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Peak Oil Is Dead

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Posted on Jan 10, 2014
AZRainman (CC BY 2.0)

By Michael T. Klare, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

For Hubbert and his followers, the rise and decline of oil fields is an inevitable consequence of natural forces: oil exists in pressurized underground reservoirs and so will be forced up to the surface when a drill is inserted into the ground.  However, once a significant share of the resources in that reservoir has been extracted, the field’s pressure will drop and artificial means—water, gas, or chemical insertion—will be needed to restore pressure and sustain production.  Sooner or later, such means become prohibitively expensive.

Peak oil theory also holds that what is true of an individual field or set of fields is true of the world as a whole.  Until about 2005, it did indeed appear that the globe was edging ever closer to a peak in daily oil output, as Hubbert’s followers had long predicted.  (He died in 1989.)  Several recent developments have, however, raised questions about the accuracy of the theory.  In particular, major private oil companies have taken to employing advanced technologies to increase the output of the reservoirs under their control, extending the lifetime of existing fields through the use of what’s called “enhanced oil recovery,” or EOR.  They’ve also used new methods to exploit fields once considered inaccessible in places like the Arctic and deep oceanic waters, thereby opening up the possibility of a most un-Hubbertian future.

In developing these new technologies, the privately owned “international oil companies” (IOCs) were seeking to overcome their principal handicap: most of the world’s “easy oil”—the stuff Hubbert focused on that comes gushing out of the ground whenever a drill is inserted—has already been consumed or is controlled by state-owned “national oil companies” (NOCs), including Saudi Aramco, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the Kuwait National Petroleum Company, among others.  According to the IEA, such state companies control about 80% of the world’s known petroleum reserves, leaving relatively little for the IOCs to exploit.

To increase output from the limited reserves still under their control—mostly located in North America, the Arctic, and adjacent waters—the private firms have been working hard to develop techniques to exploit “tough oil.”  In this, they have largely succeeded: they are now bringing new petroleum streams into the marketplace and, in doing so, have shaken the foundations of peak oil theory.

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Those who say that “peak oil is dead” cite just this combination of factors.  By extending the lifetime of existing fields through EOR and adding entire new sources of oil, the global supply can be expanded indefinitely.  As a result, they claim, the world possesses a “relatively boundless supply” of oil (and natural gas).  This, for instance, was the way Barry Smitherman of the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates that state’s oil industry) described the global situation at a recent meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

Peak Technology

In place of peak oil, then, we have a new theory that as yet has no name but might be called techno-dynamism.  There is, this theory holds, no physical limit to the global supply of oil so long as the energy industry is prepared to, and allowed to, apply its technological wizardry to the task of finding and producing more of it.  Daniel Yergin, author of the industry classics, The Prize and The Quest, is a key proponent of this theory.  He recently summed up the situation this way: “Advances in technology take resources that were not physically accessible and turn them into recoverable reserves.”  As a result, he added, “estimates of the total global stock of oil keep growing.”

From this perspective, the world supply of petroleum is essentially boundless.  In addition to “conventional” oil—the sort that comes gushing out of the ground—the IEA identifies six other potential streams of petroleum liquids: natural gas liquids; tar sands and extra-heavy oil; kerogen oil (petroleum solids derived from shale that must be melted to become usable); shale oil; coal-to-liquids (CTL); and gas-to-liquids (GTL).  Together, these “unconventional” streams could theoretically add several trillion barrels of potentially recoverable petroleum to the global supply, conceivably extending the Oil Age hundreds of years into the future (and in the process, via climate change, turning the planet into an uninhabitable desert).

But just as peak oil had serious limitations, so, too, does techno-dynamism.  At its core is a belief that rising world oil demand will continue to drive the increasingly costly investments in new technologies required to exploit the remaining hard-to-get petroleum resources.  As suggested in the 2013 edition of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, however, this belief should be treated with considerable skepticism.

Among the principal challenges to the theory are these:

1. Increasing Technology Costs: While the costs of developing a resource normally decline over time as industry gains experience with the technologies involved, Hubbert’s law of depletion doesn’t go away.  In other words, oil firms invariably develop the easiest “tough oil” resources first, leaving the toughest (and most costly) for later.  For example, the exploitation of Canada’s tar sands began with the strip-mining of deposits close to the surface.  Because those are becoming exhausted, however, energy firms are now going after deep-underground reserves using far costlier technologies.  Likewise, many of the most abundant shale oil deposits in North Dakota have now been depleted, requiring an increasing pace of drilling to maintain production levels.  As a result, the IEA reports, the cost of developing new petroleum resources will continually increase: up to $80 per barrel for oil obtained using advanced EOR techniques, $90 per barrel for tar sands and extra-heavy oil, $100 or more for kerogen and Arctic oil, and $110 for CTL and GTL.  The market may not, however, be able to sustain levels this high, putting such investments in doubt. 


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