Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Optimism Without Reserves

Peak Oil Is Dead, Long Live Peak Oil

Less than a month ago, geologist Euan Mearns wrote a piece called "Three Nails in the Coffin of Peak Oil". The article was posted on The Oil Drum, a website that has been a source of peak oil information and debate for nearly a decade, but is now being mothballed and indefinitely put to rest.

This is emblematic of the state of peak oil today. The idea that a peak in oil production rates is imminent seems to appear much less in the media now than during the oil price spike of 2005-2008, and the graph below suggests that public interest in it is waning as well.

When peak oil does appear in the media these days, it is often dismissed or outright ridiculed. A widely cited report from Harvard University put the ivory seal of academia on peak oil's death sentence. The June 2012 report, which can be read in full here, contends that global oil production will rise until 2020 at rates that have not been seen since the 1980s. Most of this growth is attributed to an increase in shale/tight oil production, especially in North America, where Montana and North Dakota could become "a big Persian Gulf producing country within the United States".

Taking a slightly different angle, The Economist recently argued that the world will soon figure out out how to reduce its oil dependency through a mix of fuel efficiency improvements and switching to newly abundant natural gas, meaning a peak in demand, rather than supply, is expected. There have even been calls to shut down the U.S's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a massive oil storage facility put in place after the 1973-1974 embargo, implying that the kind of oil worries started in the '70s have been put to rest once and for all.

This lack of concern with oil supply constraints is generally regarded as good news, although taken from another perspective, the idea that we might manage to keep up (or even increase) the rate at which we're burning oil for decades to come is perhaps not particularly appealing. Some of those who reject the peak oil hypothesis aren't thrilled about it either. One of the most prominent names to have switched sides in the debate, journalist George Monbiot, wrote a piece shortly after the Harvard report came out called "We were wrong on peak oil. There's enough to fry us all". However, while the more severe effects of climate change are still decades away according to most predictions, a dip in the supply of oil could have immediate and far-reaching repercussions: about 95% of global transportation energy is petroleum-based, meaning pretty much everything you eat or use has been moved around using oil at some point in its life. Personally, with my parents living more than 7000 km away from me, any decrease in the availability of affordable transportation would have a significant impact on my life. As a species with a relatively-short lifespan, it's not hard to guess how far on the horizon our priorities are going to lie.

Of course, all this pre-supposes that the combination of science and speculation behind this production/demand optimism is accurate. Look for another post coming down the pipeline which critically examines what, exactly, is lending credence to these reports.


  1. what are you talking about. most acdemic sorces about peak talked about light sweet oil. and conventional produciton. vs. cost of other means which drive up supply cost thus, put pressure on demand. try studying econmics and reading abit.

    1. Al-Zaz, I'm pretty sure the underlying point here is that there isn't much in society that is going to drastically alter the demand; we are a civilization completely dependent upon oil, in any form (be it light sweet oil or tar sands oil).
      Also, before criticizing someone and suggesting they read a bit, you may want to take a look at how you yourself communicate in the written form (ie: completely deplorably with little to no regard for spelling or proper punctuation).


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