Friday, 27 January 2012

Has Petroleum Production Peaked, Ending the Era of Easy Oil?

An interesting summary of an article in Nature can be found in Scientific American:

Despite major oil finds off Brazil's coast, new fields in North Dakota and ongoing increases in the conversion of tar sands to oil in Canada, fresh supplies of petroleum are only just enough to offset the production decline from older fields. At best, the world is now living off an oil plateau—roughly 75 million barrels of oil produced each and every day—since at least 2005, according to a new comment published in Nature on January 26.

The article's by David King, who used to be chief scientific advisor to the UK government, and oceanographer James Murray (University of Washington, Seattle).

They point out that oil production from conventional resources (i.e. not the inefficient and polluting tar sands and NGLs) has been flat since 2005, despite wide swings in price. Basically, we now have 'inelastic supply', where the volume of oil that can be pumped is fixed, no matter what happens to the demand and price. Finding new oil reserves won't make any significant difference, because we already have a huge base of declining production - more than half the current production will have gone by 2030. This leaves a huge gap to be filled, so the chances of being able to actually increase production are zero.

They also state what has been obvious to many people:
Of the 11 recessions in the United States since the Second World War, 10, including the most recent, were preceded by a spike in oil prices. It seems clear that it wasn't just the 'credit crunch' that triggered the 2008 recession, but the rarely-talked-about 'oil-price crunch' as well. High energy prices erode family budgets and act as a head wind against economic recovery.

So although the banks and sub-prime lending were clearly a problem, it's the oil shock of 2005-08 that really set the whole thing off, and it's the current persistently high oil prices that are preventing a sustained recovery:
The global economy is severely knocked by oil prices of $100 per barrel or more, creating economic downturn and preventing economic recovery.

They also point out that economic growth requires a growth in energy supply, and say:
We need to decouple economic growth from fossil-fuel dependence... This is not happening due to industrial, infrastructural, political and human behavioral inertia. We are stuck in our ways.

The problem is that economic growth always results in more consumption of resources, both energy and material. Otherwise, what's the point of it? If you can't use your increased wealth to go somewhere, do something or buy something then you may as well not have it. Of course if prices go up, there can be notional 'growth', but because of inflation you're actually getting the same or less than you did before. This applies whether the source of energy is renewable or not.

So we're back to the problem of economic growth itself... time to watch money as Debt again I think...


UPDATE: the article from nature can be found here

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