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Is Peak Oil A Myth?

We were supposed to be close to running out of oil right now, but we have more than ever. But is that actually more dangerous than having none of it?

At times, the idea of "peak oil" has been almost interchangeable with climate change. Campaigners for action on global warming have often relied on a practical argument that fossil fuels are running out anyway. However, there’s increasing evidence that the second case doesn’t back the first. Oil is continuing to flow, even if the evidence for a changing climate is as strong as ever.

Those who pooh-pooh peak oil point out that the end has been predicted almost since the beginning. Back in the 1970s, for example, President Carter said oil production would peak by 1985. And yet a series of technological fixes (steaming, pumping, lubricating, fracking), and bold explorations (Africa, the Arctic) have allowed the black stuff to keep coming.

As this recent article by Vince Beiser makes clear, there continues to be plenty of oil left, and plenty of places to keep looking. Brazil. Russia. Mexico. North America, to name a few. Not to mention, Mozambique, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, and several others.

Brazil’s oil industry, in particular, is booming:

The northern end of Rio, far from the famous beaches of Copacabana, is all factories and shipyards, thrumming with men and machines servicing the oil industry. Drilling platforms in for repairs hulk along the shoreline. A little ways inland is a sprawling airport-sized building that, with its curvilinear lines, tubular corridors, and off-white palette, looks like a cross between a Dubai shopping mall and a set from Logan’s Run. This is the new $700 million headquarters of CENPES, the research arm of [national oil company] Petrobras. The center officially opened in 2010, but still isn’t quite finished on this day last summer. The top floor, open on all sides to allow in breezes and a view of the bay, is meant for relaxed meetings and thinking, but it still lacks furniture. Once complete, the complex will house more than 100 labs and some 4,000 employees.

Brazil has operated shallow offshore wells since the 1970s. But it was only in 2006 that exploratory drills first hit the massive "presalt" reservoirs—so named because they lie underneath a thick band of salt left behind by an evaporated prehistoric ocean.

Petrobras found the hydrocarbons beneath the presalt thanks to a series of breakthroughs in seismic sensing. That process involves sending ships out to sea towing miles-long sensor-equipped cables and air guns that blast out sound pulses. Those pulses reverberate through the seabed and bounce back to the cables’ sensors, providing images of the various layers of rock down below. For years this technique yielded only a two-dimensional picture. But in the 1990s, geophysicists figured out how to send the outbound signals from different angles at the same time and reassemble the results into a three-dimensional picture. In the subsequent decades computer power and software got good enough to understand all that data.

The real question isn’t whether we’ll have enough of the stuff, but whether the atmosphere can handle it. Even the oil and gas industry admits as much. Beiser quotes David Eyton, BP’s head of research and technology:

There’s enough oil and gas out there to last us right through to the end of the next century, without much doubt… [The real problem is] we are running out of the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere.

That oil exists isn’t an argument for more exploration, especially in vulnerable places like the Arctic. But it ought to be part of the discussion. Argue for climate change, by all means. But, be wary of using a case for scarcity to do so.

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  • pub310

    The simple solution to reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is to tie it back up in vegetation, like planting more trees. We have been cutting down forests for centuries, and perhaps it is time to think about reversing that trend. After all, it is a closed system, only all of that carbon has been tied up for centuries in oil reserves. It is time to "put the genie back in the box."

  • Brian Russell

    When Jimmy Carter said that oil production would peak by 1985, he was referring to oil production in the USA - not world oil production. And he was right.

    If you look at any reliable source of data, you can see that the peak was in the 1970s, with a second peak a little lower in 1985, followed by a decline since then.

    By turning the taps to maximum, production has increased in the past year or so, but the long term trend is decline.

    Sure, as technology improves, new reserves will be located in the USA, so instead of using all the oil in the next 50 years, it may be 70 years or even 120 years before the final drop is wrung from the ground beneath the USA.

    But the key points to bear in mind are:
    1. Oil reserves are finite
    2. Oil consumption increases year on year.
    3. Oil consumption is not just something that happens in the USA - Consumption is growing in Europe, China, Russia, Brazil, India, etc. Which means that the citizens of the USA cannot guarantee on exploiting the oil reserves of, say, Mozambique, because the people of Mozambique (or China) may have plans for that oil themselves.

    We can't predict with any great accuracy today when the oil will run out, but we do know that it will run out, and it could well be within the lifetime of our children. Wouldn't it be sensible to put some of our brain power, our muscle and money into thinking about alternatives?

  • greekdish

    Oil reserves have been increasing every year, despite your "key" points of consumption increasing every year....not to mention oil production in the US has increased about 25% since 2008 alone....and thats with Obama banning oil drilling and explorations off shore and on public lands.

    Scientists around the world not in bed with the US government propaganda machine have all said peak oil is a myth, and oil comes from the mantle/crust, and created naturally...not via fossils and vegetation. Did you even read THIS article above, where methane exists on other planets without any biomatter?

  • Jay Cie

     I would point out that peak oil isn't talking about just running out but having to put more energy into retrieving less oil. Many of the sources of oil that are claimed there are tarsands and oilshale. Expensive wastfull and dirty sources. 

    Further claiming that we've got 54 years to find more is very naive. Oil only forms in certain conditions and most of the planet simply can't have produced it. Simply we are running out of places to look. 

    Finally calling anyone a cultist? Unless you are arguing for an alternate origin of oil peek oil is a given. What is in question is the time till we hit it.

  • Mobius007

    I really don't see what all you "peak oil" cultists are going on about. As pointed out by BP CEO Robert Dudley earlier this month:

    "at current consumption rates, data suggests that the world has 54 years’ worth of proven oil reserves and 64 years worth of proven gas reserves, adding, “more will be found.” 

    So, we won't hit Empty on the oil gage for a full 54 years! Sure, oil consumption grows every year, but "more will be found" - if they find 20% more that would give us a full extra decade (neglecting demand growth)!

    Dude, 54 years worth... that's like FOREVER.

  • Mike Haase

    A couple of comments:

    The seminal publication in Scientific American The End Of Cheap Oil only said:
    -current reserves are being depleted (see Hubbard Curve)
    -consumption rates exceed discovery rates
    -new technologies have not much improved hit rates on wells
    -new discoveries take a decade to come on line
    -shale oil (as then understood) and oil from deep ocean basins will not be cheap oil
    -fracking as a technology was not anticipated but it too is expensive oil
    -did not anticipate increased demand of the developing world (BRIC countries)

  • Jeffrey Brown

    Incidentally, regarding Braizil, they are a net importer of petroleum liquids, with a recent trend of increasing net oil imports. 

  • Jeffrey Brown

    Global annual (Brent) crude oil prices doubled from $55 in 2005 to $111 in 2011, an average rate of increase of one percent per month, with one year over year decline, in 2009.   The available production data over this time frame, from the EIA and BP, show that global crude oil production and global total petroleum liquids production have been virtually flat, with a slight increase in total liquids production (inclusive of low net energy biofuels).

    A study of the (2005) top 33 net oil exporters in the world, which account for 99% plus of total global net exports, and which we define as Global Net Exports of oil (GNE), shows that GNE fell from 46 mbpd (million barrels per day) in 2005 to 44 mbpd in 2011 (BP & EIA data, total petroleum liquids, 2012 data are not yet available.)

    Furthermore, China and India (“Chindia”) have been consuming an increasing share of this declining volume of GNE.  At the 2005 to 2011 rate of decline in the ratio of GNE to Chindia’s Net Imports of oil,  the Chindia region alone would theoretically consume 100% of GNE by the year 2030, 17 years from now.

    While increasing US crude oil production (to a level well below our 1970 peak rate) is very important, the dominant trend we are seeing is that developed oil importing countries like the US are being gradually priced out of the global market for exported oil, as global oil prices doubled from 2005 to 2011, and as developing countries like the Chindia region consumed an increasing share of a declining volume of global net exports of oil.

    For more detailed information, you can search for:  Export Capacity Index

  • Political Atheist aka Javaman

    peak oil has never ever been about running out, it's always been about not meeting demand. stop pushing bullshit.

  • ttman

    "We were supposed to be close to running out of oil right now"
    Should say that "we were supposed to be close to the peak of daily global oil production". And we are. Getting some additional oil by fracking, doesn't change that fact.

    Even the optimists - the government agencies that are involved in tracking and predicting oil production see a peak in a few decades. How long do you think it will take us to adjust to a terminal yearly decline in oil production? Even if it was two decades away we would need to be making big changes now in order to lessen the pain.

  • Matt Bridge

    The question is not the amount of oil that remains but the amount of energy required to extract it now that the easily accessed oil reserves have been exploited. Tar sands, fracking etc...all have a much lower return for energy expended than drilling a well somewhere in the Saudi desert. It is a cycle of diminishing returns.

  • Matt Bridge

    The question is not the amount of oil that remains but the amount of energy required to extract it now that the easily accessed oil reserves have been exploited. Tar sands, fracking etc...all have a much lower return for energy expended than drilling a hole somewhere in the Saudi desert. It is a cycle of diminishing returns.

  • Alexander

    Great point! and I would like to add: it's not just about the energy required to extract, it's about all the various resources expended in the process. Oil is basically becoming more and more expensive. That means that it increasingly makes business sense to, first, save energy and, second, switch to other sources (including renewables).

  • Ian Brett Cooper

    No peak oil argument has ever said that "we were supposed to be close to running out of oil right now". That is a very common misunderstanding of the peak oil argument.

    How on Earth does the fact that we have more oil than ever before negate the notion that we are at peak? Surely the two go hand-in-hand! When we are at peak, we will, by definition, also be at the high point in oil production, and at that point, there will still be lots of oil left - half of it, in fact.

    You're missing the point. Peak oil is not about oil scarcity - that happens decades after the peak. The problem that comes at the peak is flow rates. You cannot get needed flow rates for a population that is growing when oil production is slowing.

    The biggest danger of peak oil does not come at the point when oil is scarce - it comes when production falls, and production is about to start falling.

  • Rex Thompson

    Ben, you are right on in framing the issue in terms of clean energy.  One addition that makes sense in this discussion:  The current economy is very dependent on the price of oil.  Until we make the long transition toward 100% non-oil dependent energy, we must be cognizant that oil regulation, in its many forms, has real impacts on day-to-day lives.  In addition, we probably need to make regional or global decisions on oil, given the need in the foreseeable future.  An example:  ANWR or tar sands? OR ANWR or safer fracking?  The "all or nothing" attitude, on either side of the discussion, probably isn't productive in regard to the larger issues.

  • Scott

    God gave us dominion over the earth and animals. Therefore we have an inherent obligation to protect them. It would be considered blasphemy to continue to make extinct those species we push aside so that mankind can have "Luxury". It seems to me that the GOD in the bible would more closely consider the actions of the people protecting his creations as worthy of entrance into heaven. Perhaps two SUV's in every driveway (LIKE WE DESERVE?) is a desperate entitled statement for which GOD will judge you most harshly. IMHO, GOD gave us a beautiful planet on which to live, I find it difficult to listen to mental midgets who claim mankind is entitled to luxury regardless of the natural cost. Whether global warming is true or not, it is all of our responsibility to protect all of God's creations here and everywhere. 

  • LawrenceTalbot

    I agree with you about our cruel callousness concerning other species, but can you please leave your magic man who lives in the sky out of this.

  • wrw

     There you go again....Ben.

    If the religious zealots in the church of global warming (whose god does not exist) would get their goofy radical greenie agenda (it is really becoming laughable) out of the way of the true environmentalists (the fracing industry) we would  have a beautiful planet and every man would have an SUV that his children deserve to ride in.   Think of it:  every family in China with two SUVs in their 2000 square foot home's garage.  No one dying on the road in a sub compact tin can.  Food in abundance grown from the nitrogen derived from abundant Natural Gas.  It is a beautiful world but for those bearded bicyclists who worship the virgin ANWR.