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11 incontrovertible truths of oil production and peak oil arguments

At NASA, we frequently have to step back and retreat to the last recognizable common ground on technical issues. If we hope to expand the dialogue about Peak Oil, we must do the same. Below are what I consider uncontroversial, solid facts related to energy and oil production. While several of these statements may appear ridiculously obvious to those who are in any way familiar with oil production, we must begin the discussion at the least common denominator -- the bare facts on which everyone can agree. If you are unfamiliar with the basic arguments of Peak Oil, I encourage you to explore these resources.

Please provide feedback on whether you agree or disagree with this list and we'll see if starting from common ground will allow a wider audience to collectively develop more meaningful ideas about Peak Oil mitigation.

1. Oil must be found before it can be produced.

No commodity can be exploited if its existence is unknown. No oil can enter production if it is undiscovered. An absence of discovery therefore yields a future absence of production.

2. Oil must be produced before it can be used.

No commodity is useful if it is not brought to a useful state. Oil reserves are useless if they are not transformed into a usable product. Oil reserves are therefore of no use until they are brought to the surface, refined, and moved to the point of desired use.

3. On the scale of the lifetime of our current civilization, oil is a finite resource.

Any energy source is finite given the appropriate amount of time. The sun will eventually exhaust its nuclear fuel, but over the course of a human lifetime (or even the human species' lifetime) solar energy will not be depleted. Oil production will peak within the lifetime of our current civilization. There is no position in the debate (including abiotic oil proponents) which disagrees with this point. Oil is renewable on the scale of the Earth's lifetime, but our species would likely be extinct before oil reserves can be replenished.

4. If demand for oil is higher than the available supply of oil, not everyone who desires to use oil will have the option.

A fundamental economic principle: when demand exceeds supply, a shortage exists. Some who want to use oil will not have the option. The usual moderator for this situation is an increase in price.

5. Petroleum products have the highest energy density of any portable energy storage medium.

There are no known alternatives that match the energy density of products derived from fossil fuels.

6. The current economy would suffer if the cost of energy increased by a large percentage.

There are no suggestions that increases in energy costs improve the quality of the economy. There are major disagreements on the effects of high energy costs on the economy.

7. In a closed system, growth of any kind must eventually stop.

This is a founding principle of any scientific study, be it physics, chemistry, biology, or economics. If we take the earth as a closed system, then all growth must, at the very least, reach a maximum at some point: oil production, wealth, population, and so forth. Our choices determine when and how growth stops.

8. All known alternative energy sources currently have higher initial investment requirements than does oil.

Solar energy, wind energy, nuclear energy, coal-to-liquids, and others present a high cost-per-Watt than oil energy. This does not take into account the total life cycle costs, in which alternatives like solar and wind become among the most cost-effective energy sources.

9. Replacing the current oil-based infrastructure requires time.

Another fundamental principle of all science: going from point A to point B requires a finite amount of time. There is argument over how much time is required to replace our existing infrastructure.

10. Replacing the current oil-based infrastructure requires money.

A key to economic theory: a desired action can not be realized without applying an amount of currency. The amount and sources of funding are up for debate.

11. Replacing the current oil-based infrastructure requires energy.

In order to restructure our energy system, we must expend energy to manufacture replacement technology. This further reduces the amount of energy available after an infrastructure replacement.

Can retreating back to these key points allow us to renew open discussions about the risks and probabilities of oil depletion? Perhaps these bare-bones facts will encourage more people to investigate the available data on their own and develop their own conclusions. We can all agree that energy deeply affects our lives, but there are far too few people exploring the possibility of a world with less available energy.

Editorial Notes: PeakEngineer has worked at NASA for seven years and has degress in physics and aerospace engineering. -BA

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