Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Six Misconceptions About Peak Oil

Robert Rapier has recently returned home from a Peak Oil Summit in Washington DC. He gives some of his impressions of the conference in an article entitled "Five Misconceptions About Peak Oil." After excerpting Robert's listed five misconceptions below, I will add a sixth, which I believe to be Robert's own misconception.
Misconception 1: Peak Oil = Running Out of Oil

This one is surely the most common. Many articles that seek to debunk the notion of peak oil start with that premise, and then respond by highlighting other historical instances where someone influential suggested that we could be running out of oil. In fact, anyone concerned about peak oil will readily acknowledge that we are going to be producing oil for a very long time, and when we stop there is still going to be a lot of oil left in the ground.

So what then is the definition of peak oil? In its simplest form, peak oil means that just as oil production in the United States peaked in 1970 and began to decline, so shall the rest of the world.

...Misconception 2: Peak Oil Beliefs are Homogeneous

The beliefs among people who are concerned about resource depletion cover a wide span. There are those who believe that a peak is imminent, followed by a catastrophic decline. Included in this group are people who have vocally and (to this point) wrongly predicted dates and catastrophic consequences as a result of peak oil.

...Misconception 3: Peak Oil is a Theory

It is also common among those writing articles seeking to debunk peak oil to refer to the “peak oil theory.” As in the previous example, this paints with a very broad brush. When someone describes peak oil as a theory, what they are really referring to is the belief that a production peak is both imminent and the results promise to be catastrophic.

...Misconception 4: Peak Oil was Dreamed Up By Big Oil to Inflate Prices

In fact, most of the major oil companies argue that oil production will not decline for decades. This has been the public view of ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute.

...Misconception 5: Peak Oil is Denied by Oil Companies Worried about Alternatives.

This view is the opposite of the previous misconception. The idea is that if oil companies acknowledge peak oil, governments will redouble their efforts to develop alternative fuels, hastening the end of Big Oil. _Five Misconceptions About Peak Oil

Misconception 6: The drop in production after Peak Oil will be due to the inability of supply to keep up with exponential growth in demand. But in reality, it will be the drop in demand for dirty messy stinking crude oil which will lead to the drop in production after a long term "global peak."

There are many possible reasons for a sustained drop in demand for crude oil. Some are political, some are economic, but the most likely are due to the development of alternative methods of energy, fuels, and power, over time.

The main obstacle to the development of viable alternative fuels, energies, and power, is the powerful global green movement, which is well integrated into national governments and international intergovernmental bodies. The policies of energy starvation promulgated by large, big-money green groups through governments and intergovernments have largely obstructed a smooth transition from an oil economy to a post-oil economy. Perhaps the motives of many green believers are honest. It doesn't matter. They are causing hardship beyond measure on a global basis.

Robert Rapier's apparent beliefs in carbon catastrophe and exponential growth in demand for crude oil, have led him -- like many others in the peak oil camp -- to see an impossibility of a relatively smooth transition to a post-combustion energy economy. There is no reason to doubt Robert's sincerity.

A belief in anthropogenic carbon catastrophe, however, precludes a wide range of options for transitioning from crude oil to a post-combustion energy infrastructure. The mental pressure of all of that weight of CO2 on the brain prevents one with such a belief from thinking clearly through the many possible pathways between here and there.

That is unfortunate, but it is an obstacle which the problem-solvers will have to face, since such beliefs are well entrenched at the very highest levels of academia, politics, the media, and philanthropy.



Blogger Whirlwind22 said...

Well at least he's not saying that industrial civilization is going to collapse.

12:15 PM  
Blogger al fin said...

Right. He is certainly one of the more reasonable of the peak oilers.

But human beings reason based on their assumptions, and one's assumptions are often taken on faith, with minimal evidence required.

That is where most people start to go wrong. They continue to go wrong by refusing to go back and re-examine their assumptions.

Remember: Everything you think you know, just ain't so.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Robert Rapier said...

Ah, but there is a very big difference between my five misconceptions and your sixth. The ones I address are actual misconceptions in which people misunderstand or incorrectly define peak oil. Yours is a prediction about the future, and hence we don’t know whether it is a misconception. It may turn out that you are simply wrong.

In fact, many peak oilers have criticized me for the opposite reason. They think I am too optimistic about the future. They would say the sixth misconception is that there is civilization on the other side of the transition. You can see many of these comment at The Oil Drum where I have published the essay.

I would also point out that I do not believe oil demand growth will be exponential. Price will take care of that. It will creep forward in fits and starts as it has for the past five years.

Further, if this is the beginning of a “smooth” transition to post-peak, there are a lot of people who would say this has been anything but smooth. We are stuck in an economic rut, and yet oil price and demand both remain high. Demand has declined in the U.S., but that’s not because renewables have filled the gap. It is because economic slowdown and high prices have reduced our demand (with some renewables chipping in). That is the path I see in front of us. The very low per capita usage in developing countries combined with their growth will squeeze us very hard in the years to come (as it has for the past few years).

So here is what I expect. High prices might be temporarily interrupted, but the trend will be to remain high. This will stagnate economic growth in developed countries, but developing countries will keep overall demand high. At some point, renewables will be able to meet the supply/demand gap, but that will be at much higher prices than today. As an example, consider if oil was $500 a barrel. I don’t think we would have much trouble replacing our oil consumption at that level, because many more alternatives would be viable and more importantly, demand would have been crushed to a manageable level.

In fact, you do concede that the transition to this point has not been smooth, but you attribute it to interference. I attribute it more to unrealistic expectations that there is an affordable replacement for 85 million barrels a day of oil. I do not believe there is, and this is the key difference, I believe, in our expectations of the future.


10:32 AM  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for your comment, Robert. Most of what you say here is clear from your original article, but I appreciate the clarification.

Nuclear energy should be receiving a lot more government cooperation at this stage. That will make a huge difference as to how bumpy the transition is. Europe and Japan are blowing it in that regard, and Obama seems almost as bad.

I don't expect renewables to start replacing fossil fuels before 2020. The big gas : oil price spread should lead to several viable approaches to GTL beyond Shell's giga-dollar approach. Coal gasification and CTL could also make a big difference while waiting for nuclear to scale up.

We will need all the CO2 we can get from coal for other reasons which should become clear over the next several years.

The only renewables that might scale up to partially replace fossil fuels, is advanced biomass to liquids and biomass to electricity. Most non-biologists have no conception of the latent biomass potential of the planet, and badly underestimate what could be done now -- much less what will be done as synthetic biological techniques kick in.

Big wind and big solar are huge wastes of resources, based mainly on wishful thinking and romantic utopian energy notions.

1:44 PM  

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