World Oil Supplies Peak
by Jan Lundberg
A new study on global oil production proves there is no time cushion to al-low procrastination on addressing oil depletion.
The World Resources Institute's Jim MacKenzie demonstrates that oil in sufficient volume is not being found, nor will ever be found, to continue anything near current consumption for more than a few decades.
MacKenzie, an advisor to Fossil Fuels Policy Action Institute, released "Oil as a Finite Resource: When is Global Production Likely to Peak?" in March.
As a matter of background, World Resources Institute's official used to include promoting "economic growth," but that was recently deleted in favor of kinder language. D.C.-based WRI is still part of the industrial paradigm and this limits the range and objectivity of its studies.
The study's main focus, aside from when we are likely to run out of oil, is the need as perceived by World Resources Institute (WRI) to develop alternative fuels for vehicles. But satisfying this "need" cannot be assumed, when non-oil-powered vehicles would still use oil such as asphalt, tires and plastic.
How many years could such products be in supply? The answer to that question has long eluded Fossil Fuels Policy Action and Auto Free Times, and continues to do so.
Of primary interest to the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium is the matter of such vehicles' generating more pavement and blocking depaving efforts. For those concerned with human fatalities, and animals killed by cars, electric vehicles would kill more because they are so quiet.
The end of oil guzzling will send the ruling social order to look for alternative sources of energy to perpetuate the consumer economy. This policy can never be "green" except in name. People will stand for such a recipe for ecocide because they are told they need cars, televisions, refrigerators/freezers, etc.
The fact that there is no real energy policy but preserving the status quo makes WRI and MacKenzie's new study appear progressive. But genuine environmentalists and proponents of traditional cultures would damn any study and set of policies that would rule out natural living and reverence for the ecosystem's balance. It confuses people when pro-technofix organizations give Mother Earth her due merely on paper.
As oil is the most prevalent fossil fuel used, and fossil fuels are the main source of greenhouse gases warming the globe, it is indeed reasonable to call for their replacement in part at least. Yet assuring they partly continue only puts off by a few years the global ecocide that the scientific community acknowledges is ahead.
In search of real alternatives to more pavement and vehicles, it becomes clear that non-transportation solutions are essential: car-free living, ecologically designed towns, and bioregional economic policies that resist unnecessary world trade. World trade agreements and their enforcement, we found in "Beyond GATT" (available from APM for $2), simply add to energy consumption and pollution.
The WRI study states that reviewing recoverable oil reserves will help decision-makers determine when replacement sources and new technologies might be needed.
It states, "The transportation sector, almost totally dependent on oil, could be especially hard hit unless vehicles fueled by sources other than petroleum are developed and rapidly deployed."
As the peak and decline of world oil production comes within sight, policies to encourage more efficient oil use and a switch to alternative energy sources, especially in transportation, become urgent. Unfortunately, because oil prices are low, few decision-makers appreciate how little time remains, and efforts...are weak and overdue."
Low oil prices do indeed lull people to do nothing about oil dependency. Apathy, procrastination and disempowerment will probably therefore persist. Not even a Nader presidency could price oil properly (high).
I stand by my 1988 prediction, which has held: Oil prices will stay lower than alternative fuelsóexcepting temporary price spikesóuntil we virtually run out of oil.
Why don't prices rise to reflect scarcity, as people have assumed they would? The oil industry insists on producing maximum volumes, avoiding raising the price too high.
Running out of agricultural fuel and petrochemicalsófrom oil in large partóis not mentioned in the WRI study. But it was made abundantly clear in the seminal work Beyond Oil: the Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades (Gever, Kaufmann, et al, 1986, 1991, University Press of Colorado).
The first point of Beyond Oil is that the U.S. is running out of oil by the year 2020, approximately, and the world by 2040. That prediction was from an econometric analysis relying upon the Hubbert Curve of oil production. Hubbert was a Shell Oil and U.S. Geological Survey analyst.
Perhaps for political reasons, MacKenzie's study does not mention either the famous and reliable Hubbert Curve or Beyond Oil. A high official in the oil lobby in Washington, D.C. reacted to Beyond Oil's Hubbert prediction by disparaging it as "Malthus with a computer."
But when I asked him (the oil man, not Malthus) if it could be stipulated that only a few more years of oil could be produced domestically beyond 2020, he countered that "The Saudis will never turn off the spigot of all that cheap-to-produce oil." Another 20 years is an eternity to big-business minds.
MacKenzie confirmed Beyond Oil's Hubbert Curve analysis without referring to it directly.
As to the Saudis and Kuwaitis, who together possess the two largest oil fields in the world, billions of dollars of investment would be necessary to raise production. MacKenzie reveals the game of "political reserves" which are oil reserves added "overnight" beginning in 1985.
Arab Gulf oil producers haven't got as much oil as people think, and pumping plenty out without interruption isn't for certain. Only OPEC countries, especially in the Middle East, have the oil reserves to meet future demand, says the Oil and Gas Journal. The amount of investment would be about $120 billion to meet world oil demand, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). The expansion of production facilities will nevertheless "fall some 10 million barrels per day short," says a CRS geologist.
The range of Estimated Ultimately Recoverable (EUR) oil is from 1,750 billion to 2,300 billion barrels worldwide. Whatever the eventual figure, 765 billion barrels have been consumed in history. So, peaking of production is scheduled to happen in a few years, depending on reserves and rate of consumption.
The main determiner in peaking time might be through a carbon tax or a cap on carbon releases, according to the WRI study. "If oil demand were held constant at today's level...the time of decline (of world oil production) could be delayed by decades."
This does not allow for other factors such as economic recession or collapse. (See Auto-Free Times #9, "What Most People Don't Get To Hear" by yours truly, on the implications of likely economic collapse and/or the sudden shut-off of oil.)
As for U.S. oil reserves, production peaked in 1970. Domestic oil in the lower 48 has been depleted to 16 percent of total recoverable crude, and imported oil became the cheapest replacement. As for Alaska, about 14 percent of the total oil there (14 billion barrels ultimately recoverable) remains to be "produced."
What about China and the former Soviet Union? The U.S. Geological Survey in 1994 provided "very optimistic estimates for recoverable oil"óeighty-four billion barrels for China and 344 billion barrels for the former Soviet Union. Almost half of those amounts have yet to be found. Those countries may have less than two-thirds the recoverable oil than the USGS believes. The latter's optimism is misplaced on economic grounds, and considering recent years' poor production trends in those countries.
Overall, "No new major oil provinces have been found or developed for several decades... global discovery of new oil fields peaked in 1962 and has been declining since... By now, the whole world (has) been thoroughly explored so it has become clear that no new provinces comparable with the North Sea and Alaska await discovery. The net result of lagging discoveries is the inevitable decline in producible oil: while world crude oil demand is about 22 billion barrels per year and rising the amount found in new fields per year is less than 10 billion barrels and falling." [emphasis added]
Conventional economists say that price and technology determine resource availability, not geological limitations! But when oil prices were very high (early 1970s to the mid-'80s) and a high level of exploratory activity persisted, proved reserves in the lower 48 declined 25 percent and crude production fell by 24 percent. Shell International says, "Although world reserves have risen by 65 percent since 1970, nearly all of these giant fields were discovered before that date."
Speaking of multinational corporations such as Shell, they have supplanted all nations' economic power, so WRI's report should be faulted for focusing on nations rather than the entities actually in control.
WRI's study does not go into alternatives to oil other than to warn of the costs and environmental effects of coal and unconventional crudes (tar sands, etc.). Beyond Oil, however, made clear that beyond cheap oilóbasically goneóthere is no fuel or energy that has cheap oil's high "energy-profit ratio," i.e., the yield in energy from inputting energy into a given technology to produce energy. Moreover, oil cannot be substituted completely even by an array of renewable technologies, when we consider oil provides most of the tires, chemicals, etc. that much of the world thinks it needs.
WRI says the world will not soon "run out" of oil or hydrocarbon fuels. Oil production will continue, though at a declining rate, for many decades after its peak..."
If my prediction on pricing is correct, MacKenzie's clarification is bad news, because volume will be maximized as will CO2, soot, acid rain and other pollutants.
He concludes that if "most of the major oil fields containing most of the oil have already been found, then increased exploration will, at best, identify only the few remaining major fields and a larger number of smaller ones... (they) will not be able to offset the long-term exhaustion... in the small number of very large fields."
Jan Lundberg is the Director of the Sustainable Energy Institute, publisher of Auto-Free Times and formerly served the oil industry and government with research and analysis. He has for years enjoyed having no car, TV or refrigerator.