More on peak oil

There has been considerable discussion in recent months on peak oil. Nine of us visiting Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office to discuss climate change learned that she had been hearing about oil.

Much of the recent publicity comes from Richard Heinberg, author and founder of Post Carbon Institute, local groups that plan to address the coming peak (2007!) with recycled solutions from Y2k. There are a tiny number of geologists who also predict early oil peaks; more commonly, predictions range from next decade to the 2030s, some into the 2040s. The underlying principle is that when oil from a field is 50-60% gone (variations depend on characteristics of the oil field), both the cost and difficulty of extracting oil increase. (This will have an impact on climate change — currently 0.1 gallon oil required to deliver a gallon of oil to you, and 20% more carbon emissions are produced. This will increase.) Yet the scientific community is much less interested in this problem than in climate change. Why?

The short answer is that the urgency and problems from climate change are much greater than the problems from early oil peaks, in part because fossil fuel based alternatives to oil exist.

Estimates on when oil production will peak worldwide are the matter of much debate, and estimates range from 2007 to four decades from now. Uncertainties include A) the amount of Middle Eastern oil — the official energy groups believe that OPEC countries overstate their reserves in order to be allowed to sell more oil, B) the state of oil wells — how much damage are some countries doing to their infrastructure? C) much uncertainty about how much oil there is any particular well — some well reserves (estimates of easily extractable oil at current prices) remain the same even as oil is extracted over a period of decades.

Cheap fossil based alternatives exist. Both natural gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids (synfuels) promise decades of fuels at comparable or slightly increased prices to the consumer. While the costs of manufacture are considerably more than the costs of drilling Middle East oil (all estimates are below $10/barrel), the costs are less than the current price of oil.

Scientists are much more concerned that we will continue to burn oil as if it will never run out, meaning that A) we will emit an immorally high amount of carbon from oil, B) become invested in gas-to-liquids and coal-to-liquids infrastructure and be unwilling to give up this investment to switch to biofuels and hydrogen, and C) emit even more carbon per gallon with these alternatives.

See previous post for why 400 ppm has been picked as a cap for atmospheric carbon levels. We are on track to reach that level in 2015.

Climatologists and people in energy policy and people in all the -ologies dealing with plants and animals and people that will suffer from climate change are considerably more concerned about dramatic, rapid decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, than the fact that many decades from now, we will run out of fairly cheap fossil fuels at the pump.

Someone I know had suggestions for the current strong interest in peak oil (note that when he talks about big problems occurring 50 – 100 years from now, they may be inevitable a decade from now):

“I think there are some pretty straightforward reasons for this. One is the time frame… The ability to worry 50 or 100 years out is limited to small fraction of the privileged world who, to be frank, don’t have anything more pressing to worry about. Not that we shouldn’t be worrying about it, but that most people have bigger problems (or at least feel that they do).

“Another big one is the nature of human experience. We know what it is like for things to run out, or to not have enough of something. Those of us who grew up in more modest circumstances (especially at the international level, but even here in the US) know what it is like to worry about not having enough. It seems that scarcity is a fundamental human experience, certainly not on the same level as something like love or anger, but pretty close. Thus, when you say “oil is going to run out” you have an instant reaction that is guttural and real. It pans out, for most people, to “I won’t be able to feed my kids.” Can’t get more real than that.

On the other hand, climate change is pretty darn abstract, of a huge scale, and based on science that is not always intuitive… there is not a potent metaphor that captures what is going on, at least not as potent as an empty pantry or an overdrawn bank account. Whether or not one is a bigger threat than the other is immaterial: people don’t understand it like they do scarcity, so there is, in essence, “no story.””

It may be human nature to pay attention to upcoming scarcities, but it more important to pay attention to the high level of carbon emissions in the US and worldwide. By 2015, the Earth is expected to reach an atmospheric carbon level of 400 ppm. To stabilize atmospheric carbon levels, at whatever level they are stabilized, and hopefully it’s 400 ppm or less, we need to reduce carbon emissions worldwide by 70%, to the amount that the oceans are currently able to absorb. If everyone in the world is allowed to emit an equal amount of carbon (about 0.3 tonnes with today’s population), this means that we in the US will need to reduce carbon emissions by more than 90% per person. To protect the oceans, we need to slash carbon emissions even further.

Daniel Yergin wrote in the Washington Post, “There will be a large, unprecedented buildup of oil supply in the next few years. Between 2004 and 2010, capacity to produce oil (not actual production) could grow by 16 million barrels a day — from 85 million barrels per day to 101 million barrels a day — a 20 percent increase.” and “The oil industry is governed by a “law of long lead times.” Much of the new capacity that will become available between now and 2010 is under development. Many of the projects that embody this new capacity were approved in the 2001-03 period, based on price expectations much lower than current prices.”

Why the worry about Heniberg’s message? Many will hear from Heinberg that we have to cut back on oil, along with coal. Others will react when 2008 comes and go without a dramatic increase in the price of oil that those scientists — and Heinberg is not a scientist — and their disaster predictions, they got it wrong again, I can’t trust them. Those who get the first message simply have reinforced climate change concern, but the second group could slow down awareness of environmental problems even further.

Re biofuels and hydrogen, neither is carbon free. The last I read, biofuels produce something like 1/4 the carbon emissions of gasoline, and pollute as badly as gasoline — but don’t quote me on the carbon emissions numbers. High mileage cars are seen by people in energy policy as the best alternative in the short run, plus switching away from driving and flying. The hybrid label no longer assures high mileage, so check the mileage.

One Response to “More on peak oil”

  1. Eric Thurston says:

    As one who has watched– and participated in– the Peak Oil debate for the past 8 years, I’m disappointed at the lack of detailed knowledge of the subject and the perpetrating of common untruths of what Peak Oil is.

    Ok, I’m not going to get into a long post here. My own assessment is that in 2007 we will know whether or not Saudi Arabia is capable of raising their production. If not, peak oil is at hand because there is nothing coming on line that will make up for the major fields/provinces that are entering steep decline. These include Kuwait, Mexico, North Sea, China.

    Time will tell on Peak Oil. However, I am even more disappointed in the statement about biofuels being a viable substitute for fossil fuels. Anyone with a calculator and a rudimentary knowledge of energy content values can clearly see this is not so. You need to do your homework on the physics of energy.

    Eric Thurston