Peak Oil In The Economist  

Posted by Big Gav in

The recent spike in oil prices (taking WTI briefly over $100 a barrel) has prompted a flurry of mentions of peak oil in the mainstream media.

The Economist has followed the FT's lead of yesterday, with an article on "Peak Nationalism". While they are even more skeptical of the idea of imminent peak oil based on geology than the FT (preferring to blame foreign governments who don't magically solve the problem by letting Exxon and Shell have access to all their oil reserves), they do come to the right conclusion in the end - better start working on energy efficiency or alternative energy. Just in case, of course...

The Age also has some notes on the oil price, quoting ASPO Australia's Elliot Fishman.

Oil keeps getting more expensive—but not because it is running out

NEW YEAR'S EVE has been and gone, but for oilmen, the party continues. On January 2nd, helped across the line by a New York trader eager for bragging rights, the first business day of the year, the price of their product topped $100 a barrel for the first time. Oil is now almost five times more expensive than it was at the beginning of 2002.

It would be natural to assume that ever increasing price reflects ever greater scarcity. And so it does, in a sense. Booming bits of the world, such as China, India and the Middle East have seen demand for oil grow with their economies. Meanwhile, Western oil firms, in particular, are struggling to produce any more of the stuff than they did two or three years ago. That has left little spare production capacity and, in America at least, dwindling stocks. Every time a tempest brews in the Gulf of Mexico or dark clouds appear on the political horizon in the Middle East, jittery markets have pushed prices higher. This week, it was a cold snap in America and turmoil in Nigeria that helped the price reach three figures.

No wonder, then, that the phrase “peak oil” has been gaining ground even faster than the oil price. With each extra dollar, the conviction grows that the planet has been wrung dry and will never be able to satisfy the thirst of a busy world.

Geography, not geology

Yet the fact that not enough oil is coming out of the ground does not mean not enough of it is there. There are many other explanations for the lacklustre response to the glaring price signal. For one thing, oil producers have tied their own hands. During the 1980s and 1990s, when the price was low and so were profits, they pared back hiring and investment to a minimum. Many ancillary firms that built rigs or collected seismic data shut up shop. Now oil firms want to increase their output again, they do not have the staff or equipment they need.

Worse, nowadays, new oil tends to be found in relatively inaccessible spots or in more unwieldy forms. That adds to the cost of extracting oil, because more engineers and more complex machinery are needed to exploit it—but the end of easy oil is a far remove from the jeremiads of peak-oilers. The gooey tar-sands of Canada contain almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia. Eventually, universities will churn out more geologists and shipyards more offshore platforms, though it will take a long time to make up for two decades of underinvestment.

The biggest impediment is political. Governments in almost all oil-rich countries, from Ecuador to Kazakhstan, are trying to win a greater share of the industry's bumper profits. That is natural enough, but they often deter private investment or exclude it altogether. The world's oil supply would increase markedly if Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell had freer access to Russia, Venezuela and Iran. In short, the world is facing not peak oil, but a pinnacle of nationalism.

None of that will help consumers or governments. The economic toll of expensive oil is just as high whether geology or politics is to blame—and the best response is just the same. Policy should encourage energy efficiency and support research into alternative fuels. Governments seeking to shield their citizens with subsidies or price caps should instead expose them to the full cost to foster frugality.

All this will be hard and unpopular. But politicians might console themselves with the thought that even the most recalcitrant petro-regime is more malleable than the brute realities of geology.

1 comments

Whenever I read something like the "gooey tar-sands of Canada contain almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia" I know the author hasn't done their homework.

The oil sands are mentioned in both the FT and Economist articles. Don't these people realise that the Canadian oil sands will never produce at the rate of Saudi oil? The most optimistic forecasts are below 5mpd for 2020 and beyond.

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