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The world currently consumes some 84 million barrels of oil a day, which is projected to grow to 120 million barrels by 2025. Peak Oil advocates don't believe that this rate of extraction and consumption can be sustained. Does that make them cultists?

"Proponents of the imminent peak of global oil extraction -- led by Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, L.F. Ivanhoe, Richard Duncan, and Kenneth Deffeyes -- resort to deliberately alarmist arguments as they mix incontestable facts with caricatures of complex realities and as they ignore anything that does not fit their preconceived conclusions in order to issue their obituaries of modern civilization".

So begins the opening sentence of Vaclav Smil's equally polemic paper, Peak Oil: A Catastrophist Cult and Complex Realities castigating the "cultists" of peak oil, which I suspect he'd also consider EV World.

The thrust of his argument is that advocates of peak oil, the point at which global demand exceeds global supply, erroneously assume that mankind will not find a way to adapt; and as a result, the world will descend into a destructive spiral of economic and geopolitical crises that could result in a new dark age.

Well, I've read most of the books on peak oil, and attended the most recent ASPO conference in Denver and while many of the experts on peak oil do raise alarm bells because of the speed and trajectory of world oil consumption, which resembles the Titantic plowing full-speed ahead into a dark, ice-berg littered North Atlantic, few of them that I've read or interviewed assume -- with the possible exception of Richard Heinberg -- that we can't alter course. That is, in fact, the object of their concern and purpose behind their warnings. I consider them lookouts aboard a surging, Edwardian-era ocean liner long before the advent of radar, weather satellites and GPS.

I don't think anyone from Campbell to Simmons would argue with Smil's observation that, "even if the world's ultimately recoverable oil resources were known with perfection, the global oil production curve would not be determined without knowing future oil demand. We obviously have no such understanding because that demand will be shaped, as in the past, by unpredictable technical advances."

Matt Simmons recently told the ASPO conference in Denver that he doesn't see peak oil occurring IF the world curbs demand or if what he calls "conceptual reserves", in fact, actually become proven and economically extractable. Both are the great unknowns at the moment for both sides of the debate.

Simmons doesn't know how much oil is left and Smil doesn't know which technology will end our dependence on it.

"Steeply rising oil prices would not lead to unchecked bidding for the remaining oil," the University of Manitoba professor muses, "but would accelerate a shift to other energy sources."

That is, in fact, what is happening from renewable energy to hybrid cars, but it's the pace of change that is of concern here. Yes, gasoline or diesel-electric drives can double a car's fuel efficiency, but can they be built fast enough, in sufficient numbers to make a meaningful contribution in reducing petroleum consumption worldwide, especially since an SUV bought today will still be in service as much as twenty years from now?

Smil happily quotes USGS global oil reserve estimates of 3 trillion barrels of oil, ignoring EIA estimates that sees world petroleum demand increasing from the current 84 mbd to 120 mbd by 2025, while also forecasting that renewable energy will only provide less than five percent of the world's energy needs in the same time frame. The Hirsch report sees unconventional petroleum resources like GTL, biofuels, shale oil and tar sands making only modest contributions to the World's thirst for liquid fuels. Certainly hybrid cars, solar panels, wind farms and "inherently safe ways of nuclear fission" are likely to help some, but will they be enough to close the yawning liquid fuels gap?

Finally, assuming that the productionof liquid fuels can keep up with demand, what does that do to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The present rate of CO2 injection is alarming. What happens when there are 2 billion cars and trucks on the road by 2025?

Most if not all of them will have to be powered by something other than petroleum and that something is likely to be electricity generated from renewable and perhaps safer fission or hopefully fusion power.

Is mankind likely to adapt to a changing energy world? Certainly, but I doubt it will be painless or without disruption. My guess is that somewhere between the "sect" of free-market optimism espoused by Professor Smil and the "cult" of peak oil pessimism personified by Professor Heinberg, lies the future in motion.

Originally posted to My EV World on Wed Jan 11, 2006 at 09:54 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  it's a race (none)
    I agree with you that the gloom and doom can be overstated, but I must admit to a sizeable amount of pessimism.
    I think the prospect for alternative fuels has been way overhyped, and even if they do have the mavelous capacities envisioned by their most optimistic supporters, we are not moving nearly fast enough. We can't even get reasonable CAFE standards to use the best technology that is already available.
    I am not in the camp that thinks civilization will be utterly destroyed, but I am convinced that 20 years from now we will be living life in a way that is almost unrecognizeable today.
    I believe that for most of us long distance travel will be prohibitively expensive except for very rare occasions. I think we will have to go back to buying more of our food locally and that throw away technology will become a thing of the past.
    If we start working, now, to mitigate the worst of the dislocations, then we can get through alright, all it takes is strong, visionary political leadership. That is what frightens me the most.
    We have a long history of not facing up to problems until they are right on our doorstep, and Peak Oil is one of those problems that a lot of influential people have an enormous stake in keeping under wraps for as long as possible. When it comes to shifting an entire economy over to new sources of energy and new models of business, thats just not the kind of thing that happens quickly and easily, and still we just keep buying our Hummers and expecting to pay 69cents for a lb. of bannanas grown 4000 miles away, and a few bucks for a T shirt made halfway around the world.
  •  I disagree w/ the term Peak Oil Advocates (none)
    Not with you but the author of course -- I really doubt that anyone "sounding the alarm" about peak oil is hoping it will happen. Oh yeah maybe some radical ecoterrorist type -- but not 99 percent of those pushing the issue.

    I'm undecided on whether or not peak oil will be a reality soon but once you know for sure (shades of global warming!!!) it's too late to take the "easier" measures that would make things less bad.

  •  Vaclav Smil is a Right-Wing Shill (4.00)
    Notice how his document you linked to carries a Tech Central Station banner? Lack of intelligent discussion is virtually guaranteed. Too bad, since many Peak Oilers are politically conservative. But since the conservative's creed is greed, we can expect a stream of crap coming from those who benefit from high petroleum demand.

    Sourcewatch has the dirt:

    Started in 2000 by James K. Glassman, TCS [Tech Central Station] is published by DCI Group. Some DCI Group clients are also sponsors of TCS. DCI Group is a Republican public affairs consulting and lobbying firm based in Washington DC.

    During the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, Kendra Okonski wrote an article for the TechCentralStation web site, stating that "Africans are sacrificed on the altar of trendy green delusions."

    Okonski works as co-ordinator for the London-based IPN and as the press contact for the SDN. She formerly worked with the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).

    Paul Georgia writes on climate change issues, but gets basic physics wrong, indicating that either Tech Central Station's editors do not know basic science or that they do not review submitted pieces.

    Further ignorance of science is evidenced by articles promoting the doctrine of Intelligent design.

    TechCentralStation runs frequent articles attacking the use of low-cost generic medicines, especially in developing countries, seeking to claim that "generic" means "unsafe". This frequently involves fierce criticism of the World Health Organization and NGOs.

  •  Knocking over the straw man (none)
    In Logic 101, one learns that one of the logical fallacies is attacking a straw man by accusing opponents of holding positions and advancing arguments other than, typically more extreme, than they actually do. The idea that peak oil advocates are some sort of cult is an example of this fallacy.

    The issue here is not only actual peak oil but also the perception of that there is not enough to go around. We are already enmeshed in the latter. The normal supply demand curve is no longer operating in the energy sector owing to speculators who have amplified the situation such that the movement of the price of gas at the pump now resembles the trading curve of a volatile stock favored by speculators. There is no rational reason that gas was worth over $3 last summer, under $2 in the late fall, and approaching $2.50 now, other than swing in speculation. The cost of extraction has not greatly increased yet, nor is supply dwindling to that degree either from lack of availability or manipulation by the cartel.

    No one who knows the facts is saying that we are going to "run out of oil." Rather, the cost of obtaining oil is going to increase dramatically as light sweet crude becomes less available and lower grades need to be recovered and processed. The world will still have petro products for an extended time, albeit at an increasing cost. This will drive up the market price and dramatically affect the economic status quo, resulting in huge changes in the not so distant future. It is already happening on a modest scale, I live only a few miles from the Solar Living Institute, where these issues are addressed, and there are both electric hookups and biodiesel available there. But, so far, this is just a blip.

    It is this increasing cost which is going to transform the world economy from a primarily petro-based economy to a diversified energy economy. On the way, the transition can be either relatively smooth or extremely rough, depending on whether choices are made intelligently or left to market forces alone. If market forces alone rule, then it is very possible that we will see peak oil in terms of the peaking of the quantity of crude that is relatively inexpensive to recover and process, meaning that the market price will increase exponentially. This will be very disruptive to the world economy and especially to the oil-based economies of the developed world, the US in particular were the distances are great and public transpo is lacking.

    Of course, new technologies will be developed and some are already available but not in use yet on a large scaled because they are much more expensive than oil at present. However, there is no good substitute at the moment for oil products, which store high levels of potential energy in an accessible and transportable form. Biodiesel is a promising technology that is mre feasible than hydrogen, which is relatively difficult, expensive and dangerous to process, transport an store. Biodiesel fuels are relatively inexpensive to produce in the tropics and can be transported by ship in containers cost-effectively as well. It is possible to import biodiesel this way from both Latin America and Indonesia which can be sold at a profit for about $2 a US gal now.

    This should not be left entirely to market forces, however. Governments should be formulating intelligent, cooperative energy policy, and undertaking research on promising technologies. For example, solar electolysis can convert sea water to hydrogen for powering the generation of electricity instead of relying on either carbon-based fuels or nuclear energy. This would be a huge project and probably would be best done as an international consortium sponsored by governments rather than left to the private sector gettng around to it sometime after excessive pollution mandates alternatives.

    Bushco, being run by oil execs, has no motivation to go in this direction. In fact, its motivation as a representative or extension of oil company interests is to oppose it.

  •  Balance of views (none)
    I agree that we should have a balance of views. And the Peak Oil folks like Simmons are just as you described providing an early warning.

    Regrading oil reserves, there is enough heavy oil in Venezuela and tar sands in Canada to double the volume from light oil from Saudi. However, the costs of extraction are very high due to the energy intensive nature of extraction (steam injection). So, crude prices have to increase sufficiently and be stable at the higher band before it becomes economically viable to extract these more difficult reserves.

    Higher prices naturally will focus attention on other measures too - conservation (better mileage vehicles - e.g: diesel and diesel hybrids for the SUV category); renewable liquid fuels (ethanol, biodiesel - biodiesel is already blended at 2-3% with diesel in Europe and expected to rise to 5% in the next 2 years); wind, solar, geothermal; new technologies - hydrogen, high oil content algae.

    The Simmons argument is an important one. First,improved extraction technology is increasing the rate of depletion of a well. The example is North Sea. When the peak is passed production declines are rapid in the 20-30% per year rate. Second, the new heavy oil projects require many years to come on stream and current prices do not justify major investment. Third, there have been no major discoveries of light crude in the past two decades.

    The bottom line in my view is that doomsday scenarios are just alarmist, on the other hand we as societies will not act until there is a crisis (the late 70s come to mind). There will be limited investments in slowing the growth in demand through increased efficiency and conservation in the short term. New supplies will be slow in coming due to the economics. So barring a recession if world growth continues at its current pace one can expect oil prices to continue to rise and be highly volatile as small supply disruptions can throw prices off in response. Of course if there is a US recession (which means slower growth in China) then short term demand will also decline moderating oil prices and further postponing action on energy security.

  •  peak oil my ass (none)
    the solar system formed in a hydrocarbon soup and there is some o dat black gold in practially every rock in the Earth's crust.  Yes prices will rise as we burn the easy stuff, no it will not be so fast as to cause the end of the world as we know.

    Peak oil freaks are just another doomsdsay cult, just as the title of this diary posits.

    Out of my cold dead hands

    by bluelaser2 on Wed Jan 11, 2006 at 10:49:20 AM PST

    •  We can't even get that ... (none)
      ..."black gold" economically out of oil shale - where it is in prodigious quantities - much less that rest of the rocks. But if you come up with a new technology for recovering such oil using less energy than is recovered, let us know.
      •  Get your facts straight first, huh ? (none)
        Oil shale is a general term applied to a group of fine black to dark brown shales rich enough in bituminous material (called kerogen) to yield petroleum upon distillation. The kerogen in oil shale can be converted to oil through the chemical process of pyrolysis. During pyrolysis the oil shale is heated to 450-500 °C in the absence of air and the kerogen is converted to oil and separated out, a process called "retorting". Oil shale has also been burnt directly as a low-grade fuel. The United States Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves estimates the world supply of oil shale at 1662 billion barrels of which 1200 billion barrels are in the United States [1]. This is comparable to the amount of reserves of conventional oil.

        Below forty dollars a barrel, oil-shale oil is not competitive with conventional crude oil. If the oil price were to stay permanently at over forty dollars a barrel (with no chance of declining, which could be the case if oil shale were to be exploited on a large enough scale), then companies would exploit oil shale. Generally, the oil shale has to be mined, transported, retorted, and then disposed of, so at least 40% of the energy value is consumed in production.

        During the oil crisis of the 1970s, people thought that oil supplies were peaking, expected oil prices to be around seventy dollars a barrel for some time to come, and invested huge amounts of money in refining oil shale -- money that they lost. Because of the astronomical sums that were lost last time around there is considerable reluctance to invest in oil shale this time around. Investors are waiting to see if oil prices really will remain this high (in mid-2005: US$60+). Prices are rising because of increased demand in rapidly developing countries, particularly China. Will high prices result in the discovery of more oil, as happened in the seventies, or will alternatives to drilling for oil have to be developed? Investors, burnt badly in the 1980s for their enthusiasm of the seventies, are in no hurry to develop oil shale. Those who lost money then are inclined to believe that more oil will be found by and by.

        In 2005, Royal Dutch Shell announced that its in-situ extraction technology could be competitive at prices over $30/bbl

        - From Wikipedia

        Again, Peak Oil ?  My Ass....

        Out of my cold dead hands

        by bluelaser2 on Wed Jan 11, 2006 at 05:58:05 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Sorry for my snarky subject line Blades (none)
        Did not realize who you are- I know you do a ton of good work on this site- apologies-

        But I stand by my position that we are swimming in oil--


        Out of my cold dead hands

        by bluelaser2 on Wed Jan 11, 2006 at 06:15:55 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  The USGS estimate of ... (none)
    ...oil reserves is NOT 3 trillion barrels.

    Reserves are what you know you have. Qualify the word with "proven," if you like. Right now, global proven reserves are around 1.1 trillion barrels. "Proven" may be stretching it a bit, since the number is suspect because the data regarding these reserves are, in most cases, closely held secrets of the countries which issue them. See Twilight in the Desert.

    Undiscovered oil plus proven reserves together are called Estimated Ultimately Recoverable oil (EUR in the jargon). In 2000 the USGS said that there was a 95% chance of there being 2.4 trillion EUR barrels of oil, a little more than double the allegedly proven reserves. The USGS also said there was a 50% chance of 3 trillion EUR barrels. And a 5% chance of 3.8 trillion EUR barrels.


  •  It's real and already here (none)
    "The Long Emergency" by James Kunstler provides a good overall voew of the ramifications....

    Oil and coal provide an unequalled resource for "stored energy".  They made the Industrial Revolution possible and allowed this planet to support far more than it could otherwise.

    There are NO "solutions" that can overcome the loss of cheap oil and coal.  Much alternative energy CONSUMES a great deal of energy to work and things like efficient windmills and nuclear power plants and even solar cells NEED the oil driven technology we have to get produced.

    So.... we focus on a major changeover and PREPARE - and that will include the "dreaded" nuclear power plant option for electricity generation (not any way to meet demand with hydro - and aren't people already complaining about dams?), wind, solar or any combination.

    Reality is "Technology" has its limits and there are no "magic" solutions.  We got one hell of a ride from oil - a century and a half or two but the ride is coming to an end.......

    We may find that the only way we'll survive is with a VERY different lifestyle and a lot LESS people living it.

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