Goodbye To All That Oil

Until recently, peak-oil analysts got about as much respect from the energy establishment as do perpetual-motion enthusiasts. But now, with oil prices headed for uncharted territory and even Saudi Arabia seemingly unable to boost production to higher levels, the peak oil idea – which says that world oil production will go into irreversible decline sometime in the the next decade or two – is quickly morphing into conventional wisdom.

Fifty years ago, geologist M. King Hubbert showed that the output of an oilfield, or indeed the oil production of an entire country, increases year by year up to the point (a "peak") at which approximately half the oil is exhausted. From there, he said, annual output drops inexorably toward zero.

Hubbert hit the bullseye with his prediction that U.S. production would peak in 1970. And over the past half century, country after country has seen its oil production hit a peak and start dropping. Yet for decades, economists, petroleum executives and government officials refused to follow Hubbert's analysis to its logical conclusion – that in the easily foreseeable future, humanity will pass over a global peak of oil production, where there awaits a very grim, slippery slope.

peak oil hubbard
The Hubbert Curve, designed by geophysicist M. King Hubbert, illustrates that over time, the rate of oil production rises and then falls in a bell-shape pattern.
But gradually, in the past couple of years, the main issue in the oil debate has shifted from whether a world peak will occur to when. And when it comes to peak-oil predictions these days, there is no shortage.

Please place your bets

Colin Campbell of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) predicts that production will begin its decline between now and 2010.

British Petroleum exploration consultant Francis Harper believes it will happen between 2010 and 2020. Consulting firm PFC Energy puts it at around 2010 to 2015. The publication Petroleum Review predicts that demand will outstrip supply in 2007. Richard Heinberg, author of the 2003 book, The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, expects a peak in 2007 or 2008.

Retired Princeton professor Kenneth Deffeyes, author of the just-published, Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak is more pessimistic, and more specific, about when the peak will happen: Thanksgiving Day, 2005. (His tongue appears to be in his cheek regarding the day, but not the year).

If all that is too gloomy for you, energy consultant Michael Lynch maintains that there's no peak in sight for "the next 20 or 30 years." Peter Odell of Erasmus University in the Netherlands has tacked a full 30 years onto Deffeyes' grim prediction, setting a date of Thanksgiving 2035. And Uncle Sam has the cheeriest news of all: a peak year of 2037 forecast by the Department of Energy.

Now how many times has someone told you, "Oh, yeah, all my life they've been saying the oil's about to run out, and it hasn't done it yet"? In fact, the record of oil forecasting has not been an exercise in Chicken-Littlism.

Asking, "When will oil peak and begin its decline?" (not, "When will it run out?"), the prognosticators of the past came up with dates only five to 10 years ahead of many of today's predictions. Roger Bentley of the University of Reading found that in the 1970s – during the last outbreak of peak-oil fever – analysts from "reputable organizations" (including Esso, Shell, the UK Department of Energy, and the U.N., as well as Hubbert himself) were nearly unanimous in predicting a world oil peak somewhere around the year 2000.

Does the peak year even matter?

With oil prices soaring, economic logic says the sooner the peak's date can be nailed down, the better. Financial web sites are buzzing about it, but in a somewhat merrier key than the peak-oil sites. One research firm is even forecasting production peaks for individual oil companies, with obvious implications for stock values.

On the other hand, if we're more concerned about improving humanity's prospects in 2010 or 2037 than Wall Street's prospects at the close of trading tomorrow, then one prediction is probably as good as another. In designing an energy policy that can be sustained far into the post-petroleum future, the precise timing of the peak is of about as much practical importance as the date of the next total eclipse of the sun (on that forecast, astronomers agree: March 29, 2006).

A recent report prepared for the U.S. government by Science Applications International Corporation suggests that whatever the peak year turns out to be, 2005 is the time to get moving on energy policy. The report's lead author, Robert L. Hirsch, concluded that strong action must be taken at least 10, and preferably 20 years before we reach a world oil peak, if we are to avoid "a long period of significant economic hardship worldwide."

If Hirsch is right, and if peak-oil analysts like Campbell and Deffeyes have correctly predicted a peak before 2010, we're in serious trouble already. Even with bold, immediate moves to wean ourselves from oil, "significant economic hardship" is probably the very best we can hope for.

But even if the DOE's own rosy forecast of a 2037 peak is to prove on target, we're left with little time for leisurely Sunday drives. Initiating, in Hirsch's words, "crash program mitigation 20 years before peaking" in a thoroughly oil-addicted country will require at least a decade of political action just to get started.

Shrinking supplies of oil could actually help mitigate this century's other looming crisis: global warming. There too, the clock is ticking. In a 2002 paper in the journal Science, 18 eminent researchers urged massive, immediate investment in a diverse array of new, unproven non-fossil-fuel technologies if we're to supply the world's energy needs with no net carbon emissions, even by the year 2050.

And energy's not the whole story. One example: To supply the total current U.S. production of plastics, synthetic fibers and rubber, solvents, and other petrochemicals using biomass (plant-derived materials) instead of petroleum would consume the entire net annual growth of all the nation's forests – and we're already using that wood for other purposes.

Supply, demand, and physical reality

Debates among peak-of-production soothsayers and their critics remain unsettled because a crucial quantity – the precise amount of oil still in the ground worldwide – remains unknown. Nevertheless, two things are becoming more and more clear: Vast new oilfields just don't seem to be out there, and in existing fields, producers are getting less and less bang for the buck. The oil still in the ground will prove a lot harder to suck out than the oil that's already been pumped and burned.

In those fields first discovered and exploited in the past century, the oil was almost as easy and cheap to extract as Jed Clampett's bubblin' crude. But with many of the fields in production today, oil has to be brought from greater depths, requiring a lot more energy and often necessitating injection of water, steam or various gases.

Such methods may be wrecking mature fields, causing them to dry up more quickly. Energy investment banker Matthew Simmons has been saying that overpumping may already have damaged oilfields in Saudi Arabia and Iran, rendering vast amounts of oil unrecoverable.

In 2000, operators of Mexico's largest oilfield began injecting nitrogen gas into wells. As a result, they temporarily achieved a much higher extraction rate. But this year, the field fell prematurely into permanent decline.

The size of world reserves is not only unknown, it's beyond our control. With that quantity fixed, the chief way for humans to stretch out the oil curve is to cut the rate of consumption. Fast-rising demand in the world's two largest countries, China and India, is said to be worsening the current oil crunch, but before we in the West point fingers, it's important to remember that one average American consumes as much oil as 35 citizens of India.

For decades, Prof. Albert Bartlett of the University of Colorado has been calling attention to the ability of conservation to extend the life of a resource. For example, assume that the nation of West Vehicula calculates that it has about 60 years worth of oil in the ground, given that it's planning to increase consumption at 4 percent per year. Bartlett's simple calculations show that the Vehiculans could stretch the lifetime of that resource to more than 300 years by holding consumption growth to zero.

Won't the problem take care of itself? As prices rise, people will voluntarily cut consumption, right? Well, in a 2003 article, energy economist Andrew McKillop showed that at least during the 1990s, the opposite happened. Each time oil prices rose, world demand rose within six-12 months. And over on the far side of Hubbert's peak, it will be physical reality, not economics, that governs consumption. With supply shrinking year by year, every barrel that comes out of the ground will likely be burned lickety-split.

The view from the top

Environmentalists may be tempted to anticipate an ever-worsening scarcity of oil as just the thing to shock America into conservation and serious development of alternative energy. But what if – and this is not hard at all to envision – the peak prompts a worldwide fossil-fuel rush instead?

Expensive, energy-inefficient and environmentally disastrous efforts to exploit oil and tar sands in Canada, Venezuela and elsewhere could be cranked up to full speed. The militarization of American society could become total, as the government's chief mission becomes control of oil across the globe. (The number-one target, of course, would be the Persian Gulf, where resides 63 percent of the world's remaining oil.) And we would likely exploit our large coal reserves in a big way, breaking new global-warming records as we go.

The best alternative to that nightmare is renewable energy. Geologist Walter Youngquist, author of the 1997 book, Geodestinies, has taken a hard-headed look at the inventory of alternatives to fossil fuels and concluded that to make them work, we'll have to put an end to our profligate ways. He paints a picture of a frugal, restrained society very different from the one we've lived in on the upslope of the oil curve.

Yes, peak oil's in the news, but it's only beginning to seep into the national conciousness. Maybe we'll know the idea is really catching on when Hollywood gets interested. But by the time The Day After the Peak hits your local cineplex, it might turn out to be a reality show.

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