Even if the world suddenly had 10 trillion more barrels of oil in the ground, it might not matter much in the short term. If the maximum possible rate of extraction ended up being something under what we currently consume or what we'd like to consume, we would still be in deep trouble. So, when reports appear that new technologies are going to double the amount of oil we can extract from old wells, the crucial question to ask is not, "How much?" but rather, "How fast?"
True, oil supplies will last longer if these technologies succeed at doing what they promise to do. (Don't let anybody kid you into thinking that we know they will. These technologies have yet to be widely deployed or tested.) But, even if we increase the amount of oil that is ultimately recoverable, we may not solve the real problem. We have a world economy entirely dependent for its growth on ever-increasing rates of oil production. This is the crux of the peak oil problem. It's not that there won't be any more oil; it's that at some point we will not be able to get it out of the ground at the rate we would like. And, of course, worse yet that rate will start to decline even though huge amounts of oil remain. To date we've been extracting the easy, fast-flowing oil. Increasingly, we are going after the hard, slower-flowing oil.
New recovery methods may deliver more oil from wells which had been left for dead. But the rate of flow in the vast majority of cases will be much slower than these wells produced in their prime. Still, if enough old wells are tapped, the overall rate of oil production worldwide may be able to move up for a time based on this alone. But, undergirding this approach there seems to be a hidden assumption that in the long run much of the world's yet-to-be discovered oil will be the fast-flowing kind. This then would allow worldwide production to keep pace with continuously rising demand. But, can we be so sanguine about the fast-flowing characteristics of this as yet unseen petroleum?
There is, of course, a second problem rarely discussed in conjunction with these new recovery methods. They use lots of energy. That means, in essence, that the oil they produce won't come cheap. Higher prices are going to be necessary to justify deploying these methods. And, those higher prices will come only with tight supplies.
If the new recovery methods are wildly successful, they might actually bring down the price of oil for a time. Ironically, this could make those very recovery methods uneconomical and lead to their abandonment. If, on the other hand, they are only moderately successful, they may result in a lengthy plateau in oil production. But, even if the rate of oil production merely plateaus in the medium term, that will mean an end to world economic growth until we find a suitable substitute for oil and deploy it on a broad scale. Such a plateau would certainly be disruptive, but it could also buy us some time to make an energy transition.
As we search for the best way to make that transition, we should be careful not to confuse a palliative (such as new oil recovery methods) with a cure. The only cure for a nonrenewable energy system is a renewable one. The sooner we take our medicine, the better.
(Via Energy Bulletin .)
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