If you thought the environmental problems associated with our dependence on oil were bad enough, just wait – the end of cheap oil could bring new and even more vexing ecological threats. That’s the message from three scholars making a provocative new call for ecologists to get more active in studying the implications of tightening oil supplies for ecosystems and conservation.

In the 1950s, an American petroleum geologist named M. King Hubbert noticed that oil fields appeared to have a predictable production pattern, with the flow declining rapidly once about half the oil was gone. He eventually developed models that accurately predicted when oil production reached its “peak” and then started declining in the United States and other nations. His work has since sparked a contentious, decades-long debate over when the world as a whole will reach “peak oil.” Some analysts argue that the peak has already come and gone, while others calculate it will arrive sometime later this century.

Whatever the right answer, it is not too soon to start preparing for the end of easily-accessible oil, write Balint Czucz of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Joseph P. Gathman of the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, and Guy R. McPherson of the University of Arizona, Tuscon, in the current issue of Conservation Biology. “The implications of reduced oil availability are large and difficult to contemplate,” they write. But some of the scenarios aren’t pretty. Although more expensive fuel could curtail some harmful farming and logging practices, it could also lead to more land being cleared to plant crops for biofuels, and increased exploitation of forests for firewood. At the same time, slowing oil flows could increase public support for damaging projects designed to wring oil out of tar sands and shale deposits, and make politicians uneasy about backing large-scale conservation efforts.

“Hasty and uncoordinated” responses to peak oil “could damage ecosystems to such an extent that the resource base becomes degraded and the planetary carrying capacity is lowered, which would further stress human populations,” the authors write.

To clarify and potentially avoid such issues, ecologists need to do a better job of incorporating peak oil into their long-term thinking, the authors argue. “Ecologists are well positioned to provide essential analysis and expertise that can assist society in making the transition to the postpetroleum world,” they write. It is no surprise, they note, that some of the concepts and methods already used by peak-oil debaters originated with ecologists studying how energy flows through ecosystems. Now, ecologists can continue to “contribute to the debate on peak oil by providing tools to describe energy flows through complex systems and clarifying the consequences of changing energy availability.” But ignoring the peak is not an option: “Failing to take energy scarcity into account,” they warn, “is like preparing for the wrong exam.” – David Malakoff

Source: CZÚCZ, B., GATHMAN, J., & McPHERSON, G. (2010). The Impending Peak and Decline of Petroleum Production: an Underestimated Challenge for Conservation of Ecological Integrity. Conservation Biology, DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01503.x

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