I shouldn’t complain – the Telegraph’s energy columnist, Rowena Mason is technically affirming that even non-crazy people can believe in peak oil. Her essay, titled “You Don’t Need to be a Mad Max Survivalist to Take Peak Oil Seriously” at least acknowledges the point. Her equation of Mad Max survivalism with “grows root vegetables” is obviously going to annoy me, but I know the kind of people she talks about in the article too, the ones who say we’d better hurry into our bunkers now, so I can forgive that.
But the part that is a little problematic is that she doesn’t seem to get the oil problem very clearly. It certainly true, as Mason points out, that many of our present energy problems are geo-political rather than those of absolute supply – the recession has somewhat reduced consumption and Iraq’s fields are starting to produce again, so there’s some truth in this.
That said, Mason doesn’t quite get the case for peak oil, which she makes clear when she says,
This kind of fanatical anxiety has in the past given the idea of peak oil a bad name – particularly when coupled with the unscientific claim that the world is today actually running on empty.
The energy majors, like BP and Shell, are confident that the world has enough reserves to last us 40 years. At the moment, these resources are just about being steadily replaced, although a story in the Guardian last year claimed that officials at the International Energy Agency had exaggerated the extent of oil lurking beneath the earth’s
In a sense, the actual reserves aren’t the most pressing worry. The point is how much it will cost us to extract the oil from increasingly remote or hostile regions and whether companies have the ability to raise production much above the perceived limit of about 100m barrels per day (current levels are around 87m barrels).
But no significant figure in the peak oil community uses the term “running on empty” as anything other than a metaphor. It is the peak oil community itself that has, over the years, insisted on pointing out that we are *not* claiming that we are going to run out of energy, what we are running out of is endless cheap energy. I’m sure some idiots on the net say we’re going to run out of oil, just like some idiots on the net say that there are androids in their cheese, but that’s never been the claim of peak oil.
But it is also not quite fair to say that the actual reserves are not the issue. They are – and Mason’s claim “resources are just about being steadily replaced” simply doesn’t hold water, something any energy columnist should know. At this point, in fact, oil reserves are not being steadily replaced – there’s no debate about this, either. We know for a fact that world oil discovery peaked in 1965. We know for a fact that we consume six barrels of oil for every barrel we discover. The general public hears when energy companies discover large reserves, and hears of the outer estimates for those figures. What they rarely hear are the technical challenges, the cost at which deepwater or other difficult to extract oil will actually be viable, the difficulty of capital investment in a recession or the near-inevitable later downward revisions of the estimated reserves that follow them.
What we’ve seen is not, as Mason implies, the rate of discovery keeping pace, but the conversion of “liquids” to cover the gaps in declining world oil supplies. As Stuart Staniford, one of the best of the oil analysts writes, these come in four categories:
There are four kinds of liquid fuel alternatives to crude oil in actual commercial production at the present:
Biofuels – ethanol and biodiesel, primarily from food crops around the world
Tar Sands – synfuel and bitumen, primarily from Canada
Gas-To-Liquids (GTL) – from South Africa, Malaysia, and increasingly Qatar
Coal-To-Liquids (CTL) – primarily from South Africa, but just starting in China
In this piece, I summarize some research I’ve been doing to look at how each of these sources responded to the oil price increases of 2005-2008. Two sources, GTL and GTL, haven’t shown any particular price sensitivity to date and are at low levels. Tar sands growth has shown modest price sensitivity but mainly appears to be growing on its own internal dynamics. Biofuel production growth appears to be extremely oil price sensitive, and increased the fastest and reached the largest volume in response to the mid-to-late 2000s oil shock. I have argued in the past that there are structural reasons for this: given the comparatively low capital requirements and small plant size of biofuel plants, they can respond much faster to episodes of high oil prices than can the other sources, all of which tend to involve larger, slower-to-build, more capital intensive plants. This has important implications for food and land prices in future oil price shocks. Food prices are likely to rise quickly and markedly in response to oil shocks, public policy permitting.
What we are seeing is not a case of discovery keeping pace, but with a gap being covered by the elision of important differences between liquid fuels. These difference matter a great deal because the implications for food suppllies, global warming, water supplies, pollution and actual availability (many of these resources, as Mason does point out are only cost competetive in certain circumstances). To put them all together and claim that we are mostly keeping pace with consumption is simply wildly inaccurate and misleading.
I’m grateful that Mason acknowledges the potential problem of peak oil, and that she acknowledges that you don’t have to be completely insane to believe in it (although she implies that does help.) That’s good. But I think it would be a more compelling endorsement if energy columnists could actually describe our current situation accurately.