Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Debating Peak Oil

Old men with heart conditions shouldn't go around arguing with people who have no intention of letting small things like facts change their minds.  But I got into a pointless debate over the weekend and it probably didn't do my heart any good.  I am sure it changed no minds.  The subject was Peak Oil.

In my mind, the questions surrounding Peak Oil are NOT very complicated.  When an oil well comes in, those first barrels are incredibly easy to extract.  In fact though they have become extremely rare, the wells that made people rich were called "gushers" because underground pressure pushed the crude up the drill-hole.  But soon things are under control and pumps are connected to the field pipes.  It has become a production well.  As the well gets older, the flow of oil to the pumps slow.  At some point, it isn't worth the costs and trouble to run the pump.  The well has gone "dry."  This is highly oversimplified because there are host of factors that determine how long the well produces and how much, but nothing changes the fact that even highly productive wells do not produce forever.  They have a life span that is finite.  And because wells are finite, oil fields are finite.

We have been drilling for oil since at least 1859—that's 153 years.  We have learned a very great deal about the lifespans of oil fields.  This knowledge was gained through known and tested methodologies.  When Hubbard predicted the peak output for USA in 1956, he was only off by months even though the prediction was for 1970.  This isn't like betting on sporting events—this is like predicting the dawn and can be done almost as accurately.

The problem with Peak Oil deniers is that they cannot differentiate in their minds between predictions on football and predictions on known scientific phenomenon.  They know that predictions can be wrong—just look at how often the "experts" on the Sunday morning football shows get it wrong, they will say.  And since they believe that predictions are mostly random guesses, they give priority to the beliefs in religious principles like: If oil runs short, the price will rise and there will be more incentive to extract hard-to-get oil.  The MARKET will prevent a Peak Oil economic meltdown—because unlike predictions, the MARKET is ALWAYS right.

But over here in the world of Producers, we make predictions all the time in matters of life and death and get it wrong so seldom, our failures make headline news—like if one of our bridges falls into the river because one of the predictions (that some girder is large enough) was wrong.  We are right about 99.99% of the time in our predictions.  What's better, every time we get one wrong, we upgrade our prediction mechanisms so they are more accurate the next time.

Peak Oil Theory is a HIGHLY refined Producer Class prediction mechanism.  The chance of it being wrong is TINY because it has already demonstrated countless times that it works.  So there's your problem debating a Peak Oil denier.  He doesn't even know there are whole classes of predictions that are VERY reliable.  He cannot be bothered with understanding WHY Peak Oil is one of those very reliable predictions—mostly because it is too complicated.  And since his lack of understanding for how the Producer Class makes predictions leads him towards confusion and frustration, he falls back on religious beliefs like the one about the "Free Market."  It comforts him—so is a worthy substitute for his lack of understanding.  Unfortunately, should you decide to debate this creature, facts don't work because they only confuse his belief structure—the same facts that would instantly convince a good Producer Class oil field pro.  You are probably lucky if the fact-hater doesn't try to get violent with you.

This Decade Was Just A Preview For The Oil Crisis Of The 21st Century

The Oil Drum | Mar. 26, 2012

[This is a guest post by Dean Fantazzini, Faculty of Economics, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia; Mikael Höök, Uppsala University, Global Energy Systems, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Uppsala, Sweden; and André Angelantoni, Post-Peak Living, San Francisco, CA. This paper has been previously published in Energy Policy, Volume 39, Issue 12, December 2011, Pages 7865-7873 and at The Oil Drum.]

1. Introduction

An economy needs energy to produce goods and deliver services and the size of an economy is highly correlated with how much energy it uses (Brown et al., 2010a, Warr and Ayers, 2010). Oil has been a key element of the growing economy. Since 1845, oil production has increased from virtually nothing to approximately 86 million barrels per day (Mb/d) today (IEA, 2010), which has permitted living standards to increase around the world. In 2004 oil production growth stopped while energy hungry and growing countries like China and India continued increasing their demand. A global price spike was the result, which was closely followed by a price crash. Since 2004 world oil production has remained within 5% of its peak despite historically high prices (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Oil production stopped growing in 2004 while demand continued to increase. The result was a global oil price spike that contributed to the subsequent economic contraction. Liquid fuels include crude oil, lease condensate, natural gas plant liquids, other liquids, and refinery processing gains and losses as defined by the EIA. Source: Hirsch (2010)

The combination of increasingly difficult-to-extract conventional oil combined with depleting supergiant and giant oil fields, some of which have been producing for seven decades, has led the International Energy Agency (IEA) to declare in late 2010 that the peak of conventional oil production occurred in 2006 (IEA, 2010). Conventional crude oil makes up the largest share of all liquids commonly counted as “oil” and refers to reservoirs that primarily allow oil to be recovered as a free-flowing dark to light-coloured liquid (Speight, 2007).

The peak of conventional oil production is an important turning point for the world energy system because many difficult questions remain unanswered. For instance: how long will conventional oil production stay on its current production plateau? Can unconventional oil production make up for the decline of conventional oil? What are the consequences to the world economy when overall oil production declines, as it eventually must? What are the steps businesses and governments can take now to prepare? more
Of course the biggest impediment to addressing problems like Peak Oil is sprawling cities.  Here, Scientific American looks at the problem.

Spread Reckoning: U.S. Suburbs Face Twin Perils of Climate Change and Peak Oil [Excerpt]

Sprawling metropolitan areas like Merriam, Kans., face fundamental challenges from global warming and the end of easy oil
By Maggie Koerth-Baker | March 23, 2012

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), by Maggie Koerth-Baker.

Most people reading this would probably find Merriam, Kansas, very familiar. Not because they've been there, but because it's a lot like home.

Merriam is usually described as a suburb of Kansas City, Kans.—a small town that grew into a residential center for people who worked in the much larger city nearby. Yet the mental images that go with the word suburb don't really fit Merriam all that well. When I think suburb, I imagine something like Levittown, treeless insta-villages where rows of identical houses dot gleaming new cul-de-sacs recently carved out of some farmer's field. The greater Kansas City area certainly has its share of developments that would fit that description, but Merriam isn't one of them. more 
And just for me—a closer look at the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota.  I lived 18 months in the refinery town of Tioga when I was in high school.  I know this area.  The memories are still painful.

The Peak Oil Crisis: Parsing the Bakken


There is a lot of talk recently that "tight oil" as found in North Dakota's Bakken and other shales in the Southwest will save America from stagnant global oil production and increasing gasoline prices. The current glut of natural gas which has brought prices to a 10-year low has forced companies drilling for gas to curtail their activity and move the crews and rigs to North Dakota and Texas where money can still be made in drilling for shale oil. New well completions in North Dakota are expected to surge again this year.

A recent pronouncement by a noted analyst says that America's "tight oil" (shale oil) production could reach 3 million barrels a day (b/d) by 2020 which will again put us among the top few global oil producers. On digging a little deeper into the issue, however, many have a problem with all the optimism.

In January 2012, oil production in North Dakota hit 546,000 b/d, up from 342,000 b/d in January 2011, 253,000 b/d in 2010, and 187,000 b/d in 2009. With more drilling crews on the way, it is easy to see why optimists are projecting that millions of barrels per day will come from the various US shale deposits by the end of the decade. If we were talking about conventional oil coming from conventional oil fields, the optimists would probably be right --- but we aren't.

It took the production from 6,617 wells to produce North Dakota's 546,000 b/d in January. Divide the daily production by the number of wells and you get an astoundingly low 82 b/d from each well. I say "astounding" because a good new offshore well can do 50,000 b/d. BP's Macondo well which exploded in the Gulf a couple of years ago was pumping out an estimated 53,000 b/d before it was capped.

Now a North Dakota shale oil well is not in the cost class of a deepwater offshore platform which can run into the billions, but they do cost about three times as much as a classic onshore oil well as they first must be drilled down 11,000 feet and then 10,000 horizontally through the oil bearing layer before the fracturing of the rock can take place. The "fracking" involves at least 15 massive pumps that inject water and other chemicals into the well. Take a Google Earth flight over northwestern North Dakota. The fracked wells are hard to miss as there are now about 9,000 of them and they are each the size of a football field.

There is still more -- fracked wells don't keep producing very long. Although a few newly fracked wells may start out producing in the vicinity of 1,000 barrels a day, this rate usually falls by 65 percent the first year; 35 percent the second; and another 15 percent the third. Within a few years most wells are producing in the vicinity of 100 b/d or less which is why the state average for January is only 82 b/d despite the addition of 1300 new wells in 2011. more

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