Sunday, July 11, 2010

Peak Oil

The current disaster in the Mexican Golf after the explosion that sunk the Oil platform Deepwater Horizon much attention has been focused on the security of deepwater offshore drilling. One subject that isn’t discussed that often is the access to oil and if the access to oil will become more scares.

The Term Peak Oil
Marion King Hubbert was an American geologist born in 1903 that would later create the term “Peak Oil”. Hubbert got he’s degrees from the University of Chicago and would later work for Shell and USGS. He also worked as teacher at a number of different universities like MIT. In 1956 Hubbert presented the theory that US Oil Production would peak between 1966-1972 and start to decrease after this. Hubbert came to this theory by studying individual fields and how the production curved changed over time and adding them together. Hubbert’s estimates for the American oil production would later be proved right even if very few believed him when he first made he’s predictions.

Will There Be a Global Peak and When Will it Happen?
Many individual countries have reached their peak in oil production (peak oil) and are now in decline. Other countries than the US is Canada, Iran, Nigeria, Norway, Venezuela, Great Britain and around 40 more countries. The question many researchers ask is when the total world production will reach a peak and when the decline in World Oil Production will start. Estimates vary heavily, some researchers believe that the peak may have already been reached in 2005, others that it may happen during 2010, USGS estimates in a report from 2001 that it may take another 30 years and some Saudi experts believe that it may be 100 years before it happens.

Why is Oil so Important?
Oil originates from a period several million years ago and is basically vegetation of different sorts that have been compressed in the earth under very high pressure and temperatures. Other forms of fuels also resulted from this process like coal and natural gas. Fossil fuels are in other words solar energy that have been stored as a result of photosynthesis in combination with geological process a very long time ago. These resources are renewable, but the process takes millions of years so they are not renewable from a current human perspective. This makes the use of oil extremely energy efficient, the amount of energy one can get from taking advantage of these resources is extremely great. Oil is also easy to store and transport, it contains very much energy in relation to its weight.

1910 A pressurized oil well in Lakeview Gusher, California starts leaking and would leak over 9 million barrels of oil over the next 18 months.

1944 During The Second World War Nazi Germany used coal to create oil in order to power their tanks and airplanes after their access to oil was reduced.

1970 The oil production in the United States peaks

1973 Saudi Arabia under its leader King Faisal imposes an Oil Embargo against the US and the Netherlands, the amount of oil that was withheld was relatively small but the consequences were big. The event caused the oil price the increase fourfold to just under 12 dollars and the price continued to rise even after the embargo was lifted. Canada Oil production also peaks in this year.

1974 Iran’s oil production peaks

1978 The Iranian Revolution takes place, after the revolution the oil production in Iran drops to around a third of its previous production and the oil prices increase rapidly.

1979 Nigeria’s oil production peaks

1979 A blowout in the Mexican oil well Ixtoc I cause around 3 million barrels of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico.

1982 OPEC countries stop reporting oil production on field to field basis. This is one of the major causes of insecurity since it’s very hard to estimate and predict the continued development without any data to see patterns in production for different oil fields.

1989 The oil tanker Exxon Valdez running aground outside of Alaska, spilling over 250.000 barrels of oil into the ocean.

1991 Iraq invades Kuwait War, during the response “Operation Desert Storm” Iraqi troops set fire to oil fields and tankers, many estimates of the size of the oil spill is over 10 million barrels.

1998 The oil production in Venezuela peaks

1999 The oil production in Great Britain and Qatar peaks

2000 The Oil production in Norway, Mexico and Colombia peaks

2002 Oil Production in India peaks

2005 Hurricane Katrina damage several offshore platforms.

2010 The Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” explodes after an accident in the Mexican Gulf. Several people died in the initial explosion and a large leak has occurred. How big the leak has been has been an debated issue, estimated has varied that 5.000 to over 100.000 barrels of crude oil per day could be leaking. Efforts have been initiated to stop and reduce the effects of the oil spill and the action from both the Obama administration and British Petroleum (BP) has been questioned.

The Saudi Perspective
Matthew Simmons, an energy investor banker has done some research on how the Oil production in Saudi Arabia have changed over time in he’s book “Twilight in the Desert”. Simmons starts at the beginning of Saudi Oil era and also goes into to detail about how political changes have taken place in country. Almost all of the major Saudi Oil fields were found in an early stage and the major Saudi Oil fields account for almost all of the Saudi Oil Production. Especially the Oil Field Ghawar has a special importance. Ghawar is the largest Oil field ever discovered and has been the sole producer for more than half of the Saudi Oil production. No other field has even come close the size and production of this field that produced over 5,5 million barrels per day at most. The second largest Oil field in the world, the Saudi offshore field Safaniya has only reached a capacity of just over 1,5 million barrels per day at most. Simmons also discuss the Saudi Oil production in relation to the American oil production that peaked in the 1970:s. In the beginning the Saudi Oil Production was ruled by the company the later was put under government control. The problem in Saudi Arabia also has other aspects; the country has enormously high birthrates, over 6 children per women in combination with a high standard of living and low child mortality rate, a combination that has resulted in a very big population increase. Water is also a big problem in Saudi Arabia; much of the water is sea-water and must be made into fresh water, a process that requires enormous amounts of energy retrieved from oil. Saudi Arabia has have a critical role in the world when an extra need for oil has taken place Saudi Arabia has produced the extra oil by putting hard pressure on their Oil Fields like during the Iranian revolution that resulted in an extremely low oil production for a few years and during the build up for Operation Desert Storm.

Simmons also shows the production rate for other giant fields outside of Saudi Arabia, and how the production rate has changed after they peaked, and suggest that it’s only natural for the Oil fields in Saudi to follow a similar pattern after they peak in production. One crucial aspect here is that almost all production in Saudi comes from a few fields and despite of intensive search for more Oil fields, non fields of similar size has been found and instead an enormous amount of time and energy has been used to increase the production in the oil fields. There is a big discussion between economist and geologist about how much oil there is in the world. Some geologist say that there is only a certain amount of oil available and money cant changed that while some economist say that when the oil price rises so does the amount of oil that available since the higher price makes it profitable to extract from locations where it was previously to expensive. Here Simmons states that technology and money invested had increased the amount of oil that Saudi has produced and continued to produce, experts from every field in combination with new technology like horizontal drilling and computer models have made an enormous difference when it comes to the amount of oil that can be retrieved from different fields. In other words Simmons combines the insights from both economists and geologists.

There have been a number of different movies made about Peak Oil and the possible consequences of this. “The end of Suburbia” was one of the first movies on this theme and it gathered a large number of different experts in the movie. “A Crude Awaking” and "Crude Impact" are two another movies that also present the same perspective.”Home” is a recent movie that focuses on both energy and environmental issues, its filmed from a aerial perspective and discusses different aspects of human development and the focuses on the need for sustainable development, this is a movie that can be seen for free online and I recommend everyone to see it. Both for the message but also because it’s proberly the best movie that has been produces on the subject. Blind Spot” is a movie about Peak Oil with many of the leading researchers within the field that also incorporate some other researchers like Joseph Tainter; author of “The Collapse of Complex Societies”. Tainter explains he’s basic theory about diminishing marginal return and how this issue can be related to Peak Oil. Another movie that been produced on the same subject is the movie “Collapse” with Michael Ruppert based on Rupperts book “Confronting Collapse”. Ruppert has also written the newsletter and blog “From the Wilderness” and the book “Crossing the Rubicon”. Ruppert also incorporates financial aspects and conspiracy theories into the same theme and he’s perspective is even more negative than many of the other researchers in the same field. Ruppert has also recently launched the site “Collapse Network” where he offers advice for how to survive the coming collapse.

There are many researchers that have written about Peak Oil. Matthew Simmons book “Twilight in the Desert” have already been mentioned as well as Michael Rupperts “Confronting Collapse” and “Crossing the Rubicon”. Examples of other researchers are Jeff Rubins “Why your world is about to get a whole lot smaller", Richard Heinbergs “The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies” and “Peak Everything”, Dale Allan Pfeiffer “Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture” and Kenneth S. Deffeyes “Beyond Oil: The View from Hubberts Peak”.

There are also organizations committed to studying this phenomena like "The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas” also known as ASPO. ASPO have national organizations in many countries that you find on ASPO:s homepage. Some off the most famous researchers on ASPO is Kjell Aleklett and Colin Campell.

Many writers in the Peak Oil movement has also made research into the alternatives to fossil fuels like nuclear power, using coal to create liquid fuels, natural gas, hydrogen powered vehicles, fusion power and renewable sources of energy like water, wind, solar, bio fuels and geothermic energy.

Many critics put focus on modern agriculture and the need for both fertilizers and pest ices in order to create bio fuels and claim that in many cases bio fuels actually uses more energy from fossil fuels to make them today than the amount of energy that they make available.

Survival and Preparedness
Will there be a peak in the Oil Production? If this is the case, when will it happen and what will the consequences be? These are all very hard questions to answer. Different researchers make different assessments and the lack of data available makes it hard to make predictions and see clear trends. Personally I make the assessment that there will be a peak in global oil production sooner or later, if it haven’t already taken place. When this will happen and how fast the decline rate will be after the peak is very important. If the decline rate is very slow it will take many years before the lack of oil becomes apparent. Another very important factor is that one will only be able to know that that peak has taken place in retrospective, after it has actually happened. If the decline rate will be fast the problems will manifest sooner than if the decline rate is low. The slower the decline rate the more time there will be for finding alternative solutions and adjusting to a world with less oil available. How we will deal with this situation is the most critical aspect in my opinion. Peak Oil does not have to mean the end of the world, but it can create large problems if the decline rate will be very high and if we don’t find solutions for the problems that can be presented in form of transportation, agriculture and food production.

So how does one prepare for such an event? To start with no one really knows what the consequences will be. The basics needs for survival; shelter, water, fire, food and security etc will still be the same as today.

If you want to prepare for a scenario like this I suggest that you try to reducing your dependency on oil and energy. Do not use your car more than you have to if you have to and try to find a vehicle that don’t consume to much fuel per mile. If the cost per gallon/liter goes up it will be cheaper to drive a car if it doesn’t have an extremely high fuel consumption. Your location is also important, can you get to work by using your bike, take the bus or train? Taking the bike or walking does not only reduce costs, it also improves your fitness. Food may become more expensive if oil prices rise. In order to prepare for this I suggest that you try to have food storage and that you grow some of your own food if this is possible. More details for problems surrounding this you can find in the post “Food, Starvation and Famine – Crisis Preparedness and Survival”.

The economic system is also likely to experience some changes – if transportation costs go up there may become more profitable to grow food more locally and produce goods more locally as well. This can be seen as reverse “Globalization”. Many in the Peak Oil movement envision drastic changes like global famine, war over resources and even a sudden collapse that’s coming soon. I share much of the concern that many researchers have when it comes to areas like food production, transportation and similar issues. However I don’t believe this will result in a sudden collapse of society. However it may result in enormous problems if solutions for the problems aren’t found. The main problem as I see it is that the problem isn’t discussed that much, even if movies like “Home” and “Collapse” has increased awareness. Getting attention to the problem is only one side of the coin, the other important aspect is meaning making – what does this information mean? What will the consequences be, how can we solve the problem etc? I see a danger in that people like Ruppert mixes conspiracy theories with the peak oil problem; few will take the issue seriously if this is how the problem is presented. If you want to inform anyone about the potential problem I suggest that you recommend the movie “Home” since it’s both for free and range over a broad spectrum of problems without incorporating conspiracy theories into the problem.

There are also organizations like the Transition Network that works to teach people self sufficiency, self reliance, canning and other skills. Some of the threats that they envision are Peak Oil and resource depletion. This type of groups does not only offer the possibility to learn skills for long term survival and self sufficiency but also offers an opportunity to get involved, network and get to know people with similar interests.

There is great deal of uncertainty when it comes to Peak Oil. It’s hard to estimate the sizes of the current reserves even if all countries produced public data on field to field production for each year. When countries don’t produce this data it’s even harder to make an estimate. And if there is a peak in oil production, how large will the decline rate be? How will economical factors affect this? What will happen to the oil price, will it increase or decrease? If it increases will it increase very fast like during other cases to a level many times over the price today or will it increase slowly? Insecurity also applies to the alternatives to fossil fuels, some believe that new alternatives will be provided by the market and other believe that alternatives like bio fuels and nuclear power may take more energy than they produce if the access to fossil fuels becomes scares.

Anything can happen, and what truly will take place only time can tell. This is a field that potentially can cause severe stress for individuals and societies in a short and long term perspective. But solutions could also be found that allows energy prices to remain low and access to energy to be great. Technological progress is very hard to predict, inventions like penicillin, the computer and many other inventions have radically changed our lives in ways that no one predicted before they were invented. However, awareness of the potential problem can help to reduce the impact of a negative development both for individuals, groups and societies if this would turn out to be the case.

The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) has started a web based platform where lectures from different researchers within the Peak Oil movement can be streamed online for free called ASPO TV. On this Webpage you can view many of the experts within the field from the 2010 World Conference on Peak Oil. This is a perfect source for anyone how would like to learn more about the subject.

The speakers that are currently available for free are:
Lawrence Rice: "Energy and Security"
Jeff Rubin: "Oil and the End of Globalization"
Dr. James Schlesinger: "The Peak Oil Debate is Over"
Bianca Jagger: "Beyond Petroleum: What Are The Options?"
Ralph Nader: "Energy and Policy"

The following speakers are also availble for ASPO members
Ken Zweibel: "The Law of Energy, Technology and Scale"
Sharon Astyk: "Can We Fill The Gap?"
Dr Anthony Perl: "Can We Fill The Gap?"
Dr. Charles E. Schlumberger: "Can We Fill The Gap?"
Dr. Tad Patzek: "The Laws of Energy, Technology and Scale"

Other Articles
Is Peak Oil Already Here?
The United States Energy Information Administration - No Peak In World Oil Production In Another 23 Years
Peak Oil and Our Mental Models - The WikiLeaks Cablle and The Worlds Largest Oil Fields
Things You Can Do In Order To Prepare For Peak Oil
The Battle of Perception has Begun