Peak Oil

PEAK OIL….Jane Bryant Quinn warns this week that we may be running out of oil:

Princeton geology professor emeritus Kenneth Deffeyes, who’s writing a book due in 2005 called “Beyond Oil,” waggishly names an Armageddon date: “World oil production will reach its ultimate peak on Thanksgiving Day 2005,” he says. Then the long, slow decline begins.

Deffeyes is talking not about the amount of oil in the ground, but about the maximum daily pumping capacity of oil. The problem is that even as we continue to find new fields, old fields start to decline. When the decline becomes greater than new discoveries, total oil production starts to fall. This has already happened in the continental United States, which reached its peak capacity in 1970 and has been declining ever since, an event famously predicted in 1956 by geophysicist M. King Hubbert.

This is not a controversial point. What is controversial is the actual date of the global production peak. Deffeyes predicts the peak will come next year. Colin Campbell, perhaps the best known of the peak oil theorists, predicts a peak in 2008. The chart below shows Campbell’s most recent calculations.

Unfortunately, Campbell has a problem: he’s been making peak oil predictions for a long time, and his predictions are pretty much always the same: we will hit a peak in 3-4 years. So it’s hard to know how seriously to take him.

My own guess, based on a fair amount of reading (but no independent expertise, of course) is that the world peak production rate of oil is about 100 million b/d (barrels per day). Our current consumption rate is around 80 million b/d, which means that if consumption increases at the rate it has in the past, we’ll hit the world peak in about 10 years.

Except for one thing: that’s a theoretical peak that assumes we’re pumping everything we can. But in the real world, there are always problems. Today, for example, about 5 million b/d of potential production is unavailable because it’s in Iraq. Political problems are inevitable in other places as well, and normal wear and tear also keeps a certain amount of production offline at any given time. The practical world peak is quite likely to be more in the neighborhood of 90 million b/d, a number we’ll hit about five years from now.

In other words, Campbell may be right this time. And remember that this assumes that a fair amount of new production comes on line in the next few years from Iraq, Russia, Canada, and a few other places, and that recovery techniques improve as well. If this doesn’t happen, Deffeyes might be closer to correct than Campbell.

But in a way, it doesn’t matter: even five or ten years is a blink of an eye when you’re talking about oil use. So while new drilling may be important to prevent the peak from arriving even sooner and declining even faster than it has to, the fact remains that we’re going to hit a peak sometime soon regardless. And the only way to deal with that is to start using less oil.

That means conservation, it means more efficient cars and trucks, and it means new technologies. New transportation technologies, since that’s where 70% of oil use goes. All of which takes time to develop. (There’s an alternative, of course: an oil shock, like the one in 1979, which caused oil use to drop 15% in three years. That’s a pretty painful remedy, though.)

Mideast oil independence is a mirage, at least for the forseeable future. Even with our noses to the grindstone, we’ll be hard pressed to actually decrease world consumption of oil, and in any case Mideast oil will always be the cheapest oil around. But avoiding a painful peak and another oil shock isn’t. The problem is that it would take serious policy leadership that treats oil use as a real problem, not a political football, and neither candidate this year has shown much willingness to do this. Call it the Jimmy Carter Syndrome: nobody is eager to meet the fate of the last president who got serious about energy conservation and alternative fuels.

In the meantime, expect plenty of bumps, since when you’re close to a peak even small production hiccups can cause big problems. So buy a Prius. Or better yet, a motorcycle. It won’t help you avoid the economic shock that’s likely to occur when everyone is suddenly surprised to learn that oil production can’t increase any more, but at least you’ll still have cheap wheels. You might think about calling your congressman too.

UPDATE: In comments, Max reminds me to link to a pretty interesting article about new ethanol technologies in the latest issue of the Monthly. It’s not supposed to be available online, though, so don’t tell anybody I linked to it….