Monday, August 28, 2006

Oil Prices will Rise until 2010!

Chris Skrebowski, the editor of Petroleum Review, has said that world production of petroleum ("oil") will peak at around 94 million barrels per day, an increase from the current roughly 86 million barrel daily output. He believes that the peak will hit in 2010, until when the price of oil will steadily increase, but will be subject to vagaries of weather or political disruption (war?) which could cause abrupt hikes in its price. It is clear that the global community must break its dependence on oil by developing new technologies, in order to avert disruption in energy supplies, a sentiment that Mr Skrebowski endorses, but I question whether that is in the slightest way likely given that we now have a bare three years left to do it in. As I have pointed out in these postings, any realistic substitution of conventional energy sources by e.g. hydrogen produced from wind-power, or from biofuels is unrealistic given the gargantuan scale of infrastructure that would need to be implemented to meet current and inexorably rising demand.
If peak oil is going to arrive in 2010, then the predicted rise in the price of oil will not then suddenly slacken-off, or fall. It can only get worse for a world that is inextricably enmeshed in a network of operations all of which rely on the supply of cheap oil; even those as fundamental as food production. Without the means of oil-derived chemical fertilisers and pesticides, it would be impossible to feed 6.5 billion people on planet Earth, and the sudden loss of their supply will spell disaster and "Die-off" on a terrible scale. There is an extensive but rather depressing internet site called "Die Off" which spells out some likely prognoses post Peak Oil (I wrote an early posting here called "Die Off", which distills the essence of what is at stake precisely), such as a fall in population by somewhere around 90% i.e. the death of sufficient people to reduce our total global number to under one billion, or put another way the loss of 9 out of 10 of us. I used the analogy of bacterial growth, that while there is sufficient food, the population follows an S-shaped curve (roughly exponential growth - as human population is growing now) , but this reaches a maximum, beyond which point the population falls, and in the world of the Petri-dish the bacteria begin to eat each other! In human terms this is hardly a pleasant scenario.
In the midst of all such considerations, the Hummer (and other SUV, 4 by 4 vehicles) gets some pretty bad press. There is an amusing link between two despised symbols of U.S. consumer capitalism, namely McDonalds and the Hummer, which is that among the range of "toys" given "free" to kids in order to encourage them to pester their parents into buying them their favourite "M(u)c(k) meal", is a baby Hummer. Nothing like cooperative indoctrination, is there? However, as far as the real vehicle is concerned, Ford is now heralding a slide in the market away from SUV's to smaller cars, and with its eye on future trends, the company is considering investing $1 billion in plants that will manufacture more "hybrid" vehicles. These are the cars that run on electric power "in traffic" but then burn gasoline at relatively high efficiency on longer hauls. Ford has conducted market research the results of which suggest that 70% of Americans (in their sample, at any rate!) are concerned about "green issues". However, a combination of this and moreover, I suspect, clean economics will drive the motor market away from gas-guzzling vehicles as fuel costs escalate - and they will, as they must - I would put money on it, albeit as I have noted, there is far more at stake than that!
Interesting research continues to come from Russia to the effect that there is in fact plenty of petroleum to be recovered. That may be true - I am no expert, but I do acknowledge there are alternative theories as to the origin of petroleum, beyond the one I learned at school about how it was formed from "cooking" plant and animal remains over long periods of history. There are variations on the deep-origin of petroleum, stemming from the great Russian chemist Mendeleev (who devised the Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements - a work of commendable insight) who believed that it was of geological origin, probably formed by the reaction of water with iron carbides deep within the Earth. The late Thomas Gold proposed a modified version of the theory "The Deep Hot Biosphere" (the title of his book on the subject) in which bacteria living some kilometres underground are able to produce petroleum. Apparently there are a number of successful deep-drilling projects based around the Caspian Sea that might support this hypothesis (although some "conventional" oil experts think that there may be the filling of "deep" pockets from elsewhere by conventionally generated petroleum). The latest is that a group of Russian scientists led by Azary Barenbaum from the Russian Academy of Sciences , who argue that large reserves of hydrocarbons can be formed in only decades, not requiring millions of years, and the process is connected with the way carbon is transported into the earth by the hydrological (water) cycle which washes carbon from the surface (atmosphere) through rain, leading to the formation of oil and gas. They conclude that up to 90% of hydrocarbons are formed principally from hydrogen carbonate (HCO3-) ions at a depth of only 1 - 10 kilometres.
Hence there may well be more oil and gas than previously thought, but this still does not detract from the "Peak oil" (or eventual "Peak Gas") scenario, since that refers to the production of cheap oil (or gas), which probably will still peak. Even if the latter theory should prove correct we cannot wait for even decades until the reserves are replenished.
The question still remains of "What will the world do in the meantime?" Either way, we need to be saving oil... using less and preserving what we have.

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