Friday, August 1, 2008

A Portrait of Urban Beauty

Last week I mentioned an upcoming bicycle tour to visit some backyard chicken raising operations in my city, and I promised to share pictures I took on that tour. I did indeed participate in the tour, and I will give a brief report of the event in this post. But first, I want to mention a few news items relating to the oil situation.

The June 2008 edition of the full free version of the International Energy Agency's monthly Oil Market Report was published on Monday or Tuesday of last week (I should keep better track of dates; I promise to do better next time). This was around ten days later than the IEA had promised, which was a bit unusual. (Their next report is due on 12 August, by the way.) According to page 16 of the report, global petroleum liquid supply in June increased by 285,000 barrels per day from the previous month to reach 86.5 million barrels per day. This increase is said to have come largely from OPEC, since non-OPEC output slipped by 65,000 barrels per day during the same period. According to the IEA, therefore, world petroleum production is still growing.

However, the IEA reports have several known weaknesses. First, in computing daily and monthly production values for “petroleum liquids,” they count not only crude oil and condensates, but also tar sands, extra-heavy oil and biofuels. Secondly, their initial estimates for a particular month's production are usually revised downwards as time passes. The world crude oil and petroleum liquids production figures published by the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) are usually at least a million barrels per day lower than those published by the IEA for a given month. The EIA figures show that world petroleum liquids production has not risen significantly above 85 million barrels per day from 2005 until March of this year.

But the most significant weakness of the IEA figures is that at least a few well-placed oil industry experts have pointed out that the reliability of the IEA figures depends on the good faith of oil producing countries in truthfully reporting their production numbers. Some of these experts believe that some of the reporting countries have exaggerated their production figures this year. A case in point is Matt Simmons, president of Simmons and Company International, an energy investment banking company, and oil industry expert. He has objected to claims by Saudi Arabia that their country is producing oil at the levels claimed in the IEA OMR. He has stated that there is no evidence that Saudi production is as high as the Saudis claim (9.5 to 9.7 million barrels per day), and that actual Saudi production is 1.5 million barrels lower than claimed. In his view, world petroleum production is now beginning to falter. (Sources: CNBC Video, “Peak Oil Theory,” 31 July 2008,; “Business Matters: Surviving the Oil Crisis,” Global Public Media,

Accusations about falsely high production numbers were also made last year by Henry Groppe of Groppe, Long and Littel, a petroleum and chemical consulting firm. In an interview with David Strahan of Global Public Media (“IEA to Blame for $100 Oil Spike,” 16 December 2007,, Mr. Groppe asserted that OPEC typically overstates its production figures by up to 2 million barrels per day when reporting its production figures to the IEA. If accusations by these men are true (and in the case of Matt Simmons, the accusations may be rather easy to check simply by examining the IEA OMR figures and doing some arithmetic), this has serious implications. First, this may mean that world oil production has indeed peaked and is now in decline, as stated in the German Energy Watch Group report on oil supplies which was published last October. It also means that reporting agencies and national governments may be trying to keep that fact from public view for as long as possible.

There is an interesting recent news item which seems to bear out this suspicion. On 28 July, an article appeared in the Saudi Gazette whose headline read, “Saudi Aramco Denies Shortage of Fuel to Rural Areas,” ( Apparently, farmers and truck drivers in rural areas of Saudi Arabia have begun to experience diesel fuel shortages after Saudi Arabia promised recently to raise its global production and exports to world markets. The link between these two situations may be that Saudi production is constrained and cannot grow, and that in order to boost petroleum exports they are having to deny fuel to some of their own citizens. This is rather like an addict selling his own blood to pay his bills.

Lastly, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said the following words on 31 July, during a press conference: “Producers, unfortunately, have not made the investments necessary to keep pace with this growing demand. Because production capacity and investment has been curtailed over the last decade, supply now barely offsets declining production in older fields, let alone meets new demand.” (Source: There are more and more signs appearing which tell us that worldwide petroleum production has peaked, even though oil prices have pulled back a bit recently.

Concerning oil prices, I wrote about price volatility or “bumpiness” during the peaking period in my post titled, “A Bumpier Plateau.” I believe that we will see several rather rapid cycles of price spikes, falling demand because people can't afford petroleum products, falling price which fools people into consuming more petroleum, and re-appearing price spikes because of revived demand. It will be rather like a man who's out of shape and has coronary artery disease, who has severe chest pain whenever he exerts himself, but who feels fine while resting, and who, while resting, fools himself into believing that he's fine – even though the bouts of chest pain grow more severe and occur at lower thresholds of exertion as time passes. We had better stop fooling ourselves, before it's too late.

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Now for backyard chickens. I was introduced to this subject by listening to podcasts of episodes of Deconstructing Dinner, a regular radio show produced by Kootenay Co-Op Radio in Canada. Deconstructing Dinner discusses the many disadvantages of our present globalized, agribusiness-dominated food system, and explores alternatives that can be implemented by ordinary people. One of their series is titled, “Farming In The City,” and it explores various aspects of urban agriculture. Recently they have been covering what could be called “the urban chicken-raising movement,” and they have featured guest appearances by a radio character named Bucky Buckaw, who also has a weekly radio show on Radio Boise (

Listening to these podcasts piqued my interest, since they pointed out the fragility of our present food system and its vulnerability to the energy and resource shortages that will exist in a post-Peak world. I began to think to myself, “I've had a dog and a few cats as pets during my life. Why not try a chicken or two?” An urban agriculture group in our city was hosting a chicken-raising class and backyard coop bicycle tour, so I joined in. Now that I've seen and heard a bit, I still don't know if I'm ready to take the plunge into chicken-rearing. But as Bucky Buckaw would say, “I had a good time” learning about chickens.

And here are some pictures of a typical chicken-raising house. Note how not only are occupants raising chickens, but they have transformed an ugly urban lot into a place of nutritious beauty within the space of less than a year.

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