Thursday, May 08, 2008

Great Filter - Fin d'siecle Oil?

For some time now, I've used the terms "evolutionary bottleneck" or "evolutionary blind alley" - but my hat's off this week to Robin Hanson and his coinage "Great Filter" referenced in the Technology Review article apparently upsetting to that pair of angry UFO-logists in the comments;
the evolutionary path to life-forms capable of space colonization leads through a "Great Filter," which can be thought of as a probability barrier. (I borrow this term from Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University.) The filter consists of one or more evolutionary transitions or steps that must be traversed at great odds in order for an Earth-like planet to produce a civilization capable of exploring distant solar systems. You start with billions and billions of potential germination points for life, and you end up with a sum total of zero extraterrestrial civilizations that we can observe. The Great Filter must therefore be sufficiently powerful--which is to say, passing the critical points must be sufficiently improbable--that even with many billions of rolls of the dice, one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals. At least, none that we can detect in our neck of the woods.

Now, just where might this Great Filter be located? There are two possibilities: It might be behind us, somewhere in our distant past. Or it might be ahead of us, somewhere in the decades, centuries, or millennia to come. Let us ponder these possibilities in turn.
I'm going to begin using this term and targetting certain events as possible or probable Great Filters in the path of complex industrial civilization. Matt Simmons talked about one such filter at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston this week. OTC: $100 trillion needed to rebuild energy infrastructure;
The oil and gas industry will need to invest $50-100 trillion to rebuild its ageing infrastructure within the next 7 years and stave off a serious drop in oil and gas production, Matt Simmons, chairman of Simmons & Co. International, told OGJ May 5 at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston.

In a worst-case scenario, Simmons said, oil and gas output could fall by 10-20% by 2013 if industry does not replace its rusting, corroded assets. Spare capacity also has run out because formerly cheap prices for oil and gas precluded upgrading and construction of new facilities .

The average age of offshore rigs is 25 years, and oil companies have ignored the problem for the past few decades because of the low energy prices, which meant that maintenance has been expensive.

However, the upward trend in prices can help pay for the rebuilding of the energy system, Simmons stated.

"There is no blueprint in place, and this is a global problem. The longer the blueprint is postponed, the more acute the crisis will get," he said.
Simmons is an archetypal figure in the sphere of Peak Oil realists. If he says it, you can pretty much take it to the bank. This begs the question; where are the presidential candidates? on a topic of such obvious moment. It also goes straight back to the struggles of the Rockefeller heirs with corporatist governance and the challenge of trying to put ExxonMobil back on track.