Peak Oil Primer

Contrary to popular opinion we do not live in the Information Age. What we live in is the Oil Age. Look around you and you'll have a virtually impossible task of trying to find something that isn't tied back to oil – be it hip replacement surgery, the little pieces of plastic wrapped around the ends of your shoelaces, or the vast infrastructure that makes the so-called "Information Age" possible.

The parallel between food and oil prices (source)
The parallel between food and oil prices (source)

But not only is the relatively superfluous dependent on oil, but so is the very non-superfluous, such as food we eat. Not simply an issue of food being shipped around the world on the back of fossil fuels, the fact of the matter is that fossil fuels are used to plant and harvest our foods, and upon much else, the very fertilizers we spread on our fields are mined from the ground and even derived from fossil fuels themselves (the ammonia and urea we apply to our fields for nitrogen are products of nitrogen atoms paired in the air around us of which were split and combined with hydrogen from natural gas). Simply put, oil and the rest of the fossil fuels are the "lifeblood" of industrial civilization and our modern way of life.

Enter peak oil.

Hubbert's 1956 prediction of future extraction levels for the USA
(PDF source)
Hubbert's 1956 prediction of future extraction levels for the USA
(PDF source)

First conceptualized by the petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, "peak oil" entails a method whereby Hubbert took the production characteristics of oil fields and then predicted when they would reach their mid-point of extraction – a rough barometer for their peak in production levels. While working for Shell Oil in Houston, Hubbert predicted in 1956 that based on the 1930 peak discovery of oil fields in the lower 48 American states, the U.S. peak in production levels would occur around 1970. Long story short, he was ridiculed, none of which however had any effect on his predictions which came true in the year... 1970.

Shortly thereafter, and since the United States could no longer increase its production levels of oil, the U.S. proceeded to lose its position as the largest producer of oil. The role of swing producer – the country or countries most able to open and close the spigots at will – then fell upon OPEC (Organization Of Petroleum Exporting Countries), which was then followed by oil embargoes from the Middle East and an array of geopolitical shenanigans across the world over the following decades.

Worldwide levels of oil discovery versus extraction (source)
Worldwide levels of oil discovery versus extraction (source)

Although many people go to great pains to dismiss peak oil in one way or another, the peak in US oil production in 1970 is testament to the reality that peak oil is not an outlandish theory, but a fact. Furthermore, while the peak discovery of worldwide oil fields occurred in 1964, 1981 was the first year that worldwide extraction levels exceeded new discoveries. Skip over to 2008, and while 31 billion barrels were pumped out of the ground, only 7 billion were discovered. In strictly geological terms, the prime question then is when will peak oil occur on a global scale – or even, when did it occur?

That this is a contentious issue is due to varying definitions of oil. If we go by what is called "conventional oil" – that which is drilled and pumped from under the ground and deserts and such – the peak actually occurred in 2005. (A growing chorus of authors indict this 2005 peak as the prime trigger for the recent economic collapses and ongoing recessions seen around the world, since economies based on growth need increasing levels of oil in order to continue growing.)

Growth in oil supplies temporarily due to US shale oil (source)
Growth in oil supplies temporarily due to US shale oil (source)

However, since 2005 global oil supplies have been on a bumpy plateau, if not slightly increasing, thanks to supplies of what are known as "unconventional oil" – tar sands, deep water oil, and in particular, shale oil. One issue, however, is that unconventional supplies of oil are nowhere near as plentiful as conventional sources, and their addition can't be expected to make up, for very long, for decreasing levels of conventional oil.

Furthermore, while shale oil plays have a steep increase in extraction levels (hence the recent "shale oil revolution"), they also have a very steep decrease. In other words, while unconventional supplies have warded off the day of reckoning just a little bit longer, when the shale bubble pops – and some see it as the next bubble to burst, Wall Street so far dutifully following its script from the recent housing bubble – the effect of overall decreasing oil supplies will be that much worse. (When will the shale bubble pop? Somewhere between 2015 and 2017 seems to be the consensus amongst those less enamored with Wall Street fads and its perks.)

Finally, and contrary to the hopes and expectations of technological evangelists and many environmentalists, so-called "renewable" energies are nowhere near capable of replacing the massive amount of fossil fuels we currently use (nearly 90 million barrels of oil per day – and that's just oil). That being said, renewable energies aren't even renewable – photovoltaic manufacturing facilities aren't powered by solar panels on their roofs – they're built with fossil fuels. In other words, the energy that "renewables" give off isn't enough to meet our needs as well as to maintain, repair, and replace themselves (solar panels, inverters, and batteries last about twenty years, for example).

Similarly, biofuels require petrochemical fertilizers to grow the crops, diesel for the tractors that do the harvesting, fossil fuels to construct the processing facilities as well as power the vast operations, and then more fuels to transport the resultant fuels to their point of use. Their EROEI (Energy Return Over Energy Input, the ratio of what goes in to what comes out) are so low as to be negligible for the needs of societies based on high energy demands, and in some cases even result in overall energy loss (subsidies keep these ventures going). While early oil discoveries yielded EROEIs of 100:1, and worldwide oil supplies now yield an EROEI of roughly 20:1, "renewable" supplies of energy such as photovoltaics have an EROEI of about 2.5:1, nowhere near the 15:1 estimated level needed to maintain industrial civilization and all its accoutrements many of us have gotten used to and take for granted – healthcare, education, cheap global imports, cheap travel, and so forth.

Putting current energy consumption levels in perspective (source)
Putting current energy consumption levels in perspective (source)

One of the two great issues of our time, then, is how we're going to deal with the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel and industrial eras.





Ce post a était traduit en Français par online publication Le Saker Francophone. Il apparaît dans Le Saker Francophone ici ou dans From Filmers to Farmers ici (arrive bientôt). Pour d'autres traductions en Français, s'il vous plaît voir la page de traduction Française.

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