Sunday 4 March 2012

Peak Oil: Seven Years on the Plateau

Hard to believe that the transition movement is seven years old. I remember a peak oil meeting in 2005 where we arranged ourselves in a line according to when we thought the year of peak oil was. Not that I’ve ever seen the point of worrying about the actual year of peak - knowing that it’s coming is what matters. So there we stood in a line from ‘it’s already happened’ to a more optimistic 2015. That’s 3 years from now.

oil tankers refuelling at sea2005 was also the year of the Hirsch report, which was created by request for the US Department of Energy. Hirsch considered three scenarios for implementing the necessary actions to deal with peak oil and found that initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before world oil peaked offers the possibility of avoiding a global liquid fuel shortfall, while doing so 10 years before helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuel shortfall roughly a decade after peak. Sadly, as this is the approach we seem to be taking, waiting until global oil production peaks before taking serious action leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.

The term ‘peak oil’, as I’m sure most Transitioners know, refers to the year in which the global production rate of conventional oil reaches a peak. ‘Peaking’ occurs for all non-renewable resources (as well as for renewable ones which are being extracted faster than they can be replenished) and means that the rate of production cannot increase; it does not mean that production will suddenly stop, because there will still be large reserves remaining. It’s easy to dismiss ‘peak oil’ as a distraction because we have billions of barrels left in these reserves, but it doesn’t matter how much oil is in the ground, it’s getting it to market that counts.
No one actually wants oil, or any other form of energy. It’s the services provided by that energy that matter: the miles travelled, the crops harvested or the synthetic materials manufactured. So flow rate is key because oil is energy and energy is the ability to do work. Imagine you won a competition and were given a bank account with £1million in it. But now imagine that there’s a catch: you can only withdraw £10/day from that reserve. It’s not the size of the reserve that matter - it’s your access to it.

Goldilocks oil

Oil is classified as ‘conventional’ and ‘non-conventional.’ Conventional oil, also known as crude oil, is typically the highest quality oil, which flows with comparative ease, and is the least expensive to produce. However, of all the world’s oil, conventional only makes up about one-third (see Fig. 1:). Non-conventional oils are not as readily processed as conventional oil partly because our infrastructure is not geared up for them, hence production often requires a great deal of capital investment. And they require way more energy input to process, meaning you’ve already spent a larger proportion of the energy you produce and have less to do other work with.

Fig. 1: Non conventional resources are twice as large as conventional ones

Yet despite the fact that non-conventional oils have much lower energy yields and are more polluting than conventional oil, we’re turning to them as an energy source because, as far as infrastructure goes, they are largely like conventional oil. Now without boring your socks off, it’s important to know that conventional oil is the stuff we’ve been exploiting for the last 150 years. It provided the vast majority of the energy used to create Western civilisation and was a wonderful alternative to coal, especially for transport. You might like to think of it as Goldilocks oil - it’s not too dense, not too light, it’s just right. It’s ‘just right’ because we built the appropriate infrastructure to deal with it. We live in a liquid fuel world but those with little understanding of energy returns can’t grasp that it’s not how many barrels produced, but the ‘net energy return’ that counts.

“But surely peak oil isn’t being ignored?” the doubters will ask. Well, if it isn’t, someone’s doing a hell of a good job in hiding the evidence from us! According to such august bodies as the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Energy Information Administration (EIA), global output of conventional oil has been stagnant since 2005 (Fig. 2). More worrying than that, if all liquid fuels are considered, which includes heavy oils, tar sands and biofuels, the plateau remains (Fig 3).

Fig. 2: IEA data shows conventional oil output to have reached a plateau

Fig. 3: IEA and EIA data shows all liquid fuel output to have reached a plateau

Seven years on the plateau

While there’s no doubt that the term ‘peak oil’ is more widely understood today, the meaning to society is not. Not only have atmospheric CO2 levels continued to rise, despite way more concern over climate change, we have now turned to tar sands and fracking for shale gas, and there are continuing disagreements over who has mineral rights over the Arctic shelf, so that once that pesky ice goes we can get drilling.

Seven years on and this is ‘our’ answer to peak oil and Hirsch’s warnings go unheeded. Just last week (26 Jan 2012), James Murray and David King had an article published in Nature arguing that the impact of dwindling oil supplies on the economy is a potentially more persuasive argument for lowering global emissions than climate change. But if oil production can’t grow, the implication is that the economy can’t grow either. This is such a frightening prospect that many still refuse to consider it.

It’s easy to become depressed, demoralised, demotivated as one realises that we won’t choose to change. But change we will as change will be imposed by nature. It’s not information we are short of - it’s understanding. I’m not sure why we continue to destroy the environment on which we all depend but it’s not because we (as a species) don’t know any better. I think it’s that we don’t want to know. It’s ironic that the optimism of the Transition movement, which is seen widely among humans, is the same optimism which seems to enable us to blinker out unpleasantries, like the impossibility of endless economic growth or the need to radically change the way we do things.

I have noticed in recent years that many transition initiatives seem to be more focused on ‘cutting carbon’ but we must not forget the driving purpose of the Transition Movement - to withstand and overcome the dual challenges of climate change and peak oil. The plateau won’t go on forever - life with less energy is inevitable. It is better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise. Mandy Meikle

Mandy Meikle lives near Edinburgh and has been speaking on peak oil issues since 2004. She believes that humanity’s future lies not in technology but psychology. Mandy writes an occasional blog as The Cheery Pessimist and gives talks on energy issues. A "Transitioner-without-initiative", she is working to set up a Community Development Trust in her locality.

Photo of oil rigs from article on North Sea Oil, DECC, Climate Change by Chris Verno (Genghiskhanviet /Creative Commons)

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