Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Death Knell" For Peak Oil? Not So Fast!

It is easy to understand why some folks, including the nattering nabobs of the mainstream media, might somehow mistake the current glut of oil for evidence that Peak Oil is fiction or never existed at all. This would be a tragic error but as we see in today's Denver Post editorial ('The Death Knell for Peak Oil', p. 19A) it is definitely being made.

The Post's editor gushes that the "world is now awash in oil"- with Iran set to add its millions of barrels next, and in effect:

"It's as if the whole world were conspiring to bury the tattered remains of the 'peak oil' thesis so popular a few years ago."

Nowhere in his misplaced screed, not in one single paragraph, does this genius tie the consistently low economic growth rates in the advanced nations to the reduction of oil's efficiency. This is a result of having used up all the best quality oil and now going for the 'leftovers'.  As I pointed out to wifey this a.m.: "The moron doesn't even realize the shale oil we're pulling out of the ground is the next thing to garbage, which in fact proves the peak oil primary contention."

Yet the Post editor, blinded by BS, actually praises the fracked crap - devastating Colorado's landscape, air and water, btw -  as he merrily goes on:

"Little did the peak oil theorists - who insisted the planet was running out of oil- realize the shale oil revolution in the U.S. - already under way-was about to push domestic production to unforeseen heights"

First, peak oil "theorists" - like Richard Heinberg ('The Party's Over') never said the world was "running out of oil".  What they said is that the planet is running out of the highly efficient, high grade cheap oil (light sweet crude in particular) that is capable of driving the intense energy demands of industrial societies - from glass factories to military hardware and jet planes. Obviously, this point is too subtle for the editor at the Post to seemingly grasp. But let's try again to break it down for him - and others.

The planet was originally endowed with ~ 3,000 billion barrels of oil  – of which we’ve consumed one third and another one sixth of relatively cheap oil remains. Afterwards (say by 2030) 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 delivers 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

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.

Right now, to fix ideas, we are very nearly at this Q(net) = 0 level with shale oil - which is why once its price falls to much lower than $50 /bl. it makes little economic sense to take it out of the ground. Compared to light sweet crude it is effectively garbage fuel. 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.

Alas, fracking shale 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."

Get that? Adding it to the total world pool of higher quality oil merely "glutted the market". This is also what's dragging your 401k down right now, though yeah, you will catch kind of a break at the pump. Let's also grasp that this crap oil isn't even used here in the U.S. it's shipped off to places like China - where it fouls their skies and creates health havoc along with the CO2 and SO2 from factories and autos.

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.

These are crucial points to process, but the Post editor never does as he goes on to cavil about "peak oil handwringing".   The guy would be better served having studied the issue in more depth before putting out an editorial. In particular, that 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."

We are already seeing the initial signs in the entrenched low growth (barely 2 percent)  confounding the nation's politicos and economists who - up to now - haven't tied this to the degraded oil slopping around the world..  

Stop and think - and read - before you buy into the bullshit that cheap oil prices (or an "oil glut") 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 when shale is exposed for the snake oil it is..


energyskeptic said...

What is seldom discussed is that this is what Robert Hirsch says should be called a "Liquid fuels transportation crisis".

Virtually everything in our homes, everything in our stores, got there on a truck. Prior to that, 90 percent of those items were transported on a ship and/or a train. If trucks, trains, and ships stopped running, our global economy and way of life would stop too.

I wrote a book for systems ecologist and biophysical economics professor Charles Hall for his Springer Energy Series that was just published called "When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation". See the Springer blurb or my article at for more information, and the table contents, preface, and refereces are at

Alice Friedemann

Copernicus said...

Thanks for the useful insights, references and links!

Publius said...

The recovery rate is part of the oil supply equation, and this rate is what is boosted by fracking.

Shale recovery is strongly driven by the world political situation, with the majors excluded from many countries with exploitable oil reserves.

You also need to consider peak consumption in global supply-demand comparisons.

We haven't heard much from Kenneth S. Deffeyes since he predicted peak oil production being reached in 2005

Copernicus said...

You need to carefully study the links supplied by commenter Alice Friedemann earlier. You also need to study Robert Heinberg's book, 'Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise Imperils Our Future'.

The points made brilliantly by Ms. Friedeann reinforce fully my own, i.e. that retreating EROEI for all forms of oil will at some future point (likely sooner than later) mean transporting goods will no longer be economical, say trucks bearing supplies for stores or food products.

Heinberg's book shows why shale oil is a 'losing wicket' and while it may be marginally profitable to drill for this crap now, it won't be within 15-20 years, not even including the costs (as here in Colo.) on the environment.