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Criticism of the criticism of peak oil

I have been following the 'peak oil' debate currently taking place on a number of Indy sites, and I have been interested in studying the papers and reports written by the debunkers and critics of 'peak oil'. What I have found reminds me of the debunkers of global warming (bad arguments, not to hard to question or even refute). My criticisms of these critics follow below...

One critical argument against 'peak oil' is that once we run out of conventional oil, we can switch over to what is referred to as 'unconventional oil' (referring to tar sands and oil shales). Here the critics offer an extremely wide range of figures to describe how long unconventional oil would last (from 100 to 1000 years). The author's argue that given that there is no oil crisis, then spending public money on developing alternative energy sources is 'a wasteful diversion.' (Note that their argument completely ignores the effects of global warming). They follow this with a bunch of propaganda designed to ridicule 'oil scares', by bringing up all kinds of deliberately ridiculous sounding examples from the past, in an attempt to show that 'oil scares' are a constantly recurring feature of life.

Because technology determines whether or not oil can be extracted economically, and because of the advance of technology, the authors point out that the over the last century, oil reserves have always kept pace with, or even grown faster than demand. From this line of reasoning they draw the strange sounding conclusion that oil is a 'renewable resource,' stating that "McCabe (1998) concluded
that crude oil reserves are comparable to food stocks held in a pantry or warehouse which are constantly replenished."

using the technology argument they state that conventional (pumpable) oil and gas constitutes only 5 per cent of available hydro carbons. The other 95 per cent are available in tar sands and shales, coal, and methane hydrates, and thus they suggest that as technology developes these oil resources will become cheap enough to exploit thus avoiding the catastrophe of peak oil.

However, as they mention, these unconventional hydro-carbons are not an energy source but rather they 'store energy'. What they mean hear is that it is so energy intensive to recover these materials that it takes more energy to recover them than they can supply as an energy source. Therefore, they suggest that nuclear power plants be built to supply the required energy to mine these unconventional hydro-carbons. They would then 'store' this nuclear energy in the form of fuel. Previously the authors had debunked research into energy alternatives as 'a wasteful diversion' but on reading this I cannot but help wonder why they don't advocate research into electric cars and then those nuclear power plants they are promoting could directly power the electric cars, skipping the step of 'storing' nuclear energy in these converted shales and tars, and also skipping that bit about putting more CO2 into the atmosphere by then burning those tar converted gases. Their argument just does not make sense, and they seem to be in love with tar sands (developing that technology is not 'a wasteful diversion' but a wonderful thing, while developing an electric car and skipping that tar sands altogether would be not doubt 'a wasteful diversion'. Similarly developing solar cells, which I would recommend be based on phosphorescent materials (that glow in the dark, already a natural collector, as well as naturally occuring solar battery) would allow us to skip those nuke plants they are peddling, and go directly to clean electrical vehicles, but this would they would consider 'a worthless diversion.' As I said, this does not make sense.

As they put it, "Manufactured hydrocarbons would not be an energy source so much as means of storing and transporting energy. With present day technology the process would be expensive and impractical. However, if a large scale source of cheap energy such as nuclear power were available if might eventually become economically feasible to engage in the mass production of synthetic hydrocarbons."

The authors then go on to describe extraction techniques and potentials of various unconventional carbons. They estimate hundreds of years supply from tar sands alone, although the cost of extraction is relatively high. They estimate tens of thousands of years from oil shale. However, once again the cost is high, and even worse is the heavy environmental destruction that would be caused by oil shale converion (as compared to the non-destructive impact of harmless solar collectors, which they previously dismissed as 'a worthless distraction'). For example you must strip mine the landscape, and then crush and smash the rocks and then bake out the oil in a large kiln, and once again this requires nuclear power, which they don't seem to mind, to fire up the baking ovens, and the resulting oil then stores this baking energy and can power up gas guzzling vehicles. Pardon my sarcasm, but I don't think much of their arguments here. The very idea of spending the fortune they admit this technology will cost (not a 'worthless distraction' apparently, while spending the same amount on solar they dismiss out of hand) only to wind up pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and strip mining the landscape to pound and crush the incredible tons of rocks required to fuel your SUV, well its all much to ridiculous if you ask me.

They also propose the energy intensive conversion of 'stranded gas' to liquids. This they state, would only increase the cost of the resulting barrel by about ten per cent over current oil prices.

Finally they propose burning methane, or converting methane into natural gas.

One notices a strong bias in this paper, as I mentioned above, in that for reasons I don't understand the author's are wedded to environmentally harmful strip mining practices and are also wedded to the idea of burning things up, even quoting 30 thousand years worth of methane burning, which would do who knows what to the environment and the atmosphere, when solar technology would spare us all the burning and all the strip mining and pollution and nuclear power plants they propose. Who knows what they are thinking. I can't figure it out. Perhaps they have jobs that depend on people burning fuels and thus think its great...

They follow the above with criticism of the Hubble Bell Curve, which describes 'peak oil', and their criticism is that not every oil field or well follows a bell curve, indeed some are assymetric. This might be true, but it is still a poor argument against 'wasteful distractions' such as spending money on solar energy development, instead of spending it on equally expensive technologies such as shale extraction or methane, which they don't mind, and seem to think people can burn for at least another 30 thousand years.

After criticizing the hubble curve, and hubble's philosophy of life, they then praise nuclear reactors, which of course would be needed, not to fuel electric cars, but rather to convert shales and tar and methane to gasoline for SUVs. They argue that there is enough uranium to fuel nuke plants for at least 500 years. They advocate such environmentally harmful practices as 'mining the ocean water' for uranium which they say would only cost 1000 dollars a pound.

They also ignore the potential of solar power and falsely state that "If the environmental problems and perceptions surrounding nuclear power plants cannot be overcome, there is no known resource or technology which can supply energy for the civilization of the future."

To summarize my criticism of this paqe which is critical of peak oil, then, is that first of all, the authors, like everyone else, accept that oil is a finite resource, and that peak oil is a real phenomena, although the dispute the speed at which oil becomes economical at the peak. As for their proposed solutions, they are heavily biased towards burning fossil fuels, even when their proposed solutions require more energy to produce the end result than is stored within the fossil fuel itself. As I mentioned previously one could build those nuclear reactors they advocate, and power electrical cars, skipping that environmentally harmful unconventional oil extraction they advocate. One wonders, why bother, and therefore I found this page, which is critical of peak oil, to be very strange reading...

The following page is skeptical of the hypothesis that peak oil is imminent (or even on going)


The page above is another of those that are critical of peak oil, although in the case of this author, the criticism is in the form of downplaying pessimism and always opting for the rosy scenario.

For the last three decades oil discoveries have declined significantly, and one of the author's arguments is that this historical trend is not an indication of what we can expect in the future. Here he is being entirely speculative. He doesn't know, but he optimistically hopes for the best. (And that's not good enough). If we assume that the historical trend holds then we assume that peak oil is nearer. He argues that history is refuted by "the finding of two new supergiant fields in Kazakhstan and Iran. Again, this refutes the argument that discoveries have been relatively low in recent decades due to geological scarcity and supports the optimists' arguments that the lower discoveries are partly due to reduced drilling." What he is suggesting here is that if we just drill more, we will find more, and that could be true, but his argument is still speculative, because at the end of it all we just don't know until we try, and while things could work out rosy, as he optimistically predicts, on the other hand, the past trends might hold and those two fields he is holding up as examples could just be those random statistical blips that often come along.

A good portion of the debate over 'peak oil' concerns mathematical models used to determine the estimated size of reserves, and the author argues that newer discoveries have historically always been underestimated in size. There has also been a trend towards increasing estimates of reserve size in recent years, which he attributes to better technology. He reports that, "IHS Energy puts current reserves at 1100 billion barrels."

This would leave about 50 years of oil still in the ground at current consumption levels. Therefore if we assumed that consumption levels remained flat, peak oil would occur in the year 2025.

One thing to keep in mind here is that 'peak oil' does not refer to the time when 'oil runs out'. Rather oil production follows a type of bell curve, although as critics have pointed out, sometimes the curve is assymetric and can vary somewhat in different fields. Of course the curve can also be altered by increasing the estimated size of the reserve. This is obvious, but for some reason it is always used as a criticism of the bell curve (they suggest that Hubbert assumed reserves would remain static, but this is a foolish criticism because when a new figure for the reserve comes in, while this does invalidate the previous prediction, you just redraw the stupid curve...problem solved).

The peak of 'peak oil' is represented by the top of the curve. After a single oil well or oil field reaches the peak, its production begins to decline. At this point you are not 'out of oil' you are out of 'cheap oil.' After peak oil is reached you might still have 20 or 30 years of oil left, but the oil becomes increasingly expensive to remove from the ground, and thus the price rises. Oil still remains in the ground but it becomes increasingly difficult and more expensive to pump up. Finally towards the bottom of the tail of the graph on the down side, it takes more energy to pump the oil out of the ground than can be recovered by using the oil. At this point the oil has become worthless as an energy source, although it might still have value for some other use, and as you slide down the graph towards this point the oil becomes increasingly expensive, and, in addition, the amount of recoverable energy you can gain from the oil keeps going down (because it takes more and more energy to recover the oil, which means that in the end you have less and less net energy gain). This is the phenomena of peak oil (not 'running out of oil'). So if the optimistic estimate is correct, you have 25 years of cheap oil, followed by 25 years of growing crisis, if your economy still depends on oil at that time.

This author's piece concentrates on pushing back the date of peak oil, as I mentioned, by always opting for the rosy scenario and the optimistic assumption. Even assuming he is right, all that means is that we have time, if we start now, to adjust to peak oil, and hopefully that doesn't mean nuking up and going after those tar sands and that shale, instead of spending the money on clean alternative energy sources. We are also dependant on what oil remains for other purposes than heating or transportation.

One recent writer downplayed the effect of peak oil on the food supply and stated that 'we don't eat oil' which is false. The statement was also made that 'we don't need fertilizer' and 'humanity got along for thousands of years without fertilizer.' North Korea in the 90's got their oil supply from Russia cut off when the Soviet Union collapsed. Mass starvation and the deaths of millions followed because without the oil they could not manufacture modern fertilizers, and their food production dropped by 60 per cent. We eat oil in the modern world, and while we didn't in the past, we didn't have the population base that we have today. In today's world, no oil means mass starvation, and its just that simple. Now there must be alternatives, but no one is bothering to look. For example, we know that since the Aswan Dam was built in Egypt, there was a big die off in certain fisheries and shrimp industries that once flourished at the outflow of the nile to the Mediterreanean. What happened is that the silt that usually fertilized the delta was clogged up in the Aswan dam, reducing fertility all along the Nile and in the Delta (sooner or later the Aswan Dam will become useless due to becoming full of this silt.) This silt, a natural fertilizer, comes from rocks which are weathered by the water, releasing the minerals into the water that plants require to survive. So therefore, we could get fertilizer from rocks, since this how nature does it, and as for nitrogen, crop rotations is one strategy, allowing the land to keep the fallings from plant leaves and stems is another (this is how nature does it, rather than stripping the land bare and exposing black dirt that then needs chemical fertilizers made from oil to replenish the nitrogen). There are also billions of tons of nitrogen in the atmosphere (which is where nitrogen fixing plants like beans find it in the first place) so it might be possible to imitate the bean plant and fix nitrogen without oil. One very bad idea is that suggestion which was made to 'use manure.' Animals take in about 50 to one hundred times as much plant protein as they return in the form of animal protein, and thus they are a heavy tax on the food chain, on the land base, and the environment as a whole, and that tax more than negates any advantages of trying to grow food with animal manure.

Returning to the discussion at hand...I felt that the peak oil critics arguments were somewhat misleading, since he makes a few assumptions. first of all, there are a range of statistics describing recoverable oil ranging from around 600 billion barrels to around 1100 billion barrels, and he seems to think that you should always go with the most optimistic estimate, and he also downplays the historical trend towards declining oil discovery, prefering to suggest that it is due to reduced drilling. So then one should always opt for the rosy optimistic scenario, or so it would seem. The less optimistic scenario he quotes places peak oil at the year 2015 and the most optimistic scenario at 2025, and he is a die hard optimist and so he is certain that with increased drilling there will be even more oil, not proven, just an optimistic assumption of his, and thus peak oil could be pushed back even further. Given the seriousness of the major disruptions caused by peak oil, whether or not people should be lulled into complacency by optimistic assumptions and rosy scenarios is a good question, and some pessimism isn't such a bad thing.

The second problem with the critics arguments is that these estimates are based on 'current consumption patterns.' Now that probably isn't a good idea. We know that in just the last few years, millions of automobiles have hit the road in China. The growth rate in China is over 8 per cent a year, and they are not about to stop growing. India is also determined to live the White Western Lifestyle (if you want to call it that). Russia just recently dissed the Kyoto accord, and Putin stated that Russia intended to double its GDP in the next couple of years and thus was not going to be held back by Kyoto. Of course China, Russia, and India will want to double their GDP once they have doubled their GDP, and then double it again, and so on, as they pursue the White Middle Class Lifestyle, which until recent times, has been the privilege of the Colonial Powers, or white people. Gas guzzling SUVs are hitting the roads by the millions. One of the consequences of the melting of the Artic Ice sheets, could very well be the interuption of the tropical circulation that brings mild winters to Europe. What happens is that warm tropical air follows a current up North towards Europe, then it cools in the artic and dives downward and the current carries this cold water southward in a kind of conveyer belt that continually brings warm water North to Europe and sends cold artic water south to be warmed in the tropics. If the ice cap melts this sinking motion of the cold water which powers the conveyer belt could be interupted with the end result that for at least a period of time, global warming could bring freezing winters to Europe, resulting in a huge growth in the demand for heating in the winter. The problem would be made worse by the fact that European buildings are not insulated for those frigid -30 or -40 conditions you find in other parts of Northern climates, and that makes the heating costs even higher.

So to summarize then, the problem with this critic of 'peak oil' is that he is incurably optimistic, and always tends to the rosy scenario, dismissing declining oil discoveries in recent decades as anomolies, always choosing the highest figures for field size estimates, and also then using these figures together with current consumption levels to push back peak oil. Even then they can only push back peak oil to 2025, which still isn't far enough away when you consider the kinds of massive interventions and preparations that need to be made as peak oil approaches, of particular importance being the research and development of alternative methods of growing and fertilizing crops (perhaps it will just have to be the end of the meat eating age, since pigs eat 80 per cent of the corn produced, and livestock eat as much as 80 per cent of the grains produced - these are shocking figures, but if it comes time to make wrenching adjustments in the food area, assuming we don't research how nature produces silt, a natural fertilizer and so on, well we can go a long way by changing what we eat, so we need not be to apocalyptic about food, provided that we can learn to live without eating animals).

This particular Peak oil critic also ignores the difficulties posed by the rapid growth rates of countries like China, which make projections based on 'current consumption levels' questionable, and also eat away at the time we have left before peak oil becomes a major problem. The most pessimistic scenarios state that peak is NOW, the most optimistic scenarios preferred by this peak oil critic currently push peak oil back to 2025, with the optimistic promise that all will be well and even further pushed back by more drilling. The middle of the road prediction places peak oil at about 2015 (followed by a couple of decades of increasingly wrenching adjustments if we haven't prepared for the change when peak oil finally arrives), but this more optimistic date could easily fall away as rapid growth continues in countries like China and India and Russia carry through with their plans to multiply their GDP. Even if we adopt the environmentally unfriendly approach advocated by the authors of the first paper, this would still mean spending hundreds of billions and billions of dollars to nuke up the planet, billions on technology to grind up shale and strip mine and suck the oil out of tar sands. No doubt, what will then follow will be the age of tar sands and shale, since once people choose a path they just will not stop, and that means lots and lots more of that global warming, more smog, more acid rain, more potential nuclear accidents, and lots and lots of toxic nuclear sludge that will have to be shelved somewhere for about one hundred thousand years.

My preferred solution would be to direct attention to nature's solar battery, phospherent material (those glow in the dark toys) which are not only a natural solar collector, but also a natural solar battery. Since nature already has the rudimentary solar battery in many little kids toy box, it would seem to me that we should pay attention and devote some study to this phenomena since it holds out the promise of a truly nonharmful endlessly renewable energy source, and best of all, it would be free...
amazing... 18.Feb.2004 16:15

this thing here

it's simply amazing that all these critics would go through all the trouble and time to come up with ways to keep using oil. it comes accross as so incredibly desperate, like a junky holding on to heroin. "we've got to keep using oil for energy, no matter what! no! don't you even dare try to stop using it!"

yeah right.

Why is it cheap 19.Feb.2004 17:11

Common Sense

I know that there is a finite supply of oil, but if oil extraction levels have reached their peak, why am I not paying $5+ per gallon when I fill up my tank (once a month given the limited time I drive)? What possible incentive do the oil conglomorates have for artificially keeping the price low?

A good analysis. 21.Mar.2004 14:35


Thanks for the links

I would point out one problem in your argument however. I believe current PV technology is a net energy sink as well. It takes more power to produce a panel and the required equipment than the panel will ever produce. I may be wrong if someone cares to correct me. BTW, I plan to use PV in my transitional plan.

To CS,
Oil companies don't set the price of gasoline any more than farmers set the price of wheat. The only way a farmer can make the price go up is to produce less, not a good business model. I also guess they don't really want the idea to get around that people should look for alternatives.

Demand and the price of oil are completely interwoven with the world economy. I've read and it seems logical that the peak won't be as much a pinnacle or day and hour, as a rough plateau. When business is good demand for oil increases and the price goes up. High oil prices increase the cost of all products and thus the economies slow and demand for, and the price of oil goes back down.

There are still some big fields being readied to start producing in 07 & 08 (though none so far after that) these too will increase supply and maybe even a glut temporarily. Which of course will lull the public even more. They are deep-water fields and will be pressed to peak production quickly to recoup their huge cost.