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Thanks for the blessings of oil

Thanksgiving Day is a special day for those following the peak oil news. Geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, author of Hubbert's Peak, predicted that Thanksgiving Day 2005 would mark the peak in world oil production. After that, oil production would decline, irreversibly. And he may have been right. Crude oil production figures have been removed from the most widely influential official statistics, so it's not easy to check. Even if crude production numbers were easily available, the numbers are so uncertain that it's hard to see anything other than the biggest trends.

When Deffeyes made the prediction, almost two years before Thanksgiving 2005, his tongue was only slightly in his cheek. Oil production data are not nearly precise enough to establish a peak day.

Was Deffeyes at least right about the year of peak oil?

I looked for the answer in the official figures from the US Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency in Paris. The main tables on world oil production no longer report what's called crude oil and condensate. Condensate is a byproduct of natural gas production. What they call “oil production” now includes all manner of liquid fuels, including ethanol and synfuels, synthetic fuels. Peak oil is about, well, oil. Not how much alcohol is produced.

Probably if I dug down into the web sites, or made some phone calls, I could find the crude oil data again. But when the two primary public energy reporting agencies in the world change the most prominent way they report oil production, and they do it in a way that could hide peak oil, I'm suspicious.

Second, even if I found the crude oil and condensate numbers, it requires a leap of faith to believe them. Matthew Simmons is an investment banker with decades of experience in the oil industry. The way he tells it, the unaudited oil production figures sound suspiciously like the finance industry's CDOs, collateralized debt obligations. The ones that played a big role in bringing down the world economy last year, when they turned out to be worth a lot less than people thought. Like CDOs, no one really knows what's in the oil production figures from each country. Incredibly enough, there's no outside auditor to check them out.

Simmons thinks that 2005 was the peak year for oil production. If so, Deffeyes might even have been right about oil production peaking on Thanksgiving that year.

Deffeyes' prediction looks pretty good even if we look at the unreliable and misleading data on total liquids, including ethanol and synfuels. There was a rapid run-up in price from 2005 to 2008, which you'd think would lead to greater production. But no, production stagnated in 2006 and 2007, and only increased slightly in 2008. Since then, economic collapse has reduced demand, so production in 2009 is down again, below 2005 levels. According to the official figures.

Regardless of the actual date of peak oil, we can give thanks for oil's blessings. As Deffeyes put it: "Thanks for the services of the first half of recoverable world oil. Thanks for the automobile, the airplane, diesel trains and ships, two-lane blacktop, warm houses, plastics, and a huge range of petrochemicals. [The Thanksgiving dinner itself] was produced with fertilizers, tractor fuel, pesticides, and transportation provided by oil and natural gas."

Of course, oil has been a mixed blessing. The age of oil has also brought the age of World Wars, poisonings from pollution on an unprecedented scale, destruction of cities for parking lots and ugly suburbs, and habitat destruction, climate change, and other pressures that threaten most species on the planet, including ours.

As we give thanks for the blessings of oil, let us keep in mind the curses of oil, and let us ask for the wisdom to use the remaining half of the world's oil reserves more for useful, durable products than throw-away plastic cutlery, more for insulating homes and constructing wind turbines than for heating drafty homes and generating electricity, and more for medicines and food production than for guns and warplanes.

Happy Thanksgiving!

[This is an updated version of a post from 2007.]

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