Friday, June 25, 2010

Are we really running out?

As I continue to read and learn about the specter of peak oil, my first step is figuring out what are the fundamental questions to ask about this situation. It seems to me that they are as follows:

1. How many years are we from peak oil or are we indeed past it?
2. Are there feasible energy alternatives and if so, how close are they to coming online?
3. What can we as individuals do the alleviate the situation?
4. What will life in a post-oil society be like?
5. What can we as individuals do to prepare for living in a post-oil society?

Ideally I would like to answer all of these questions in a series of posts through my reading for my own peace of mind, scratch that because I don't think there is any peace of mind to be had on this topic. I would like to find answers to these questions for my own mental health but some of them, I fear, are unanswerable.

The first question, which I would like to deal with in this post, addresses a comment that mmmonyka left for me yesterday essentially asking if she was the only one who thinks our oil reserves are underestimated. So I thought I would start with that.

The question of how much economically viable oil remains is a difficult one to answer mostly because any given country's oil reserves are essentially considered a state secret of that country. There are published oil reserves from the major oil producing countries however one must bear in mind that there is heavy incentive to exaggerate one's reserves because greater oil reserves = greater power for the country. Saudi Arabia, which is by far the most important oil producing country in the world with approximately 1/4 of readily extractable reserves, has not published any data on their reserves since 1982. This, of course, has raised concerns that their wells are past peak. I cannot think of any incentive for them to hide the fact that they have far MORE oil than the global community thinks they do. A study done by an energy investment banking firm concluded that Saudi Arabia's production likely peaked in in 2004. In addition, there have been no major discoveries of giants fields in that country since the 1970s. Those three facts together i.e. that Saudi Arabia has 1/4 of the world's proven oil reserves, that they likely peaked 6 years ago and have had no new discoveries in 40 years are enough to convince me that no... the world's oil reserves are not underestimated, quite the opposite.

Here is a widely cited figure which I swiped along with the analysis from here that is disturbing on a few levels:
As you can see there is a step increase in reported oil reserves in all the countries around the mid-eighties. This happened despite there being NO major discoveries during this time. In addition, the reserves plateau after 1988 or increase... despite the fact that the world is drinking up 85 million barrels per day - nowhere on these graphs is any depletion shown! How can we trust data that does not reflect the depletion of oil caused by consumption in the absence of new oil discoveries?? These numbers are largely based on figures from oil companies and oil producing countries both of whom have strong incentives to bloat their figures. Again, no, I don't think the world's oil supply is underestimated.

So that is my reading on the proven, economically viable reserves of traditional reserves. There are tons of peak oil debunkers who optimistically allude to various rosy scenarios such as abiotic oil (oil that originates from reactions in the earth's crust, not from organic decay) and the Bakken formation in the western US with its 3 trillion barrels of untapped oil (more than the rest of the world combined). Unfortunately these are essentially bedtime fairy tales being told to reassure the human psyche which is programmed to reject bad news. The Bakken formation  is far from the dream solution that people want to believe in. The very best case scenario is that if it can be fully exploited, it would reduce US imports of oil for one year (source). As for abiotic oil, this seems to be complete and utter nonsense though I have to admit I have not read on this topic yet.

In a sense it is a little ridiculous to talk about how much we have left. For one thing, it is not the amount left that impacts our life as much as the timing of  peak production, as I stated last time, once production peaks prices go up, economic downturn and all its accompanying hardships results on some time course yet to be determined. For another thing, we know that we have finite oil left, 5 years worth, 10 years worth, 50 years worth... yes it makes a difference from the selfish perspective, essentially is this going to be a problem in our particular lifetimes or not. But it is going to be a problem for some people sometime in the not too distant future. Yes, if we have more time rather than less it gives us time to conserve and adjust and find new solutions. I guess I am just not optimistic about people's abilities to make changes especially to solve a problem of which most people are ignorant or deluded. I am especially not optimistic about the abilities of politicians to legislate to address an issue that may occur outside of the time frame of their term in office. I am just not optimistic. Not about this.


  1. I think you're describing the near-end of oil more so than peak oil itself. Like you say, it's a controversial term and some we're already there.

    Fast forward to when oil prices reach $1000 a barrel. This will happen at some point in la Cocotte's life, and probably even in ours. Is the thought that scary?

    - Less "car culture" and more public transportation.
    - Small cars instread of big cars
    - Smaller, denser cities. End of Texas-style Exurbs.
    - As transportation costs will increase, food will be grown locally. No more made in China (or insert other future dirt poor country where workers are paid cents an hour)
    - More nuclear power
    - More sustainable energy. Wind power is obvious. Some isolated areas of the world already receive all of their energy from wind.

    Piccola, all of the above is destined to happen and much of it, in my mind, is good. I believe a heavy tax on oil would be a good thing. What badness would come from $10 gas, for instance?

    What's so bad about oil running out?

  2. FB - I completely agree that all the things you listed are positive outcomes. I'll go you one further and say another positive outcomes is that once we burn up all the oil we will finally forcibly cut our levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
    However what is so bad about the oil running out? There are two things that frighten me. First, is the period of transition during which I do believe there will be suffering as the economy falters and people experience shortages of basic necessities.
    Second, we're simply not there yet with alternatives. Wind power is far from obvious. It, along with most other energy alternatives (solar, biodiesel, nuclear) require OIL to build the infrastructure which we are still lacking. In particular they require metals which are extremely energy intensive to produce. An aluminium producing plant requires as much power as a small city. You cannot make wind and solar farms without aluminium. To make matters worse, just as we are peaking in oil we are also peaking in rare earth metals which we will also need to build infrastructure. Finally, the transition from oil to alternate forms of energy will require huge outlays of cash, something most countries are short on right now as the global economy still recovers from the credit crunch. My concern is that we are running out of time and resources to make the switch.

  3. You know, I am not scared of running out of oil and consequent lack of car fuel. I think we can find alternative ways and we are on a right track. What is more alarming is that how are we going to build roads, heat buildings, produce chemicals and !!!basically everything!!! we use daily...

    Concerning underestimated oil reserves. I am talking about undiscovered unproven reserves, not discovered ones that are kept secret. But I am not a geologist, I need to look more into it.

  4. mmmonyka - exactly, I am not concerned about not being to drive to the store either (i actually didn't own a car before moving here where we are borrowing one). it is building infrastructure, roads, high tech devices, moving food, growing food... these are the frightening aspects to the end of oil.
    as for undiscovered reserves, despite massive explorations there has not been a major oil discovery of economically viable oil in something like 30 years.

  5. As oil prices inevitably will rise, at which point do you see this period of economic instability happening, Piccola? $1000 a barrel? $2000?

    As oil becomes more expensive, so does other sources of energy. So producing windmills, in a would without cheap oil, might even be more profitable than it is today. The metals needed to produce solar panels and windmills will increase in price, leading to an increased price of electricity.

    But think about this. Denmark uses less than half the oil of Canada and slightly more than half of the US. The sizes of the countries make comparisons difficult but Sweden, which has a geography similar to Canada and has similar infrastructure, also uses comparably little oil. (source:

    So there is a substantial margin. The US should be able to cut in half its oil consumption without hurting the economy (in the long term, anyway). And Denmark isn't exactly saving on oil, either, so the margin goes much deeper. An uneducated guess might be that the US could spend 10 times less oil that it does today, which means that things would be "business as usual" up until at least $1000 a barrel.

    I have to say that, overall, I'm very curious about peak oil, but I'm not worried about it.

  6. FB - interesting, somewhat reassuring points. consider though, countries that are dependent on cheap energy to export their goods to the world e.g. under-developed to moderately developed fruit producing countries in south & central america. when cheap energy dissapears, so does the mainstay of their economy. in the long run perhaps the economy becomes far less globalized, things are consumed close to where they are produced but that is a massive paradigm shift, one that i do not think can happen without considerable turmoil.

    also wind energy might work very well in a country like denmark where no part of the country is more than 100 km (?) from the sea. in other countries wind is not as reliable. further producing wind power consumes alarming amounts of land - another comodity that is in short supply. if we are going to localize agriculture we are going to need land to farm food, not wind (though apparently it can be possible to plant crops between wind tubrines) however i have read alarming figures on how much land is needed to produce enough power through wind - albeit "alarming figures" is a vague not very powerful statement, reading on the feasibility of alternate energies is my next project but i don't think it is a given that wind, solar, tidal, geothermal etc. energies can necessarily replace our oil habit.

  7. First, wind energy. I have had to consult Wikepedia to see if your fears are justified. Afterall, when level-headed Piccolapinecone gets worried, there must be something to it.

    Denmark, apparently, gets roughly 20% of its energy from wind. (link: I don't know if you have ever been to Denmark but it's not exactly full of windmills. I know when I drive to work in Copenhagen I pass at least one cluster of windmills, and there are several single windmills that I am vaguely aware of. Most windmills seem to be on farms, in the middle of the fields. Also, and I didn't know this, Denmark isn't a particularly windy place.

    So I would like to see a credible source claim that the area of land needed is a limiting factor in the production of wind energy. The population density in Denmark is high; not as high as many Asian countries, granted, but much higher than the US and immensely higher than Canada.

    Now to food production, where I share your worries up to a point. Piccola, you may be right about farmers in third world countries. But, then again, one might argue that the current system is the artificial one and, once oil prices go up, we'll revert to a natural order of things. Farmers in rich countries will have to go back to actually making money off their crops, rather than getting government welfare/subsidies.

    Also, although I don't claim to know the details, many people feel that developing countries are being exploited by the current situation. An example is how under- and malnutrition is common in many poor countries with ample food production. The reason is cheap transportation and, thus, the ability of rich countries to buy all their food. Citizens of poor countries can't afford the food they grow - because of cheap oil.

    On a larger scale, as energy becomes more expensive, Earth will be able support fewer people. So it's not like I'm suggesting there is nothing to worry about. Population growth is worrisome, peak oil or not, and it's something mankind will have to deal with over the next 50 years.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. FB - that is a point well taken about the deleterious effects of exporting agriculture from third world countries rather than using the land to grow food for local consumption.
    In general, I think we both agree that the end of oil is going to bring a lot of positive changes in the long, long run - fewer greenhouse emissions (though I fear it is too little too late on that front), more efficiency, localized agriculture, better public transportation, the end of fuel guzzling vehicles, less urban sprawl.
    I guess where we disagree is how painful and, to a certain extent, how possible the transition away from oil will be.
    20% of Denmark's power from wind is a very impressive figure. As I said, I need to read more about the viability of alternate energy sources. Certainly, in doing so, I need to bear in mind the point you made regarding how much overconsumption there is in North American society.
    Anyway I appreciate your well thought out commentary.