Saturday, November 16, 2013

update on Peak Oil

I summarized my attitudes to Peak Oil in an (anonymous) contribution to the Azimuth discussion a couple of years ago, reproduced below. It seems right [except the dubious comment on shale oil was way off]. World economic growth continues to be constrained by the fact that we can only slowly change infrastructure. Fossil fuel use continues to grow as we go to gas and back to coal for many applications.
  1. The world peak is different to the peaks we’ve seen in individual countries and fields, because the price can now rise. This should mean that the tail is more stretched out as otherwise uneconomic fields come into play (like tar sands, very heavy oil, coal liquefaction, abandoned fields, and maybe even oil shales). Also it means that there is a lot of pressure to get off oil as much as possible. Even the Saudis don’t want to burn oil for electricity. Electric cars are coming for some uses. Nuclear powered commercial shipping may be economic. Etc. It will be many decades before we run out of oil for high value applications. However it seems that many of these changes are not starting soon enough and things will be bad for a while.
  2. On energy density: The fuel of choice for interstellar flight is anti-matter. Lots of energy goes into making the powerful lightweight batteries we use in portable stuff like mobile phones and laptops. The message is that, in a normal way, there is good value in using lots of stationary energy to produce much smaller amounts of dense energy for transportation or transportable applications. This fact has been suppressed by the availability of oil which was cheap and already dense. Now that we are looking into this problem we may remember Sheik Yamani’s (past Saudi Oil minister) quote “The stone age didn’t end because they ran out of stones”.
  3. Peak Oil is related to claims of Peak Fossil fuel. However it seems that exploration and development of gas and coal have been suppressed by the availability of the more convenient liquid form. The claims wrt coal are based on traditional extraction methods, but deeply buried coal can be accessed by underground coal gasification.
  4. A (possibly temporary) oil peak is happening now, with oil production unable to expand in response to price increases. It would be nice if we could get the economists who favour all possible effort to expand the economy (like Paul Krugman from NY Times) to respond to the question: “That would result in greater oil consumption. What if the world can’t pump that much more oil at the moment?”. It would also be nice if we could admit that growth is going to be limited for a while and have a rational discussion about how society should handle that fairly. E.g. an answer might be to get people working but not spending, with future financial security, by forcing them to take some of their income as “Energy Crisis Bonds” which will retain their value as a fraction of GDP, but not be spendable until enough of the massive infrastructure changes have been implemented..