The impending peak and decline of petroleum production: an underestimated challenge for conservation of ecological integrity.
In the last few decades petroleum has been consumed at a much faster pace than new reserves have been discovered. The point at which global oil extraction will attain a peak ("peak oil") and begin a period of unavoidable decline is approaching. This eventuality will drive fundamental changes in the quantity and nature of energy flows through the human economic system, which probably will be accompanied by economic turmoil, political conflicts, and a high level of social tension. Besides being a geological and economic issue, peak oil is also a fundamental concern as it pertains to ecological systems and conservation because economics is a subsystem of the global ecosystem and changes in human energy-related behaviors can lead to a broad range of effects on natural ecosystems, ranging from overuse to abandonment. As it becomes more difficult to meet energy demands, environmental considerations may be easily superseded. Given the vital importance of ecosystems and ecosystem services in a postpetroleum era, it is crucially important to wisely manage our ecosystems during the transition period to an economy based on little or no use of fossil fuels. Good policies can be formulated through awareness and understanding gained from scenario-based assessments. Presently, most widely used global scenarios of environmental change do not incorporate resource limitation, including those of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Considering the potential magnitude of the effects of peak oil on society and nature, the development of resource-constrained scenarios should be addressed immediately. Ecologists and conservation biologists are in an important position to analyze the situation and provide guidance, yet the topic is noticeably absent from ecological discussions. We urge politicians, corporate chief executives, thought leaders, and citizens to consider this problem seriously because it is likely to develop into one of the key environmental issues of the 21st century.