Posts Tagged ‘Peak oil’

April 30, 2013

I posted this by accident because I did not understand how to use the WordPress video embedding utility.

Please read my next post if you are interested in my thoughts on this subject.

Hubbert’s Peak: are we running out of oil?

March 20, 2012

In 1956, the brilliant maverick oil geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that oil production in the United States would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970, and world oil production would peak in about 50 years—that is, sometime around 2006.

M. King Hubbert's 1956 prediction of world oil

He extrapolated the rate of growth in oil production and the rate of discovery of new oil reserves, and based his prediction on when new discoveries failed to keep up with growth.   His chart of the rise and fall of oil production is called Hubbert’s Peak.  He had another chart, showing how nuclear energy could be a source of energy for many centuries.  You could call that Hubbert’s Plateau.

Hubbert’s prediction was accurate in regard to the United States.  Oil production in the Lower 48 states did peak around 1970 or so.  Many smart people believe that oil production in the Middle East has peaked or is about to peak.  But, as Daniel Yergin pointed out in his recent book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, worldwide production of liquid fuels continues to increase.

Actual world oil production

What Hubbert failed to take into account, Yergin wrote, were two things—(1) price and (2) technology.  The world gets its oil from sources that were unavailable in 1956, and uses liquid fuels other than oil.   Energy companies drill for oil deep in the ocean.  “Tight oil” and “tight gas” are extracted through hydraulic fracturing of shale deep within the earth.  Oil can be extracted from Canada’s tar sands.  More than four-fifths of liquid fuels—and, according to Yergin, you have to speak of liquid fuels rather than just crude oil—are extracted by advanced techniques that were unknown in Hubbert’s day.  The increase in world oil production probably owes more to chemical engineers than it goes to oil geologists.

In a way, Hubbert was right.  Production of the easy-to-get oil has peaked.  What Yergin calls the “unconventional” sources are available if you are willing to pay a high enough price—a price not only in dollars, but in the risk to the human environment, and in the amount of energy it takes to extract the new energy.

Hubbert's Plateau: nuclear energy as the solution

Yergin says there are enough reserves of “unconventional” energy to last for centuries at (here’s the problem) current rates of use.  The problem is not so much that someday the world have have used up more than half its supply of fossil fuels, as that if the rate of consumption of fossil fuels continues to increase year by year, it will someday catch up with production.  Yergin is aware of that, and is a strong advocate of energy conservation and development of renewable resources.

I don’t claim to have a good answer as to what should be done.  I think that it is amazing that deep water oil drilling or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas are possible at all, without expecting they can be carried out with 100 percent reliability and zero damage.  My inclination is to postpone use of potentially harmful processes as long as possible, in the hope that better technology will reduce risk and in the expectation that future generations will need these resources more than my generation does.

At the same time, I drive a car powered by gasoline and I heat my house with natural gas.  I wouldn’t like to try to get along without the first, and I don’t know how I would get along without the latter.  This is more important to me than the hazards and costs of energy development.

Click on What’s Wrong With Peak Oil for an article by Daniel Yergin in the Wall Street Journal.

Click on Is Yergin Correct About Oil Supply? (an opinion the Wall Street Journal did not run) for a rebuttal to Yergin by Gail Tverberg on her Our Finite World web log.

Click on The Oil Drum for a web log devoted to peak oil and energy issues.

Below are some maps (not taken from Daniel Yergin’s book) indicating where future oil and natural gas may come from.


What the leaked State Dept. cables revealed

April 14, 2011

My friend Hal Bauer e-mailed me this link to an article in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper about a State Department cable revealed by Wikileaks.

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom’s crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.

The revelation comes as the oil price has soared in recent weeks to more than $100 a barrel on global demand and tensions in the Middle East. Many analysts expect that the Saudis and their Opec cartel partners would pump more oil if rising prices threatened to choke off demand.

However, Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco, met the US consul general in Riyadh in November 2007 and told the US diplomat that Aramco’s 12.5m barrel-a-day capacity needed to keep a lid on prices could not be reached.

According to the cables, which date between 2007-09, Husseini said Saudi Arabia might reach an output of 12m barrels a day in 10 years but before then – possibly as early as 2012 – global oil production would have hit its highest point. This crunch point is known as “peak oil”.

The Guardian’s Wikileaks archive of leaked U.S. State Department cables reveals a great many astute observations.  I wonder how many of these observations made their way up to Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rica and Hillary Clinton and how much of what Rice and Clinton were told was passed on to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

My impression is that Presidents nowadays bypass the Foreign Service and conduct foreign policy through the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council.  If so, and judging by results, maybe they should listen more to career diplomats.

Click on Wikileaks cables: Saudi Arabia cannot pump enough oil to keep a lid on prices for the full Guardian article.

Click on US embassy cables: browse the database for selections from The Guardian’s Wikileaks archive.

Vision of a hardscrabble future

April 1, 2011

I wrote a post a couple of months ago entitled A prosperous industrial society without oil? about what life would be like after the affordable oil ran out if we successfully made a transition to nuclear, coal and/or green energy.  James Howard Kunstler anticipated my speculation in his 2005 book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century. He said it’s not going to happen.

The “converging catastrophes” of the subtitle include global climate change and the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases, but the most important one is the exhaustion of affordable oil supplies, which has already begun.

Oil is the basis of the American material standard of living.  The oil industry originated in the United States. When I was a schoolboy, the US was the world’s chief oil-exporting nation.  After our domestic production passed its peak, we turned to imports.  Now they may be peaking, too.

In my earlier post, I claimed that it would be possible to have a functioning industrial civilization without oil, based on some combination of nuclear power, coal and green technologies.  We could have electric trolley cars instead of automobiles, steam locomotive trains instead of airlines.

Kunstler anticipated my argument.  He noted that electric power, steam engines and the so-called green technologies are all products of an energy-intensive industrial civilization.  It would be technically possible to transition to non-oil energy sources, particularly nuclear power, provided this was done while we still had a functioning petroleum-based industrial economy.  But neither our dysfunctional government, our short-sighted corporate establishment nor we the people have the will to prepare for the future.  Once the emergency happens, it will be too late.  We won’t have any of the easy-to-get ores and fuels which were the basis of the original industrial revolution.

The Americans who will survive the emergency best, he wrote, are farms owners and small town residents in the Northeast and Great Lakes areas, who own farmland and possess traditional craft skills.  Mennonites probably will do well, he wrote; so will organic farmers who don’t depend on tractors, milking machines and seed companies.  Animal husbandry will be in great demand, he wrote; there will be few pets, but many working animals.  Horses will be as common as automobiles are today.

In his view suburbia will become literally as well as figuratively a vast wasteland. Big box retail stores, which depend on just-in-time deliveries over long distances, will cease to exist.  Big cities will not survive on their present scale, although he thinks certain sites, because of geography, will always will be urban centers – New York City, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans and so on.  Most Americans, except for farmers on the land, will live in small towns whose economic purpose is to service the agricultural economy.

He thinks the South – “the Land of NASCAR” – will fare poorly because it depends on air conditioning and the automobile.  He doubts many people in the Rockies, the Great Plains and the Southwest will survive the collapse of the big irrigation systems.  People in the rainy coast of the Pacific Northwest will do all right if they’re not attacked by pirates (!) .

All in all, the survival of the world’s 6 billion people (at the time of writing) depends on industrial agriculture and petroleum-based fertilizers, he said; mass starvation will result when these are no longer available.

Kunstler himself has moved to the village of New Corinth, in northeastern New York near Saratoga.  He has learned the use of hand tools, and owns a gun “which is a great comfort.”  Most importantly, he has made connections with his neighbors.  Making yourself part of a community is the most important survival skill.

He emphasized that his predictions are not what he wants to happen, but what he thinks will unfortunately happen.  He said he would be pleased if some sort of miracle technological breakthrough restored the era of cheap energy, as when the peaking of the supply of whale oil sparked the development of petroleum technology, but it would be foolish to count on this happening.  As the saying goes, hope is not a plan.


A prosperous industrial society without oil?

January 27, 2011

Sooner or later the world will use up its supply of affordable oil.  Let’s assume that when that happens, we can get equivalent energy from some combination of renewable sources, advanced nuclear reactors or clean coal.  What would such a world be like?

This is a thought experiment, not a prediction.  It is based on one thing changing and everything else staying the same, which will not happen.  But it is interesting and maybe worthwhile to speculate.

It would be a world running on electricity rather than liquid fuels, the generator rather than the internal combustion engine.

Long-distance travel would be by train, not by airplane.  Commuting would be mainly by train, not by automobile.  Electric cars would be used mainly for short-distance travel and to get to the train station.  Steam locomotives might make a comeback; electric trolley cars might make a comeback.

The Internet and electronic communication would be more important – especially for farmers and others distant from cities and railroad stations.  Families and friends who live far apart would visit virtually, on-screen or through conference calls.  Thousand-mile trips would be major and rare undertakings.  We would become a little bit like the Spacers in Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun, who were intimate while hardly ever seeing each other face-to-face.

Land use patterns would change.  The most desirable real estate would be along the rail lines, like Philadelphia’s Main Line in an earlier age.  Astute developers would locate shopping centers, apartment complexes and even factories along the railroads.  Real estate values would rise in cities and villages, and fall in the far-out suburbs.

Most of the cost of oil and natural gas is in the fuel cost, not the investment needed to use these sources of energy.  In contrast, renewable sources, nuclear power and coal are relatively cheap as fuels, but the capital cost is great (the capital cost of steam from coal would be greatly increased by anti-pollution technology).  The necessary investment would have to come out of taxes or increased savings by Americans – not so much from foreign investment.

Imported goods would be expensive, and locally-produced goods relatively cheaper. Wal-Mart and its imitators, whose business model is based on low inventories and just-in-time delivery over long distances, would change radically or go out of business.

The United States would no longer be a global superpower.  The Air Force, lacking aviation fuel, would no longer be able to project American power to every point on the map.  But the U.S. Navy might still rule the seas.  Nuclear aircraft carriers would be replaced by nuclear troop carriers for Marines.  The diesel-powered fleet would have to switch to nuclear or steam.

To prepare for this age, we ought to be thinking about (1) maintaining a large reserve capacity for electrical generation, which means building new plants; (2) investing heavily in research in electric batteries; (3) making sure railroad rights-of-way are not lost; and (4) making sure railroad track is kept in good repair.

Having successfully made the transition from Peak Oil, we would be planning for Peak Coal and Peak Uranium.  In the long run, industrial society will continue only if it can function on sustainable sources of energy.

What am I overlooking?