The Take

Peak oil isn't dead; it just smells that way

Posting in Education

Energy analyst Chris Nelder fires back at the latest fact-free commentary on peak oil.

The Oil Drum, a Web site dedicated to informed discussions about peak oil and energy, announced on July 3 that it is closing down. (For a brief primer on peak oil, see my conversation with Brad Plumer in the Washington Post.) Those who hate the peak oil story didn’t bother to conceal their glee at the news; some even saw occasion to claim victory for their side in the "debate" over the future of fossil fuels.

“We could say ‘I told you so,’ not as a school-yard epithet, but simply as a fact,” crowed Mark Mills, co-author of a lightweight book entitled The Bottomless Well, which Publishers Weekly described as “Long on Nietzschean bombast but short on some crucial specifics.”

David Blackmon, a Houston-based consultant with a 33-year career in the oil and gas industry who is one of Forbes’ 1,300 advertorial “contributors,” called The Oil Drum “a site devoted a theory based on lack of imagination and growing irrelevance” in his mouthful of nuts.

Economist Karl Smith, another Forbes contributor, scoffed at the crucial distinction between crude oil and “all liquids” in his confusing word salad, asserting that “liquids like butane, propane and ethane are important petroleum products” without explaining why he believes they should be counted as crude oil, when they are not.

Emboldened by the recent exuberance over fracking in the United States, these pundits now claim that the only thing that has peaked “was the ability to argue that the era of oil, and hydrocarbons, was over.”

Not one of them said a single word about the global rate of oil production, which is the essence of the peak oil question. Why get into the data when merely slinging mud at your opponents and proclaiming your faith will do?

A handful of other writers offered less ideological takes. Matt Yglesias confessed that he “always found the ‘Peak Oil’ debate to be a little bit confusing” but recognized that there has been a profound price revolution: “The good old days of genuinely abundant liquid fuel really do appear to be behind us,” he wrote. Noah Smith had the most informed post of the bunch, noting that the transition to unconventional oil is a big part of why prices have been rising, and that “there is no substitute on the horizon” for good ol’ crude.

But neither of them mentioned the rate of oil production either.

Keith Kloor borrowed an Energy Information Administration (EIA) chart of U.S. production from a BBC article that repeated all the industry’s favorite talking points about how new technology has produced “a new oil rush.” Apparently, neither Kloor nor the BBC author realized that the chart represented “all liquids” production in the United States, not just crude oil, nor bothered to explore the detailed EIA data for themselves, nor tried to explain how this recent boom in U.S. production might dismiss the specter of a global peak. Kloor concluded that The Oil Drum was closing because “the numbers aren’t in your favor right now.” But like the others, he didn’t actually mention any numbers.

In short, all of these authors used The Oil Drum news to comment on the debate about peak oil -- the poor predictions and demagoguing and pollyannish posturing and name-calling, which have, truth be told, tainted both sides of the issue -- but none of them discussed peak oil.

I really didn’t think I’d have to say this again, but peak oil is about data, and specifically data about the production rate of oil. If you want to claim that peak oil is dead (or alive), you have to talk about data on production rates. There is no other way to discuss it.

Just for the record

Then what’s really going on here?

First, what did in The Oil Drum was volunteer burnout, falling visitor traffic, and an insufficient flow of high-quality original work and contributors. It’s unfortunate, because for the past eight years The Oil Drum has been the best free site on the Web for good rigorous work and informed discussion about energy data. I owe it a great debt for the education, the contacts, and the visibility that I gained through it.

I learned of its closing the same day I learned that Randy Udall had died. It was truly a sad and dark day for the peakists, one of those watershed moments that felt like a real turning point in the peak oil dialogue. Using the occasion to dance on their graves, as some ardent peak oil opponents did, was a low blow.

But the reason The Oil Drum has been lacking for good original content wasn’t that it had lost the argument and there wasn’t anything left to say. Far from it. The flow of content simply moved to where good analysts and writers on the subject could actually get paid for their work. That was inevitable, because a publishing model that relies on a steady flow of free articles that take days or weeks or even months of hard, highly skilled work to create simply isn’t sustainable. Freelance writers like me moved on to paying publications like SmartPlanet where we could actually make a living. Consultants and hedge funds began restricting their work to their private clients and subscribers, with maybe a teaser of free stuff posted in their blogs and newsletters. Investors and oil and gas companies began hiring capable analysts to do the work privately, after many years of enjoying the assembled intelligence on The Oil Drum (and trading it very profitably, I might add) for free. The volunteers who had put so much time into the site all these years discovered that they needed to spend their energies elsewhere. And the public got accustomed to higher prices, so the media stopped talking about peak oil, which led to a dropoff in traffic. Hey, that’s show biz.

It’s also true that many of us, having cut our teeth on the data and the dialogue at The Oil Drum, moved on to other pursuits. Once you’ve learned something, you don’t need to keep relearning it. Just speaking for myself, I moved on to grappling with the solutions to the peak oil problem: efficiency upgrades, financing, policy issues, transportation paradigms, and the transition to renewables. Merely revisiting the peak oil problem didn’t seem like a good use of my time, though I have continued to write about it as a context. I know that some other former contributors to the site changed their tacks similarly.

Second, fracking mania has been fairly well confined to the United States, because that’s where it is happening. Get outside the States for awhile, as I have done this year, and you quickly discover that people are still worried about the future of oil and gas. Probably because their oil and gas prices haven’t gone down, and their reserves haven’t gone up. There is absolutely no evidence that fracking will produce significant volumes of oil outside the United States any time soon.

Third -- and I know this is gonna hurt a few writers out there, but it has to be said -- very few people who have written about peak oil outside of sites like The Oil Drum ever did the hard study required to really understand it. They just picked a side, usually on tribal or ideological grounds, and commenced to defend that. Many of them don’t have a clue, even now, what the difference is between, say, proved reserves and resources, or what a reserves to production ratio is, or what a P50 estimate actually represents, or the production costs and energy content of non-crude liquids. Not a clue. I’d be willing to bet that 95 percent of them have never even built a spreadsheet of oil and gas data and tried to analyze it.

Most of what you’ve read about peak oil in the broader press has been written by generalist journalists. It’s an insanely complex topic that really takes thousands of hours of study to understand. But most of them haven’t done that study, and much of what they write is wrong. Usually they just rewrite the summary of a long and technical report written by someone in the industry. They don’t read the whole thing; they don’t have the time, or they may not have the chops to understand it. They don’t do original analysis or fact-checking. And too often they don’t seem to understand the context of the data, so they don’t give you any. What does 7, or 19, or 91 million barrels a day mean to the average person? Nothing. So they don’t talk about it. But they can certainly write the hundredth variation of a story about incipient U.S. “energy independence” and how that will overturn geopolitics, blah blah blah, while playing into the mythos of American exceptionalism, without understanding the data.

Likewise, it’s easy to speculate that the solution du jour -- ethanol, biofuels from algae, the ‘hydrogen economy’, space-based solar power, fuel cells, methane hydrates, and so on -- will save the day if you don’t actually dig into the data. Generalist journalists love to do that. Those articles generate lots of traffic and no one will ever hold them accountable for writing about a popular fantasy.

Actually, I’m being generous here by attributing their inattention to being generalists on tight deadlines. After a decade of this innumerate nonsense, I’ve begun to suspect either disinterest or laziness, or worse. Especially on the part of science and economics writers who clearly do have the chops to research and understand data. As Robert Bea, an expert who has studied some of the biggest civil engineering disasters in recent history, recently observed, failure is usually the result of hubris, shortsightedness, and indolence, not engineering. Our failure to prepare for peak oil is no different.

The only thing that most writers seem to have grasped is the hard reality of price. That’s easy enough; It’s published every day by a variety of agencies. A quick Google search will find it. It requires no study. Everybody cares about it. It’s cake. When prices are high, as they are now, those who only understand price look at it as evidence that the peak oil explanation has some merit. But price is fickle. When prices crashed into the $30s per barrel at the end of 2008, everybody was writing about how it was proof that the peak oil theory was wrong.

Those who do understand the technical aspects of the data are generally in the oil and gas industry. Most don’t talk about it because the data tells a story they don’t want told. So they try to divert the focus away from the data and onto the attitudes of the debaters. Or they just talk about the data that favors their point of view, like increasing technically recoverable resources and booming production in North Dakota and Texas. Most of the time, the ruse works.

So the tiresome "debate" about peak oil goes on, repeated as an endless Kabuki theatre of Malthusians vs. Cornucopians, ignoring the data in favor of another thousand words about attitudes and beliefs.

And in the middle, dear reader, is you. Caught between unwary and innumerate journalists on one side, and propaganda carefully constructed by those who are 'talking their books' on the other. Paying $4 a gallon for gasoline one day, then $2 six months later, then $4 again four years later. You don’t know why because the press never really explains it to you, the industry deliberately tries to confuse you, and politicians tell you whatever is needed to get your vote.

All I can say about that is: I’m sorry. It’s sad. I’ve been trying to get the facts out for years. It doesn’t seem to help.

The data

Now let’s talk about some data.

The world currently produces around 91 million barrels a day (mb/d) of 'oil' in the International Energy Agency's definition, which is for all liquids. For the past two years, actual crude oil production (which includes lease condensate in the EIA's definition) has been hovering around 75 mb/d on an annual basis, just slightly over the 74 mb/d plateau established in 2005.

The moment of truth for peak oil will be when the decline of mature fields finally overwhelms new production additions, and global supply begins to turn south. (A vogue alternative is that we’ll reach “peak demand” first, where oil is replaced by other fuels and demand falls due to greater efficiency, but as yet I find the proof that this has happened, or will happen, unconvincing.)

That moment of truth isn’t quite here yet. Fracking, along with all the other methods the world is employing to squeeze a bit more oil out of the earth, has barely budged global oil production. Here is the chart:

Chart: Peak Fish Data: EIA

What do you see there? An ignominious end to an unimaginative story perpetrated by self-interested mavericks looking to raise their profiles and sell some books, or a plateau of production that just barely broke higher in the past two years after an absolutely heroic effort that required hundreds of billions of dollars of investment and a quadrupling of oil prices?

Now let’s look at non-OPEC production, without U.S. production:

Source: Peak Fish

See how production has been falling off in recent years? That’s happening because the the aggregate decline rate of all fields is around 5 percent per year. In other words, the world loses around 3.0 to 3.8 mb/d of production each year (depending on whose numbers you use). Most of the 2 mb/d "tidal wave of oil" from U.S. fracking was absorbed by the decline in the rest of non-OPEC, as we can see from the aggregate non-OPEC production in this chart:

Source: Peak Fish

The question isn’t “Can fracking save the world from peak oil?” but “How long can America make up for declines in the rest of the world?” The answer is probably not much longer. The growth rate of tight oil production has cooled considerably over the past year, and per-well production is falling.

Now let’s look at U.S. production in isolation. Here’s the “all liquids” chart that Kloor reprinted, presumably without realizing that it wasn’t just for oil:

Looks great, right? Huge turnaround. We're back to 1985 levels!

Now let’s look at the chart of actual U.S. crude and condensate production, without all the natural gas liquids and biofuels and refinery gains:

Source: EIA

Hey, what happened to that huge spike in production returning us to 1985 levels?

Now look at the article where I explained the difference between those numbers, and why the “all liquids” numbers overstates actual U.S. oil supply by about one-third. Do you still believe Karl Smith, who explained none of that and offered no data but simply asserted that “ 'liquids' is not a weaselly term” and that we should count all liquids equally “because the US Presidential Primaries begin in Iowa?”

A few more facts about U.S. oil, since there has been so much confusion disseminated about it in recent months: America consumes 19.5 mb/d of oil and produces 7.4 mb/d. On an annual basis through 2012 it was the world's largest crude oil importer, but has probably been surpassed since by China on a monthly basis. It exports more refined products like gasoline and diesel than it imports, but that's simply because it has a very large refining complex and falling domestic demand, not because it's on its way to energy independence. The United States will never be a net oil exporter, nor will it surpass Saudi Arabia in oil production, no matter what you may have read about "Saudi America."

Now let’s talk about price. Since 2003, who forecast the global repricing of oil best, the peakists who expected prices to spike into record territory, or the Cornucopians who consistently predicted that oil prices would return to historical levels? The answer is indisputable: the peakists.

For the past decade, the Cornucopians have told us that a new abundance was coming from deepwater oil, tar sands, enhanced oil recovery, biofuels, and other unconventional sources. Global oil production would rise to 120 million barrels per day, and prices would fall back to $20 or $30 per barrel. Those stories were all completely wrong. The peakists called it.

Here’s what happened: Oil repriced in response to scarcity. Triple-digit prices were responsible for the new flush of unconventional production. That production, including fracking for tight oil in the United States, raises prices, it doesn’t lower them. We’ve hit and fallen back from the consumer’s price tolerance repeatedly for the past six years.

For a last bit of data, look at this forecast from the final post that petroleum engineer Jean Lahèrrere did for The Oil Drum:

(I used another of Laherrère’s charts in my post from March.)*

Laherrère concludes: “With the poor data available today, it seems that world oil (all liquids) production will peak before 2020, Non-OPEC quite soon and OPEC around 2020. OPEC will cease to export crude oil before 2050.”

Looking closely at Laherrère’s data, it seems essentially in line with my view that in another 18 months or so we're going to get the signal that oil needs to reprice higher still to maintain production. That will be very difficult for U.S. and European consumers to stomach. Whether that repricing will bring more oil to market, or simply kill demand, remains to be seen.

This is what the data -- not beliefs or rhetoric -- tell me.

What’s your bet?

So here’s what we know.

High value crude oil -- the good stuff with 5.8 million BTU per barrel that we can make into diesel and gasoline and a million other things -- has been generally holding on to a global production plateau since 2004. Global production will fall when the decline of mature fields overwhelms new additions. When, precisely, that will happen, no one can say for certain. But it’s almost definitely before 2020.

Most of the non-crude liquids are not equivalent to crude. Apart from tar sands and heavy oil, they contain less energy and are far less useful. Some of them can’t be made into gasoline and diesel. But with regular crude production trapped at around 75 million barrels a day, these other liquids must meet all future increases in demand for oil. As they take an increasing share of the liquid fuel market, they gradually increase the price of “oil.” Nothing on the horizon will change that.

Eventually, the price will become too high, and we’ll have “peak demand” alright, but it will be primarily because of price, not efficiency gains, and will lead to economic contraction, not growth. That price will owe to increasingly marginal and difficult -- hence, expensive -- prospects. In that sense, it’s a supply side problem, a concept at the heart of peak oil. Is it clear now why the “peak demand” vs. “peak supply” argument isn’t really that interesting?

If U.S. consumers are able to tolerate, say, $5-7 a gallon for gasoline by 2020, then it’s possible that the production plateau could extend a bit farther, and my expectation that global supply will begin to slip around 2015 could be wrong. It won’t be off by much, and in the grand scheme of what it means for the global economy, a year or three plus or minus is essentially irrelevant. But if I am off by even six months, you can be sure that my detractors will come out of the woodwork to say I'm all wet, and that production is going to da moon.

But my bet is that U.S. and European consumers can’t tolerate significantly higher prices. Price tolerance is something that Cornucopians never talk about, so you won’t hear that argument from them. If I am correct on that point, then production will have to decline as prices become intolerable. By virtue of its upward pressure on price, unconventional oil production contributes to, not cures, peak oil.

I expect world oil production to rise, weakly, for another two years or so, as America falls into a deeper slumber believing that fracking has cured everything. The media will reinforce that belief. And when it comes, the wake-up call is going to be harsh. In the meantime we’re just going to be waiting for the punchline.

So to those who can grasp the data, here’s my final thought: How will you prepare yourself for The Great Contraction? You've got perhaps two good years left of business as usual, and maybe another three or four after that before things really get difficult. I encourage you to use them well, and do what you can to make yourself resilient and self-sufficient. What will you do 10 years from now if the price of gasoline is $10 a gallon?

Yes, we do need to have a serious talk about our values, hopes, beliefs, mythologies, and ambitions; about the embedded growth paradigm, the debt overhang, and economic theory in an age of diminishing marginal returns. Those are all important discussions. But let’s have them after we understand the facts about energy. Not before.

Whatever you do, don’t think that peak oil is dead just because some guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about said so in a fact-free blog post. It’s coming. Later than some thought, but sooner than you think.

Photo: Mark Rain (AZRainman/Flickr)

*Correction July 25, 2013: In the original version of this post, I said that Laherrère’s chart "leaves out extra-heavy oil volumes which may or may not materialize from Venezuela and Canada." Laherrère responded that this chart does in fact include those heavy oil volumes. The text has been corrected accordingly. -- CN

Share this

Chris Nelder

Columnist (Energy)

Chris Nelder is an energy analyst and consultant who has written about energy and investing for more than a decade. He is the author of two books on energy and investing, Profit from the Peak and Investing in Renewable Energy, and has appeared on BBC TV, Fox Business, CNN national radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp., CBS radio and France 24. He is based in California. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure