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IDA study on Peak Oil debate (August 2008) (review)

The Institute for Defense Analyses released its very thorough “Review and Analysis of the Peak Oil Debate” authored by Brent Fisher last summer, but I only discovered it today (thanks to a link at DTIC, below). This 50-page study is detailed, balanced in its determinations, carefully worded and thoroughly sourced.

The study focuses on three related aspects:

  • First, it reviews the Hubbert theory, examines its assumptions and the criticisms leveled by its critics, and then presents the results of IDA’s own modifications to Hubbert’s theory.
  • Second, it reviews peakist arguments which are based on declining discovery rates (and the counter-claims by optimists).
  • Third, it reviews Matt Simmons’ concerns about Saudi oil production (and the counter-arguments).

The study’s executive summary ends with these two sentences:

“We conclude from these reviews that the most alarmist of the peak-oil claims are likely false. Still, we see some convincing reasons to think that global oil production could peak within 20 years, with demand outstripping production indefinitely.”

I wish that Fisher had related the 20-year time frame to the warning of the Hirsch Report (2005) that an intensive mitigation program will need to be in place at least 20 years before peaking if we are to avoid serious economic and social consequences.

However, this and many other aspects are slightly beyond the scope of Fisher’s “review and analysis of the debate.”

This study is very helpful and may be added to the growing list of studies from military/security researchers which identify peak oil as a legitimate concern, worthy of further scrutiny.

But almost no-one from this list (including Fisher) has addressed the subsequent questions and concerns which arise from an awareness /acceptance of the peak oil concept:

  • export decline (please see Armed Forces Journal Forum posting #7)
  • fuel poverty: how will sustained high oil prices affect the global economy, “globalization” itself, public revenues & public services, low-income families, etc? (please see Jeff Rubin’s recent book, Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller)
  • Agri-food: this sector may be squeezed from both ends (by family farmers who can’t afford fuel, and by a faltering import/export system, Armed Forces Journal Forum posting #17).
  • Emergency planning: how might a severe fuel (& food) emergency be best planned for and administered? (Armed Forces Journal Forum postings #9, #10, #15, #16, #17)
  • Domestic security: are there foreseeable problems which warrant military analysis & planning?

On that final point, I was very pleased to see Fisher state, “Such a peak warrants serious attention by stakeholders with a view out this far [30 years] – including the military” (pg. I-1).

While Fisher states “we are skeptical of an imminent peak within the next decade” (pg. I-1), his report was published three months before the release of the IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlook which bluntly stated, “Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable…. What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution (WEO, pg. 37).

Elsewhere Fisher accurately portrays the IEA as having “views which coincide mostly with those of the optimists” (pg. IV-8). When the perennial optimists suddenly warn of unsustainable trends in energy supply and issue urgent calls for an energy revolution, the rest of us really should take heed. Had Fisher known of the most recent IEA data on oilfield depletion rates, he might have worded his conclusions with a stronger tone of urgency. As it is, Fisher did an excellent job of covering what he intended to cover. There is much that he did not address, but his intention was to do a 50-page analysis of the debate, not write a manual which addresses “next steps.”

In concluding that peaking is likely to occur “within a generation” and that this prospect warrants serious attention by the military, Fisher has done much to advance this timely issue. I hope that Fisher (and other analysts with his degree of objectivity and thoroughness) will consider addressing the subset of concerns which arise from his conclusions.

Here is the link to Brent Fisher’s IDA study: Review and Analysis of the Peak Oil Debate

Editorial Notes: Rick is a regular EB contributor around energy security issues.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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