Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Does Cheap Oil Disprove Peak Oil? Absolutely Not!

Blogger Arun Gupta recently wrote a piece on smirkingchimp in which he claims that Peak Oil is all overblown nonsense. According to Gupta:

"Fervent peak oilers are neo-Malthusians, believing the relentless growth of population and society on their own will outstrip natural resources. While Malthus’s ideas were discredited on scientific, historical, and economic grounds in the 19th century, they live on in peak oil, peak water, peak minerals, peak soil, peak food and peak everything."

But in fact, this is emphatically true, despite Gupta lacking the education to see it. Please refer to:


The gist of the above content is that YES- usable energy and resources are decreasing and at a clip most people don't grasp (including Gupta). But the evidence is all around including: slow economic growth, lack of new investments which help many people instead of the few, and ever increasing difficulty in obtaining oil supplies.

One of Gupta's biggest howlers in his piece is when he claims:

"The inherent flaw of peak oil is that it naturalizes capitalism. Energy reserves are determined by price, investment and technology. The current oil boom, driven by innovations in fracking and drilling, tar-sands production, low-cost investment capital and persistently high oil prices, have smashed Hubbert’s theory to bits like brittle shale."

First some background into Hubbert's theory, as Gupta accurately notes:

Shell Oil geologist Marion King Hubbert developed peak oil theory in the 1950s, predicting domestic U.S. oil production would peak by 1970 and decline steadily thereafter. In exploiting an individual oil field, Hubbert contended, production ramps up quickly and hits a peak at about which time about half the recoverable oil has been extracted. As the oil becomes increasingly difficult and costly to pump out, the field goes into decline. Think of the production as abell-shaped curve. The top point means half is gone and half is left. But because population and the economy continue to grow, so do energy needs. Hubbert held that his theory about an individual field was applicable to the continental U.S. oil production and even the entire world, which he predicted would peak around 2000."

But hold on! In fact the evidence shows that global Peak Oil occurred around 2005-06. But what about the so-called "oil boom" due to fracking etc. It's all bogus!  It arises by conflating all oil sources as having the same efficiency to deliver energy.

At the heart of Gupta's - and many others' misunderstanding - is the failure to distinguish between different classes of oil.  Here is my effort to sum it all up, from an energy perspective, so readers can consider it the 'Cliff Notes' version of the whole story:

The planet was endowed with ~ 3,000 billion barrels of oil  – of which we’ve consumed one third and another one sixth of relatively cheap oil remains, after there will reside another third of “break-even” oil (costs as much to access as it delivers), after which one -sixth of very expensive oil remains (costs much more to reach it than it deliver in energy).  At the heart of these considerations is the net energy eqn. (cf. Weisz, in Physics Today, July, 2004, p. 51)

Q (net) = Q (PR) – [Q (op)  + E/T]

In effect, for break-even oil one would find Q(net) = 0

Thus, there is no net gain in energy given the quantity that must be used to obtain it.

For the last 700 billion barrels:    Q(net) = negative quantity =  -Q

Since the rate of energy production (Q (PR) must be debited by the energy consumed for its operation Q(op), and the energy E invested during its “lifetime” T. Thus its Q(PR) will be small in relation to the bracketed quantity.

In a similar vein, Richard Heinberg uses the quantity EROEI or ‘Energy returned on energy invested’ which for oil reached a high of 30 (ratio) in the 70s and is still the highest of all energy sources at around 22.   Thus, the problem in a nutshell is not “running out of oil’ per se but running out of CHEAP oil.

 Bottom line, we need not run out of the stuff before the world economy runs into problems of untold, unspeakable proportions! We already have ample economic indicators showing the signs.
“Peak Oil’ is a somewhat misleading a term, since it suggests a specific date of peak production- a common error Gupta also makes, i.e.
"Then there is the concept of a peak. Even though Hubbert was off by only one year—domestic production peaked in 1971—production looks nothing like his bell curve over time. It rose after each seventies shock, went into a twenty-year funk after the mid-eighties crash, and in the last five years it has soared to near its 1971 peak."
In the real world, the top part of the oil production curve is nearly flat (cf. A. Bartlett, Physics Today, op. cit. p. 54)  In more practical terms – what it means is that if 2005  was the actual year of peak oil production then the worldwide oil production in 2025 will be the SAME as in 1985, demanding that Q(net) > 0.   Also, it means that 2045 will be the same as 1965, and 2065 will be the same as 1945, and 2085 will be the same as 1925! All this while the population is expected to reach 9 billion or more in the SAME PERIOD! (cf. Bartlett, ibid.) In other words, as time goes on the available accessible oil constantly diminishes even as population constantly rises with the same demands.

Hubbert predicted U.S. oil production would peak around 1970,  which it did (at 2.2 liters per person per day). He also predicted world production would peak around 1995, which it would have – had the severe OPEC-induced oil crises not created an artificial supply problem in 1973, thereby pushing this critical peak back 10 years (to 2005).
 Some wildly optimistic prognosticators forecast predictions that 2020-2035 will the “true” date, but as Matt Savinar points out (‘Life After the Oil Crash’ p. 7), these are all based on government agencies “that admit cooking their books" - like they do with inflation and unemployment numbers. SO how can you believe them? You can't!
Now, let's return to the claims made for fracking. Alas, fracking oil - drilling into shale rock to get kerogen, or alternatively, natural gas, is in fact evidence of grabbing BREAK EVEN oil NOT high EROEI oil!  It is a sign of defeat and desperation.  not success - just like deep sea drilling for oil.

As Richard Heinberg explains (p. 110) it in his book, 'Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise Imperils Our Future':
"No evidence suggests that the technology of fracking has actually raised the EROEI for natural gas production. It temporarily lowered prices but only by glutting the market."
Also (ibid.) :
"A  study of the EROEI for electrical heating of methane hydrate deposits between 1000 and 1500 meters deep yielded ratios from 2:1 up to 5:1, depending on the source of the electricity"
Regarding the promises for kerogen or oil shale, he writes:
"Kerogen is not oil. It is better thought of as an oil precursor that was insufficiently cooked by geologic processes. If we want to turn it into oil, we have to finish the process nature started: that involves heating the kerogen to a high temperature for a long time. And that in turn takes energy- lots of it, whether supplied by hydroelectricity, nuclear power plants, natural gas, or the kerogen itself. 
Therefore the EROEI in processing oil shale is bound to be pitifully low. According to the best study to date, by Cutler Cleveland and Peter O'Connor, the EROEI for oil shale production would be about 2:1. That tells us that oil from kerogen will be far more expensive than regular crude oil."
In other words, conflating oil shale (kerogen) with actual light crude oil of high EROEI is like mixing up cow turds with cow's (calves') liver.  One can be eaten, the other can't - and for the oil - one requires additional energy inputs to put to use, the other only refining.
Heinberg's numbers and projections are reinforced by sound sources such as the London-based brokerage firm Tullet Prebon, whose Strategic Insight report declares:
"Our calculated EROEIs both for 1990 (40:1) and for 2010 (17:1) are reasonably close to the numbers cited for those years by Andrew Lees. For 2020, our projected EROEI of 11.5 to 1 is not as catastrophic as 5: 1 but would nevertheless mean that the share of GDP absorbed by energy costs would have escalated to 9.6% from about 6.7% today. Our projections further suggest energy costs would absorb as much as 15% of GDP (at an EROEI of 7.7 to 1)  by 2030."
The Report goes on to note that the "diminishing dismal energy returns" (and again one needs to separate Q(PR)   from Q(net))  means that "the economy we have known for two centuries will cease to become viable at some point." In other words, far from being "capitalistic" - the Peak Oil model and meme is fiercely the opposite because it discloses there are serious limits to our use of resources. BY implication - and direct observation as here in Colo. with its 50,000 frack wells - it also means we have already passed the break even oil extraction point.
Obama, in addition, now evidently wants to permit deep sea drilling off the Atlantic coast, which is further evidence the break even point has been passed and we are I desperation oil extraction mode.
Stop and think - and read - before you buy into the bullshit that cheap oil prices mean Peak Oil is or was a myth. And should you disbelieve it, then take note of this forecast from yours truly: as high quality, efficient oil becomes ever scarcer, look for returns on investments to sink ever lower and the world economy to 'bottom out' with growth barely 1 percent per year. Look also for common goods including food to become ever more expensive since oil is the fuel needed to produce it, as well as transport it. Not to mention the water resources consumed as well.
Oh, and look for your energy bill - relatively low now - to go through the freaking ceiling!

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