Sunday, March 31, 2013

Current U.S. energy policy: Risk management that is worse than ever

Current U.S. energy policy is, in fact, a hodgepodge of disconnected policies designed for specific constituencies with no coherent goal. The country has subsidies for fossil fuels, subsidies for nuclear power, subsidies for wind and solar, and subsidies for insulating and retrofitting buildings. We also have energy standards for some appliances and miles per gallon standards for automobiles.

What never gets asked and answered definitively in the policy debate is this: What should our ultimate goal be and when should we aim to achieve it? The first part of the question has elicited so many answers from so many constituencies that I may not be able to represent them all here. But here is an attempt to categorize the main lines of thinking concerning the country’s energy goals:

  1. Seek the cheapest price for energy with the implication that environmental consequences should not be tallied as part of the cost.

  2. Complete a transition to renewable energy as quickly as possible while drastically reducing the burning of fossil fuels.

  3. Replace all fossil fuel energy with nuclear power.

  4. Develop all sources of energy to make sure we have enough at reasonable prices. This is often called the “all-of-the-above strategy.”

Goal 1 is really the argument put forth by the fossil fuel industry and therefore a defense of the status quo. Goal 2 is the dream of every climate change activist and clean-tech executive. Goal 3 seemed to be gaining some momentum before the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant dashed hopes for a widespread nuclear renaissance.

Goal 4 is being touted by my congressman who heads the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and it is the policy of Obama administration. The so-called all-of-the-above strategy is the de facto energy policy of the United States, and the one which I described above as a hodgepodge of disconnected policies designed for specific constituencies with no coherent goal.

Our energy policy wouldn’t matter except for two things:

  1. Fossil fuels supply more than 80 percent of the world’s energy, and they are finite. We cannot count on them to supply energy to us indefinitely. We simply do not know when their rate of production might turn down though a bumpy plateau in global oil production since 2005 is an ominous sign.

  2. Climate change induced in large part by the burning of fossil fuels is proceeding faster than models have predicted. We don’t have much time to reduce our carbon emissions radically in order to avert the risk of catastrophic climate consequences.

No one knows the future, not my congressman, not President Obama, not the fossil fuel industry, not even climate scientists. But, we can outline the risks we face based on what we know today.

About fossil fuel supplies we know two key things. Already mentioned is that production of oil proper (crude plus lease condensate) has stagnated since 2005. Second, the remaining fossil fuels, especially oil and natural gas, will come from deposits that in general are smaller, less concentrated, harder to extract (in some cases due to geology, in others because of their location such as deep under the seabed and in the Arctic) and  harder to refine. This means these fuels will be far more costly and be produced at rates that are unlikely to rival the rates of the previous easy-to-get oil and natural gas.

About climate change we now know that it is proceeding faster than anticipated by climate modelers. That means the worst effects could arrive much sooner than expected, within a couple decades instead of several decades.

When it comes to oil and natural gas, it’s possible that yet-to-be-invented technology will make them cheaper and easier to extract in the future. We just don’t know. Even if that technology arrives, the ever increasing difficulty of accessing new deposits may more than wipe out any cost and productivity advantages.

It’s possible that climate change might slow down. But, that seems unlikely since events that are markers for the progress of climate change such as the melting of Arctic ice are occurring much sooner than anticipated. A few years ago it was thought that the Arctic might become ice-free in the summer by mid-century if we maintained our current greenhouse gas emissions trajectory. Now, some models suggest it could occur by 2020.

The point is that when it comes to fossil fuel supplies most of the current information suggests that supplies will likely not be as abundant or as cheap as the industry has been leading people to believe. And, when it comes to climate change, the effects and the time of their arrival have been consistently underestimated.

To manage energy supplies and climate risks, the United States has done little in terms of policy that makes sense given the gravity of the challenges it and the world face.

It is important to note that risk is not merely a function of probability. Rather, it is the product of probability times severity. But, neither variable can be assessed in a strictly numerical way given how complex the energy and climate systems are. We do know, however, that if the pessimistic scenarios for both energy and climate arrive, we are in deep, deep trouble.

Here is a key insight into risk management. The accuracy of any forecast decays quickly with time. That means that when it comes to long-term forecasts, it is not the forecast itself, but the RANGE of possible outcomes that is more important. Any forecast that doesn’t include a range is practically worthless for scenario planning purposes and probably designed to deceive rather than inform you.

And, it’s not the benign outcome that should concern us, but rather the possible dire outcomes. Why is this so? As Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of several books relating to risk including Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan reminds us: "[I]t does not matter how frequently something succeeds if failure is too costly to bear."

It seems obvious that the destruction of modern civilization as we know it due to inadequate energy supplies and rapid climate change ought to be something we consider “too costly to bear.” And yet, America continues with energy policies that are almost certain to fail because we are largely repeating what we've done before.

The de facto American all-of-the-above energy policy implies that increasing the rate of fossil fuel combustion should be one of our goals. That policy also fails to concentrate enough capital spending on the infrastructure (mostly electrical) needed to exploit renewable energy.

So, we end up with a strategy that assumes that fossil fuel supplies will remain adequate for decades and that climate change will remain largely benign during this period. This is not so much managing risks as ignoring them.

Some will point out that the administration is working on carbon sequestration so as to make it possible to increase fossil fuel consumption and reduce carbon emissions at the same time. The idea that carbon sequestration could achieve this result in time to avert a climate catastrophe has already been laid to rest by some fairly straightforward calculations done by energy expert Vaclav Smil. In 2010 he wrote:

This means that in order to sequester just a fifth of current CO2emissions we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build. Technically possible—but not within a timeframe that would prevent CO2 from rising above 450 ppm [parts per million]. And remember not only that this would contain just 20 percent of today’s CO2 emissions but also this crucial difference: The oil industry has invested in its enormous infrastructure in order to make a profit, to sell its product on an energy-hungry market (at around $100 per barrel and 7.2 barrels per tonne that comes to about $700 per tonne)—but (one way or another) the taxpayers of rich countries would have to pay for huge capital costs and significant operating burdens of any massive CCS [carbon capture and storage].

Perhaps the simplest way to manage the energy transition we must undergo would be to impose a high and ever rising tax on carbon. Such a tax would not favor one particular solution to carbon-free energy. But, it would move people to conserve and to switch from carbon fuels. It would also provide inventors and businesses with the incentive needed to work out the quickest, most economical path to a renewable energy economy.

Quite often politicians and representatives of the fossil fuel industry—sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference—will say that the United States shouldn’t undergo this energy transition alone because it will be put at a competitive disadvantage on world markets. Saying this is really the equivalent of saying that we should maintain our current course until it becomes obvious—even to the most dimwitted—that  we are all committing suicide.

Waiting for catastrophe to happen before acting means that it’s too late to act. It is precisely this scenario that proper risk management is designed to avoid. If I were to grade America’s risk management strategy with regard to energy supply and climate change, I would, not surprisingly, give it a failing grade.

I only wish the damage inflicted by that strategy were limited to bad marks. Instead, the real-world consequences are almost certain to grow larger and larger, the longer the country ignores intelligent risk management principles.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Will the final blow for America’s shale gas ‘revolution’ be high prices?

As U.S. natural gas prices flirt with the $4 mark, some skeptics of the so-called shale gas revolution think prices are headed much higher. Such a move would, not surprisingly, seriously undermine the official story that the United States has a century of cheap natural gas waiting for the drillbit.

Several years ago when natural gas began flowing in great quantities from deep shale deposits beneath American soil, it seemed to be the beginning of the end of America’s troubled journey into dependence on energy imports—a journey marked by frequent worry, occasional war and enormous expense.

But, to some people this supposed solution to America’s energy needs has begun to seem as costly to the environment and human health as the country’s dependence on imported energy has been in terms of mental distress, money and blood. It turns out that this new kind of natural gas requires the industrialization of the countryside in order to extract it. And that, say those closest to the action, risks tainting air, land, and drinking water and compromising the health of humans and animals alike.

Well, at least we can say that shale gas is plentiful, cheap, American, and much easier on the climate than coal or oil. It didn’t take too long before people started looking into whether shale gas really was that much easier on the climate. A Cornell University researcher came to the conclusion that shale gas was probably worse for climate change than coal. His conclusion hinged in part on what are called “fugitive emissions”—unintentional, but unavoidable releases of unburned methane into the atmosphere during the hydraulic fracturing operations performed to extract the gas. Methane is some 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Naturally, the oil and gas industry responded vigorously to the researcher’s findings with its usual ad hominem attacks. But, it also highlighted uncertainties that are always part of any scientific study. This industry is, of course, the same one that has consistently denied the existence of climate change and continues to spend millions trying to convince the public that climate change either isn’t happening, or if it is, it won’t be that bad or if it is, it may actually be good for us.

The industry’s response to the study has, not surprisingly, been met with skepticism. That is befitting an industry that, having spent the last two decades denying climate change, now suddenly embraces it as a reason to produce more natural gas. So, despite the industry’s best efforts, the meme that shale gas is worse than coal is out there and being repeated again and again by opponents of shale gas drilling.

Well, at least we can say that shale gas is plentiful, cheap and American. But, then came the industry campaign to end federal limitations on the export of natural gas. What had been touted by the industry as a fuel that would help lead America to energy independence would henceforth be treated as just another world commodity seeking the highest bidder—even if that bidder is in China, Japan or Great Britain. The industry’s aim, of course, is to get higher prices for its product than customers in the United States can provide. As noted above, natural gas trades at around $4 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) in the United States. That compares to about $17 per mcf for liquefied natural gas delivered to Japan. The price in Europe is around $12.

Well, at least we can say that shale gas is plentiful and cheap. As natural gas prices declined from double digits in 2008 and the shale gas boom proceeded apace, the industry convinced Americans that cheap, plentiful natural gas was the country’s future for a century to come. And, when natural gas prices plunged briefly to $1.82 per mcf last April, even the oil and gas industry began to wonder whether cheap natural gas was really such a great thing. At that price or anything below about $2.50 really, almost no wells were profitable.

Last year independent petroleum geologist Art Berman, while reviewing the financial wreckage of the once flourishing, but now fallen shale gas drillers, noted that the industry was based on:

an improbable business model that has no barriers to entry except access to capital, that provides a source of cheap and abundant gas, and that somehow also allows for great profit. Despite three decades of experience with tight sandstone and coal-bed methane production that yielded low-margin returns and less supply than originally advertised, we are expected to believe that poorer-quality shale reservoirs will somehow provide superior returns and make the U.S. energy independent.

As Berman noted back then: “Improbable stories that great profits can be made at increasingly lower prices have intersected with reality.” The industry proceeded to abandon shale gas plays in favor of tight oil plays which have proven to be profitable with oil prices consistently crisscrossing $100 a barrel in the last two years.

Apparently, price does matter when it comes to natural gas. And so, it seems natural gas won’t be endlessly cheap in America after all. As Berman foretold in an earlier piece, prices would have to rise to between $5 and $6 to make currently paid-for leases profitable from this point forward and between $7 to $8 to make new leases worth pursuing. For comparison, back in the heyday of cheap natural gas, the decade of the 1990s, the average annual U.S. price was $1.92 per mcf, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

So what exactly has happened to U.S. natural gas production as reality has set in and companies have withdrawn drills to await prices that might actually be profitable? The answer ought to be troubling to those who are counting on endlessly escalating supplies large enough to displace the majority of oil and coal used in our economy. To wit, U.S. marketed natural gas production has been almost flat for the last two years.

The trend is so ominous that two industry insiders I know believe that U.S. natural gas production could actually start declining soon and send prices soaring. They say drillers have fallen so far behind that it will be impossible to make up for production lost from existing shale gas wells. Those wells typically see production decline rates of 85 percent after two years. (Translation: Some 85 percent of existing production from shale gas wells must be replaced every two years BEFORE production can grow.)

The future is, of course, unknown to us. But, the present and the past suggest that the so-called shale gas revolution is about to be laid to rest. Yes, shale gas might prevent total American natural gas production from dropping off a cliff even as conventional natural gas production continues to decline. And, at some point shale gas might even allow U.S. production to rise modestly above current levels. But, two things are now abundantly clear: It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Depletion: The one word oil optimists refuse to utter

With the media awash in stories telling us how much oil is being discovered around the world, there is one word which the optimists quoted in these stories refuse to utter: Depletion.

The simple fact is that depletion never sleeps. It starts as soon as an oil well begins production and goes on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Furthermore, it is not exactly news that oil is being discovered all around the world. The industry has been spending record amounts to find it.

What’s critical is the difference between the annual additions to oil production capacity and the annual decline in the rate of production from existing wells, a decline which is running anywhere from 4 to 9 percent depending on whom you talk to.

Even at the low end of decline rate estimates, the world must find and put into production the equivalent of what is currently coming out of the entire North Sea, one the world’s largest finds, and we must do so EVERY SINGLE YEAR before worldwide production can rise. So difficult has this task become, that we’ve only just been able to keep global production on a bumpy plateau since 2005. For now, the oil industry is on a treadmill which requires ever more drilling just to keep production even.

(Many regular readers will wonder why I continually emphasize the flat trajectory of world oil production since 2005. It’s so new readers will be introduced to this central fact about oil supplies—an indisputable trend which the industry simply refuses to talk about and even tries to obscure by changing the definition of oil to include things which are not oil. This trend has ominous implications for our society if it continues or, even worse, turns downward.)

To the untrained observer the quantities of oil recently discovered sound large. But, when put into the context of how much we consume, they won’t extend the oil age by much. Norway, which produces oil from the North Sea, recently announced its largest find since 2000, a field with nearly 1.8 billion barrels. How long would the oil in that field last the world at the current rate of consumption? About 24 days.

The math looks like this. The world currently consumes about 27.4 billion barrels a year of crude oil including lease condensate—which is the definition of oil. So, just divide 1.8 billion by 27.4 billion and multiply the fractional result by 365 days in a year, and you’ll get the number of days such a discovery could supply the world if we could pump it out at any rate we want to (which we can’t).

Well, there are larger discoveries in Brazil, you may say. If we accept the government’s figures on their face (and we really ought to be a little skeptical), then the Tupi field has 5 to 8 billion barrels and the Sugarloaf field has 33 billion. (The truth is no one really knows because there hasn’t been enough drilling.)

Let’s take the top end of the estimates and call it 41 billion barrels. If we do the above calculation for just one billion barrels, we find that it will last about 13 days. And so, a little multiplication tells us that two of the most massive finds ever (if they actually pan out) will give us 41 X 13 days of oil or 533 days, which is about a year and a half. It’s nothing to sneeze at; but it doesn’t exactly change the overall picture that much.

And, of course, this number holds only if the world does NOT increase its rate of oil consumption. But economic growth is dependent on ever increasing supplies of oil, a fuel central to every economy on the globe. India, China and many other developing countries have consistently increased oil consumption to fuel their economic growth. But because worldwide production has been flat since 2005, consumption in places such as the United States has had to fall in order to make room for growing demand from Asia.

This has happened because American and European consumers aren’t willing or aren’t able to pay as much. Oil analyst Steven Kopits has explained the counterintuitive idea that poor Asians are willing to pay more for oil and oil products than rich Westerners because poor Asians get so much more economic productivity out of the marginal barrel of oil than rich Westerners who consume many times more barrels of oil per person. The result has been that developed countries in North America and Europe have seen very little growth in their economies as Asian economies continue to sprint ahead.

Of course, the optimists have been telling us (and telling us and telling us) that so-called tight oil—the kind that comes from hydraulically fractured wells—will now finally move the needle on worldwide production. Well, so far, the net result is nada, nothing, zilch. Production from such wells has risen, but not enough to offset declines elsewhere.

And, as it turns out, fracked oil wells are now the poster children for the problem of production decline. Average annual oil production decline rates for two of the most well-developed tight oil plays, Bakken in North Dakota and Eagle-Ford in Texas, are 38 percent and 42 percent, respectively. That means that drillers in those plays must replace 38 to 42 percent of their current production EACH YEAR before they can increase production. It’s a ferociously high decline rate, some 10 times the rate worldwide. And, this is the oil that the optimists tell us is going to raise global production!

Humans evolved to be optimistic risktakers. That genetic heritage has served us well up to this point. But, sometimes that trait makes us incautious and gullible. And, the oil industry is taking advantage of a natural human inclination to believe the presumed experts, especially when they offer an optimistic tale that is designed to make us comfortable with the status quo.

In truth, unprecedented disruptions and changes in our worldwide energy system have been underway for more than a decade. We can ignore that fact, but only at our peril.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Oil's average price posts new records and they’re telling us it’s abundant!

It is a slick piece of public relations to convince people to disregard what is right in front of them and believe the opposite. And yet, that is what the oil industry has achieved with an oh-so obviously coordinated campaign to tell the public and policymakers that there is no need to be concerned about future oil supplies.

Many people remember the price spike of 2008 which shot prices to an all-time high of $147 a barrel. Oil subsequently crashed all the way down to about $35 at the end of that year as a brutal contraction gripped the global economy. But, oil has subsequently been making new all-time highs when you consider the yearly averages.

U.S. drivers should not be that surprised by this for they paid average daily gasoline prices that were higher in 2011 and 2012—$3.53 and $3.64 per gallon respectively—than they did in the previous record year of 2008 when they paid an average of $3.26, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Brent Crude, which has become the de facto world benchmark price for crude oil, has also just posted back-to-back years of record prices, higher than even the average daily price in the fateful year of 2008. In that year Brent achieved an average daily price of only $96.94 according to the EIA. But, in 2011 the average daily price was a record $111.26—which was followed by another record in 2012 of $111.63. The price in 2013 has so far averaged about $114.

It is true that the American benchmark crude—Cushing, Oklahoma West Texas Intermediate—has been trading at a discount to Brent Crude. This is because Cushing, one of the country’s largest oil depots, is being flooded with supplies from North Dakota and the Canadian tar sands, supplies currently unable to find their way to a seaport that would connect them with world markets and thus world prices. An operator I know in Houston said that rather than send his production to Cushing where the discount is between $20 and $25, he is happy to put his oil on a barge and send it to Louisiana where he has consistently been getting prices over $100.

As it turns out, most inhabitants of the globe pay prices reflective of the Brent Crude price, and that’s why it is frequently quoted as the world price.

So, how is it that the public and many policymakers have swallowed the abundance argument even though the evidence of prices suggests the opposite? The industry has made its case by saying that newly accessible tight oil deposits in North Dakota and elsewhere are going to vastly expand oil production. It has coaxed Wall Street firms with whom the industry does business to put out rosy forecasts; it has made an army of paid think-tank propagandists available to the media; it has convinced government agencies that the future is bright; and, in one case, it sent one of its own to Harvard to write an industry-funded report that says everything will be fine—in the future!

You will notice one theme here. The industry’s case for abundance rests not on a current glut or a downward sloping oil price chart, but rather on the promise of abundance at some indeterminate time in the future, that is to say, on magical forecasts. But colorful charts and cheery prognostications are not facts. And, as always, it is important to consider the source.

Keep in mind that what a good magician does is not really magic. Rather, a good magic show is based primarily on misdirection. Get the audience to look in the wrong place while you do your handiwork unobserved.

And, so it is with the oil industry. It has been able to get the public and policymakers to focus on marginal gains in U.S. oil production while ignoring declines in the rest of the world. Mathematically speaking, that is how it must be since the rate of worldwide oil production has been essentially on a bumpy plateau since 2005. As U.S. production has grown, production in the rest of the world as a whole has declined by about the same amount.

Now, that wouldn’t matter quite so much if oil were not traded in a world market dominated by large countries that are still huge importers of crude oil. But, the other fact that the industry PR magicians don’t want you to focus on is that global net exports of oil—that is, the oil available on the world market to importers such as the United States, China, Japan, India and much of Europe—have been shrinking since 2006. The global competition among importers for those shrinking exports has been a major factor in sustaining record prices for the past two years.

It is worth keeping in mind that all of this is happening as the so-called fracking “revolution” is proceeding, as record investment in oil exploration and development continues, and as consistently high prices drive the necessary profits for all this effort. And yet, the impact on supplies worldwide has been almost imperceptible.

In fact, as John Westwood, chairman of the energy consulting firm Douglas-Westwood, explained in a slide presentation, it is becoming exceedingly difficult to add new oil production capacity. Some $2.4 trillion in oil industry capital expenditures from 1994 to 2004 increased the worldwide rate of oil production by 12 million barrels per day. However, $2.4 trillion in capital expenditures spent from 2005 to 2010 resulted in a decrease in the rate of oil production of 200,000 barrels per day. (See slide 8 of Westwood’s presentation.)

I am reminded of the late comedian Richard Pryor who, when caught by his wife in bed with another woman, explained that things weren’t what they seemed. When she resisted his explanation, he asked her, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lyin’ eyes?”

Once you’ve seen the troubling facts about flat global oil production, shrinking global oil exports, and record high prices, about all the industry can do is insult your intelligence by asking the same question.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Lower highs: The real trajectory of U.S. oil production

The way the oil industry is touting gains in U.S. crude production, you would think that production is soaring to new all-time highs. But the facts say otherwise. Below is a monthly plot of U.S. crude oil production through December 2012.


U.S. production remains well below the peak achieved in 1970 and below a secondary peak in 1985—a lower high, if you will—which resulted from the ramp-up of production in Alaska. But since then production has gone relentlessly downhill until just recently.

It is true that a new form of hydraulic fracturing—high-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing—has made available sources of oil not previously accessible. But it is also true that the industry’s hyperbole doesn’t square with the evidence. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest estimate of technically recoverable oil from so-called tight oil deposits—the ones made accessible by this new type of hydraulic fracturing—is 33 billion barrels (see below). It sounds like a lot. But, in fact, it would only supply the United States for about 6½ years (assuming current net annual consumption of about 5.1 billion barrels). Not bad; but not a world-changing number, especially when you consider that all oil goes onto a world market where 33 billion barrels would last a little over a year. Beyond this, the estimate says little about how much of that oil will ever be economically recoverable. Wherever it isn’t, no one is going to extract it.

EIA Tight Oil Table 1

But there is another column in the EIA table above that is worth focusing on, the one labeled “% of Area Untested.” We don’t yet actually know that much about the potential for the country’s tight oil (often mistakenly referred to as shale oil). In some areas drilling has only just begun, and in others there’s been no drilling at all.

There is reason to believe that things may not go as planned. In the areas already drilled, drillers have focused on a few sweet spots that have proven profitable. That makes perfect sense. But, it suggests that they must now venture beyond those sweet spots to find additional supplies from deposits that will be more refractory and thus more expensive and difficult to exploit. No one is certain how drillers will fare. But logic suggests that production growth will slow and then at some point stop—after which a production decline will begin in earnest.

The EIA projects that U.S. oil production will peak later in this decade—a little below the previous secondary peak in 1985. That would result in a tertiary peak, or yet another lower high. In the meantime the extra supply promises to lower America’s bill for oil imports. But the modest turnaround in America’s oil fortunes won’t solve the larger problem of worldwide oil depletion which, despite American gains, has kept worldwide oil production on a bumpy plateau since 2005.

We live in a global oil market, and that market remains tight as is evidenced by an oil price hovering around $90 in the United States and $110 in Europe, the latter price being more representative of what most people pay.

For obvious reasons the oil industry doesn’t want us to think about weaning ourselves off oil anytime soon. They believe that if they can convince us that oil is abundant, we won’t even try. But oil prices have been telling us for almost a decade that supplies are much tighter than the industry is acknowledging. And, the facts about U.S. oil production tell us that if there is a revolution going on in American oilfields, it is only a minor one, and one that will soon be reversed.

That doesn’t leave us much time to prepare for a world in which oil supplies are almost certain to dwindle globally as the current plateau in worldwide production turns into a decline. And, that will be a problem for everyone including the United States, a country that remains the planet’s largest importer of crude oil.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at