Friday, June 15, 2007

Peak Oil hits UK Headlines.

For the first time (to the best of my knowledge anyway) the facts of Peak Oil have made it onto the front page of a national UK newspaper, The Independent. It is stated that "supplies [of oil] will start to run out in four years time". Now this should alarm everybody, once they have taken-in what this implies, but it does not mean that there will be no oil beyond four years, merely that the peak in production will arrive then (in 2011), following which supplies of oil will fall by around 2 - 3% per year. Now a fall of 10 -15% in the amount of crude oil being recovered onto world markets will be significant and it will hit the world economy hard - we don't need to actually run-out of oil to see the impact of its dearth. Hence we are talking about 4 + 5 years, or by 2016, when the world will begin to shift to its new order of reduced oil availability/ dependency. The main impact will be on liquid fuels, although hydrocarbons derived from oil are used as a raw chemical feedstock for most industries, and altogether we depend on oil to provide practically everything, including food. The price of all goods can be expected to skyrocket, and their supplies to decline.

The "Indie" article gives figures for oil reserves in various countries, some of which are (in units of billions of barrels):

Canada, 17; US, 30; Mexico, 13; Venezuela, 80; UK, 4 (oh dear); Algeria, 12; Libya, 42; Brazil, 12; Nigeria, 36; Angola, 9; E. Guinea, 2; China, 16; Saudi, 264; Iraq, 115; Iran, 138; United Arab Emirates, 98; Kuwait, 102; Russia, 80. This makes a grand total of 1070 billion (1 trillion) barrels, of which 70% is in the Middle east. It is interesting that Venezuela has as much oil as Russia and while the US has 30 billion barrels, that is only enough to last it for about 4 years. Hence 2/3 of US oil is imported, mostly from Canada with only about half the US reserve. The UK North Sea oil peaked in 1999, and so we depend heavily on imports too.

In the UK we grow around 60% of our food while the rest is imported. Turning farm-land over to biofuel production will compromise food production and in any case it cannot provide more than a small fraction of the equivalent of petroleum based fuel. Other approaches, based on making biodiesel from algae and ethanol from waste cellulosic material are as yet undeveloped technologies, and it is guesswork as to how much consolation they will bring to us within the next crucial economic decade. The single proven technology for making artificial "oil" on the large scale is that of coal-liquefaction, but there are no such plants in the UK presently, so we must begin building them now. Agreed, gas can be converted into hydrocarbons by a similar route using Fischer-Tropsch methods, but gas is expected to peak not so long after oil and more quickly of course if another demand is placed on its resource, e.g. making oil from it.

BP have published their "Statistical Review of World Energy", in which there are figures that "show" the world has enough "proven" reserves to provide another 40 years worth of consumption at current rates. Now this amounts to 40 years x 30 billion barrels/year = 1200 billion barrels, or more than the world reserve. Moreover, as oil wells become depleted the oil becomes ever harder to extract from them and so unless there is another trillion barrels worth down there, i.e. the volume of the reserve is far greater than the 1 trillion barrels accounted for, it must be impossible to maintain production of oil at current rates, let alone to meet the inexorably rising demand for it. Perhaps BP are assuming that the dearth in crude oil supplies will be offset by unconventional oil, e.g. from coal-liquefaction, tar sand, shale etc., and yet this is far from certain. Resources take resources to extract them, and all these unconventional sources of oil are highly intensive in their use of natural gas and water to do so.

According to the article, there are 909 billion tonnes of proven coal reserves worldwide, which is a good deal less than the 10 trillion tonnes I thought there were, (190 billion tonnes of it under the UK.). Nonetheless, this is thought to be sufficient to keep the world going for 155 years. The natural gas fields in Siberia, Alaska and the Middle East should last for 20 years longer than the world oil reserves but I have written about the logistic problems of supplying Russian gas after 2009, and so it is not only the volume of the reserve per se that determines how much of it we can access. Hydrogen fuel-cells will not meet the shortfall either because making hydrogen is extremely energy inefficient (along with many other problems posed by hydrogen, including a complete lack of existing full-scale infrastructure to generate and handle it, which would have to be built from scratch) and there is not enough platinum available from the few sources of it in the world to make the number of fuel cells that would be required in the nearer term.

Even nuclear, which many think will provide a solution to the global energy crisis is limited by the amount of uranium there is available, although more of it could be collected if poorer ores were exploited and there is the possibility of using fast breeder reactors or a similar but probably safer equivalent technology based on thorium as a nuclear fuel. The former chief executive of Saudi Arabia's oil corporation, Sadad al Huseini gave his view on how much more oil the kingdom might produce, since it is here that rising oil demand will push for the biggest squeeze for more oil production, since it holds 26% of the world total. He said: "The problem is that you go from 79 million barrels [of oil] a day in 2002 to 84.5 million in 2004. You're leaping by two or three million [barrels a day] each year. That's like a whole new Saudi Arabia every couple of years. It can't be done indefinitely."

It seems clear that we will be pushed to replace crude oil by other sources of oil, meaning a massive decline in transportation. If people are unable to move around easily they will tend to stay where they are, which implies the creation by default of localised communities. I am certainly not proposing nor advocating a return to the stone-age but a planned gearing-down of energy use until a sustainable level is achieved appears the only way for civilization to retain its integrity beyond the next couple of decades.

Related Reading.
"A World Without Oil", The Independent, June 14, 2007.


Anonymous said...

Here is another home heating/cooling working design:

or try

for technical details.

The fuel saved from smarter heating/cooling will ease the transportation crunch for a little while. Can we switch (some already have) to electrically powered personal transport (cars, bikes, scooters) using non-metallic engine and structural components? Are ceramics a useful substitute?

Professor Chris Rhodes said...


In the UK not so much "fuel" is used for heating, and so there is little that might be saved for transportation, other than a competition for gas between space-heating and gas-liquefaction to synthesise or recover NGL fuels.

Electric cars etc. are thought to be 4 x better as an option that hydrogen (but this will never become a central source of transportation "fuel").

Ceramic are used in spark-plugs, for example, and they could be used more extensively in engine parts. However, it does take a lot of energy to "fire" these materials. However, I am guessing there are more raw materials in the Earth to make steel than ceramics, depending on the kind exactly?


Anonymous said...

we see that ceramics are being used but in a limited fashion.

Of greater use in replacing metals are plastics. So plant carbohydrates (already used to make disposable coffee cups, etc. for McDonald's and biofuel) may become more useful than ever as petrochemicals become more expensive. Cars are a terrible waste of resources, even if you recycle most of their components.
Much less personal mobility in concert with economically viable profiles are necessary for billions of people and soon.
The Internet should be used for schooling at all levels, and mandated to replace any routine jobs requiring daily commutes.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I very much like the idea of making plastics and other materials from plants! As the oils runs short we are going to be hit not just by a demand for fuel but for a basic chemical feedstock for most industries.

I agree with what you say about transportation (as you can read in these postings), and I can envisage a cut in car-use by 80 - 90%.

Yes, we must hold onto the internet, as it will provide the means for tele-working, education etc. without the need to travel.

Sad to think of all those conferences I used to enjoy going to! Still, I'm glad to have done all the travelling that I have!

I appreciate your input here, sustain_ability!