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Yesterday's Energy of Tomorrow...and more
July 27, 2009 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Peak Oil, 1925. In 2000, 20% of new buildings will be solar equipped. By the late 1990s, 90% of the world's energy will be nuclear-generated. These and other erroneous projections are being collected as part of the Forecast Project on the website Inventing Green: The Lost History of Alternative Energy in America.
posted by Miko (65 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's like an anti-Cassandra complex. Unable to predict the future, but lots of people believe you.
posted by Riki tiki at 10:32 AM on July 27, 2009 [5 favorites]


Ohhhh lets turn this thread into who can make up the most awesome erroneous projection.. I will start:

In 2020 most of the dragons that had attacked the Citizens of the World from 2013-2019 will have become completely obsessed with reality television, thus proving the mind vacuum in Hollywood is stronger than even man eating dragons.
posted by pwally at 10:37 AM on July 27, 2009


This the biggest problem I have with the peak oil movement, the same compelling argument is made that we will run out of oil at some future date and that argument is always wrong. The problem with predicting more than 10, 15 years out is that historical data becomes increasingly less predictive of future reserves. It is nearly impossible to account for new reserves, whether they are in the form of old reserves now able to be reclaimed by technological innovation, or different forms of hydrocarbon deposits all together. I would guess that a geologist in 1925 would write off some of the poor quality crude that we now take for granted.

It is not even clear if we should regard oil itself as a finite resource, especially if it can be recovered using biological processes like algae (though I doubt it in the near term). I think it is far better to emphasize burning oil as cleanly as possible and reducing emissions, rather than replacing it all together. I think it is far more plausible we will see oil along with substitutes where it makes sense, but getting rid of internal combustion engines all together is far fetched, at least in the foreseeable future.

On a side note: I find all the electric car boasting of the Chevy Volt somewhat of a red herring. It will be years before we see any sort of progress in electric cars becoming a viable alternative for the average consumer. Look how long it took cars to go from toys to necessary for everyday life. It would be far better to push higher standards on existing product lines. Such things really need to come from regulation, given the choice between an entertainment package and a cleaner car, the market will always choose the bright blinking toys.
posted by geoff. at 10:40 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Things will get cheaper. Energy will get more efficient. We will find new ways to destroy the planet, but in the end, life will go on.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:49 AM on July 27, 2009


This the biggest problem I have with the peak oil movement, the same compelling argument is made that we will run out of oil at some future date and that argument is always wrong. The problem with predicting more than 10, 15 years out is that historical data becomes increasingly less predictive of future reserves. It is nearly impossible to account for new reserves, whether they are in the form of old reserves now able to be reclaimed by technological innovation, or different forms of hydrocarbon deposits all together. I would guess that a geologist in 1925 would write off some of the poor quality crude that we now take for granted.

The peak oil argument includes data about the discovery rate of new oil reserves, which (last I checked) have been steadily declining. Also, the point is not "running out of oil"; it's about demand for oil outstripping supply to the extent that using oil on the current scale becomes financially unsustainable. To put it another way, if oil costs $1500 a barrel it might become profitable to get it by scraping the inside of Uncle Bob's gas tank, but that doesn't mean the oil-based economy will be able to function.
posted by nasreddin at 10:50 AM on July 27, 2009


in the end, life will go on.*

*Not necessarily including human beings.
posted by Miko at 10:50 AM on July 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


Sort of in this vein, a discussion last week here on MeFi led me to the WP article on the 1865 book The Coal Question,
which explored the implications of Britain's reliance on coal. Given that coal was a finite, non-renewable energy resource, Jevons raised the question of sustainability. "Are we wise," he asked rhetorically, "in allowing the commerce of this country to rise beyond the point at which we can long maintain it?" His central thesis was that Britain's supremacy over global affairs was transitory, given the finite nature of its primary energy resource.
It's available on Google Books if anyone wants to take a look. I found his discussion of alternative energy sources (around p.160) very interesting, particularly the notes on electricity, which is a problem I've seen today surrounding electric cars:
Electricity in short is to the present age what the perpetual motion was to an age not far removed. People are so astonished at the subtle manifestations of electric power, that they think the more miraculous effects they anticipate from it the more profound the appreciation of its nature they show. But then they generally take that one step too much which the contrivers of the perpetual motion took—they treat electricity not only as a marvellous mode of distributing power, they treat it as a source of self creating power.
There is even a discussion of hydrogen as an alternative energy-transmission medium (p.182), although it is dismissed as being an impractical replacement for coal gas. (I don't think the technology to compress and store it at high pressure existed at the time, so he assumes it would be transmitted through street pipes like natural gas is today.) Oil is discussed beginning on p.184; he underestimates the supply of it worldwide, but his conclusion—"It is more likely to be an aggravation of the drain than a remedy"—doesn't strike me as completely meritless.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:54 AM on July 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


Thanks Miko, I love this kind of stuff (erroneous predictions made in good faith). I just wanted to get that in before the thread becomes politicized making my thanks seem like an endorsement for one view or another.
posted by forforf at 10:54 AM on July 27, 2009


Solar and wind are great, and we should keep improving them. Fusion is a long ways off but the theoretical research is important. But at some point, there is simply going to have to be a rush to nuclear. The only question is whether it's after, or instead of, the Great Oil War.
posted by spaltavian at 10:54 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


crap ... too late.
posted by forforf at 10:55 AM on July 27, 2009


I had to work on a college physics project about alternative energies, because clearly, the world would be completely out of oil -- zero, kaput, nada -- in 20 years.

It was a fun, useful project. But it was 20 years ago.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:55 AM on July 27, 2009


To put it another way, if oil costs $1500 a barrel

Uhhh... the Fischer–Tropsch process can make oil at well under an order of magnitude less than $1500/barrel. If prices stay at $150+ a barrel for any length of time we'll start making oil.
posted by Justinian at 11:02 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


geoff.: This the biggest problem I have with the peak oil movement, the same compelling argument is made that we will run out of oil at some future date and that argument is always wrong.
My understanding of the Peak Oil prediction (is there really a "movement?") is that the rate of production of petroleum will reach some peak and then decline. It's not a radical idea. And it's not the same as "running out of oil." The prediction of the economic consequences of that geological prediction is where things start to get complicated and contentious.

It's also my understanding that the prediction exists because that is the pattern that has been observed at any less-than-global scale, i.e., for any given oil-field or oil-producing region. And that the bell-curve production rate pattern has held true despite (or indeed, because of) the application of improved oil extraction technologies.
posted by Western Infidels at 11:03 AM on July 27, 2009


pwally: "Ohhhh lets turn this thread into who can make up the most awesome erroneous projection.."

Humanity will not only leave Earth, but will escape the Solar System using faster-than-light travel and build a flourishing empire amongst the stars!

I'm sad now.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:07 AM on July 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


Justinian, you need to read up on the term Energy Return on Energy Invested :)
posted by pharm at 11:07 AM on July 27, 2009


The biggest problem I have with the anti-Peak Oil movement is the complete ignorance of the methods and data of the Peak Oil community, which when coupled with the widespread blasé, pollyannish, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" attitude does more to promote business as usual than most vested interests could hope for.

because clearly, the world would be completely out of oil -- zero, kaput, nada -- in 20 years

I'd love to bust out the "not even wrong" wrong for this, but sadly it's just wrong, both now and 20 years ago. No one is saying that now, and I strongly suspect no one was saying it then.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:10 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


life will go on

This is pretty meaningless; of course "life," in some sense, will go on. But that ought to be very small comfort to anyone who values the progress that has been achieved in the past several centuries in living conditions and even how we regard human life in general.

If you could make all the fossil fuels just disappear tomorrow, it wouldn't wipe out the human species (although it would probably result in war and famine that would kill a tremendous number of people), but the steady-state end result might look uncomfortably like Bartertown.

The question is not "will life survive," or even "will the human species survive," it's whether anything resembling modern civilization can survive, or will it devolve irreversibly back into something much uglier the second the lights flicker out for the last time.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:10 AM on July 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don't give a damn if we run out of oil, as long as there's plenty of gasoline.
posted by Mister_A at 11:11 AM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Hah, they said we would run out of oil by now and we haven't! Clearly, we will never run out of oil...
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:16 AM on July 27, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'm glad that this time around we are talking about climate change from fossil fuels, and not (just) that it's a finite resource. That way, if/when another big deposit is found, we can't just breathe a big sigh of relief and Keep On Keepin' On.
posted by DU at 11:18 AM on July 27, 2009


I strongly suspect no one was saying it then.

So, I'm lying? Awesome. And it's not even noon.

Dude, I was there. If I kept those papers, I'd yank it out, because I clearly remember writing the words, "since it's been established in lecture that worldwide oil reserves will run out in 20 years..." and thinking, "holy shit, I hope that's wrong."

Besides, people started talking about peak oil in the late 1950s. It's not implausible to assume that my physics professor in 1989 had it all cocked up. After all, he did.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:21 AM on July 27, 2009


My understanding of the Peak Oil prediction (is there really a "movement?") is that the rate of production of petroleum will reach some peak and then decline. It's not a radical idea. And it's not the same as "running out of oil."

Exactly. In particular, you don't produce wells until they are dry. You produce a given oil well to the point where the marginal cost of extracting the next barrel of oil = the marginal revenue from selling it. Put it another way, you stop producing a well when it cost you one barrel of oil to extract one barrel of oil. The reason oil, like any natural resource, peaks is because the easy stuff gets extracted first. All the gold in the tombs of Egypt was pretty much lying around on the ground along cave walls, or in riverbeds. Now, to get gold we have to level mountains.

There are two problems with peak theory in general:

1. You have to make assumptions today about production technology in the far future, and those assumptions are almost always wrong. We aren't getting oil from wells the same way we did 10 years ago, and it won't be the same 10 years from now. It will be more efficient, i.e. produce more for the same cost. So new technology may allow us to produce for $80/bbl what we could not produce before for $100/bbl.

2. New reserves. We actually don't know how much oil is on the planet. How much oil is there at the bottom of the Pacific? Much of the sea floor is unexplored. Example. Furthermore, the oil we do know about is based on measurements and estimation, much of which is based on older technology and methods, and is therefore inaccurate.

But there is no reason to resort to these methods. The market tells you the price of oil, and that price includes factors that are not part of peak theory - political risk, market manipulation, emerging market demand, etc. If oil is $65/bbl today, you can be fairly confident that it isn't going to 40, and fairly confident that it will rise.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:23 AM on July 27, 2009


I can only imagine with horror what would happen were we to make oil production economical and widespread. People the world over would be granted energy self-sufficiency, great, but without carbon sinks we're looking at planetary suicide. Running out of gas is the only thing that will curtail our carbon emissions for us, since we've so resolutely proven that's what it will take. If we can innovate our way around that, well, such is the drive of life to proliferate, but too bad for the future.
posted by kaspen at 11:24 AM on July 27, 2009


The biggest problem I have with the anti-Peak Oil movement is the complete ignorance of the methods and data of the Peak Oil community

The problem with Peak Oil people is the close association with people like Kunstler, whose last "Clusterfuck Nation" column had a bit about how Sarah Palin will lead the fascism-with-a-stupid-American-face takeover of the US once Obama fails. And he links to this nutball engineering professor who says the US is going to fall like the Soviet Union, has a whole manifesto on his site, practically, wherein he gives details on what young people should do after the fall, his take on the social sciences, all manner of crap that has NOTHING TO DO WITH PEAK OIL or the economic state of the US. It's worth reading only as entertainment. But if I want apocalyptic gloom and doom, with a dash of absurdist humor, I already Dylan records around to binge on. Nothing works better. We're all doomed in the end, as he, Faulkner, etc., are all on hand to remind us. Try to live in the interim, damn it, as hard as it may be sometimes, and stop trying to play fortune teller--or at least wear an entertainingly retro fortune teller's costume if you're going to.
posted by raysmj at 11:28 AM on July 27, 2009


My understanding of the Peak Oil prediction (is there really a "movement?") is that the rate of production of petroleum will reach some peak and then decline. It's not a radical idea. And it's not the same as "running out of oil." The prediction of the economic consequences of that geological prediction is where things start to get complicated and contentious.

I think I chose a bad word when saying movement, I didn't know how else to express it. I think there is obviously a real danger in demand outstripping production, but oil is an incredible volatile commodity. The uncertainty is built into the market.

Yes we are very good at predicting production of individual fields, even accounting for the long tail production that many fields express. Trying to predict the aggregate is very tricky, and despite the fancy Markov models I've seen, none are very good at predicting long term consumption and production habits.

I think it is much better to operate on the paradigm that we do not know what future production levels or future market prices will bring and thus should only operate in the present. I think if you start from this point you'll see that it is much more productive to regulate the real problem, emissions and pollution. I think it would be better to see cars regulated on their emissions per mile rather than miles per gallon as the later is sort of arbitrary ... but I think that is beside the point. I think a lot of the dialog driving progress runs under the assumption that we need to find the next great thing to replace oil, and I think that's sort of fatalistic, or at least less productive than trying to reduce the CO2 footprint per gallon of oil burned.
posted by geoff. at 11:31 AM on July 27, 2009


It's like an anti-Cassandra complex. Unable to predict the future, but lots of people believe you.

Kristol Complex?
posted by Benjy at 11:32 AM on July 27, 2009 [8 favorites]


Erg terrible written paragraph, "I think. I think. I think." Therefor I am?
posted by geoff. at 11:32 AM on July 27, 2009


The problem with Peak Oil people is the close association

Islam is bad because... Osama Bin Laden! Socialism is bad because... Stalin!
posted by nasreddin at 11:36 AM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Justinian, you need to read up on the term Energy Return on Energy Invested :)
posted by pharm at 2:07 PM on July 27


No, he doesn't. First of all, and for the billionth time, we use oil for things other than energy. Like plastics, chemicals, lubricants, etc. Second, the ratio is not always instructive, because "energy invested" is ambiguous. The main objective of the F-T process is to obtain liquid hydrocarbons from non-liquid sources. But there are applications for liquid hydrocarbons for which there is no solid substitute. You can't run a car on coal. In this case, is the energy invested the energy in the coal, or is it the energy in the coal - (energy lost to produce and transmit electricity over an electrical grid + energy lost to produce a battery + energy lost in recharging batteries), etc.?
posted by Pastabagel at 11:44 AM on July 27, 2009


It's not implausible to assume that my physics professor in 1989 had it all cocked up.

Are you citing your college physics professor's incorrect understanding as a reason to dismiss the idea in general?

The problem with Peak Oil people is the close association with people like Kunstler

It would be nice if people could stop thinking of Kunstler as the "face" of Peak Oil. If I had my way, that would be Robert Rapier or some of the fine folks at the Oil Drum, though I have been concerned by the seemingly increasing amount of woo welcome there.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:54 AM on July 27, 2009


Why would you want to gamble on peak oil? We're a hell of a lot better off to assume it's long past and go to new fuel sources than to sit around arguing the validity of historic data and future projections.
posted by PuppyCat at 11:56 AM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Because when I said "no one" I meant "the field (such as it was) as a whole, or any of its leading figures". Sorry, I should have been more precise, but you can always find someone who will say any old damned thing.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:56 AM on July 27, 2009


A lot of the "peak oil" people are nuts, masturbating to apocalypse porn, but that doesn't mean there's not some room for serious concern there.

As we've consumed oil we've worked our way up from the lowest-hanging fruit (oil that actually bubbled up out of the ground) to reserves that are progressively more difficult to extract. It's entirely possible that there's an entire Saudi Arabia's worth of oil under the Pacific, but getting it out is going to be a lot more expensive than pumping it out of the desert. If it was cheaper, we'd already be doing it.

So that's the problem in a nutshell: there's nowhere for prices to go, in real terms, but up. We may not ever run out of oil, or even out of oil reserves, but they could become prohibitively expensive to extract, or at the very least the downstream products could become prohibitively expensive for most people to buy. And that would upset the whole modern economy, because it's not just based on the mere existence of petroleum, it's based on cheap petroleum.

I've always found that the charts of gas prices in real-dollar terms make for interesting reading. Looking at them, it makes perfect sense why from the mid-80s to the early-2000s you saw a rise in gigantic gas-guzzling SUVs. Gasoline was dirt cheap, cheaper than it had ever been, historically. It also goes a long way to explaining why we had good public transportation in the early 20th century, but neglected and eventually got rid of it after the war—the price of gasoline kept decreasing, in real terms, year after year.

When the price of gas spiked a few years ago, what it went up to in real terms was about what gasoline cost in 1925 (and also about what it was at the peak of the embargo in the early 80s). So in historical terms it's not unprecedented. But in 1925, our society wasn't particularly car-dependent. Today it is, and although prices have collapsed from their high of early 2008 (right now they're at 1945ish prices in real terms), I don't think anyone really questions that they'll eventually creep back up in real terms as we exhaust the easily-accessible reserves.

So the question is, how will our society react to seeing early-20th-century, and eventually higher, real prices for petroleum again, after getting hooked on the stuff when it was cheap? I don't see any realistic possibility of a doomsday scenario there (as you'd have if we really "ran out" suddenly), but it could entail a lot of social upheaval, or a broadening of the gap between people who can afford to continue partying like it's 1998, and those who no longer can.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:02 PM on July 27, 2009


There are tens of thousands of more watts of free, clean, renewable energy than every human on earth combined uses at any given moment blasting us right at this very moment and all we can think to do is harrumph about whether the oil's running dry or if peak oil folks are all wack-jobs? Maybe humanity is doomed.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:04 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


I break this down as follows:

A) The amount of oil currently present on the Earth is infinite OR
B) The amount of oil currently present on the Earth is a finite quantity.

The people who decide they are in first group are insane and do not understand what an infinite amount is. They are not worth talking to, so on to the second group. This is trickier.

Either you believe:
A) The amount of new oil created by some dinosaurs who haven't gotten quite around to turning into oil, plus whatever biofuels we manage to make is greater than or equal to our current rate of consumption of oil from whatever sources, and will always be that way, forever and ever OR
B) The amount of new oil being made (not drilled, but actually coming into existence) is not always going to be greater than or equal to the rate of consumption, and we will therefore run out of oil.

If you believe A, I have a word for you: China. If you give me two words, I will add "India." We're out of dinosaurs, so we're really looking at biodiesel, oil-producing algae, and so forth. Right now, they are not beating our rate of consumption.

In short, while the specific year touted that we run out of oil may be up for grabs, the fact that we will run out of it is not. Okay, just maybe France will build a ton of nuclear power plants which power enormous banks of lights to feed great watery platforms of crude-belching green slime dwelling in acre-wide stacked racks, but outside of that very weird scenario, oil will be going away, sooner or later.

Humanity can either voluntarily transition away from oil, using every bit of science, realpolitik, and cooperation we have, or we can let it run out on us and be thrown into chaos as we suddenly lack the energy to transfer away from our current energy infrastructure. That is, if the big trucks hauling produce into our cities stop moving, we'll tumble down Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to the level where we are more interested in feeding our bellies than we will be in solving problems and building, say, wind farms.

Some will talk about U.S. Imperialism when it comes to America saying, "Hey, maybe the world should cut back." The concept that "third-world" countries should get their chance to have their big spendthrift moment because the United States did is both balanced and short-sighted. It's like waking up on your second night in the liferaft at 3 a.m. to find the twitchy kid with the grubby hands has snarfed back half the rations and two-thirds of the water; sure, you might be a week or so out from landfall, but it's your right and you're entitled to gobble everything just like he did. It's fair, and it's stupid.

Oh, and I would like to personally kneecap the next libertarian smartass who says "We'll never run out of oil, it's just that the last barrel will be very very very expensive."
posted by adipocere at 12:20 PM on July 27, 2009 [10 favorites]


As it becomes more and more obvious that we will run out of oil, the people prone to denying the possibility are just increasingly switching their argument to one that cites the abundance of coal. Should we spend a few decades reverting to coal-based energy, presumably we would get back to the point where we were just burning firewood. Hey, it worked on Easter Island.
posted by snofoam at 12:32 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Last December, three years after the IEA's director dismissed peak oil as baseless "doomsaying," the Guardian's George Monbiot asked the chief economist of the IEA when global oil production would peak. The answer? 2020.

We built the global economy on oil so plentiful and easily extracted that you could basically dig it up with your bare hands (as Daniel Day-Lewis does in the opening sequence of There Will Be Blood). As those kinds of wells begin to deplete - and just a little awhile ago, the exploration manager for a major Canadian petroleum company handed me a little chart I can't find online just now showing that seven of the planet's ten largest were past peak - we replace them with sources such as Brazilian deepwater wells, which require multimillion-dollar offshore rigs and boreholes pounded through a mile of earth and rock beneath 20,000 feet of water.

EROEI is the shorthand way of representing the fundamental difference between the two. The great Saudi fields came online at 100:1; Brazilian deepwater comes online at 25:1 at best. (Alberta's tarsands are somewhere between 3:1 and 6:1, depending on the kind of deposit.) The differences between these ratios matter. That's why the IEA has reversed its position, and that's why exploration managers will tell you, anonymously, that they're scared shitless about the prospect of trying to keep 85 million barrels per day pumping much longer.

As a journalist
(disclaimer: self-link), I find this data much more compelling than the twas-ever-thus argument. But hey, those climate change wackjobs turned out to have no case at all, so maybe this is another one like that.
posted by gompa at 12:32 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Solar power is not without its own problems, if it wasn't then maybe some of the predictions listed in the article about it would have come true by now. First, the return is quite low. That is, for the money it costs you to build, install, and maintain a solar panel, at today's energy's prices you won't be recouping that investment for a much longer time than if you had invested that money in a coal fired power plant. Secondly, you have to collect it, which is difficult to do on a cloudy day and impossible at night. Then you have to transfer it from the collection site to some kind of reservoir for storage. Our energy grid as it stands right now is aging and you end up losing a lot along the way. As far as storage goes, large scale battery technology has a long way to go before you can power a first-world metropolis from it, but there are other systems in development such as hydrostorage and molten salts. While I think we all want solar (and wind) to succeed, looking at it realistically you have to realize that they cannot yet compete with cheap coal power. Additionally, even when those problems are solved there is still the transition from oil to electric powered cars to consider, as well as the host of other ways in which our economy relies on oil besides car gasoline.
posted by sophist at 12:42 PM on July 27, 2009


in the end, life will go on.*

*Not necessarily including human beings.


That seems fair.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:44 PM on July 27, 2009


There are tens of thousands of more watts of free, clean, renewable energy than every human on earth combined uses at any given moment blasting us right at this very moment and all we can think to do is harrumph about whether the oil's running dry or if peak oil folks are all wack-jobs?

Density. There were a few dozen million years there where the free clean energy that was blasting the earth everyday was consumed by trillions of microbes which eventually decayed and were converted into oil. Check this Malthus chart. The great spike in population has a little pointer with a caption "Industrial Revolution." But that caption could just as easily be "Systematic Exploitation of Fossil Fuels." First coal, the oil and gas. Sure, the very first steam engines ran on wood --- but as the history of England or Vermont will tell you, it takes a much much lower level of population to systematically deforest large swaths of land if everybody burns wood for fuel. It's when coal came into the picture that the industrial revolution really took off (can't have a railroad train without it; you'd need tons more wood to move the same amount of cargo and passangers). Even today, for all our advancements, even the highest tech is powered by either internal combustion or electricity. Some of that electricity is nuclear, some --- a very very small percentage --- is alternatives. The rest is fossil fuels. 85% of the total, in the US. If the peakists are right this is not a problem susceptible to handwaving. It's still dark at night and the wind don't blow all the time.
posted by Diablevert at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


As a very young child, in the 60s, my mother took me along to a lecture in our church basement by a guy who feverishly predicted the crisis of depleted fossil fuels. The reason I remember that night, was that when we went to leave, our car battery had been stolen. I felt that the energy crisis had truly arrived.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


“The question is not "will life survive," or even "will the human species survive," it's whether anything resembling modern civilization can survive, or will it devolve irreversibly back into something much uglier the second the lights flicker out for the last time.”

All I need are my leather pants and motorcycle jacket with one sleeve cut off and a single shoulder pad… and my crazy fast car with the blower…and my dog… and my empty double barrel sawed off shotgun…and the paddle ball game…

“New reserves. We actually don't know how much oil is on the planet. How much oil is there at the bottom of the Pacific? Much of the sea floor is unexplored.”

There’s a reason for that. The easy stuff first - constructing oil platforms out in the middle of the ocean is stupid crazy expensive. It can be done, but it’s very hard.
Let’s take the environmental regulations off the table too. You’re not allowed to release hydrocarbons, et.al. into the water. But in an oil thirsty world – ok.
You’re still going to have that as a physical cost though – leaking oil and chemicals – in the depths you’ve got a great deal of pressure on swifty corroding pipes and yeah, you can treat them (more chemicals in the ocean) but they still can’t have any gas trapped in the line or they’ll implode like a wet noodle.

Now, sure you can get ROVs to explore the sea floor, and use sounding to look for oil, but working with it? Tough job there at those depths with that kind of pressure remote working with those kinds of fluids and filtering out contaminants (sea water, mud – which has a funky viscosity at those depths, and whatever else is coming out of the ground) and separating them – pressure down there is a big big problem.

I’m not a petroleum geologist or an oil guy, but I’ve been underwater and I know a lot of guys who’s job it is to be wet all day, saturation divers, etc.. And again – this can be done (and has, far as I know down to 1000-odd meters in the gulf of mexico), and the Russians want to stake a claim 4,300 metres under the North Pole for that oil there. But we wouldn’t be doing it, spending that kind of money, if the stakes weren’t being raised. Hell, most people wouldn’t take the trouble to go under a couch for a penny. Drop a krugerrand in a manhole though and they’ll pry it up and go down.

Point being – there are absolute physical parameters and effort there (and so, costs) regardless of any market forces.

So, peak oil – blah – whatever- it will become prohibitively expensive at some point to maintain the kind of transportation/energy infrastructure the world currently has and is headed towards expanding, especially with China, India, Indonesia (well over two billion people there alone) et.al. increasing their per capita demands.

The real problem I see, for all the goofballs who are saying “Eh, we’ll adapt” is that we, y’know, haven’t been. We’ve just gotten better at getting under the couch. Reaching further under the couch. Getting a buddy to hold one end of the couch while we crawl under, etc. The returns on extraction technology – no matter how advanced – are finite as well.

The key to adaptation is, and has always been, diversity and creativity. We haven’t done much to change how we use oil or done much to change how we use energy.

In the past we’ve, f’rinstnce, hunted species to extinction because of market forces. Seems kind of silly to eliminate a finite resource and so price oneself out of the market because demand breaks down rather than maintain a sustainable system with a renewable product.
But hell, I see high performance sports cars on the highway locked in traffic all the time. Switching lanes, cutting people off, racing and competing and probably thinking "If I can just get past this asshole in front of me - the whole highway is clear and open" over and over and over and over and over again.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:11 PM on July 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


To refocus on the actual FPP.

Vaclav Smil (who I highly recommend as one of the best researchers in the energy field active today: interdisciplinary, big picture and absolutely thorough in research and documentation), has an amazingly instructive chapter ("Against Forecasting") on the history of energy forecasts in his Energy at the Crossroads (MIT Press, 2005). Forecasts of "years of supply", total reserves, size of resource, demand, and production peak have always (almost) spectacularly failed. Having said that, that doesn't mean that the Peak Oil movement is therefore completely dismissible. Nor does it mean that we'll never struggle to establish a sustainable and relatively cheap energy supply. It just means we're very, very bad at forecasting. In particular, as Smil points out, we have a very poor grip as to the ultimate size of the hydrocarbon resource, and an even worse idea of how future technology and end-use will affect the conversion of that resource into reserves. We have almost no chance of guessing which unknown technology will finally move us away from non-renewable hydrocarbons.

That said, leaving oil and coal aside for the moment, the gas resource is huge.

My current "forecast" -- guardedly optimistic for now -- is that peak oil production will happen for the same reason as peak coal production. Not because we'll have run out or hit production limits, but because a better resource will have taken its place.
posted by bumpkin at 1:21 PM on July 27, 2009


This the biggest problem I have with the peak oil movement, the same compelling argument is made that we will run out of oil at some future date and that argument is always wrong.

aka "If I can't predict exactly when it's going to happen, there's no point in planning for a future without it."

aka "Fuck you [future generations], got mine."
posted by symbollocks at 1:28 PM on July 27, 2009


Point being – there are absolute physical parameters and effort there (and so, costs) regardless of any market forces.

QFT. I wish more energy economists would pay more than lip service to physics, especially the Laws of Thermodynamics!

That said, the energy intensity of economic production has been decreasing steadily (quick googling). This suggests that one of the best returns on investment is efficiency and demand destruction. Economics tends to have greater leverage for human behaviour than it does for the fundamental laws of physics.
posted by bumpkin at 1:29 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


There are tens of thousands of more watts of free, clean, renewable energy than every human on earth combined uses at any given moment blasting us right at this very moment and all we can think to do is harrumph about whether the oil's running dry or if peak oil folks are all wack-jobs? Maybe humanity is doomed.
posted by Pollomacho at 3:04 PM on July 27


Your confusing things. Oil does not emit energy. Oil is a store of energy, specifically a store of solar energy from long ago, and a tremendously good one to boot. Sunlight is not a store of energy, it is energy. Collecting and storing that energy is something of a technological and materials science challenge. You might as well be asking why we don't use the electricity in lighting or harness radio waves for power.

The proper comparison is oil to batteries. We have to design and build batteries, and charge them up. Oil is like pre-charged batteries lying around underground.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:30 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


"You're," not "Your". Ugh.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:32 PM on July 27, 2009


Gompa:

As those kinds of wells begin to deplete - and just a little awhile ago, the exploration manager for a major Canadian petroleum company handed me a little chart I can't find online just now showing that seven of the planet's ten largest were past peak

Uhh.. wikipedia?

exploration managers will tell you, anonymously, that they're scared shitless about the prospect of trying to keep 85 million barrels per day pumping much longer.

You know, there's a cliche out there that goes: "so and so worked for MegaOil Co. for 25 years, and, now that he's retired, he can finally speak the truth!. Laherre and Campbell are just the most prominent examples. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it has begun to ring falsely to me, classic fallacy of argument from authority. My own experience with exploration managers, VPs, senior and junior exploration geoscientists and scientists with upstream research companies is that they tend to be a good deal more sanguine. At times there is a striking discrepancy between the public statements of a company (like Total, for instance, which publically predicts a "rolling plateau" of 95 million bbl a day) and the actual exploration staff. My own reaction has generally been that I've found explorationists more optimistic than they "should" be, but I suppose that optimism might be a job qualification if you're in exploration!
posted by bumpkin at 1:40 PM on July 27, 2009


bumpkin: "This suggests that one of the best returns on investment is efficiency and demand destruction."

Except that, due in part to what's described as Jevons paradox, increased efficiency rarely leads to demand destruction. Quite the opposite: he showed that increased efficiency frequently leads to increased demand.

This probably wouldn't come as a surprise to most economists, because it's a direct result of price elasticity of demand; as you decrease the price of many goods, demand increases.

Although this might not be the case for all goods—driving patterns strike me as fairly inelastic, so an increase in automobile fuel efficiency might not trigger an immediate increase in people driving—but it's certainly something that needs to be considered. If your goal is to reduce consumption of a non-renewable resource, increasing efficiency (and in doing so decreasing costs) may not always be a good idea. At the very least, we might want to consider levying taxes at the same time as we increase efficiency, to ensure that the costs don't decrease and drive up demand.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:43 PM on July 27, 2009


Although this might not be the case for all goods—driving patterns strike me as fairly inelastic, so an increase in automobile fuel efficiency might not trigger an immediate increase in people driving—but it's certainly something that needs to be considered. If your goal is to reduce consumption of a non-renewable resource, increasing efficiency (and in doing so decreasing costs) may not always be a good idea. At the very least, we might want to consider levying taxes at the same time as we increase efficiency, to ensure that the costs don't decrease and drive up demand.

My impression was that driving patterns were inelastic only to a point. When oil prices spiked recently there were a lot of stories about people driving less and taking public transportation.
posted by nasreddin at 3:05 PM on July 27, 2009


gompa: As a journalist (disclaimer: self-link)
If the average self-link was half this good, no one would complain about self-links.
posted by Western Infidels at 3:30 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ohhhh lets turn this thread into who can make up the most awesome erroneous projection
By the year 2013, it will be clear that Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was a documentary, written by the real life Rufus, who then traveled in time back to the 1980s and used a hypersonic subliminal idea injection device to plant the script in the head of the ostensible writer. However, to avoid changing history, details such as the names and ages of the characters were altered. The real Wyld Stallyns will not be Bill and Ted; instead, the real people who will spread the message of rock-based peace, love and understanding that will save humanity are Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.
posted by Flunkie at 4:12 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much of that site was compiled on computers powered by coal plants.
posted by Eideteker at 5:31 PM on July 27, 2009


The real problem I see, for all the goofballs who are saying “Eh, we’ll adapt” is that we, y’know, haven’t been.

No. The real problem is greenies who write off nuclear while we piss away oil by burning it in base load power plants that cannot easily and efficiently be replaced by solar or wind simply because it's marginally better than burning coal and marginally cheaper than burning natural gas.
posted by Talez at 5:36 PM on July 27, 2009


nasreddin: "My impression was that driving patterns were inelastic only to a point. When oil prices spiked recently there were a lot of stories about people driving less and taking public transportation."

I think so too, and I believe the economics term for that behavior is "stickiness." I.e., people will continue their current driving patterns until they really can't afford them anymore, and then they'll start to alter their habits along some sort of more normal demand curve.

Usually I've heard of 'stickiness' in relation to prices, but it would seem like it applies to demand in this case as well. There might be a more specific term of art for it that I'm not aware of though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:56 PM on July 27, 2009


Peak Oil is, in a sense, irrelevant. There was some reasonable study done that indicated that if we use more than 25% of CURRENT proven oil reserves, we badly screw our climate. So if it's that bad if we use only a quarter of the proven reserves, I'm guessing massive extinction events, perhaps even our own, if we use all the proven reserves -- much less use any NEW oil. If we want to continue to survive on this planet, we're already passed Peak Oil, that point being when we should be able to use 100% of the proven reserves but no more. Instead, we've stockpiled four times as much oil as it is in our interest to use, providing a ready tool for us to kill ourselves, and great incentive to do so. Yay.
posted by jamstigator at 6:47 PM on July 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Peak Oil is, in a sense, irrelevant.

If you want to get all geological, sure. Otherwise, no. It's much quicker. God knows they've been wrong before, but most peakists think the peak will happen sometime in the next five to ten years, with some believing it has already occurred. Global warming will definitely worsen in that time frame, but we won't quite be at the everybody-move-out-of-Bangladesh territory yet. The real threat of peak oil is not that everybody will run out of gas like some disaster movie. It's that the entire global economy will be operating under a crucial resource constraint, increasing political tension and upheaval and putting severe limits on economic growth, limits which will act to prevent us from addressing other problem, like global warming. Of course, this is a risk, and not a certainty; nobody really knows how and whether we'd be able to adapt to such an important change in how we power our society, it's too complex a thing to predict and a lot depends on when and how quickly the given resource declines.
posted by Diablevert at 7:22 PM on July 27, 2009


Only natural that everyone picks on "peak oil" here, but my impression is that the forecasts that predict a peak in the near future (or recent past) have over the past few years been increasingly looking somewhat less wrong, on average, than those that don't.
posted by sfenders at 7:52 PM on July 27, 2009


...which reminds me of all these pretty charts over at The Oil Drum.
posted by sfenders at 8:00 PM on July 27, 2009


Only natural that everyone picks on "peak oil" here, but my impression is that the forecasts that predict a peak in the near future (or recent past) have over the past few years been increasingly looking somewhat less wrong, on average, than those that don't.

As much as I'd like to agree that we need to get off fossil fuels, history has this annoying thing about proving every Peak Oil advocate wrong so far. As oil has become more expensive and technology has improved it's become possible to economically recover reserves which had previously been written off (Alberta's oil sands for instance).

I personally expect that technology will eventually allow oil to reach a pricing plateau where it becomes viable to recover hydrocarbons from bioengineered lifeforms at which point oil will become a (semi) renewable resource. Nobody will want to change away from oil and ICEs and there won't be much of a reason not to. There will be a trend towards more efficient vehicles still (and hybrids) so that ICEs don't cost as much to run but there won't be a wholesale change over to grid based cars.
posted by Talez at 8:47 PM on July 27, 2009


(Alberta's oil sands for instance).

Sure, plenty of wrong "Peak Oil!" forecasts can be found, but my point was there are plenty of wrong forecasts of all descriptions, not just them. Including some high-profile optimistic ones of the recent past, such as CERA 2006 and similar, which although they're meant to be longer-term forecasts, are already looking quite wrong. Hard to believe they know what'll happen in 30 years when they couldn't see what was coming over the next 3 years. Those tar sands also provide a few good examples. Despite frantic development, they have not increased production at anything like the rate that was forecast by some.

On the other hand, the tar sands of Alberta may be a good place to look for potential future technological developments that might change things. Lots of bitumen is there, and you never know when someone might develop a cheaper, faster way to extract it. Well, it seems more likely to change things enough to make all the forecasts wrong than does drilling for oil at the north pole, for example. They've been trying for 30 years of course, albeit with some success, so it's not like you can bank on some big new thing happening next week. Despite their relative insignificance to global energy production at present, about the same can be said about those "bioengineered lifeforms"; some difficult problems to solve before they could live up to the future imagined by proponents, and it's hard to guess whether that might ever happen.

But if you want to know what it looks like when all the forecasts of near-future supply shortfalls are all of a sudden proven wrong, in the Internet age, by the application of new(-ish) technology, just look at American natural gas. Not long ago, those who thought it was even possible to meet the demand for gas over the next few years expected it to require huge increases in LNG imports. Instead, we got all this new hydro-frac shale gas and such. The odds of something similar happening to oil production seem pretty small, but I think that's the kind of thing it'd take to once again shift the balance of forecasting success back to those who think we'll have plenty of oil for years to come.
posted by sfenders at 5:24 AM on July 28, 2009


Despite their relative insignificance to global energy production at present, about the same can be said about those "bioengineered lifeforms"; some difficult problems to solve before they could live up to the future imagined by proponents, and it's hard to guess whether that might ever happen.

That's true except these solutions do exist but are yet to scale to the levels that Saudi Arabia can pump out of the oil fields daily.

The odds of something similar happening to oil production seem pretty small, but I think that's the kind of thing it'd take to once again shift the balance of forecasting success back to those who think we'll have plenty of oil for years to come.

I don't think it's a matter of having plenty of "free energy" oil in the medium to long term but whether in the long term we can branch out into capturing energy into ways that are convenient for us to use. When you've dug all the oil out of the ground there's no reason you can't keep using it. You just have to find other ways of producing it economically.

For instance, when you think of personal transport how would you see us getting around without oil? Battery technology sucks, still sucks by 3-4 orders of magnitude over plain old hydrocarbons, hydrogen is not well understood and has major supply side issues despite its promise and solar is still way down in terms of energy density per square foot that would make it practical to leave your car in the sun for the drive home from work in the afternoon.

I think the large investments already made in oil distribution make capturing energy and storing it as hydrocarbons an attractive proposition as we end the 21st century. This is especially true as the "free energy" oil we've been digging up out of the ground gets harder and harder to extract. EROEI numbers for oil are getting obscene (down to 5:1) and even solar, the mother of all shitty EROEI numbers, is beginning to outpace it. Something has to change and when the next oil price spike I personally think we should see a number of alternative energy capturing style oil production systems starting to come online as scaling issues are resolved and high oil prices make investment practical.
posted by Talez at 7:04 AM on July 28, 2009


Oh, and I do believe that natural gas is a wonderful energy source. It's a little less dense than your gasoline but it burns very cleanly (as clean as hydrocarbons get) and it's cheap and easy to move. I do think it's potential is undervalued and that it will form an important part of the world's energy strategy going forward in terms of developing countries. As gasoline gets more and more expensive I think you'll see more CNG based vehicles in poorer countries simply because there's still squillions of cubic feet of LNG left, enough to last us quite a while even if we were to go cold turkey on oil and switch lock, stock and barrel to LNG.
posted by Talez at 7:09 AM on July 28, 2009


The real problem is greenies who write off nuclear while we piss away oil

I think it's unlikely that this is the cause of either our energy problems or the environmental problems associated with energy extraction. Also, the number of environmentalists softening towards nuclear has been on the rise for some time. I think the non-fringe position is that if we are going to build nuclear plants, we need to have strong independent safety and regulatory policies in place, and make sure we focus equally on conservation and developing other resources.

I agree that we are pissing away the oil though.
posted by freecellwizard at 10:03 AM on July 28, 2009


when you think of personal transport how would you see us getting around without oil?

Beats me, man, forecasting is hard. But I wouldn't write off battery-powered transportation quite so quicky. Sure, batteries suck. But the price of oil wouldn't have to increase much beyond the price it already hit last year before those over-hyped electric cars actually make economic sense by comparison. That (or, like you and Pickens have mentioned, CNG) will be good enough for a lot of people who can't or won't be paying for gasoline, unless or until something better does come along.
posted by sfenders at 11:23 AM on July 28, 2009


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