07 May 2006

Panic, Damn You!

Reason magazine has an interesting feature titled "Peak Oil Panic." A lot of persons who are locked into the worst prognostications of peak oil, global warming, etc. etc. appear fixed in a single mode: panic.

The good news is that the peak oil doomsters are probably wrong that world oil production is about to decline forever. Most analysts believe that world petroleum supplies will meet projected demand at reasonable prices for at least another generation. The bad news is that much of the world’s oil reserves are in the custody of unstable and sometimes hostile regimes. But the oil producing nations would be the ultimate losers if they provoked an “oil crisis,” since that would spur industrialized countries to cut back on imports and develop alternative energy technologies.

Apocalypse Yesterday

Predictions of imminent catastrophic depletion are almost as old as the oil industry. An 1855 advertisement for Kier’s Rock Oil, a patent medicine whose key ingredient was petroleum bubbling up from salt wells near Pittsburgh, urged customers to buy soon before “this wonderful product is depleted from Nature’s laboratory.” The ad appeared four years before Pennsylvania’s first oil well was drilled. In 1919 David White of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) predicted that world oil production would peak in nine years. And in 1943 the Standard Oil geologist Wallace Pratt calculated that the world would ultimately produce 600 billion barrels of oil. (In fact, more than 1 trillion barrels of oil had been pumped by 2006.)

During the 1970s, the Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth projected that, assuming consumption remained flat, all known oil reserves would be entirely consumed in just 31 years. With exponential growth in consumption, it added, all the known oil reserves would be consumed in 20 years. These dour predictions gained credibility when the Arab oil crisis of 1973 quadrupled prices from $3 to $12 per barrel (from $16 to $48 in 2006 dollars) and when the Iranian oil crisis more than doubled oil prices from $14 per barrel in 1978 to $35 per barrel by 1981 (from $45 to $98 in 2006 dollars).

In response, the federal government imposed price controls on oil and gas in the 1970s and established fuel economy standards to encourage the sale of more efficient automobiles. The sense of doom did not dissolve. In 1979 Energy Secretary Schlesinger proclaimed, “The energy future is bleak and is likely to grow bleaker in the decade ahead.” The Global 2000 Report to President Carter, issued in 1980, predicted that the price of oil would rise by 50 percent, reaching $100 per barrel by 2000.

Most of today’s petro-doomsters base their forecasts on the work of the geologist M. King Hubbert, who correctly predicted in 1956 that U.S. domestic oil production in the lower 48 states would peak around 1970 and begin to decline. In 1969 Hubbert predicted that world oil production would peak around 2000.

Hubbert argued that oil production grows until half the recoverable resources in a field have been extracted, after which production falls off at the same rate at which it expanded. This theory suggests a bell-shaped curve rising from first discovery to peak and descending to depletion. Hubbert calculated that peak oil production follows peak oil discovery with a time lag. Globally, discoveries of new oil fields peaked in 1962. The time lag between peak global discoveries and peak production was estimated to be around 32 years, but peak oilers claim that the two oil crises of the 1970s reduced consumption and thereby delayed the peak until now. Hubbert’s modern disciples argue that humanity has now used up half of the world’s ultimately recoverable reserves of oil, which means we are at or over the peak.

The prophets of oily doom are opposed by preachers of energy abundance. Chief among the latter is the energy economist Michael Lynch, president of the Massachusetts-based Global Petroleum Service consultancy. “Colin Campbell has the worst forecasting record on oil supply,” says Lynch, “and that’s saying a lot.” He points out that in a 1989 article for the journal Noroil, Campbell claimed the peak of world oil production had already passed and incorrectly predicted that oil would soon cost $30 to $50 a barrel. As for Matthew Simmons, Lynch dismisses him with a sneer: “Petroleum engineers know a lot more about petroleum engineering than a Harvard MBA.”

One petroleum engineer— Michael Economides of the University of Houston—calls peak oil predictions “the figments of the imaginations of born-again pessimist geologists.” Like Lynch, Economides, who worked in Russia to boost that country’s oil production in the last decade, rejects Simmons’ analysis. Saudi Arabia, which currently produces about 10 million barrels of oil a day, “is underproducing every one of their wells,” he claims. “I can produce 20 million barrels of oil in Saudi Arabia.”
Much more at the source.

A lot of people just need a catastrophe--any catastrophe--to make their lives feel worthwhile. If the catastrophe fits their political proclivities and prejudices, so much the better.

Most people are tired of this dependence on fossil fuels, and want society to move to renewables as soon as economically and technologically possible. The world will not end during this transition, much to the disappointment of the doomseekers.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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