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Peak oil per capita

Stuart Staniford, Early Warning
A reader asks to see a graph of global oil supply per capita – here it is. The global population data are from the US census bureau, and the oil supply data are from ASPO through 1979 and EIA total liquids after that (the two sources agree to within a percent or so in the overlap).

If you were wondering why things have never been the same after the 1970s energy crises – now you know. On the other hand, if you’ve been panicking that peak oil means the imminent end of civilization – settle down. In a per-person sense it happened decades ago and we’ve been living in the aftermath ever since. Peak oil is a slow squeeze.

About the author:
I’m a scientist and innovator in the technology industry, with a broad range of interests and experiences. I have a Physics PhD, MS in CS, and have done research, lived in cohousing communities, run a business, and designed technology products. Professionally, I mainly work on computer security problems and am currently Chief Scientist at FireEye, but this is my personal blog for pro-bono research, and FireEye has no responsibility for it.

(20 September 2011)

The US is well and truly fracked

James Howard Kunstler, Red Green and Blue
This much can be stated categorically about the USA these days: the more distressed our economy gets, the more delusional thinking you will encounter. People want to assign the cause of their misery to this or that (socialism, abortion, Jews, the New World Order).

People want to believe that their world is a safe place with bright prospects (climate change is a myth, we have a hundred years of shale oil). The realm of oil is especially ripe for misunderstanding, since we depend on the stuff so desperately, and the world’s geology is complex indeed, and then you have to bring math and money into the picture. But it’s another thing when professional propagandists take the stage and attempt to systematically mislead the public.

Such is the case with two ersatz bombshells zinging across the web-waves this past week, fired off by two of the foremost professional liars on the scene. The first comes from the oil industry’s leading prostitute, Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), owned by the mammoth HIS consulting company. CERA is the main public relations shop for the oil industry. Its mission is to blow smoke up America’s ass in order to keep investment dollars flowing into oil companies because oil companies prefer to use other people’s money to perform their risky operations. They make a lot of money themselves, and accumulate it diligently, but they are not so foolish as to squander it on dry holes and adventures in alchemy.

So, last week Daniel Yergin came out with a blast in the Wall Street Journal affecting to debunk peak oil. His own theory is much like Irving Fisher’s economic theory set out October 21, 1929 that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Three days later, the markets crashed and the Great Depression commenced. Yergin says we’ve hit a permanent plateau for oil production. He is pimping for a bonanza in shale oil, tar sands, and other innovative ventures in picking “fruit” that is not hanging so low anymore.
(23 September 2011)

Wall Street Journal embraces peak oil denialism

Christopher Mims, Grist
Daniel Yergin is to peak oil and limits to growth what Richard Lindzen, Anthony Watts, Christopher Monckton, the Heartland Institute and Exxon Mobil are to climate change. That is, Yergin’s entire reason for being in the public eye is his rejection of the possible arrival of this calamity.

So of course it’s perfectly logical that the Wall Street Journal, long a bastion of climate change denial, would give Yergin a stage on which to spew his unique brand of half-truths. The simple fact is that people who are invested in the status quo like hearing that everything is hunky dory and that nothing out there will ever threaten their privilege, so there will always be an audience for the Yergins of the world.

… So why does the WSJ publish the rantings of a repeatedly-discredited crank? Well, he runs Cambridge Energy Research Associates, which does a fine job of promoting itself, running a conference on energy, and just generally telling people what they want to hear. They peddle the exact same variety of denialism on peak oil that others peddle on climate change, and to the exact same customers — namely, Exxon Mobil and its ilk.
(19 September 2011)
Grist comes out swinging. -BA

America’s New Production and the Farce of Peak Oil

Right Side News
… Free-Market Analysis: It wasn’t supposed to be this way. By now, Peak Oil was supposed to be a fact of daily life. People were supposed to be lined up at gas stations, struggling to buy US$10-a-gallon gas. Solar and wind companies were supposed to occupy prominent places on the Big Board instead of going out of business right and left. Pipelines

People were supposed to have diminished expectations – resigned to shivering in the dark. Free markets, a flawed system of commerce, were to be exposed as a misleading theoretical construct, incapable of providing for people’s needs. The Invisible Hand, while real, could not combat an equally real and disturbing fact: The world was running out of resources.

But not according to this recent article in the New York Times. Yes, THAT New York Times, the newspaper of record that has spent the past decade banging the drum for Peak Oil – the idea that the world is running out of energy and that people will have to lower their expectations about how to live and perhaps abandon modern society altogether.

Now, suddenly, there is a different tale to tell. And the Times is up to the task. Up and down the Americas, we learn, there is an Oil Boom. Suddenly, we have gone from enforced austerity to an unheralded plenty. Middle East, watch out! Here’s how the article puts it:

… We have been writing about the economic illiteracy that supports Peak Oil for nearly a decade now. We have always believed it to be a kind of propaganda – a dominant social theme advanced by the Anglosphere power elite for purposes of control and further exploitation.

The great Western banking families always float scarcity memes as a way to consolidate control and further expand global governance. In fact, if the Peak Oil meme is now going out of fashion, this may only mean that some other kind of propagandistic measures is about to be initiated.
(21 September 2011)
A new conspiracy theory about peak oil — “the Anglosphere power elite … the great Western banking families.” This is one I hadn’t heard of. Needless to say, I have seen zero evidence of such a conspiracy.

The great energy debate
Scientific Alliance newsletter
… What exactly does the future hold? Will we really see a new supply of cheap gas upsetting the apple cart for the renewables lobby, or are Friends of the Earth right to see wind and solar as the technologies of the future? And what about the purported hydrogen economy?

Of course, if anyone could answer those questions with any reasonable degree of certainty, they would be busy making money, or at least setting up the companies which would make them wealthy. The truth is that we simply can’t tell what the energy market will look like it a generation’s time. After all, even the basic debate about peak oil has not been settled. Those who say we have pretty much reached that point make a convincing case, but it is just as easy to be swayed by more optimistic souls who point to previous announcements of the onset of the evil day having been wrong, while oil and gas reserves continue to increase. If agreement on something as basic as this has not been possible, a consensus on future supplies is hardly likely.

The problem is that, whatever enthusiasts may say, there seems little chance of wind or solar power truly becoming price competitive unless the peak oil scenario does force prices up considerably higher. So, it’s quite safe to say that FoE are wrong, at least at present: any stabilisation of power bills would be at a much higher level than at present. It’s equally right to be suspicious of the report from Engensa, whose business is installing solar panels; the company would fold if FITs were cut.

And the jobs they talk about are essentially in the construction industry. They, like other suppliers, will most likely source their PV panels from China, where they can be produced at relatively low cost (and using electricity largely generated from coal). There have been some recent high profile bankruptcies of solar panel manufacturers in America, because they simply were not price competitive. So any thought of building a green manufacturing sector is essentially a pipe dream: the Chinese solar panel industry is doing very nicely on the back of European and American taxpayer subsidies, and any new jobs in wind turbine manufacturing are also very likely to end up in the Far East.

What then, of hydrogen, if it can be made cheaply by microbes? Well, we mustn’t forget that hydrogen is just an energy carrier, not a primary energy source, so it is really immaterial in the debate about energy security. Unless, that is, more energy can be extracted by recombining hydrogen and oxygen than is required to split them in the first place. As a bald statement, that would appear to break the first law of thermodynamics, but if the energy for microbial growth came from the Sun or some plentiful, cheap nutrient, then maybe, just maybe, we would have a realistic, affordable source of renewable energy. But don’t hold your breath: the report is only about lab-scale experiments.

Which leaves us with the shale gas reserves. Ignoring the question of fracking, which has attracted opposition from some environmentalists, the two key questions are: how much gas is really there and how much can be economically recovered? This is an area of great debate and all we can really say for now is that those at the extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion are almost certainly wrong. On one hand, shale gas is not a potential resource which can only be recovered using dangerous, polluting technologies and therefore should be ignored, but on the other hand it is unlikely to become a new resource which will dominate our energy future for the next couple of generations.
(23 September 2011)