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Why We Should Still Be Worried About Running Out of Oil

Despite what you may have heard, "peak oil" is not dead, and shale can only help us for so long.

| Thu Jan. 9, 2014 3:01 PM EST

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.

2. Growing Political and Environmental Risk: By definition, tough oil reserves are located in problematic areas. For example, an estimated 13% of the world's undiscovered oil lies in the Arctic, along with 30% of its untapped natural gas. The environmental risks associated with their exploitation under the worst of weather conditions imaginable will quickly become more evident—and so, faced with the rising potential for catastrophic spills in a melting Arctic, expect a commensurate increase in political opposition to such drilling. In fact, a recent increase has sparked protests in both Alaska and Russia, including the much-publicized September 2013 attempt by activists from Greenpeace to scale a Russian offshore oil platform—an action that led to their seizure and arrest by Russian commandos. Similarly, expanded fracking operations have provoked a steady increase in anti-fracking activism. In response to such protests and other factors, oil firms are being forced to adopt increasingly stringent environmental protections, pumping up the cost of production further.

3. Climate-Related Demand Reduction: The techno-optimist outlook assumes that oil demand will keep rising, prompting investors to provide the added funds needed to develop the technologies required. However, as the effects of rampant climate change accelerate, more and more polities are likely to try to impose curbs of one sort or another on oil consumption, suppressing demand—and so discouraging investment. This is already happening in the United States, where mandated increases in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards are expected to significantly reduce oil consumption. Future "demand destruction" of this sort is bound to impose a downward pressure on oil prices, diminishing the inclination of investors to finance costly new development projects.

Combine these three factors, and it is possible to conceive of a "technology peak" not unlike the peak in oil output originally envisioned by M. King Hubbert. Such a techno-peak is likely to occur when the "easy" sources of "tough" oil have been depleted, opponents of fracking and other objectionable forms of production have imposed strict (and costly) environmental regulations on drilling operations, and global demand has dropped below a level sufficient to justify investment in costly extractive operations. At that point, global oil production will decline even if supplies are "boundless" and technology is still capable of unlocking more oil every year.

Peak Oil Reconsidered

Peak oil theory, as originally conceived by Hubbert and his followers, was largely governed by natural forces. As we have seen, however, these can be overpowered by the application of increasingly sophisticated technology. Reservoirs of energy once considered inaccessible can be brought into production, and others once deemed exhausted can be returned to production; rather than being finite, the world's petroleum base now appears virtually inexhaustible.

Does this mean that global oil output will continue rising, year after year, without ever reaching a peak? That appears unlikely. What seems far more probable is that we will see a slow tapering of output over the next decade or two as costs of production rise and climate change—along with opposition to the path chosen by the energy giants—gains momentum. Eventually, the forces tending to reduce supply will overpower those favoring higher output, and a peak in production will indeed result, even if not due to natural forces alone.

Such an outcome is, in fact, envisioned in one of three possible energy scenarios the IEA's mainstream experts lay out in the latest edition of World Energy Outlook. The first assumes no change in government policies over the next 25 years and sees world oil supply rising from 87 to 110 million barrels per day by 2035; the second assumes some effort to curb carbon emissions and so projects output reaching "only" 101 million barrels per day by the end of the survey period.

It's the third trajectory, the "450 Scenario," that should raise eyebrows. It assumes that momentum develops for a global drive to keep greenhouse gas emissions below 450 parts per million—the maximum level at which it might be possible to prevent global average temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (and so cause catastrophic climate effects). As a result, it foresees a peak in global oil output occurring around 2020 at about 91 million barrels per day, with a decline to 78 million barrels by 2035.

It would be premature to suggest that the "450 Scenario" will be the immediate roadmap for humanity, since it's clear enough that, for the moment, we are on a highway to hell that combines the IEA's first two scenarios. Bear in mind, moreover, that many scientists believe a global temperature increase of even 2 degrees Celsius would be enough to produce catastrophic climate effects. But as the effects of climate change become more pronounced in our lives, count on one thing: the clamor for government action will grow more intense, and so eventually we're likely to see some variation of the 450 Scenario take shape. In the process, the world's demand for oil will be sharply constricted, eliminating the incentive to invest in costly new production schemes.

The bottom line: global peak oil remains in our future, even if not purely for the reasons given by Hubbert and his followers. With the gradual disappearance of "easy" oil, the major private firms are being forced to exploit increasingly tough, hard-to-reach reserves, thereby driving up the cost of production and potentially discouraging new investment at a time when climate change and environmental activism are on the rise.

Peak oil is dead! Long live peak oil!

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What's Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

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