Has Peak Oil Been Vindicated Or Debunked ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The impending demise of The Oil Drum seems to have prompted something of a resurgence in interest in peak oil.

Matthew Yglesias has a post at Slate on the state of the peak oil debate - Has Peak Oil Been Vindicated Or Debunked ?. I love the way the oil price graph demonstrates the impact the supposed flood of shale oil (combined with the great recession) has (or more accurately, hasn't) had on oil prices - as we switch from depleting conventional oil to unconventional oil, the floor price for oil gets ever higher and the environmental damage per barrel gets bigger - just as peak oil theory predicts...

I will admit that I've always found the "Peak Oil" debate to be a little bit confusing, especially because both the words "peak" and "oil" turn out to have some ambiguity to them. But recently a couple of my favorite bloggers were debating the implications of the "unconventional oil" boom for the debate, with Karl Smith proclaiming peak oil dead while Noah Smith says it lives on. My approach would be to try to skip past some of these definitional issues and look at prices.

Above you see the nominal prices for Brent Crude Oil and West Texas Intermediate. As you can see, historically the prices are identical because oil is a globally traded commodity. You can also see that in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s the price was low—around 20 dollars a barrel. These were the happy days in which the oil crises of the 1970s had been put behind us, and everyone got to hail the economic genius of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. You can also see the supply disruption induced by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent geopolitical crisis that left George H.W. Bush without the reputation for economic mastery that Reagan and Clinton enjoy. Then you see a rise, then a fall, then a steady rise. Eventually the rise gets really crazy and people are in freak-out mode. Then comes a global recession and a huge collapse in prices. At this point we look around the wreckage and wonder wtf just happened. Was there an amazing oil bubble comparable to Irish real estate? Or has the recession just pushed prices down artificially?

Now with some subsequent years of data we can see that despite the slow growth in developed countries prices have very certainly not returned to the halcyon days of the Reagan-Clinton years. We can see that the Iraq/Kuwait price spike actually looks like a bit of a joke. We can see the impact of the unconventional oil, which has created this anomalous gap between the WTI price and the Brent price. It's a big gap. This is nothing to sneer at. Not only is it causing an economic boom in North Dakota and select portions of Texas, but it plausibly explains some of why America's overall economic performance has been so much better than Europe's. But even so, America's oil boom hasn't pushed U.S. oil prices back down to mid-aughts levels and it certainly hasn't pushed U.S. oil prices back down to 1990s levels. The good old days of genuinely abundant liquid fuel really do appear to be behind us.

It's probably worth noting the WTI - Brent spread mentioned above has disappeared now - you have to keep on drilling pretty fast if you want to maintain production from fast depleting shale oil wells - and the previously exponential rate of growth in drilling has now stopped as Stuart Staniford shows in the chart below - US Oil Rig Count and Oil Production.

The Slate article above references this blog post from Noahpinion - Peak Oil is dead! Long live Peak Oil!.

One of my favorite websites, The Oil Drum, is shutting down, and I am mad! Everyone is attributing the shutdown to the death of the "Peak Oil" meme, which in turn is attributed to fracking. The first is probably true; Peak Oil mania is over. But the second is false. Fracking has not killed Peak Oil. It just hasn't fit the narratives that many of the Peak Oilers spun.

The thesis of Peak Oil is simple: Global oil production will soon peak and begin to decline. But there were two possible stories that the Peak Oilers told about how this would happen:

"Good Peak Oil": In this case, we find something that's better than oil, and switch to that, just like we once transitioned away from whale oil. In this case, oil prices and production would both fall.

"Bad Peak Oil": In this case, we don't find something better than oil, and as oil becomes more scarce, the price would go up, while oil production and overall economic activity both contracted.

What we got was neither of these. Or more accurately, we got a little bit of both, coupled with something else that doesn't fit with either story. What happened was this:

1. Global demand for oil increased, due to growth in emerging markets, pushing up oil prices in the 2000s - from around $20 to over $100, a five-fold increase.

2. At the new higher price, it became economical to tap expensive oil sources like tight oil (fracking), deepwater oil, and oil sands.

3. Even at the new higher prices, it has not been economical to increase "conventional" oil production. Instead, all net production increases have come from "unconventional" sources. And most of that "unconventional" production is not actually "oil" at all, but "liquids", which includes things like natural gas liquids.

4. There was a several-year lag in the mid-2000s where global oil production plateaued even as prices increased. This culminated in a dramatic spike in oil prices in 2007-8 which then subsided due to the global recession and the dramatic increase in unconventional oil production.

5. Oil prices are still over $100, even as global growth has been slow. Meanwhile, oil usage in rich countries has declined significantly.

This story does not easily fit with either of the Peak Oil scenarios. But it has important elements of both.

First of all, the peak in conventional oil, coupled with a dramatic surge in unconventional oil, looks a lot like the "Good Peak Oil" scenario, in which technology produces a new alternative energy source, and we switch to the new thing.

But the seemingly permanent increase in oil prices, and the fall in oil demand in rich countries, fit the "Bad Peak Oil" story. It indicates that the world is hitting oil supply constraints.

(And of course what the Peak Oilers missed was unconventional oil itself. Some of them missed the technology entirely, while others merely failed to anticipate that the industry's terminology would switch from "oil" to the more weaselly "liquids".)

So what happened was NOT that we switched to something better than oil. We switched to something worse than conventional oil: unconventional oil, which is more expensive to extract and/or to refine into usable products. This has left us permanently poorer than we would be if conventional oil hadn't hit global supply constraints. Filling up your gas tank is twice as expensive now, in real terms, as it was two decades ago. And that looks unlikely to change. In the wider economy, increased transportation fuel costs may be a main driver of the Great Stagnation, which manifests most clearly in the stagnation of transportation technology since the 1970s.

Basically, what happened is this: Scarcity attacked humanity, and Human Ingenuity battled back. Through heroic efforts, doomsday was averted. But Ingenuity did not win a smashing victory, as it did when we switched from wood to coal, or from whale oil to oil. Instead, humanity was forced into a fighting retreat, with Ingenuity executing a brilliant rear-guard action and forcing Scarcity to call off its pursuit...for now. But humanity has lost ground.

And Scarcity may not wait very long before launching another attack. Future increases in shale oil production (including tight oil and oil shale) is likely to be a lot more expensive than the low-hanging fruit we have picked thus far. Coupled with continued rises in developing-country oil demand and continued decline in conventional oil fields, this could cause another rise in oil prices. That will bring back the "Peak Oil" meme, which only seems to interest most people as an investment story. But sadly, The Oil Drum will not be around to chronicle the return of Peak Oil.


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