Monday, May 2, 2011

The Oil Crunch - Peak oil on a special edition of Catalyst

The age of cheap, plentiful, oil is over. That's the unmistakable conclusion from last weeks ABC Catalyst program - The Oil Crunch. If you missed it, you can view the program and extended interviews here.

Catalyst went and interviewed the chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA), an organisation that advises many countries, including Australia, and which is about as mainstream as you can get on energy issues.

The news was "not very bright". According to Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist, world crude oil production peaked in 2006 and;
"Existing fields are declining sharply..... just to stay where we are today, we have to find four new Saudi Arabia's". That is a tall order."

So to underline this point, the IEA now says peak oil (of crude) was likely in 2006. Peak oil doesn't mean that there is no oil left, or even that we have used most of it, just that the amount we can pump every day is in decline.

So what are their projections for the future? Well in the past the IEA were projecting the world could pump 120 million barrels of oil per day by 2030, compared to the ~88 million it pumps today. Nowadays, even under an optimist projection, oil production will only increase to 96 million barrels of oil a day in 2035. There are three important points to be made about this.

1) The only reason oil production can increase in total is due to "unconventional" oil. However much of this is oil made from coal, or extracted from Canadian tars sands. This oil has much higher greenhouse gas emissions that conventional oil and from a global warming perspective is a terrible idea.

2) Some groups such as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) believe that even these new IEA figures are far to optimistic. They believe that the decline in pumped crude will be much faster, because we simply don't have the ability to bring new oil fields online fast enough to replace the declining existing ones, something that Dr Birol admits is possible. (Prof Kjell Aleklett President of ASPO is also interviewed by Catalyst).

3) Supply and demand.
Under optimistic IEA projections oil supply (by including all sources no matter how polluting) can only increase slightly to 96 million barrels per day in 2035, but oil demand is increasing rapidly, especially in Asia. Both the IEA in their World Energy Outlook and the US Govts' Energy Information Agency (EIA) 2010 Energy Outlook predict demand above this level of supply, with the EIA projecting consumption of liquid fuels to be "110.6 million barrels per day in 2035".

This simply won't work, either the world will have to find huge amounts of extra oil (biofuels?), or there won't be enough oil to meet demand, which will mean high prices and economic disruption. This is the real issue of peak oil, not that oil does peak, but that when it does world demand will still be rising and supply won't be able to keep up. We are left in my opinion with a new economic TINA, reduce our dependence on oil.

As for solutions, well they are out there, this post is long enough already but for a start you might want to check out the next edition of Catalyst where they will be checking out electric cars. While this SMH article foreshadows the forthcoming Beyond Zero Emissions report on a sustainable transport system to follow up their zero carbon power generation plan.

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