2009-08-26

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.

3 comments:

Chris said...

I also thought Lynch was vague in his attack on peak oil. I'd be interested to know where he gets his figures for "revisions" to the oil reserves in previously discovered wells, most of which must be located in OPEC countries which have huge incentives to cook the books so they can produce more than their quota of oil. I would be much more inclined to agree with Lynch if he could show that new discoveries plus revisions have kept pace with production in, say, the USA, where Hubbert's original peak oil prediction was made.

The elephant in the room here is the huge rise in oil prices over the five years before the current recession and the big fall in prices (and subsequent partial recovery) in the last year. The former was pretty clearly helped by steady increases in global demand, and the latter by a temporary reduction in this demand. For Lynch's arguments about the huge oil supply to matter, production had better ramp up pretty fast since global demand for oil is likely already increasing fairly quickly again.

.brian said...

Yeah, I totally agree with Chris' comment. This might be an example where the actual truth is somewhere in the middle of the two extreme views, but without better evidence I'm still inclined to believe that peak oil is real and will happen sooner rather than later.

Uneducated Man said...

I am not sure where he get's his information, nor do i have the insider numbers. So from my limited information from Wiki and Department of energy it is not hard to do the math. We have already passed the peak on all fossil fuels and have max 40 years left of all three. As far as the trade off to extract oil is greater than 1-1 and actual quantities in natural gas and coal.

So I looked at other countries and we are way behind the power curve. Some are completely off fossil fuels for electricity while others are vamping up at an alarming rate. What are we doing?? Well Iraq is recorded to have the 4th largest oil reserve, but realisticly that does not help us if they are going to sell to all because by 2020 we will only be extracting oil as in the 1970's unless we intend to not allow them to share with everyone else? our reserves are gone in 8 years so I hope others will be sharing with us? From the look of it only 10 countries will still have oil to extract in 2020.