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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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Tag: oil sands

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[W]e have no replacement energy source that is as calorically dense as oil. It is simply not practical to replace oil as an energy source and maintain current energy demands.

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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