tag: Peak oil

May 2010

Airtricity SmartSaver Green Plan

I’m not the sort of person to provide free advertising to corporations. Nonetheless, I’m willing to make an exception in this case. A couple of years back, I switched my electricity supplier from the ESB to Bord Gáis. They were cheaper and they claimed to generate 10% more of their power from renewable sources. At the time, my research into alternative suppliers didn’t offer a better solution.

Then, at the beginnning of this year, I stumbled upon Airtricity’s Smartsaver Green Plan (click on the relevant tab on that page). Because I’d just begun a new billing period with Bord Gáis, I couldn’t switch straight away, but I put the wheels in motion. Then, a couple of months ago there was a bit of a muck up with the paperwork and the switch was delayed again (in fairness to Bord Gáis, it seems like it was an honest error by Airtricity rather than them trying to keep hold of me).

Anyhoo, the upshot of it all is that I’ve just received a letter from Airtricity informing me that I’m now, finally, on their system.

If you know anything about how national power grids work, you’ll know of course that I can’t claim the actual electrons being sucked into my home to power my appliances come directly from windfarms. However, what Airtricity guarantee is that over a year, their windfarms will add 100% of the power I use to the national grid. Barring a decision to go off-grid and self-generate (the ideal route, perhaps, but also somewhat impractical for me right now) this is the best solution available from an environmental perspective.

So well done to Airtricity for their 100% scheme. If we’re going to shift our society towards sustainability, this is the kind of thing we’ll need to be doing. I urge my Irish readers to make the switch.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Apr 2010

Peak oil in Ireland

A few years ago in a longish piece about Nukes in Ireland, I discussed a report commissioned by the Irish Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Compiled by the advisory body, Forfás, I described it as “the Buzz Aldrin of peak oil studies” as it was the second major government study (in English) of the peak oil situation. The first such study was The Hirsch Report carried out by the US Department of Energy. Both came to very similar conclusions.

In the intervening four years the recommendations of the Forfás report have been roundly ignored by the government that commissioned it. Of course, governments commission a lot of studies and reports and can’t be expected to follow every recommendation in every one. But when presented with strong evidence from your top advisors that the entire country will go down the tubes unless something is done quickly, it takes either a criminally negligent or deeply moronic set of politicians to sweep that evidence under the carpet in the hope that ignoring it will help matters.

The report suggested that the crisis would start to seriously impact Ireland within ten to fifteen years. It suggested that radical measures needed to be taken immediately as it would take at least that long to prepare for peak oil and that even a ten year lead time was cutting it very fine indeed. The Hirsch Report, remember, suggested that twenty years was the bare minimum to implement a mitigation strategy that had any chance of working.

Sadly, the reality is, credible warnings were sounded and it is now simply too late to deal effectively with peak oil without significant damage being done to the fabric of global civilisation.

Which isn’t to say that nothing can be done. But each day we delay we make that damage all the worse. Each day we live in denial and insist that our strategy must be to achieve a “return to growth” rather than a wholesale restructuring of our economy, our systems of production and distribution, is a day closer to complete systemic collapse.

We are here already

For all intents and purposes we have already passed the global peak in oil production. We’ve reached the tipping point. Which is presumably why that title, Tipping Point, was chosen for yet another Irish report into the peak oil problem. Subtitled Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production: An Outline Review, this time the study has been produced by Feasta (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) and it makes very grim reading indeed. If you don’t fancy downloading the full report, a brief summary can be accessed on their website. As I say though, it’s grim stuff.

The Irish Times today reports the study under the headline: Ireland ‘among most vulnerable’ to peak oil. The point I’d like to make — briefly as it’s getting late — is that although there’s a certain truth in that; it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Ireland’s vulnerability to peak oil stems from the fact that modern Ireland is more dependent upon cheap oil than most places. We are the third highest per capita oil consumers in Europe, thanks largely to our heavy use of oil to generate electricity (Dublin’s primary power station is an oil burner). We have squandered billions in recent years on road-building programmes while our public transport systems remain an embarrassment. The “knowledge economy” our government is so proud of building may have funded a decade-long orgy of consumerism but will ultimately turn out to be a betrayal of the people of Ireland. We allowed our traditional agricultural base to decline while hurtling towards a world where the ability to produce real actual food will be infinitely more valuable than being Google’s European base of operations.

And yet, despite the inevitable upheavals that approach us, Ireland does have a few things going for it. We’ve got a couple of aces up our sleeves. Albeit no thanks to the people who actually run the country.

Firstly is the fact that we are one of the few countries in the developed world that has not exceeded its notional carrying capacity. In other words, should there be a collapse in global trade — as predicted by the Feasta study — Ireland could become self-sufficient in food production. Certainly it would take a huge effort to achieve this, and given the kind of people we’ve tended to put in charge of national policy there’s every chance we’ll screw it up completely. Nonetheless, this island has the ability to produce enough food to prevent widespread hunger. The same cannot be said for many of our neighbours.

Another advantage we possess is our broadly socialist culture. Yes, it’s taken a severe knock in the past twenty years as successive governments sought to emulate the neoliberal travesties that rose briefly to international prominence on the back of an over-abundance of cheap energy. Nonetheless, I genuinely feel that the basic vision of de Valera (the most influential political figure in the early years of the Irish state) is still there. Sure, it’s buried beneath a thick layer of dust. And yes, it was always uncomfortably bound up with the darkness of Irish Catholicism. But de Valera’s basic vision of a socialist-leaning nation built upon agricultural self-sufficiency and a firm rejection of the entrenched power of private capital hasn’t been dead so long that it can’t be revived.

Here on this small wet island we possess the raw materials to keep body and soul together. And terrible though it may be to point it out, this actually puts us in a minority of nations. Whether we actually do keep body and soul together though, remains very much in the balance. But our national culture — the collective psyche of Ireland — shouldn’t be as unreceptive to the steps required to achieve this as might be the case elsewhere.

See, a transition to sustainability will happen. There’s not actually a choice in this. We can no more choose another option than we can legislate gravity away. The only question is how much destruciton and suffering will be involved in that transition. And that will largely be predicated upon how quickly we wake up to the need to act. The more preparation we carry out before the oil supply starts to significantly dwindle, the less damage we’ll suffer as a nation — and as a global civilisation.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2010

Peak oil revisited (part 3)

[Part 1] | [Part 2]

As we’ve already seen, we are approaching a singular discontinuity in human affairs. We’ve built an advanced technological civilisation that relies heavily upon a resource that will soon decline in availability. At the same time we developed an economic system predicated upon growth.

Economic growth is more or less synonymous with an increase in the total amount of work being carried out*. Energy is defined as “the ability to do work”. This physical definition is vital to our understanding of what happens in a world with progressively less net energy available for use… put simply; less work can be done. Feed a person 2,000 calories per day but force them to expend 2,100. Eventually they will die.

Similarly, if you have an economic system that depends upon growth for survival, a consistent and ongoing reduction in available energy will eventually kill it. The trick, therefore, is to develop a system that does not require constant growth. We need a radical shift in how we perceive economic data. Here, as we sit in the midst of a recession, we are bombarded by constant assurances from our politicians that they are working towards a “return to growth”. This is — almost universally — seen as a good thing. We should, however, be greeting these pronouncements with horror and anger. As unemployment rises we need to begin looking at ways to take advantage of a reduction in work rather than ways to reverse the trend. Put simply, with less energy available, there will be less work. This is not predicated upon an ideology or desired policy, but on the basic laws of physics. And we need to get used to it.

Instead of seeing a mental picture of an upward-trending graph when we hear the word “growth”, we should be seeing a mental picture of a malignant tumour.

The Problem of The Market

Like many of us, in my youth I tried on a number of different belief systems to see which one made most sense to me. I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing of course, so when I was a Roman Catholic… I was Catholic forever. Later on I found The One True Path and it was Marxism. A little while after that, libertarianism became the Obviously Right Way of viewing the world. And so it went. I have much sympathy for those who never went through this process, and who still find themselves stuck in the first rut they fell into, whether through indoctrination, laziness or a lack of imagination.

My free market capitalism days didn’t last very long though because they came along when I was already beginning to view the world in ecological terms. This isn’t so much a belief system as it is a mode of perception. These days I call it my “ecological filter” and it was very much in its infancy for me then. Even now, two decades later, I still find myself surprised at how it mutates and evolves, changing me and my beliefs as it does so. In fact, it’s probably only in the past six or seven years that I’ve even begun to understand this way of viewing things. It always felt right to me of course, but it wasn’t until I encountered the work of Gregory Bateson that I actually understood it.

Even back in the early days, however, even as I was professing a belief in it, I found myself recoiling from free market economics. It didn’t sit right with me. Part of that was as simple as aesthetics. A world with material profit at its heart seemed ugly and cold to me. I recall attending a lecture by a fairly renowned economist who responded to a question from the audience by suggesting that the way to protect endangered species was to ensure “they were more profitable alive than dead”. This complete willingness to bypass ethics and base life or death decisions on profit margins appalled me. Just like the Marxists I’d once flocked with, the free marketeers seemed content to apply economic models in situations which — to me at least — were completely inappropriate.

Economic value is but one way of measuring value. What’s more, it’s not even the most valuable.

The Essential Disconnect

Our modern economic system, however, has successfully employed a variety of strategies to ensure that all other measures of value become subservient to the economic model. The most effective of these strategies is what I call ‘The Essential Disconnect’. And nowhere is this more apparent than the palm-oil plantations of Indonesia.

Rising crude oil prices (i.e. market signals) coupled with perfectly legitimate concerns about Climate Change** led many governments to mandate the use of biofuels as a percentage of our total liquid fuels consumption. Despite the generally low percentages involved, this created a huge demand for vegetable-based oils (a low percentage of a massive number can often be quite large). In response to this demand, the major palm-oil exporters of which Indonesia is the largest began to ramp up production. This resulted in the kind of deforestation programme not seen since the height of the Brazillian slash-and-burn years. It is estimated, for instance, that the island of Sumatra — the largest in the Indonesian archipelago — will be entirely deforested within the next couple of years.

The Essential Disconnect is a twofold mechanism which both hides the consequences of palm oil production from those who consume it, and downplays the importance of those consequences for those who do hear about them. Few of us ever actually see the destruction of the Sumatran forests, and those who do are trapped by a worldview that fails to recognise the significance of that destruction. Our economic system effectively insulates the consumer from the consequences of their consumption.

Which is why a peak in global crude oil production coupled with a global free market in natural resources poses such a great threat to us. Rather than forcing us to re-evaluate our economic system, the first response provoked by peak oil in a free market will be to try to meet demand despite a drop in supply. So we don’t see a drop in private car use, we see the rapid deforestation of areas far away from the car owners. We don’t see huge investment in energy reduction measures, we see plans for a bunch of new nuclear power stations. “Consume less” becomes the last resort rather than the first.

Which wouldn’t be such a big deal if those first attempts to plug the supply gap weren’t so destructive. If they didn’t involve the suicidal destruction of the very environment of which we are an integral part. When the markets start to feel the pinch of peak oil they will react by demanding more palm oil, more coal burning, more uranium mining… As Bateson never tires of pointing out: “the organism that destroys its environment, destroys itself”.


This essay ended up being a good deal longer than I’d intended. Sorry about that. It started out as a response to a comment on a previous post and grew almost without me realising. I hope, however, that at least one person learns something they didn’t know about peak oil and resource depletion while reading it. Even if they don’t come to the same conclusions as I’ve reached, I can’t help but feel that the more people thinking about this issue, the better.

[Part 1] | [Part 2]

* of course, you can still have a certain level of growth without an increase in work by increasing the efficiency of existing work, but that eventually reaches a ceiling beyond which higher efficiencies are not possible.

** there is a sad irony in the fact that — for a variety of reasons — the biofuel life-cycle does not appear to significantly reduce ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions. Indeed, there are instances where biofuel production actually produces greater emissions than petroleum. So we find ourselves destroying our native ecology for no good reason.

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

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.

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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.

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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.

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Oct 2009

The air we breathe

Ladies and gentlemen, the future.


The Airpod, air-powered car.

That air stuff… it’s great when you think about it. A ubiquitous, but entirely unobtrusive mixture of gases that’s wrapped around our planet several miles deep and provides fuel for many of the processes that occur within our body. It isn’t so much “easily accessible” as it is “impossible not to access” under normal circumstances.

Now before anyone looks at that strange little car and starts thinking either (a) that compressed air is the solution to our energy crisis, or (b) that I’m suggesting compressed air is the solution to our energy crisis, let me please request you stop thinking it. Because it’s not. And I’m not.

What I am suggesting, however, is that compressed air is a far better energy-carrier than batteries (or hydrogen fuel cells).

Let me qualify that statement.

Firstly, I’m not really talking about cars here. I still view the personal car as unsustainable, though there’s no reason compressed-air buses couldn’t be part of a future public transport system.

And secondly, I’m not speaking specifically about the energy-efficiency of compressed air Vs batteries.

What I am suggesting is that a wind-turbine powering your home / apartment building / housing estate (scale up as required) could be connected to an air-compressor during off-peak hours. Then when it’s calm and the turbine isn’t moving (or the sun isn’t shining, if solar panels are your primary generator) the compressed air can be used to produce electricity. It beats almost every other energy system I can think of hands down in the sustainability stakes. As well as the sheer elegance of the idea.

See the trouble with batteries is that they’re pretty short-lived, all things considered. They need to be replaced every few years and disposing of the old ones often involves dealing with nasty chemicals. With a compressed air system, on the other hand, you need a machine-shop and a bit of know-how (or the phone-number of someone with a machine-shop and a bit of know-how… hint: see the Yellow Pages under ‘Mechanic’) and you’ve got something that’ll last indefinitely. I’ve seen compressors in factories that have been lovingly maintained for thirty years and which, given continued loving maintenance, should last at least thirty more. I watched the mechanic in an Egyptian bottling plant manufacture spare parts for his compressor from a pile of off-cuts in the yard. No it wasn’t the prettiest piece of equipment I’d ever seen, with at least half of it having been replaced with local scrap over the years, but it still functioned to a high level of efficiency.

Compressed air is not without its dangers. But as an energy carrier it sure beats hydrogen in that respect. And compressor technology is old and proven. Over the decades we’ve made it pretty damn reliable. I have a hunch that “reliable” is exactly what we need right now.

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May 2009


In which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism.

For the past couple of years, a property developer has been applying to build a waste incinerator within sight of my home. Needless to say, I gave generously to the campaign against the Energy Recovery Facility (euphemism is required if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them, as someone once observed). I didn’t get actively involved in the campaign however. For two specific reasons. Firstly, I was quite busy with other stuff. Secondly, I was confident that the planning application would be turned down. Which is not to say that the campaign didn’t need funding (planning applications need to be actively challenged, and even if your challenge is likely to be a success, it still requires time, effort and resources).

And as far as I could make out, that success was pretty much guaranteed. There wasn’t a single local councillor in favour of the plan, and every one of the local TDs and senators openly opposed it. As everyone knows, land rights and planning are at the very heart of local politics in Ireland. But with memories of the Mahon tribunal still fresh (it’s still technically in session, I believe), it’d be a complete fool who’d pass brown envelopes around a controversial project like this. And with bribery not an option just now, the decision had to be made on the merits of the project. As such, it was never going to pass. You could prove that on an etch-a-sketch, as the man said.

Firstly the location was absurd. Genuinely off-the-wall, could-only-possibly-have-been-considered-for-financial-reasons, absurd. The plan was to build the thing on top of one of the highest hills in the Rathcoole area. Rathcoole is right on the southwest edge of Dublin city. For a significant chunk of the year, the prevailing wind in Ireland comes from the southwest. Seriously, that one fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the project.

And there’s so much more. The road that would feed the incinerator is already one of the most congested commuter routes in the country. There’s a project underway to bring Dublin’s light rail system further out this direction specifically to reduce the amount of traffic on that road. You just won’t find anyone on the local planning board who’ll vote in favour of more traffic on the N7. Not without the aid of an extra-large brown envelope.

But on top of all that, it turns out the developer is an out-of-town consortium. And this is commuter belt. Prime land from a development standpoint. Luxury golf hotels and expensive residential developments. Property values are high, but dropping like everywhere else, and existing developers — those with large plots of land in the area and long-standing relationships with local politicians — don’t want to see those values drop further thanks to the presence of an incinerator.

So for those three reasons, it realistically stood no chance. But interestingly, all three of those objections are rooted, to varying degrees, in NIMBYism.

Not In My Back Yard (ism)

My own objection to the incinerator, in contrast, was based on a fourth reason; one that applies to all waste incinerators whatever their location. So even if positioned in what’s demonstrated to be the best location for such a facility, even if the local infrastructure can take the pressure and local property values positively soar as a result… even then, I think generating electricity from burning waste is a staggeringly bad idea.

In fact, it’s difficult for me to get across just how bad an idea I think it is without straying perilously close to caricature. To not merely create an industry that generates profit from burning waste, but suggest we rely upon that industry to provide basic services, is utterly psychotic. I can think of other words for it, but that’s the least rude. It is, just like any decision to build new nuclear power stations is, a statement to the effect that we are incapable or unwilling to act rationally in pursuit of a sustainable society and have decided, instead, to be active participants in a spectacular collapse.

By and large we are not aware that’s the statement we’re making, of course. A big bunch of unconscious processes, dontchaknow.

All the same, in the case of the Rathcoole incinerator, it is a happy coincidence that the objections of the local population were in accord with the Greater Good (if, as I’ve come to do, we define the “Greater Good” as those actions and decisions that promote a transition towards sustainability involving the least possible suffering). But what if they weren’t? What happens when the objections of the local population become obstacles towards that Greater Good? Do we accept that people have the right to continue acting unsustainably even if that behaviour dooms us all to the same fate? Do we allow the psychotic to thrash about, damaging himself and everyone around him? Or do we accept the need for restraint? And do we accept that need even when the psychotic is ourself?

Clearly we do accept that need. We just haven’t learnt to identify western consumerism as the huge episode of self-harm that it is.

In defence of NIMBYism, Merrick has this to say…

NIMBYism, like preaching to the converted, is an underrated activity.

To decry NIMBYs is absurd. We all have more concern for the things that affect our personal lives, we all care more about the things we see every day.

A friend of mine was campaigning against some nonsense from his council and knocked on doors in his street. One person said ‘you know your problem, you think you can change the world’.

My friend replied, ‘how big’s your world? Our street is a pretty big part of it. We can change that. If everyone did the same, then in the bigger sense we would change the world, too’.

I appreciate the point being made. It’s the essence of all direct action politics in fact. But the central problem remains… this is only a valid strategy if we assume that the local concerns of individuals aren’t in contradiction with the needs of society as a whole. When everyone objects to an incinerator being built on their (metaphorical) street, then no incinerators get built and we can chalk one up for NIMBYism. But when nobody wants their view obstructed by wind farms… or nobody wants to abandon the luxury of their private car…

What then? I don’t accept that the demands of the masses; whether expressed democratically through the ballot box, or economically through their choice of soap powder; should be considered an adequate guide for our collective action. Especially when those demands can be shown to be reckless and destructive. A hundred years ago we had, in a sense, the luxury of basing our decisions upon ideological concerns. Our desires and demands could shape our behaviour because our environment could absorb anything we had the power to do. That’s just not the case any more. Thanks to technology and population growth, we have bumped up against the limits.

And because of this, it simply doesn’t matter what we want to do anymore. Our options have been curtailed, but we don’t quite appreciate this yet. Environmental limits will impose certain courses of action upon us. And these limits cannot be shifted by voting, nor by the most well-organised direct action campaign. We have reached the point where there are definite right and wrong ways to act, assuming our goal is anything remotely like the “Greater Good” I defined earlier.

Just as it is absurd to “decry NIMBYism” as a general principle (and it is absurd; I never suggested that, Merrick), so it’s absurd to assume it will always be a force pushing in the right direction. And when it pushes us further towards the brink…?

… well … as I said earlier… “in which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism”.

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Dec 2008

Obama's investment strategy

As a short addendum to my previous post, and to indicate exactly why Obama is not going to address the fundamental problems facing America — and the wider world — this article over at the BBC contains a revealing quotation from the man himself.

Now, let me preface this by pointing out that his plan for massive government investment in infrastructure projects is a sound one. The problem comes when you analyse the type of projects he wants to invest in.

We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule — use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.

“New and smarter”. “Roads and bridges”.

Because that’s what America needs in an era of decreasing oil availability. More roads.

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