Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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18 Aug 2006

ASPO 5. Robert Hirsch scares me out of my wits…

**Robert Hirsch. Mitigation of Peak Oil: Making the Case: more numbers and some questions.**

hirsch**Bob Hirsch** is the author of the deeply influential Hirsch report which has been referred to here on many occasions. I had really been looking forward to hearing him speak but found his talk hugely disappointing. You can see his Powerpoint slides here. I will give you my notes of his talk first, and my reflections on it at the end. It was one of those talks where you sit there thinking “did he really just say that?”, and eventually realising that yes, actually he did. Anyway, this is (reconstructed from my notes) what he said*.

What happens when world oil supplies decrease? The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 caused inflation, unemployment, recession and high interest rates. What we are about to face now is the world’s first forced energy transition. Growing oil shortages will lead to world demand destruction.

h2Forecasting is very difficult. If we look at previous peaks (i.e. US 48, UK) we can see that even a year beforehand it was not obvious that it was going to happen. Texas, North America, UK, Norway, all had steep declines after their peaks, 2 – 10%, which is very hard to model. The Hirsch Report looked on a worldwide basis at 3 scenarios, firstly that no action is taken until the peak is reached, secondly that mitigation is started 10 years before the peak, and thirdly that mitigation is started 20 years before the peak. It assumed a crash programme implementation as the most optimistic case.

h1In the new study, due out very soon, we looked at vehicle fuel efficiency, and at options for mitigation in relation to that. We looked at heavy oils, tar sands, coal to liquids, gas to liquids, vehicle efficiency and enhanced recovery. Why did we look at those things? They are all ready for implementation, now. Our model assumes a 20 year preparation time, and depletion rates of 2%. This decline rate would be bad enough, but Slumberger are predicting depletion rates of 8%, which would be terrible.

h3The problem with transport is a liquid fuels problem, and is to do with what it is that you have to put in in order to get clean liquid fuels out. The new study, “Economic Impacts of Liquid Fuel Mitigation Option

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19 Aug 9:15am

Like you, I’m flabbergasted.

I’m also curious what assumptions Robert Hirsch is making that vehicle efficiency improvements come out so expensive. Can you tell us anything more about that?

20 Aug 4:56am

The thing about auto efficiency is that he is probably right–cars are damned efficient, given what they are.

Rather than trying to squeeze even more out of the infernal combustion engine powering the single-occupant-vehicle, it’s the whole car paradigm that has to go . . .

As John Howe (author of “The End of Fossil Energy” and a mechanical engineer) notes, most of the energy consumed in transport is fighting wind resistance, which goes up as the square of speed and becomes dominant above about 20 mph.

So if we’re not willing to challenge the car paradigm, then Hirsch is probably right–we would have to spend a lot more to get more efficiency out of cars.

22 Aug 11:45am

why the car paradigm is so difficult to break is because it is so pervasive. As kids we get to play with toy cars, then ride toy cars at the fair, then they are babe magnets, status symbols and even livelihoods (I come from Sweden where a large part of the workforce is dependent on the vehicle industry.) the question at the top of city planner’s minds is always parking.
Now. We calculated that if ride sharing were introduced so 10% shared the morning commute, Swedens economic growth would be halted. So no-one really wants to abandon the solution. If, when faced with a choice of walk, public transport or car, the more compelling choice was a car alternative, behaviour would start to change.

We really ARE in denial about the car. 40-60% of city space is dedicated to vehicle transport, only a fraction of the energy spent to move a car actually goes to moving the occupant, and most people when asked what their car costs them go watery eyed and underestimate wildly. And not to mention the safety record of road traffic – the second or third largest cause of death in many countries.

Pat Murphy
22 Aug 2:09pm

Dear Rob,

I commend you on your article re Robert Hirsch at ASPO. I realized that Hirsch has been a key figure because he acknowledged Peak Oil for the Department of Defense and so was brought into the club. His ASPO presentation was more or less an update of his earlier ones. It appears you noticed what he is actually saying – convert from oil to a different set of dirtier fuels.

His wedges correspond to some extent to the wedges of Sokolov and Pacala of Princton who are dealing with CO2. These are the ones used by Al Gore in his movie.

The proposed solution to the CO2 problem is Carbon Sequestration or, as I prefer to call it Carbon Bequestration, as in leaving a few billion tons of CO2 for our grandchildren.

It is interesting to see the kinds of presentations that ASPO offers. I am not sure that all of them are agreeable to Colin but they do represent scientific thinking. ASPO USA is also focused on technology solutions.

I think that ASPO achieved its goal of making the world aware of Peak Oil. I don’t think the organization ever purported to offer a particular solution. The fossil fuel companies are now taking over the movement, offering new fossil fuel alternatives and blurring the distinction between conventional and non conventional oils.

The work has only just begun.


22 Aug 3:26pm

What Hirsch’s presentation shows but does not say is that the only way for business to carry on as usual is to destroy any semblance of a stable climate in the process.

22 Aug 4:25pm

Dear Sir,

I have read your comments about Robert Hirsch’s presentation and agree with your conclusions. There is a better way. We have developed a unique technology that converts water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen that uses the internal energy of steam to run the process. Thus, we could use abandoned oil wells or geothermal wells to produce hydrogen at competitive costs. Our company has in operation a mini-pilot plant producing hydrogen and we are progressing to introduce a commercial system within the next 2 years. The price of hydrogen ranges between $0.75 – $1.48 (USA) per kilogram of hydrogen. There is hope! Our web-site for more information is


Peter S.Hunt
22 Aug 5:58pm

Where did you get:
a- the heavy CO2 penalty for manufacturing and using liquid fuels from coal? I believe it to be way off if one manufactures methanolor diethyl ether and run them througfh a fuel cell ( even a simple membrane PEM one rather than a solid oxide one ) . Sequestering the CO@ from the coal conversion process is not thought to be difficult or energy intensive.
b- the net energy efficiency figures for the tar sands. These are I also suspect way off with current employing technology both in-situ and dig and boil technologies if the upgrading by- products are used. Heat in the first instance and petroleum coke in the second. THAI and ebulating bed boilers for the hydrogen production in the did and boil technology.

Now on the positive side I do agree that Hirsch is suboptimizing with his perception that we can not wean nourselves away from the IC auto. We will have to and consider what China is doing with Magplane ( google This will I suspect be ready to demo in China at the ipcomming summer olympics and will tie 40 cities together in efficient air line speed intercity transport. Note the CEO of this US company Dr. Bruce Montgomery of MIT could not sell this in the US for political reason’s, ( Anti Air Line and Amtrak) so he had to go to China.)

I am proud to call Bruce, an oldcollege room mate, a friend. MIT named a building after him in the magnetic’s complex. Give him a call.

Baby Peanut
22 Aug 8:12pm

EROEI not EROI damnit

22 Aug 8:16pm

oops, well spotted.

22 Aug 9:21pm

Any reduction of demand completely aside, immediate transition to Biofuels can reduce/replace a significant chunk of the petro burned for transport throughout the world, with NO modification to existing vehicles, while simultaneously reducing the net Co2 output. We just have to DO it.

23 Aug 2:55am

Coming from a low middle income family and one of the poorest parts of Ohio, I find it very hard to believe that we can sell a reduction in energy consumption and relocalization unless it comes with a financial benefit and doesn’t affect redneck culture. The low end of the wage scale makes up the fat middle of America. Having come from that community, I can tell you that if you set up a Peak Oil awareness tent in the middle of Hicksville USA your are going to get laughed out of town. 1 in 5 Walmart shoppers is also a voter. This is a big group of people that the Republican party pays close attention to. Do you really think that Madame Supertanker, and the rest of the Cheney Administration are going to do ANYTHING that will prevent Billy Bob from driving his pick up truck down to the Walmart to pick up the newest Kenny Chesney album?

What Bob Hirsch is talking about is political reality in the USA. The American way of life is non negotiable. In the US the Golden Rule always wins out. The guys with the gold make the rules.

We can have pendantic conversations about CO2 absorbtion and the EROEI but my extended hilljack family isn’t about to give up central air, driving three states away for a week of bass fishing, buying plastic trinkets from Walmart or playing Texas Hold’em online until they simply can’t afford it. That is not going to change. Call me negative, cynic or fear monger if you like but it is the truth. My people, Gods help them, are ignorant barbarians. The best we can do is put the word out that the stuff is about the hit the fan and then get ready for it ourselves. In my opionion any other effort or outrage is simply spitting into the wind.

23 Aug 7:18am

Robert Hirsch knows what he’s doing. Senators and admirals take him seriously. He is applying the flame of understanding at the maximum rate.

Dr. Doom
25 Aug 10:18pm


The name of this website is “Transition Culture” not “Pimp My Blog.”

25 Aug 10:24pm


Well-said. I don’t think it’s worth a pot-of-piss to advocate any agenda at this point for exactly the reasons you lay out.

Most peak oil presentations are made to crowds who are VERY friendly and open to ideas like car-free cities, bicycling to work, gardening co-ops, growing a portion of one’s own food, not buying the latest CD, not watching television etc.

So what happens is this: the presenter gives the presentation advocating these things, gets a lot of postive feedback and then takes that as a sign the great population is open to this stuff.

The reality is most people in North AMerica will laugh you out of town and/or resist with all their might such ideas.

Ted Howard
26 Sep 8:21am

Hi Rob
Like you I’m horrified, but I can see why it’s going to be very tough, especially with the understanding here of Travis and Doom-A-Holic.

I really appreciate the new book “Endgame” by Derrick Jensen, in which #6 of his many profound premises is:

“Civilization is not redeemable. Our culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary
transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. If we do not put a halt to it,
civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the
planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The effects of this
degradation will continue to harm humans and nonhumans for a very long time.”

This culture will play a TINABAULMS (there-is-no-alternative, business-as-usual, last-man- standing) until it hits the wall.

We have given peak oil presentations here over our region, and at times we have met that ‘resist with all their might’ type of responce especially from local and national politicians, local lobby groups and others. Their angry responce, at times yelling at us through clenched teeth, was telling us that their car based high energy lifestyle was not negotiable.

This does not stop me from trying. I have taken a stand, and others have joined me. We may be making little progress, but at the same time, we’re personally making ‘other arrangements’ for a very different future…like learning permaculture gardening, getting water tanks, selling our vehicles, using our bikes etc.

The biosphere is going down.
I really hope the cultural collapse comes soon, so that there will be something left.
The longer this goes on, the greater the fall will be for those who resist it.

Happy to be here, among friends who understand.

Nelson, NZ

William H East
24 May 4:19pm

Some other countries have long realized that more cars and multiple lane highways are not the answer. Mass rapid transit is a partial solution. Building more efficient cars may continue the jobs that were created by the motor vehicle industry, but another more efficient means of transportation should be considered.


29 Jun 5:24am

Hirsch is really quite conservative. Sure, he understands basic geology, which is all Peak Oil is really comes down to.

But I’m not sure Hirsch even believes in global warming. Maybe he does, but does anyone know?

Hirsch has been a pioneer in recognizing the PO problem, but his “solutions” are really quite anemic.

Because I can assure you that the American way of life is negotiable and a couple of more dollars per gallon of gas is going to prove it. And that right soon now.