Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Peak Oil - All Bunkum?

A new report concludes that the Peak Oil theory is wrong. I would love to believe this, but unfortunately the report is only available at a cost of $1,000, which I am not prepared to pay for the privilege of reading it. For those more urgently inclined, or with better lined pockets, it is entitled "Why the Peak Oil Theory Falls Down: Myths, Legends, and the Future of Oil Resources," and is produced by Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), a consulting company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts (not in that tranquil eastern corner of England). However, the following is based on what I have managed to glean from an elementary search of the web. The report seems to say that while petroleum is a finite resource, the midpoint in the genealogy of oil production will follow a protracted, undulating plateau rather than a bell-shaped curve (according to the Hubbert Peak analysis). It arrives at a figure for world oil reserves of 3.74 trillion barrels, which is three times as much as the 1.2 trillion barrel reserve estimated by Peak Oil enthusiasts. However, as far as I can determine, this is the total of conventional and unconventional oil, which might prove misleadingly optimistic.
What I mean is that this is the entire reserve of oil in the ground - not only the "sweet" light crude, which is relatively easy to refine into fuel, but the heavier fractions that are more difficult to extract in the first place, and need to be separated from sulphur and other compounds that would prove extremely noxious in the final fuel component - and whatever oil is considered to be potentially extractable from tar-sands, shales and bitumenous rocks (even coal?). True, it is the fifth time it has been said that we are running out of oil, but Peak Oil is not a claim of that, but that the cheap, easily got hydrocarbon resource which has underpinned the growth of the industrial world (including its population of 6.5 billion people, up from 2 billion in around 1900) will decline beyond a production maximum, with an inevitable and inexorable price hike on what is left. So, the $1,000 dollar barrel may be the marketplace norm one day, by which time the number of gasoline fuelled cars in use will have plummeted worldwide, along with most of the manufacturing industry that depends on oil as a fuel or a chemical feedstock, which in some extent is just about everything. The EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is uncertain for these unconventional sources - meaning that they may take so much energy to extract oil from it is not worth the trouble.
In Jeremy Leggett's book "Half Gone", he refers to "late toppers" and "early toppers", meaning there are some who think the peak will come sooner (around now and certainly by 2010... only 3 years away), while others (mostly in the oil industry - or that's what they say, whether they believe it is another matter) think it will not arrive for another 30 years. Since we burn just over 30 billion barrels a year as a human species, one trillion barrels is about 33 years worth. So the late toppers are banking on there being another "trillion" down there. The truth is nobody really knows for sure, but the EROEI has fallen from a favourable ratio of around 100 in the early days of oil extraction (the "gushers" of "black gold") to a present value of around 8. I discussed this in a much earlier posting "You Need Energy to Get Energy - Time is Running Out". A value of 3 is probably the lower limit below which the energy costs are simply too high to render a particular resource viable, and I'm pretty certain that many of the unconventional sources (tar-sands, for example, come in at around 1.5, when all energy costs, mainly gas and conventional oil that are used in oil production - and water too, since the process is an enormously "thirsty" one, and that's before we get around to cleaning up all the consequent pollution too, as it is also pretty "dirty"!) will fall short of this.
To judge the true reserve of oil we need a full energy costing on each type of resource and method of recovery of oil from it. There are plenty of arguments that Hubbert's original analysis (in 1956) is too simplistic, and a simple bell-shaped curve cannot model the complex business of oil production and demand faithfully. I don't doubt it, but Hubbert's essential premise was a simple one. He made an estimate of how much oil there was probably in the ground (within limits, and took the most optimistic upper value), and how much had been used, hence how much there was likely to be left. When he predicted the arrival of the U.S. production peak (about twenty five years later in 1970) he was spot on. The best estimates I have seen for conventional oil is that we have used about half of it, and so there is the other half, about another trillion barrels left. Extracting that will prove more difficult however, and unconventional sources yet more so.
So, when I get to read the report - if it is released more economically into the public domain - more will become clear. However, I have yet to be reassured that the idea of Peak Oil is a mistake. I am not one who rubs their hands with glee at the prospect either, which frankly terrifies me, in some messianic "we are bad people, and due for our comeuppance" ecstasy. I like my little life just as it is, but I am fairly certain that the world cannot continue wasting its resources as though there is no tomorrow - that day will come eventually, and when it does we should be prepared for it. As I have noted before, we need to begin applying the brakes on the runaway train of fossil fuel consumption, while there is still time to put something else in its place. "You Need Energy to Get Energy - Time is Running Out".

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