Peak Oil: Objects in Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear

by Richard T. Stuebi

One of my favorite PowerPoint slides about the peak oil phenomenon comes from the dearly-departed Matt Simmons.  The slide depicted a mountain peak in an automobile rearview mirror, the implication being that we would only know for sure when peak oil production has been achieved after it has been achieved and followed by the inevitable decline.

Over the past decade, there has been a lot of debate as to when the date of peak oil would occur.  (It is worth noting that most of the argument has been about when, not whether, peak oil would occur.  Some of the more optimistic forecasters, such as Cambridge Energy Research Associates, have consistently projected peak oil a few decades out.  Some of the more pessimistic observers, such as long-time oilman Simmons himself, worried that peak oil would come much sooner, perhaps within a few years.

Now, according to a new parsing of the data in the World Energy Outlook 2010 by the International Energy Agency (IEA), it might be that peak oil production actually occurred in 2006 at about 70 million barrels per day.  This is a big shift from the IEA’s prior analysis in 2008, in which it projected that conventional oil production would slowly climb for decades to come.

To be clear, there is a bit of semantics at work here.  “Conventional” oil production represents black crude coming out of the ground in liquid form via wells, and that type of oil production may have peaked.  For sure, it’s getting harder to get:  big finds of conventional oil these days are the exclusive domain of multi-billion dollar big oil companies, working in the deepest places in the remotest places on the globe.

But, as you might have guessed by now, demand for transportation fuels (which historically are derived almost solely from oil) hasn’t peaked.  So, what’s backfilling the decline in conventional oil production?  Unconventional oil production – primarily tar sands from places like Alberta, and to a lesser extent natural gas liquids and (maybe more in the future?) coal-to-liquids – and biofuels are making up the difference.

What can declining conventional oil production mean?  For sure, it can only mean upward pressure on crude oil prices.  It also means that alternatives for crude oil in transportation markets become more economically appealing and more widely utilized.

However, the economics and availability of substitutes for conventional oil remains a great concern.  According to a recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology by researchers at the University of California, Davis, the stock market is projecting that the substitutes will not be economically-viable in large quantities at anywhere near the pace that they may be demanded.

Of course, the stock market is not a perfect predictor of anything.  However, if one accepts that the stock market reflects an incredible quantity of information processed by many very sophisticated market participants and further that on average stock prices are properly valued, the findings suggest that the market in aggregate isn’t seeing any huge near-term opportunities to replace oil in a major way.

If peak oil has indeed already occurred and if alternatives aren’t at the ready at competitive price points in meaningful volumes, then it is almost a virtual certainty that we will see some combination of significantly higher oil prices and/or oil demand destruction through reduced economic activity. 

It’s not a pretty picture staring back at us in the mirror.

"A Special Report on the Future of Energy" by Mother Jones

by Richard T. Stuebi

I’ve never been a fan of the periodical Mother Jones – it’s always seemed a bit too “alternative” for me. That said, I was recently given a copy of the May/June 2008 issue – a special report on the future of energy – and was surprised by the quality and balance of the articles.

I particularly found “The Seven Myths of Energy Independence” by Paul Roberts (author of The End of Oil) to be a compelling read. To him, the seven myths are:

1. Energy Independence Is Good
2. Ethanol Will Set Us Free
3. Conservation Is a “Personal Virtue”
4. We Can Go It Alone
5. Some Geek in Silicon Valley Will Fix the Problem
6. Cut Demand and the Rest Will Follow
7. Once Bush Is Gone, Change Will Come

I think many advocates are well-advised to really reflect on #7. Bush is unquestionably the bête-noire of all things environmental, but he’s only a part of the problem – and arguably not even the biggest part. Congress and the entrenched interests completely stymie good energy/environmental policy. A new President will help, but won’t be a simple cure-all, for what ails us in the energy and environmental arenas.

Which brings me to another article in the issue: “Congress’ Top 10 Fossil Fools” by Chris Mooney, profiling the “foes and thwarters of renewable energy”. In his list, they are:

1. Senator Pete Dominici (R-NM)
2. The Southern Company (NYSE: SO)
3. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA)
4. Representative Joe Barton (R-TX)
5. Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) and “Coal-State Dems”
6. Representative John Dingell (D-MI)
7. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
8. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA)
9. Senator John Thune (R-SD)
10. Senator John McCain (R-AZ)

Probably no surprise that there are more R’s than D’s on the list, but I was really surprised at the omission of Senator James Imhofe (R-OK), and by the inclusion of McCain. Apparently, the League of Conservation Voters gave the impending Republican Presidential nominee a rating of 0 (that’s right, zero) last year “because McCain missed every single environmentally relevant vote”, including ones in which he could have been the tie-breaker to overcome a filibuster on the 2007 clean-energy bill. Alas, what could have been…

Other good articles in the issue include:

“The Greenback Effect” by Bill McKibben on why markets aren’t necessarily antithetical to the environment, but can be the driving force for environmental solutions.
“Breaking the Gridlock” by Jennifer Kahn on how the smart-grid could be the major enabler for energy efficiency.
“The Nuclear Option” by Judith Lewis – a reasonably fair and balanced view of the pros and cons of nuclear energy, without the expected hyperbole.
“Tar Wars” by Josh Harkinson, which paints a not-at-all pretty picture of what’s happening to the landscape in Northern Alberta as the tar sands are mined to make oil.
“Put a Tyrant in Your Tank” by Joshua Kurlantzick, profiling the bad guys leading many of the major oil producing nations – who are financed every time you fill up at the pump.

Lots of interesting nuggets to be found in the sidebar boxes too. For instance, did you know that 30% of the electricity supply at the infamous Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is provided by wind turbines?

Well worth spending $5.95 at the newsstand, pick up the May/June 2008 Mother Jones.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.