Is peak oil a myth?

An op-ed piece by Michael Lynch in the New York Times suggests that "peak oil theory" is just a myth [LINK]. Really what he's saying is that it is a crazy left-wing conspiracy theory. I wanted to just post some reaction to his op-ed, calling some of his arguments into question. I'm not going to claim he's wrong, just that his arguments are far from persuasive. First, let's also have some disclosure, Michael Lynch is President and Director of Global Petroleum Service, part of Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc [LINK]. This is a consulting firm, and I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of their clients are oil companies. He's also been associated with other energy policy organizations as well as MIT. I'm not saying he is not credible, I'm sure he's an expert, I'm just saying Lynch is probably as biased as the people he is criticizing.

Lynch dismisses the statement that the "easy oil is gone." This is a common point made by people concerned with peak oil, as Lynch points out. The idea is that 100 years ago, there were oil fields that literally had oil coming out of the surface. Remember the Beverly Hillbillies? Now there aren't such high-pressure fields. Instead of accepting that as true, Lynch says the argument is "vague and irrelevant." He then says that Persian oil drillers 100 years ago wouldn't think that oil was "easy." This is a false analogy. Nobody is saying that the labor of extracting oil was ever easy. The point is about how much energy has to be spent to extract a given amount of oil, which then produces a given amount of energy. It's not easy to quantify, but as I understand the state of oil today, more energy is used to extract oil per unit energy now than it was, say, in the 1950s.

A point made just after the one above revisits the oil crises in 1973 and 1979. Lynch points to predictions from "experts" saying prices would just keep going up. Then they didn't go up. This is supposed to be part of Lynch's op-ed about arguments of political instability playing a part in oil production; he's saying that political instability is nothing new. In my reading of his article, I find that this whole section is really a straw-man argument. He brings it up because, "When their shaky claims on geology are exposed, the peak-oil advocates tend to argue that today’s geopolitical instability needs to be taken into consideration." So he sets up an argument that is not about peak oil just to shoot it down. The question of peak oil is essentially one of geology and technology; geopolitics certainly plays a role in oil production (well, maybe not according to Lynch), but it isn't part of the peak oil theory except that if production ceases in a region, then the peak would be pushed back in time.

Finally, Lynch ends with this:
In the end, perhaps the most misleading claim of the peak-oil advocates is that the earth was endowed with only 2 trillion barrels of “recoverable” oil. Actually, the consensus among geologists is that there are some 10 trillion barrels out there. A century ago, only 10 percent of it was considered recoverable, but improvements in technology should allow us to recover some 35 percent — another 2.5 trillion barrels — in an economically viable way. And this doesn’t even include such potential sources as tar sands, which in time we may be able to efficiently tap.

Well, there's a bit of an appeal to authority here, but I'm not going to claim that there's a real logical fallacy. This might just be a case of presenting (without evidence) a number that differs from the estimates I've seen before. Because there are no sources or evidence presented, it is impossible for the reader to know if this point is true or not. My guess is that there are some large error-bars on that 10 trillion barrel number, and this value is probably at the high end of them. I would hazard to guess that the 2 trillion barrel number is too low (and I have heard that number before), but that 10 trillion barrels is a pretty high estimate. The recoverable part of whatever the true number is the real question. The truth is, though, that at some point the extraction of oil becomes cost ineffective compared to other energy sources. It might be when the oil has to be mined from 5000 feet below the ocean surface or when they have to drill miles into continental bedrock or when tar sands have to be utilized, but there must be a point where the amount of energy going into the extraction of oil is nearly the same as the amount of oil extracted. At that point, there's no need to extract any oil since becomes a zero sum gain. I've always heard the argument that alternative energy sources will become much more cost effective in the run up to the zero sum gain on oil, so we'll probably never reach that extreme.

The bottom line seems to be that there are still disagreements about whether peak oil theory will pan out or not. The oil consultants say no, and a bunch of academics say yes. Hmm, interesting. Like other, strangely similar, "debates," the answer will likely be learned in the next couple of decades. And also like those other issues, by the time we find out the answer, it might already be too late to change course without drastically impacting all of our lives.


Tamino on methane release from sea floor

One of the scariest blog posts I've ever read: Tamino's Open Mind. I haven't been following these developments on possible evidence for methane clathrate instability, but clearly I should be, and we all should be.


Acid rain, a blast from the past like hearing an MC Hammer song

I just read, and quite enjoyed, a Slate article by Nina Shen Rastogi looking back at the acid rain problems of the 1980s [LINK]. She brings up a good point about the public awareness campaigns; I remember well many cartoons and kids shows mentioning and vilifying acid rain. I'm not sure that is happening now with global warming, but maybe it should be if it isn't. Anyway, the review also brings up two other good points. First, enacting acid rain mitigation strategies through federal legislation (e.g., the Clean Air Act of 1990) has dramatically reduced emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide from power plants and factories, leading to an improvement in the pH (i.e., acidity) of rain across the northeast USA and eastern Canada. The point being that these strategies are proven to be successful. Second, acid rain hasn't actually gone away, and it's still a hazard in some areas in the USA and Canada. Worse yet, industrializing nations such as China and India haven't gone through the cycle of discovering they are poisoning themselves, figuring out a way to fix it, and enacting the strategy. These countries could face serious environmental and infrastructure harm if they don't preempt emissions of acid rain precursors.

All of this sounds so much like issues involved with carbon dioxide and climate change that it's eerie, huh? I guess the disappointing thing is that there's still so much hesitation and resistance to doing something about these environmental issues in our culture. We've got clear examples of success, like the ozone hole and acid rain, where science described the mechanisms and suggested the causes, and mitigation strategies were adopted, and environmental catastrophe was avoided (or at least averted). It makes me wonder if past success has lulled us all into a false sense of confidence.... you can finish this disturbing thought.


Hectic summers and big monies

The dearth of posts the last week or so has been because of a ramp-up of activity around here, including giving talks, traveling and buying a house. Speaking of which, don't forget to click those adverts!

Anyway, I'm still trying to get caught up on things, and haven't stumbled on anything all that blog-worthy. However, I just remembered that I had found some interesting numbers that I'm happy to share. The question is, how much research money is really available for climate research? And how does that compare to money for other things, other science topics and completely different endeavors?

Well, I can't answer completely, but we can start putting some things in perspective. First off, let's just restrict our attention to the United States, which isn't fair, but let's do it anyway. What is the total annual budget for the USA? According to the USA Office of Budget and Management, the typical fiscal year has about 2.8 TRILLION DOLLARS of spending. Unfortunately for the USA, it only has around 2.5 Trillion of income (the difference each year is the national deficit) [LINK]. Amazingly, the deficit is 1-2% of the gross national product. Just under half of the total budget is allocated in "discretionary spending," which I think means that Congress gets to dole it out more or less as it sees fit (and the president approves it). More than half of the discretionary spending goes to "security;" which means that about 25% of the total budget, somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 BILLION goes to security. That's a spicy meatball! About $400 billion goes to everything else; yes, I know these numbers are rough, that's why I am supplying the link for you to go take a look yourself. Let me know if I'm totally misinterpreting something.

Of the remaining $400 billion, we can start to see how it gets distributed by looking at which departments get a piece of the pie. It looks like Health and Human Services and Education are the biggest beneficiaries of this money, getting about $70 and $55 billion respectively. The National Institutes of Health is mainly funded through the Dept of Health and Human Services, and is able to dole out about $30 billion annually [LINK]. Moving into physical sciences, much more of the research comes through the Dept of Energy, NASA, the Dept of Commerce, and the National Science Foundation, with lesser contributions from other departments (e.g., $1billion to all of USGS through Dept of Interior).

The total budgets for those organizations are roughly $24billion for DoE, $6billion for DoC, $16billion for NASA, and $6billion for NSF. The first three all have significant non-research allocations, while the NSF is the dominant source of funding for all basic science research in the USA.

Let's say that somehow if we were combing through the budget, we could take that NSF money and double it from other agencies. That gives around $12 BILLION for basic physical sciences (excluding biology/medicine money from NIH). That is about 2% of the USA's annual defense budget, and LESS THAN 1/10th of 1% of the USA GDP. Isn't that shocking?!

So I can't tell you how much of that is available for climate-related research, but bear in mind that that money covers most of physics, chemistry, mathematics, geology, astronomy, and a lot of engineering research in the USA, along with quite a lot of biological sciences, climate, and multidisciplinary science. The bottom line is that science in general is a drop in the proverbial bucket, and funding for climate research is a tiny fraction of that drop.

We're throwing around some crazy numbers here. How about comparing against some non-governmental values? The annual payroll for the National Football League teams this year is hovering around $3billion [LINK]. Football players are getting paid half as much as the entire NSF. There are 53 players per team on the 32 NFL teams, giving 1696 players getting paid $3,000,000,000. There are somewhere around 250,000 scientists and engineers employed just at research universities in the USA; this includes non-physical scientists, but doesn't include government labs [LINK].

Just as another number to compare with, USA and Canada citizens spend about $8-9 billion per year in cinema tickets [LINK]. Full a third more than the entire NSF budget.


Nissan Leaf

I've never really wanted a Nissan before, but this looks pretty sweet: the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric hatchback.



El Nino 2009/2010... waiting and watching

I am finally giving in and starting what I'm sure will become a series of updates on the emerging warm-phase of the ENSO phenomenon, namely El Nino. It's becoming pretty apparent that the tropical eastern Pacific is anomalously warm, and is likely to stay that way for the next year or so [LINK]. At this point, what we can say is that the indices that are used operationally to define and track El Nino point toward a moderate to strong El Nino, but their nature is difficult to predict. You can see the development of warm anomalies of 1-2 degrees Celsius along the equator and stretching from South America into the central Pacific Ocean at the CPC page. This is the major symptom of El Nino. The impacts are not completely understood, but the slackening of the trade-winds and shift in northern hemisphere jetstream are normal. These changes tend to increase wind shear over the tropical Atlantic, which reduces the number of Atlantic hurricanes (note there haven't been any yet this year). It's also expected to make the winter of 2009/2010 mild across much of the northern hemisphere, which might lead to 2010 being a record warm year in the global average.

I'm sure we'll revisit the topic frequently in the coming months, including some review of important aspects of ENSO, and maybe some debunking of ENSO myths (e.g., increased rainfall in Southern California?).


The funny guy makes a good point

Here is Dara O'Brian saying things more convincingly than most more serious folks:

This video was drawn to my attention by Phil Plait's blog.


The Indian problem

I was just reading a Grist article about India wanting a global agreement on combatting climate change, while at the same time opposing binding emissions limits [LINK]. This has been, and I think will remain, a key issue for international agreements and negotiations concerning climate change. India and China have a couple of billion people, many of whom live in abject poverty. Both countries are making long strides in their development, becoming global powerhouses in terms of manufacturing and providing low-cost services to the "developed world." In this dash to bring the standard of living in China and India into alignment with the developed countries, the fossil-fuel use in these nations has increased tremendously. Of course, at the same time most Indians still burn biomass for cooking and heating [LINK, see also video].

So on the face of it, this seems to be a dilemma. India and China want to lift their populations out of poverty, expand their economies, and become global leaders. Doing this requires dramatic increases in infrastructure, and includes expanding electricity and water resources. The apparent consequence is increased carbon emissions. So, from the perspective of these developing nations, to improve the standard of living for their populations requires intensive use of fossil fuels and increased emissions, and from their perspective it's not fair that just when they are making progress the "West" tells them that they can't use the cheap (and dirty) energy that will accelerate their endeavors. From the outsider's point of view, though, ramping up the carbon emissions is bad for the whole world.

The only solution that I see to this dilemma is actually exactly what India says it doesn't want: binding emissions restrictions. Such restrictions could be quite complicated in their details, but the point is to prevent the infrastructure in developing nations from building in a dependence on fossil fuels. The world's developed nations are now addicted to fossil fuel, and it is obvious that this has become an impediment to combatting climate change. Introducing the same addiction for another 30% of the world's population doesn't seem useful. Instead, by introducing binding emissions cuts for everyone (and that is key!), the developing nations will be able to practically leap-frog the fossil-fuel phase that the west has been stuck in for a century. It'll be cost efficient, too, since all the western nations are transitioning away from fossil fuels, driving the prices of renewable energy technology down. So while all the developing nations are spending gads of money to deconstruct their antiquated systems while building up entirely new infrastructure for a low-carbon future, India and China should be able to simply begin with renewable systems (for much of their countries at least). This strategy would actually accelerate China and India's progress in catching up with developed countries because they'd avoid what will undoubtedly be a painful transition away from fossil fuels, while pioneering the large-scale use of renewable energy technologies.

Of course, this has all been about energy and money. There are a host of issues related to the impacts of climate change that will disproportionately hurt developing nations, so avoiding those impacts should be a very high priority for those countries. Maybe we should review some of those issues in a future post.