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Why Peak Oil Refuses To Die

Why Peak Oil Refuses To Die

Perhaps you’ve seen one of the recent barrage of articles claiming that fears of an imminent peak and decline in world oil production have either been dispelled (because we actually have plenty of oil) or are misplaced (because climate change is the only environmental problem we should be concerned with). I’m not buying either argument.

Why? Let’s start with the common assertion that oil supplies are sufficiently abundant so that a peak in production is many years or decades away. Everyone agrees that planet Earth still holds plenty of petroleum or petroleum-like resources: that’s the kernel of truth at the heart of most attempted peak-oil debunkery. However, extracting and delivering those resources at an affordable price is becoming a bigger challenge year by year. For the oil industry, costs of production have rocketed; they’re currently soaring at a rate of about 10 percent annually. Producers need very high oil prices to justify going after the resources that remain—tight oil from source rocks, Arctic oil, ultra-deepwater oil, and bitumen. But oil prices have already risen to the point where many users of petroleum just can’t afford to pay more. The US economy has a habit of responding to oil price hikes by swooning into recession, and during the shift from $20 per barrel oil to $100 per barrel oil (which occurred between 2002 and 2011), the economies of most industrialized countries began to shudder and stall. What would be their response to a sustained oil price of $150 or $200? We may never know: it remains to be seen whether the world can afford to pay what will be required for oil producers to continue wresting liquid hydrocarbons from the ground at current rates. While industry apologists who choose to focus only on the abundance of remaining petroleum resources claim that peak oil is rubbish, the market is telling Houston we have a problem.

Meanwhile some environmentalists have abandoned the subject of peak oil because they believe it’s just not relevant. For them, climate change is the only thing that matters. Society must deal with its collective carbon habit by going cold turkey on all fossil fuels. We can make the needed energy transition through the strategies of substitution and efficiency. Develop low-carbon energy sources (solar and wind, possibly nuclear), and use energy smarter! Electrify transport with battery-powered cars! Get with the program and stop wasting time on side issues!

Like the abundant-resource argument, this line of thinking proceeds from an unassailable premise. Anthropogenic climate change is indeed the nastiest, gnarliest environmental issue humanity has ever faced. The potential consequences stretch centuries or millennia into the future and imperil not just humanity, but thousands or millions of other species. But peak oil won’t go away just because it’s an inconvenient distraction from addressing that gargantuan issue. In fact, the two problems are closely linked and society will need to address both by way of a realistic, comprehensive strategy. I’ll get back to that point toward the end of this essay.

Is the necessary transition to renewable energy a simple matter of politics and regulation, as many climate campaigners seem to suggest? Hardly. Transitioning the electricity sector is a huge task in itself (the variability of wind and solar power implies soaring costs for energy storage, capacity redundancy, and grid upgrades once these sources start to provide a substantial portion of total electrical energy consumed). But liquid fuels pose an even bigger hurdle. Even the most advanced batteries do a poor job of storing energy when compared to oil; that’s why we’re unlikely ever to see electric airplanes, tractors, ships, 18-wheel trucks, or bulldozers. Some energy pundits tout compressed natural gas as a viable bridge fuel for transport, but that assumes sufficient availability and continued affordability of fracked shale gas—a prospect that seems highly unlikely in view of the results of Post Carbon Institute’s ongoing research into possible shale gas drilling locations and per-well production profiles. Hydrogen could be a niche fuel in some instances, but conversion from other energy sources (electricity or natural gas) to hydrogen implies energy losses, as does hydrogen storage. Further, if we were to make lots of H2 from water, using electricity, in order to fuel much of the transport sector, this would place an enormous extra burden on solar and wind, which already face a daunting job replacing coal and natural gas in the power generation sector.

How about energy efficiency? Good idea! We need to cut energy waste, and the folks at Rocky Mountain Institute have proposed many good ways of doing that. But, at the end of the day, efficiency is subject to the law of diminishing returns; so, while the tie between energy consumption and economic output is somewhat elastic, it cannot be severed. Specifically regarding oil: yes, many nations have reduced petroleum consumption in the last few years as a way of adapting to higher prices. But the fact that their economies have weakened suggests that efficiency gains have tended to lag behind oil price increases. Average vehicle fuel economy has improved, but not fast enough—so our main “efficiency” strategy has in reality simply been to travel less, and then deal with the withdrawal of economic benefits that cheap transport formerly provided.

None of this is trivial: oil is essential to the functioning of the modern industrial world. We use it for just about all transportation, which is key to trade. It’s also the fuel for construction, resource extraction (mining, fishing, forestry), and agriculture. Together, these sectors form the backbone of the real, physical economy of industrialized nations.

Again: the costs of oil production are rising and oil is stubbornly hard to substitute. As I argued in a recent book, this effectively spells the end of the historic period of rapid economic growth that began shortly after World War II. There is no way out; inevitably, society will become less mobile and—this should be cause for much greater concern—it will either produce less food or produce it in more labor-intensive ways.

Of course, peak oil and climate change aren’t the only looming challenges we should be concerned about. Economists rightly worry that the world is mired in far too much debt. Ecologists warn us about biodiversity loss, pervasive chemical pollution, and human overpopulation. Food system analysts try (usually in vain) to direct public attention toward the predicaments of topsoil degradation and depletion of aquifers from over-irrigation. Public health professionals caution us about the specter of pandemics as antibiotics lose effectiveness due to rapid microbial evolution. For city managers, the crumbling of water, sewerage, bridge, gas, and electricity grid infrastructure implies countless disasters just waiting to happen. I could go on. It’s all so overwhelming! Perhaps the only way to avoid crisis fatigue these days is simply to stop paying attention. But amid all these priorities and problems, peak oil refuses to die.

Those of us who insist on paying attention sooner or later get around to doing a form of mental triage. What are the worst crises that humanity faces over the long run? Which are the worst in the short term? What are the deeper issues, of which many problems are mere symptoms? This sorting process has led many systems thinkers to the conclusion that our species, in essence, faces an ecological dilemma of overpopulation, resource depletion, and environmental degradation resulting from a relatively brief period of rapid expansion enabled by a huge but temporary energy subsidy in the form of fossil fuels. We discovered buried treasure and went on a spending binge, adopting a way of life that cannot be supported long-term. Peak oil, climate change, mineral depletion, soil degradation, species loss, and the rest are just words that blind men use to describe an elephant.

What we must do now is treat symptoms while keeping in mind the root disease, seeing why and how various crises are related. I have a couple of suggestions in this regard. One is that we begin to speak of peak oil and climate change as two sides of the same coin. The coin itself represents our reliance on fossil fuels and their unique energetic benefits. Both side-problems (the declining economic value of fossil fuels as they deplete, on one side, and the increasing environmental cost of burning them, on the other) demand that we reduce our fossil fuel dependency as rapidly as possible, even though that means sacrificing benefits we have come to depend on. If we maintain this holistic view of the situation, we’re more likely to understand that there is no way to keep eating our cake while having it too, either by continuing to burn fossil fuels of declining quality or by relying on new technology to fix what is actually an ecological problem. We can’t frack our way back to economic prosperity; nor can we unplug a coal plant, plug in a solar panel, and go on expanding population and consumption. We will have to adapt to the quantities and qualities of energy that are actually available from renewable sources alone, and that will mean changing the way we do just about everything.

Which brings me to the second, related suggestion. The constellation of challenges before us ensures that economic growth, as we have known it, is over, finished, kaput. That’s a terrible thing, in that the end of growth will almost certainly entail financial and political turbulence with real human casualties. But from the standpoint of diagnosis and treatment, it simplifies everything marvelously. If our impending crises stem from fossil-fueled expansion of population and consumption, their resolution surely starts with a coordinated, planned, and managed program of decarbonization and degrowth. We must reduce population and energy consumption from fossil fuels, while minimizing the human and environmental impacts of both past growth and the process of contraction. Easily said, not so easily done. But if civilization is to maintain itself in any recognizable form, this is what’s necessary. It would really help if those of us working at treating the various symptoms of the global meta-crisistogether acknowledged that growth is a core part of the underlying problem, not a solution, and that it is effectively over in any case.

Ignore peak oil (this could equally be said of climate change), and our view of the global problem-set immediately becomes distorted. We grasp at apparent solutions that turn out to be a useless waste of effort, or worse. Peak oil helps us understand what we’re faced with, and what we must do. It’s a gift wrapped in a curse. And it refuses to go away no matter how often it is pronounced dead.

By. Richard Heinberg

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  • Florian on September 08 2014 said:
    A brilliant summary by M. Heinberg and he's right in every line about the situation and the things we should do. But the fact that this article is already some 24 houres online and I am actually the first one who even dares to comment doesn't give me much hope.
    Lately I went through my bookmarks and tried the links to all the peak-oil pages from 2005-2009 and they where almost all dead, nothing left from this blooming and vibrating grasroot movement. Worse, my gold that I bought than lost a lot of its value, money is once again more trustworthy than real values. Its as if all our problems just went away. With societies as short-sighted as ours we will never prepare for any of the problems described above. They only convince a small group of people (to which I belong) that it is still a good idea to want this small farm that works without electricity - and that I will not sell my gold ;-)
  • Lee James on September 08 2014 said:
    We won't want to, "change the way we do just about everything." Few of us will reach that conclusion, per se. But we will follow price signals in a marketplace. Fossil fuels are increasingly expensive; renewable energy is becoming less expensive -- especially when we cost-out environmental consequences of the various energy sources.

    We'll inevitably transition to alternatives to burning carbon. The question is, when? Will we transition as painlessly as we possibly can? Will we price carbon correctly in the marketplace, for example?

    Thank you, Oil Price, for running this assessment by Professor Heinberg. Luckily for some investor types reading Oil Price, the S&P Global Clean Energy Index has done quite well over the last year. Clean Energy is leading the (fossil) Energy Index as well as the total S&P 500 market.

    It's like the Professor said, fossil fuels are increasingly at a cost of production disadvantage.
  • Blue Steel Sheen on September 08 2014 said:
    Since there is a sucker born every minute, peak oil will never die. Echo chambers may fall by the wayside, but new ones are built readily. Circle jerks can be assembled and disassembled at will. Superfluous people who have nothing truly important to do will always flock to the cause with the most strident hawker.
  • Ian in BCN on September 09 2014 said:
    While it is certainly true that the planet and our species is suffering from the over-exploitation of resources, I'm not sure that energy will prove to be a very limiting resource or that we'll have to consume less energy, and more expensive energy- and suffer reduced economic prospects because of it. Wind power already accounts for a significant (even the largest) portion of electricity generated in several advanced economies without too much of an issue of needing redundant backup. And the cost of wind is now pretty much equal with coal and falling rapidly. Solar likewise is reaching grid parity all over the globe while still falling in cost. Solar is growing an exponential rate that, should it continue, will lead to it being the largest electric source in very short order. In some electric markets solar and wind are causing peak electric prices to fall. As we get more and more of our electricity from these ever cheaper technologies, I suspect we will see continuously falling electrical prices.

    Electric batteries are not yet anywhere near cheap enough to make economically competitive EV's for most types of vehicles. But they are already cheap enough that electric city buses and taxis are cheaper than gas vehicles over their lifetime. And like solar pv, Li-ion batteries have been improving in performance rather rapidly in the last few years and falling in price. Meanwhile sales of battery electric vehicles have been increasing at an exponential rate.

    Quite to the contrary of Heinberg's thesis, It seems to me that the switch to renewables will bring great economic benefits to society, not just in cheaper power, but also in locally sourced and cleaner power. If we were smart we would tax and cap fossil fuels so that their price fully reflected their social and environmental cost, and use that money to speed the transition.
  • Tim Axelsson on September 09 2014 said:
    Interesting take on the future. I agree with the frailty of the unlimited growth concept on which our current market economy is based. But life never seems to move in completely predictable ways and humans tend to go where the current is least first. I come from a fishing background and folks used to say that fishermen will catch the last fish in the ocean. To which I say no. Fish will become so scarce that the commercial model will not be supported by spending more money than you can recover to sell your fish. Running around expending resources to catch a luxury item sounds like a market for only a few folks. The rest of us will eat something else. Same goes for oil. The only difference between the analogy of the last fish and peak oil is the recovery of the renewable resource being geologic time for oil vs. decades for fish. Energy efficiency means making your own energy for your own consumption. Home based renewables. But the modern mobile society has a say in this argument. Will your home sell for more value with a renewable power source? Would you pay more for a home with solar panels or a windmill? Today it's kind of like having a pool in the backyard. Only few perceive the value and want to pay more for the asset. But as energy becomes a more and more precious commodity humans will look for cheaper ways to keep the lights on. And if that means providing for your own means of energy, than so be it. It takes time to affect the sort of change needed but change will happen. If utility income drops due to home based renewable energy you will see utilities start to squeal. This will pressure politically controlled regulators to increase electricity rates, which will accelerate the change to renewables by consumers and possibly the same utilities with stranded fossil fuel assets. One thing is certain, in a market economy the law of supply and demand is alive and well and will continue to be so as long as we remain a free society with choices. As far as the population thing, nature works in mysterious ways and always seeks the equilibrium for the conditions present.
  • Peter S on September 09 2014 said:
    Great article. That virtually nobody has commented on it, scares me. A quick Facebook experiment: look for Beyonce's FB page - over 50 million "likes"; look for "peak oil" - a few thousands "likes".

    People don't know. And they don't want to know. People are choosing to listen to the information that agrees with their ideology, and ignoring the rest. In about 5 years (when the IEA itself says that fracking in the USA will peak - 2020), we will start to see a very different world.

    It could be completely unrecognizable. The potential deaths are beyond what people want to think about.
  • Roland on September 09 2014 said:
    Peak population and peak phosphorus need to take a large portion of the blame placed above. Human ingenuity may give us new energy sources, but growth cannot continue, no matter what. The planet is finite. There will always be some limiting factor(s), but energy may not be it.
  • Bob Wallace on September 10 2014 said:
    "Let’s start with the common assertion that oil supplies are sufficiently abundant so that a peak in production is many years or decades away"

    That seems rational to me. And as we continue to approach peak production the price of oil will rise, causing people to seek use efficiency and substitution. Those consumption decreases will push peak production decades further into the future.

    As someone who follows renewable energy closely I feel comfortable predicting that we will have ~200 mile range EVs selling for about the same or less than same-model ICEVs a decade from now. Given that EVs cost about one-third as much to operate (fuel and maintenance) as ICEVs the market will rapidly switch to EVs. Oil for personal transportation will drop rapidly over the coming decade and be essentially not used after two decades.

    We have 200 mile range "city" electric buses on our roads now. They cost far less over their lifetimes than diesel buses. Diesel buses for city use are soon going away.

    High speed rail is electric. HSR will likely replace short and moderate length air travel, taking away another large consumer of oil.

    If oil prices rise significantly then it will be less expensive for manufacturers to produce closer to their market rather than shipping. Another drop in oil use as fewer ships transverse our oceans.

    And if oil prices rise significantly airlines will move to biofuels. They are already flying with biofuels, what they pump into their tanks is simply a matter of cost.

    Moving most of our transportation away from oil with the technology we have right now should cut our consumption in half which pushes the peak many more decades into the future.
  • Bob Wallace on September 10 2014 said:
    Why does this site not allow one to follow comments?

    You have my email You can send me the reason. I'll never know it if you post it here.
  • Mark Spence on September 15 2014 said:
    I have followed this issue closely since the begining of my career as a strategic planning consultant back in 2004.

    The greatest lesson I have learned from watching government agencies, corporates and individuals is that denial and anger is the go-to response.

    Peak Oil is an existential crisis with no simple solutions, indeed peak oil demands a systems thinking approach which encompases every aspect of our lives and people find it very difficult to get their heads around that.

    In short. Stay aware, quietly re-organise your life (as I and my partner continue to do so) and let everyone else get on with it. If you a) are vocal on the topic and b) future proofed, people will come knocking and you will be overwhelmed by overwhelmed people.
  • John Delano on September 17 2014 said:
    Peak oil estimates are all wrong, and the proof is exxon facts that show only 10 percent of wildcat wells are sucessful.
    Delano's Discovery that all petroleum comes from plankton that swam in the living zone ocean that existed over the past 900 million years. The oil can be measured scientifically by using the locations of all existence of 900 million year old Louann salt deposits.
    The news since 2006 when Brazil hit the compos , santos pre salt deposits caused me to see the proof of my 40 years of research of the geologic formation of planet earth over the past 4.5 billion years.
    Read my latest book "The Origin Of Mountains" and you will finally understand all the reason why oil has different ages and how the oil formed in the ocean that was in the front of an ice mass that was 3,000 miles wide , 6 miles into the crust / lithosphere and that moved 6 inches per year around planet earth over a 248 million year period.
    Slushball earth existed, accompanied by the free nutation of earths crust. Some of that crustal movement exist today in the 4.7 movement of the chandler wobble midpoint toward the southwest .
    That ice cap that rose in the pacific hollow 4.5 billion years ago after the moon forming collision blew our moon into orbit left a hollow that collected all the liquid on the planet. In time , and with a 30 percent cooler sun that liquid froze and as it froze it rose. Mantle material returning, radioactive heat , expanding caused a 20 mile high ice cap over the entire pacific hollow. The center ,one pivot point point was Hawaii, the second antipodal is Botswana South Africa , and the ice mass moved, being an assemetric mass on the surface of planet earth. Albert Einstein's physics explains how the crust under the floe will move toward the ever moving equator, like the huge volcano on Mars moved to the equator.
    That ice cap pushed up 4.4 billion year old mountains in antartica , 2.2 to 1.7 billion year old mountains in Brazil, and many more that were eroded away to level plains.
    Magma formed under the moving rotating ice cap and today the heat flow is 70 percent higher on the pacific sea bed than the heat flow from the continents. The last 600 million years the ice cap thinned by 50 by volume as the remaining 50 percent of the ice filled the " 7 seas" of planet earth. It's interesting that there is a footprint of the rebound structures left by the circumnavigation of the ice floes, and the are called the 40,000 miles of ocean ridges.
    By now you know plate tectonics are in error but some of its features are just the imagination of the scientist and some of the nonsense has been around since Wegener's continental drift, 102 years ago. Enough already.
    All the text books need to be rewritten.
    To be continued...

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