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Revisiting the IEA's World Energy Outlook 2013 » Peak Oil BarrelPeak Oil Barrel

Revisiting the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2013 » Peak Oil BarrelPeak Oil Barrel.

I was going over the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2013 and noticed a few things you might find interesting. Exactly what is their opinion on Peak Oil? Here, cut and pasted from the report.

IEA 2

Got that? The URR is great enough to delay any peak until after 2035. Here is one of their graphs that indicate how much they think is left, coal, gas and oil.

IEA 1

Okay 54 years of proven reserves. That puts the peak out to well past mid century. Likely well past 2100 if you count those remaining recoverable resources. And just who has all this oil?

IEA 10

2.2 trillion barrels of conventional crude oil resources. However only 1.7 trillion barrels of that has a 90% probability of being recoverable. Of this the Middle East has the lions share, 971 billion barrels of resources with a 90% probability of recovering 813 billion barrels of that.

 

The Middle East, of course, mostly OPEC. And if you count the four OPEC countries of Africa and the two in South America, the vast majority of the world’s oil reserves are in OPEC nations. In fact OPEC claims 81% of all the proven reserves in the world.

OPEC Reserves

So with 81% of the world’s proven reserves what is the IEA expecting from OPEC in the future?

IEA 6
IEA 22

A word of explanation is needed here. New Policies Scenario: A scenario in the World Energy Outlook that takes account of broad policy commitments and plans that have been announced by countries, including national pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and plans to phase out fossil-energy subsidies, even if the measures to implement these commitments have yet to be identified or announced.

450 Scenario: A scenario presented in the World Energy Outlook that sets out an energy pathway consistent with the goal of limiting the global increase in temperature to 2°C by limiting concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to around 450 parts per million of CO2.

Current Policies is business as usual. Or, basically, we will keep on doing what we are doing. Which is of course exactly what will happen. However what the IEA sees as happening, above, is not exactly what will happen, far from it.

So, looking at Conventional Crude Oil Production in 2012, 2020 and 2035 we find this. All data on all charts below are in million barrels per day:

IEA 23

Well hell, OPEC production will be lower in 2020 than it is today. And non OPEC production will be lower in 2035 than it is today. But not to worry, total conventional crude production will be up 2.9 percent in the 23 years between 2012 and 2035.

But they are expecting Natural Gas Liquids to increase by almost 57 percent.

IEA 24

And let us not forget about Unconventionals. What are Unconventionals?

IEA 26

IEA 25

Unconventionals, Light Tight Oil and Oil Sands increase from 5 mb/d to 10.6 mb/d in 2020 to 17.1 mb/d in 2035. That is an increase of 242 percent in 23 years.

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Survive Peak Oil: Peak Oil: Laherrère, Real Curves, and Official Curves

Survive Peak Oil: Peak Oil: Laherrère, Real Curves, and Official Curves.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Peak Oil: Laherrère, Real Curves, and Official Curves

The graph above is Figure 11 from Jean Laherrère, “World Oil and Gas Production Forecasts up to 2100,” The Oil Drum, July 16, 2013. Retrieved from www.theoildrum.com/node/10009
Notes on some of Laherrère’s abbreviations:
AEO = Annual Energy Outlook (from EIA) (= US Energy Information Administration)
NOPEC = non-OPEC
Tb = trillion barrels
U = ultimate recoverable
WEO = World Energy Outlook (from IEA) ( = International Energy Agency)
WOO = World Oil Outlook (from OPEC)
The thin blue line at the top right is Laherrère’s prediction of the grand totals, differing considerably from the others.
He explains: “The confidential technical data on [mean values of proven + probable reserves] is only available from expensive and very large scout databases. . . . There is a huge difference between the political/financial proved reserves [so-called], and the confidential technical [proven + probable] reserves. . . . Most economists . . . rely only on the proved reserves coming from [the Oil and Gas Journal, the US Energy Information Administration], BP and OPEC data, which are wrong; they have no access to the confidential technical data.”
The difference between his figures and the various government figures is enormous. It reminds me of the 1950s, when M.K. Hubbert and others were saying one thing, and the government was saying quite the opposite.
A few years ago I met someone who told me that his father had been a geoscientist in the 1950s. Back in those early days, the father had told the son about “peak oil” (in the years to come), but the father also said he would risk being fired if he made any public statement.
It’s considered bad for business to tell your investors that you’re going to be running out of product to sell. To me that sounds in some ways like superstitious nonsense. Surely if a product becomes rarer, each unit of that product gains more financial value for its owner. I suspect the real answer to that question, though, is closer to what Colin Campbell said to Adam Porter in 2004: “If the real figures were to come out there would be panic on the stock markets. . . .”
The general public must be kept happy but ignorant. Well, maybe not too happy, but certainly ignorant, as anyone knows who has had tried to deal with any important global issue, from pollution to population. Newspapers aren’t allowed to print bad news, at least not bad news that would shake anyone up. And the only books one is supposed to read are high-school romances. Orwell had it right, a perfect score (except for the title) when he wrote 1984. Reminds me of a conversation I have at irregular intervals with people I meet. They say, “Everyone knows what Freud/Marx/Darwin said. He was a terrible man.” “Have you ever read any of his books?” Without embarrassment, the answer is an angry “no!” In other words,”Why should I read the books of such a terrible man?”
Oh, well, even Galileo had to deal with disinformation, so who am I to complain?
FURTHER READING
BP. (2013). Global statistical review of world energy. Retrieved fromhttp://www.bp.com/statisticalreview
Heinberg, R. (2013). Snake oil: How fracking’s false promise of plenty imperils our future. Santa Rosa, California: Post Carbon Institute.
Höök, M., Hirsch, R., & Aleklett, K. (2009, June). Giant oil field decline rates and their influence on world oil production. Energy Policy, Volume 37, Issue 6, pp. 2262-72. Retrieved fromhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2009.02.020
Hughes, J. D. (2013, Feb.) Drill, baby, drill; Can unconventional fuels usher in a new era of energy abundance? Executive Summary. Post Carbon Institute. Retrieved fromhttp://www.postcarbon.org/reports/DBD-report-FINAL.pdf
Klare, M.T. (2012).The race for what’s left: The scramble for the world’s last resources. New York: Picador.
Simmons, M. R. (2006). Twilight in the desert: The coming Saudi oil shock and the world economy. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Peak oil is not a myth | Chemistry World

Peak oil is not a myth | Chemistry World.

20 February 2014
One might have the impression that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of shale deposits is the answer to world energy security. Certainly fracking has received much attention and investment, but its prospects must be considered in a broader context.
In the US, where practically all such operations have been conducted to date, fracking now accounts for 40% of domestic gas production and 30% of oil production. The price of natural gas has plummeted, and overall US oil production has increased for the first time since 1970, which had otherwise been falling in accordance with the predictions M King Hubbert made in 1956.
© Shutterstock

However, this last point is the salient one. Sources of unconventional oil (listed below) such as tight oil (or ‘shale oil’ in popular discourse) are only commercially viable because the need to match the declining rate of conventional oil production has raised oil prices. It is the rate of production of oil that determines its supply, rather than the size of the reserves: ‘The size of the tap, not the tank.’

Oil check

Current data for the decline in oil fields’ production indicates that around 3 million barrels per day of new production must be achieved year on year, simply to sustain supply levels. This is equivalent to finding another Saudi Arabia every 3–4 years. In this context, fracking is at best a stop-gap measure. Conventional oil production is predicted to drop by over 50% in the next two decades and tight oil is unlikely to replace more than 6%.
Once conventional oil’s rate of loss exceeds unconventional oil’s rate of production, world production must peak. Production of sweet, light crude actually peaked in 2005 but this has been masked by the increase in unconventional oil production, and also by lumping together different kinds of material with oil and referring to the collective as ‘liquids’. (More recently, the term ‘liquids’ is often upgraded to ‘oil’, which is highly disinformative since the properties of the other liquids are quite different from crude oil.)
Fracking produces mostly shale gas (rather than oil), and the major growth in global ‘oil’ production has been from natural gas liquids (NGL; in part from shale gas). But the principal components of NGL are ethane and propane, so it is not a simple substitute for petroleum.

Energy in, energy out

The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) is worse for all unconventional oil production methods than for conventional oil.

‘Oil production is predicted to drop by over 50% in two decades’

This means that more energy must be invested to maintain output. As a rough comparison, conventional crude oil production has an EROEI in the range 10–20:1, while tight oil comes in at 4–5:1. Oil recovered from (ultra)deepwater drilling gives 4–7:1, heavy oil 3–5:1, and oil shale (kerogen) somewhere around 1.5–4:1. Tar sands is around 6:1, if it is recovered by surface mining, but this falls to around 3:1 when the bitumen is ‘upgraded’ by conversion to a liquid ‘oil’ substitute.

As conventional oil production has fallen, so has oil’s EROEI as we recover it from increasingly inhospitable locations, and with new technologies. The price of a barrel of oil has trebled over the past decade, but output has effectively flatlined. We may be close to the ceiling of global oil production, and the prospect of filling the gap with oil from alternative sources is daunting.

Different rocks

Although fracking has produced sizeable volumes of oil and gas in the US, there is no guarantee that a similar success will be met elsewhere, including the UK, in part because the geology is different. Even in the US, it is the sweet spots that have been drilled, and the shale plays elsewhere across the continent are likely to prove less productive.
The shale gas reserves in Poland have been revised down from 187 trillion cubic feet (tcf) to 12–27 tcf: at best, a mere 14% of the original estimate. And most of the production is likely to be gas. Even if we can exhume large volumes of gas at a generous production rate, converting our transport system to run on it would be a considerable undertaking, particularly given the timescale imposed by conventional oil production’s rate of decline. And there are many uses for oil other than to provide liquid fuels, for which substitutes must also be found.
Renewables do not provide a comparable substitute for crude oil and the liquid fuels that are refined from it, since the potential contribution from biofuels is relatively minor. Replacing the UK’s 34 million oil-powered vehicles with electric versions is an unlikely proposition, given the limitations of time and resources such as rare earth metals. Mass transit is the more likely future for electric transport than personal cars. The end of cheap, personal transport is a real possibility and may seed changes in our behaviour, such as building resilient communities that produce more of their essentials, such as food and materials, at the local level.
There are many uncertainties, but it seems clear that the age of cheap oil is over. We are entering a very new and different phase of human experience.
Chris Rhodes is an independent consultant based in Reading, UK, and author of  University shambles

Should we be worried about ‘peak oil’?  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards

Should we be worried about ‘peak oil’?  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards.

Every now and then, in reading about global warming and other environmental issues, I come across a reference to ‘peak oil’, usually as yet another example of how humans blindly pursue their own short-term interests, scarcely heeding the crisis that is waiting for them ahead. And of course we humans do have a tendency to do just that, some of the time, at least.

Anyway, I marked down ‘peak oil’ as a subject to read about, and after some time at the computer, protected by air-conditioning that is doubtless increasing the heat outside, offer you the results of my reading. First, ‘peak oil’ is as contentious as AGW itself. The phrase itself prompts 55,600,000 hits on Google, and there are a dozen or so variants of the phrase as well. You may not be surprised to learn that there are ‘peak oil deniers’ as well.

What is it, exactly? ‘Peak oil’ is defined as the moment of maximum production from a well or basin, when approximately half the recoverable oil is left, so there can be only a declining productivity. It’s not the same as ‘depletion’, which occurs during a period of falling reserves and supply. The term ‘peak oil’ was invented by Marion King Hubbert, a Shell geoscientist who also worked as an academic at Stanford and Berkeley and as a research scientist for the US Geological Survey. He was a serious and distinguished contributor to the geosciences.

Hubbert argued that the supply of oil was finite (no one much would now disagree), and that US production would peak in 1970, which seemed at the time to have been the case. He also predicted that global oil production would peak in 1995 ‘if present trends continue’. This prediction has been much less easy to verify, if only because the expansion of the oil industry from the 1980s onwards, both geographically and in scale terms, has made it much more difficult to say how much oil there actually is.

Both oil companies and oil-producing countries have become coy about how much of their own information they release publicly, and international agencies that monitor energy and oil have to rely on what countries and companies say. BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy provides the data for the following diagram, constructed by Willis Eschenbach, and the trends are most interesting.

 

Very simply, proved American oil reserves, according to this chart, have continued at much the same level for some 35 years, while production has gone onwards and upwards. At about 1988 the reserves would have seemed to have equalled total production to that point, which should have meant declining production. But no. New fields came into production that had not been known about in the past.

How long can this go on? We don’t know. In the AGW domain, the scare has moved from ‘right now’, which was the case ten years ago, to the second half of the century. In the case of peak oil, some estimates now say we may reach peak oil globally in 2035. Others say we have already passed it, or it’s next year. You take your pick. One assessment I read suggested that peak oil was an almost silly concept, because both supply and demand for oil are greatly affected by the world price (and oil is a globally traded commodity with global prices for different grades of oil). What will happen, from this perspective, is that oil will become slowly more expensive, to the point where we change what we are doing in many diverse ways: engines made more and more efficient, we shift to different forms of transportation, we bring in alternative forms of energy, and so on. You can see that these changes have occurred to some degree already.

I came to the conclusion that worrying about peak oil is probably unnecessary. It may be that most of the easily recoverable oil has already been recovered, but when a well is ‘dry’ there is still about 40 per cent left: at the moment no one knows how to get it out cheaply enough for the effort to be worthwhile. The ‘unconventional’ oil held in oil sands, shale and other forms is very much larger in volume again, and while, yes, it is also more expensive to get the oil out from shale and sands, that is a technological matter, and technologies do tend to improve, especially when there is a big money prize awaiting. Oil was once very cheap, and its very cheapness was a basic cause of industrial expansion everywhere. Now it is much more expensive, but then GDP has risen a great deal everywhere, so we can still afford it. It’s unlikely to be cheap again.

And here’s a final thought. Australia still had 3.9 thousand million barrels of oil left in 2011, according to BP, and in 1992 we only had 3.2 thousand million barrels left. So we seem to have followed the global trend, as has ‘oil-rich Brunei’, to our north. Actually, Brunei has much less oil than Australia. But there are only a little more than 400,000 people in Brunei, compared to the 23 million in Australia, so its oil-richness is simply a function of its population. You can find out all sorts of interesting things when you can get your hands on some data!

Has Petroleum Production Peaked, Ending the Era of Easy Oil?  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards

Has Petroleum Production Peaked, Ending the Era of Easy Oil?  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards.

A new analysis concludes that easily extracted oil peaked in 2005, suggesting that dirtier fossil fuels will be burned and energy prices will rise

Despite major oil finds off Brazil’s coast, new fields in North Dakota and ongoing increases in the conversion of tar sands to oil in Canada, fresh supplies of petroleum are only just enough to offset the production decline from older fields. At best, the world is now living off an oil plateau—roughly 75 million barrels of oil produced each and every day—since at least 2005, according to a new comment published in Nature on January 26. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) That is a year earlier than estimated by the International Energy Agency—an energy cartel for oil consuming nations. 

To support our modern lifestyles—from cars to plastics—the world has used more than one trillion barrels of oil to date. Another trillion lie underground, waiting to be tapped. But given the locations of the remaining oil, getting the next trillion is likely to cost a lot more than the previous trillion. The “supply of cheap oil has plateaued,” argues chemist David King, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford and former chief scientific adviser to the U.K. government. “The global economy is severely knocked by oil prices of $100 per barrel or more, creating economic downturn and preventing economic recovery.”

Nor do King and his co-author, oceanographer James Murray of the University of Washington in Seattle, hold out much hope for future discoveries. “The geologists know where the source rocks are and where the trap structures are,” Murray notes. “If there was a prospect for a new giant oil field, I think it would have been found.”

King and Murray based their conclusion on an analysis of oil data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Looking at use and production trends, the two note that since 2005 production has remained essentially unchanged whereas prices (a surrogate for demand) have fluctuated wildly. This suggests to the authors that there is no longer any spare capacity to respond to increases in demand, whether it results from political unrest that cuts supply, as in the case of Libya’s political upheaval last year, or economic boom times in growing countries like China. “We are not running out of oil, but we are running out of oil that can be produced easily and cheaply,” King and Murray wrote.

Other statistics, however, argue against a plateau. Oil company BP found in its most recent analysis that oil production was actually more than 82 million barrels per day in 2010, higher than the proposed plateau of 75 million. That difference may be the result of the increasing use of “unconventionals”—Canadian tar sands or the natural gas liquids co-produced with oil extraction. Rising production in the China, Nigeria, Russia and the U.S. also hints that technological improvements may allow greater production from existing fields than the new research suggests.

Plus, the price of oil may argue against any such plateau. Adjusted for inflation, today’s $100 per barrel is roughly equivalent to prices in 1981, according to environmental scientist Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba. Smil also notes that in the last 20 years enough oil has been found to satisfy the demands of two new consumers—China and India—nations that now import more oil than is consumed by Germany and Japan.

Some of that price stability is the result of increased efficiencythe potentially vast reserve of unused oil. The U.S. and other developed countries have maintained economic growth while reducing the amount of oil (and other energy) required for that growth, although some of this apparent efficiency has come from outsourcing energy-intensive economic activity, such as steel production. “We have about halved oil intensity since 1981,” Smil argues. “We could halve it again, so we could do with so much less oil—why should we panic about producing less, even if that were the case?”

If King and Murray are correct about 2005 marking the end of easily extracted oil, however, then Smil’s additional halving of demand, plus conservation and a rapid deployment of alternative energy, would be required to avoid even more economically painful oil price shocks in the future. As it is, the U.S. spent more than $490 billion on gasoline in 2011—$100 billion more than in 2010, even though the number of miles driven was similar, according to data from the New America Foundation.

An easy-oil plateau is not good news for the climate, either. Harder to extract oil means increased burning of dirtier oil like that from the tar sands—or even dirtier coal. In fact, there are trillions more barrels of carbon-intensive fuel out there in the form of huge coal fields, such as the one currently being brought into production in Mongolia. “There will still be enough CO2 produced to result in significant climate warming,” Murray notes.

Even with large supplies of coal and natural gas, the world faces a potential energy shortfall, one reason that the U.S. Department of Energy suggested in a 2005 report (pdf) that a “crash program” to cope with any decline in oil supplies be instituted. The report argued this program should start 20 years before peak global production to avoid “extreme economic hardship.” That’s because it will take decades for any kind of energy transition to occur, as evidenced by past shifts such as from wood to coal or coal to oil.

In fact, King and Murray argue that global economic growth itself may be impossible without a concurrent growth in energy supply (that is, more abundant fossil fuels, to date). “We need to decouple economic growth from fossil-fuel dependence,” King adds. “This is not happening due to industrial, infrastructural, political and human behavioral inertia. We are stuck in our ways.”

Scientific American

Peak Oil Is Dead | Michael T. Klare

Peak Oil Is Dead | Michael T. Klare.

Long Live Peak Oil!

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Among the big energy stories of 2013, “peak oil” — the once-popular notion that worldwide oil production would soon reach a maximum level and begin an irreversible decline — was thoroughly discredited.  The explosive development of shale oil and other unconventional fuels in the United States helped put it in its grave.

As the year went on, the eulogies came in fast and furious. “Today, it is probably safe to say we have slayed ‘peak oil’ once and for all, thanks to the combination of new shale oil and gas production techniques,” declared Rob Wile, an energy and economics reporter for Business Insider.  Similar comments from energy experts were commonplace, prompting an R.I.P. headline at Time.com announcing, “Peak Oil is Dead.”

Not so fast, though.  The present round of eulogies brings to mind the Mark Twain’s famous line: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  Before obits for peak oil theory pile up too high, let’s take a careful look at these assertions.  Fortunately, theInternational Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based research arm of the major industrialized powers, recently did just that — and the results were unexpected.  While not exactly reinstalling peak oil on its throne, it did make clear that much of the talk of a perpetual gusher of American shale oil is greatly exaggerated.  The exploitation of those shale reserves may delay the onset of peak oil for a year or so, the agency’s experts noted, but the long-term picture “has not changed much with the arrival of [shale oil].”

The IEA’s take on this subject is especially noteworthy because its assertion only a year earlier that the U.S. would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one oil producer sparked the “peak oil is dead” deluge in the first place.  Writing in the 2012 edition of itsWorld Energy Outlook, the agency claimed not only that “the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer” by around 2020, but also that with U.S. shale production and Canadian tar sands coming online, “North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.”

That November 2012 report highlighted the use of advanced production technologies — notably horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) — to extract oil and natural gas from once inaccessible rock, especially shale.  It also covered the accelerating exploitation of Canada’s bitumen (tar sands or oil sands), another resource previously considered too forbidding to be economical to develop.  With the output of these and other“unconventional” fuels set to explode in the years ahead, the report then suggested, the long awaited peak of world oil production could be pushed far into the future.

The release of the 2012 edition of World Energy Outlook triggered a global frenzy of speculative reporting, much of it announcing a new era of American energy abundance. “Saudi America” was the headline over one such hosanna in the Wall Street Journal.  Citing the new IEA study, that paper heralded a coming “U.S. energy boom” driven by “technological innovation and risk-taking funded by private capital.”  From then on, American energy analysts spoke rapturously of the capabilities of a set of new extractive technologies, especially fracking, to unlock oil and natural gas from hitherto inaccessible shale formations.  “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal crowed.

But that was then. The most recent edition of World Energy Outlook, published this past November, was a lot more circumspect.  Yes, shale oil, tar sands, and other unconventional fuels will add to global supplies in the years ahead, and, yes, technology will help prolong the life of petroleum.  Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget that we are also witnessing the wholesale depletion of the world’s existing oil fields and so all these increases in shale output must be balanced against declines in conventional production.  Under ideal circumstances — high levels of investment, continuing technological progress, adequate demand and prices — it might be possible to avert an imminent peak in worldwide production, but as the latest IEA report makes clear, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will occur.

Inching Toward the Peak

Before plunging deeper into the IEA’s assessment, let’s take a quick look at peak oil theory itself.

As developed in the 1950s by petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert, peak oil theory holdsthat any individual oil field (or oil-producing country) will experience a high rate of production growth during initial development, when drills are first inserted into a oil-bearing reservoir.  Later, growth will slow, as the most readily accessible resources have been drained and a greater reliance has to be placed on less productive deposits.  At this point — usually when about half the resources in the reservoir (or country) have been extracted — daily output reaches a maximum, or “peak,” level and then begins to subside.  Of course, the field or fields will continue to produce even after peaking, but ever more effort and expense will be required to extract what remains.  Eventually, the cost of production will exceed the proceeds from sales, and extraction will be terminated.

For Hubbert and his followers, the rise and decline of oil fields is an inevitable consequence of natural forces: oil exists in pressurized underground reservoirs and so will be forced up to the surface when a drill is inserted into the ground.  However, once a significant share of the resources in that reservoir has been extracted, the field’s pressure will drop and artificial means — water, gas, or chemical insertion — will be needed to restore pressure and sustain production.  Sooner or later, such means become prohibitively expensive.

Peak oil theory also holds that what is true of an individual field or set of fields is true of the world as a whole.  Until about 2005, it did indeed appear that the globe was edging ever closer to a peak in daily oil output, as Hubbert’s followers had long predicted.  (He died in 1989.)  Several recent developments have, however, raised questions about the accuracy of the theory.  In particular, major private oil companies have taken to employing advanced technologies to increase the output of the reservoirs under their control, extending the lifetime of existing fields through the use of what’s called “enhanced oil recovery,” or EOR.  They’ve also used new methods to exploit fields once considered inaccessible in places like the Arctic and deep oceanic waters, thereby opening up the possibility of a most un-Hubbertian future.

In developing these new technologies, the privately owned “international oil companies” (IOCs) were seeking to overcome their principal handicap: most of the world’s “easy oil” — the stuff Hubbert focused on that comes gushing out of the ground whenever a drill is inserted — has already been consumed or is controlled by state-owned “national oil companies” (NOCs), including Saudi Aramco, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the Kuwait National Petroleum Company, among others.  According to the IEA, such state companies control about 80 percent of the world’s known petroleum reserves, leaving relatively little for the IOCs to exploit.

To increase output from the limited reserves still under their control — mostly located in North America, the Arctic, and adjacent waters — the private firms have been working hard to develop techniques to exploit “tough oil.”  In this, they have largely succeeded: they are now bringing new petroleum streams into the marketplace and, in doing so, have shaken the foundations of peak oil theory.

Those who say that “peak oil is dead” cite just this combination of factors.  By extending the lifetime of existing fields through EOR and adding entire new sources of oil, the global supply can be expanded indefinitely.  As a result, they claim, the world possesses a “relatively boundless supply” of oil (and natural gas).  This, for instance, was the way Barry Smitherman of the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates that state’s oil industry)described the global situation at a recent meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

Peak Technology

In place of peak oil, then, we have a new theory that as yet has no name but might be called techno-dynamism.  There is, this theory holds, no physical limit to the global supply of oil so long as the energy industry is prepared to, and allowed to, apply its technological wizardry to the task of finding and producing more of it.  Daniel Yergin, author of the industry classics, The Prize and The Quest, is a key proponent of this theory.  He recently summed upthe situation this way: “Advances in technology take resources that were not physically accessible and turn them into recoverable reserves.”  As a result, he added, “estimates of the total global stock of oil keep growing.”

From this perspective, the world supply of petroleum is essentially boundless.  In addition to “conventional” oil — the sort that comes gushing out of the ground — the IEA identifies six other potential streams of petroleum liquids: natural gas liquids; tar sands and extra-heavy oil; kerogen oil (petroleum solids derived from shale that must be melted to become usable); shale oil; coal-to-liquids (CTL); and gas-to-liquids (GTL).  Together, these “unconventional” streams could theoretically add several trillion barrels of potentially recoverable petroleum to the global supply, conceivably extending the Oil Age hundreds of years into the future (and in the process, via climate change, turning the planet into an uninhabitable desert).

But just as peak oil had serious limitations, so, too, does techno-dynamism.  At its core is a belief that rising world oil demand will continue to drive the increasingly costly investments in new technologies required to exploit the remaining hard-to-get petroleum resources.  As suggested in the 2013 edition of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, however, this belief should be treated with considerable skepticism.

Among the principal challenges to the theory are these:

1. Increasing Technology Costs: While the costs of developing a resource normally decline over time as industry gains experience with the technologies involved, Hubbert’s law of depletion doesn’t go away.  In other words, oil firms invariably develop the easiest “tough oil” resources first, leaving the toughest (and most costly) for later.  For example, the exploitation of Canada’s tar sands began with the strip-mining of deposits close to the surface.  Because those are becoming exhausted, however, energy firms are now going after deep-underground reserves using far costlier technologies.  Likewise, many of the most abundant shale oil deposits in North Dakota have now been depleted, requiring anincreasing pace of drilling to maintain production levels.  As a result, the IEA reports, the cost of developing new petroleum resources will continually increase: up to $80 per barrel for oil obtained using advanced EOR techniques, $90 per barrel for tar sands and extra-heavy oil, $100 or more for kerogen and Arctic oil, and $110 for CTL and GTL.  The market may not, however, be able to sustain levels this high, putting such investments in doubt.

2. Growing Political and Environmental Risk: By definition, tough oil reserves are located in problematic areas.  For example, an estimated 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil lies in the Arctic, along with 30 percent of its untapped natural gas.  The environmental risks associated with their exploitation under the worst of weather conditions imaginable will quickly become more evident — and so, faced with the rising potential for catastrophic spills in a melting Arctic, expect a commensurate increase in political opposition to such drilling.  In fact, a recent increase has sparked protests in both Alaska and Russia, including the much-publicized September 2013 attempt by activists from Greenpeace toscale a Russian offshore oil platform — an action that led to their seizure and arrest by Russian commandos.  Similarly, expanded fracking operations have provoked a steady increase in anti-fracking activism.  In response to such protests and other factors, oil firms are being forced to adopt increasingly stringent environmental protections, pumping up the cost of production further.

3. Climate-Related Demand Reduction: The techno-optimist outlook assumes that oil demand will keep rising, prompting investors to provide the added funds needed to develop the technologies required.  However, as the effects of rampant climate change accelerate, more and more polities are likely to try to impose curbs of one sort or another on oil consumption, suppressing demand — and so discouraging investment.  This is already happening in the United States, where mandated increases in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards are expected to significantly reduce oil consumption.  Future “demand destruction” of this sort is bound to impose a downward pressure on oil prices, diminishing the inclination of investors to finance costly new development projects.

Combine these three factors, and it is possible to conceive of a “technology peak” not unlike the peak in oil output originally envisioned by M. King Hubbert.  Such a techno-peak is likely to occur when the “easy” sources of “tough” oil have been depleted, opponents of fracking and other objectionable forms of production have imposed strict (and costly) environmental regulations on drilling operations, and global demand has dropped below a level sufficient to justify investment in costly extractive operations.  At that point, global oil production will decline even if supplies are “boundless” and technology is still capable of unlocking more oil every year.

Peak Oil Reconsidered

Peak oil theory, as originally conceived by Hubbert and his followers, was largely governed by natural forces.  As we have seen, however, these can be overpowered by the application of increasingly sophisticated technology.  Reservoirs of energy once considered inaccessible can be brought into production, and others once deemed exhausted can be returned to production; rather than being finite, the world’s petroleum base now appears virtually inexhaustible.

Does this mean that global oil output will continue rising, year after year, without ever reaching a peak?  That appears unlikely.  What seems far more probable is that we will see a slow tapering of output over the next decade or two as costs of production rise and climate change — along with opposition to the path chosen by the energy giants — gains momentum.  Eventually, the forces tending to reduce supply will overpower those favoring higher output, and a peak in production will indeed result, even if not due to natural forces alone.

Such an outcome is, in fact, envisioned in one of three possible energy scenarios the IEA’s mainstream experts lay out in the latest edition of World Energy Outlook. The first assumes no change in government policies over the next 25 years and sees world oil supply rising from 87 to 110 million barrels per day by 2035; the second assumes some effort to curb carbon emissions and so projects output reaching “only” 101 million barrels per day by the end of the survey period.

It’s the third trajectory, the “450 Scenario,” that should raise eyebrows.  It assumes that momentum develops for a global drive to keep greenhouse gas emissions below 450 parts per million — the maximum level at which it might be possible to prevent global average temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (and so cause catastrophic climate effects).  As a result, it foresees a peak in global oil output occurring around 2020 at about 91 million barrels per day, with a decline to 78 million barrels by 2035.

It would be premature to suggest that the “450 Scenario” will be the immediate roadmap for humanity, since it’s clear enough that, for the moment, we are on a highway to hell that combines the IEA’s first two scenarios.  Bear in mind, moreover, that many scientists believea global temperature increase of even 2 degrees Celsius would be enough to produce catastrophic climate effects.  But as the effects of climate change become more pronounced in our lives, count on one thing: the clamor for government action will grow more intense, and so eventually we’re likely to see some variation of the 450 Scenario take shape.  In the process, the world’s demand for oil will be sharply constricted, eliminating the incentive to invest in costly new production schemes.

The bottom line: Global peak oil remains in our future, even if not purely for the reasons given by Hubbert and his followers.  With the gradual disappearance of “easy” oil, the major private firms are being forced to exploit increasingly tough, hard-to-reach reserves, thereby driving up the cost of production and potentially discouraging new investment at a time when climate change and environmental activism are on the rise.

Peak oil is dead!  Long live peak oil!

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left.  A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

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