Sunday, July 10, 2005

It's the rate of extraction, stupid!

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 .)

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)


step back said...

In the war-of-words for the hearts and minds of the public at large, it is not a good idea to call them "stupid".

That kind of talk will all too quickly shut off what little input bandwidth might be available to begin with.

We need to develop a new language for framing the issues. How about, "Petro Plug Point" instead of Peak Oil, and "Petro Plunge" instead of Hubbert's Decline?

It may be sad, but it is nonetheless true that the public is easily confused by scientific jargon. Don't talk about identifying the zero derivative point on the oil extraction rate curve. Save that for the mathematics blog site.

The public can better remember cute alliterations like, the "Petro Plug Point" or the "Sucking-Straws Max-out Point". Oh I get it, that's when the straws are too thin and too few for us to suck out as much of that sweet nectar as we need.

Just something to think about.
No one is calling anyone stupid.

Kurt Cobb said...

Step Back is right to say that we shouldn't call those who don't understand our energy predicament stupid. But, my headline is merely an allusion to one of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign talking points. Those who were there will recall that the original phrase was "It's the economy, stupid!" That phrase was directed at the campaign staff to keep them focused on the main campaign issue. (It was not directed at anyone outside the campaign.)

Likewise, I'm trying to keep those who read my blog on a regular basis focused on the main issue: peak oil is in its essential form about the rate at which we can extract oil. For the record, I do not think the reporter who wrote the story I linked to is stupid. I think he just doesn't know enough about energy to put what he wrote in the proper context. He is, as so many of continue to be, captive to the cornucopian myth of our age. For that reason, those of us who understand the energy problem need to sharpen our ways of explaining what is actually happening. With that goal, I think Step Back clearly agrees.

Anonymous said...


Yes and no.
We are at war.
We need to come to grips with that.
The war is not that of man against Nature.
The war is not that of nation against nation.

The war is that of a "Collapsing" unsustainable, human institution against its possible heirs. Feudalism is one possible heir. Sustainalism is another. Who will win? We don't know.

When at war, one must mobilize the populace with clever slogans. Those who love the freedoms of their collapsing institution know how to use words as weapons of mass deception.

We will lose if we play nice and try to "clearly" explain about geology, rock strata, viscous fluid flow dynamics and thermodynamics.

Remember about KISS.


Not that one.

Teacher, we don't need no ed DUCA tion. School's out for summer. School's out fo' good.

We need slogans.

We are at war.
It's Petro Plunge Politics and the other side takes no Prisoners.

It's going to be a Turkey Toasted Terra firma and the other side intends for you to be the one left in the frying pan.

They win not because they are right but because they fight with right-wing reptilian brain tactics.

You are at the forefront of the battle field and you don't even know the rules.

I am far from being an expert in neurolinguistic manipulations. I'm more of an astute sports fan who admires the skills of the masters and watches with fascination at how they throw the curve balls.

--step back

step back said...

Too radical and too fast perhaps.

Let me step back.
You Kurt are incredibly "smart".
Guys like Jared Diamond are "smart".

Me? ... I am merely mediocre.
God did not gift me with Einstein brains.
(I have gone through denial, grief, anger, etc. and am now at the acceptance stage.)

Please do not call us mediocre folks "stupid."

Yes, we are slow and it takes a long time to "reprogram" our brains, but it is the huge mass of us, the mediocre mobs, that will decide which way the world tilts.

Is "civilization" going to tip towards warlord Feudalism or is some other, more humane form of governance still possible? I am not smart enough to propose an alternative. I've whacked my mediocre mind multiple times and come up with blanks.

Jared Diamond is "smart" because he can ask a simple question, "Why ...?" and from this he arrives at an astounding new explanation (i.e. Guns, Germs & Steel) for how the human population came to be in the state it now finds itself in.

I wish to pose a dumb question:

Why .... ?

Why in 2004 did chimp-face Bush win and Keen-eyes Kerry (bright eyes) lose an electoral contest before a supposedly rational, American voting public?

Could it be that we already live on "Planet of the Apes" and we are in that episode where the Mind Manipulators control?

To me, the answer is yes.
The outcome of public debate seems to have little to do with who is right and who is wrong.

It has everything to do with who manipulates the minds of the masses to sway them in one irrational direction or another.

So, when the few of us who are "Oil-Aware" (because we swallowed the red Matrix pill, or was it the blue one?) start telling the mediocre middle they are "stupid," we are unwittlingly shutting down their data input ports. We cannot afford to do that.

Clinton did not call America "stupid". He called Bush Senior stupid. He said, you Bush are not aware of what the smart American public is aware of, that our economy is collapsing. The Medioce Middle suddenly became atuned to the idea that the economy was collapsing and Bush was ignoring it. It was a war of words.

Clinton won that round. The Bushes learned the lesson. All too well.

They set up mind control "think tanks." They sent out "mixed messages". The rest is history.

"Intellectual" America still doesn't get it.

Just a small observation.
From a mediocre one who sometimes likes to step back and see the bigger picture.

Anonymous said...

Technically, the situation might be about "the rate of extraction" and about the "quality (heaviness and sulfur content) of the remaining trillion barrels of oil."
Isn't it easier, however, simply to say that the era of cheap, reliably available oil and natural gas is ending, and the situation will only get tighter as daily world production flattens out and begins to fall, especially if global demand continues to increase (for awhile).
Since modern economies need constantly to grow just to continue functioning, and since growth is ultimately based on the availability of energy --which supports commerce, transportation, agriculture and manufacture-- the coming decline in our culture's energy means hard times for the economy, and by extension for humanity.
Why humanity? Because our unprecedented numbers (6.5 billion) are a direct result of "reliably plentiful, every-increasing supplies of cheap oil and natural gas." Without this immense and ever-increasing supply of non-renewable energy, the earth's carrying capacity for humans will fall to between 1 and 2 billion people. This means that oil-peaking will greatly increase --first-- the poverty in the world, and --second-- the die-off rate of humans as the overall population size adjusts to the new, much smaller, energy base.
It is hard to grasp this picture because, of course, the maximum daily production of oil (and natural gas) occurs just before the peak, and subsequent decline. So just before the peak, looking around, it all seems so impossible that this infrastructure and way of life could be on the verge of collapse.
And when the likelihood of this possibility happening in the next ten years really dawns on a person, the awareness is so shocking and distressing that it triggers off a grieving process: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, etc., leading (only if the process is allowed to unfold without being denied and blocked) to acceptance of 'what is'. THEN a person is ready to deal with reality in the optimum way he or she can.

Anonymous said...

You are correct to mention rate of extraction/production is what peak oil is all about. It will soon reach its global maximum, and then the ride will be bumpy from then on. How it all plays out, of course, no one can tell; possibly a series of local peaks, valleys, and plateaus on a steadlily downward trend.

Also, there's a little thing known as EROEI, the ratio of energy -in to energy-out. Enhanced recovery of less energy-dense oil--heavy oil, tar sands, sour crudes--and its refining will require ever greater energy investments. With diminishing marginal returns opportunity costs will soar: what will we be willing and able to forego? Who will have access to energy, and who won't? And how much?

Renewables can help, but there is practically no infrastructure, and that will takes a lot of time and investment. And that investment will have to rely on oil as an energy source, further exacerbating the problem. And what about natural gas, already declining in North America?

We live in a fossil fuel--mostly petroleum--built world, at least in the western world, our world. Without high energy-profit ratios on source energy that world, as so constructed, will struggle to survive. Industrial society may have seen its better days. Cheers!

Jennifer said...

I think "It's the economy, stupid!" is part of the cultural knowledge at this point-- I certainly recognized the title of the post as being based on that phrase, and didn't think Kurt was trying to call anyone stupid. But the fact that it was misconstrued might suggest that a disclaimer be provided further on, which Kurt did in the Comments section (e.g., by the way, this doesn't have to do with stupidity, just lack of knowledge).

Although I agree that Peak Oil issues need to be worded in a way that most people can understand, I don't think this should also mean that technical information should be left out. I, for one, get really annoyed when someone provides only a summary of the situation and not the details, because I DO like to know WHY a statement may or may not be true. And as a librarian, I am constantly trying to teach people to use critical thinking skills, to dig deeper, to find evidence. Non-jargon-filled summaries are nice, but not sufficient. Yes, I know that most people don't want the whole story, they want sound bites, but that doesn't mean we have to stop there-- we can entice them to read further and get a more developed understanding.

Robert Sczech said...

Regarding "stupid" and "it is only about the extraction rate":

Oil is an extremely valuable natural resourse not only as an energy carrier, but also for myriads of applications in the petrochemical industry. It represents the capital savings of nature over millions of years of sun radiation. As a species we decided to burn it sensesly within less than 200 years. We made that decision without having the assurances that a replacement for oil will ever be found. By doing so we have deprived future generations of essential resources for a higher civilization. It seems to me that we as a species are incredibly stupid. On an individual basis, I would mostly blame the elites, especially the politicians for the unfolding tragedy. Their greatest failure was and continues to be not to speak the truth. Economists failed by not understanding the economic consequences of the laws of thermodynamics. They created the ideology used to justify the ongoing insanity. The bankers who forced us into a monetary system of permanent growth via their fractional reserve banking system. The story of depleting oil reserves has been in the media since the 1970's. There is nobody on this earth who has not heard or read about it in one or another form. Deciding to ignore it, we are guilty as well.

To say "it is only about the extraction rate" is just another convenient lie invented in order to deflect from the main issue. The main issue is that we are depleting extremely valauble natural resources (oil, metals etc) like mad. The peak oil story is just the first indicator that half of the stuff is already gone. To say "it is only about the extraction rate" is to say: do not panick, we are not running out of oil, we will only have to pay a few pennies more for it and there might occasionally some gas shortages at the pump. Beyond that, it's business as ususl. People who say "it is only about the extraction rate" are from an ethical point of view not much better than those who feed us complete lies.

Finally, in order to finish on a constructive note, I make the following proposal: Oil and more generally, all non-renewable resources should be sold at a price at least as high (if not higher) than the corresponding equivalent renewable resources. If these policies were enacted, we would never run out of oil. We would never have to fear climate changes, and we would never live in a world threatened by financial catastrophies (collapse of the Dollar, bankruptcy of major corporations (Ford, GM), collapse of Social Security etc etc).

Anonymous said...

I do have to take issue with Robert Sczech's assessment of where the blame lies for our profilgate waste and dependency on oil.

In short, no-one is to blame. It is just a simple demonstration of the principle of "the tragedy of the commons". It is hard to imagine how any one person or group of people could have prevented the human race from getting into its current perilous state, because anyone trying to derail the process would be quickly removed from any position of influence.

It would have taken a benevolant dictator with world domination to have brought the process under control. Curiously, the nearest real life example may have been the leaders in the USSR, who effectively reduced growth to near zero in the 70 years in which communism prevailed. Ultimately they lost the cold war because the choked back Russian economy could not compete witht the unfettered economies of the west, proving once again the impossibility of opposing man's natural desire to expand and consume.

Eventually fossil fuels will be gone, man's numbers will be slashed and the process will restart. Next time round things will work out much better because the trap of non-renewable energy will not be lying in wait for us.

Anonymous said...

Robert Sczech said seemed annoyed by the lack of drama in the original article.

I see it completely the other way. It is even more dramatic that we cannot possibly get the extraction rate much higher than now even if we do discover huge amounts of extra reserves, or apply advanced technology. So cut the guy some slack will you. I totally agree that we need to go over to renewable energy as fast as possible. I even support higher gasoline prices (especially in the USofA wich has rediculasly low gasoline taxes compered to Europe) I support subsidizing clean renewable alternatives.

On the other hand I don't think we can hope to avoid econimic meltdown just by price politics alone. I guess we might be to late to avoid an economic meltdown, and the consequenses are so severe for such a meltdown that we must seek to reduce the decline in energy in any way we can. That means investing more in non renewable energy the same time as we invest a hell of a lot more in renewable energies. To put it short. We must invest more in any possible form of energy production, its vital for the continuation of mankind that we have as much energy available to help us through a transition to a possible sustainable future. Large Oil and gas supplies are probably a neccessity to be able to build a new energy infrastructure. If we were to build them using only renewable energy it could take 150 years with the amount of renewable available today. By then most of us could have starved to death or killed eachother in resource wars.

A good tip is at least not to waste all the currently available oil and money on fighting a neverending and poorly justified "war on terror", or for americans to drive their huge suv's around the suburbs. please stop the expensive illegal war and start taking the bus like sivilized people would.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer the Librarian is partly right.

Every one of us should want to drill down deeper into understanding the situation.

But we should also drill horizontally. We should expand our knowledge base in directions that may not appear to be related to the Petro Predictament but are.

Take for example "human nature"? Why does it operate the way it does and why did it lead us onto the Lemmings Edge as it had? Can we find a way to manipulate "human nature" and to redirect the herd away from the cliff's edge?

We are all "stupid".
We all need to expand our understandings, vertically and horizontally.

--step back

Anonymous said...

Re Robert Sczech's comments. First I agree we are wasting an extremely valuable (inter)national resource. However...
Blame the elites? I don't think so. It wasn't the economists, politicians, bankers, or any other institution that made us use up oil at an ever increasing rate.
Look in the mirror. Unless you are Amish, everyone, and I do mean EVERY individual AND their ancestors, have made the decision that they would rather drive than walk, ride a horse, or take the streetcar/bus; live in a suburb rather than a rural hovel, city tenement or apartment; buy groceries rather than farm, and so on. A couple of great post-WWII movies captured the spirit in America that has essentially made America what it is today: "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "It's a Wonderful Life". In both cases, it was the bankers that wanted to protect the status quo!
Nobody forced us into this modern lifestyle. It was the collective decisions of millions of individuals. Today it may be hard to remember, that it was the decline in ridership that forced most transit systems to reduce service and become public, and that the lack of alternatives to the car today is because there ISN'T the demand for it. It was demand for adequate housing that created the suburbs. Face it, most urban housing is obsolete and undesirable.
Speak the truth, eh? YOU CAN"T HANDLE THE TRUTH! Unless forced to by a totalitarian system, such as Cuba, individuals, especially in America, will not go gracefully into the post-oil darkness.
But we will adapt, as we always have, when confronted by the need. How the decline in cheaply available energy plays out remains to be seen. With a degree in Urban Studies, I would like to see us drift back into a lifestyle like we had around 1900 - 1914, a period Walter Lord aptly named "The Good Years". Peak oil could be the forcing function that gets us back there.

Robert Sczech said...

It is very convenient to believe that nobody is responsible for the unfolding energy disaster. While living in Japan many years ago, I noticed the price I had to pay to travel by car from one city to another city was as high as the price for a train ticket or a plane ticket. All three modes of transportation (plane, train, highway) cost roughly the same. It is not the cost ot gasoline which makes car travel so expensive in Japan (gas prices in Japan are roughly the same as in the US). It is the incredibly high cost of the highway tolls which makes travel by car the least popular means to travel in Japan. The high tolls are of course the result of politics. Japanese politicians have decided that it makes more sense from the national economic point of view for people to use trains. They invested public funds into an excellent rail road system. As a result, train tickets in Japan are expensive, in fact they are often more expensive than plane tickets. Yet the public pays the price simply because it does not have any alternative. Highways are empty because using them would cost even more. Policies like these resulted in energy consumption which is less than 50% of the US energy consumption. Clearly, nobody will deny that such policies are the result of political decisions. So somebody in Japan does bear the responsibility for the fact that Japan uses only a fraction of the energy used in the US (on a per capita basis). These individuals are responsible that Japan is forced to save on energy. If you try to live there, you discover that you are being gently forced to change your way of life. You have the freedom to travel by car, but you will pay for this freedom dearly. Now in the US, nobody is responsible because this country is the country of freedom (and democracy). Yes, I have to agree, nobody is responsible because nobody does care for the future of this country. Nobody.

step back said...

"Continuance" of the American way of life, which we greatly desire, is why we deny.

Single word "stupid" does not explain it.
We need to drill deeper, and horizontally ... through the minds of our fellow Americans.

We need to learn why they deny. We need to learn to make the right kinds of alarm noises. Ones that will awaken the herd. Only then will they cease to graze. Only then will they halt their daze. Only then will they see Hubbert's cliff hanging in front of their straw-filled snouts. And then, just maybe, the mass will start moving the other way.

step back said...

I take it back.
We are stupid
Cause "stupid" is as stupid does

Want proof?;_ylt=AkHqBkD8Nhwd86TYoH1UI2rlWMcF;_ylu=X3oDMTA5bGVna3NhBHNlYwNzc3JlbA--

More proof?