Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What Happened to Peak Oil?

Tonight's the night of Rogers Park Alderman Joe Moore's little enviro-confab at the No Exit Cafe on Glenwood, the "Global Warming Cafe", another idiotic gesture where our alderman will get to burnish his lib credentials while steadfastly ignoring the rather large environmental problems here in Rogers Park, principally the number of bullets flying around and blood on the streets.

As usual, the discussions center around Global Warming, while ignoring Peak Oil, which seems to have been shoved to the back burner by the steep drop in oil prices to the $60-65 a barrel range, due to massive demand destruction and to the mass unloading of oil forward contracts by financial concerns unloading them and every other salable asset on their books in their desperation to stem the loss of blood due to the collapse of their mortgage-based structured debt. Due to the steep economic downturn, demand for oil has dropped 9% in the past few months, which might help us make it through the winter without a steep hike in our heat bills.

People tend to have extremely short memories, and to focus on the issue of the hour, which at this moment is the collapse of our financial system and related loss of jobs, incomes, businesses, and homes. But the fact remains is that we are still past the peak of global oil production, which, according to oil geologist Kenneth Deffeyes, occurred in 2005, right on the schedule predicted by M. King Hubbert in 1956. Global oil production has dropped every years since, so we can be thankful for demand destruction, and hope that the vacation from escalating gasoline prices doesn't trigger another spate of gas-guzzler purchases and moves to remote suburbs. As it is, prices have dropped low enough to render unprofitable many of the ventures that are essential to augment the world's dwindling oil supplies, such as the tar sands ventures in Calgary, and deep sea drilling.

However, the demand destruction here and abroad, due to the unfortunate global economic situation, may not be enough to keep demand level with production, for nearly all OPEC members are cutting production and exports, and some forecasters predict that global oil production will drop as much as 9% in 2009, due to depletion of major oil fields and increasing oil use in member countries, who are now reserving more of their production for their own use. A minor increase in demand in tandem with production cuts could, and probably will, cause prices to escalate again, especially if lower prices render much production unprofitable.

For all our local politicians' blathering about climate change and the need to reduce our carbon footprint, we don't see them engaging in serious action to reduce Chicago's prodigious energy consumption and car dependence. We should be making full use of the respite in oil prices to prepare our city for the inevitable draw-down in fossil fuel supplies, yet we have made very few policy changes that would steer development and infrastructure investment in a direction that will produce systems that will serve us when foreign oil is no longer available, or available only in quantities insufficient to run our current systems. Neither Joe Moore or Mayor Daley has made a serious commitment to improving and expanding our inadequate public transit, in spite of a steep spike in ridership in recent years, and the obvious inadequacy of the system to the demands that will be made on it when car ownership drops by 30% or more in coming years. None of our politicians seems eager to develop other infrastructure that will be necessary to keep sensitive communications and other services viable in an energy-short future, either- plans for universal, cheap wireless internet connectivity have been tabled because of the city's failure to negotiate favorable terms with commercial wireless providers, and no other alternatives are being considered.

Worse, Daley and most of our aldermen remain committed to costly and unnecessary expansion of existing highway and airport infrastructure, at a time when the commercial airline industry, which is completely predicated on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, is collapsing, and auto travel is headed for steep decline. Scarce tax monies invested in increasingly redundant and obsolete highway and airport infrastructure, is money being taken away from the systems that we will desperately need in order to maintain a minimal level of technological amenity in an era of depleting fossil fuel supplies and rapidly increasing costs of necessities in combination with disappearing jobs and industries.

It's easy to yap about ways to reduce your carbon footprint on an individual basis, and Joe Moore could sure stand to get a few clues on how to reduce his. However, all the individual efforts - trash recycling, home gardening and canning, buying used goods, turning down the thermostat- don't mean much when individuals are living in a context that demands massive energy waste just to live a normal life, thanks to 80 years of disastrous public policy at the federal and local levels alike that have driven the most wasteful urban development patterns and allocation of resources in the history of the world. Our politicians need to stop twaddling in empty gestures and get down to the necessary and gritty work of developing policies and systems that will enable steep reduction of energy consumption, and the harder work of managing the transition so that it doesn't blow our system, and our lives, to pieces.


Kirk said...

You are right that people have short memories and that we need to keep moving forward with alternative energy, but you are wrong about peak oil. Peak oil is the same to the energy market as the housing “shortage” was to… some other market I can’t remember. We haven’t reached peak oil. We have plenty of untapped reserves. Hopefully we’ll never tap them. What we saw was a commodities bubble. I had this argument with many people while the bubble was inflated. Unfortunately for me, the bubble deflated sooner than I thought and I missed out on making a lot of money. Oh well.

The North Coast said...

I believe Colin Campbell, Matthew Simmons, Kenneth Deffeyes, and other top oil geologists when they locate the peak as having occurred in 2005.

Yeah, there are great reserves left, but the easy, cheap oil is gone, and most of the reserves will never be tapped because there is a negative Energy Return On Energy Invested- in other words, if you are spending a barrel of oil to obtain a barrel of oil, then you are engaging in a futile activity..

... and when you spend a barrel of oil to get less than a barrel, you have gone insane.

Which we apparently have, judging by the fact that the oil derived from the tar sands of Calgary is possible only by a)heavy subsidies by the government of Canada, and b) destroying the fossil water supply utterly and forever by its use to extract the oil, and by the incredibly toxic pollution thereby, that will poison it forever.

The peak of oil discover occurred in 1964, and every discovery since has been smaller and is being tapped out much more rapidly. We might be able to tap more of the huge Bakken formation than is possible at this time- right now, only 3.5 billion barrels, or a half a year's worth of consumption in the U.S., is considered to be available. The rest of the huge formation lies between impermeable layers of dolomite.

It's the same story allover. The Petrobas discovery is about 33 billion barrels, but only 3 billion will most likely be able to be recovered. The ANWR fields in Alaska might contain as much as 20 billion barrels, of which one quarter might be accessible. Same with reserves off the coast of CA.

I'm for drilling everywhere we can drill, because I don't want to give up electric lights, central heat, sanitary systems, and some form of motorized transit. But there is little hope that we will ever again discover an "elephant" such as the fields in Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern countries, or our own drained Spindletop in Texas. Mexaco's Canterell, which was a monster formation, a vast upside-down formation filled with sweet crude, is now in steep depletion, and exports here from that nation will cease in less than three years.

3 billion here, 4 billion there, some tar sands at government subsidize and the cost of our water supply there, and we might draw enough to keep this country supplied for 5 years at current rates of use.

Russia is now the world's top oil producer, and they are past peak. Saudi Aramco won't admit being past peak and their people have the incredible lying effrontery to claim 5 trillion in reserves, but that company is not bound to SEC and SarbanesOxley rules regarding corporate transparency, and it is well known to Simmons and other prominent oil experts that the famous Gwahar fields that kept the world awash in cheap oil for 40 years are now in steep decline-Simmons claims, in TWILIGHT IN THE DESERT, that the "water cut" is as much as 50%, as more and more salt water is pumped into those wells to keep the pressure adequate. The crude no longer gushes, and new wells being drilled there are far less productive than the first ones were in their youth. Britain's famous North Fields, that kept us floating in cheap oil in the 80s and 90s, are depleting at the horrifying rate of 15% a year,and Britain is once again a net importer. Mexico is about to become an importer.

Other known fields are negligible in size and output.

REMEMBER THE LAW OF 2%!! If the supply of a commodity depletes by only that much, you have it reduced by half in 15 years. You can easily imagine, that if oil reserves are depleting worldwide by only that increment, that we will be in a world of pain in just a few years. We do not have to lose half our supplies of oil for every system in this country to totter and for our country to become extremely impoverished and deeply disordered.

If the 5% reduction in our supplies that we experienced in the 70s was enough to make our economy wobble, what would a 10% reduction do? Well I remember taking my mother's car over to get my 5 gallons at 6 in the morning with a coat thrown over my nightgown as not to waste time dressing.

We can be grateful for the recent demand destruction until we consider that it was caused by one of the most severe economic debacles in history.

Keep in mind that Peak means the peak of global oil production, which has tapered off in the 3 years since and is bumping along a rocky plateau. You have to sense that recent Saudi cutbacks in production there are not voluntary. Additionally, oil-producing countries are keeping more of their output for themselves.

Declining production vs. increasing demand is a nasty equation with a very predictable result.

Given the situation as it appears on all the supply reports (which I view regularly) and the steady growth in the world's population in tandem with the ambitions of developing nations who are NOT OUR FRIENDS, we would be wise, in the interest of national security and in consideration of our personal well being, to find creative ways to use our advanced tech to cut our energy consumption by 50% within the next 5 years.

Kirk said...

Oh… you are one of the “drill, baby, drill” and/or “drill here, drill now” people. The sheer length of your filibuster like reply reminds me so much of the “Iraq had WMD” people. Length does not equal quality and that shows in how you dismiss OPEC’s cut in production as “involuntary” and your confusion of production versus discovery. Name dropping hardly impresses me given the simple fact that cutting production in order to match falling demand so obviously contradicts the peak oil theory. That is unless you want to play word parsing games and claim that you are not talking about an oil shortage, but production in general.

All that said, conservation is a good idea and so is seeking out renewable energy. There should be a mandate in the Southwestern United States that all new construction include solar panels and there should be heavy subsidies for people to install panels on existing homes. It is outrageous that most of the plans for solar involves fields of panels rather than decentralized power generation by individuals. Solar is the gift that keeps giving. The panels have a long lifetime and they produce the most energy when demand is up… in the Southwest. Decentralizing production also provides the most bang for the buck since there will be minimal transmission loss.

The North Coast said...

Agree with you on all points, except for the peaking of world oil supply. Alternatives and renewable energy should be sought, and stringent conservation should be practiced.

We need drastic conservation measures, and need to make the changes in habits and living arrangements that will make conservation possible. That is going to be really, really difficult and painful, and that's what our policy makers need to work on.Renewable sources will only fractionally replace current energy sources. There's no way we can run our show as it's currently constituted on any combination of known alternatives.

However, I'm also in favor of drilling wherever possible, if only to finally silence all the right-wingers who believe that it will solve our energy problems. I believe that we will be very disappointed in the results of offshore drilling, but the sooner we do it, the sooner we can get over the fantasy of unlimited reserves of oil.

Any major switch to renewables such as solar, especially to decentralized power generation by individual households, is going to mean motivating people to make a massive upfront investment in solar panels, or geothermal systems, or what-have-you. This is an unsurmountable difficulty, because most people simply can't see how expensive power might become in a few short years, and are not motivated to make the large upfront investment. Have you ever tried to, say, motivate your fellow condo owners to replace the 80-year-old converted coal-burner with an efficient new boiler that will pay back its cost 3X in one heating season? Try getting them to spring for a geothermal system that will take more like 15 years, or getting a typical homeowner to spend $40,000 on a solar array and batteries necessary to generate power for a typical household. All people can usually see is the current situation, which is 9 cents a KwH. They can't project an environment of power that cost more like .40 a KwH, and by the time we reach that point,the costs of new systems will have risen in proportion.

The North Coast said...

Would like to add that subsidies for renewable energy are appropriate and a much better use of our public money than the things we're subsidizing right now... like automobile ownership and auto-dependent lifestyles.

Kirk said...

It is not worth destroying the environment to “silence” the irrational right. They will never be silenced, they will simply move on to the next dumb idea. These are people that think they are getting foreclosed on because of illegal immigrants rather than recognizing their own folly.

Peak oil is propaganda used by futures traders to drive up oil prices - pure and simple. Yes, we will eventually hit peak production and eventually run out of oil. We are not there yet on either front.

You are absolutely right that people are very short sighted. Just look at the fiasco of our “free market” economy. From idiot home buyers that only cared about making payments for a year or two, because they would “refinance” or flip the home later, to CEO’s that pushed financial products that would blow up in a few years so they could pull in their bonus today, to “conservatives” that think that austerity programs will fix our current mess… all short sighted nonsense.

However, moving to renewable energy is not an insurmountable problem. It will just take a long time to address. The cheaper oil is the longer it will take for people to change their views. Luckily, people love fads and the environment is the fad of the moment. It’s time to take advantage of this for the long term good of the country. Plus, it is a national security issue as you have pointed out. That sells well too.

Renewables don’t have to replace our current energy sources. They simply need to provide an offset. However, I fully expect that as technology advances renewable energy sources will replace fossil fuels. But, we can’t get there without subsidies, because few are willing to pay the upfront costs just as you pointed out. For good reason in many cases since without subsidies people have little chance of reaping an economic benefit from things like solar given how often people move.