This is a follow-up to Monday’s post, in which I discussed some of the conclusions offered in a 2013 report issued by Tullet Prebon, a British financial services firm, and authored by Dr. Tim Morgan, Global Head of Research: PERFECT STORM – ENERGY, FINANCE, AND THE END OF GROWTH. [Unless otherwise noted, quotes are taken from that PDF report.]
As I previously noted, the report pays special attention to the concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested [EROEI] and its significance in discussions about peak oil and our future energy supply.
The critical issue with peak oil does not hinge around remaining reserves. Rather, the critical issues are energy returns on energy invested (EROEI) and deliverability….
We may have used up much less than half of the world’s originally-recoverable reserves of oil, but we have, necessarily, resorted first to those reserves which are most readily and cheaply recovered. The reserves that remain are certain to be more difficult and costlier to extract.
Production may not ‘peak’ just yet, but a new concept (which we term ‘resource constraint’) may soon kick in, implying that an economic model based on abundant and ever-increasing hydrocarbon inputs might be running out of road.
The reality about current oil production efforts—most notably those involving hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling [“fracking”] to which must of our recent surges in oil production is attributed—is that the process is much more expensive, carries many (and wide-ranging) adverse environmental consequences, and delivers a product not nearly as energy dense/efficient as conventional crude oil has for more than a century.
We’re resorting to shale formations as our go-to energy fields because the conventional crude “good” stuff is no longer as plentiful or accessible. Relying on ever-greater quantities of a finite resource for the ever-expanding needs of an ever-expanding global population runs headfirst into basic math: keep removing X from the finite supply pile leaves less X left in that pile. So now we’re moving down the line into the not-as-good-stuff.
And among the problems clearly associated with the not-as-good-stuff is that it takes more effort and money to get it from there to here . That means even less of the energy we all need is left over after the additional energy inputs required to produce tight oil from shale formations: [EROEI - the energy return on energy invested]. Not good math. Those wells deplete much more rapidly than do the wells from conventional crude reserves, so even more effort and energy and money is needed because more wells must be drilled just to keep up. Also not good math.
Certainly the development of hydraulic fracturing has produced an impressive increase in oil production over the last few years. But those limitations mentioned above aren’t helpful for those counting on more of that Business As Usual for many more years to come. The technology is impressive, but impressive technology employed against finite resources carrying their own set of daunting challenges will only take us so far.
[E]xpecting a technological solution to occur would be extremely unwise, because technology uses energy – it does not create it. To expect technology to provide an answer would be equivalent to locking the finest scientific minds in a bank-vault, providing them with enormous computing power and vast amounts of money, and expecting them to create a ham sandwich.
In the absence of such a breakthrough, really promising energy sources (such as concentrated solar power) need to be pursued together, above all, with social, political and cultural adaptation to ‘life after growth’.
That’s not good news for any of us. The sooner all of us recognize that, the sooner we can begin to address with the requisite levels of seriousness, expertise, and cooperation mandated to deal with adaptation.
Our other option isn’t all that appealing. But perhaps it’s just me:
If EROEI falls materially, our consumerist way of life is over.
There are two really nasty stings in the tail of a declining EROEI. First, net energy availability may fall below the amount required for essential purposes including healthcare, government and law. It is hardly too much to say that a declining EROEI could bomb societies back into the pre-industrial age.
Indeed, a decrease in net energy below subsistence levels is an implicit consequence of EROEI decline beyond a certain point – one which is difficult to estimate, but is likely to occur within the next decade – which means that this is when the nastiest results of all start happening.
Second, of course, a decline in net energy availability could (indeed, almost certainly will) result in conflict driven by competition for access to diminishing surplus energy resources.
~ My Photo: Manhattan Beach, CA – 02.23.14
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