Peak Oil? Or not?

So what are we to make of the Farrell and Brandt graphic found at Romm’s?

If it holds up, it tells us that “peak oil” is not looming at all.

It’s always been a question: will “peak oil” get us before “global warming” does? The stock answer from the climate community has been that “peak oil” is an economic problem with relatively little impact on climate. That is, we accepted “peak oil” fears and presumed that the bulk of the risk from fossil fuels came from coal reserves, which looked to be much larger than oil or natural gas.

A fellow named David Rutledge at Cal Tech has even been arguing that coal reserves are overestimated. He’s been taking the position that, as a consequence, the whole climate issue is overblown, since all the fossil fuels would be going away soon.

Here’s Rutledge’s picture (from his powerpoint):

So, worry about energy supplies, he says, but not about climate. We are running out of fossil fuels too soon to worry! I actually ran Rutledge’s idea past Stephen Schneider on the day I met him. He dismissed it out of hand.

But if Farrell and Brandt are right, then Rutledge is wrong. In their schema there is plenty of reserve of fossil fuel, not even counting clathrate deposits as a fuel. (Whether they count as a feedback is out of scope here.)

Admittedly, half of F & B’s projection is coal. But there are great swaths of petroleum potential from the new natural gas (“fracking”) supplies (GTL), tar sands, and enhanced production from sites that were played out to the limits of old technologies. The uncertainties are huge, but if we consider the high end, we see that we have tapped barely a twentieth of liquid fuel potential, and the production costs leave room for profit even under present pricing.

Also, presumably F & B maximize liquid fuel production at the expense of stationary energy plants. This is arguably what will happen if we don’t attend to transportation infrastructure, after all.

But it’s also worth noting that these methods double to quadruple the impact of each unit of energy consumption. If the sources and efficiencies of fossil fuel recovery continue to grow (in what would ordinarily be seen as the “techno-optimist” scenario) that leaves a whole lot of room for baking the planet.

People talk a lot about uncertainties and then get all worked up about climate models. The sensitivity is between 2 and 4, okay?

It would be nice if we knew within a factor of ten how much carbon we are worrying about! Please and thanks.


19 thoughts on “Peak Oil? Or not?

  1. Steve Bloom says:

    "But it's also worth noting that these methods double to quadruple the impact of each unit of energy consumption."So if it comes to that or letting the lights (literal and figurative) go out, and there is no practical CCS technology in place, then we're in for a lovely time. It really does start to sound like Hansen's near-Venus scenario is possible.

  2. Hi MT,on this; Vaclav Smil has an excellent piece on coal: The Iron Age & coal-based coke: A neglected case of fossil-fuel dependence.It's freely available on his site, short, he puts a compelling case as to why coal should be preserved for steel production. Coupled with the potential looming of peak oil and the limited uses of gas, I've often felt that we have a strong case, even without climate change in mind, to move as quickly as possible to low fossil fuel dependant practises.Am I off the mark? Cheers for your comments a while ago on my blog btw – it made me aware of your work which is excellent.

  3. Ron Broberg says:

    "Energy returned on Energy Invested"You can squeeze liquid fuel out of a rock. The question is: how much energy did you burn while squeezing.We burn oil because it gives us the most return for the least investment. Its been estimated that at the beginning of the oil age, the return was about 100:1. 100 barrels of oil produced for every 1 burned in production. Its down to 15:1 or so today. As you substitute more expensive sources (tar sands, coal-to-liquid), the energy return diminishes even further. Corn ethanol is somewhere around 1:1 or 1.5:1

  4. Ron Broberg says:

    It would be nice if we knew within a factor of ten how much carbon we are worrying about! Please and thanks.My rule of thumb is simple: we will consume all of it.Of course, diminishing returns means that at some point we give up. And its always possible that the future includes an economic collapse due to a lack of available energy due to some chokepoint along the route from extraction to production to distribution to consumption.But as a rule of thumb – we will consume all the fossil fuels we can get our hands on.

  5. Ron, your answer puts me in mind of "how far do I have to go to get to San Francisco?"Answer: All the way. Certainly true but not especially helpful.

  6. Ron Broberg says:

    KoR, It'll probably come as no suprise that I like your SF saying. I freely agree that I don't have much helpful to say on this topic – except maybe this … if we are gonna burn it all, lets do so as efficiently as possible, to extract as much benefit as we can to help offset the damage we will do. I don't have much faith in carbon quotas or restrictions. Carbon fees or taxes will only slow down the consumption and only then in the countries that play along. But build a more efficient coal-burner, one that pays for itself in 'costs savings' and the world will beat a path to your door.It is in this limited sense, using carbon taxes as an incentive for investment in efficiency R&D, that I'm willing to support a carbon tax (or cap&trade). But if we can't muster the political will, I won't sweat it. The EROEI story tells me that if the economy can keep growing in the face of decreasing production of conventional oil, then the market will create the same price incentives within a few years. Indeed – it already has. The current "low price for oil" is significantly higher than the old "low price for oil." The highs get higher and the lows get higher too.

  7. Lou Grinzo says:

    These issues of URR (ultimately recoverable resources) and the direct dollar cost of extracting and using them, are infested with assumptions.Many people try to shun economics entirely and look at just the amount of coal, oil, or natural gas in the ground, which is obviously a mistake.Some people try to hang a price on different categories of resource, as F and B did, but that still falls short because it doesn't take into account the rate of production. And rate of production is, of course, tied to demand, which is in turn affected by price. (In the short run the demand for fossil fuels is highly price inelastic, meaning it won't change much in response to a change in price, but over a period of a year or more, it becomes more elastic as individual consumers have time to overcome their infrastructure and psychological lock-ins and adapt to the higher prices.)In general, I'm highly skeptical of any attempt to say, "We'll ultimately use X amount of this fossil fuel," simply because it requires answers (read: guesses) to some exceedingly difficult questions.As for the EROEI stuff, we should be very careful there. The economy runs on price signals, not energy or CO2 signals. Right now we burn a hideous amount of NG to cook oil out of the ground in Canada simply because the ratio of the price of oil to that of NG is high enough to make it profitable. As long as CO2 emissions remain an externality ("no price on carbon") and non-renewable energy consumption is also an externality ("no price on fossil kWh"), then they will not be taken into account by any significant portion of consumers or producers to a meaningful extent.Someone observed above that we will use all the FF. I hate to admit it, but that's been my position for years. We will do the relatively easy things to reduce CO2 emissions, but as soon as you start asking mainstream consumers to pay 50% more for electricity or gasoline, or take on the chore of managing their own generation (solar PV panels, etc.), then they will eagerly buy into the (still) myth of "clean coal" for another few years and keep building dirty plants in the short run.In dealing with CO2 emissions and FF consumption we're trying to find a painless way to make ourselves do what we don't want. Ain't gonna happen.

  8. byron smith says:

    The issue in peak oil is not total recoverable reserves, but the rate of extraction and production. And there remains a serious question whether (even ignoring all climate concerns) alternative fuel sources can be brought online fast enough to cover the projected liquid fuels shortage over the next 2-5 years.

  9. adelady says:

    I'm not so sure, Lou. My 85 yr old mum is putting solar panels on her place. (She's not a believer – we've always had droughts and heatwaves, humph.)Why? To maintain the resale value of her unit because everyone else around her has done it. The govt rebate helps too.(Underlying all this is another issue for Australians. Cold, miserable Germany generates more of its power from solar than does sun-drenched Australia. It's a disgrace, I tell you!)Making such things a matter of maintaining wealth will be a big motivating force. And no-one believes that utility bills will ever decrease so there's a cash saving anyway.

  10. joe says:

    I can't help it. Depressing comment threads like these make me want to go and find some nice land in a moderate climate, play guitar and grow my own food. New Zealand or Vancouver Island top my list at the moment. The problem is that our current system has no real alternatives to fossil fuel consumption. Helicopters and airplanes cannot be run on solar power. Same for freight trains, transport trucks, tractors. Our entire food supply is wholly dependent on liquid fossil fuels. So we have a choice. We either (a) start reserving LFF for these essential services and find alternatives for all other FF uses or (b) we all starve once the FF runs out (except for those of us with our own gardens). Anyone with a positive outlook on this?

  11. Aaron says:

    Lou got the economics correct. The most interesting point is that human economics does recognize limits imposed by Mother Nature. And, it turns out that Mother Nature does not much care about human economics.Today, both coal mining and oil wells require sophisticated technology. If Sea Level Rise occurs abruptly, small SLR will shut down sources of global technology. For example all industrial technology has microprocessors in it, and each microprocessor in embedded in plastic. What is the altitude of the facilities where that plastic is made? This is case where a single fragile process can cause multiple lines of failure in other critical processes.Given planning, permitting, and construction cycles, “abrupt” in this case is on the close order of 20 years.If you want to say that an abrupt rise in sea level cannot occur, you need to explain the physics of moulins in ice sheets in a way that precludes progressive collapse of the ice surrounding the moulin when it is very near its melting point. I think Feyman got it correct, “collapse happens.” We now know that due to local gravity effects, an ice event from an ice sheet can lower local sea level, and raise sea level on the other side of the globe, very much more than “common sense” would suggest. In our modern global economy, a lot of our best technology is made at sea level at the other end of the world. Thus, a bit of ice falling off an ice sheet can make a mess at the other side of the world, thereby disrupting industrial technology around the world.Igor just threw a lot of heat at GIS. We can take this as warning that Mother Nature’s “Plan B” is to shut down our technologies with unpredictable weather (including SLR) before we waste all the carbon fuels. We need to get busy with a better “Plan A”.

  12. byron smith says:

    @Joe: Anyone with a positive outlook on this?This was an interview that you might find interesting.

  13. GRLCowan says:

    "Billions are determined to become motorists. One way or another, motor fuel productionrates will rise by many terawatts over the next few decades. They can be increased cleanlyby constructing nuclear or solar power stations that take in alumina or boria ingotsand remove the oxygen", says I.(How shall the car gain nuclear cachet?)

  14. As events are proving, almost daily, any amount is too much.

  15. William T says:

    What seems surprising to me about these graphs is the low production costs. The are suggesting that the next 2000Gbbl of conventional oil can be had for ~$10/bl. That doesn't ring true with the current price of $70+ and static or declining production of conventional oil. I think that each of their hice horizontal bars would need to be sloping upwards to represent the increasing marginal costs of producing more of each reserve.

  16. Jason says:

    adelady, I take issue with your "cold, miserable Germany" comment. Over here in the Upper Rhine Valley we usually have very nice summers and grow excellent white wine – and the red wine is steadily getting better as well (bonus points for guessing the reason). 😉 Having said that, there's a whole gigantic discussion hidden in your argument, one that's been raging here for years – recently fanned again by a lead article in the venerable news magazine Der Spiegel; here's the English version of that article:,1518,718951,00.html

  17. Nosmo says:

    Many of the new energy technologies require massive amounts of water, which is much more important and limited then liquid fossil fuels.Depending on the location and technology this includes nuclear and solar thermal, as well as the advanced extraction techniques. Corn based ethanol in the mid west essentially is mining water for fuel.

  18. adelady says:

    Sorry Jason about the Germany thing. That's just a description of how it looks to most Aussies, esp a Queenslander looking at northern Germany. Of course in my own state we have a wine growing region called the "Barossa". A spanish name but populated almost entirely by german speakers, vignerons and legendary bakers, for a very long time. As far as wine itself goes, we produced far, far more riesling for many years until the fashion for chardonnay rolled through. It seems to be making a comeback thank goodness.

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