17 July 2010

Praying for Doom: A Compulsion for Peak Oil

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF, spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year and doom is their best fund-raiser. Where is the news media's interest in checking out how pessimists' predictions panned out before? There is none. By my count, Lester Brown has now predicted a turning point in the rise of agricultural yields six times since 1974, and been wrong each time. Paul Ehrlich has been predicting mass starvation and mass cancer for 40 years. He still predicts that `the world is coming to a turning point'. _MattRidley

We are living through the last days of Earth. We have always been living through the last days of Earth, ever since humans grew brains big enough to wonder about their own existence. Every age has had its own variety of doom, and the end of the world.

Modern varieties of doom include Peak Oil Doom, Global Warming Doom, Overpopulation Doom, and so on. Here is some background on peak oil:
“I take this opportunity to express my opinion in the strongest terms, that the amazing exhibition of oil which has characterized the last twenty, and will probably characterize the next ten or twenty years, is nevertheless, not only geologically but historically, a temporary and vanishing phenomenon – one which young men will live to see come to its natural end” (1886, J.P. Lesley, state geologist of Pennsylvania).
“There is little or no chance for more oil in California” (1886, U.S. Geological Survey).
“There is little or no chance for more oil in Kansas and Texas” (1891, U.S. Geological Survey).
“Total future production limit of 5.7 billion barrels of oil, perhaps a ten-year supply” (1914, U.S. Bureau of Mines).
“Reserves to last only thirteen years” (1939, Department of the Interior).
“Reserves to last thirteen years” (1951, Department of the Interior, Oil and Gas Division).
“We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade” (President Jimmy Carter speaking in 1978 to the entire world).
“At the present rate of use, it is estimated that coal reserves will last 200 more years. Petroleum may run out in 20 to 30 years, and natural gas may last only another 70 years” (Ralph M. Feather, Merrill textbook Science Connections Annotated Teacher’s Version, 1990, p. 493).
“At the current rate of consumption, some scientists estimate that the world’s known supplies of oil … will be used up within your lifetime” (1993, The United States and its People).
“The supply of fossil fuels is being used up at an alarming rate. Governments must help save our fossil fuel supply by passing laws limiting their use” (Merrill/Glenco textbook, Biology, An Everyday Experience, 1992).
Quotes like these could fill a thousand pages easily. _PeakOil?

Clearly, we are -- and always have been -- running out of oil. But then again, we are always finding more oil and discovering other things which can be substituted for oil -- when the need arises.
“No matter how closely it is defined, the physical quantity of a resource in the earth is not fully known at any time, because resources are sought and found only as they are needed. Even if the quantities of a particular resource were exactly known, such measurements would not be meaningful, because humans have a near-limitless capacity for developing additional ways to meet our needs: developing fiber optics, for instance, instead of copper wire …” _Julian Simon_quoted in PeakOil?

Why are beliefs in human-caused doom so prevalent in the western world? Perhaps "apocalypse" is simply programmed into the western mind. It is more than possible that there is a bit of doomer in all of us. Some of us simply allow our "inner doomer" to run away with us. Certainly a large proportion of western society has become caught up in the doomer spirit, reluctant to let go of the horsemen of the apocalypse.

Many of these runaway doomers are also active in movements to block the development of fossil fuels resources. As if afraid that their visions of doom may not prove out on their own, they step in to actively bring these prophecies of scarcity to depletion through political means.
Those who block oil and natural gas development here in the United States and elsewhere only make it much more difficult to meet the demand for oil, natural gas, and petroleum products. Indeed, it is not surprising that some of the end-of-oil advocates are the same people who oppose oil and natural gas development everywhere. _Goliath (subscription)
Belief in "peak oil" is usually quite confused. The underlying idea is that oil production follows something of a "bell curve". Believers in peak oil assume that this curve is true for individual wells, entire oil fields and deposits, for collections of deposits, for national oil fields, and for all the oil fields on the planet.

This "peak theory" fails to make allowances for unforeseen variations in either demand or supply, production or reserves. For example, if demand should fall significantly due to improved efficiencies or due to demand destruction, the nice clean shape of the peak curve is distorted. Likewise, should production be hampered by political upheaval or by corrupt administration and underinvestment -- or if producers simply "hold back" on production for any reason -- the curve cannot help but be shifted due to the fact that a great deal more oil is left underground for future exploitation. And certainly if significant improvements are made in the technology of exploration or production, the sacred curve will be man-handled once again.

As exploration and production technologies improve, "proven reserves" will necessarily grow.
Thanks to new technologies, additional oil can now be recovered from the apparently exhausted reserves. Specifically, the peaking and declining of oil from an existing well is not the same as the peaking and declining of oil from the respective oil field or reservoir. While oil production from an existing well is bound to peak and then slow down, “offset wells” can be drilled later into the same field or reservoir to produce more oil. _CounterPunch
One interesting example of a big oil find in the midst of "an exhausted field" occurred in Kern County, California.
Kern River Oil Field was discovered in 1899, and initially it was thought that only 10 percent of its heavy, viscous crude could be recovered. In 1942, after more than four decades of modest production, the field was estimated to still hold 54 million barrels of recoverable oil. As pointed out in 1995 by Morris Adelman, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the few remaining energy gurus, “in the next forty-four years, it produced not 54 million barrels but 736 million barrels, and it had another 970 million barrels remaining.” But even this estimate was wrong. In November 2007 U.S. oil giant Chevron announced that cumulative production had reached two billion barrels. Today, Kern River still puts out more than 80,000 barrels per day, and Chevron reckons that the remaining reserves are about 480 million barrels. _SciAm

"Proven Reserves" are those that can be produced "economically." But the definitions of economical production are constantly changing, as the technology (and the politics eg, Iraq) changes.

And then there are the "unconventionals," such as heavy oils, oil sands, oil shales, coal to liquids, gas to liquids, and biomass to liquids. A doomer will not even stoop to discuss this 50 ton gorilla in the room, but any good economist would be forced to consider them.
The cost of oil comes down to the cost of finding, and then lifting or extracting. First, you have to decide where to dig. Exploration costs currently run under $3 per barrel in much of the Mideast, and below $7 for oil hidden deep under the ocean. But these costs have been falling, not rising, because imaging technology that lets geologists peer through miles of water and rock improves faster than supplies recede. Many lower-grade deposits require no new looking at all.

To pick just one example among many, finding costs are essentially zero for the 3.5 trillion barrels of oil that soak the clay in the Orinoco basin in Venezuela, and the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Yes, that’s trillion – over a century’s worth of global supply, at the current 30-billion-barrel-a-year rate of consumption. _WallStreetJournal Jan 2005_quoted by_PeakOil?

I do not want to talk you out of your beliefs in doom, if that is what you wish to believe. I merely point out that you have a choice. A rational examination of the facts does not force you to cling to doomerism. Such clinging is a question of your inner motivations. We do not wish to go into those motivations at this time.
As we plan for our energy future, we also cannot afford to ignore the lessons of recent history. In the early 1970s, many energy policymakers were sure that oil and natural gas would soon be exhausted, and government policy was explicitly aimed at "guiding" the market in a smooth transition away from these fuels to new, more sustainable alternatives. Price controls, allocation schemes, limitations on natural gas, massive subsidies to synthetic fuels, and other measures were funded heavily and implemented.

Unfortunately, the key premises on which these programs were based, namely that oil was nearing exhaustion and that government guidance was desirable to safely transition to new energy sources, are now recognized as having been clearly wrong--and to have resulted in enormously expensive mistakes.

Looking into the distant future, there will be a day when oil is no longer the world's dominant energy source. We can only speculate as to when and how that day will come about. _Goliath (subscription)

Cross-posted to Al Fin Energy


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

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