Mar 2006

Peak oil

About eight years ago I wrote a letter to the UK Minister for Energy (not a top level position by the way… the Minister for Energy reports to the Minister for Trade and Industry; as perfect a symbol of the wrongheadedness surrounding energy issues as you could wish for). In my letter I asked whether he had heard about the theory of “peak oil” and whether the government intended to factor it into policy.

I received a vaguely snotty reply from a chap in the minister’s office (with whom I had a brief, though intense, correspondence) informing me that the minister had indeed heard of peak oil. However people had been predicting the end of oil for generations and always been confounded by new and larger discoveries. There was no reason to expect this to change any time soon. If there were, then oil’s market value wouldn’t be less than 10 dollars a barrel.

A later response from that same ministerial flunky pointed out that The Limits to Growth had predicted the end of oil by the year 2000 and that certainly wasn’t going to happen. Why on earth, therefore, should UK government policy be dictated by people touting exactly the same ideas dressed up in new jargon (‘peak oil’) for a new millennium?

My next letter to the minister contained the phrase “blithering idiot”. It didn’t receive a response.

I’m already mentally composing my first letter to the Irish Minister for Energy. Hell, I don’t even know who that is… and none of my fancy political web links can help me now (dear god, I’ve got to build up a whole new set of politics bookmarks!).

But this time around – less than a decade on – I’m not a lone voice howling from the lunatic fringe. Now I can call upon the New York Times to back me up. Robert Semple Jr. (associate editor of the Times Editorial Board) has just published a long editorial which includes the following paragraph:

The Age of Oil — 100-plus years of astonishing economic growth made possible by cheap, abundant oil — could be ending without our really being aware of it. Oil is a finite commodity. At some point even the vast reservoirs of Saudi Arabia will run dry. But before that happens there will come a day when oil production “peaks,” when demand overtakes supply (and never looks back), resulting in large and possibly catastrophic price increases that could make today’s $60-a-barrel oil look like chump change. Unless, of course, we begin to develop substitutes for oil. Or begin to live more abstemiously. Or both. The concept of peak oil has not been widely written about. But people are talking about it now. It deserves a careful look — largely because it is almost certainly correct.

Robert Semple Jr. “The End of Oil” (New York Times, March 1, 2006)

(The original article is behind the Times PayWall. I grabbed that chunk from a recent Energy Bulletin.)

Yes indeed. That bastion of lunatic fringery, The New York Times, says that peak oil “is almost certainly correct”. This follows hard on the heels of the US Department of Energy coming to exactly the same conclusion (that link is a PDF file by the way).

Ironically, of the two, the conversion of The Times is probably the more significant. The DoE is too ham-strung by political ideology to actually effect change in the system, no matter what those working there may believe or how many reports they produce calling for a “Crash Program” to mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of peak oil. But The New York Times still has a modicum of influence. If they were to champion an editorial line which made a call “to live more abstemiously”, would it make a difference? Could they force the public, even the administration, to take a closer look at what the experts in the DoE are actually saying?

Rather worryingly though, it’s possible that what the US Department of Energy is actually saying is that it’s waaaay too late to deal effectively with this problem and “heading for the hills” looks like the sensible option. The Hirsch Report (linked to above) was produced by the DoE in February 2005. It comes to the following conclusions…

Without mitigation, the peaking of world oil production will almost certainly cause major economic upheaval. However, given enough lead-time, the problems are soluble with existing technologies. New technologies are certain to help but on a longer time scale. Appropriately executed risk management could dramatically minimize the damages that might otherwise occur.

The Peaking of World Oil production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management (p.66)

Which doesn’t sound too bad. However they also point out…

Our scenarios analysis shows:

  • Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action would leave the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

The obvious conclusion from this analysis is that with adequate, timely mitigation, the economic costs to the world can be minimized. If mitigation were to be too little, too late, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), which would translate to significant economic hardship.

There will be no quick fixes. Even crash programs will require more than a decade to yield substantial relief.

Ibid. (p.65)

This makes for uneasy reading when combined with the recent conclusion of Kenneth Deffeyes (Professor of Petroleum Geology at Princeton) who claims that:

In the January 2004 Current Events on this web site, I predicted that world oil production would peak on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2005. In hindsight, that prediction was in error by three weeks. An update using the 2005 data shows that we passed the peak on December 16, 2005.

I’m not making any claims for Professor Deffeyes’ data. But I’m suspicious of anyone who remains entirely unperturbed by it. Unless you can demonstrate a reason to believe someone other than Princeton’s Professor of Petroleum Geology on the matter of how much oil is left in the ground (i.e. someone better qualified, or with access to better data, or more dedicated to the subject, etc.) then you have to at least admit the possibility that the guy might be right.

And if he is right, then according to the US Department of Energy, we’re probably twenty years late in starting our preparations for an imminent “significant liquid fuel deficit”. A situation with far more serious implications (I believe) than most people are willing to consider.

Posted in: Opinion