Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Peak Oil Review 2016

A few years ago, Jean Laherrère, Kjell Aleklett, and others noted that, because of enhanced techniques such as fracking, the original graceful curve of global oil-production that Hubbert had first discovered was now a rather ungraceful ''bumpy plateau,'' likely to end around 2018. But by that point the general public would have stopped caring and gone back to sleep. In any case, Barack Obama said there was no problem.

The majority of peak-oil watchers, especially if they are inclined to engineering, science, or mathematics, will spend hours getting into heated arguments over the tiniest percentages of one thing or another. These tiny differences will have no significant effect on the long-term pattern. One can spend forever hashing over the figures of Hubbert's curve, or of the bumpy plateau, or of how much difference enhanced methods will make to the original conventional-oil figures (in the US a certain difference, in the entire world very little). But the big thing these number-crunchers keep forgetting is that their children and grandchildren will be facing a terrible world, if someone doesn't start considering the topic of survival skills.

Most peak-oil watchers rely heavily on the projections of the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). The projections of the EIA and the International Energy Agency (IEA) are wildly optimistic, compared to those of most other experts or groups of experts. Anything from EIA or from IEA (which just copy-cats whatever EIA says) is out of line -- too much playing to the audience (the big spenders). Those facts in turn cast a good deal of doubt on anything else predicted by the followers of the EIA and IEA.

It's possible to get a good overall look at the peak-oil situation. Jean Laherrère and Colin Campbell inserted a chart of past and projected oil production back in March 1998 in their famous Scientific American article, ''The End of Cheap Oil.'' Because the chart is from several years ago, it should not be treated as gospel, but it shows that even in 1998 there were people doing some clever work. The Campbell-Laherrère chart doesn't break hydrocarbons down into dozens of substances, the way people do now in their rather pathetic attempts to prove that the end is not nigh. (On the contrary, it is very much nigh.) Even more important is a huge document that Laherrère posted on the Oil Drum, July 16, 2013, ''World Oil and Gas Production Forecasts up to 2100.'' One of the best neutral positions on all these things, although not involving projections, is that of BP, which certainly does a good job with its annual report -- they're neither extreme optimists nor extreme pessimists, so one is on safe ''ethical'' grounds by using their figures as a basis for various extrapolations. It is still clear that around 2030 the annual production of oil will be about half that of 2010, the peak of conventional-oil production -- and 2030 is only fourteen years from now.

Where books on peak oil suffer most is from a sheer marketing problem. There may be nice comments from a few people who read such things, but where's the Oprah Winfrey who's going to get the books out there in the spotlight in the first place? A poignant example of that sort of thing is Overshoot, by William Catton, written in 1981 and largely ignored, although it may be the most important book written on any topic in the last hundred years.

Here are some rough ideas of what needs to be said.

(1) When I published Tumbling Tide in 2013, I correctly estimated that the peak of (conventional) oil was 2010. It also seemed to me that most people were familiar with the facts of peak oil and Hubbert's famous curve, so I didn't bother rehashing all of that. I merely stuck all the basic figures in the back as appendices -- besides, most people hate wading through numbers. But I was not entirely right about that: it turned out that most people hadn't even heard of peak oil. The main reason for putting those numbers in the back, though, was that I didn't really intend to write a book that would prove the fact of peak oil. My goal was to talk about what should be done about that fact. What are the consequences of peak oil? What are the solutions? For example, peak oil means peak food, as they say, so how will food be produced in a post-oil economy?

(2) Then came the enormous hype about fracking and other miracles that were going to solve the energy problem for eternity. Obama made a huge mess with his 2012 State of the Union Address: ''We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years.'' He had one zero too many, but who cared?

(3) Then the science of disinformation made some further giant leaps. It turned out that fracking was enormously expensive, only rarely coming up with winners, and that there just wasn't all that much in the ground. So the question was how to get all the gulls to start spending money, and the answer was to start some massive hucksterism.

(4) Nevertheless, all the smoke-and-mirrors of fracking and other sources of unconventional oil did at least result in the bumpy plateau that Laherrère and others often mention.

(5) By then, Joe and Sally Six-Pack were so utterly confused that they stopped turning on the TV. All of that has given rather an anticlimactic ending to the last few years. But once again, George Orwell had spelled it out correctly in 1984 (even if he picked the wrong number for his title): disinformation is a wonderful thing, especially in its latest forms, and in fact it's one of the basic tools that every politician relies on.

In the meantime, everything else, from aluminum to zinc, is also peaking, or will fairly soon. And the Juggernaut of peak oil is rumbling louder and louder -- but there are still not many people listening.

And it's sheer blasphemy to suggest that overpopulation and over-immigration should be matters for concern, even though that was the main point when Earth Day was founded in 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson, who said, ''There is no way in the world we can forge a sustainable society without stabilizing the population.''


2 comments:

  1. Peter,

    Excellent article! I couldn't agree with you more. I wish your articles were seen on more mainstream venues. The world is heading towards an energy cliff and there is no railing to stop us from going over the edge. "There will be blood".

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