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Peak oil theories

Financial Times
As millenarian prophecies go, “the peak is nigh” might not carry the same doom-packing punch as a promised “end”. Except, that is, in oil circles.

Applying [peak oil theory] globally, however, is fraught with problems. Mr Hubbert’s own forecasts of where global oil output would be at the turn of the millenium were wildly inaccurate. One problem is inadequate data. Modelling the mature US oil industry – with its huge sample size of more than half a million producing wells and many more inactive ones – is comparatively easy. In contrast, Saudi Arabia has only 2,000 producing wells and large unexplored areas.

Even if theorists could get a fix on how much oil is in the ground – and estimates vary wildly – the proportion that can actually be pumped to the surface changes over time, chiefly because of improving technology. Since 1980, this has risen, on average, from about a fifth to more than one-third, effectively boosting reserves. Today’s high oil prices also make previously uneconomic oil deposits – such as oil sands – viable and dampen consumption.

Oil output is not determined by geology alone. Far from it – “above-ground” factors such as the Opec cartel arguably have a bigger impact. Indeed, geopolitics – feeding price volatility – and the threat of climate change provide enough reasons to reduce our overwhelming dependence on oil for transportation. If the noise generated by the peak oil debate adds to the sense of urgency in addressing this, it will serve some useful purpose.
(2 January 2007)
The Financial Times is one of the best of the business-oriented newspapers. However they tend to rely on industry analysis and conventional wisdom, rather than doing their own digging. In the case of peak oil, this leads them into silly editorials such as this one. If one is going to talk about the “noise” of the peak oil debate, one had better do one’s own research first, rather than rely on industry talking points (which are rapidly becoming obsolete).

The Wall Street Journal and New York Times in the past few weeks have shown signs of waking up from their enchanted sleep about oil supplies. Perhaps the Financial Times is too.

(If you have trouble getting to the original article, try going through Google News. -BA

Think Again, Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran!

Kjell Alekett and others, Foreign Policy
Peak oil proponent Kjell Alekett, energy expert Vaclav Smil, and energy and national security analyst Keith Smith take issue with Think Again: Oil author Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran’s assertions.

Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran’s article on oil is highly problematic (“Think Again: Oil,” November/December 2007). To begin with, the statement, “The world has more proven reserves of oil today than it did three decades ago, according to official estimates,” clearly indicates Vaitheeswaran’s limited knowledge about the debate surrounding oil reserves. Apparently, he simply accepts statistical data (such as that published in BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy) without question.

The fact is, most crude oil was found in the 1960s, and the discovery rate has since declined. There is no way to replace today’s consumption of 30 billion barrels a year with new discoveries. Yes, technology might extract more oil at an early stage of production, but in the end, we may face the same pattern of decline witnessed in the giant Mexican oil field Cantarell, where production is falling fast.

The problem for the United States in the future is that there will be a 7 million barrel a day increase in the consumption and importation of oil during the next 25 years (the same amount that China consumes today), according to the Energy Information Administration. But by 2030, the oil-exporting countries will have less production than they do today. Where will the oil required to fulfill this shortfall come from?

Vaitheeswaran may be an excellent journalist when it comes to subjects other than future oil production, but on this issue, he is severely mistaken. He should heed the words of former U.S. Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger’s statement from September 2007: “[T]o the peakists I say, ‘You can declare victory. You are no longer the beleaguered small minority of voices crying in the wilderness. You are now mainstream.’” It’s unfortunate that Vaitheeswaran chooses to live on the fringe.

-Kjell Aleklett
Professor of Physics
Uppsala University
Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas
Uppsala, Sweden

… [two other articles and a reply from Mr. Vaitheeswaran follow] (Jan/Feb 2008)

What Is Peak Oil?

Bob Hirsch, ASPO-USA
… Peak world liquid fuels production can only be verified years after a decline occurs and has been sustained. A simple monotonic decline will be the easiest to recognize, while a bumpy decline will require a longer period of time before it can be clearly verified.

In the foregoing, total world liquid fuels production was considered, because that is of greatest interest to the consuming public. But to truly understand what is happening and is likely to happen, it is essential that we disaggregate total world liquid fuels production into its component parts. A number of forecasters have focused on the peaking of world conventional oil production, which, unfortunately, is variously defined. Clearly, each liquid fuel source must be analyzed according to its particular geological, physical, and engineering fundamentals, as well as its relevant political circumstances.

In years past, many thought of world peak oil production as being relatively sharp and obvious, making it easily recognized. The current world liquids supply plateau could break out on either the upside or downside. The situation is thus murky and we may need a better definition of “peak oil.”

Finally, from the point of view of motivating politicians to take serious action on “peak oil,” such an inherently long period of uncertainty does not bode well for the timely initiation of serious mitigation.

Robert L. Hirsch co-authored the US DOE-funded study, “The Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation & Risk Management” (Feb. 2005). He consults with MISI and serves on the ASPO-USA advisory board.
(31 December 2007)

NASA research scientist on peak oil and climate change (transcript)
(Video and transcript)
David Room, Global Public Media
David Room: … Well, thanks for being with me, Pushker. Tell me about the paper you wrote with James Hansen and how it came about.

Dr. Pushker Kharecha: Right. Well, it came about from a simple idea that I pitched to Jim just a few months after I started here, which was a couple years’ ago.

Basically, the question that we are looking at is, what are the implications of the peak in global oil production in terms of future atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and, therefore, future global climate.

And, so the upshot of our paper is that we can actually keep, with some reasonable and technically feasible mitigation measures–that is, emissions reduction measures–we can keep CO2 from exceeding what we, and many others, consider a dangerous level for global climate, and that is about 450 ppm.

But that’s very dependent on what choices are made in terms of energy production and energy use after the peak in global oil production. So we look at peaks in the other two fuels, too, the other two fossil fuels–natural gas and coal–and we realize that conventional oil and natural gas by themselves, even if we take what are considered the highest, and what many people consider unrealistically high estimates of the Energy Information Administration, even if we take those as an upper limit, they by themselves–oil and gas by themselves–don’t seem to be plentiful enough to take us past this CO2 threshold of 450 ppm.

The minute we add continuing emissions from coal use or unconventional fossil fuel use the situation changes. That is to say, it’s very, very likely that 450 ppm would be exceeded. In fact, it seems inevitable, if emissions from coal and unconventional fossil fuels are unconstrained.
(17 December 2007)
The transcript was just posted. Link to the video.

CSIRO anxious over taxpayer-funded research versus private

Olga Galacho, Herald Sun
JUGGLING the aspirations of scientists with the expectations of capitalists is an act the CSIRO’s new ringmaster, Senator Kim Carr, will need to perfect as he walks the tightrope between his portfolios.

The senator presides over the newly created department of innovation, industry, science and research — a quartet the Rudd government believes has good synergies for an innovation revolution that will lead industry and the economy beyond frontiers.

…The government will revise and possibly rewrite the “national innovation priorities” (NIPs), set down by the former Howard government in 2002, to better reflect its own research priorities.

… Bruce Robinson, convenor of the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas, is more hopeful now that his several submissions to the CSIRO over the years will be taken seriously.

“I think the CSIRO should have done more on oil vulnerability,” said Mr Robinson, a physical chemist and former radio-astronomer.

“I have proposed a number of times to the organisation that it establish an oil vulnerability impact centre to co-ordinate research in this field.

“The nation needs to assess the risks and opportunities of oil depletion and explore oil savings.”

But Mr Robinson said his submissions were usually met with ambivalence.

“The CSIRO’s work in the resources field is deep because minerals have commercial sponsors.

“But because other fields don’t have sponsors with deep pockets, some of the science that concentrates on public good is overlooked,” Mr Robinson said.
(3 January 2008)