Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mispeak Oil...  

A funny thing happened while we were looking for Peak Oil. It kinda went away. 



At any rate, debate has been rekindled by three interesting articles, all of which are serious reading.

First, the highly acclaimed environmental journalist for the Financial Times, George Monbiot, throws in the all-natural towel:
The facts have changed, now we must change too. For the past 10 years an unlikely coalition of geologists, oil drillers, bankers, military strategists and environmentalists has been warning that peak oil – the decline of global supplies – is just around the corner. We had some strong reasons for doing so: production had slowed, the price had risen sharply, depletion was widespread and appeared to be escalating. The first of the great resource crunches seemed about to strike.
Among environmentalists it was never clear, even to ourselves, whether or not we wanted it to happen. It had the potential both to shock the world into economic transformation, averting future catastrophes, and to generate catastrophes of its own, including a shift into even more damaging technologies, such as biofuels and petrol made from coal. Even so, peak oil was a powerful lever. Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case.
Some of us made vague predictions, others were more specific. In all cases we were wrong. In 1975 MK Hubbert, a geoscientist working for Shell who had correctly predicted the decline in US oil production, suggested that global supplies could peak in 1995. In 1997 the petroleum geologist Colin Campbell estimated that it would happen before 2010. In 2003 the geophysicist Kenneth Deffeyes said he was "99% confident" that peak oil would occur in 2004. In 2004, the Texas tycoon T Boone Pickens predicted that "never again will we pump more than 82m barrels" per day of liquid fuels. (Average daily supply in May 2012 was 91m.) In 2005 the investment banker Matthew Simmons maintained that "Saudi Arabia … cannot materially grow its oil production". (Since then its output has risen from 9m barrels a day to 10m, and it has another 1.5m in spare capacity.)
Peak oil hasn't happened, and it's unlikely to happen for a very long time. [More worth reading]
The tipping point for him was a report by Leanardo Maugueri of Harvard (funded by BP, ahem).

But wait - there seems to be some doubt about Maugueri's numbers. In fact, considerable doubt. A rigorous criticism was published by an equally respected science journalist, Chris Nelder.
To his credit, Maugeri acknowledges that his analysis “is subject to a significant margin of error, depending on several circumstances that extend beyond the risks in each project or country,” and he details numerous important caveats. And to the extent that he reveals the assumptions underpinning his forecast, his transparency is laudable. In the final analysis, however, it is insufficient. He fails to provide adequate justification that his assumptions, being widely divergent from most other industry estimates, are remotely realistic.
We must conclude that the key assumptions about reserve growth and its effect on decline rates in Maugeri’s report are muddled, speculative and unverifiable. And sprinkling those assertions with repeated declamations about how peak oil is a non-issue, insisting repeatedly that the only real constraints on his scenario have to do with political decisions and geopolitical risks, suggests that his report is more about grinding a political axe on behalf of the oil industry than offering a serious or transparent analysis. Finally we must note that Maugeri is well known for his hostility to peak oil, as is BP, which funded his report. After taking real-world risks, costs, and restrictions into account, the case for peak oil—which is about production rates, not production capacity or reserves—seems far more realistic. [More]
Finally, The Oil Drum, the blog for oil geeks, picks up the thread and adds the best comments to boot.
Summary Maugeri's analysis and conclusions are critically dependent upon the decline rates applied to existing and future fields, and yet he does not explicitly say what these decline rates will be. However, Maugeri’s assumptions can be derived from his Table 2, which projects gross and net capacity additions over the period to 2020. Doing so suggests he uses an average annual decline rate for all fields of 1.6% over this period, which is less than half of the IEA and CERA estimates for 2008 (4.1%/year and 4.5%/year respectively). The discrepancy is even greater since the IEA and other analysts project an increase in average decline rates over the 2011-20 period. If we replace Maugeri’s 1.6% decline rate assumption with the IEA estimate of 4.1%, the projected loss of production capacity over the period to 2020 increases from 11 mb/d to 26.5 mb/d. In turn, the projected global production capacity in 2020 reduces from 110.6 mb/d to 95.1mb/d (a reduction of 14%). Since average decline rates would be expected to increase over this period, this projection must be considered optimistic. [More]
While I think I'm trying to be impartial, I probably am carrying my own biases into this fray, but Sorrell's point about decline rates vs. depletion rates is abstruse but convincing for me.  I have never been fascinated with Peak Oil because I wasn't sure what it really meant in everyday terms. Clearly the US production boom has made it seem like there is no real problem in the immediate future (for us anyway).

But looking at actual output trends as the critics do, I can't swallow the enormous production increases predicted in the Maugueri report. The larger picture is the linkage to climate change. If we get better and better evidence that CO2 is an major and immediate problem, the amount of oil we can pump is merely a measure of how fast we can drastically alter the environment for the worse.

In fact, those numbers are really depressing. It is not rocket math either.
Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons, is such a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That's the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.
We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain. [More]
While skeptics don't think the 2℃ is all that scary, more of us are growing uncomfortable with the 0.8℃ we've already managed to produce. Not to be a doomsayer, but I just don't see much happening until way too late. And given the current state of domestic and global policy debate, the first few decades will be spent assigning blame to win elections even if we do decide we're in trouble.

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