06 March 2013

The myth of "peak oil"

[E]very time we think we’re starting to run out of it, new technologies arise that find us more. The widely circulated fears of a few years ago that we were approaching “peak oil” have turned out to be completely wrong. From the Arctic to Africa, nanoengineered materials, underwater robots, side-scanning 3-D sonar, specially engineered lubricants, and myriad other advances are opening up titanic new supplies of fossil fuels, many of them in unexpected places—Brazil, Australia, and, perhaps most significantly, North America. “Contrary to what most people believe,” declares a recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School, “oil supply capacity is growing worldwide at such an unprecedented level that it might outpace consumption.”..

Countries that have never had an energy industry worth mentioning are on the brink of becoming major players, while established fossil fuel powerhouses are facing challenges to their dominance. We are witnessing a shift that heralds major new opportunities—and dangers—for individual nations, international politics and economics, and the planet...

We human beings have consumed, over our entire history, about a trillion barrels of oil. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there is still seven to eight times that much left in the ground. The oil that’s left is just more difficult, and therefore more expensive, to get to...

But prices have risen dramatically in the last decade. They have been averaging well above $80 a barrel for the last couple of years. That’s partly due to ever-increasing demand from developing nations and partly due to political factors (such as fears that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could cause serious turmoil in the Persian Gulf). But the price rise is also partly due to another kind of technology: computer algorithms that enable quantitative hedge funds to place thousands of ultrafast buy and sell orders, a practice known as high-frequency trading, which came into widespread use with oil futures in the middle of the last decade. No less an authority than Rex Tillerson, head of ExxonMobil, told Congress in 2011 that such speculation is a key reason why the price of a barrel of oil has stayed so high...

Fracking is about as popular with the general public as puppy kicking, but it’s very big business. It’s producing so much natural gas from shale fields in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere that the commodity’s price has cratered, dropping from over $10 per thousand cubic feet five years ago to about $3.25 today. Fracking can also produce oil, which is the main target in North Dakota. As many as 200 new wells are being drilled every month in the state to exploit the Bakken formation, a 25,000-square-mile subterranean swath extending into Montana and Canada that may contain hundreds of billions of barrels...

And the fracking boom is only just beginning. There are believed to be oceans of yet-untapped shale gas and oil in Argentina, China, and several countries in Europe... What’s more, the earth holds other fossil fuels we haven’t even begun to tap. Governments and corporations are researching a number of long-shot energy sources, from a not-fully cooked type of oil called kerogen to methane hydrates in the ice of Alaska. 
Extended excerpts from Pacific Standard, via The Dish.


  1. So no mention of the externalities, the byproducts of harvesting and burning it all? I thought that was the basis of "peak oil" — that the costs of extracting it and burning it became uneconomical, that there was none left. Much of what we do, how we live, is predicated on cheap energy. If we ignore externalities like climate change, do we really the cost?

  2. The fact of peak oil is indisputable, the only thing in question is the timing. You cannot consume a finite resource without that consumption hitting a peak one day. Saying otherwise is like saying the population of earth has always been rising, so we must assume it will always continue to rise.

    Fossil fuel production may be entering an unstable plateau where prices interact in complex ways with demand, and ability to fund new sources, but as APC mentions above, the cost to the global climate may become overwhelming.

  3. We'd be better off if we were peaking fossil fuels. We're too short-sighted, apparently, to make the inevitable long term move to renewable energy before we do even more severe damage to this planet's climate.

  4. The excerpt contains the key fact that will eventually manifest as "peak oil." That is -- "The oil that’s left is just more difficult, and therefore more expensive, to get to..."

    There comes a point when the "cheap and easy" oil is mostly gone and it's just makes sense to use other sources of energy that are relatively cheaper.

    And, yes, the costs should include externalities, but they won't be counted unless policy forces them to be counted.

    And, yes, after peak oil there is enough coal and other fossil fuels to delay "peak fossil energy" for a looong time, assuming we are not wise enough to phase out of fossil energy to save the planet.

  5. By the time we run out of oil the fracking will have poisoned so much land there will be few places to live and little water to drink.

  6. I am old enough to remember hearing that nuclear energy would render electricity "too cheap to meter". There is always a utopian pipe dream available for dissemination.

  7. Just name a few concrete examples of those vast sources of fossil fuels we allegedly keep discovering all the time, so I can show you how relatively insignificant they are compared to world consumption levels (and how downright tiny compared to past discoveries).


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