Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Peak Oil is about Price AND Supply

The Globe and Mail has run a piece by Jeff Rubin talking about how "the oil industry’s never ending ability to develop new extraction technologies and discover new sources of supply" has repeatedly confounded the Peak Oil community's ability to forecast the peak.  He goes on to suggest that the apparent peak of oil production is a matter of economics rather than actual fossil oil supply.  The article reads as if he's slamming the Peak Oil community, but I think he'd find most knowledgable Peak Oil people in agreement with what he suggests.  Additionally I think they'd say that it's a question of price AND supply, rather than simply a question of price.

As he says, the U.S. oil production (lower 48 states) peaked as predicted by M. King Hubbert in 1971ish.  One might suppose Hubbert made a lucky prediction, or one might suppose his theories were spot-on accurate.  I don't know enough to pronounce either way.  Rubin goes on to say

new sources of supply have been found in Alaska and under the Gulf of Mexico. And now oil sand production from Alberta and oil from the Bakken shale deposits may soon replace conventional oil in the mix of North American fuel.

Going further he references how the U.S. Energy Information Administration (and other energy information agencies) have stopped referring to fossil oil and instead have invented a new phrase, Energy Liquids, which

includes all kinds of energy sources we would not have previously called oil such as natural gas liquids, liquefied refinery gases, and even corn-based ethanol.

There are some slippery definitions here so let's be careful.

The phrase "Peak Oil" is generally defined in terms of fossil oil production.  As he points out there are various other sources of liquid fuels that are being developed.  We could have a peak of fossil oil production, and still have plenty of liquid fuels if there is development of enough production infrastructure for these other resources.

I've long felt the peak oil community was overly focused on fossil oil.  There's obviously a fixed size amount of fossil oil and of course there will be a peak of production from fossil oil resources.  When the doom and gloom end of the peak oil community declares that the peak of fossil production means "GAME OVER" and "IT'S MAD MAX TIME" they're saying they think other liquid fuel resources will not be able to replace the fossil oil resources we're accustomed to.

There's potential to replace fossil oil with other liquid fuel resources, but can we afford to do so?

To replace fossil oil production, new sources of liquid fuels must be developed.  That means infrastructure to extract fuels from various places.  Rubin mentions tar sands, shale oil, natural gas liquids, liquified methane, ethanol, and there are other potential sources.

Each requires investments of money and energy to extract liquid fuel.   An important concept is Energy Return on Investment - EROI - which is the energy content of a fuel, versus the energy content used to generate that fuel.  What was so attractive about fossil oil was that in its early days the EROI was 100:1, meaning 100 barrels of energy for each barrel of energy consumed in extracting that fuel.  The EROI on fossil oil has dropped considerably since the gusher days.  The closer EROI gets to 1:1 the less useful the energy resource is.

There's also the question of whether the money is available to pay for the machines and pipelines and whatnot that will be required to process, refine, extract, transport etc the fuels from these new resources.  As liquid fuels they might likely be transportable through oil pipelines, but other steps in the process require wholly new machines and factories to be built.  Where will the money come from in a time of global financial fracturing?

There's also the question of land use policies.  Some of the resources like ethanol or other biofuels will require land devoted to growing fuel crops rather than food crops.  Can we afford this?

For an interesting youtube presentation along these lines see:


Peak oil is about price, not supply