[NOTE: This is the latest installment in a new PeakOilMatters series (which started here). It’s about finding a new and better vision to get to, through, and beyond Peak Oil and its widespread impact on what we produce, how we produce, and how we live. We won’t be falling off a cliff tomorrow, and the full brunt of Peak Oil’s effects won’t be experienced all at once, either. Gas and oil do not have to disappear entirely, nor do gas prices have to rise into the stratosphere before Peak Oil’s impact is felt.
Gradually, but inexorably, changes will be in the offing, however. We need to come to a better understanding of this, and start preparing ourselves now for the lengthy transition and just as lengthy ongoing impact of Peak Oil on all of us. Many issues must of necessity be considered, and I hope to make a contribution to the public dialogue we need to have. I hope you’ll find these objectives enjoyable as well as beneficial. We have more of a voice than we think we do. Finding that voice just might be our best hope.]


Before I dive into a series of posts discussing general objectives as the next step in this ongoing “New Direction” series (and other issues of note), I thought it might make sense to give us all just a few simple reminders about where we stand with Peak Oil. About a year ago, I posted the first of several pieces discussing some basic facts in support of my position that we’re now in the early stages of irreversible declining oil production. It’s a good starting point, if I do say so myself.

More recently, Sharon Astyk posted a genuinely terrific article (which I blogged about at the time) which offered a refreshing take on the peak-oil-is-here-no-it’s-not debate. If you haven’t read it, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so in conjunction with this. It is really good and stands up just as well as it did when she wrote it several months ago.

“A major reason for the rising prices and flatlining production is that for ‘the currently producing fields of crude oil, the production will decline,’ [International Energy Agency Chief Economist Fatih} Birol said.
“Today’s active oil fields produce about 70 million barrels per day, but by 2035, he said, ‘they will produce less than 20 million barrels per day of oil.’
“Just to keep crude oil production flat would require much more production from new oil fields—including those discovered but not yet developed, and others still to be discovered.” [1]

This quote follows release of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2010, in which the Agency admitted for the first that Peak Oil is in fact here, and has been since 2006. Oops! That report also predicts that almost half of the oil we’ll need by 2030 will have to come from oil fields not yet developed or found! Hello!

And as Jeff Rubin noted in his own review of that IEA report,

“According to the report, by 2035 three quarters of currently operating oil fields won’t be producing anymore. In fact, current fields are only expected to account for less than one fifth of that year’s production.
“That leaves over 80 per cent of the IEA’s 2035 production projection coming from new oil fields, ones that either haven’t yet been developed or haven’t even been discovered. And the contribution from that undiscovered category alone is still far greater than the one from currently producing fields. That’s a tall order for new field discovery.
“Undeveloped or undiscovered oil fields, growth in tar sands production and increased reliance on natural gas liquids account for all the expected growth in world oil production over the next two and a half decades. Curiously absent from this list is any contribution from conventional oil production–you know, the type you can afford to burn in your car, the type the global economy can afford to use to power transoceanic trade?”

None of this is good news, and the contortions one has to perform so as to convince others that there are no oil supply issues on the horizon would seem to be at best pointless. Reliance on unconventional resources such as oil shale, the Canadian tar sands, deep-water wells (anyone remember that little oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year?), and other reserves carries its own set of risks and challenges.

None of those alternatives are guaranteed to even replace what’s being lost each year just from normal depletion in existing fields, much less provide more; they are more expensive to locate and produce; the efforts needed to extract and then refine them are significantly greater than traditional oil production; it’s taking longer to bring the final product to market because of the inherent challenges in extracting those unconventional reserves (see this and this, for example); the net energy from those efforts (simplified: what’s left from the energy expended to extract vs. the energy potential gained) is much less; it’s costing so much more to obtain the same quantity and quality of energy efficiency as conventional oil, and there’s that little problem of environmental damage….That’s just for starters.

Let’s not forget that the world-wide recession of recent years has sharply curtailed investment in oil exploration—conventional or otherwise. Oil exploration and production is not a two week start-up to final production undertaking. Delaying needed investments by several years sets the entire industry back by at least that much … and while all of that is happening, demand continues to increase for a supply that simply is not expanding any longer. No matter how one does the math, the results are not good.

It’s become a common refrain that “the days of cheap oil are now behind us.” That does not bode well for countries hoping to regain their economic footing while their citizens clamor for more energy to meet their increasing demands for all kinds of products and services they’ve watched U.S. citizens enjoy for decades. Who wants to tell those several billion people “No”?

It’s also worth noting that recent turmoil in the Middle East has made it quite clear that we are in many respects largely dependent on suppliers who are less than stable or reliable. [Michael Klare recently offered a very informative piece on this topic.] The political calculations and consequences of continuing instability (and hostility to America) are not insignificant. A related consideration which gets too little attention is that oil-exporting nations also have their own citizens’ demands to provide for. Those exporters are not immune to the desires of their own people to improve their living conditions and prospects for prosperity. Who wants to tell those nations “We insist you supply the United States with what we need before you satisfy the requirements or demands of your own people?” Good luck with that!

As the domestic needs of exporting nations increase, the simple math result is that they will this have less oil to export. (A nice summary of the key points is here.) That’s not terribly shocking or difficult to appreciate, but what it means to nations like ours (as it relates to the by-now familiar statistic is that we consume approximately one-fourth of oil supplied each year) is that we’ll be getting less. Our demand for increases matched against less being supplied to us does not lead to good outcomes.

Finally, before this concise summary turns into an epic novel, I’ll direct you to one final article which provides readers with a generous amount of information about oil production and existing oil reserves. Jim Puplava, the author, provides a concise perspective on some key, fundamental aspects about the oil fields we continue to rely on after decades of production. As I touched on in my own above-referenced post, and as Mr. Puplava highlights, we are relying on fewer and fewer giant oil fields whose replacements simply cannot match the quantity and quality of those ever-depleting giants.

It is not a formula that gives optimists much to hang their hats on.


[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2010/11/101109-peak-oil-iea-world-energy-outlook/; Has The World Already Passed Peak Oil? by Mason Inman – November 9, 2010