Monday, September 17, 2007

Oxburgh Warns of $150 Barrel.

The former chairman of Shell, the Lord Oxburgh, has warned that the price of oil could reach $150 a barrel, and that production could peak within 20 years. I doubt there is much argument that the price of oil will soar, having reached a record $80 in this last week, and while estimates of when "Peak Oil" will come vary considerably, it appears most likely that the event will occur within about 5 years. For example, the Norwegian energy provider Statoil have forecast it to arrive somewhere within the period 2010 - 2015, so it could be just a couple of years away.

Lord Oxburgh has accused the industry of having its "head in the sand" over the depletion of world oil supplies, and stated: "We may be sleepwalking into a problem which is actually going to be very serious and it may be too late to do anything about it by the time we are fully aware." Too true, and personally it is precisely this aspect of restricted timescale that bothers me, in the sense that any alternatives need to be not just "promising" or "at the research stage" but up and running within 10 years at the maximum and I wonder if that is possible. For example, if we were serious about implementing renewables, of all kinds, then we should have been doing so about 20 years ago, and even if these can yet be installed on the grand scale, and in the nick of time, they do not help us necessarily with the most pressing problem of oil depletion, which is how to keep transportation running.

Some think this might be done by switching over to vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, but again, the vast and necessary infrastructure needs to be up and running within 10 years, and since there has been no such action on a serious scale, I presume that the governments of the world do not believe this is the answer. There is also the issue of platinum (essential for fuel-cells that "burn" hydrogen), which is such a rare metal that even if current world production of it were doubled, we could still not put more than 3 million fuel-cell "cars" on the road annually, meaning that in 15 years time we would have matched less than about 7% of the current world road fleet in the form of "hydrogen cars", by when it is anybody's guess how many "oil-powered" cars will be left. We are facing a transportation crunch.

As Lord Oxburgh points out correctly, "We can probably go on extracting oil from the ground for a very long time, but it is going to get very expensive indeed. And once you see oil prices in excess of $100 or $150 a barrel, the alternatives simply become more attractive on price grounds if on no others." I take some point of issue here, however, because while it is true that we can almost certainly continue to extract oil for decades to come, we cannot do so to match the current level of demand, which is why oil will inevitably become so expensive.

By the time economics have forced the price to say $150 a barrel, we will be deeply inside a resource crisis, and we need to implement "alternatives", if we can, well before it is simply a matter of price that forces our hand. My fear is we have left it too late to make a smooth transition, and even if such long-term projects as HiPER (laser fusion) etc. will be viable in three decades time, there remains an uncertain and rocky path from now to then, and even these "limitless" supplies of energy will be hard pushed to match the power drawn currently by transportation and all else, and at a time when energy has run desperately short to run the then existing world, let alone fulfill extra demands in building new infrastructures. Oil is also the world's major chemical raw material for all manufacturing processes, and so it is not just the lack of it to put into fuel tanks that will smite civilization.

We are sometimes called the "plastic" society, and indeed all synthetic materials including plastic are made ultimately from oil. At $150 a barrel or who knows how much, clearly the cost of everything we have learned to take for granted will soar inexorably, while accordingly their supplies will fall with an equal relentlessness. In short, global economic growth will find its days numbered and in the absence of such effortless and borrowed abundance, the global village will contract into localised economies. The destination is inevitable, and the best we can do is cushion the ride there, if indeed we can.

Related Reading.
"Oil industry 'sleepwalking into crisis'", By David Strahan and Andrew Murray-Watson, The Independent on Sunday:

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