26 December 2007

Peak Oil: The Reallity

The fashionable response to high energy prices is "Peak Oil Panic." But that is reacting to a fantasy scenario--not the reality.
As you can see, large supranational blocks are very different from individual countries. They have a tendency to plateau for extremely long periods of time. For example, North America has been on a plateau of about 14mbd for almost 20 years. Asia-Pacific has been on a plateau of 6-7mbd for almost 20 years. South/Central America has logged a couple of long plateaus, most recently a plateau of about 6.5mbd for 10 years.

The evidence suggests that the world (as the largest supranational unit) will plateau for a very long time -- even decades -- just like CERA says.

Oil and coal are dirty fuels, and we would do well to move away from the pollution of fossil fuels to cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy. But "Peak Oil" enthusiasts are claiming that there is not enough time to transition. They are screeching from their blog rooftops and soapboxes that we are all doomed. They are not trying to create panic--mind you. They merely want to let us know what is coming, then sit back and watch the panic set in. But in reality, what sort of fringe-kookery are they?
Petroleum geologists are pretty sure that there is more than enough oil in the world to meet projected demand for at least the next 25 years. In other words, as I reported in my article “Peak Oil Panic” last year, geologically speaking “peak oil” is at least a generation away.

What type of apocalyptic visions do the peak oil prophets-of-doom project into our futures?
The most pessimistic of these Cassandras, like American writer James Howard Kunstler, predict nothing less than the wholesale collapse of industrial civilization. In his 2005 bestseller, The Long Emergency, Kunstler envisaged a future in which the survivors of the oil-peak catastrophe eke out a living in an 18th-century-style economy: the great cities are abandoned, almost all production is for local consumption, and the higher technologies have mostly been lost.

Kunstler's great hate is the suburbs, which are mainly an artifact of the cheap-oil era, and one gets the feeling that he would secretly welcome any catastrophe that destroyed them.

We are seeing higher oil prices now--although if one corrects for inflation, the prices are not as high as most human-passive-news-receptacles tend to think. And while it is fashionable to say that world oil production will reach a sharp peak, then decline indefinitely down to zero--that is the fantasy of the neo-Malthusians.

Such groups as this and this actually want to see the human population forcibly reduced to about 10% or less of its present level.

But human overpopulation is not Earth's problem. Humans thrive in cities--if the cities are well designed and administered, and if the city's human average population IQ is high enough to support a high tech infrastructure. The population of Taiwan is far denser (636 per km2)--but more prosperous and better educated--than the population of China (137 per km2). China has attained the status of world's biggest polluter and greenhouse gas emitter. Rather than planning a violent invasion of Taiwan, China should be learning to imitate Taiwan's success.

The concept of the arcology--the self-contained city--is a useful one for viewing a population-dense but healthy and thriving population. But far more interesting than studying how many hundreds of billions of humans a healthy, thriving, technologically advanced planet Earth could support, is studying how many humans a healthy thriving technologically advanced Solar System could support.
The asteroid belt contains an estimated 825 quintillion (a billion times a billion) tons of iron -- enough to build shells around planets, gigantic cities in space, and starships carrying entire civilizations. How much is this iron worth? Lewis performs a fanciful calculation: At present prices of around $50 a ton, the asteroids yield $7 billion of the metal per person for everyone alive today, or an affluent standard of living for a population far larger. Moreover, iron is merely one element found in the Main Belt, which also contains gold, silver, copper, manganese, titanium, uranium, and much else.

As for peak oil, we can see from the graph above that oil production is not likely to reach a sharp peak. What will be seen for the next few decades is a long plateau with slight ups and downs. When oil production truly does peak, it will be due to a precipitous drop in demand caused by alternative sources of energy.

There may be ample reasons for a person to "plan for the Apocalypse", but peak oil theory is not one of the better ones. Still, for people lacking in logical facility and of limited imagination, peak oil belief may be better than selling crack on the street.

For others who actually care whether their thought processes are tracking in at least a rough parallel path to reality, it is important to test hypotheses against real world data points and trends. That is something that the quasi-religious CAGW believers and peak oil believers tend to avoid. For the religious and the quasi-religious, it is beliefs that matter, not reality--to our best approximation.

Peak oil and "global warming" are not existential risks. Rather, they belong to a class of "dysfunctional ideologies" which, if adopted by advanced societies on a broad scale, would contribute to the loss of vigour and resilience that a civilisation must have to survive. So rather than warning of existential risks, they become one component of a civilisational decadence and fatigue that could lead to the loss of a civilisation.

Interesting reading:

Oil Prices going down in 2008?

Why we'll never run out of oil--Discover Magazine

Confessions of Peak Oil (ex)Believer

Don't Panic written by a peak oil believer who does not see it as a problem.

Politics and Reality of peak oil scare

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Blogger Step Back said...

Today is not April 1st.

Today is the day after XMAS.

It's the day you are supposed to wake up from a drunken cornucopian stupor and realize that Santa ain't real. He won't deliver the next "surge" in fresh crude and neither will Mr. Market or Mr. Fusion.

Wednesday, 26 December, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for stopping by.

If you can think of something more substantive to say, stop by again.

Wednesday, 26 December, 2007  
Blogger Half Sigma said...

There WILL be a peak of production soon (within a decade?) but yes it's not going to cause world collapse. It will harm poor countries more than rich countries like the U.S. Only a tiny percent of our GDP goes towards energy use, so the nation won't collapse if that number quadruples.

Sunday, 30 December, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

HS, if you have not read "The Age of Oil" by Leonardo Maugeri, I encourage you to read it. If a person has not thoroughly digested the concepts discussed in that book, he will not understand most of the problems with contemporary "peak oil theory."

The posting above is merely a playful jab at the ridiculousness of most peak oil believers. But I would very much like to have a serious discussion of this issue with someone who wants to dig beneath the surface.

Sunday, 30 December, 2007  
Blogger Step Back said...


With all due respect sir:

1) A first reality is that reality is spelled with one "L".

2) A second reality is that many of us out here on the internet have read a great deal about oil. We've read the Happy Trail sites. We've read the Doom & Gloom sites. We've read the Hirsch Report. We're not stupid enough to believe that "The Truth" MUST lie somewhere in between. Black Swans do appear & often they obey Murphy's Law by appearing at the worst possible moment and in flocks. In other words, PO with AGW and with financial melt down and Islamo-crazy take over of the world all appearing at once. After all, what are the ordinary people (sheeple) going to do if not to start praying to a new god once every thing around them starts spinning out of control?

3) I personally would like to believe that the extreme Doom & Gloom pundits are wrong. But I'm not ready to dismiss their predictions from the cone of probable futures. I am ready however to dismiss the Happy Trail Cornucopian predictions from that cone of reasonable expectations because the Cornucopians exist totally outside the laws of physics and thermodynamics. I'm sorry. Mr. Cold Fusion (a fantasy device from the movie Back to the Future) is not going to appear at our local Wal Marts. Mr. Lead-Painted Toy will and has.

4) At the end of your initial post you talk about the "vigour and resilience that a civilisation must have to survive". To me that sounds like utter nonsense that is well distanced from physical reality (one L). A civilization must have enough food and water resources to sustainably feed, clothe and shelter its population. That holds true for humans as it does for St. Matthew Island reindeer. A civilization must have an infrastructure and culture that keeps it going on the right track rather than racing towards the cliff by the building of bigger and more extravagant Moa idol heads. (See Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse"). Our current financial institutions are Moa heads. "We" are not smarter than previous human civilizations that have collapsed. We are made of the same basic stuff. The longer we delude ourselves into believing otherwise, the closer we get to the cliff's edge.

signed -- I am Lemming too.

Wednesday, 02 January, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Step Back: Thanks for a more substantive comment.

I will grant you the respect to answer your comment seriously, if you grant that perhaps I may actually know how to spell reallity!

I am not concerned that you believe any particular "truth" about oil. I would be happier if you had read Maugeri's book mentioned above, however.

The extreme doom and gloom pundits are no doubt just as correct about peak oil as they were about Y2K.

Comparing the "cornucopians" with the doomseekers from the Club of Rome to Paul Ehrlich to Stephen Schneider to Kuntsler et al, I would say that to this point the "cornucopians" have won the contest hands down. Not that I am a Panglossian cornucopian by any means (as any regular readers of this blog would understand).

There is a difference between a society and a civilisation. A society (clan, tribe, primitive city-state, or sometimes a mere subset of a civilisation etc) only needs resources to survive. A civilisation must have vigour and resilience to go with the other non-material attributes that make up an ongoing civilisation.

Jared Diamond's Collapse is now generally considered to be a fantasy unrelated for the most part to the actual downfall of the Easter Island sub civilisation. I read the book with that likelihood in mind, so may have derived different lessons than others of a more trusting nature have done.

To sum it up, you have not read this blog. I understand that, and for that reason do not expect your comments to acknowledge the many topics I have discussed previously which intersect with the points you are making.

Wednesday, 02 January, 2008  

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

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