Mar 2010

Peak oil revisited (part 2)

[Part 1] | [Part 3]

In Part 1 of this article we learnt that a proven methodology (the Hubbert Curve) exists to predict the rate at which a given region will produce oil. We learnt that when applied to the “official” (BP published) figures for existing oil reserves, this methodology predicts a peak in global production in the middle of this century. However, we also learnt that these official figures are unreliable and that the application of the Hubbert Curve to a more accurate database suggests that a production peak is imminent.

The ‘meaning’ of Peak Oil

But what exactly does this mean? Well, firstly it’s important to realise that it doesn’t mean crude oil will run out in a few years. The Hubbert Curve illustrates that the dynamics of oil fields are such that peak production occurs when roughly half of the available oil has been pumped. So when global oil production peaks, it will mean we still have the same amount of oil available to us as has already been consumed.

However — and people unfamiliar with petroleum geology really need to understand this point — the rate at which oil can be extracted from a given well is fixed by the geology of the oil field. As more and more oil is pumped out, the internal pressure of the field drops. By the time you’ve extracted half the available oil, the flow begins to decrease and the rate of extraction falls by between 3% and 6% per annum, depending on the specific field.

There are Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) technologies available, but these tend not to extend the life of a field very much. They can increase the total amount of oil that gets extracted from a field, but they also usually recover the oil faster. This leads to a slightly higher peak production rate and a slight extension of that peak (making it more a plateau than a peak), but they also ensure a more precipitous fall in production after that plateau. Furthermore, pretty much every major field in the world suitable for EOR is already using it. For this reason, it’s likely that the post-peak per annum drop in global production rates will be closer to the 6% figure than the 3%.

Now, the reason this is so important is down to the fact that oil is the primary driver of the global economy. It accounts for 40% of the total energy used by humanity and more than 95% of the transport sector. Just as importantly, crude oil is the raw material from which we produce a mind-numbingly vast array of products. From pesticides to paints to plastics. It is the feedstock for so many of our industrial chemicals and lubricants that it’s difficult for someone like me who has worked in industry to imagine how a modern factory could possibly function without it. Right now we are living in the Age of Oil. And it’s drawing to a close.

An article produced by the RunningOnEmpty web group estimated that crude oil had more than half a million different by-products…

… including fertilizers (they are the most vital), medicines, lubricants, plastics (computers, phones, shower curtains, disposables, toys, etc.), asphalt (roading and roofs), insulation, glues/paints/ caulking, “rubber” tires and boots, carpets, synthetic fabrics/clothing, stockings, insect repellent…

Modern food production, preservation and distribution is highly reliant upon cheap and plentiful oil. Whether it’s fertilizers, pesticides, refrigeration, packaging, transportation or simply preparation; oil plays a huge part in keeping us all fed. Systems Theorist H.T. Odum once suggested that modern agriculture was effectively a system designed to convert fossil fuel into food. And it’s a system upon which billions of us now rely for sustenance.

I feel we should all remember this every time we climb into a car. It’s a finite resource with a multitude of alternative uses, so the petrol being burnt to move us from A to B is — in a sense — potential “future food” that will never be produced.

There are no effective substitutes for crude oil

This is another point that people unfamiliar with this issue don’t always appreciate. Certainly when I first started to research peak oil back in the late 1990s, I became convinced that biofuels offered a simple and effective solution. I became something of an evangelist for the idea. Unfortunately though, I was wrong.

The energy density of crude oil is such that available arable land simply can’t produce a fraction of the energy required to replace global oil production. I once did a rough, back-of-a-napkin calculation which revealed that Ireland (a small nation but one with a relatively low population density) could devote the entire arable surface of the country to growing high-yield fuel crops and still only produce approximately half of the fuel required to run our private automobile fleet. That’s just private cars.

All of our arable land, and we’d still need to import about 45% of the fuel needed for our cars.

And it’s this reason why allowing free market forces to deal with peak oil is so disastrous. But more about that a little later.

Prior to that, let me first address some of the other “oil replacements” that are often suggested. Like biofuels, many of these appear to be fine ideas until you try to scale them up. Yes, a barrel of oil can be replaced by a barrel of biofuel*. But replacing 85 million barrels of oil per day with vegetable-based oils? It’s just not an option. We can convert every remaining wilderness and forest into fuel plantations and still not make a serious dent in that number. We can all become vegans and grow biofuels on the land currently used to graze animals and grow their feed… yet still we’ll be relying on biofuel imports from Alpha Centauri.

Put simply, we need another couple of Earths if we are to replace crude oil with vegetable oil.

Others speak of the hydrogen economy. This too is a complete non-starter. Primarily because hydrogen is not an energy source. There are no hydrogen reservoirs; it needs to be manufactured. And the manufacture of hydrogen consumes more energy than is produced by burning the end product. It’s like a proposal to replace 85 million barrels of oil per day with batteries. Hydrogen may have a role to play in the storage of solar or wind power (and I stress “may” because hydrogen has problems of its own and there are probably better energy storage solutions available), but those who propose it as a substitute for oil don’t understand basic physics.

Coal is often suggested as a stop-gap solution until something better comes along. Unfortunately there are serious drawbacks with this (not least the huge increase in carbon emissions and other forms of pollution it would entail). The process of converting coal to liquid fuel, which would be required if it was to replace some or all of the 95% of transportation energy currently provided by oil, is costly (both economically and from an energy-efficiency standpoint), highly polluting and requires large quantities of fresh water (another global resource in increasingly short supply). If we view coal as a potential replacement for oil, then we are resigning ourselves to massive increases in carbon emissions, the acceleration of fresh water depletion and the destruction of large parts of our natural environment. Furthermore, the oft-quoted line that we have “hundreds of years worth of coal” still left in the ground is only true so long as we don’t radically increase its use (which would be the case if we tried to replace the energy we get from oil with it).

Probably the only energy source that is broadly comparable to crude oil is natural gas. It’s slightly less polluting, but is also slightly less convenient. Liquifying it for transportation by tanker (or for use in combustion engines) reduces the energy efficiency of the fuel. To store it efficiently requires compression and/or refrigeration. All in all, when compared with crude oil, it’s a pain in the arse to work with. None of which rules it out as a replacement for oil. The fact that it’s also being rapidly depleted, however, does rule it out. The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and gas (ASPO) estimates that we will reach a global peak in natural gas production sometime around 2020. And it’ll certainly be sooner should we ramp up our gas consumption to compensate for a reduction in oil availability. Even worse, the depletion profile of natural gas isn’t a smooth curve like that of crude oil. Dr. Colin Campbell uses the phrase “natural gas cliff” to describe it. So while our reliance upon crude oil will force us to deal with gradually decreasing availability at up to 6% per year, any reliance upon natural gas will soon be met with sudden and large drops in supply.

Nuclear power is a terrible idea for all manner of reasons. Firstly, there are the obvious issues like waste disposal, security and proliferation to worry about. Less well known is the fact that uranium isn’t exactly plentiful. The world’s largest producer — Australia — estimates that they have about 40 years worth of the stuff left at current consumption rates. This will clearly be significantly reduced should we ramp up nuclear power generation. Certainly there are theoretical solutions for this (fast breeder reactors that can use reprocessed waste as new fuel, and the idea of extracting uranium from sea water). However, the current plans for a new generation of nuclear power stations do not propose to use any of these technologies. Given that new nuclear can’t be expected to come on line for at least 15 years, at the earliest, we shouldn’t expect these advanced nuclear technologies to show up much before 2030 or 2040. This will, quite simply, be too late to meet the challenges of peak oil. Furthermore, it would be foolish to assume that a society in the grip of an oil crisis would be capable of the sort of massive industrial effort required to greatly expand nuclear power. It would consume much needed resources without bringing us any closer to genuine sustainability.

Renewable energy solutions like solar power, wind, wave and tidal will doubtlessly play an important role in keeping the lights on in those nations who invest heavily in them. They have their own drawbacks of course, but they are at least sustainable in the broadest sense.

Like the other proposals, however, what they cannot do is meet the energy gap left by oil depletion. Liquid fuel shortages can’t be mitigated by building wind turbines. Crude oil is an amazingly precious resource. Those who suggest it can easily be replaced by “something else” tend to be largely ignorant of just what makes it so precious. It is (thus far) fantastically plentiful, easily accessible, convenient to transport and versatile almost beyond belief. It also contains vast amounts of concentrated energy when compared to any potential replacement (with the exception of uranium which has its own set of problems).

On top of all this, we’ve only been considering substitutes for oil as an energy source. All the wind turbines in the world won’t generate pesticides or plastics. The byproducts of oil surround us all. I’m typing this on a keyboard made of the stuff. The infrastructure supporting modern life is sculpted from crude oil. It grows the food we eat, coats the roads the food travels on, fuels the trucks that carry it over those roads (and is the raw material for many of the components of those trucks), it’s the wrapping that keeps the food fresh and the refrigeration that keeps it cool.

Introducing ‘The Problem of The Market’

Some critics of Peak Oil theory dismiss it on the grounds that it simply won’t happen… that there won’t be supply constraints in our lifetimes. This is nonsense and unworthy of serious discussion. The evidence is there and even the most optimistic of those who understand the evidence acknowledge that it will happen by the middle of this century (which, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, is likely to be inaccurate by 30 or 40 years). Others, however, insist that while oil production capacity may peak soon, it isn’t all that big a deal. Some of them play down crude oil’s vital role in keeping our civilisation ticking over; others believe that with a bit of minor tweaking, something else can play that role; or they believe that free markets will somehow deal with the problem.

I hope I’ve shown why oil is indeed vital to our modern world, and why there is currently nothing else available to fill the gap it will leave. In Part 3 I’ll address the issue of free markets and why they pose a dangerous obstacle to peak oil mitigation rather than a potential solution.

[Part 1] | [Part 3]

* Actually, because of the energy densities, a barrel of crude oil provides more energy than a barrel of biofuel. But that’s not important right now.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2010

Peak oil revisited (part 1)

[Part 2] | [Part 3]

In the comments thread to my previous post, Luis Enrique suggests he’s optimistic about the ability of market mechanisms to mitigate the worst effects of peak oil. He does preface this, however, by acknowledging that it isn’t a subject he’s studied extensively and accepts that this optimism may well be misplaced.

So for the benefit of Luis and anyone else who may have missed my previous witterings on the subject, I’d like to recap my own position on the peak oil problem, why I believe it is the most pressing problem we face as a society, why free market mechanisms can only exacerbate the problem, and what I believe we should do about it.

Now, before I get excitable environmentalists accusing me of hyperbole for describing peak oil as “the most pressing problem we face”, and insisting that Climate Change makes peak oil pale into insignificance, let me point out that I don’t claim peak oil is somehow a more important problem only that it is more immediate. Furthermore, a failure to deal effectively with peak oil will dramatically accelerate Climate Change. Indeed, we cannot begin to effectively address the Climate Change issue without first sorting out what we plan to do about oil production peaking.

As an aside, I’d also like to point out that I’m a little troubled by the current tendency of environmentalists to describe Climate Change as ‘the most important issue facing the world’. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand where they’re coming from with that, but I believe they’re failing to see the wood for the trees… focussing on a single facet of something far larger. The issue we need to be concerned with — above all — is sustainability. Our impact on the climate may well be one of the largest obstacles to our achieving sustainability, but any “solution” to Climate Change that is itself unsustainable should be automatically discounted. This is why I have such a problem with the likes of George Monbiot and Mark Lynas (two environmental writers for whom I have a great deal of respect) suggesting that nuclear power be part of our plan to deal with Climate Change. The kind of massive increase in industrial activity that would inevitably accompany any significant expansion of nuclear power will only serve to take us further from sustainability. But that’s a discussion that deserves a post of its own, so for now I’ll get back to the specifics of peak oil.

A brief history of Peak Oil

The idea of a peak in global oil production was first seriously mooted by M. King Hubbert in the 1950s. There had been others before him who’d predicted oil running out, but they may as well have been reading tea-leaves for all the evidence they had to back up their claims. Hubbert on the other hand was a quite brilliant man; a petroleum geologist working for Shell Oil who carried out a highly detailed systems analysis of the oil industry. He collated and correlated vast amounts of data regarding oil discovery and production, then presented the findings to his extremely sceptical colleagues. They dared not openly dismiss such an acknowledged expert in the field, but it’s safe to say that his analysis was largely ignored.

This all changed with Hubbert’s vindication in the late 1970s as it became clear that his claims were borne out by the facts. Back in the 50s he had generated a graph — which has since become known as ‘the Hubbert Curve’* — which he claimed illustrated the life-cycle of oil production in a given region. His curve indicated that oil production in the 48 states of the continental United States would rise until 1970 whereupon it would peak and drop off at a rate of roughly 3% per annum.

As it happens, he was one year out.

Oil production in ‘the lower 48’ peaked in 1971 and despite the massive incentives created by the oil embargo of the early-to-mid 1970s, it declined steadily at roughly the rate he predicted and has been declining ever since.

By definition a peak in oil production can’t be identified until several years after it happens. So it wasn’t until the late 70s that Hubbert’s work was revisited in a serious way. Once it became established that his model had been near perfect in predicting oil production on the continental United States, a number of people in the industry began to work at applying that model to global production.

This, however, took a great deal of time. As I’ve recently discussed, getting hold of accurate data for oil fields isn’t always easy. Many nations — Norway and the UK for instance — have fairly transparent oil field accounting allowing both production and discovery to be accurately assessed. Unfortunately, although their production levels are easily identified, the nations controlling the majority of the global supply (the OPEC nations and Russia) tend to be extremely secretive about their discoveries. And the Hubbert analysis requires both sets of data.

Ultimately it took about 10 years for the first global analysis based on Hubbert’s methodology to be published. It appeared in a 1991 book by Dr. Colin Campbell called The Golden Century of Oil. Dr. Campbell, like Hubbert before him, was a well-respected petroleum geologist who had worked for many of the major players in the industry. He’s still a well-respected petroleum geologist but is now the Chairman of ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and gas).

Campbell soon realised, however, that his analysis was far too optimistic — predicting, as it did, a global peak in production sometime in the middle of this century. The reason for, what he later realised was a significant inaccuracy, was his reliance upon the “official” data. As you may recall, BP have recently insisted that peak oil will not manifest for another 40 years or so which tallies with Campbell’s original hypothesis. However, as you may also recall, BP’s data is seriously flawed and significantly over-estimates the oil reserves in the major producing countries. Soon after the publication of his book, Campbell was contacted by an American geologist called Harry Wassall.

Wassall had spent his life in the oil industry and had set up a company in Switzerland called Petroconsultants. A significant portion of the resources of this company was sunk into developing the world’s first accurate database of oil discoveries and reserves. This was done by bypassing the official pronouncements of oil companies and nations and going straight to the source. As Campbell points out, what they did amounted — more or less — to “industrial espionage“. They sent engineers out to every major oil field and asked the people working on-site for accurate data. After double and triple verifying their information, they were able to build up a comprehensive, field-by-field, database of oil reserves.

Having read his book, Wassall got in touch with Campbell and suggested he re-run the analysis using the Petroconsultants database. Enlisting the help of fellow geologist Jean Laherrere, Campbell carried out the — rather laborious — analysis a second time and arrived at a somewhat troubling conclusion… global oil production was due to peak several decades before his initial estimate.

In fact, a strict application of the Hubbert curve to the Petroconsultants data set appeared to predict a global peak sometime around the year 2000. However, what Hubbert’s methodology does not — and cannot — take into account are any political and economic restrictions to production. The oil embargo of the mid-1970s dramatically reduced oil production for political reasons. This in turn plunged the world into a recession which saw demand drop for economic reasons. Thanks to this interruption of expected production rises, the peak was pushed back by several years. Once this was factored into the data, Campbell and Laherrere — using the tool-set provided by Hubbert — concluded that global oil production would peak sometime around 2010. They suggested a 5-8 year margin of error because although the Petroconsultants data set was far more accurate than the official figures, they couldn’t guarantee it was quite as accurate as the U.S. data that Hubbert had access to. Campbell published their findings in a 1997 book (The Coming Oil Crisis). In March 1998 their results were summarised in Scientific American. The article was called The End of Cheap Oil and can be read here (PDF file).

Mr. Bliss joins the party

Which is how and when I became aware of Peak Oil. As it happens, I’d begun to think about the issue about a year earlier when a chance remark had set my mind reeling. I was in a small boat on a particularly wide stretch of the Amazon River, near the city of Manaus. We were caught unawares by the mother of all electrical storms and spent half an hour in abject terror as wind, rain and river tried to swamp us. Miraculously we survived, and several bottles of beer were consumed in quick succession to steady the nerves. I was therefore in a rather ‘heightened’ frame of mind when one of my companions said of the storm “someone should learn to harness all that energy for when the oil runs out”.

Although I’d thought about the concepts of resource depletion and sustainability prior to that, it was really that moment when they became a mild obsession of mine. For a year I mulled over the question of what happens “when the oil runs out”. I was working in the engineering industry at the time and my job took me to numerous places where they pumped oil. The more I discovered, the more horrified I became. Then I received a copy of Campbell’s article from a guy called Jay Hanson who had — it appeared — become even more obsessed with the issue than I had. A few years earlier I’d published an article he’d written (on Corporate practices) in a zine I ran. He invited me to join a fledgling email-list he was involved in, called ‘energyresources‘ (set up to discuss Campbell’s book and Scientific American article, along with their implications) which is still going strong today.

As is my interest in the subject.

[Part 2] | [Part 3]

* Kenneth Deffeyes’ excellent book, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage is the perfect place to start for those who want more information on the specifics of M. King Hubbert’s work.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2010

The collapse of British Airways

John Band has a good analysis of the current British Airways strikes over at his place. It’s well worth a read.

He opens the piece by pointing out that BA’s “business model is unsustainable”. This is true in the sense that he describes it. But it’s also true in another sense; one that’s shared by the airline industry as a whole. Some within the industry have begun to belatedly wake up to this fact. A month or so ago, Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines fame) had this to say…

The next five years will see us face another crunch — the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well.Richard Branson | Quoted in The Guardian

Of course, anyone who has been aware of the peak oil problem for longer than ten minutes will find themselves shaking their head in dismay at Branson’s statement. His belief that five years represents enough time to prepare for “the oil crunch” is roundly contradicted by every serious analysis of the problem that’s been carried out to date. Most famously (and arguably most authoritatively) the Hirsch Report, carried out by the US Department of Energy, has this to say about the length of time required to prepare for, and mitigate, the effects of peak oil.

Mitigation Efforts Will Require Substantial Time

Mitigation will require an intense effort over decades. This inescapable conclusion is based on the time required to replace vast numbers of liquid fuel consuming vehicles and the time required to build a substantial number of substitute fuel production facilities. 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.

Even taking this into account, there’s a very real possibility that — with regards to the modern airline industry — the problems presented by peak oil simply cannot be mitigated. Even if we had two decades, which appears not to be the case, there’s just no alternative fuel for modern commercial aircraft.

Let me stress that nobody sane is suggesting that oil or jet fuel will disappear overnight. Peak oil will result in a gradual reduction in crude oil production capacity of between 3% and 6% per annum. This will, however, be more than enough to cause massive economic upheaval of the kind that will certainly overshadow our current credit crisis*. More specifically, it’ll be enough to put an end to mass air travel in anything like the form we presently enjoy.

Put bluntly, British Airways is part of a dying industry. Flying millions of people around the world in jet aircraft is unsustainable in the short to medium term and while some form of commercial air travel will surely remain available to the extremely wealthy, the industry will soon be a tiny fraction of its current size.

I like to imagine a future — say a hundred years from now — where we have successfully weathered the twin storms of resource depletion and Climate Change. Where we have achieved, almost certainly through terrible suffering and struggle, some kind of balance with our environment. Where we have adopted an ethos and a lifestyle that allow us to look towards a sustainable future. And in this future, I imagine our great grandchildren flying across oceans in magnificent solar-powered airships.

But that’s science-fiction. A speculative future that becomes less and less likely every day we persist in ignoring the need for it.

* I happen to believe that peak oil had a part to play in precipitating the current crisis, but it was mostly a result of breathtaking folly and greed within the global political and financial establishment.

17 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2010

Four Lions trailer

Still no news on an Irish release date, but the first feature film from ground-breaking broadcaster Chris Morris is poised to hit British cinemas very soon.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video

Mar 2010

The absurdity of relying on BP's data

Peak oil used to be the preoccupation of a small minority, but a parliamentary group has been set up to follow the issue and an increasing number of industrialists have begun to worry about it.

Seems to me that peak oil is still the preoccupation of a small minority. Parliamentary groups and warnings from Richard Branson notwithstanding. I’ve been banging on about peak oil for the best part of 15 years, for instance, and while it’s true that more people are now aware of the issue than was the case when I first encountered it, the number who believe it’s serious enough to warrant effective action remains negligible.

I’ve no doubt, for instance, were there a magic wand which could “solve the problem” of peak oil with no economic or social impact, those in power would be queuing to wave it. Unfortunately, so long as any solution requires accepting significant consequences for how we run things, the problem will be ignored. Eventually of course, it won’t be ignored any longer and it’ll be too late to solve… the consequences of peak oil will play out destructively, and those of us in a position to say “I told you so” will find no satisfaction in doing so.

Lord Hunt, the British Minister for Energy is starting to take note of the peak oil problem. See… it’s no longer activists and academics raising concerns, it’s industrialists. This is a far more important constituency to the modern politician, and one that warrants “private and behind-doors talks at the Energy Institute”. When a bunch of fuddy-duddy intellectuals and long-haired activists demand the attention of an elected minister, they are obviously being quite naive. When it’s “executives from Virgin, Arup, Stagecoach, Scottish and Southern Energy, and Solar Century as well as other industrialists” though? Well, then the doors of the Energy Institute get flung open and “Hunt and a range of energy-policy civil servants” attend to the concerns of those they represent.

Bizarrely, the Energy Minister is still — 15 years after it’s been completely discredited — trying to calm fears with references to the BP Statistical Review of Energy.

BP and others are telling us [there’s 40 years of supply left], but you lot, Virgin, Scottish and Southern, and others are telling us something completely different. We do not know who to believe. Let’s do a proper risk assessment with industry.Lord Hunt

I know I’ve covered this before, but I’d like to revisit it. Try to clear it up once and for all. That way we can move past the “BP mirage” (for that’s what it is; a mirage) and start dealing with peak oil in a reality-based fashion.

Each year BP collate global energy numbers into the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. On the surface, it’s an impressively comprehensive document that covers energy production, consumption and reserves in all sectors. Unfortunately, on the subject of oil reserves at least (I’ve not spent much time researching the validity of what it has to say about nuclear, coal or any other energy resource), it’s fundamentally flawed. Broken beyond all recognition. Worse than useless. So anyone who uses BP’s numbers on oil — other than as a cautionary example — is making a terrible error.

Someone in Lord Hunt’s position should bloody well be aware of that.

For those who seek evidence of the inaccuracy of BP’s Statistical Review (with regards to oil reserves), I suggest downloading the “Historical Data” stats (1.6MB MS-Excel Workbook). On the ‘contents’ page click “Oil: Proved reserves – barrels (from 1980)” and examine the numbers carefully. It won’t take you long to discover some extremely odd things. But to save you some time, let me point you towards a couple of oddities which highlight the two primary reasons why the data is worthless. It’s not often a data-set is quite so self-evidently worthless.

The first thing to check is the reported reserves for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Back in 1980, the UAE is listed as possessing 30.4 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves. This meant they had the sixth largest reserves of oil on the planet. For the next five years this number didn’t change much. It fluctuated around the 32 billion barrel mark and in 1985 stood at 33 billion barrels. All of which, it can be argued, is fair enough. It suggests that the oil industry in the UAE was working hard to ensure that — each year — they were discovering slightly more than they produced.

Then, however, something remarkable happened. According to BP, in 1986 the UAE had proven reserves of 97.2 billion barrels. This is close to a threefold increase in a single year. Vitally, and I cannot stress this enough, the increase was not a result of a monster new field being discovered. Rather, it was a result of OPEC’s decision to change their quota system. In the mid-1980s OPEC decided that member states would have their production quotas set based upon proven reserves. The more oil you had, the more you were allowed to produce and sell.

Which reveals a rather surprising fact about the BP Statistical Energy Review… it is not compiled by BP surveyors and petroleum geologists. It is merely the collation of information submitted by national agencies. So, next year should the UAE claim to have once again trebled their reserves overnight despite little or no new discoveries, BP will calmly tell us that we now have 50 years until supply constraints.

I don’t suggest BP is in the wrong for producing these numbers. They are merely collating the claims being made by national governments (and they don’t hide this fact) However, anyone… Lord Hunt, I’m looking at you… who paints these numbers as something other than political and economic artefacts, most certainly is in the wrong.

Cast an eye over the other OPEC numbers during the mid-1980s and you’ll discover a similar pattern. Iran’s proven reserves jump 50% in one year. Iraq staggers their rise over a handful of years, but still see a 200% rise between 1982 and 1986. Kuwait jumps from 67 billion to 92.7 billion in one year. Saudi Arabia from 169.6 to 255 billion in one year. Venezuela from 28 to 54.5 billion in one year.

All of these increases are unverified, and all occurred roughly around the time OPEC began financially rewarding members based upon proven reserves.

The second oddity I’d like to point out is related to the first, in that it is a result of incentives to maximise reserve claims. It centres around the large number of petroleum exporters who claim unchanged reserves over a period of many years. Either they are asserting that production has no bearing on proven reserves (if I take a quantity of liquid from a full bottle, it remains full) or else they are claiming to have, quite incredibly, discovered annually precisely the same quantity of new oil as they pumped. For decades on end.

The UAE, who leapt from 33 billion to 97.2 billion barrels in 1986, then rose to 98.1 billion barrels in 1987. At which point apparently, new discoveries began to precisely mirror production. In 1988 they again reported 98.1 billion barrels of proven reserves despite pumping and exporting almost 1.6 billion barrels in 1987. The same goes for 1989, 1990, 1991… in fact this continues until 1996 when there’s a reported drop of 0.3 billion to 97.8 billion barrels. Each year since then they have reported no change in reserves. In 2008, the UAE still claimed to be sitting on 97.8 billion barrels of proven reserves.

This pattern is repeated — almost without exception — throughout the Middle East.

In 1987, according to BP, Iraq was sitting on 100 billion barrels. This remained unchanged for 8 years. Then in 1996 it rose to 112 billion. In 1997 it was 112.5 billion where it remained until the year 2000 when it saw a minor increase to 115 billion which is apparently where it has remained ever since. For the 11 years between 1991 and 2002 Kuwait’s reserves remained unchanged at a reported 96.5 billion barrels of oil.

I could go on. And if you think I’m cherry-picking the most damning data, just download the spreadsheet and see for yourself. Also, compare and contrast with non-OPEC countries like Norway who operate more transparent reserve-accounting systems. In those cases you’ll see both reserves and production gradually rise, plateau and fall off. Significantly, in those cases you’ll also note the smaller quantities involved (it’s the people with the vast majority of the oil who are least open about how much they have left).

I don’t know exactly when we’ll see serious oil supply shortfalls, but the consensus of opinion among those who don’t accept the BP data is that it will happen this side of 2020. Potentially a long way this side. Unfortunately, whatever The Guardian might have to say, those people are still very much in a minority. The majority view is expressed by the BP data set… the view that despite the massive incentives to do otherwise, the oil-producing nations are accurately reporting their reserves and that those reserves have not been noticeably reduced by two decades of production.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2010

Discovering a new band

I was in town today and found myself with an hour to kill before the next bus home. I have an established routine for such situations… firstly a trip to Hodges & Figgis on Dawson Street, Ireland’s largest bookstore (famously mentioned in Ulysses) where I’m more than happy to spend a whole afternoon in sedate browsing. Despite having been absorbed by the massive HMV group, the shop still retains a quiet charm and a real sense of history.

Even though it’s possible to spend several hours in Hodges & Figgis, I like to leave 20 minutes before the bus so I can spend a little while wandering around Tower Records on Wicklow Street, a shop that completely transcends its ‘franchise’ nature and contains one of the best selections of non-mainstream music in the city. As I approached the record shop I could hear music emerging through the open door. “Could that possibly be a Joy Division track I’ve not heard?” was my initial thought.

Unlikely. I’ve got all their albums (including the 4-disc Heart & Soul boxset) and I’m pretty damn familiar with them all.

As I crossed the Tower threshold, the music became clearer and it was fairly obvious that it wasn’t Joy Division. Instead it sounded for all the world like what The Jesus and Mary Chain would sound like if they reformed as a Joy Division tribute band. But in a very good way.

I’d no idea who it was, but I was really digging them as I browsed the usual places… no, still no Legendary Pink Dots since I’d bought the last two albums they’d stocked. But at least they had one of those plastic dividers with “LEGENDARY PINK DOTS” typed across the top. A silent promise. Nor could I find the new Peter Gabriel album which contains an amazing cover of the Talking Heads classic “Listening Wind”, which was good enough to make me resolve to buy the album when I see it.

I continued to browse (got tempted to buy the CD/DVD package to Bowie’s Reality Tour) and continued to enjoy the music playing at a pleasing volume over the P.A. system. David Byrne’s latest project (the soundtrack to a musical he wrote about the life of Imelda Marcos; the music a collaboration with Fat Boy Slim) positively demanded I buy it, but my resolve to not spend more than €30 on this visit meant that I had to be careful with the decision. And I found myself — almost without noticing — carrying the recent CD reissue of “Tracks and Traces” (a 1976 collaboration between Brian Eno and Harmonia) around the shop with me. It soon became apparent that part of me was not going to permit the rest of me to leave the shop without it.

So that was one.

I briefly toyed with buying the new Gorillaz album. But it was a very brief flirtation. I have a fair amount of time for Damon Albarn these days and dug the first Gorillaz album a lot. The b-sides and remix album from the same period was also pretty excellent, though the second studio record was a bit of a let down.

And all the while, the Joy Division vs The Jesus and Mary Chain groove had me nodding my head as I wandered the aisles. I still had no idea who it was, but by now the faint twang of Americana had me fairly convinced that I was listening to something from the US East Coast rather than Manchester or Scotland. Eventually a track came on (which I later discovered was called “The Sinking”) which gave me little choice but to walk to the counter and find out who I was listening to.

Alight of Night

Alight of Night by Crystal Stilts.
An excellent album.

Approaching the desk, still clutching “Tracks and Traces”, I asked the girl at the till who we were listening to. She grabbed a CD from behind the desk and I saw an unfamiliar cover and a name I didn’t recognise. The album was called “Alight of Night” by New York band Crystal Stilts, released in 2008. Much to my amusement and delight, the shop assistant had put a sticker on the front of the jewel case. “Recommended for fans of Joy Division and The Jesus and Mary Chain”, it read.

I couldn’t not buy it. The last one in the shop (I wasn’t the first person to buy it on the strength of hearing it in-store apparently). Which is how for a total of €29.98 I emerged from Tower Records with the Eno & Harmonia reissue and an album I didn’t even know existed 30 minutes earlier.

I only just made my bus.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Reviews » Music reviews

Mar 2010

RSS update

As the eagle-eyed amongst you will notice, I’ve made a few tweaks to the layout of this blog. This was done at the same time I switched my web-hosting plan and as far as I can tell, it’s all gone pretty smoothly. Obviously if you notice anything broken, I’d be grateful if you could point it out.

The one thing I have noticed is that the URL for my RSS feed appears to have changed. I could probably spend a few hours working out why this has happened and undoing it, but instead I figured it’d be a good deal easier to ask the three of you who actually subscribe to my blog to just check your newsreader and update the feeds should it be required.

The correct URLS are:

  • Entries (http://numero57.net/feed/)
  • Comments (http://numero57.net/comments/feed/)

3 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Mar 2010

Avatar 3D

I went into this film with fairly low expectations. I’ve nothing against Hollywood blockbusters and feel no shame about admitting that Michael Ironside intoning “They sucked his brains out!” in Starship Troopers remains one of my favourite cinematic moments of all time. My tastes are quite eclectic; Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano is probably my favourite film-maker (in fact, I watched the glorious Hana-bi again recently. It really is one of the greatest films ever made… dreamlike, moving, violent, funny, hypnotic and as far from a Hollywood blockbuster as you’re likely to get), yet I’ve happily grinned my way through all four Die Hard movies.


Even so, I was quite sceptical about the latest James Cameron spectacular. I’d read some scathing reviews and pretty much convinced myself that the 3D technology wasn’t going to be effective.

That said, I wasn’t going to miss it either. Even the most negative review grudgingly admitted Avatar is visually spectacular. How could it not be, given the absurd amount of money spent ensuring it would be? Throw enough money at a cinema screen and some of it will stick. Plus, there was always a chance that the silly glasses would really work. So if I was going to see it at all, then it probably had to be on a big screen. It’s like being at a U2 concert or watching the space shuttle blast off… whatever you may feel about the content of the experience, if you’re close enough then the way it engages the senses is incredible. Our small monkey brains can’t help but be awed by the sheer scale of what’s happening.

And “awe” is not too hyperbolic a word to be bandying about when it comes to Avatar. The film didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them into a billion tiny glowing bits and sent them floating around me like a swarm of fireflies. The 3D effect was far better than I’d expected. It was genuinely magical at times. I’d never been to a 3D film before, but it’s safe to say I’m an instant convert. Thankfully it involved a good deal less “gratuitous objects flying towards your head” than I thought it would. In a movie low on subtlety, the use of 3D was immersive without being over-the-top. Credit to James Cameron for his restraint there, even if nowhere else.

Clearly he knew the visuals were breath-taking enough to generate plenty of “whoa!” moments all by themselves. The clever use of the 3D technology just draws the viewer that little bit further into the experience. So when one of the primary locations in the story is a tree that would dwarf the Burj Dubai, adding a convincing depth of field is more than enough to start the brain reeling. Forcing the viewer to duck as projectiles shot towards them every thirty seconds would merely serve to distract from the splendour.

Which isn’t to say that there’s none of that more obvious use of 3D. The plot of the film involves human colonists (in the form of a dastardly mining corporation backed by gung-ho space marines) trying to relocate, and eventually annihilate, the Na’vi (the indigenous culture on the ecologically pristine planet Pandora). The blue-skinned Na’vi fight with spears and bows-and-arrows. This, of course, allows the spectacular battle sequences to contain the requisite amount of “objects flying at your head” action.

In the reviews I’ve read, the primary criticisms of Avatar centre around the plot and the dialogue. With regards to the plot though, there’s a part of me that disagrees. Yes it’s simple. But, fantastical setting aside, it’s telling an archetypical tale that echoes back into history and is alive and well on our planet today. The destructive exploitation of our ecology at the expense of indigenous cultures — and ultimately ourselves — is not a tale that can be told too often. Nor too loudly. Especially now.

Having said that, I’m well aware that there’s an argument which says that particular story can’t be told in a Hollywood blockbuster. That the medium is the message. An argument convincingly put forward by Citizen S, with whom I went to see Avatar. She found the film entertaining and the 3D very impressive despite not being a fan of the Big Guns & Shiny Metal genre. But she looked upon me with something akin to pity when I started to praise “the message” of the film.

Avatar Big Mac meal

The Big Mac Avatar Meal: Not a parody

The essentially commercial nature of the enterprise undercuts and invalidates any anti-commercial message it tries to send. The calculated manipulative techniques used by the medium to generate the maximum audience, and then the businesses that have grown up to part that audience from their cash — from popcorn to action figures to… well, just think about that pictured tie-in, to the right, for a few seconds… these things are themselves precisely the kind of colonialism the film claims to decry. When the soundtrack swells with those “strings in minor key”, tugging your heart down proscribed pathways, and then shifts abruptly to major chords when the hero strides towards his destiny, you are being trained in a very specific way of looking at the world. And you’re being encouraged to have a hamburger and Coke while you do so. You just can’t dress up an anti-colonialist story about ecological sustainability in half a billion dollar’s worth of industrial light and magic part-sponsored by the McDonald’s Corporation.

I think that was the gist of her argument.

Certainly it began with: “it’s a Hollywood action film. Get a grip.”

And you know, despite the sensory delight and sheen of subversion, there’s certainly something to that.

Although I think perhaps it goes even deeper than that. When what is already the most successful film in history, turns out to be a thinly veiled attack on the very system that allows it to exist, it’s yet more evidence of our deep cultural crisis. Our collective schizophrenia.

Wouldn’t it be mind boggling to encounter a previously unknown Amazonian culture and discover that their most popular story-tellers regularly portrayed the tribe as cynical hypocrites filled with avarice and malice, always in the wrong? And yet the past few decades have been littered with fiction of precisely that nature. Whether it’s Dances With Wolves (of which Avatar is essentially a remake with an upbeat ending) or Cameron’s own Aliens (“You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage”) or the plethora of “apocalypse as thrilling entertainment” flicks. Besides our own, is there a single culture we’ve ever known, whose great stories and myths regularly portray themselves as the bad guys?

Whether or not we can take heart in the positive aspects of Avatar’s plot, it is clearly part of a body of work that suggests we are a culture in the grip of a nervous breakdown.

And how much hope can we take in the fact, that while the most popular film in history is not telling a story that celebrates unsustainability, its very existence does?

So to speak.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Mar 2010

Expectations born of madness

Top US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have been calling for the military to go after the militants in these regions.

All this comes at a time when Pakistan’s government is already under a great deal of domestic criticism.

This is mainly due to increased missile strikes by the US targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas.

These have turned a sometimes ambivalent tribal population against the Pakistan military.

Analysts say the tribesmen see the strikes, which have claimed more lives of civilians than of militants, as contiguous with the military operation.

I was imagining a scenario where the roles were reversed back on September 11th 2001. How different everything would be. If an extremist group of fundamentalist Christians had crashed a cargo plane full of explosives into The Great Mosque in Mecca. And now, almost a decade on, unmanned drones adorned with Islam’s Crescent Moon are levelling homes in Texas and Utah. Sometimes, killing sympathisers and extremists. More often, killing regular American families.

Obama and Hillary Clinton

Embracing the insanity of their predecessor

Can you imagine how much pressure the world would need to put on the US government to make them turn a blind eye to this bombing campaign? Which is exactly what America expects of the Pakistani authorities.

And would the people of America see these raids as justified? Or would they instead swear bloody vengeance on the perpetrators, and view the complicity of their own government as the most despicable betrayal in American history?

Expecting the government of Pakistan to accept the regular killing of innocent civilians — people whose interests they are supposed to represent — by a foreign military. Even when that killing is done in error…

It’s unreasonable. And it is a demonstration, among many, of the psychotic nature of The War Against Terror and of modern politics in general.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion