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Time

 

It's the End of Oil / Oil Is Here to Stay

October 23, 2005

By Kenneth Deffeyes, Peter W. Huber

It's the End of Oil

World oil production is about to reach a peak and go into its final decline. For years, a handful of petroleum geologists, including me, have been predicting peak oil before 2007, but in an era of cheap oil, few people listened. Lately, several major oil companies seem to have got the message. One of Chevron's ads says the world is currently burning 2 bbl. of oil for every barrel of new oil discovered. ExxonMobil says 1987 was the last year that we found more oil worldwide than we burned. Shell reports that it will expand its Canadian oil-sands operations but elsewhere will focus on finding natural gas and not oil. It sounds as though Shell is kissing the oil business goodbye. M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist, correctly predicted in 1956 that oil production in the U.S. would peak in the early 1970s--the moment now known as "Hubbert's Peak." I believe world oil production is about to reach a similar peak.

Finding oil is like fishing in a pond. After several months, you notice that you are not catching as many fish. You could buy an expensive fly rod--new technology. Or you could decide that you have already caught most of the fish in the pond. Although increased oil prices (which ought to spur investment in oil production) and new technology help, they can't work magic. Recent discoveries are modest at best. The oil sands in Canada and Venezuela are extensive, but the Canadian operations to convert the deposits into transportable oil consume large amounts of natural gas, which is in short supply.

And technology cannot eliminate the difficulty Hubbert identified: the rate of producing oil depends on the fraction of oil that has not yet been produced. In other words, the fewer the fish in the pond, the harder it is to catch one. Peak production occurs at the halfway point. Based on the available data about new oil fields, there are 2,013 billion bbl. of total producible oil. Adding up the oil produced from the birth of the industry until today, we will reach the dreaded 1,006.5-billion-bbl. halfway mark late this year. For two years, I've been predicting that world oil production would reach its peak on Thanksgiving Day 2005. Today, with high oil prices pushing virtually all oil producers to pull up every barrel they can sweat out of the ground, I think it might happen even earlier.

Kenneth Deffeyes is the author of Beyond Oil (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 224 pages)

Oil Is Here to Stay

The "Peak Oil" theory fits nicely on a cocktail napkin. Its curve looks like this: Colonel Edwin Drake starts pumping crude in Pennsylvania in 1859. We've been pumping faster and faster ever since. Sooner or later, on this finite planet of ours, it just has to run out. U.S. production peaked in the 1970s. Global production will soon be on the downside of the same dismal curve.

Nonsense. Technology and politics--not geology--determine how much we pump and what it costs.

America currently consumes about 7 billion bbl. of oil a year. When production in Persian Gulf fields was ramped up by 12 billion bbl. a year in the 1960s, global prices collapsed. That made it politically painless for the U.S. to ban almost all new drilling off the Florida and California coasts and then in much of Alaska. With oil, as with textiles, domestic production peaked because others began producing the same stuff cheaper, while we contrived to make our production more expensive. Today Alaska contains 18 billion bbl. of off-limits crude. We've embargoed at least an additional 30 billion bbl. beneath our coastal waters. And we could fuel many of our heavy trucks and delivery vehicles for a decade with the 20 billion bbl. worth of natural gas we've placed off limits in federal Rocky Mountain lands.

Outside our borders, Alberta's tar sands contain 180 billion bbl. recoverable with current technology, and Calgarians are pumping that oil today. A total of several trillion barrels of oil soak the sands of Canada and Venezuela alone--a century's worth at the current global rate of consumption. Then there are methane hydrates. The U.S contains some 30 trillion bbl. worth of those frozen hydrocarbons off the shores of Alaska, the continental coasts and under the Rockies. There's little doubt they too can be extracted economically. If we try, we'll certainly find cheap ways to transform North America's 1 trillion bbl. worth of coal into crude as well. General Patton's Third Army completed its roll across Europe on coal liquefied with German technology.

The price of oil has always fluctuated. In inflation-adjusted dollars, it was higher in the early '80s than it is today. Extraction technologies continue to improve much faster than supply horizons recede. We've got the right know-how and the right planet. What we lack is the political will.

Original Source: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1122019,00.html

 

 
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