Peak Oil will be one of the defining events of this century. Forecasts by professionals in energy-related fields fall in a large range between 2006 and 2025+, with most forecasts by institutions in the later half of this range. Estimates vary widely due to two very different kinds of factors.
Factor #1: Known Unknowns
- We know so little that about many factors that experts can only guess at their effects over the next 20 years.
- Economic growth. Today growth in global real GDP of 5%/year increases oil consumption by about 1% – 2%/year, although this relationship varies over time.
- Technological progress improving efficiency of energy use (e.g., hybrid cars) and production. Possible new energy sources include cellulosic ethanol, coal to liquids, gas to liquids, solar, fusion, kerogen (AKA “oil shale”).
- Rate of adoption of new technology, which depends on many factors but especially government incentives and the cost of oil.
- Growth of production from new conventional oil fields (e.g., Iraq).
- Decrease in production from mature (post-peak) fields. Ten years ago 3% was a typical assumption, based on history of US (e.g., Texas) fields. Today many large fields (e.g., UK’s North Sea, Mexico’s Cantarell) have decline rates in the low teens.
- Growth of production from unconventional sources of liquid fuels, such as Venezuela’s heavy oil, Alberta’s bitumen (aka “oil sands), deep-sea oil, Artic natural gas, and biofuels.
Factor II: Known Knowns — known to some, but not by us.
The above “known unknowns” are dwarfed in importance by these State secrets of the major oil exporting nations:
- When will production peak at the great Middle Eastern fields, especially Great Burgan (Kuwait) and Ghawar (Saudi Arabia)?
- How much can production increase at the giant fields of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), and how long can it be maintained at such levels?
Typical of the debate about these secrets is the book Twilight in the Desert, written by Matthew Simmons (2006). He reveals a fragmentary but intriguing mosaic of data suggesting that Ghawar’s production will peak soon. On that day world production also peaks. It is good work by an amateur expert. Unfortunately an investment banker – even from Texas – is not the best authority for information on such a momentous question.To follow-up Simmons’ insights urgently requires work by a team of well-funded professionals. The nature of our crisis is seen by the fact that no such effort has been started – or even publicly discussed by American decision-makers. All we have is lots of guessing and “back of the envelope calculations” by both sides of the debate.
The elephant is great and powerful, but prefers to be blind.
— David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972)
The owners of these fields have the data we lack. The Gulf sheiks and FSU governments can make reliable forecasts (plus or minus a few years) – while we can only guess.
Simmons calls for “transparency.” Oil exporters should share information about their oil reserves, since we are all in this together. The major oil-rich nations see things differently. Rather than all singing together, they see us playing poker together. Rather than showing us their cards, their official response is “trust us, we have lots of oil.”
See both sides of the debate by reading both presentations at the seminar “The Future of Saudi Arabia’s Global Oil Supply” held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on 24 February 2004.
What do the KGB and CIA know?
History shows that secrets sometimes can be kept from the public for decades. For example, the public learned of the WWII allied code-breaking program ULTRA only in 1974 – an impressive accomplishment considering the hundreds of people involved in producing and disseminating this information. But keeping such secrets from intelligence services is far more difficult.
The Gulf states hire geologists and engineers to run their oil industry, a large fraction of who come from western nations. Over the past 20 years that adds up to thousands of people who have learned key data about the world’s great oil fields; many of them probably know their estimated peaking dates.
Have the CIA and KGB obtained these secrets over the past twenty years, or even penetrated senior levels of the Gulf’s national oil companies and governments?
Inductive Reasoning – are these secrets the foundation of US energy policy?
The US government might have good forecasts about the peaking of global oil production, but has not shared this information with us. Can we infer the answer through inductive reasoning? Consider the three possible scenarios.
Scenario #1: global oil production will peak soon, probably before 2017.
The Department of Energy commissioned a team of top experts, lead by Robert Hirsch, to determine the requirements for America’s adaptation to peak oil and how long it will take. The report’s (PDF) conclusion: at least 20 years. So if the CIA determined that we have only half that time – or less – than our Executive and Congressional leaders would have initiated crash programs to conserve energy and develop new sources.
Today America has no crash energy programs. We barely have any energy policies. Can we therefore conclude that the CIA has NOT determined that Peak Oil is imminent? Not quite.
Scenario #2: global oil production will peak only after 2017
Peaking more than ten years in the future – almost three election cycles – might seem too distant for immediate political action, especially considering the fallibility of long-range forecasts. In this scenario we would expect weak government energy policy, especially vs. other competing threat scenarios – such as global climate change and the War on Terror.
This fits actual government policy quite well.
Scenario #3: gross negligence by either our intelligence agencies or leaders
There is one more scenario. Evidence might show that one or more of the major Middle Eastern oil fields will peak soon, but…
- Our intelligence agencies might not have learned this – or even be looking for this data.
- They might not recognize its significance, or reported it to senior government officials.
- Our senior governmental leaders might have this data, but through incompetence not yet acted on it.
Scenario #1 is alarming, #2 is comforting, and #3 is terrifying. If #3 is correct, key aspects of our government are deeply dysfunctional. Failure to adapt to peak oil, whenever it occurs, might be the least of our problems.
Draw your own conclusions. This is a speculative analysis, and only time will tell the truth.
Please email me at fabmaximus @ hotmail.com if you have any relevant data or analysis – and say if I can share it with others in a future report.
By the way, geological peaking of oil production is only one aspect of the Peak Oil problem. And perhaps not the most likely or the most pressing aspect of Peak Oil.
Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
For more information about Peak Oil
- The most dangerous form of Peak Oil (8 April 2008)
- The world changed last week, with no headlines to mark the news (25 April 2008)
- Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off (8 May 2008)
Here is an archive of my articles about Peak Oil.
Here are other resources about Peak Oil.