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A look at forecasts for peak oil – and the end of civilization

Summary: A common concern in the comments expresses fear of resource exhaustion, perhaps even leading to collapse of civilization. Here we examine the theory, evaluate the risks, and point to sources of more information.

Such one to a Question Time: “how do you think the US will cope with the return to a preindustrial lifestyle?”

A more sophisticated version is this excerpt from a a July 4th article by Damien Perrotin at his website posted in the comments to last week’s Question Time:

It is a popular idea among degrowth people and some sections of the Green movement and of the far left. My last girlfriend was very much into it, and it definitely is a bad idea … The main reason for it should be obvious to anybody vaguely aware of the coming energy descent. Even its proponents acknowledge that the feasibility of a basic income system is highly dependent upon the continued existence of the industrial civilization.

… The problem, of course, is that this future of robots automated factories shall never come to pass. It is not automation per se that fueled the industrial revolution and gave our society, but access to fossil energy. Without coal, oil or gas to fuel them and the highly complex social apparatus they need for their manufacture and maintenance, our machines are useless.


4 March 1999: Prepare for $5 oil!

Perrotin graciously posted a comment to the discussion with more details. Excerpt:

(b) We won’t run out of oil any time soon. Discoveries, however, have peaked in 1964 and are declining since. Production is plateauing since 2006 and will begin to decrease in the relatively near future. It certainly won’t be a cliff but a long and progressive descent. Alternatives won’t be developed, because there is none. The last breakthrough in energy (nuclear energy) happened during the fifties and was an economic failure. The other alternatives are low quality.

(c) Industrial civilization needs a constant inflow of high grade energy ; Without it they will collapse, but that will take some time. We won’t have any instant Dark Age.

What will happen is that we will be forced to replace high grade fossil fuels by lower grade « alternatives », which will result in cycles of steadily worsening economic crisis with periods of temporary recovery. According to the Meadows report, it should begin during the first decades of the XXIst century.

(d) Don’t expect the Middle Age 2.0 before 2100, at the very earliest, and while we may lose a lot of technology, we won’t get back to medieval level.

These things we discussed in several posts, even the extreme version (in Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off). This post gives a brief reply to Perrotin’s concerns. In brief, we should worry about the consequences of peak fossil fuels. Bad luck (an early peak and fast decline) might mean a long recession or even depression. But we can prepare, and we can cope with the consequences. Preparation now minimizes the pain of the inevitable transition to new energy sources, and reduces the risk of a long and severe transition.

Now for a look at the specifics Perrotin raises, focusing only on oil.

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By Viktor Hertz

(1) “Production is plateauing since 2006″

Yes, but the reason why is important. Using EIA data, liquid fuels consumption (which include non-oil sources) peaked at the start of the great recession, at 87.8 million barrels/day in February 2008 (as prices spiked).

The combination of slower growth offset by OPEC production quotas AND the slow/sure response to 5 years of rising prices resulted in demand dropping. The trough in May 2009 was 87.9 mbd (-6%). A slow acceleration in GDP offset by continued efficiency gains brought demand back up to 2008 in July 2010, and to 89.7 mbd (up 2%) in February.

Summary: consumption is flattish because of demand, not supply. Otherwise prices would be rising to destroy the excess of demand over supply (as it did in Spring 2008).


23 October 2003: Wrong again, oil prices just began their long ascent

(2) “and will begin to decrease in the relatively near future.”

Perhaps, but such confident predictions are not a good idea. First, there is insufficient publicly available information to forecast peaking with reasonable reliability. Data about the oil fields of many nations with large reserves is either sketchy & old (ie, Iraq) or secret (eg, Russia and most in the Middle East).

And there are too many variables: economic growth, expenditures on projects to increase both supply and efficiency, and technology (eg, as fracking disproved the many confident forecasts of an imminent “cliff-like” crash in North American natural gas production.

Which is why forecasts for peaking range from now through 2020 — and beyond.

But there are people who know the answer: When will global oil production peak? Here is the answer!, 1 November 2007.

(3) “certainly won’t be a cliff but a long and progressive descent.”

Agreed! Data from fields and regions that peaked suggest a possible long plateau, followed by annual declines of 3 – 12% (depending on a wide range of factors). The worst-case: peaking in the next decade, a brief plateau, and double-digit decline rates — would be horrific (although not civilization-ending).

For more about this see The three forms of Peak Oil (let’s hope for the benign form) , 23 April 2008.

(4) “we won’t run out of oil any time soon …”

Agreed! Most forecasts (eg, the large collection used by the IPCC to estimate CO2 emissions) estimate that we’ll reach the point at which we’ve used 90% of reserves (ie, recoverable using current technology) sometime in the late 21st century.

That estimate is speculative for two reasons. First, what’s economically recoverable will certainly expand due to new extraction & refining technology. Second, see the next point.

For an explanation of why peaking does not mean “running out” see this important post: Recovering lost knowledge about exhaustion of Earth’s resources (such as Peak Oil), 27 January 2011.


Time, 8 May 1989

(5) “Alternatives won’t be developed, because there is none.”

Perhaps, but IMO that’s stating as a certainty something about which we can only guess. Also, that’s a astonishingly confident statement to make about technology over the next 50+ years. As you know, the history of such assertions is not pretty (although providing much laughter to later generations).

It’s especially odd given the range of technologies under development. First, nuclear has great potential — despite its incompetent application so far. For details see the reports listed in the nuclear section on the Energy Studies page.

Second, there are other sources — such as Coal-to-liquids — that have severe limitations (eg, dirty, expensive) but can help carry us from oil to better sources.

Third, there are many promising research programs in fusion (see this article for an overview). Such as the Polywell invented by the great late physicist Robert Bussard (for more information see here and here). We can only guess which — if any — of these will prove feasible; none will have significant production during the next two decades. But during the mid-21st century during which fossil fuel shortages become serious they have great promise.

What are the alternative sources under development? How long might it take until they’re in large-scale use? For a summary answer see Eventually we’ll have unlimited cheap clean energy. But that will not help us or our kids. For details about specific energy sources look here.

Note that all of these require electrification of surface transportation. A National Academy of Sciences study (“Transitions to Alternative Transportation Technologies: Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles“, December 2009) shows that this is feasible, although (like all large-scale capital projects) requires one or two decades to do economically (ie, not on a wasteful, panicked crash basis).

When should we begin to prepare for peak oil?

President Kennedy gave us the answer in his speech at U California at Berkeley on 23 March 1962:

“Knowledge is the great sun of the firmament,” said Senator Daniel Webster. “Life and power are scattered with all its beams.”

In its light, we must think and act not only for the moment but for our time. I am reminded of the story of the great French Marshal Lyautey, who once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for a hundred years. The Marshal replied, “In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”

Today a world of knowledge — a world of cooperation – a just and lasting peace — may be years away. But we have no time to lose. Let us plant our trees this afternoon.

For more information

(a) The FM Reference Pages about energy on the right-side menu bar:

Especially see the “studies and reports” page. On that is a link to the US Department of Energy’s Mitigations report by Robert Hirsch et al (2005), that discusses these things at length. Hirsch is IMO our (America’s) greatest living energy export. He saw this crisis coming in 2002 (before prices started their fast rise), but we didn’t listen. We’re still not listening.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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