Posted by: bkivey | 23 February 2011

Peak Oil

While going through some old magazines I came across a March 1998 issue of Scientific American in which there is a series of articles on the global petroleum production and what many experts believed was the impending realization of ‘peak oil’: the point at which global oil production would peak and then begin an irreversible decline. The primary basis for these projections were (and are) based on the work of M. King Hubbert, the American geoscientist who did pioneering work in resource depletion modeling and who correctly predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak between the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. In fact, U.S. production peaked in 1970.

One article contains a graph showing world oil production to date (1998) and the expected peak and beginning of decline occurring about 2005. I thought it would be interesting to see how accurate the projections were with the benefit of 12 more years of data and some time past the projected peak production interval.

As it turns out, the projections were pretty damn accurate.

The 15 October 2007 issue of industry newsletter The Oil Drum contains an article on peak production and charts based on Energy Information Administration data show that world oil production peaked in 2005 and has plateaued since. The article notes that production peak could be due to political rather than geological factors, but despite the rise in oil prices the past several years, production by the major oil producing regions has not increased. A more recent article in the 4 February 2010 edition of the newsletter puts peak production in 2010. While resource production inflection points can’t be identified until several years after they have occurred, the evidence is very strong that we are at or past the global oil production peak. From this point forward petroleum production will only decline.

The problem is that demand for petroleum isn’t declining: in fact, it’s rapidly increasing. Driven primarily by the expanding economies of India and China, estimates for world oil demand range from 95 million barrels per day (mbd) to 110 mbd by 2030. If current production of around 85 mbd is the peak, as the evidence suggests, that creates a bit of a discrepancy.

For all the guilt Westerners feel about their energy use, petroleum consumption in many post-industrial societies has been declining or remained steady for several years. In the U.S. consumption peaked in 2005, well before the current economic difficulties, and has been declining since. The same is true for Canada, although the rate of decline has been slower. Japan’s petroleum consumption peaked in 2000, remained fairly steady for several years, and has declined markedly since 2006. EU countries have followed similar patterns.

In contrast, China’s consumption has increased more than 100% since 1998 and is still climbing. India’s economy has increased it’s consumption of petroleum products by 60% in the same time period, and shows no signs of slowing down. It’s evident that it’s the developing world that is driving oil consumption, and it’s fair to say that demand will only go higher as more economies industrialize and people seek to raise their standard of living.

Because petrochemicals are so useful and convenient; they have a high energy density and are irreplaceable as feedstock for a myriad of products, demand for them isn’t going to go away. There isn’t any miracle on the horizon that will magically replace them. I expect that there will be armed conflicts over petroleum resources, and that many of the resource exploration and exploitation bans now in place will be jettisoned as it becomes apparent that any viable society will have to have access to oil.

Word Watch

In a pleasing vindication for Latin students, Toyota announced that the plural of Prius is indeed Prii. While the word prius is Latin for ‘beforehand’ and is not meant to be pluralized, the word’s use as a noun means that the grammatical rules for pluralization apply.

 Today in History

Interesting day today:

1455 – Gutenburg Bible published

1836 – Battle of the Alamo

1896 – Tootsie Roll introduced.

1945 – U.S. Marines raise flag on Iwo Jima.

1974 – Patty Hearst kidnapped by SLA.

1980 – Eric Heiden wins all five skating gold medals at the XIII Winter Olympiad at Lake Placid.

1988 – XV Winter Olympiad opens in Calgary, Alberta. The Jamaican bobsled team premiered here.

Winter Storm Warning

We’re under a Winter Storm Warning until 2200 PST Thursday with intermittant snow in the hills today and an expected 3 – 6 inches in the valley tonight and tomorrow. While folks in much of the country would welcome such a light snowfall, for this part of the country that’s a significant storm, and it’s coming late in the year. Most of our snow, if we get any, happens in December or January.

The flag above is my design for a Winter Storm banner, similar to those used for tropical weather. The use is the same; one for a Winter Storm Watch, two for a Warning. As far as I can tell there are no official Winter Storm flags, so maybe this will catch on.


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