Casaubon's Book

Back to School Month: Peak Oil 101

Every so often someone comes up to me with fiery eyes and raring for a battle and says “I don’t believe in Peak Oil” or “I don’t believe in Climate Change.” When this happens, I think they expect me to argue with them, and I do. But isn’t the argument they expect – my standard response, correct almost 100% of the time is not to make the case for peak oil or climate change, but to argue “Yes, you do, in fact, believe in them.”

Telling other people what they believe is a chancy business, but I feel reasonably confident in doing so, because when someone says they don’t believe in peak oil or climate change, they don’t really mean it. In fact, I’m fact I’m willing to lay odds that you and I have 98% agreement on peak oil – no matter how much you think we don’t, no matter who you are.

With the exception of a few flat earthers who would deny there was ever an ice age or a few abiotic oil wackaloons, everyone believes in peak oil and climate change. What they actually want to assert, but have trouble doing so, is that they disagree with me about the immediacy of peak oil, or about the role of human beings in climate change. It is a sign of our collective scientific and grammatical illiteracy that people can hold passionate opinions and not have the slightest idea how to explain their opinions – or what they actually signify.

I am absolutely certain that you believe in peak oil. The reason I am certain of this is that peak oil isn’t something that anyone pulled out of their behinds – it is a readily observable fact. Consider US oil production:

i-b7a25ac117fc94d47ea10fa5261b2d21-deffeyes_us_oil-production-thumb-400x341-56263.gif
(Source, Kenneth Deffeyes)

Looky, a peak! It goes up, it reaches a peak, it goes down. And if you really needed me to do so, I could put up graphs for 15 or so other countries that look strangely like a peak. It turns out that oil production pretty much always follows a bell curve. And it also turns out that once you pass that peak, no matter how much better your technologies get, you can’t actually reverse the peak. Nothing the US has ever done in extraction technology has made that happen.

So yes, you believe that oil production occurs in a curve, which means it will have either a peak or a plateau. See, we agree!

And you also agree with me that we are using oil unsustainably and that we are facing a peak. I’m absolutely sure of that, because it is an incontrovertible physical fact about which there’s no real debate. Consider this picture:

the%20growing%20gap.gif
(Graph by Colin Campbell)

Even if you think the projections for future discovery are completely unreasonable (although you’d have to make a good argument for why they should be greater), you can look pretty easily at the physical facts and see we’re not discovering nearly as much oil as we used to be, while we are consuming more than we used to. So you and I agree that we’re using energy unsustainably, that we’re going to hit a peak, and that the factors are right for a supply crunch. Even if you hear every day about new discoveries and supplies, we don’t disagree that we’re not discovering enough to fill the gap.

Now here is where we might not agree – I think there’s good evidence that an oil peak is a near-term likelihood. You might not. Or you might think that the reason we aren’t discovering much oil is that we’re not looking hard enough or drilling hard enough.

And all of those things are possible places where we could disagree – but our disagreements don’t actually matter as much as you might think. You see, while I might think, looking at the data, that we hit an oil plateau around 2005, and that we’re facing a decline, you might disagree, and argue that this is just one of the normal fluctuations that goes with oil. And that’s ok – you could say that the US Geological Survey figures, for example, which put peak oil around 2023, are more credible than the ones I’m using. But I’m willing to conceed on that. Now don’t get me wrong, I still think we’re on the plateau, but let’s say you are right and use your terms. We’ll use 2023 as our figure.

In that case, you observe, we’ve got plenty of time for renewable resources to take over. Except that’s not true. The only full scale study ever commissioned by the US on this subject was The Hirsch Report, commissioned by the US Department of Energy and led by energy scientists Robert Hirsch and Roger Bezdek. The DOE took peak oil just seriously enough to do some scenario planning, and asked what would happen if peak oil *were* coming (didn’t say it was).

Hirsch and Bezdek, who were not peak oilers at the time, set out to figure this out, and they ran a lot of projections. You can read the whole report here: www.netl.doe.gov/publications/others/pdf/oil_peaking_netl.pdf. And what you’ll find is that the best scientific analysis we have on peak oil at this point suggests that we’d need 20 years of a WWII-style build out of renewable energies to make a smooth transition. With 10 years, we could do it, but we’d still have enormous shortages and economic consequences – we’d be seriously in trouble. With less than 10 years, we are screwed. Ok, the report doesn’t use the word “screwed” but that’s the essence of the thing.

Ok, let’s look at the USGS figures – we’ve got 13 years until 2023. So even if we started a WWII style build out of resources tomorrow, we don’t have time enough to get this done. We’re somewhere between “ok” and “seriously in trouble” – although not to “screwed” yet.

But we’re also not doing a WWII-style build out of renewable energies. Nobody has even really seriously proposed one, much less laid the political groundwork. Even if the entire Democratic and Republican political leadership got together Thursday and decided to call for such a thing, we’re still talking a while before it even starts. So let’s say we’re even a little closer maybe 11 or 12 years.

So even if the more conservative figures for an energy peak are correct, we both agree that we’re facing a rough transition – that there’s just not enough time. Unless you can find an equally credible evaluation saying that we can do this right quick, we do generally agree that there will be problems from an oil peak.

But maybe you are relying on new oil discoveries to make up the difference. Now understand, we’re using four times as much oil as we’re discovering now. Most of the big discoveries represent a few months to a few year worth of oil supply, and the majority of world oil is still being supplied by a few giant fields.

So let’s take all these incontrovertible facts into account, and ask how likely it is that discovery will quadruple. Let’s see – it has declined steadily over time, while technology has actually improved. That suggests that it probably isn’t the backward state of our geological mapping – despite better mapping technologies, we’re just not finding more oil.

Let’s take a look at what is being discovered. Most of it is one of two kinds of oil. First it is oil that is extraordinarily difficult to get – consider the Deepwater oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Guys can’t just go down under more than mile of ocean with a drill- it is oil that costs a tremendous amount of money to produce, requires very expensive technologies, and as we saw recently, has a lot of environmental risks.

Then there’s oil in very sensitive places, like ANWR – even the highest estimates of this only put a few months worth of oil consumption under that ground. The very fact that we’re so desperate that we’d consider destroying critical animal habitat for what amounts to couch change is pretty indicative – you don’t go digging around to buy dinner in your sofa unless you are pretty short.

We can agree, because there’s really no scientific dispute on this, that the oil we’re discovering right now isn’t like the oil we once discovered. Way back in the day, you drilled in the ground and the oil came gushing out. Barring a terrible accident with a drilling platform, ain’t nothing gushing now. It takes a lot of work, a lot of money and a lot of energy to get what we are discovering.

Even when you do that, there’s a lot of risk – you can have an accident or an environmental disaster, and have to abandon a well or a project. You can find out that the reserve estimates that sounded so great weren’t actually and have to abandon your well. The price of oil could fluctuate so much that you might to be able to afford to develop it – that just wasn’t a risk when we were capping gushers in Texas and Louisiana.

So we agree on all this stuff – we agree that:

1. Oil peaks are a proven fact

2. We are creating the correct conditions for an oil peak by consuming more than we discover and using oil up in a way that depletes the supply.

3. There is a decent chance that we are facing at least some trouble from an impending oil peak, whether the peak is tomorrow or whether we use more conservative estimates. We will need a long time of very intense effort to build out enough renewable energies to cover the gap for oil, if that’s possible and there is time.

4. We can’t rely on discovery of huge new oil sources – in fact, most of the oil left to discover is in the ground for a good reason – and it is risky, expensive and/or ecologically damaging to extract.

That’s a lot of territory to agree on – but again, there really is no credible debate on these issues. So what’s left for us to fight over?

Well, you could argue with the *most* conservative estimates and say that we actually have 20 years or more before there is an oil peak. But remember, we don’t just need 20 years, we need 20 years of WWII-style investment. Well, in WWII, as your parents or grandparents can tell you – or maybe you remember – things were really different. We built all those bombers and won the war by a set of strategies that were pretty intense. Everyone had rationing. Everyone had to do war work. Half the population was soldiering and the rest of it was in the factories. Niels Bohr famously said they couldn’t do the Manhattan Project unless the whole nation was turned into a factory – and then two years later observed that it had been.

Does that sound like our country right now? All that national unity and absolute bi-partisan commitment to a single cause? All that self-sacrifice and investment – people even gave their savings over the country to use in the form of war bonds. Done that lately?

So I think we can agree that this is going to take longer than 20 years, right? Because we’re not doing a WWII style build out. So let’s call it 30 years at our normal rate, with the market driving things. But if that’s true, you are going to find it harder to get someone to give you a prediction for when the oil peak is coming that you will like. That means the oil peak can’t be any sooner than 2041. In 2008, a survey of the oil industry found that more than half of the geologists and analysts employed in the field believed we were facing a near-term energy peak. So peak oil is now a mainstream belief, and the further you get from the near term, the harder it is to find someone who agrees with you.

Yhere are almost no projections by *anyone reliable* that go out that far – even the Saudis who like to double their reserves on paper don’t really claim an oil peak will occur as late as 2041. The IEA and the EIA wouldn’t go that far. The vast majority of petroleum geologists, nations, oil industry execs, analysts and everyone else thinks it is long before 2041. The science isn’t with you here.

So we’re pretty much agreed peak oil is going to bring about some problems – there doesn’t seem to be any good way around that, unless someone finds a magic bullet. But so far, no one has. Solar and wind and such are great – but they don’t give us so much energy that they can magically speed this process up. It usually takes about 30 years, history shows, to bring really new technologies into full common use – 30 years from development. But we’ve already seen that 30 years is pushing it, and there is no obvious magic bullet.

But wait – maybe you think we don’t need oil at all – we could just make it up with other energy sources. Aren’t we the Saudi Arabia of coal? (And may I just ask why the heck we would want to be the Saudi Arabia of anything? Talk about depressing plaudits!)

Well, we do have a bunch of coal, but that brings us back to climate change, which you also believe in, trust me (although I’ll save that for another day). It turns out we can’t burn all the coal even if we have enough – and somepeople argue that we are kind of the Saudi Arabia of coal, and in fact just as Saudi Arabia famously inflates its oil reserves, we do the same with coal. But even ignoring that, we can’t use the coal. And no one credibly argues we have enough natural gas to substitute for all the oil and all the coal. Or even all the oil.

So we’re back to this conclusion – we’re going to have some problems from peak oil. And you and I, we don’t disagree about this – we’re reasonable people, we can disagree, but we don’t.

So that leaves us figuring out what it is that we might disagree about, and it might be this – I might be overreacting to peak oil as a problem. Sure, it might cause a recession like the Hirsch Report says, sure it might cause a little trouble, gas lines again, etc… but it isn’t as big a deal as I say. What do I say to that.

Ok.

I mean it, my answer is “ok.” I’m willing to acknowledge that’s a possibility, and a real one. Maybe it isn’t as bad as I think it is – maybe the peak is later and the renewable build out could go faster. I’m willing to say we don’t know for sure.

But if I do that, I’d like you to consider the possibility that you don’t know for sure. It seems like a prudent thing to do, given all the bad stuff that could result. So let’s agree to disagree here – but also to take each other seriously.

And here’s the critical point – as long as we are agreeing to disagree, that means we can strategize together on what to do. And the best thing to do is to say “ok, we met in the middle, so what are the best strategies for being ok no matter which one of us is right?”

And it turns out that those strategies are pretty clear – it makes sense to prepare for the worse outcomes, even if you think I’m wrong, because the consequences of not preparing for them are so dire. And it makes sense to shore up protections for the poor and vulnerable, because we know even a little recession can really hurt them. And it makes sense to help people conserve, because that’s cheap and easy. And it makes sense to get on that WWII-style build out, just in case.

See? It turns out that you and I don’t disagree all that much after all. In fact, I think we’ve got a lot in common.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Katharine
    September 27, 2010

    Thanks for the really excellent summary! I’m a libertarian-ish conservative and I freely admit that I am too ignorant about the facts behind peak oil. But something has been bugging me for quite some time about the attitudes of my fellow conservatives: Why doesn’t anyone realize that it doesn’t MATTER if peak oil and/or climate change are happening quickly or even exist at all? It doesn’t matter because if there’s even a 10% chance that peak oil and climate change are happening, we’d better be changing our behavior. Changing our behavior is generally healthier anyway, so it can’t hurt. And NOT changing could definitely hurt. I need to write my own blog post about this, directed toward my more conservative friends! Because we COULD be working together. And we’re not. And that’s stupid.

  2. #2 Stephen B.
    September 27, 2010

    Well, in WWII, as your parents or grandparents can tell you – or maybe you remember – things were really different. We built all those bombers and won the war by a set of strategies that were pretty intense. Everyone had rationing. Everyone had to do war work. Half the population was soldiering and the rest of it was in the factories. Niels Bohr famously said they couldn’t do the Manhattan Project unless the whole nation was turned into a factory – and then two years later observed that it had been.

    Does that sound like our country right now? All that national unity and absolute bi-partisan commitment to a single cause? All that self-sacrifice and investment – people even gave their savings over the country to use in the form of war bonds. Done that lately?”

    Ouch!

  3. #3 Mike
    September 27, 2010

    “Even if the entire Democratic and Republican political leadership got together Thursday …”
    Sadly, I don’t think they’ll get together before Monday at the earliest.

  4. #4 Jere Krischel
    September 27, 2010

    The problem is that even if we agree on the 10% chance, if the remedy being proposed is going to have a 100% chance of being worse than doing nothing, we should do nothing. Changing behavior *can* hurt.

    One example: low-fat diets. The demonization of dietary fat intake occurred thanks to the precautionary principle applied by Ancel Keys, who rose to heights of power in the NIH and started the largest unsupported dietary experiment on the planet by suggesting a low-fat/high carbohydrate diet. As a result, we’ve had 40 years of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. His worry about a 10% chance of dietary fat intake causing heart problems ended up being wrong. His rash action in response to that has caused infinitely more harm than if we had simply done *nothing*.

    We need to understand that even as we may agree on a lot of the premises, we can vehemently disagree on things it seems people take for granted. Changing behavior in arbitrary ways is not guaranteed not to hurt at all.

  5. #5 Steve in Hungary
    September 27, 2010

    Thanks for that Sharon! One of the best pieces you have written, and you have written LOTS of good ones!

  6. #6 darwinsdog
    September 27, 2010

    It turns out that oil production pretty much always follows a bell curve.

    The distribution appears symmetrical for any given nation because said nation begins to import oil when its domestic production begins to decline. Globally the distribution will be left skewed because production ramped up relatively gradually as infrastructure was put in place and will collapse abruptly as depletion results in diminishing returns on increasingly difficult & expensive extraction efforts.

    I think there’s good evidence that an oil peak is a near-term likelihood. You might not.

    So far as I’m aware, 2005 is still peak production year and July, 2008, peak production month. It’s certainly possible that these peaks will be exceeded but I doubt very much that they ever will be. The reason is that only high prices are sufficient incentive for OPEC nations to increase production to these levels and as we saw two years ago, high prices kill demand. Soon the geological reality will make moot the issue of whether or not these peaks could be exceeded given sufficient economic incentive.

    Solar and wind and such are great –

    I’m all for photovoltaic or solar water heaters on preexisting roofs but do not favor new installations that shade vegetation, not even relatively unproductive desertscrub communities. Wind turbines kill birds and bats. I am totally against them. (There are designs that exclude volant vertebrates from the turbulent vortices generated by the rotating blades but such designs are inefficient relative to lethal designs.)

    So let’s agree to disagree here –

    I think that from last week’s interaction (altercation?) you and I, Sharon, have agreed to disagree about the appropriate level or focus for concern or activism. You are perfectly justified in focusing on the more immediate level of human concern; on attempting to ensure that no child goes hungry or elderly or disabled person is left out in the cold whereas I am more inclined to take the long view and to focus on issues at the level of ecosystems and the entire biosphere. The thing is that I can’t for the life of me figure out how one endeavors to help people without trying to preserve the ecosystems that support them. Humanistic or anthropocentric considerations simply have to expand into an ecocentric overview in order to even be meaningful, let alone have any chance of being effective.

  7. #7 darwinsdog
    September 27, 2010

    ..if the remedy being proposed is going to have a 100% chance of being worse than doing nothing, we should do nothing.

    One example: low-fat diets.

    I agree with the point you are making, Jere, but feel that you picked a poor example to illustrate it. There’s simply no getting around the fact that dietary fats provide ~9 Kcals/gram whereas carbohydrates provide ~4 Kcals/gram. Consumption of saturated fat can indeed harm the heart, contrary to your assertion, due to being a contributing factor to atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries. Saturated fatty acids are preferentially shunted into cholesterol synthetic pathways whereas mono- & polyunsaturated fatty acids are preferentially oxidized for energy or stored as triglycerides. Excess cholesterol, from dietary sources and endogenous synthesis, can be deposited on arterial endothelium resulting in plaques that occlude the lumen raising blood pressure and can contribute to coronary infarcts and strokes.

  8. #8 Fred Magyar
    September 27, 2010

    Jere Krischel @4,

    The problem is that even if we agree on the 10% chance, if the remedy being proposed is going to have a 100% chance of being worse than doing nothing, we should do nothing. Changing behavior *can* hurt.

    Just curious do you actually have a specific remedy in mind that you for some reason consider worse than doing nothing or are you just being contrarian for sake of being contrarian.

    I do agree that changing behavior can hurt. If all the people who smoke were to suddenly quit smoking it would put the tobacco companies out of business overnight and I’m sure the tobacco companies would feel the pain. So to avoid that possible hardship I propose that we give the Tobacco companies subsidies and incentives so they can increase their advertising budgets to better target teenagers. I mean we wouldn’t want them to run out of future customers, right? Think of all the people that would be out of a job, everyone from tobacco farmer to ad execs and bankers even doctors who specialize in pulmonary oncology…that would be horrible! Let’s bring back tobacco advertising on TV before more people change their behavior.

    So at the end of the day when you say, “there is a chance of doing something being worse than doing nothing, so we should do nothing”, I have to ask worse for whom? Someone’s ox will probably be gored regardless. I strongly suspect that your comment is because you think that you are one of the ones who is going to be inconvenieced by the coming changes and you are rather reluctant to give up some of your comforts so let’s not risk doing anything.

  9. #9 Eric in Kansas
    September 27, 2010

    Brilliant Sharon! And thanks for writing this down for us. I’m curious what kinds of reactions you get when you lay out this argument for people who think they strongly disagree with you.
    I’m guessing there is at least a little anger in there somewhere. I have a feeling that most people already have a sense that we are heading for trouble, and the arguments against the causes of that trouble are only made so they won’t have to seriously consider changing their lives. Which would make it understandable that people would react like cornered raccoons when those excuses are torn down.

  10. #10 Beardedbeard
    September 27, 2010

    Great post, the summery was excellent and I am totally using that line next time someone is being stupid about peak oil or climate change.

  11. #11 Joseph
    September 27, 2010

    Well, because I live in a more complex social circle than you, I have one more pov to contend with: those who think that zero-point energy is just around the corner.

    I can sympathize with that pov. Lynn McTaggert’s book “The Field” documents the tremendous scientific discoveries in this area, discoveries which are consonant with some of the deepest truths of esoteric spirituality about a Universal Light that is the Source of all creation (see Bernard Haisch, “The God Theory: Universes, Zero-Point Fields and What’s Behind It All”). .

    Some of these people are actively researching this field in the hope of discovering how to develop technology that can tap into this field as an inexhaustible, pollution-free energy source.

    The problem is that while I feel that in this infinite Cosmos that somewhere, sometime human beings have reached a point of spiritual Realization by which they are able to utilize such knowledge, I dont see it happening at this time on this particular planet.

    However, it is hard for me to not see the work of the Divine behind the explosion of knowledge and discoveries that are happening now that suggest that somewhere, someday, such things will actualize and be part of a Tikkun Olam, a restoration of the Cosmos.

    I know some will laugh at such a notion, but I choose to not put a limit on what is possible.

  12. #12 Jason
    September 27, 2010

    I, for one, choose not to put a limit on what metaphysical nonsense I laugh at.

  13. #13 Andrew
    September 28, 2010

    Because I just started back in school and have yet to cut my hair, I’m going with the oil executives killed the electric car route, and continue to kill alternative energy. Beyond the politics of the substance which are about as crude as the fuel itself and refined in relation to just how much of it is needed, the argument for entropy still trumps just about any economic argument that exists for finding more oil. Given the levels of capability across the sciences and the saturation of marketing tools across the civilized world, one would think it would be easy to ignore the problems that humanity perpetuates upon itself in favor of their solutions. I’m not one that generally puts a lot of stock in humanity, but to think that it lacks the ability of willful ignorance in favor of shinier, exciting solutions doesn’t add up. Not in America at least. We’ve got too much pride not to drop everything just for the sake of saying we staged the moon landing first or made the best/worst cold fusion movie.

  14. #14 Craig
    September 28, 2010

    I’m a professional physicist. There is no such thing as zero-point energy; hoping for it is like hoping for Santa Claus or Superman to save the day.

    There are only two things that terrify me; peak oil and nuclear weapons. Especially together. If I was in charge, my major long-term goals would be to start working towards changing over to new fuels, and working to get rid of all nuclear weapons before the economic situation gets a lot worse, and people start behaving badly. Hey–you know, Obama is working on those exact same goals. Smart guy.

  15. #15 IanW
    September 28, 2010

    “I’m a professional physicist. There is no such thing as zero-point energy”

    Great argument from authority, but you’d do far better to support that assertion by pointing to published science.

  16. #16 Fred Magyar
    September 28, 2010

    IanW @15,

    Great argument from authority, but you’d do far better to support that assertion by pointing to published science.

    You mean like a basic high school physics textbook?! I took that course as a student in public school back in the 60s, heck they even taught us the laws of thermodynamics, maybe they don’t teach those things anymore… rolls eyes!

    My greatest fear is that people are no smarter than yeast and they don’t grasp the consequences of the exponential function, to paraphrase Dr. Albert Bartlett

  17. #17 Taxorgian
    September 28, 2010

    Thirded (at least) on McTaggert being a nut.

    In my opinion, the obvious thing to do for energy availability is to get 232Th to 233U breeder plants and 233U power online as a stopgap for intense funding of D-T fusion research (233U, unlike also-fissionable 235U and 239Pu is hard to make into a nuclear weapon). Liquid fuels could then be produced by Fischer-Tropsch methods on electrolytically reduced CO2. But the transition will be really nasty.

  18. #18 daedalus2u
    September 28, 2010

    U-233 is easy to make into nuclear weapons. U-233 is also easy to dilute with U-238 which makes it very difficult to make into nuclear weapons.

    It is the ease of dilution of U-233 with U-238 that makes the thorium cycle more attractive from a nuclear weapons standpoint. But that difference depends on the design of the fuel and how it is reprocessed. It would be trivial to recover the U-233 in a form that could be made into nuclear weapons if you designed your thorium breeder to do so.

  19. #19 pbal
    September 28, 2010

    It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.
    Upton Sinclair
    That has become my most used quote. I work in the electric utility industry where coal and oil are king, and have many co-workers who just don’t believe in peak anything, or in human caused global warming. You did not mention the oil shale reserves in North America, or the environmental disaster using them would be. When the price of oil gets high enough, and there are real shortages, those reserves will be tapped. I agree with the commenter who is pushing Thorium reactors as an energy solution, but in the long, long run the only answer is reducing energy consumption to what can be gotten from renewables.

  20. #20 Liz
    September 28, 2010

    Thanks for putting this all together in one place, Sharon! You make a convincing case about how much there is to agree on.

    I expect that most of the people who are expecting innovation and market forces to prevent serious hardship aren’t really looking that closely at what’s needed. Sure, solar and wind and electric cars are all advancing, but for those to really work we need infrastructure that just isn’t here yet. And while private companies might be great at setting up solar farms in the desert and building electric vehicles, I don’t expect to see them setting up networks of efficient transmission lines and car-charging stations.

  21. #21 Joseph
    September 28, 2010

    “Great argument from authority, but you’d do far better to support that assertion by pointing to published science”

    As far as i know, there is also not one single published paper that rules out the existence of fairies. Makes one think, doesn’t it.

  22. #22 tahoevalleylines
    September 28, 2010

    Spiegel Online offers recent article on German Government concerns over maintaining economic viability in face of Peak Oil. Weeks back, British Parliament issued similar official paper. See Lionel Badal’s paper on the foreigh poligy implications of oil supply limits. IEA’s Fatih Birol has been quoted with mention of “Resource Nationalism” in OPEC countries, a factor in reducing exports so as to preserve & extend legacy oil endowment. Who ever hears of ANY US official talking about extending/preserving domestic oil as an “ENDOWMENT”?

    Solution set should certainly see vast capacity expansion and extending of railway mains. Dormant branch rail lines must be rehabbed, prioritized by strategic value such as agricultural traffic, critical manufacturing enroute, etc. Reformed US Army/National Guard rail logistics units will assist, turning operational lines to corporate members of the American Short Line Railroad Association.

    All hands interested in comprehensive look at the full panorama of energy concerns should follow the “Museletter” chronicles of Richard Heinberg. Latest Museletter 220 is a good start. “ELECTRIC WATER” is an important book, a compendium of ways & means of localized energy generation and means to Societal & Commercial Cohesion through the Oil Interregnum. See “theoildrum” -a respected www source for running feed about the energy subject.

  23. #23 dewey
    September 28, 2010

    My father is a contrarian conservative who thinks we should not spend a dollar to mitigate climate change until all the facts are known with absolute certainty (yes, that means after the worst has already happened and can’t be prevented). Yet in his personal life, based only on his doctor’s threats that he was “at risk” for one or another illness, he has subjected himself first to extensive pill-popping (with serious side effects) and more recently to dieting and exercise (successfully). I wanted to say “Hey, he can’t be *certain* you’ll progress to diabetes if you don’t lose weight. Why would you undergo the hardship of dieting if he can’t prove what will happen? Everyone knows the ‘experts’ conspire to exaggerate these risks….” But there’s no point. The truth, of course, is that he really cares about what may happen to himself and he doesn’t really care about what may happen to the polar bear.

  24. #24 rditmars
    September 28, 2010

    Peak natural gas seems a long way off. Still has greenhouse issues, but far less than oil or coal. However, we do need to work out the environmental issues associated with production (fraking).

    http://www.xomba.com/how_long_until_peak_natural_gas

  25. #25 cacahouete_ch
    September 28, 2010

    How many solar towers men have built on planet earth(24hours/day draft power tower)?
    How should we translate oil prod has been on a plateau since 2005? How many years left?
    Our modern society is very dependent on oil, the demand is growing but the prod is the same.
    Do the math, which suggests the possible end democracy within 5 years.
    Of course I did not even mentioned human population growth, climate change etc….

  26. #26 natural cynic
    September 28, 2010

    In answering the conservative mind-set, the WWII analogy is a good one, but a better one might be an analogy to the Cold War. A real threat was perceived, the Soviet Union, and the West spent a great deal of money and resources in countering that perceive threat. The fact that the weapons were not used is a minor secondary after-effect, it was the presence of a deterrent that supposedly kept things stable until the USSR ran out of economic viability. Conservatives can certainly comprehend this kind of thinking that all those weapons were necessary. It was the preparation of a deterrent against the possibility of aggressive action by an enemy that may or may not have followed through with threats. The whole premise was to avoid a worst-case scenario. If they only can consider the possibility of a future problem of this magnitude with energy supply, then the needs should be obvious. Prepare for the worst-case, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. Anything less is, gasp, unpatriotic.

  27. #27 chester copperpot
    September 28, 2010

    The key is in the transition. Not how fast we can switch to exclusive use of sustainable/renewable sources of energy, which is still critical, but how fast we can better regulate our consumption to match the declining output. We have a good idea that oil will continue to be used until it is economically prohibitive to do so. Different applications and uses for petroleum will encounter a market dictated point at which the production of those products from petroleum will be prohibited based on cost. Political considerations almost exclude the possibility of artificially producing cost prohibition(taxes).

  28. #28 streamfortyseven
    September 28, 2010

    The second chart, which predicts a rapid decline in oil-field discoveries past 2001, is factually incorrect; it doesn’t take into account the GoM Jack field, which is estimated to contain 15 Gb of URR, discovered in 2005, nor does it show the Petrobras discovery in the Tupi field in the Santos basin off the coast of Brazil, also 15 Gb URR, both of which are light sweet crude. So instead of a decline in discoveries, we actually have some new fairly large fields being discovered. There’s a lot of new exploration work being done off the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/feb/22/falkland-islands-oil-drilling-begins), the field there is estimated to contain 17 Gb URR. What the “curve” should look like is more like a plateau than a steadily decreasing line.

  29. #29 Tony B
    September 28, 2010

    At Streamfortyseven: A chart updated to around 2008 can be found here: http://www.rotarygeorgetown-on.ca/Images/090618%20frm%20Crispin%20growinggap%20of%20oil%20discovery&consumption.jpg

    Yes, there are discoveries ongoing, but still at a rate far less than we actually use.

  30. #30 Edmund OShea
    September 28, 2010

    Dear Ms. Sharon Astyk

    Everyone reading your post knows this subject very well. Those you try to educate and that don’t listen are lost to the coming troubles. Everyone reading your post has had similar discussions and we all feel like Cassandra. It is too late down this road to help the ignorant. It is time now to prepare your own family as best you can.

    Edmund OShea

  31. #31 Cornish_K8
    September 29, 2010

    Congratulations Sharon, it appears your words have not been falling on deaf ears. It appears that the think tank CNAS has been listening, albeit only as a superficial level.

    I have just spent a highly amusing 20mins or so browsing through their report ‘Fueling the Future Force’ that advocates the Defence dept transitioning completely away from petroleum based energy over the next 30 years. To my mind the most important part of the report appears on page 23 just before the conclusion – DOD Energy Strategy item 12:Plan for The Worst. It seems to me that this is what they should really be focussing on.

  32. #32 Sharon Astyk
    September 29, 2010

    Edmund, I don’t agree – people come to this stuff new all the time, which we know because not everyone grasped peak oil on the same day. And we’re richer for every person who begins to make ready. I rely on my readership to circulate stuff like this so that it reaches people who otherwise wouldn’t see it.

    Streamfortyseven, I agree the graph is dated – I was a little short on time. I don’t agree that we really have a plateau, but rather a smaller decline (as seen in the graph listed). I think it is important to remember how *much* oil we have to find in order to compensate for declines in discovery – Matt Simmons used to observe that even the discovery of a whole other North Sea would only put off the peak by less than a year. Moreover, I don’t think it is a given that we should be using the highest estimates on Jack and the Brazilian fields – particularly the Jack field, which has had some development issues.

    Sharon

  33. #33 Brad K.
    September 29, 2010

    Sharon,

    A good summary. I find the tone of the presentation, though, off-putting. It feels manipulative and dismissive of my actual understandings and values. And truly you make assumptions about my views and understandings that aren’t warranted.

    Even though I agree with you.

  34. #34 Andy
    September 29, 2010

    Good post. I do have a question. If we take the assertion that global peak oil is 20 years off, why do we need to have alternative energy sources 100% ready to go online at that point? Correct me if I’m wrong, but the global peak oil date isn’t the date when oil runs out entirely, but when production begins to decline. Presumably there is a very long decline curve to global oil production there that would lead to higher oil prices each year and make alternatives marginally more economically feasible each year, enabling a more gradual switchover to alternative sources of energy as oil production declines. Am I missing something?

  35. #35 darwinsdog
    September 29, 2010

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the global peak oil date isn’t the date when oil runs out entirely, but when production begins to decline. Presumably there is a very long decline curve to global oil production.. Am I missing something?

    Yes. Look at the production graph reproduced above. Altho this graph represents US production it can stand for global production if extended 35 years to the right. Global petroleum production began in earnest circa 1900 and peaked in 2005. Because the curve can be expected to be strongly left skewed, we will not have 105 years before production is virtually nil. Production declines of only a few percent will have profound economic & lifestyle implications.

  36. #36 Andy
    September 29, 2010

    I have looked at many decline curves for oil wells and fields and many to all are very much right-skewed. Production comes on very quickly when the well is drilled and then slowly declines over many years depending on the quality of the resource–often taking a bump up when secondary and tertiary recovery techniques are employed. The aggregate production curves took a long time to ramp upwards because that was driven by the pace of finding reserves historically. That has no bearing on the pace of the aggregate decline once peak oil is reached and therefore its skew.

    I’m no apologist for the petroleum industry and I’m not arguing that we have another 105 years to sit on our hands but I don’t think anyone’s purpose is served by creating hysteria.

    Yes a few percent decline in production each year will push prices higher, but that is actually the solution to this problem. No one is going to “go to war” for 20 years or invest real capital in alternative energy sources until it makes economic sense, but the beautiful thing is that as soon as it does capital will rush into the sector and address the problem.

    In the meantime we need public policy to create incentives invest in the pre-profitable research and development of better clean technologies so we aren’t toally screwed when the time comes to scale up alternative energy.

  37. #37 Sharon Astyk
    September 29, 2010

    Andy, the Hirsch claim isn’t “we can do it all in 20 years” it is “we have to begin 20 years in advance of the peak to have a smooth transition.” That is, the Hirsch report evaluation takes into account that the oil doesn’t go to zero, but also isn’t unrealistically claiming we can replace our existing energy supplies entirely in only 20 years.

    Sharon

  38. #38 darwinsdog
    September 29, 2010

    I have looked at many decline curves for oil wells and fields and many to all are very much right-skewed.

    I’m not talking about individual wells, fields or nations. I’m talking about global petroleum production. The US production curve doesn’t appear skewed at all (yet), because imports have fueled continued exploration, infrastructure maintenance and rather desperate recovery efforts in badly depleted deposits. Where do you expect imports to come from on a global level, Andy. Once complex systems begin to go haywire they often (almost invariably) rapidly proceed to collapse. Once global production declines significantly – with no extraterrestrial imports forthcoming – prices will initially skyrocket, demand will collapse along with international markets & socio-political systems, infrastructure maintenance will cease and production plummet, regardless of how much nasty greasy stuff remains in the ground. Hence, the global production curve can be reliably expected to exhibit a strong left skew. The slide down the right side of Hubbert’s curve will be swift & exciting!

  39. #39 Andy
    September 29, 2010

    Sharon–thanks for clarifying, that makes a lot more sense to me.

    DarwinsDog–I still don’t agree with you. How exactly do “imports fuel continued exploration?” The U.S. production curve above is strictly U.S. oil production and has nothing to do with imported oil, as you seem to imply by asking where global imports will come from.

    My point is that if you took all the existing producing wells and produced them out without drilling a single additional well the curve would be decidedly skewed to the RIGHT because that curve is the sum of many, many decline curves each for an individual well (every producing well in the world), and each of which is very much skewed to the RIGHT. Again, if you sum curves that are skewed to the right the sum curve will also be skewed to the right, even if the starting point along the x-axis of those curves is staggered. But this is a small technical point in this entire argument and not worth belaboring anymore.

    I also disagree that once production begins to fall that owners of existing producing wells who observe the price of the very commodity they own “skyrocket” will for some reason shut down production altogether. That doesn’t seem like rational behavior to predict and just seems like indulgent thinking to me. You are using circular logic to try to explain that production will fall dramatically, resulting in a left-skewed production curve, by saying that prices will spike discontinuously as a result of…a dramatic fall in production.

  40. #40 darwinsdog
    September 29, 2010

    The U.S. production curve above is strictly U.S. oil production and has nothing to do with imported oil, as you seem to imply..

    Well, Andy, I may “seem to imply” this to you but I say no such thing. What I say is that if the US had to fuel continued exploration, infrastructure maintenance, and recovery enhancement solely on domestically produced oil, the US production curve would already appear left skewed. Since we can import oil over & above domestic production we have so far managed to keep our domestic production curve symmetrical. What I’m saying is that we are subsidizing domestic production with imported oil. The world can’t subsidize global production on extraterrestrially imported oil, now can it?

    My point is that if you took all the existing producing wells and produced them out without drilling a single additional well the curve would be decidedly skewed to the RIGHT…

    This would only be true if we continued to import oil. My point is that if you changed your statement to read “..if you took all the existing producing wells and produced them out without importing any oil the curve would be decidedly skewed to the LEFT..”

    I also disagree that once production begins to fall that owners of existing producing wells who observe the price of the very commodity they own “skyrocket” will for some reason shut down production altogether. That doesn’t seem like rational behavior…

    It wouldn’t be rational behavior if producers had any other choice. The price of oil will only “skyrocket” temporarily, until the inflated price causes demand destruction as consumers can no longer afford it. We saw this very thing happen in 2008. When global production begins to decline precipitously imports will be unavailable for subsidizing or facilitating domestic production and domestic producers will be forced to shut down no matter what price they may be able to charge for the commodity. Your final sentence leaves out two key terms. It should read: “You are using circular logic to try to explain that domestic production will fall dramatically, resulting in a left-skewed production curve, by saying that prices will spike discontinuously as a result of…a dramatic fall in global production. The logic isn’t circular when expressed correctly.

  41. #41 jg
    September 29, 2010

    Well, it starts off logically enough, but then rather derails.

    ["Well, you could argue with the *most* conservative estimates and say that we actually have 20 years or more before there is an oil peak. But remember, we don't just need 20 years, we need 20 years of WWII-style investment."]

    Err what !? This badly confuses a Peak, with a cessation. Oops.

    That’s where so many ‘peak oil’ academic focus exercises go so badly wrong. They are so intent on their ‘peak’ argument, they are blinded to what really matters, which is NOT the top of the plateau, but the shape of the tail.

    What we have is finite affordable fuel, so managing the shape of the tail is going to be vitally important.

    Fuel is going to be prioritized, and there will be big variations in how different countries manage their re-prioritize, there is no common global response.

  42. #42 darwinsdog
    September 29, 2010

    Well, you could argue with the *most* conservative estimates and say that we actually have 20 years or more before there is an oil peak. But remember, we don’t just need 20 years, we need 20 years of WWII-style investment.

    Err what !? This badly confuses a Peak, with a cessation. Oops.

    I don’t read it this way, jg. Seems to me like Sharon is saying that it will take 20 years of intense investment and effort for a build-out of so-called renewables to significantly substitute for petroleum, regardless of when this effort begins on the production curve. (Personally, I don’t think that “renewables” will ever provide a significant substitute for petroleum, but this is beside the present point.)

    ..what really matters.. is NOT the top of the plateau, but the shape of the tail.

    This I agree with. The bob-tailed distribution I anticipate is a far more serious outcome than the right skewed distribution Andy envisions. I hope he’s right. Unfortunately, global petroleum production is a complicated mechanism. When complicated mechanisms fail, they often make some warning noises first, before breaking down abruptly. The oil shocks of the 70s, 2008 price spike, Exxon Valdez spill & Macondo blowout, etc., are these warning noises. The mechanism could fail completely at any time.

  43. #43 Starwatcher
    September 29, 2010

    Why is the peak predicted to happen at 50% of the ultimate?

  44. #44 Karen
    September 30, 2010

    All I can say is WONDERFUL piece! The reason I don’t blog or write myself (about PO) is because you do such a better job and are way ahead of me.
    Karen
    Northern VA
    Great to see you in Charlottesville!

  45. #45 Sharon Astyk
    September 30, 2010

    One of the factoids I think is very interesting is that the 1970s oil shocks occurred with only a 5% decline in available US imports. The Cuban special period, so often described as “Cuba lost half their oil” was actually only a 20% decline in imported oil. What we see is that very small declines have very large impacts.

    Jg, you can see I answered that question for Andy as well – the Hirsch report doesn’t imply that we would be able to complete the project in 20 years, even with WWII-style efforts, but that that’s what’s required for a smooth transition, and it considers conservation measures as well – and their probable economic effects.

    If you’ve ever read anything else I’ve written, you’ll realize I certainly don’t think one can’t compensate for a substantive loss of energy usage – we use about 15% of the energy (average of gas, electric, heating fuel, etc…) of the average US household (and are considerably larger than the average US household, so the per capita figures are smaller). My own take is that the first 50% of conservation is actually pretty easy. The problem, of course, is that an economy that depends heavily on consumer spending can’t be fully insulated for those purposes, so you take a substantive economic hit.

    Sharon

  46. #46 bomoore
    September 30, 2010

    Human behavior has its own history: exploit and deplete your local resources, and then move on. Conservation has never been our way; if you don’t have what you need, steal it. Kill anyone who is in the way. Look at any empire before us. The U.S. was a vast unexploited continent 500 years ago; we’ve used and abused its resources plus ravaged the planet for everything we can grab. There are no vast unexploited lands left to exploit, so some scientists are planning on leaving earth for distant planets. Now there’s a plan!

  47. #47 Tim DeLaney
    October 2, 2010

    What seems to be missing so far in this thread is the effect of increasing demand, which will magnify the effects of decreasing supply. It’s not merely the problem of developing nations buying more automobiles, which is in itself an alarming trend. The truly bad news for the future is the effect that diminishing supply will have on agriculture.

    Without seriously inconvenience, we could cut our personal petroleum consumption by half. But mankind would have a huge problem cutting its caloric intake by that much. And our numbers are still increasing by more than 1% a year.

    Most people don’t realize how dependent agriculture is on oil and gas. The demand for food is almost totally inelastic. It takes huge amounts of energy to plant, fertilize, harvest, process, and transport food. I don’t have any hard figures on what the impact would be if oil prices tripled, but my SWAG is that this would double the cost of food production. Not a huge deal if you spend 15% of your income on food. But if you now spend 70% on food?

    I rather suspect that if you told half the world’s population that we could no longer feed them, they might get somewhat annoyed, perhaps even belligerant.

    Given the climate change problem, the two most promising energy sources seem to be nuclear and fusion. We are getting close to the latter, but IIANM there is no assurance yet that it can be developed. Nuclear power has waste disposal, security, and safety issues, but is potentially limitless. (Uranium can be extracted from sea water.) On the whole, my guess is that fusion is our best hope for a comfortable outcome.

    There doesn’t seem to be much hope that other renewables can carry the entire load. That could change, but it seems imprudent to blithely assume breakthroughs will come to our rescue.

    On the whole, I am not optimistic for our grandchildren

  48. #48 No Peak Oil denyer
    October 3, 2010

    Jere Krishel’s initial post about diet is a false and flawed analogy. Jere should look at the role of corn syrup and its place in the diet,the related marketing of soda drinks in that time, and portions on offer of increasing size. The analogy is in any case irrelevant and a mere distraction from thinking about the subject at issue. His subsequent input is also off beam. I think Jere’s posts reveal his fear of having to think about lifestyle change, and possible sacrifices involved, and this is probably at the base of all those who deny that oil discoveries are not matching demand.

  49. #49 Stephen B.
    October 4, 2010

    @Tim,

    I agree on the increasing world demand. (I wonder if anybody is still reading this thread?)

    Increasing world demand is the main idea driving the “Land Export Model” put forth by geologist Jeff Brown, in which he points out that oil exporting nations, by and large, are all facing quickly growing domestic energy demand all while those countries’ oil outputs are dropping. Put the two phenomena side by side and it means those countries’ net exports to places such as the US are going to drop *far* faster than oil production as a whole.

    The US energy consumer is going to have to share a dwindling energy pie with a lot more world pie eaters, so to speak. The funny thing is that, even though the rest of the developing world is still pretty poor, they can better afford to double the price they can pay for a gallon of gas when they’re only using a few gallons a month while we in the US would be very hard put to pay double the current price because, by and large, we use tens to hundreds of gallons in the same time the poor country user uses but a few gallons. – And yet those “few” gallons the poor countries’ consumers use will add up very fast given a shrinking world oil production. Well, I’m not so sure the poor of the world can handle a doubling of price either, but my point is, they can live on far less oil and if they want more oil, it won’t cost quite as much as it would a person or family already committed to using a lot and regularly.

    The US consumer could be forced to cut oil consumption by 50 percent or more within less than 10 years.

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