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Peak Oil Matters

A fresh perspective on the concept of peak oil and the challenges we face

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Archive for December, 2009

In this post, I’m going to continue with the theme of my most recent entry and provide you with some additional considerations about oil consumption here in the United States. While few of the facts to be cited will surprise anyone very much, I doubt many are considered very often, if at all.  I believe this overview is critical to our understanding of Peak Oil’s importance. We obviously can’t and won’t address fundamental issues of which we remain contentedly unaware.

It is when we become more fully cognizant of just how vital the use of oil is to just about every single one of our economic activities that it also becomes obvious what a powerful and pervasive impact Peak Oil will have on just about everything we do and everything we plan to continue doing. (I’ll be exploring these specific issues in much greater detail in the weeks to come.)

Changes are inevitable … big changes. With no plans in place, those changes are going to be incredibly disruptive. But as I take pains to suggest, so too will these looming changes present us with incredible opportunities….

But as of now, the United States has no plans to deal with Peak Oil.

Understanding where we are is a key step in making plans for where we want to be. Doing what we’ve always done is not going to be a viable option for much longer. We’re bumping up against an immoveable barrier to our continued prosperity unless we summon the individual and collective wisdom, courage, and ingenuity to chart a different course. It is fraught with both uncertainty and unparalleled opportunity.

We may not be prepared to hear this, but there’s no getting around it: it is all up to us. Relying on Someone/Anyone Else is not going to work this time around.

Oil provides energy in ways unlike any other source we have. It is an incredibly powerful and efficient resource. Without it, economic development here and across the planet would have never attained its current levels and scope. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States gets 40 percent of its total energy from oil and another 25% or so from coal and natural gas. Those are much higher percentages than any other nation. We’re wedded to oil like no one else, and the separation will not be easy. But we’re not going to have much of a choice in the not-too-distant future.

This quote (by Michael Brownlee of  Denver’s Boulder County Transition Team), premised on an estimate that our nation uses one cubic mile of oil per year, provides us with a stunning portrayal of just how efficient oil is as compared to other energy sources:

[One cubic mile of oil] “equals the same amount of energy provided by 52 nuclear power plants generating energy being built every year for 50 years or 104 operating coal-fired electrical plants built every year for 50 years or 32,000 wind turbines built every year for 50 years and in continuous operation or 91,250,000 solar panels built every year for 50 years.” [1]

Think about that for a moment. How on earth (literally) do we produce energy sources of those magnitudes to replace this finite resource that has served as the lifeblood of world-wide economic and industrial development for these past 150 years?

There’s no doubt that we must continue development of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind, but the plain truth is that as presently developed they cannot possible duplicate or even remotely approximate the energy derived from oil.

Currently, the oil and gas industry produces between 80 and 90 million barrels of oil per day for worldwide consumption. But every year, anywhere from 4% to 7% of that oil (depending on the source cited) is lost to a simple and undeniable truth about any finite resource: depletion. Simple path math will tell you that if a supply of something is declining naturally and inexorably, then in order to maintain at least the same level of supply, you have to produce more just to stay even.

So far we’ve done a good job of maintaining that steady state, but it’s just not going to last. The many little fields of oil we continue to find, and those not-so-easy, not-so-cheap to find and produce oil sources we discover in the remote corners of the world will not keep pace with increasing demand. The math does not work, and when you consider the ever-increasing world population, the numbers are not comforting to those who continue to hope for business and development and prosperity as usual.

We’re certainly free to remain blissfully unaware or unconcerned, but that’s only going to make the inevitable that much more painful.

A greater truth, and one I don’t believe gets nearly the attention it deserves, is that for all the energy that we could potentially derive from those alternative sources, our entire infrastructure and way of life has been built around the availability of, access to, and use of abundant amounts of relatively inexpensive and just as relatively available oil. That option is running out, as prior posts have tried to make clear.

We have designed our lifestyles, our economic and industrial development, and our communities around cheap, easily-produced oil. Our everyday world is premised on that continuing supply (together with natural gas) to produce and transport food, to fuel our transportation, build and heat or cool our buildings, purify our water, treat our waste, and build, well, just about everything we use. (And a related issue I’m not even touching right now: we have an old infrastructure, one that will not repair or update itself for free.)

No amount of alternative energy sources as presently developed can provide us the same quality and quantity of those basic needs. We may fervently want or hope that the square pegs of alternative energy sources fit neatly into the round holes of continuing-on-with-life-as-we-know-it, but magical thinking inevitably runs into reality.

And the reality is that the foundations of all we do and have and use are built with oil, and when declining supply begins to travel the same road as increasing demand, we’re going to have a monumental problem on our hands, and one that will not be solved in just a few months or a few years. All the legislation and hand-wringing in the world won’t create an entirely new infrastructure reliant on energy sources not named oil in any period of time one would consider “short.”

A more unfortunate truth is that our political and economic system—indeed, our entire societal attitudes about growth, prosperity, and entitlement—are simply not fashioned to deal with what must be done … yet.

Any false hopes that we can instantly create new technologies to effect seamless transition are at their very best hopelessly naïve. Foolish is a better description. So we do have to begin thinking differently, and planning, and then doing.

“[T]he cold, hard, inconvenient truth is that trillions of dollars have been invested in the existing energy infrastructure, which provides consumers with electricity, gasoline, jet fuel, and myriad other commodities. Changing that infrastructure—nearly all of which has been built upon fossil fuels—to a system based on renewable and alternative energy will take decades.” [2]

An inconvenient truth indeed….

Next: The World Of Transportation

Sources

[1]: America’s Perfect Storm: Transition to Survival After Peak Oil Hits – Frosty Wooldridge http://neighbors.denverpost.com/blog.php/2008/11/25/america%E2%80%99s-perfect-storm-transition-to-survival-after-peak-oil-hits/

[2]: From the book Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence by Robert Bryce (p.44); publisher: PublicAffairs (Perseus Books Group)

In order for us to begin thinking differently about Peak Oil and its implications, and to begin envisioning what kinds of changes we can make (and will likely have no choice about), we should first understand our oil situation and consumption. This post is an introduction.

If the Peak Oil proponents are correct, we are in for a rude awakening in the near or immediate future (as measured against our ability to transition effortlessly to new energy sources).  Many of us won’t understand why. I’d like to help.

At first glance, addressing the potential fuel/oil replacement problems will appear to be quite daunting. A second glance will suggest that we have incredible opportunities to effect changes that could carry us for decades to come into a safer, cleaner, prosperous future.

At the risk of excess hyperbole, we may very well be at the dawn of a potentially new industrial and economic revolution, if we all understand what’s involved and what’s at stake….I won’t even pretend that this will be easy. It won’t be. But we own the choices. We can prepare, or we can ignore and keep our fingers and toes crossed that some way and some how, we’re going to find the tens of millions of barrels of oil everyone is going to need each and every day, and that we will continue to find those same/increasing amounts … well, forever. I’m an optimist, but not that much.

For those of us more familiar with peak oil statistics, this is a popular one: The United States represents approximately 4% of the world’s population, yet it consumes more than a quarter of the world’s oil each year. (By way of comparison, Europe’s population is nearly 50% greater than ours, yet it uses less than half of the oil we do.)

We own more than a quarter of a billion 2-axle vehicles, and have approximately 200 million drivers. For those of us near large cities, most days it seems as though all 200 million drivers are parked on the same highways as we are.

Two-thirds of the nearly seven billion barrels of oil we use each year is used by those same quarter of a billion cars, trucks, and vans. That’s more than any other nation’s total usage! Almost 90% of America’s workforce uses those cars and trucks to get to work. Our gas mileage standards are remarkably poor for a nation such as ours, and so we waste a tremendous amount of oil and gas. (One estimate suggests that lost productivity and wasted fuel caused by traffic congestion in the U.S. costs us more than $80 billion per year. And German auto mileage standards, for example, are nearly twice as high as ours.) This is not good math.

Another estimate suggests that the 20 million or so barrels of oil we use each day translates into 10,000 barrels of oil per second!  (I won’t do the math to verify it, but feel free to do so on your own.)

About 60% of our oil is now imported, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Those numbers will only increase as time passes. Fifteen years from now, it’s expected that we’ll be importing close to 75% of the oil we need. Some suggest the amount will be much higher. Other nations (notably China and India) are increasing their oil consumption exponentially. At some point limited supply will crash headfirst into increasing worldwide demand as more and more nations seek to improve their standards and emulate our way of life. What happens then?

Our military alone uses close to half a million barrels of oil each and every day. Its entire infrastructure has been built on the foundation of readily-available oil. Limit oil’s availability or supply and what happens to our military operations, our national and international commitments, and the protection of oil transport from the Middle East?

Fortunately, we’re already seeing signs that the military leadership understands this. The rest of us ought to start doing so as well. As I try to emphasize, this is either a disaster in the making or an incredible opportunity. I am an optimist on that score.

We’re sending hundreds of billions of our dollars to Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, and many other nations each year—dollars we no doubt could find good use for here in the United States. We do so in part because our oil peaked in production about 40 years ago. (Even Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, our largest oil field, is now at about one-fifth of its peak production.) We are still finding oil, as the there’s-more-than-enough-oil optimists like to point out in their snarky criticisms of peak oil proponents. We’re just not finding enough, and that hasn’t changed for decades. We’re using more and finding less, and third-grade arithmetic will tell you that that is not a good outcome.

For all the talk of  the “massive” amounts of oil offshore and in Alaska and the “obvious” need for us to just “drill, baby, drill”, we’re several decades away from full production in those regions, and the amounts anticipated will wind up meeting far less than even 5% of our needs. None of it will come cheaply. Drilling in the Arctic is a wee bit more challenging than punching a hole in the ground in Texas, and one does not require an engineering degree to understand that. The “drill, baby, drill” crowd never gets around to spelling any of that out for us. Magical thinking is nice, as is a denial of pesky truths, but on the planet we occupy, it’s a fairly useless exercise.

Data from the Energy Information Agency as of 2007 indicates that our “proven” reserves of conventional oil are about 21 billion barrels. That’s about a 3 year supply for us. More bad math.

One-third of those reserves are “light sweet crude,” which is considered the easy, good stuff. The rest is the not-so-easy and not-so-good stuff … the kind of oil that isn’t produced or refined very efficiently, or inexpensively. Few of our refineries can convert that heavy crude oil into gasoline. None of this is good news.

Opportunity….

There just aren’t any more places on this planet where we can find bottomless pools of oil flowing freely, easily, and inexpensively. That’s certainly true here in the U.S. We’re tapped out. It’s starting to take a lot more effort, many more years, and a lot more money to find and produce what was once so readily available. We’re paying for that, too. Even more bad math.

Cantarell in Mexico has long been considered of the supergiant oil fields on the planet. As recently as 2004 it was producing about 2.5 million barrels a day of oil, and about half of that was shipped here. Production has fallen off a cliff since then, and in 2 – 3 years, it’s expected that production will have declined by close to 80%. Aside from the enormous financial, political, and social problems that will create for our neighbor south of the border (Cantarell was the major source of income to the Mexican government), this also poses a dilemma for us. Where and how do we make up that shortfall?

None of these statistics are especially pleasant to consider. Potential bad news rarely is. But if we understand our situation, if we understand our needs, if we understand that we must individually and collectively begin making better choices and devoting our incredible talents to creating and implementing new means of energy production while revising and improving how we use energy, the bumps in the road we’re destined to confront might be a bit smoother. And in these times, that may not be such a bad option.

Next: More Considerations About American Oil Consumption

There’s likely to be little disagreement that for most of us, the current economic, social, and political issues and conflicts we’re now mired in are the most challenging set of conditions we’ve ever encountered. Even those relatively untouched by the hardships (are there any such people?) are no doubt weary of the trials and tribulations of our economy. It’s safe to assume that almost no one is looking for more calamities. Doom and gloom prophecies aren’t likely to captivate many followers.

“. . . the consequences would be unimaginable. Permanent fuel shortages would tip the world into a generations-long economic depression. Millions would lose their jobs as industry implodes. Farm tractors would be idled for lack of fuel, triggering massive famines. Energy wars would flare. And carless suburbanites would trudge to their nearest big box stores, not to buy Chinese made clothing transported cheaply across the globe, but to scavenge glass and copper wire from abandoned buildings” (from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s 2006 report—as published by the Chicago Tribune—describing the consequences of Peak Oil. Quoted by Matt Savinar at http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/)

Not exactly an uplifting state of affairs, is it? If we all choose to do absolutely nothing about Peak Oil, and/or ignore and deny it completely, then I have little doubt that somewhere down the road that scenario might very well be the one we’re all confronted with. That’s ugly … and avoidable.

We should also recognize that there is a broad gulf between here and “there,” an expanse which affords us abundant opportunities to not only address the challenges we’ll face by decreasing oil production and increasing world-wide demand, but also to create entire new industries and ways of life well beyond what we may now envision. I’d like to just plant that seed for now.

Peak Oil need not be a catastrophe.

Perhaps the most elegant description I’ve come across is this one, courtesy of author Mick Winter in his book Peak Oil Prep: “Peak Oil simply means that oil resources on the planet are finite and that there will come a point in time when one day less oil is being extracted than previously. And the following day even less. And so on, no matter how much exploration is done, no matter how efficient the new extraction technologies that are developed.” A simple geological premise.

What it means is that just as we have throughout history, we’re going to have to adapt, to make changes which in the abstract seem both incongruous as measured against our current definitions of prosperity, and overly daunting.

The truth is that we would not be where we are now had our forefathers at various stages in our past decided that society as it stood must remain as is, and that opportunities for growth and advancement were choices easily declined. If we are open to becoming better informed about Peak Oil, then adaptation is more easily attainable. Not easy, of course, just easier than if we choose to ignore and deny. Choices….

As this blog progresses, I’ll discuss in much greater detail what those peak oil-related challenges will be. That requires speaking some truths we may prefer avoiding. But if we can all begin to understand from a personal standpoint the kinds of inevitable changes Peak Oil’s presence will impose, the better prepared we’ll be to accept them, to recognize opportunities rather than be paralyzed into denial (or worse, panic), and to move forward individually and collectively toward fashioning a kind of future we can all enjoy. It surely won’t be pain-free given how dependent we all are on inexpensive oil to fuel our ways of life, but it certainly need not be the Apocalypse, either. We’ll all have a say, and we’ll all have roles to play. Opportunity, or Disaster?

While acknowledging that I’m tiptoeing along a thin line between prophecies of doom and a hopeful if idealistic vision for the future (I’ve always believed that optimism is a better choice than pessimism), I think it’s imperative (and honest) to express a legitimate concern in the face of Peak Oil: Life as we know it will change. As much as we all fervently want the opportunities for growth and prosperity to just return to the way they once were, Peak Oil is going to have a pronounced effect on those expectations, and sooner than we’d like. (I’ll be devoting a lengthy series of posts to explain.)

A major reason why we may feel blindsided by the onset of peak oil’s consequences is that Americans in particular do not like hearing “no,” and they surely don’t like suggestions that unlimited growth is no longer an option. That’s served us quite well throughout history, but it’s not absolute dictum. Our way of life has been premised on the beliefs that technology will always save the day because our ingenuity, work ethic, resources, and talent will create/provide whatever it is we need to sustain an unending lifestyle of convenience and comfort. There’s an underlying sense of entitlement and expectation that may not always be in our best interests. We may be surprised at how Peak Oil’s onset interferes with those entrenched beliefs.

Any notions that unlimited prosperity (as we’ve all come to characterize it) is no longer an available objective won’t be received very well. Most peak oil proponents will tell you that this is a common and frequent obstacle in their quest to inform. It’s a daunting burden to contend with. The media’s inability or unwillingness to give due consideration to the topic has not helped, and there’s no doubt that many base their decisions on what is or is not important by what their preferred media tells them is important … or not. An unpleasant truth, but one we must acknowledge. And another truth is that we see very little from our government or business leaders by way of explanation or even discussion. The topic of Peak Oil often seems radioactive.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, sure as hell I don’t like hearing about anticipated tribulations brought on by peak oil. My wife and I enjoy a very nice lifestyle with some very, very nice material trappings. I’m not anxious to give any of it up, and I am less than thrilled at the idea that what we’ve enjoyed so far simply will not be available to us going forward (which is not to say I expect any of these peak oil-related changes soon. I’m just firmly convinced that they’ll be upon us much, much sooner than we anticipate, and unless we do start planning for them now, we will be woefully ill-prepared. It doesn’t have to be that way.)

Life as we’ve known it may be different in the years to come, but there’s no reason why “different’ can’t be prosperous and fulfilling, too. “Success” is not limited to the examples from our past. The truth is we’ve always changed, we’ve always redefined success and prosperity, and there’s no reason to believe we won’t do more of that in the days to come. We’ll have increasing opportunities to revise and expand those terms as Peak Oil prompts changes in our ways of life—and it will.

There is absolutely no reason why we cannot all seek “larger” lives to lead even in the face of Peak Oil’s challenges. “Larger” can be different, too. It can also mean more than we might think.

I’ll return to this theme, because I believe our attitude and approach to what we’ll need to do will play a crucial part in determining the ultimate course of our society. It’s one of the primary reasons why I’ve started this blog. But for now, just a seed or two.

If we want a future we can live with, and a sustainable future we can pass on to our children with pride, then we’re all going to have to learn how to become more responsible in all its shadings. (Me, too!) We’ll still have the chance, as John Maynard Keynes once proposed, “to live wisely and agreeably and well.” Another choice we own. I hope this blog helps us find ways to live wisely, and well….

Next: An Introduction To Oil Use In The United States

Hello again!

In my last post, I took a brief look at some of the facts suggesting that we are indeed at or very near the point when our planet’s maximum rate of oil production has been reached.

Today, I’ll point out some of the more popular arguments here in the U.S. disputing Peak Oil. As I’ll do with the information from my prior post, I’ll likewise expand my examination of this material in future discussions.

Four popular arguments against Peak Oil are discussed below (although they are not necessarily the primary debating points). In no particular order, these refutations are as follows:

  • there are billions if not trillions of barrels of “unconventional” oil in the shale deposits of the western United States
  • there are comparable amounts of unconventional oil in western Canada (the oil or “tar” sands of Alberta), and thus the  combination of these oil resources will supply us with all the oil we need for hundreds of years
  • the Arctic region/Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)/offshore areas here in the U.S hold billions of barrels of oil
  • technology will be developed to boost oil production in existing fields or aid in the discovery of as-yet undiscovered fields

While reminding you that I lack the professional expertise of an engineer or geologist, I nonetheless do not challenge the range of estimated oil resources touted in the Alberta oil sands and America’s oil shale deposits.

Where I take issue is that the related facts and details about production and extraction of shale and sand are all too often conveniently omitted when these massive resources are hailed as the solution to any oil supply problems we might face. Just throwing out the phrase “trillions of barrels” is at best disingenuous. (Despite other arguments suggesting similar amounts of conventional oil reserves, most experts state with about 90% certainty that there are about 1.2 trillion barrels of crude oil reserves. [1]) Resources are not the same as reserves. There are no guarantees that “resources” can ever be successfully produced.

In more than thirty years of attempted production, about 110 million barrels of oil have been produced from oil shale (principally in the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota). [2] That’s not per year. That’s a thirty-plus year total. (Our nation uses somewhere around 20 million barrels per day; worldwide the usage is approximately 85 million barrels per day). No one has yet managed a commercially viable method of production. One hundred and ten million barrels doesn’t sound quite that impressive when you stack that up against daily usage.

Most experts, even the most optimistic ones, suggest that it will be decades before oil production from oil shale reaches as much as 200,000 barrels per day. With demand expected to rise to over 100 million barrels per day in the next two decades (ignoring depletion rates in existing fields entirely, which the International Energy Association’s World Energy Outlook 2008 estimated at 6.7% a year and rising [3]), that’s not much of a dent.

Most underdeveloped nations aren’t especially inclined to wait a few more decades to improve their lot. Certainly China and India aren’t idling! Demand will increase, supplies will become more strained, and problems will ensue.

Similarly, most experts have pegged maximum lifetime production from the Alberta tar sands at a total of less than two hundred billion barrels. Not an insignificant amount to be sure, but it will take many decades to extract it all. Even the most optimistic supporters of oil sand production don’t expect production rates of more than a couple of million barrels per day—and that is many, many years down the road.

That won’t help much. It’s even less significant when you factor in the environmental degradation wrought by oil sands mining (as will be discussed in an upcoming post). The amounts of water and natural gas required in the process of extracting oil from the sands will cause its own set of problems in the not-too-distant future. Soil and water contamination issues are also prevalent.

As for the Arctic and offshore areas, there may indeed be “significant” finds, but … hello! Exactly how easily and efficiently is that going to be achieved? How many hundreds of billions of dollars and how many years and how much effort will it take if those areas do turn out to be a bit of a boon once again?

There are reportedly about 10.5 billion barrels of oil available in the ANWR, and tens of billions of barrels offshore. Natural topography and climate alone mean that herculean efforts would be needed … and none of that is free! Experts tell us that offshore fields (ignoring the immense difficulties of extraction/production) decline faster and sooner than fields on land.

If we have to go to those lengths and expenses to locate and produce oil, what does that tell you? No expertise required … just a bit of common sense.

Let’s not ignore the fact that as oil exploration becomes more challenging, expensive, and time-consuming, the energy required to locate and extract the oil increases as well, and thus the net energy gained is much less. Crude oil is a remarkably productive source of energy, and for all the talk about oil from the sands and shale, the return on those sources of energy is minimal in comparison. We’ll need a lot more of those resources to produce the same amount of work as crude oil.

As for technology, if one pays attention to the language used, there’s a lot of “potentially’s” and “maybe’s” and “could’s” and “might’s” liberally sprinkled through the optimistic declarations that peak oil is not an issue. My own favorite is “future discoveries of ‘superfields’ of conventional oil reservoirs could boost world production.” [4] Uh, well … ah, yes, I guess that’s true. Not exactly a solution we can count on, though. Future discoveries that indicate we can get oil from mattresses or hats could also boost world production, but….Need I say more?

The notion that higher gas prices will spur development of new technologies conveniently ignores the fact that there are not oodles of new technologies hiding in laboratory closets just waiting to be loosed on planet Earth next week. I have no doubt that technology will continue to improve the quality of our lives, but technology developed and perfected for commercial usage requires time, energy, effort, and money—among other things. What might prove economically or practically feasible 5, 10, 15, or 50 years from now isn’t of much help … now!

There are legitimate and not-so-legitimate arguments for and against peak oil, and like most complicated issues in this day and age, trying to figure out what is right and what is rightfully ignored is no easy task. I’ll do my best in future posts to help you sort through it all and assist you in coming to a better understanding of Peak Oil and its implications.

Next: Some Related Considerations About The Peak Oil Debate

Sources

[1] http://www.canada.com/montrealgazette/news/saturdayextra/story.html?id=153514b8-0a4f-47d8-a68f-24e779264fcd&p=3
        The age of oil is ending – WILLIAM MARSDEN
[2] http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3868
        The Bakken Formation: How Much Will It Help?
[3] http://www.aspousa.org/index.php/2008/11/a-peak-oiler-but-still-in-the-closet-iea/
       A Peak-Oiler, but still in the closet? IEA’s 2008 Report
       By Matt Simmons • on November 17, 2008
[4] Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), as noted in http://science.howstuffworks.com/peak-oil2.htm
       Have we reached peak oil? – Josh Clark

There is no question that peak oil is a contentious issue among those familiar with the discussions and considerations. Some adamantly deny that we are even close to producing the maximum rates of oil, while others ardently insist we are—or that we have already passed that point.

Let me start with just a few basics, to give you an idea as to why proponents like me think that we’re already at the point (or soon will be) when we have maxed out the rate of oil that is produced on this planet, and are just looking at declining amounts of oil production from here on in.

My next post will weigh in with an initial discussion of the opposing viewpoint.

Keep in mind that this is just a small sampling of facts supporting the imminent challenges of peak oil. Future posts will discuss the evidence in greater detail (but without getting bogged down in the heavy technical aspects. The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin do a significantly better job at that than I could hope to, and they have access to better sources of expert opinion. See the links for each in my Blogroll.)

What the following facts each and collectively suggest seems fairly evident without the requisite professional expertise, but I’ll leave that to you to decide.

  • Just 20 years ago, 15 oilfields were able to supply at least one million barrels of oil per day (the world now uses approximately 85 mbpd). Now there are only 4 such fields. [1]
  • The world began using more oil than it was finding nearly thirty years ago. Nothing has changed since. This year we are on pace to discover nearly 20 billion barrels of oil. Sounds great up until the moment you learn that the world uses approximately 30 billion barrels per year, and that roughly 80% of the Earth’s population is just starting to use energy as we do. [2] Make no mistake: they will be looking to use more.  (Think China and India, for starters.)
  • A substantial majority of petroleum geologists agree that about 90% of all the conventional, recoverable oil on the planet has now been located. [3] Most of the Earth’s favorable geological formations conducive to oil formation have been identified.
  • Here in the United States, we reached peak oil production almost forty years ago, at about 9.5 million barrels per day. We’re down to about 5 million now. We’re not alone.
  • One third of global oil supply comes from 20 large fields—all discovered more than thirty years ago. Production rates for each of those 20 fields have now peaked. [4]
  • The International Energy Agency [IEA] is an organization which serves as an energy policy advisor to its 28 member countries, including the U.S. Its recent studies prove that the oil produced from 580 of the largest 800 fields is declining [5]
  • The largest oil field in the world is Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. It was discovered in 1948 and reached its peak production rate of 5.6 million barrels per day in 1980. It now produces 5 million barrels per day [6], and when oil prices shot through the roof last year, at a price nearing $150 per barrel, Saudi production levels did not increase.  (What greater incentive to get more oil out of the ground than such sky-high prices, especially when you can produce it as  inexpensively as the Saudis? That didn’t happen because it couldn’t.)
  • Back in the 1960s, more than 25 giant and super-giant fields were discovered. Super-giants are identified as those with “5 billion barrels of initial proven and probable reserves.” (The number is 500 million for “giant” fields). [7] By contrast, super-giant Ghawar had tens of billions of barrels of proven and probable reserves. Impressive, certainly, but the number of such finds has declined steadily over these past 40-plus years.
  • We’re at a grand total of two such discoveries so far this decade (although none come close to matching Ghawar).

It’s probably safe to assume that the intensive and technologically-advanced explorations in these last few decades have not been designed to hunt for tiny fields. The giant/super-giant fields aren’t being found because there aren’t any. 8-10 billion barrel fields are now being touted as the “huge” finds of our time, and we’re not discovering nearly enough of them.

This does not mean we’re running out of oil next Tuesday, or next month, next year, or maybe even five years from now. “Running out” is not what Peak Oil is all about. Peak oil is about the rates of oil production, and declining rates mean declining supplies at a time when demand is and will be increasing significantly in certain parts of the world.

If the facts stated above are true, then waiting until it’s too late to do anything probably isn’t the best strategy.

Many developing nations feel entitled to seek levels of prosperity once enjoyed almost exclusively by Americans. By what right can we deny them? “We’re Americans so we get to do anything we want first” isn’t likely to get us very far in this day and age, much as some wish it were otherwise.

China, India, and other rapidly-developing economies are not going to sit on their collective hands while the United States and others make certain they are taken care of first.

What this does mean is that we are now on a slippery slope. Competition for diminishing supplies in the next few decades will become our reality as the demand for oil in the developing nations increases.

It’s important that we understand what this means, and how it will affect each and every one of us in our daily lives. Changes are in the offing.

I’ve designed this blog to help readers understand what those changes will be, what they mean, and how we turn a potential catastrophe into opportunities to revitalize our economies, our industries, and our way of life.

It will be a crisis only if we let it be, and that will happen because we all decide to … wait until some undefined “later” to start doing something/anything.

We’ll never be able to restructure our petroleum-based economies overnight, and without some planning now, attempting that is precisely what we’ll be faced with.

That approach won’t work, so let’s find better ways.
 
Next: What the opponents of peak oil have to say

Sources

[1]: http://www.canada.com/story+glimpse+future+chapters/1333692/story.html; The oil story and a glimpse at future chapters –  By Ray Grigg, Courier-Islander February 27, 2009
[2] http://www.oildecline.com/
[3] ibid
[4] Earth Policy Institute: Is World Oil Production Peaking? Lester R. Brown www.earthpolicy.org/Updates/2007/Update67_data2.htm
[5] http://www.energybulletin.net/node/48582; The IEA warns of shortages – “The next oil crisis is coming” by Michael Kläsgen
[6] http://seekingalpha.com/article/130145-200-oil-is-coming-while-we-waste-a-perfectly-good-crisis-part-2
[7] Running Faster To Stand Still – By: John Kemp http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2008/11/24/running-faster-to-stand-still/

Hello, and welcome to my new blog. Thank you for stopping by.

While I expect and plan to discuss other matters of import from time to time and as appropriate, this is first and foremost a blog about Peak Oil. My intent is to share information culled from various sources and then discuss the impact peak oil will have on our everyday lives.

For those unfamiliar with the term, Peak Oil is most often explained as the point when the maximum rate of oil extraction is reached because of technical and geological limitations, with a ceaseless global production decline thereafter. If we’re not at the maximum production levels now (facts would indicate we are), we will be in the not-too-distant future. At this moment, we have absolutely nothing in place to replace the vast amount of energy we derive from the tens of billions of barrels of oil used annually.

Let me state at the outset that I am not an energy or economic expert. I am likewise not a geologist or engineer; my professional and educational background does not suggest that I am “qualified” as a peak oil expert. I understand some will use that against me … but common sense, I hope, still counts for something. Having issued my disclaimer, I am nonetheless much more than just a casual observer. Not an expert, to be sure, but knowledgeable enough.

I first came across the concept of Peak Oil about a year ago, and since then have steadily immersed myself in the facts, opinions, claims, and observations of both its proponents and opponents. I am, in the end, a firm believer in peak oil’s basic premise: we have reached or will soon reach the point where we simply cannot and will not produce any more oil than we already have. However, I don’t think the sky is falling … yet. (But a steady decline will follow soon enough.)

We cannot effectively deal with a problem if we don’t understand how it will affect us, and relatively few understand the magnitude of oil’s influence and presence in their everyday lives. It’s not usually a topic of everyday conversation, so no need to feel as though you’ve been missing anything! But almost everything that sustains or assists us has oil as a basic component: food (fertilizers and transportation), furnishings, cosmetics, plastics … the list of oil-based products is almost endless. There are literally hundreds of thousands of them. Life as we know it does not run without oil … and that’s going to create some challenges for us.

I’d like to do my part to help increase awareness and understanding. That preparation is one of the best ways to deal with inevitable changes.

Peak oil is NOT about running out of oil. Those who dispute the concept invariably—and inaccurately—assert this. It’s a poor attempt to discredit those who are attempting in good faith to help others understand the issues and potential consequences.

I have no doubt that oil will be around for several decades to come. There are still hundreds of billions of barrels in the ground (although quality may be a serious factor, among other related challenges). How easily and inexpensively we get at the oil, extract it, refine it, and then utilize and distribute it to meet increasing demand are entirely different matters, however. Those are the core issues of Peak Oil.

Some who dispute Peak Oil’s looming impact share legitimate critiques, while others strain credulity in their wild-eyed denials and disingenuous claims. I’ll discuss those differing viewpoints and help you understand both sides so that you in turn can make an informed assessment about what we need to do.

I do not want to believe in peak oil for many reasons. For one, I usually find the topic quite depressing. Every informational piece or essay seems more disturbing than the last. I hope every proponent is wrong twice over, but I am not optimistic on that score. I find no solace or benefits in promoting doom and gloom scenarios, so I’m aiming to provide a different perspective about what we’re all going to be dealing with. I’ll leave the heavy-duty technical explanations to those better-qualified than me.

I like our way of life, and am dismayed that it may soon change forever—in quite dramatic ways (not that it hasn’t already). Soon doesn’t necessarily mean “soon” as we are accustomed to using that term, but it’s only a few short years before industry and lifestyles really change. It’s important that we understand why that is.

Let me also state that I am definitely not the peak oil movement’s poster child.

I’m an American consumer through and through, but/and yes, a political and social liberal. To our teens’ never-ending annoyance, we recycle religiously. Nearly every one of the seeming seven million light bulbs in our two homes is an energy-saving one. I installed them all myself. But that’s pretty much it for now.

We own two very nice, new luxury automobiles—one an SUV. We have a terrific second home a short walk from the ocean; less than an hour’s drive from our home in the ‘burbs of Boston. It takes a bus trip, two subway trips, a commuter rail trip, another bus trip at the tail end, and a several hundred yard walk thereafter for us to get to our beach house via public transportation … about 3 hours start to finish if we schedule it right, and that’s not counting the brutal walk up our very long and very steep hill when we return home.

We don’t make that trip … yet. In the summer heat, luggage and supplies get heavy, and quickly. We drive. Often. Always. Sometimes we make two round trips in the same day. Most times we take at least two if not all 3 vehicles (the third belongs to our 3 teenagers. A fourth—car, not teenager—will soon make its appearance in our driveway). We go to our summer home a lot between May and October.

We’ve traveled a fair amount, have lots of neat household toys, and in general have enjoyed a very nice lifestyle in recent years. I do not recite this to boast about what a great life we have, which we admittedly do—none of which I take credit for. We are indeed very, very lucky, and we know it. But I also understand that we won’t be donating or selling any of our possessions in the near or not-so-near future.

Peak Oil idealism often clashes with financial and family realities above ground—part of my dilemma as a peak oil advocate.

I share this to demonstrate at least in part that I am not a bug-eyed, tree-hugging, live off the fat-a-tha-land robe-wearing vegan anxious to shower everyone with liberal doom and gloom tidings while extolling how my family has shed all of its material possessions and has now learned to grow our own food by raising goats and corn on our front lawn and is using leaves and grass clippings to make our clothing while harvesting fire flies to store electricity and discarded branches to heat our animal-skin tent—and then either shaming or frightening you into doing the same. (Sorry, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for that.)

I have many selfish reasons to challenge both the veracity and inevitably of peak oil, and would much prefer that my pleasant, unremarkable suburban life continue undisturbed,  as is. None of that matters. Peak Oil is unforgiving that way. Denial is just … denial. Not particularly useful in the long run, but a wonderful tool of ignorance. It can no longer be one of our options.

So I’m writing this blog to share some ideas and information—or at least enlighten, so that the eventual challenges and problems we’ll have to confront are not all quite the surprise they will otherwise be. Peak oil does matter. We need to understand how, and why. Sooner would be best.

Call it a sense of obligation. I know some things; not necessarily a lot, but some things. I think others will benefit from that knowing, even if they refuse to believe it right now, or for even quite a while. That’s okay. I’ll offer what I have to offer, and leave it to you to decide what to do with it, if anything. No agenda. No strings. No shouting. Just some things to think about.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at some of the facts and considerations that cause many experts to believe we have now reached peak oil—giving you a more specific introduction to this issue. I’ll follow with an examination of the counter-arguments, and we’ll go from there….

I hope you’ll visit again, and share some thoughts, observations, and yes, even criticisms. It can only help us all find ways to treat the reality of peak oil as an opportunity and not a catastrophe. That’s a choice we all own.