Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Peak Oil = End of Cheap Oil.

"Peak Oil" does not mean that oil is "running out" but that cheap, plentiful oil is. The bottom of the well is not in sight. We will be able to extract crude oil for decades, but the depletion of existing wells, the necessity to make explorations in increasingly inhospitable regions of the world, e.g. in deep-sea locations - drilling through miles of water, rock and salt - and in the Arctic, does mean that oil will be forever an expensive, and scarcer commodity. The Antarctic thus far remains sacrosanct, but resource pressure may change this particular status quo of environmental conscience.

It is claimed that making synthetic oil from coal (CTL) would be much cheaper than drilling for crude, but that axiom needs to be measured against the sheer quantity of engineering required to do the job on a petroleum-equivalent scale and other resources, including water, and probably natural gas, and the potential environmental consequences of mining and processing coal, and that coal based fuel overall results in the release of far more CO2 than does the oil-based product it is aimed to replace. In any event, it cannot be done quickly enough that one can simply be switched for another, meaning that overall production must still fall, let alone there being any excess capacity of CTL to maintain growth.

Put another way, peak oil tells us that the earth's hydrocarbon resources are precious, and the end of their production growth is nigh. What can be recovered in the future, by whatever technology, even some claims that I cannot find much detail for (not surprisingly given the significance of them if they are true) that CO2 can be reduced into hydrocarbons, cannot be done cheaply, I am sure. A recent article [1] neatly and succinctly speaks of "future flow rates" for oil, that "peak oil" = "peak flow". In accord with the Hubbert analysis, once the half-way point is reached, the "flow" or production of oil will thenceforth decline. Hubbert's peak does not tell the whole story about future oil production, but refers specifically to the kind of cheap oil the world is built upon, and probably many Hubbert curves could be drawn to describe the production/depletion of the more intractable kinds of oil e.g. from the Middle East wells beyond their peak, oil from tar-sands, from shale or from the Venezuelan Ultra-heavy oil - a specific curve for every case.

The upshot is there will be less oil to be apportioned among a growing number of consumers. A paradigm shift in consciousness about how we live our lives might reduce demand (and must), but only if harsh economics first tilts that awareness by increasing the cost of fuel, food and all else in this oil-underpinned world, so that the bulk of consumers begin to economise - or become extremely poor and have no choice but to use less.

[1] "Peak Oil: 'It's the flows, stupid!'" By Steve Andrews and Randy Udall. http://www.energybulletin.net/print.php?id=44078

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