I first wrote about “peak oil” in 1998, reporting on an in-depth article in Scientific American by petroleum geologists Colin Campbell, PhD, and Jean Laherrère. Campbell and Laherrère believed that up to that time the world had consumed about 800 billion barrels of oil (BBO), and the known reserves of conventional crude oil totaled about 850 bbl in 1996 and another 200 BBO of conventional oil was yet to be discovered.
The result, they argued, was that the world would reach the halfway point — or the peak — in (conventional) world oil production within the first decade of the 21st century. That peak would occur, they argued, when cumulative world oil consumption reached about 925 BBO. (At that time the world was consuming 23.6 BBO per year.)
The significance of peak oil is that once that point is reached, so the proponents argue, annual oil production will begin an inexorable decline with a concomitant rise in cost. It would become too expensive to use oil for many uses, and the “end of the oil age” would be in sight.
This was a resonant chord for a lot of people — myself included. The end of cheap oil would mean the shift to cleaner fuels and a slowing of the release of greenhouse gasses. It would result in improvements in fuel economy of vehicles; it would encourage homeowners to shift to cleaner heating fuels; and it would spur the development of plug-in hybrid vehicles that could be powered by solar electricity. “Peak oil” became a rallying cry and the subject of dozens of books.
So where are we today, relative to peak oil?
Statistics on world oil production, consumption, and reserves are tracked by various entities; one widely quoted source is the BP Statistical Review of World Energy; I am pulling numbers from the 2012 edition, which includes data through 2011. Unlike The Campbell and Laherrère statistics quoted above, the BP statistics include unconventional oil, such as tar sands and very deep deposits.
Proven reserves of oil, according to the BP report, totaled 1,653 BBO at the end of 2011. This compares with proven reserves in 2001 (ten years earlier) of 1,267 BBO and proven reserves in 1991 (twenty years earlier) of 1,033 BBO. In other words, since 1991, the proven reserves have increased 60%. (Some challenge the BP statistics; you can read a contrasting view in this post on The Oil Drum.)
Global annual consumption of oil in 2011 totaled 32.1 BBO, up from 26.1 BBO in 1996 (according to the BP statistics). As a point of reference, 32.1 billions of barrel per year converts to about 1,000 barrels per second. (One barrel is defined as 42 gallons, so that’s about 42,000 gallons per second.) Big numbers.
Since the end of 2011, as more deep-sea Brazilian oil and oil recovered through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) comes online, I’m guessing that the rate of increase in proven reserves could actually increase over the next few decades.
Furthermore, I predict that the once all-important distinction between “conventional” and “unconventional” oil will break down over time. As technologies improve for very deep drilling (measured in miles rather than feet), such wells will become more common. Fracking will become more common as a strategy for rejuvenating oil fields that had been considered depleted. I don’t like this, particularly given the huge risks and environmental impacts of such extraction methods, but I fear that it’s the reality.
Reduce oil production for other reasons
What all this means, I believe, is that we should shift away from the motivation of peak oil as our reason for promoting alternatives. A peak in world oil production — due to supply limits — just isn’t going to happen anytime soon, perhaps not even in our lifetimes. We need to use other arguments for curtailing our consumption of oil and other fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas.
Fossil fuels are highly polluting in their extraction, combustion, and (especially with coal) waste disposal. More importantly, these energy sources release into the atmosphere vast quantities of carbon dioxide, the most significant of the greenhouse gasses that are contributing to global climate change.
While the political world has shifted away from climate change as an issue, I believe that is a very short-lived phenomena that will evaporate as quickly as those rare showers on Nebraska corn fields this summer. It wouldn’t surprise me if climate change returns as an issue of debate as soon as the November elections this year.
Temperature records are being broken by the thousands this year, with July the hottest month ever recorded in the U.S. — going back to 1895, when widespread recordkeeping began. Drought covers 63% of the nation, and is driving up the cost of food worldwide (see the Drought Monitor, which is updated weekly). Dry conditions are fueling record fires in Colorado and elsewhere. Scientists are almost universally accepting of the role humans have played in creating this climate change; as more of the public feels the effects I believe they will force politicians to finally stand up and do something about it.
Forget about peak oil. Let’s get on with dealing with climate change.