Is Peak Oil Really a Thing of the Past?

Daniel Oines/CC BY 2.0

He once said that veganism was "the only ethical response" to the rise in Global meat consumption, then he changed his mind. He was willing to speak out about the negative impact of biofuels long before it became a mainstream concern. And he has alienated himself from many activists by speaking out against solar subsidies and for nuclear power.

Say what you like about George Monbiot, but he is not afraid to speak his mind—even when that means breaking ranks with the environmentalist "party line". (Sadly, I'm not sure we greenies have ever been organized to actually have a party line.)

Enough Oil to Deep Fry Us All
Monbiot's latest position is likely to cause just as much of a stir among us TreeHuggers, as he dials back his belief that peak oil is nigh. In fact, he says, there is "enough oil under the Earth to deep fry us all". He cites a recent (much talked about) report by the oil executive Leonardo Maugeri, published by Harvard University, as compelling evidence that a new oil boom has begun:

Maugeri’s analysis of projects in 23 countries suggests that global oil supplies are likely to rise by a net 17m barrels per day (to 110m) by 2020. This, he says, is “the largest potential addition to the world’s oil supply capacity since the 1980s.” The investments required to make this boom happen depend on a long-term price of $70 a barrel. The current cost of Brent crude is $95(10). Money is now flooding into new oil: a trillion dollars was spent over the past two years, a record $600bn is lined up for 2012(11).

The country in which production is likely to rise furthest is Iraq, into which multinational companies are now sinking their money, and their claws. The bigger surprise is that the other great boom is likely to happen in the US. Hubbert’s Peak, the famous bell-shaped graph depicting the rise and fall of US oil, is set to become Hubbert’s Rollercoaster.

A Flawed Study?
Meanwhile Heading Out has a rather scathing analysis of the same Harvard study over at the Oil Drum. Among the points of contention are that predictions of near-term production increases in Saudi Arabia are optimistic; that the study underemphasizes political and security challenges to extracting oil from Iraq and, crucially, that it fundamentally misrepresents the record of recent depletion estimates by failing to take into account that newer, horizontal wells do not deplete gradually over time:

Sigh! I explained last time that with the change in well orientation from vertical to horizontal, that there was a change in the apparent decline rates. When the wells run horizontally at the top of the reservoir, they are no longer reduced in productive length each year as vertical wells are, because the driving water flood slowly fills the reservoir below the oil as it is displaced. This does not mean that because the apparent decline rate from the well has fallen that it will ultimately produce more oil.

The amount of oil in the region tapped by the well is finite, and when it is gone it is gone, whether from a vertical well that shows gradual decline with time, or from the horizontal well that holds the production level until the water hits the well and it stops. I am not sure that the author of the report understands this.

I am not, I should note, an oil geologist, nor an expert in the arguments around the imminence (or not) of peak oil. Whether or not Monbiot's loss of faith in the peak oil "doctrine" is justified, or just another controversialist/contrarian stance, will depend on your perspective.

Wishful Thinking
Where Monbiot's writings on the matter do ring true, however, is that there are some in the environmentalist community who seemed to have almost been wishing for peak oil to happen. After all, it provided a powerful case for why we had to change our ways, whether we wanted to or not. This is how Monbiot puts it:

"Among environmentalists it was never clear, even to ourselves, whether or not we wanted it to happen. It had the potential both to shock the world into economic transformation, averting future catastrophes, and to generate catastrophes of its own, including a shift into even more damaging technologies, such as biofuels and petrol made from coal. Even so, peak oil was a powerful lever. Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case."


Whichever "side" turns out to be right in the peak oil debate, this is just one more reminder that activism beats prophecy every time. We must base our strategies and our end goals not on the inevitability of disaster (or redemption), but rather on a vision for a world which people can get behind based on its merits alone. From efficient use of resources to secure, clean energy and a better quality of life—a sustainable, resilient future is our best bet whether or not a new oil boom has begun.

Tags: Activism | Economics | Peak Oil | resilience | United Kingdom

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