THE STRAIGHT DOPE

What’s the Latest on Peak Oil?

Sun, Nov 04, 2012   By Cecil Adams   

Straight Dope - Peak Oil

 

What’s the current thinking on peak oil? Your column six years ago led me to think the petroleum tap was running dry and we’d soon be trading in our cars for bikes and roller skates. Now high-profile opinion types like David Brooks and Fareed Zakaria are making it sound like we’ve got nothing to worry about, what with fracking and dropping natural gas prices. Were you being an alarmist then, or are the optimists kidding themselves now? — David Wargo

 

Me, alarmist? Never. I just emphatically point out the facts. However, the situation has changed since my 2006 column on peak oil. Let’s take it step by step:

1. Peak oil is the point when oil production stops increasing and starts falling, with potentially dire economic consequences. That day will arrive eventually; the question is when.

2. Pessimists note oil production is tapering off or declining in many parts of the world and anticipate a peak soon — not long ago, some thought it would happen any day. However, people have been making gloomy forecasts for years, and virtually none have panned out.

3. The exception was in 1956, when geophysicist M. King Hubbert introduced the concept of peak oil in a famous paper. Drawing on analyses of U.S. petroleum reserves plus some informed conjecture, he correctly calculated domestic oil production would peak in 1970.

4. Global petroleum estimates were much fuzzier. Hubbert thought the “ultimate recoverable resource” for world oil was 1.25 trillion barrels; most reports I see now say it’s at least 2 trillion, perhaps much more. His prediction that global oil production would peak in 2000 was accordingly way off.

5. The official word is we haven’t reached peak oil yet, and probably won’t for a while. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says world oil production was about 85 million barrels per day in 2011, and predicts a steady if slowing increase to 99 million barrels per day by 2035 — as far out as the forecast goes.

6. Now for the part no one anticipated in 2006: U.S. energy production has jumped in the last few years due to improved recovery techniques such as hydraulic fracturing of shale rock, also known as fracking. EIA statistics show a 24 percent increase in U.S. production of petroleum and natural gas between 2006 and 2011. Domestic natural gas is now so abundant the EIA predicts the U.S. will be a net exporter by 2022.

7. This puts matters in a new light. Oil has been the focus till now because transportation relies heavily on liquid fuels — currently natural gas is mostly used for heating and electricity generation. However, it can also be used to power vehicles — some transit agencies use compressed natural gas to fuel buses. So we should really be talking about peak oil and gas. When might this occur?

8. My assistant Una dug through the statistics and established the following. First, as of 2005, ultimate recoverable natural gas in the world was between 8.5 and 12.5 quadrillion cubic feet. Second, between pre-fracking 2000 and frack-happy 2010, U.S. proved natural gas reserves increased 72 percent.

9. We then commenced arguing. I noted fracking was now mainly confined to the U.S., due partly to scruples about contaminated groundwater and such. Let’s suppose the world gets over all that and starts fracking as much as we do, with the result that world recoverable gas reserves jump at the same rate as U.S. proven reserves. That would give us 17 quadrillion cubic feet.

10. This was too cavalier for Una. The most she’d concede was 12.5 quadrillion feet, the equivalent of 2.3 trillion barrels of oil.

11. Fine, I said. But another fossil fuel can also be liquefied and used for transportation in a pinch, namely coal. What’s the recoverable world stash of that? One trillion tons, Una said, the equivalent of 3.3 trillion barrels of oil.

12. By now it had dawned on us the limit of importance wasn’t oil, or oil plus gas, but all fossil fuels taken together. We computed global recoverable fossil fuels as follows: 2 trillion barrels of oil + 2.3 trillion barrel-equivalents of natural gas + 3.3 barrel-equivalents of coal = 7.6 trillion barrel-equivalents total.

13. Finally we (well, I) took a stab at estimating peak fossil fuels, which I called PFF, or “piff.” Much depends on developments in the world economy, conservation, alternative fuels, and who knows what else, but I optimistically predicted PFF wouldn’t occur till 2100.

That kicks the can down the road. However, let’s remember a few things. One, if we’ve burned through half the planet’s fossil fuels by 2100, our problem won’t be global warming, it’ll be global scalding. Two, fossil fuels provide the bulk of the energy for everything — transportation, heating, electricity. Looked at in that light, 2100 isn’t that far away.

The market will remind us. Although natural gas now is cheap, long-term energy prices due to growing world demand will inexorably rise. That noise you hear? Perhaps you thought it was the ringing of the cash register. Ah, no. It’s tick tock.

— CECIL ADAMS

Send questions to Cecil via straightdope.com or write him c/o Chicago Reader, 350 N. Orleans, Chicago 60654. Subscribe to the Straight Dope podcast at the iTunes Store.

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30 Comments

  1. martincometThu, Nov 15, 2012 at 10:27 am

    sallyandjane, i completely agree, not to mention the climate consequences. only a global carbon tax or carbon credit system could slow things down, combined with tax incentives for sustainable energy.

  2. AndrewSat, Nov 17, 2012 at 11:17 am

    A house cat is smart enough not to take a crap in it’s own drinking water; humans, not so much.

    Women and animals are experiencing spontaneous abortions after the water table becomes contaminated. The documentary, “Gasland” mentioned 80 contaminants in the water table, including Benzene: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benzene#Health_effects

    You can see the “jellyfish” that one woman gave birth to, in “Weibo’s War”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnBibPMCcME

    From the documentaries, “Blue Gold” and “A World Without Water” only 2% of the water on the planet is drinkable. Desalination plants are too expensive for corporations to build.

    Meanwhile, the control freaks who run the world are busy assassinating anyone working on anything even vaguely progressive, including the concept of Free Energy:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWOxnXKB8VQ

    http://www.sirius.neverendinglight.com/

    “Not too bright folks, not too fucking bright” – Carlin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4afEzfNvX8

  3. Adam GrantWed, Nov 21, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Oil will only keep coming out of the ground as long as it’s cheaper than other forms of energy. As the combined capacity of installed solar installations becomes significant, expect a reduction in demand for fossil hydrocarbons.
    As oil prices continue to increase, solar capacity will expand until most energy comes directly from sunlight. That is to say, the right side of the Hubbert curve will be cut off, ultimately leaving more oil in the ground than would be expected if it were the only energy source.
    There is so much sunlight falling on the Earth every hour that the supply is effectively infinite.

  4. martincometWed, Nov 21, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    adam, that would be nice but since we are dealing with an impending oil supply glut, prices can hardly be expected to increase in the next few decades. my concern is that the recent estimates indicate that the point of “peak oil” won’t happen this century. that’s why we desperately need carbon tax or credit policy to implement a sustainable energy infrastructure. sadly it won’t happen anytime soon without policy intervention.

  5. chloe rossTue, Apr 02, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    As it so happens my son is an expert on peak oil. He is at UCSB at the Bren School of Environmetal Engineering. His name is Tariel Morrigan. Google him and see his already published papers on the subject.

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