The industrial doomsday scenario put forward by peak oil theorists isn't just for far flung voices on the Internet anymore.
Peak oil is not a problem of Earth's supplies: there's plenty of oil in a variety of forms. The difficulty is in how much energy it takes to recover and process it. And if it hasn't happened already, soon the demand for energy commodities will soar past existing production capacity and crash headlong into the brick wall of declining discoveries.
The economic effects of this could be devastating to the human populations within industrialized societies, to say the least.
That's not just the line from Noam Chomsky, Michael Rupert and Dmitry Orlov: the second largest company in the world, Shell International, a major player in the energy commodities industries, is saying it too.
In a recent "Signals & Signposts" report by Shell, forecasting energy scenarios through 2050, the oil giant predicted a growing volatility in the price of oil and a coming period of "extraordinary opportunity or misery."
As the demand for oil buts up against actual production and remaining reserves, the climbing price of oil will cause the gross domestic product of all nations to decline, they predict.
In another section, Shell calls these economic effects "Depression 2.0." Though that scenario is introduced as "unlikely," the rest of the report does not paint a rosy outlook.
Climate and environment
Shell predicts that as the energy industry struggles to meet global demand, "environmental tension will swell and spread."
They add: "Political, industrial and individual choices will determine whether these tensions can be resolved and whether the solutions will be benign or harmful to us."
Within what they called a "zone of uncertainty," energy entrepreneurs will have "extraordinary opportunity" for growth if the right assemblage of technology is made available. However, Shell adds that competition and "natural innovation" in energy efficiency would only account for a moderation in demand of about 20 percent by 2050.
Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2050, demand for easily accessible energy will triple, they predict.
China, Shell adds, is preparing to institute its own cap-and-trade system for regulating carbon emissions. Businesses around the world, they noted, have already largely started to accept that climate regulations will soon become a reality for global trade and have begun to budget accordingly.
But even the most rapid improvements in renewable technologies, like electric cars or microorganisms that convert captured carbon into liquid fuel, won't help much in the near term.
"New energy technologies must be demonstrated at commercial scale and require thirty years of sustained double-digit growth to build industrial capacity and grow sufficiently to feature at even 1-2% of the energy system," they wrote.
The bumpy peak
Shell predicts in clear terms what journalist Michael Rupert said in his recent film "Collapse": more shocks to the industry loom ahead, which will lead to increased price volatility, producing rapid inflation and deflation on the consumer level.
And if that phenomena hasn't already begun, they add, it will be in full-boar by the end of this decade.
Interestingly enough, Shell also predicts that "[the] longer the delay in climate policy action, the more likely shocks become."
One such example would be the potential for peak output in Saudi Arabia. If it were a reality and word got out that their fields would be in permanent decline, it could produce extreme price variations and social unrest amid worsening economic conditions. A series of US diplomatic cables from 2007-2009, published by secrets outlet WikiLeaks, revealed that the former head geologist in charge of exploration for the Saudi oil firm Aramco, who retired in 2004, has expressed very serious concerns that this was happening.
This admission would seem to run counter to Shell's political strategy, which has been to help fund the obfuscation of efforts toward climate policies. They were particularly generous with former Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who was a loyal supporter of their interests.
According to the nonprofit activist group Oil Change International, as of August 2010 Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) topped the list of US politicians who've benefitted handsomely from the generosity of the oil and gas industry. He's accepted over $1.8 million from them.
Other names atop the list, they add, include "Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) at $1,707,173; Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) at $1,147,558; Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) at $1,123,006; Representative Rick Boucher (D-VA) at $1,094,811; and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) at $1,004,514."
Read the full report here (PDF).