Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Iron Denominator, III

So what does it matter, whether we use electric cars, hyrbids, or fuel cells? We return to the matter of oil. Long before the oil runs out, it will be far too expensive to use. Oil production always follows a bell curve of production, where the first half is by far the easiest to extract. The second half is far more difficult and expensive to extract. Even today, with more advanced extraction technologies, up to 40% of the total oil in any given field may be left in the ground after the pumps are shut down. At the legendary Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia, which at one point provided a substantial portion of the world's oil demand, most of what comes out of the ground these days is actually seawater, which the Saudis pump in to the field to keep the pressure up. The problem, however, is that no matter what you do, once you've reached Peak Oil, all you're doing is spending more and more to get less and less.

The US passed its oil Peak in 1971. Alberta and Alaska have both peaked, despite all the money spent on secondary recovery. The tar sands will forever remain too slow a means of oil production to meet a substantial percentage of world demand, despite the ocean of oil that Alberta floats on. Also, the tar sands are only profitable so long as the Natural Gas used to produce it remains cheap. The reason is simple enough - most of the oil in the continental US was discovered before Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as President. Similarly, most of the oil globally was discovered when Richard Nixon was president. Since then, we've been using oil far far faster than we've been discovering new supplies.

So, when is the world going to reach Peak Oil? Well, the US Geological Survey estimates 2020, but the USGS also estimates that Greenland has a Texas' worth of oil under it. Like many organizations, private and government, you don't get promoted at the USGS by being a downer. So the USGS estimates of Peak Oil are widely ignored. On the other hand, the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre, an association of European scientists, have released their latest newsletter with a revised prediction for the world's peak oil. What far-off date do they predict the world will begin running out of oil?

2005. Happy New Year! More specifically, by the end of 2005 crude oil production will peak. By 2007 all petroleum products will peak. They add to this a prediction that, by 2010, we will begin to see a pronounced shortfall as depleted fields overtake new production. Obviously, we can save some oil right away, but the problem is larger than that. North American natural gas may also be peaking soon, but in any case the global peak is not much farther away then the Oil Peak. We have perhaps until 2020 for the natural gas to stay cheap. More likely, as oil prices increase some will switch to NG to save money, which will just push the peak date closer. This means either we switch to dirty coal, which we might have a century's worth of, or we switch over to renewables.

Lest you think Peak Oil is a minor affair, consider why everyone knows about the 1973 oil embargo of Arab states, but no one knows about the 1967 Oil Embargo. In 1967, their was still spare capacity in Texas to make up lost production from OPEC, and nobody noticed. By 1973, the US production has peaked, and there was no spare capacity to make up the lost capacity from OPEC. A difference of six years was all it took for the US to go from largely autonomous to largely dependent on foreign oil.

Let's re-state this: by the middle of this century, we are going to have to abandon all of our primary sources of energy. Our entire planetary economy is going to have to be run on renewable electricity or biomass. The "Electric Economy" concept has been around for a long time, but it's going to have to be more than an idea soon. Heating, cooling, transportation, all the things we use fossil fuels for are going to have the be done by electricity. This is why I say that it's possible that, no matter what we do, we may have to end up using nuclear power just to keep our current lifestyles, much less have more growth.

Now, the upside to all this is that we can kiss smog days goodbye, as dirty power generation and cars are switched over to clean electric generation. The downside is that we aren't prepared for this, and nobody seems to be talking about it in public. But this isn't a matter of politics or economics. It's dictated by geology, and the entire history of the oil industry shows it will happen. We should be getting ready for this now.

No comments: