Peak oil is unlikely to solve the climate crisis

An interesting report released by Leonardo Maugeri (PDF) at Harvard’s Belfer Center argues that the world still has huge amounts of unconventional oil and that recent concerns about ‘peak oil’ are ill-founded:

“My field-by-field analysis suggests that worldwide, an additional unrestricted supply of slightly less than 50 mbd is under development or will be developed by 2020. Eleven countries show a potential outflow of new production of about 40.5 mbd, or about 80 percent of the total. After adjusting the world’s additional unrestricted production for taking into account risk-factors, the additional adjusted supply comes to 28.6 mbd , or 22.5 mbd for the first eleven countries – as shown in Figure 3 (more extensive data are shown in Table 3, Section 4).

These numbers carry at least two important messages:

* They represent the largest potential addition to the world’s oil supply capacity since the 1980s.

* They point to a tectonic shift in the oil geography and geopolitics, by making the Western Hemisphere the fastest growing oil-producing region in the world, with the United States and Canada combined outpacing any other country.

This suggests that the hopes of some environmentalists that there might not be enough oil available to cause catastrophic or runaway climate change may not be realized. Of course, even if oil were scarce, there is a lot of planet-altering gas and coal left in the world.

Maugeri concludes that in the medium term, substantially more oil production is possible:

“In any case, the single most important issue that emerges from my analysis is that, from a purely physical and technical point of view, oil supply and capacity are not in any danger. On the contrary, they could significantly exceed world consumption needs and even lead to a phase of oil overproduction if oil demand does not exceed a compounded rate of growth of 1.6 percent each year to 2020.”

He identifies Iraq, the United States, and Canada as the countries most capable of increasing their oil output during that timespan.

Maugeri also highlights the long investment lag-times and asymmetries that exist in the fossil fuel sector:

“The industry tends to increase investment gradually as the price of crude oil increases, but once the new investments are started, they are very difficult to stop, even when consumption and crude oil prices suddenly collapse. In other words, the industry behaves like an elephant running: it starts very slowly, but once it gets going, no one can stop it.

In fact, as an oil company gradually spends its budget, the investment assumes a life of its own, and it becomes unprofitable to block the spending, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent. The need to obtain an economic return on capital already invested takes priority over almost any other consideration, unless there are dramatic changes in the market situation.

To complicate matters, contractual commitments are made by the oil companies with the countries owning the deposits, which often make it difficult to block or reduce the spending. Indeed, these commitments demand heavy economic penalties or even revocation of the concessions granted by the host government if, by pre-established dates, the agreed number of wells and the needed infrastructure are not realized, and initial production is not achieved.”

Once companies make the gigantic investments necessary to access these unconventional oil reserves, it is unreasonable to think that they will be willing to stop exploiting them in the future, or that politicians will be willing to force them to accept such losses. Arguably, the only way to stop an unconventional fossil fuel bonanza that wrecks the climate is to keep it from ever starting.

George Monbiot has also written a column about Maugeri’s report.

7 thoughts on “Peak oil is unlikely to solve the climate crisis

  1. BuryCoal Post author


    “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.

    So this is where we are. The automatic correction – resource depletion destroying the machine that was driving it – that many environmentalists foresaw is not going to happen. The problem we face is not that there is too little oil, but that there is too much.”

  2. .

    “One common misconception is that the ‘Peak Oil’ phenomenon (the projected impending depletion of readily available petroleum reserves) will solve the fossil-fuel emissions dilemma. However, even if oil wells run dry, the primary sources for the energy sector – coal and natural gas reserves – could last for centuries.”

    Mann, Michael and Lee Kump. Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming (p. 160 softcover)

    “The potential of the so-called ‘Peak Oil’ phenomenon to slow the future rate of growth has been greatly overstated. Even if conventional oil fields were to be depleted in coming decades, or drilling were to become prohibitively expensive, sources such as oil shales and tar sands could provide many additional decades of petroleum reserves. As coal liquefaction technology advances, coal could potentially satisfy the transport sector’s rising fuel demands.”

    (p. 163)

  3. .

    A barrel of West Texas Intermediate fetches around $100, even as gas prices recently hit a ten-year low. This has encouraged gas producers to scurry after oil in liquid-rich shale beds such as the Bakken in North Dakota. To do this, they use the same rigs and techniques, such as fracking and horizontal drilling, as they use for gas. Within a few years the Bakken and other shale beds could be producing up to 3m barrels of oil a day, reckon optimists. That is around a third of current imports.

  4. .

    In 1999 North Dakota’s rig-count stood at zero after small pockets of conventional oil had run out. Now the Bakken oilfield is pumping out more than 550,000 b/d of shale oil, and Williston, the town at the centre of the field, is booming. It used to take five minutes to cross town; now the weight of oil traffic means it takes 20, according to one resident of this remote corner of a thinly populated state. At Walmart, crowds of shoppers have pressed all the trolleys into service; and its vast car park, like many other similar sites in town, provides a temporary home for fleets of camper vans housing workers flooding to the region’s oilfields. New homes, hotels and “man camps”—row upon row of workers’ huts—are springing up all around.

    This year shale oil should contribute some 720,000 b/d to America’s total production. And shale-oil deposits in Texas, Ohio, Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas could eventually contribute as much as 5m b/d, according to the most optimistic forecasts. The Bakken field may well hold more than people think, and Ohio’s Utica shale has barely been tapped.

    America is the world’s third-largest oil producer. The deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico could yield substantially more oil (perhaps 1m-2m b/d on top of the 1.3m b/d currently produced). America has plenty of other places where it might look if unfettered drilling were allowed, such as the east and west coasts and restricted parts of the Gulf of Mexico. Oil production in Alaska could also be expanded. America now imports 9m b/d; by “going back onshore” and exploiting all its options, optimists think it could produce 7m more b/d in a decade or so. Daily net imports of crude oil this year are the lowest since 1995, and will probably keep falling in the coming years (see chart 3).

    Not so long ago, terminals were still being built in America to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). Now the country is enjoying a bonanza of domestic gas. Americans pay less than $3 for 1m British thermal units, where Europeans and Asians often pay more than $10. Accordingly, America is now planning to send the stuff abroad. Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations thinks that exports of 60 billion cubic metres a year would yield revenue of $20 billion, though higher imports of other goods would offset the benefit to the trade balance.

  5. .

    In U.S. energy renaissance, flares of fear for Alberta’s oil patch – The Globe and Mail

    Oil is pouring out of North Dakota. In September, some 728,000 barrels a day flowed, up a startling 57 per cent from the year before. And it’s not just here: Similar fields in Texas and elsewhere are seeing similarly fast rises in oil output, prompting a near-euphoric re-examination of what’s ahead for a country that has long relied heavily on imported oil to fill its gas tanks and keep its economic engine running.

    a belief in unfettered access to an insatiably oil-hungry U.S. market has been a central underlying assumption of the great energy expansion under way in Alberta.

    The greatest vulnerability, he said, lies in the northeastern corner of Alberta, the Fort McMurray area that not long ago looked a lot like North Dakota, a nascent boom town that stoked – and continues to stoke – great economic hopes for Canada. But, Mr. Monaco warned, “if you’re in the oil sands and you are the marginal production because you’re the highest cost, this is a big factor. These are big issues.” He is not, however, worried. Enbridge believes it can be the solution by building new pipelines to bring Canadian oil to new markets, both abroad and in U.S. states not served by current pipelines. But it’s hard to find a new pipeline proposal – to the West Coast, to the Gulf Coast, to the East Coast – that is not wrangling with severe political and social skepticism.

    And if opponents succeed in stopping or slowing those projects, the outlook is grim: Prices for Canadian oil “will get pushed down to the point that production stops growing,” says Chris Micsak, an oil analyst with Bentek, an international energy forecasting and analysis firm.

  6. Pingback: American unconventional oil and the economic viability of the oil sands

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