Sunday, September 04, 2011

Peak Oil: Is There Any Longer a Valid Debate?

It has been some time since I sat down to analyze what is happening with peak oil. It has been difficult to see that there is any meaningful response from government, business and the media. They are still very busy characterizing minor new discoveries of oil as the saviors of society, as though there is a pervasive fear of admitting the truth to the public. The pieces of the puzzle that one has to fit together are very fragmented and misrepresented in the media.

* There is a renewed effort in the US to paint the tar sands as an ethical source of oil. I still believe Chris Skrebowski is right in his projection that the tar sands will peak in 2015. I covered this in the article, Will the tar sands peak in 2015?, on my blog. The essential limiting factors on tar sands are flow rate (the amount that can be extracted at one time from all mines) and the density of hydrocarbons in the formation which tends to decrease toward the periphery of the formation. The latter is the basis for Skrebowski's 2015 peak projection.
* The US was putting a great deal of stock in shale gas as the future of energy for the US. With all of the environmental problems from fracking, the public is, even now, split on the validity of that as an energy source. In addition the IEA and USGS(EIA) have now downgraded the estimates for the Murcheson Shale formation in eastern US from over 400 trillion cubic feet to something less than 50 trillion cubic feet. There is also serious doubts about the validity of the estimates for the Bakken shale formation in north central US and southern prairie provinces of Canada. This is a tremendous blow to US energy plans. It is also very likely that estimates on recoverable energy from other shale formations, both in the US and abroad, have been dramatically overstated. At the same time the true cost of extraction and site restoration have probably been dramatically understated.
* It is strongly believed, in the peak oil community, and recently being tacitly admitted in the mainstream press and political circles, that the OPEC reserve estimates for Saudi Arabia, and potentially other OPEC members, are vastly overstated and that even Saudi Arabia has reached or surpassed its production peak. The Saudis are only managing to keep up their production with the injection of tremendous volumes of sea water to keep up the wellhead pressure. But they are now experiencing water cut up to as high as 90% on some wells. In the process they are also destroying their critical fresh water aquifers by contaminating them with salt water. In addition OPEC nations are increasingly consuming their own oil resources meaning as their standard of living rises and the disparity between production and exports is growing each year. From a global perspective it is not production that matters but rather exports.
* Emerging nations such as China and India are still experiencing exponential growth in their energy consumption every year. Both use a tremendous amount of coal as well (China has vast coal reserves but they are also a net coal importer), but coal reserves are significantly declining, with production rates now also on the decline. Energy consumption tends to follow economic growth and decline and there is still a tremendous amount of economic growth possible in these two large population giants. As is always the case, the more the economy grows the greater are the population's expectations for standard of living and consumption. This is certainly proving to be the case in these two nations.
* Deep water oil is not the panacea that western nations had painted it to be. The recovery of deep water oil is very technically challenging, expensive and risky, both in terms of safety and environmental well being. BP's Deepwater Horizon loss was the first major deepwater oil disaster, but it definitely will not be the last. There will always be a high risk of methane explosions and the resulting leak is extremely damaging to the environment. It is also very likely that the optimistic estimates of how much undiscovered deep water oil exists have been dramatically overstated. Deep water wells also tend to peak much more rapidly than land-based wells - vis-a-vis the North Sea and Mexico's Cantarell - so their benefit is short-lived. Considering the cost of exploration and discovery, the long lead time needed to put safe extraction technology in place, and the limits on the number of recovery wells that can be sunk into a single reserve, deep water oil is very unlikely to keep up with the declines in land-based production. It is very possible that deep water oil may quickly become non viable economically and have to be abandoned.
* Methane hydrates (as well as coal bed methane and bio-mass methane) are seen as a strong potential as the next great energy source. Certainly with the decline in viability of shale gas this will renew the expectations for methane hydrates. I have covered this extensively in my blog. The estimates for recoverability of Methane Hydrates are all over the map, as are the reserves that have a potential for economic recovery if the technology can be sorted out. In general, however, the recoverability estimates, I believe, are badly overstated. In addition it would take a whole new energy infrastructure to take full advantage of these resources, an energy infrastructure that I believe we are already past the point of possibility of developing.
* There is an ever growing disparity between WTI crude prices and the other, more realistic prices of oil such as Brent. The WTI, NYMEX-traded, American price is being kept artificially low as the US, the world's largest oil importer, attempts to impose prices on the rest of the world in order to keep it's ever increasing energy costs in check, particularly as it tries to recover from the 2008 global economic recession, which it still has not managed to do. Increasingly global oil producers will not trade their oil contracts on NYMEX because they are able to get much better prices on other global oil commodity exchanges which more accurately reflect the state of global oil reserves. With the US credit rating having recently been downgraded by S&P there is an increasing possibility that the US dollar will be overthrown as the global reserve currency. This will make the US/NYMEX oil pricing increasingly irrelevant and drive the cost the US must pay for oil up to realistic levels equivalent to what the rest of the world pays.
* Over the past several years there is a clear, but unprovable pattern, of the US waging war after war against oil-rich countries in the hands of rulers, usually dictators, not friendly to the U.S. First there was Iraq and Afghanistan (the gateway to the Caspian Sea oil province), then the suspected involvement in the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, the invasion of Libya, the suspected involvement in the division of Sudan, the continued saber rattling at Iran and Venezuela, and the increasing rhetoric, now that Libya is more or less settled, over Syria. After the invasion of Afghanistan a former executive of Conoco Phillips, Ahmid Karzai, was installed as ruler and plans immediately began for a pipeline to bring Caspian oil to a Pacific port via Afghanistan. After the invasion of Irag western oil companies immediately began negotiating for their share of the Iraqi oil pie. The same is about to happen in Libya. And when Sudan was partitioned the US took aim at the oil reserves in the newly separated south Sudan. The saber rattling over Iran, Syria and others has as much to do with their oil reserves as politics. And in all, the US has more military presence in the Arabian Gulf than anywhere else in the world except the US itself.
* Despite several years of teeth gnashing and negative press in the US over Canada's tar sands oil being dirty oil (complete with bans against it in several states including California), the US government has a measure on the table for building a high volume pipeline, the Keystone Pipeline, from Alberta to the major US oil refineries in Texas and elsewhere along the Gulf coast. It is obvious they only consider tar sands oil dirty when they can get adequate supply from elsewhere in the world. With the reality of declining OPEC, Mexican and other sources of oil staring them in the face, they desperately want to tie up that Canadian tar sands oil, particularly since China is making increasing investment in the tar sands also in an attempt to ensure future oil availability. Venezuela has vast oil sands, in the Orinoco region, that probably equal those in Canada, but Venezuela is not friendly to US interests.
* The US is quietly but increasingly reducing its investment in automobile infrastructure (highways, tunnels, bridges, etc) including new construction and maintenance of existing infrastructure. This is obviously partly due to the long recession that has gripped the country but it is a clear indicator that when budgets are tight they are no longer prepared to give top priority to automobile infrastructure.
* Most developed nations such as the US and European nations are placing increased emphasis on electric cars as the centerpiece of the future of the automobile. That, however, ignores the simple and glaringly obvious reality that electrical generation and transmission infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating and will require massive billions of dollars of investment in order to support an electric car culture. In addition, any sort of serious government push to accelerate the conversion to electric cars will dramatically increase the drawdown of increasingly rare resources, particularly for the production of the batteries needed to run those electric cars. It is clearly doubtful if the hundreds of millions of cars in the US and Europe will ever be replaced wholesale by electric vehicles.
* Increasingly over the past decade, published oil production and reserve figures have been broadened to include more and more questionable commodities such as synthetic oil from tar sands, liquid fuels created from coal and natural gas condensates, liquid fuels produced from shale formations, ethanol, bio-fuels and more. The simple reality already is that traditional crude oil is no longer satisfying the demand but is increasingly reliant on these other non-traditional sources to make up the shortfall. But even the figures reported by the EIA, of crude plus condensates, are already on the decline.

Peak oil is not an event wherein all of a sudden one day governments, business and the media will announce that peak oil has arrived and we all need to adjust the way we live on this planet. It won't be sudden. It won't be clear. And in the initial stages of the decline following peak there is plenty of wiggle room to disguise the fact that we are in decline, and room to perpetuate the state of denial in which we have existed for the past couple of decades. As has often been said, peak oil ultimately will only be recognized in the rearview mirror.
I believe peak oil has already arrived. I believe, in fact, based on the data available, peak oil arrived in 2005. In the several years since then enormous effort has been put into disguising that reality and turning to other energy sources and classifying them as oil to allow that facade to be maintained. I do not believe we are adjusting to the reality of peak oil. I belief we are firmly entrenched in trying to deny that reality and scrambling ever harder to find some viable energy alternative that will allow us to carry on business as usual to keep us from ever having to deal with that reality. The chances are very slim, however, of finding any energy source that will allow us the massive amounts of cheap energy that we derive from crude oil. Peak oil will probably mean peak net energy and be followed by an accelerating decline in all forms of energy.
The news, however, is not all bad. Peak oil and peak net energy will also mean peak CO2 emissions. That will allow the planet a chance to begin recovering from the damage our high energy human lifestyle has inflicted on the planet. That at least improves the prospect of the long term survivability of our species and that of other species with whom we reluctantly share this planet.