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February 14, 2006

Holy Sh*t Peak Oil

[Originally posted 2/13, 11:12 PM]

Kenneth Deffeyes, Princeton emeritus professor of geology, author of Hubbert's Peak and Beyond Oil, has worked in and studied the oil industry his whole life. This weekend he wrote the following (excerpt):

In the January 2004 Current Events on this web site, I predicted that world oil production would peak on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2005. In hindsight, that prediction was in error by three weeks. An update using the 2005 data shows that we passed the peak on December 16, 2005. [...]

Compared to 2004, world oil production was up 0.8 percent in 2005, nowhere near enough to compensate for a demand rise of roughly 3 percent. The high prices did not bring much additional oil out of the ground. Most oil-producing countries are in decline. The rise in production was largely from Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Angola. The Saudi production for 2005 was 9.155 million barrels per day. On March 6, 2003 Saudi Aramco and the government of Saudi Arabia announced by way of the Dow Jones newswire that they were maxed out at 9.2 barrels per day. [...]

Could some new discovery come along and reverse the global oil decline? The world oil industry is a huge system: Annual production worth 1.7 trillion dollars. I don't see anything on the horizon large enough to turn it around.

So what are the policy implications? Numerous critics are claiming that the present world economic situation is a house of cards: built on trade deficits, housing price bubbles, and barely-adequate natural gas supplies. Pulling any one card out from the bottom of the pile might collapse the whole structure.

There are calls for embargoing Iranian oil because of the nuclear weapons situation. Pulling four million barrels per day out from under the world energy supply might trigger a severe worldwide recession. In the post-peak era, we're playing a new ball game and we don't yet know the rules.

Ghawar, the supergiant Saudi oilfield, is producing increasing amounts of water along with the oil. When Simmons sent Twilight in the Desert to the printer, the water cut at Ghawar was around 30 percent. There are later reports on the Internet (home.entouch.net/dmd/ghawar.htm) of water cuts as high as 55 percent. Ghawar has been producing 4 million barrels per day; when the Ghawar field waters out, you can kiss your lifestyle goodbye.

Since we have passed the peak without initiating major corrective measures, we now have to rely primarily on methods that we have already engineered. Long-term research and development projects, no matter how noble their objectives, have to take a back seat while we deal with the short-term problems. Long-term examples in the proposed 2007 US budget...include a 65 percent increase in the programs to produce ethanol from corn, a 25.8 percent increase for developing hydrogen fuel cell cars, and a 78.5 percent increase in spending on solar energy research...[S]olar energy today supplies one percent of US electricity; the hope is to double that to 2 percent by the year 2025. By 2025, we're going to be back in the Stone Age.

By 2025, we're going to be back in the Stone Age.

Ethanol, fuel cells, and solar cells are not the only shimmering dreams. Methane hydrates, oil shale, and the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste depository would be better off forgotten. There are plenty of solid opportunities. Energy conservation is by far the most important. Initiatives that are already engineered and ready to go are biodiesel from palm oil, coal gasification (for both gaseous and liquid fuels), high-efficiency diesel automobiles, and revamping our food supply. Every little bit helps, but even if wind energy continues its success it will still be a little bit.

That's it. I can now refer to the world oil peak in the past tense. My career as a prophet is over. I'm now an historian. [Emphasis added]

Deffeyes is as solid as they come. He's an academic, but he grew up in the oil fields. If you've read him or heard him speak, you know he's a supremely down-to-earth, practical, hands-on guy with the kind of wisdom (and self-deprecating humor) that comes from long experience.

Given the exponential rate of technological change (at least, in information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology), I'm not sure we know what solutions may present themselves (when the pace of change is exponential, stuff seems to come out of nowhere, practically overnight — cf., the World Wide Web), but still, this statement from Deffeyes scares me more than a hundred statements from James Kunstler.

An enormous transformation has to happen, and in an impossibly short amount of time. Starting now.

Meanwhile, conservation is the low-hanging fruit. Conservation we can do today. Conservation can buy us time, and there is nothing we need, at this point, more than time.

Posted by Jonathan at February 14, 2006 01:30 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


Hi Jonathan,

The internet didn't "just happen", it was nearly 25 years before Delphi opened up the first commercial online service in 1992 from when the first nodes were hooked up together back in 1968. Just goes to show that like all the technology which we now consider a part of the fabric of society, these things take time - a lot of time to reach a stage where they are ready for widespread deployment. And as you ponted out - time is a luxury we don't have...

Posted by: Tony at February 14, 2006 09:00 PM

My point was that the Internet *seemed* to come out of nowhere because of the exponential nature of its growth. From its very beginnings, the number of nodes on the net grew exponentially, but exponential growth initially seems slow, linear. Think of the sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. It's doubling at each step, but the numbers don't grow much in absolute terms to start with. But eventually the sequence reaches the "knee" of the exponential curve, and all of a sudden the growth (which has always been constant in percentage terms) really takes off in absolute terms. There are developments underway now that seem small and insignificant but may end up surprising us when we reach the knee of their curves. At least one can so hope. Otherwise, we're screwed.

Posted by: Jonathan at February 14, 2006 09:34 PM

Compuserve was aroud in the early 1980s. I was on Tymenet in 1981. Networks like the Internet, but not as far-reaching or with the appeal of an appliance, have been around for a long time.

Posted by: Derek at February 16, 2006 05:47 PM