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Back to school month: Peak oil 101

Every so often someone comes up to me with fiery eyes and raring for a battle and says "I don't believe in Peak Oil" or "I don't believe in Climate Change." When this happens, I think they expect me to argue with them, and I do. But isn't the argument they expect - my standard response, correct almost 100% of the time is not to make the case for peak oil or climate change, but to argue "Yes, you do, in fact, believe in them."

Telling other people what they believe is a chancy business, but I feel reasonably confident in doing so, because when someone says they don't believe in peak oil or climate change, they don't really mean it. In fact, I'm fact I'm willing to lay odds that you and I have 98% agreement on peak oil - no matter how much you think we don't, no matter who you are.

With the exception of a few flat earthers who would deny there was ever an ice age or a few abiotic oil wackaloons, everyone believes in peak oil and climate change. What they actually want to assert, but have trouble doing so, is that they disagree with me about the immediacy of peak oil, or about the role of human beings in climate change. It is a sign of our collective scientific and grammatical illiteracy that people can hold passionate opinions and not have the slightest idea how to explain their opinions - or what they actually signify.

I am absolutely certain that you believe in peak oil. The reason I am certain of this is that peak oil isn't something that anyone pulled out of their behinds - it is a readily observable fact. Consider US oil production:

deffeyes_us_oil-production.gif

(Source, Kenneth Deffeyes)

Looky, a peak! It goes up, it reaches a peak, it goes down. And if you really needed me to do so, I could put up graphs for 15 or so other countries that look strangely like a peak. It turns out that oil production pretty much always follows a bell curve. And it also turns out that once you pass that peak, no matter how much better your technologies get, you can't actually reverse the peak. Nothing the US has ever done in extraction technology has made that happen.

So yes, you believe that oil production occurs in a curve, which means it will have either a peak or a plateau. See, we agree!

And you also agree with me that we are using oil unsustainably and that we are facing a peak. I'm absolutely sure of that, because it is an incontrovertible physical fact about which there's no real debate. Consider this picture:

the%20growing%20gap.gif

(Graph by Colin Campbell)

Even if you think the projections for future discovery are completely unreasonable (although you'd have to make a good argument for why they should be greater), you can look pretty easily at the physical facts and see we're not discovering nearly as much oil as we used to be, while we are consuming more than we used to. So you and I agree that we're using energy unsustainably, that we're going to hit a peak, and that the factors are right for a supply crunch. Even if you hear every day about new discoveries and supplies, we don't disagree that we're not discovering enough to fill the gap.

Now here is where we might not agree - I think there's good evidence that an oil peak is a near-term likelihood. You might not. Or you might think that the reason we aren't discovering much oil is that we're not looking hard enough or drilling hard enough.

And all of those things are possible places where we could disagree - but our disagreements don't actually matter as much as you might think. You see, while I might think, looking at the data, that we hit an oil plateau around 2005, and that we're facing a decline, you might disagree, and argue that this is just one of the normal fluctuations that goes with oil. And that's ok - you could say that the US Geological Survey figures, for example, which put peak oil around 2023, are more credible than the ones I'm using. But I'm willing to conceed on that. Now don't get me wrong, I still think we're on the plateau, but let's say you are right and use your terms. We'll use 2023 as our figure.

In that case, you observe, we've got plenty of time for renewable resources to take over. Except that's not true. The only full scale study ever commissioned by the US on this subject was The Hirsch Report, commissioned by the US Department of Energy and led by energy scientists Robert Hirsch and Roger Bezdek. The DOE took peak oil just seriously enough to do some scenario planning, and asked what would happen if peak oil *were* coming (didn't say it was).

Hirsch and Bezdek, who were not peak oilers at the time, set out to figure this out, and they ran a lot of projections. You can read the whole report here: www.netl.doe.gov/publications/others/pdf/oil_peaking_netl.pdf. And what you'll find is that the best scientific analysis we have on peak oil at this point suggests that we'd need 20 years of a WWII-style build out of renewable energies to make a smooth transition. With 10 years, we could do it, but we'd still have enormous shortages and economic consequences - we'd be seriously in trouble. With less than 10 years, we are screwed. Ok, the report doesn't use the word "screwed" but that's the essence of the thing.

Ok, let's look at the USGS figures - we've got 13 years until 2023. So even if we started a WWII style build out of resources tomorrow, we don't have time enough to get this done. We're somewhere between "ok" and "seriously in trouble" - although not to "screwed" yet.

But we're also not doing a WWII-style build out of renewable energies. Nobody has even really seriously proposed one, much less laid the political groundwork. Even if the entire Democratic and Republican political leadership got together Thursday and decided to call for such a thing, we're still talking a while before it even starts. So let's say we're even a little closer maybe 11 or 12 years.

So even if the more conservative figures for an energy peak are correct, we both agree that we're facing a rough transition - that there's just not enough time. Unless you can find an equally credible evaluation saying that we can do this right quick, we do generally agree that there will be problems from an oil peak.

But maybe you are relying on new oil discoveries to make up the difference. Now understand, we're using four times as much oil as we're discovering now. Most of the big discoveries represent a few months to a few year worth of oil supply, and the majority of world oil is still being supplied by a few giant fields.

So let's take all these incontrovertible facts into account, and ask how likely it is that discovery will quadruple. Let's see - it has declined steadily over time, while technology has actually improved. That suggests that it probably isn't the backward state of our geological mapping - despite better mapping technologies, we're just not finding more oil.

Let's take a look at what is being discovered. Most of it is one of two kinds of oil. First it is oil that is extraordinarily difficult to get - consider the Deepwater oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Guys can't just go down under more than mile of ocean with a drill- it is oil that costs a tremendous amount of money to produce, requires very expensive technologies, and as we saw recently, has a lot of environmental risks.

Then there's oil in very sensitive places, like ANWR - even the highest estimates of this only put a few months worth of oil consumption under that ground. The very fact that we're so desperate that we'd consider destroying critical animal habitat for what amounts to couch change is pretty indicative - you don't go digging around to buy dinner in your sofa unless you are pretty short.

We can agree, because there's really no scientific dispute on this, that the oil we're discovering right now isn't like the oil we once discovered. Way back in the day, you drilled in the ground and the oil came gushing out. Barring a terrible accident with a drilling platform, ain't nothing gushing now. It takes a lot of work, a lot of money and a lot of energy to get what we are discovering.

Even when you do that, there's a lot of risk - you can have an accident or an environmental disaster, and have to abandon a well or a project. You can find out that the reserve estimates that sounded so great weren't actually and have to abandon your well. The price of oil could fluctuate so much that you might to be able to afford to develop it - that just wasn't a risk when we were capping gushers in Texas and Louisiana.

So we agree on all this stuff - we agree that:

1. Oil peaks are a proven fact

2. We are creating the correct conditions for an oil peak by consuming more than we discover and using oil up in a way that depletes the supply.

3. There is a decent chance that we are facing at least some trouble from an impending oil peak, whether the peak is tomorrow or whether we use more conservative estimates. We will need a long time of very intense effort to build out enough renewable energies to cover the gap for oil, if that's possible and there is time.

4. We can't rely on discovery of huge new oil sources - in fact, most of the oil left to discover is in the ground for a good reason - and it is risky, expensive and/or ecologically damaging to extract.

That's a lot of territory to agree on - but again, there really is no credible debate on these issues. So what's left for us to fight over?

Well, you could argue with the *most* conservative estimates and say that we actually have 20 years or more before there is an oil peak. But remember, we don't just need 20 years, we need 20 years of WWII-style investment. Well, in WWII, as your parents or grandparents can tell you - or maybe you remember - things were really different. We built all those bombers and won the war by a set of strategies that were pretty intense. Everyone had rationing. Everyone had to do war work. Half the population was soldiering and the rest of it was in the factories. Niels Bohr famously said they couldn't do the Manhattan Project unless the whole nation was turned into a factory - and then two years later observed that it had been.

Does that sound like our country right now? All that national unity and absolute bi-partisan commitment to a single cause? All that self-sacrifice and investment - people even gave their savings over the country to use in the form of war bonds. Done that lately?

So I think we can agree that this is going to take longer than 20 years, right? Because we're not doing a WWII style build out. So let's call it 30 years at our normal rate, with the market driving things. But if that's true, you are going to find it harder to get someone to give you a prediction for when the oil peak is coming that you will like. That means the oil peak can't be any sooner than 2041. In 2008, a survey of the oil industry found that more than half of the geologists and analysts employed in the field believed we were facing a near-term energy peak. So peak oil is now a mainstream belief, and the further you get from the near term, the harder it is to find someone who agrees with you.

There are almost no projections by *anyone reliable* that go out that far - even the Saudis who like to double their reserves on paper don't really claim an oil peak will occur as late as 2041. The IEA and the EIA wouldn't go that far. The vast majority of petroleum geologists, nations, oil industry execs, analysts and everyone else thinks it is long before 2041. The science isn't with you here.

So we're pretty much agreed peak oil is going to bring about some problems - there doesn't seem to be any good way around that, unless someone finds a magic bullet. But so far, no one has. Solar and wind and such are great - but they don't give us so much energy that they can magically speed this process up. It usually takes about 30 years, history shows, to bring really new technologies into full common use - 30 years from development. But we've already seen that 30 years is pushing it, and there is no obvious magic bullet.

But wait - maybe you think we don't need oil at all - we could just make it up with other energy sources. Aren't we the Saudi Arabia of coal? (And may I just ask why the heck we would want to be the Saudi Arabia of anything? Talk about depressing plaudits!)

Well, we do have a bunch of coal, but that brings us back to climate change, which you also believe in, trust me (although I'll save that for another day). It turns out we can't burn all the coal even if we have enough - and somepeople argue that we are kind of the Saudi Arabia of coal, and in fact just as Saudi Arabia famously inflates its oil reserves, we do the same with coal. But even ignoring that, we can't use the coal. And no one credibly argues we have enough natural gas to substitute for all the oil and all the coal. Or even all the oil.

So we're back to this conclusion - we're going to have some problems from peak oil. And you and I, we don't disagree about this - we're reasonable people, we can disagree, but we don't.

So that leaves us figuring out what it is that we might disagree about, and it might be this - I might be overreacting to peak oil as a problem. Sure, it might cause a recession like the Hirsch Report says, sure it might cause a little trouble, gas lines again, etc... but it isn't as big a deal as I say. What do I say to that.

Ok.

I mean it, my answer is "ok." I'm willing to acknowledge that's a possibility, and a real one. Maybe it isn't as bad as I think it is - maybe the peak is later and the renewable build out could go faster. I'm willing to say we don't know for sure.

But if I do that, I'd like you to consider the possibility that you don't know for sure. It seems like a prudent thing to do, given all the bad stuff that could result. So let's agree to disagree here - but also to take each other seriously.

And here's the critical point - as long as we are agreeing to disagree, that means we can strategize together on what to do. And the best thing to do is to say "ok, we met in the middle, so what are the best strategies for being ok no matter which one of us is right?"

And it turns out that those strategies are pretty clear - it makes sense to prepare for the worse outcomes, even if you think I'm wrong, because the consequences of not preparing for them are so dire. And it makes sense to shore up protections for the poor and vulnerable, because we know even a little recession can really hurt them. And it makes sense to help people conserve, because that's cheap and easy. And it makes sense to get on that WWII-style build out, just in case.

See? It turns out that you and I don't disagree all that much after all. In fact, I think we've got a lot in common.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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