Friday, September 11, 2009

On Peak Oil

An oil industry consultant recently had the following article published in the New York Times.
You get to decide whether he's dealing with basic science or just disguised BS.

‘Peak Oil’ Is a Waste of Energy
A careful examination of the facts shows that most arguments about the theory of peak oil are based on anecdotal information, vague references and ignorance of how the oil industry operates.......
As has become my habit, I decided to ask 'Mr Google' and here are excerpts from Wikipedia on peak oil, including different opinions and perspectives.

“All the easy oil and gas in the world has pretty much been found. Now comes the harder work in finding and producing oil from more challenging environments and work areas.” — William J. Cummings, Exxon-Mobil company spokesman, December 2005

To pump oil, it first needs to be discovered. The peak of world oilfield discoveries occurred in 1965 at around 55 billion barrels(Gb)/year. According to the ASPO, the rate of discovery has been falling steadily since. Less than 10 Gb/yr of oil were discovered each year between 2002-2007.

Concerns over stated reserves
“World reserves are confused and in fact inflated. Many of the so-called reserves are in fact resources. They're not delineated, they're not accessible, they’re not available for production” — Sadad I. Al Husseini, former VP of Aramco, presentation to the Oil and Money conference, October 2007.

Al-Husseini's estimated that 300 billion (64×109 m3) of the world's 1,200 billion barrels (190×109 m3) of proved reserves should be recategorized as speculative resources.

Unconventional sources
Syncrude's Mildred Lake mine site and plant near Fort McMurray, Alberta

Unconventional sources, such as heavy crude oil, oil sands, and oil shale are not counted as part of oil reserves.
However, oil companies can book them as proven reserves after opening a strip mine or thermal facility for extraction.
Oil industry sources such as Rigzone have stated that these unconventional sources are not as efficient to produce, however, requiring extra energy to refine, resulting in higher production costs and up to three times more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel (or barrel equivalent).

While the energy used, resources needed, and environmental effects of extracting unconventional sources has traditionally been prohibitively high, the three major unconventional oil sources being considered for large scale production are the extra heavy oil in the Orinoco Belt of Venezuela, the Athabasca Oil Sands in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, and the oil shales of the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming in the United States.

Chuck Masters of the USGS estimates that, "Taken together, these resource occurrences, in the Western Hemisphere, are approximately equal to the Identified Reserves of conventional crude oil accredited to the Middle East."

Authorities familiar with the resources believe that the world's ultimate reserves of unconventional oil are several times as large as those of conventional oil and will be highly profitable for companies as a result of higher prices in the 21st century.
“I do not believe the world has to worry about ‘peak oil’ for a very long time.” — Abdullah S. Jum'ah, 2008-01

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah told his subjects in 1998, "The oil boom is over and will not return... All of us must get used to a different lifestyle."

Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens stated in 2005 that worldwide conventional oil production was very close to peaking.
On June 17, 2008, in testimony before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Pickens stated that "I do believe you have peaked out at 85 million barrels a day globally."

Data from the United States Energy Information Administration show that world production leveled out in 2004, and an October 2007 retrospective report by the Energy Watch Group concluded that this data showed the peak of conventional oil production in the third quarter of 2006
The Hirsch report

In 2005, the United States Department of Energy published a report titled Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management.
Known as the Hirsch report, it stated,
"The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."

Conclusions from the Hirsch report and three scenarios

1. World oil peaking is going to happen - some forecasters predict within a decade, others later.

2. Oil peaking could cost economies dearly - particularly that of the U.S.

3. Oil peaking presents a unique challenge - previous transitions were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.

4. The real problem is liquid fuels for transportation - motor vehicles, aircraft, trains, and ships have no ready alternative.

5. Mitigation efforts will require substantial time - an intense effort over decades.

6. Both supply and demand will require attention - higher efficiency can reduce demand, but large amounts of substitute fuels must be produced.

7. It is a matter of risk management - early mitigation will be less damaging than delayed mitigation.

8. Government intervention will be required - otherwise the economic and social implications would be chaotic.

9. Economic upheaval is not inevitable - without mitigation, peaking will cause major upheaval, but given enough lead-time, the problems are soluble.

10. More information is needed - effective action requires better understanding of a number of issues.

The report listed three possible scenarios:

• waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades;

• initiating a mitigation crash program ten years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked;

• or initiating a mitigation crash program twenty years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.


While there are various optimistic and pessimistic predictions of future oil production, no one knows for sure when peak oil may occur, or if it has already happened.
But, is how important is this exact knowledge in a practical sense?

Doesn't it make sense to plan for contingencies rather than waiting for an 'energy 9/11' to happen?
After all, there is a finite limit to most material things.

And, if we have learned anything from history, it is that new technologies are there waiting for our discovery and application.
Some of those new technologies -like harnessing solar & wind energy- are already known and awaiting application, as are various energy conservation techniques.

It just makes sense that we use these new and less polluting ideas earlier rather than later, so we have the benefit of time being on our side in at least mitigating any peak oil calamity that might come our way -or come our children's or grandchildren's way.

My two cents.