Casaubon's Book

Oil’s Tipping Point in _Nature_

What I think is most important about the Nature article (unfortunately behind a paywall – Energy Bulletin has a summary here) is that part of its underlying presence is that it is possible to make major changes in the use of fossil fuels on the peak oil issue in ways it is not possible to make those changes due to the politically charged nature of climate change.

The authors, James Murray and David King, confirm what geologists involved with peak oil have known for a long time – that reserve estimates are unreliable at best, and that the science behind oil peaks is both clear and established – we know that the rate of consumption has long exceeded the rate of new discovery, we know that a majority of oil producing nations have already had peaks, and that the world itself must inevitably peak – the only question is when – and the material evidence increasingly suggests that we are already on a bumpy plateau:

The typical industry response is to point to increasing assessments of global reserves — the amount known to be in the ground that can be produced commercially. But this is misleading. The true volume of proven global reserves is clouded by secrecy; forecasts by state oil companies are not audited and seem to be
exaggerated.

More importantly, reserves often take 6-10 years to drill and develop before they become part of supply, by which time older fields have become depleted. It
is far more sensible to look instead at actual production records, which are less encouraging. Even while reserves are apparently increasing, the percentage available for production is going down. In the United States, for example, production as a percentage of reserves has steadily decreased from 9% in
1980 to 6% today.

Production at existing oil fields around the world is declining at rates of about 4.5% (ref. 4) to 6.7% per year. Only by adding in production from new wells is
overall global production holding steady. In 2005, global production of regular
crude oil reached about 72 million barrels per day. From then on, production capacity
seems to have hit a ceiling at 75 million barrels per day. A plot of prices against production from 1998 to today shows this dramatic transition, from a time when supply could respond elastically to rising prices caused by increased demand, to when it could not (see ‘Phase shift’). As a result, prices swing wildly in response to small changes in demand. Other people have remarked on this step change in the economics of oil around the year 2005, but the point needs to be lodged
more firmly in the minds of policy-makers

This is an important article, not because the data is new, but because it clarifies the need for immediate response and also points out that while much progress on climate change is stalled out, a response to our oil situation can move us in several right directsions at once – if we have the common sense to respond appropriately.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Stephen B.
    January 27, 2012

    Speaking of climate change, Sharon, have you been following Stuart Staniford’s drought series over at his blog? (I’d post a link, but I’m tired of Science Blogs holding my stuff for moderation.)

    His latest post was, in his own words, terrifying.

  2. #2 D. C. Sessions
    January 27, 2012

    while much progress on climate change is stalled out, a response to our oil situation can move us in several right directsions at once

    Or, as seems more likely, we can just accelerate the move to increased use of coal.

  3. #3 Greenpa
    January 28, 2012

    Yah, saw that. My reaction was a little more emotional than yours.

    “Golly! These guys just discovered, all by themselves, what dozens of scientists with better credentials than theirs have been saying for a decade at least! Progress!”

    With gnashing of teeth. Collectively, us humans are dense beyond comprehension.

    Argh.

  4. #4 humorix
    January 29, 2012

    The oil is abiotic.

  5. #5 Eleanor
    January 29, 2012

    Well, Duh!

    Anyone with common sense and a little knowledge of human nature could have told Murray and King that ages ago.

    Most humans never do anything for altruistic reasons. Greed, selfishness and the desire for more are inherent human qualities that most of us strive to overcome every day. Naturally, people won’t change their ways until it behooves them. And that usually means in the pocket book.

    I just hope that now that this is coming out in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, more people with the power to affect change will take suitable action.