted to essential vehicles, as could the 7% jet fuel, 1% recreational water boats, 3% Construction and Mining, and 1% recreational vehicles.  Implication: That would force anyone who wasn’t 100% self-sufficient to move to a town or city because country gas stations will be closed (though rural federal and state freeway stations would remain open for essential long-distance trucks).  Refineries would attempt to refine a larger share of crude oil into diesel rather than gasoline like they do now to keep essential vehicles running.

2) 33% is being used by essential vehicles: 20% heavy-duty trucks, 3% Construction and Mining, 4% ships, 2% rail, 3% pipelines, 2% agricultural.  

As oil scarcity increased, a rational society would transfer much if not all of the non-essential vehicle oil to essential vehicles.  Except for those of the rich, powerful, connected, and those related to them no doubt…

It wouldn’t take long for oil decline to crash the financial system, which is based on credit lent out to debtors who will eventually pay it back, plus interest.  This can only happen in a growing economy, but oil decline will relentlessly shrink the economy.  Credit will dry up.  So will exploration and drilling for new oil and future projects. This is already happening, we’ve found less oil in 2015-2017 than since 1940, and not much is being spent on exploration and drilling because the price of oil is so low.

Optimistic scenario: 30 years before we hit the wall 

The likely decline rate is expected to accelerate. We’ve been on a plateau since 2005, but that will certainly end within the next decade.

This is because there are 500 giant oil fields, nearly all discovered 50 or more years ago, that provide two-thirds of all oil now and all the oil that has ever been produced.

The giant oil fields will set the pace of overall decline, since the contribute the largest share of oil.  Those that have entered the decline phase already are declining at a rate of 6% on average.

The other 47,500 smaller oil fields decline at much faster rates, for example, fracked oil declines 85% in just 3 years.  This means that overall decline will exponentially increase by 0.15% a year as they contribute greater and greater shares of oil production. That means that every 7 years the rate goes up by 1% (Hook 2009).

Hence the term “Net Energy Cliff”.

The good news as far as climate change goes, is that will also knock down emissions.  Oil is the master resource.  Without it you can’t find and produce more oil, or coal and natural gas for that matter.  Oil decline sets the rate of civilization’s decline.  Coal and natural gas can’t replace oil — read my book “Why trucks stop running” or more of the posts at energyskeptic to understand why.

In 2016 the U.S. burned 19.63 million barrels of oil a day (mbpd).  Today 6.5 mbpd goes to essential vehicles and equipment.  Let’s say that half of that is inessential goods being shipped. That would make the mininum about needed to maintain supply chains and other essential vehicles and equipment is 3.25 mbpd.

If oil began to decline from 19.63 mbpd tomorrow at a steady rate of 6% a year, in 30 years we’d be down to 3.25 barrels.  Using Hooks factor of exponential decline by 0.0015 per year, it would last only 23 years.

But we don’t have 23 to 30 years.  Things will not go perfectly.  First, we will have gone a lot below 19.63 mbpd before anything at all happens.  The financial system will have crashed again, harder than 2008. Oil demand will go down, just like it did after the 2008 crash.  Far more people will be thrown into poverty and drive less or almost never.

In a deflation, prices spiral downwards, but food and oil are essential to life, even though people are less and less able to afford to buy things.  Those prices will go up at some point.  If the prices go up enough, then an even worse depression will ensue.

The rich are fine with that, but once people get hungry, social unrest will get worse and worse.  To prevent total chaos, civil war, and disorder, the government will have to step in and ration oil and food, most importantly to agriculture, which needs 10 calories of fossil fuels for every food calorie we eat.

If this point isn’t reached until we’re down to 10 mbpd, then 3.25 mbpd is reached in 16.5 years.

But it’s probably less time than that.  The rich and powerful will manage to get more than their share of rations.

And Europe and most other non-producing oil nations will have already begun energy descent.  Supply chains for just about everything will have already broken since so many parts are made in Germany, South Korea, Japan, China, and elsewhere.  Not to mention rare earth minerals and much more that we import now. So even if the U.S. starts the decline later than other countries, and uses their military card to get Middle Eastern oil and somehow Russia, China, and so on don’t stop us, we’ll be missing the spare parts to fix military and all other equipment.

Meanwhile if fracked oil peaks in 2019-2020 as David Hughes has predicted in “Drilling Deeper”, we may not be able to get much after that, since the sweet spots will have already been drilled and the EROI of going after it might be too high. Tar sands production will decline as well because the EROI is only 3 (in-situ) to 5 (mined) and at best only 27% can be mined due to lack of natural gas. EROI needs to be somewhere between 10 and 14 probably to maintain civilization as we know it.

At some point of decline, it’s conceivable that Canada will be keeping their oil within Canada,  Texas within Texas, and California within California. Decline will likely be regional, with some areas declining faster and sooner than others.

Even if rationing is done wisely and fairly, and much of the remaining oil is going to agriculture, other factors will be lowering food production. Irrigated cropland will have to be abandoned after a dam has failed, because the energy to replace it isn’t there.  New pesticides won’t be developed at all or quickly enough.  There won’t have been an effort to shift to organic agriculture since every drop of oil will be thrown into keeping industrial agriculture going, and climate change will be further lowering crop yields via drought, flood, heat waves, hail, and more severe storms.

What else could go wrong?

  • Oil producing countries export less because they’re using more oil themselves (ELM model)
  • Nuclear war, nuclear EMP takes down the electric grid, nuclear power plant meltdown, or nuclear spent fuel pool disaster
  • Hurricanes take out Gulf Coast refineries or drown New York city.
  • Tsunamis or an Earthquake in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco.
  • ARKStorm in California where 1/3 of U.S. food is produced
  • Volcanic Eruptions in Japan, United States, and so on.
  • Nations go back to negotiating deals between producing and non-producing nations and bypass the international oil market, or compete with the U.S. in buying the remaining oil in the Middle East as there is less and less to export. That could lessen America’s oil imports further, on top of the exponential decline rate.
  • China, Russia, and Europe are much closer to the Middle East than we are.
  • Oil shocks make investors “Peak Oil Aware” and world-wide stock markets crash
  • Peak coal, peak natural gas, peak uranium, peak sand, peak water, peak topsoil, peak phosphorous, etc
  • See all of energyskeptic for more factors, the wiki of collapse

There are ways to use less oil that would extend it — and lessen climate change!

  • Maximum speed limit of 55 for cars, 40 for trucks.  Aerodynamic losses can lead to 50% energy inefficiencies, especially trucks.  I don’t understand why haven’t climate change activists haven’t already made this their main platform already.
  • Start rationing now.
  • Two-thirds of us can take pressure off of agricultural oil by eating a lot fewer calories and be much healthier in the bargain
  • Engage in a simpler way of life. Stop shopping so much.
  • Grow food locally
  • Limit immigration and encourage one or zero child families
  • Transfer cargo from energy inefficient trucks to far more energy efficient rail and ships,
  • Stop all the just-in-time deliveries, that’s been a huge factor in truck’s increasing use of fuel — they arrive half empty with just what’s needed and depart empty quite often
  • Package goods better. Walmart made a Ramen manufacturer shrink their containers and could load orders of magnitude more of the stuff on a truck.
  • To prevent panic, turn to Postcarbon and community and master gardeners to help people grow food, like the victory gardens of WWII (my Dad’s family were given a plot of land near the tennis courts at the University of Chicago). Look to  groups like Bay Localize or Transition Towns, and any group that has been working on alternative currencies like Argentina.

There are many people who have written about making the transition, such as Ted Trainer’s “the simpler way”, on an economic system based on a steady-state instead of endless growth, H.T. Odum’s “The prosperous way down”, and some of the groups mentioned above.

The good news is that after oil starts its relentless exponential decline, in 60 years, today’s 10 billion tons (GtC) of carbon emissions (multiply by 3.67 to get CO2 value) would decline to the emissions of 1800, which were 0.01 GtC per year – 1,000 times less than today’s.  [I will publish more about this later].


Hook, M., Hirsch, R., Aleklett, K. June 2009. Giant oil field decline rates and their influence on world oil production. Energy Policy 37(6): 2262-2272


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6 Responses to Transportation: How long can we adapt before we fall off the Net Energy Cliff?

  1. Rick Helm says:

    Alice, thanks for a very useful (and sobering) outline of various transport fuel scenarios awaiting us. You are right to point out that the crisis is a going to be a transport fuel crisis, a fact that some who tout a transition to solar and other alternative energy solutions tend to forget or ignore. I agree with you that the net energy cliff means the crash will come quickly with multiple unpredictable feedback loops. Of the list you have presented, the one that intrigues me most is the exponential decline in net exports under Jeffrey Brown’s Export Land Model. As he shows, given the current trends, China and India would be taking the entire global available oil exports in the next 16-17 years, if I remember correctly. He qualifies that scenario by saying, of course, that he doesn’t think that’s going to happen. But what will happen? The geopolitical feedback loop I think we need to think about is whether Saudi Arabia and other important producer/exporters will decide at some point to stop exporting and keep the oil at home for domestic consumption when faced with exponentially depleting production and domestic unrest. And if one country decides to do that, will others fall in line, creating the mother of all oil crises?

  2. Donald says:

    Well you can run vehicles on an ethanol gasoline mix – it is also possible to run on 100 ethanol. In Brazil they run on a mixture although 70 -75 % is currently gasoline.

    Given the importance of trucks – boats -tractors then US could do worse than to invest more heavily in ethanol production as cars that run on 85% ethanol are already being built.

    This would hopefully waylay any immediate transportation crisis

  3. tagio says:

    I believe there is limited ability to increase diesel production by choosing to make less gasoline. A refiner or petroleum engineer would have to comment on this. I recall reading somewhere that gasoline is a product made from the leftover hydrocarbons after making diesel, that otherwise there would be no use for it and it would be a waste product.
    The gasoline engine was created in order to create a market for what would otherwise have been waste. To the extent this is true, it may be that as long as we can create diesel, we will also always have some gasoline. This means that declining amounts of gasoline will always be available as long as we have the petroleum to make diesel. Of course, eventually it will be rationed, but I think the upshot is that we can’t significantly conserve or extend the longevity of diesel by not using crude to make gasoline.

  4. Ravi says:

    I have been following your posts for sometime now and am fascinated by the numbers and facts presented in them.I just have a question.
    The BP report says we have 50 years of oil and 53 years of natural gas and more than 150 years of coal.(I am aware that it must be taken with a grain of salt) If we allocate remaining oil for only “essential” purposes like agriculture and water supply and try to shift non-essential like personal transportation to natural gas and coal (electricity) and decentralize electricity production with solar panels for individual homes there by minimizing wastage,can we at least buy ourselves some time.
    I have read charles hall’s paper on minimum EROI needed for civilization to survive. The point I am trying to make is that instead of trying to increase our decreasing EROI of fuels,what if we decrease our EROI needs like the cuban society. Can we make it then?

    • energyskeptic says:

      This website addresses your questions, but a reply would be book length. Solar panels won’t do a damned thing unless you’re off the grid with a diesel generator to keep the batteries charged (or they expire much sooner), or you have an expensive storage battery (last I looked Tesla’s was $6,000), and if any of the components of the solar, generator, or batteries break, I hope you’re handy! Home solar generated energy is fed into the grid, not your home. The problem is mainly oil, since that’s the master resource that makes all other resources possible, including more oil, but the problem is a PERFECT STORM of topsoil, aquifer, and forest depletion and so on.