This is the title of the transcript of a recent interview with Dr Richard Pike, the CEO of the Royal Society of Chemistry, by Andrew Orlowski. For many years, the RSC (not the Royal Shakespeare Company) has been a fairly dormant animal, and I did used to wonder what its purpose was exactly, even though I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, as I became shortly after I was awarded a research professorship in chemistry. However, its role is to sound the voice of chemistry in the United Kingdom, especially during these tough and inclement times, in regard to funding, the relative unpopularity of hard subjects such as science which students are reluctant to enrol on degree courses in, and the health of the chemical industry. Hence I applaud Dr Pike for his proactive stance on important issues where chemistry and a sound chemical training really do matter, namely those concerning the many challenges posed by our energy and environmental demands, such as peak oil and global warming.
He has previously pointed out that growing crops to make biofuels is a non-starter, at least on a petroleum-significant scale, otherwise there is a conflict between growing crops to feed cars or humans. I couldn't agree with him more and have said as much on various occasions and in appropriate postings on here; also on my regular monthly column at scitizen.com. Dr Pike is also of the opinion (as I noted in yesterday's posting) that there is most likely far more oil in the ground to be recovered than the 1.2 trillion barrels that is generally quoted. I don't disagree, but I stress that it is the rate of recovery that is the most pressing issue, not so much how big the reserve is in total, and we will experience a demand-supply gap within the next decade, for sure, as even the CEO of Shell concurs.
Dr Pike points out that the figures given by the oil companies tend toward the conservative side, and that if a probabilistic analysis is done, based on the P50 estimate (see yesterday's posting) which refers to "proven but possible" oil reserves, rather than the P90 (90% chance of oil being recovered) , the ultimately recoverable resource (URR in Hubbert terms), or size of the oil bounty, can be "two or three times" greater. Thus, we might expect to recover a grand total of 2.4 trillion barrels not 1.2 trillion, even if the P90 figures given by some nations are suspect.
As Pike says, "P90 is a lower bound, and companies have a duty to report what the lower bound is to statutory bodies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, and BERR in the UK. And that figure is conservative. Over time, "lower bound" has come to mean "proven reserves". But it's actually the extreme left hand side of the probability curves."
Dr Pike makes some good points about peak oil doomsayers ("eschatologists", i.e. those who believe in the end times usually attributed literally to the "events" described in the biblical Chapter of Revelations), who think that "the end of the world is nigh". In fact there is a great deal of misunderstanding about what peak oil means, and this is where Pike's point is particularly salient. Many think that peak oil = end of oil, but that is not what it means, and nobody versed in the Hubbert analysis has to the best of my knowledge claimed as much.
Peak oil = end of "cheap" oil (the title of my posting here on May 13th, 2008) and we will indeed be producing oil for many decades yet, and many more in accord with Dr Pike's analysis. The Hubbert curve (or its adaptation, the Hubbert Linearization) refers to the production of a particular field. To date, this has meant readily available cheap, oil. It is not strictly within this remit to refer to a global peak since to derive such a thing means averaging over the production of many different oil fields in the countries of the world that produce oil. All fields have different capacities, and are at different stages in their production (or depletion). One consequence of this is that different countries will run out of oil quicker than others and that will shift economic power and stir-up geopolitical tensions. Russia comes to mind. The New World Order will be compelled by who has the oil, and the power that is attendant to it, while those like the UK who are short on oil will be accordingly weakened.
However, even if the world is not about to run out of oil, producing oil against a rising demand for it will raise the price, and there will be economic fallout, probably a recession and then a Long Emergency scenario according to Kunstler. Eventually there will be an effective global "peak" when overall oil supplies do decline and this will either widen the supply-demand gap or create it if it has not already come about. Pike concedes that there will be a peak eventually but no one knows when exactly; however, he considers that the analysis done so far is "ill informed" and that it will not come about immediately. It is true that we will only know the date of peak oil retrospectively, but most analyses suggest it will be with us by 2012 if not before. Even if peak oil is "postponed" the gap will not be, though it will certainly widen after the peak.
Once a supply-demand gap manifests, the price of oil will increase relentlessly, or at least so far as the market can bear. Pike notes that "you can buy your way out of capacity constraints". This is also quite correct, but it is a dicey business. I agree with him that if you invest in overcoming "surface constraints", as in the number of wells, gas/oil separators, pipelines, storage tanks or jetties, the supply of oil is improved, but the cost of a barrel of oil inevitably and accordingly increases. He says, "The rough rule of thumb that applied three or four years ago was that to get 1 million barrels a day extra, you needed to spend in the order of $10 billion, very approximately."
He notes that the money is recovered very soon, and that at $140 a barrel, the payback is 100 days. Yes, but we have seen the economic consequences of such high oil prices, coupled with a distinctly dodgy global financial system, and while the output of oil might be increased, it will cost.
In terms of renewables and chemistry, Pike states that "no economies are yet geared-up for electricity as a direct heating source, or as automotive fuel, or for hydrogen storage." This is absolutely true. He thinks that solar-energy is the answer, but there is the scale-up problem I have commented on before. In other words, even if solar/PV can be done using thin-film cells and using organic conductors (otherwise the shortage of platinum metal will scupper the whole enterprise, along with fuel-cell technology), it will still take decades to install enough to run the world on. This will indeed need to be "putting things together on a grand scale which requires leadership, because we're in a position where some of these decisions are not made by individuals or individual companies. It's going to require a lot of collaboration." Yes, and collaboration between entire nations and continents, probably, which might prove a longer job.
Pike also stresses the issue of scientific ignorance among the public, and refers to the level of questions being set to 14 year olds on science courses. He comments, that while the course material is often comprehensive, the examinations barely skim it - and are almost fail proof. Without better education, the next generation of policy makers is as likely to be as scientifically illiterate as the present one. The cycle needs to be broken"
I agree, but it is quite ironic that in this age of huge university expansion most of the ex-polytechnics (which did a fine job teaching science to technicians from industry) now they are the new-universities don't teach chemistry. In my opinion these institutions should be restored to the technical colleges they were once, and well, because in the time to come, as the energy crunch bites, we will need people who know how to do useful things, not a rising army of pharmacists, psychologists or media studies graduates, taught by "new-professors" some with no published work in the subject they are supposed to be professor of. Ironically a professor of "Chemical Education" is one lamentable example that comes to mind.
"Peak oil: postponed". By Andrew Orlowski. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/09/17/richard_pike_rcs_interview/