“Peak oil” is here. Now what?

Peak Oil / Religion

The amount of oil produced world-wide has not increased significantly since 2005. Sure we’ve found major new reserves, but they’re harder to access and more expensive to produce. The cheap oil of that drove the hyper-progress of the 20th century is gone. Get ready. It’s gonna get bumpy.

We are entering an era in which we are effectively going through a economic phase change. In physics, when we move through a phase change, physical characteristics of the material begin to go “critical” and fluctuate wildly the closer we get to the transition. According to economists, the same thing is happening with oil prices. And it’s not going to stop for a long while.

John Timmer, writing on Nobel Intent points out what follows:

“That has some pretty significant consequences. Of the 11 recessions the US has experienced since World War II, 10 have been preceded by a sudden change in oil prices. The US isn’t alone, either. Italy’s entire trade deficit, which has contributed to its financial troubles, can be accounted for by the rise in imported oil. The world, it seems, has allowed its economies to become entirely dependent upon fossil fuels. “If oil production can’t grow, the implication is that the economy can’t grow either,” the authors write. “This is such a frightening prospect that many have simply avoided considering it.”

And it’s not just oil that poses problems. US coal production peaked in 2002, and the global peak has been predicted to hit as soon as 2025. The last time global coal reserves were evaluated, in 2005, the total was cut by more than half compared to previous estimates. Fracking has boosted the production of natural gas dramatically, but even here the authors find some reasons for concern. Recent reports suggest that shale gas reserves have been overestimated, and many fields that have been in production for a while have experienced large declines in production.

The commentary concludes that we simply can’t rely on any fossil fuel to provide a stable and economic source of energy for more than a couple of decades. And, given the economic shocks that result from rapid changes in energy prices, that’s a serious problem. “Economists and politicians continually debate policies that will lead to a return to economic growth,” the authors note. “But because they have failed to recognize that the high price of energy is a central problem, they haven’t identified the necessary solution: weaning society off fossil fuel.””

More here.

So what for churches? Big floor-space buildings are going to become increasingly expensive to heat and cool. So are homes. Apparently the era of large homes is over – and for the first time in years, the average floor space of new construction is decreasing.

Episcopal church buildings, built for the most part in the early part of the 20th century (or the latter part of the 19th) are pretty well adapted to an era of high energy prices. They’re small. They have high ceilings and small windows. Sometimes they have thick rock walls. They tend to be in areas where significant numbers of people can get to church without too much transportation expense.

But that’s also a bit of curse. The small size means that average attendance might necessarily be less than 200 people a Sunday – because that’s the most you can seat at one time. But that would put a congregation squarely into a class of congregations (transitional and maybe pastoral size) where the present economics are wrecking havoc with sustainable business models of congregation life. Such congregations can barely afford full-time seminary trained clergy. But with the move to the 1979 prayer book, and Eucharist being the “primary act of Christian worship on a Sunday” the need for regular clergy has increased. It’s those congregations that are feeling the squeeze right now.

But they’re also the most likely to flourish in the new high-energy cost economy. The question is how to move to a new way of providing for the needs of the congregation? I suspect that it’s going to require multiple actions to discover. We’ll need to actively conserve energy costs. Health insurance costs are going to have to be contained somehow. Congregational staffing is going to have to be rethought. Perhaps we’ll move to an à la carte clergy model in some places. I expect congregations will share resources more intentionally both in the diocese and with local ecumenical groups. Stewardship is going to look different too I think. People are not going to know from year to year how much gas and oil are going to cost, and until people can move closer to work that’s going to deeply effect family finances. Maybe endowments will help?

Got any other ideas? ‘Cause the time for ideas is now. We’ve arrived.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Paul Martin says

    I agree with the general thrust of your post. I disagree with some of the generalizations on building construction. Stained glass windows in older stone churches are notorious for air infiltration, and they are all single pane glass. Fitting these with additional plate glass without destroying the appearance of the window is a trick. In my experience, any structure built before the mid 70’s is suspect for energy efficiency, and a lot of the building stock since then isn’t much better. I grew up in a 50’s – 60’s era church which was horribly insulated; I remember the huge icicles which appeared every winter (a sign of a poorly constructed roof).

    I think we are going to see a boom in insulation remediation contractors as energy prices rise. From the church’s perspective, someone in the field should start a wiki so we can share experience in working on problems unique to church architecture.

    Perhaps, as we look at closing down smaller parishes, we should look at the quality and sustainability of the physical plant as one of the criteria.

  2. I think the model that we’ve been using to conceptualize clergy for the past 50-75 years or so is increasingly problematic. The idea that the clergy are the “professional Christians” whom we pay to do the work for us, to maintain the parish programs, and to administrate the parish and its life will be deadly in this kind of environment. As priests become less affordable and consequently less available, the laity are going to have to step up in a significant way or the very concept of a “program church” is going to collapse under its own weight.

    We need a reconceptualization of what the clergy are and their proper roles, and what the laity are and their proper roles–and one that functions with the understanding that most women work and that retirement age is a lot farther down the road now than it used to be. I.e., balancing your Christian Ed program on the backs of professional clergy, stay-at-home moms, and the elderly church ladies isn’t going to cut it any more.

  3. Paul – your point about insulating stained glass windows is well taken. I guess I’m so used to seeing stained glass windows installed with protective glass on the outside (effectively storm windows) that I had forgotten that my experience was probably not normative.

    But yes, I’ve done quite a bit of insulating and tweaking HVAC in every parish I’ve had responsibility for. In my Bethlehem church we ended up saving $10,000+ per year on heating costs by repairing the boiler. Here in Phoenix we’ve seen similar savings by putting reflective film on the southern and western exposure windows and by upgrading our thermostats. (That’s going be saving us even more money as energy costs climb.)

    What would be useful would be to have some sort of program certifying local experts in church retro-fits. We got taken by a firm here in Phoenix, and wasted a year’s worth of savings until we finally gave up on them, tore out their installed equipment and started over.

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