Can't outrun peak oil 22-08-2015
I read Robert Samuelson’s column claiming that we have delayed peak oil for another few years and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future by means of new extractive technology and “unconventional” fuels such as natural gas and tar sands oil. In saying that, he neglects the fact that the recent collapse in oil prices was not caused by either of these factors. It was caused by a sudden release of cheap, conventionally drilled, oil by the Saudis, in fact rendering many unconventional technologies uneconomical.
On the other hand, domestic oil production has taken a jump in recent years due to fracking, tar sands, deepwater drilling, etc., but oil and other fuels obtained from those sources are actually more expensive and take more energy to get than oil obtained from conventional wells. This is what’s called the EROEI ratio, which stands for “Energy Returned On Energy Invested.”
According to data compiled by professor L. David Roper, in the early 20th century, the golden age of North American oil production, the equivalent of one barrel of oil invested yielded as many as 100-200 barrels produced. By 1970, the average EROEI ratio for crude oil had fallen to 30:1 (Saudi oil fields are still producing at this rate). Today, one barrel of oil invested typically gives only 15 barrels in return. New technologies, such as tar sands, have a barely 2:1 ration of energy return on investment. We may be able to sustain current levels of production, but the oil we get will be quite expensive, both in terms of energy and dollars, and modern industrial societies are not really viable below about an 8:1 ratio.
Even if we find some magical technology that will retrieve the remaining oil at an economical EROEI ratio, it could be disastrous, because we own about 10 times as much fossil fuel as we can safely burn and stay below 2 degrees Celsius in warming by the end of the century, which is already a near impossible goal (current projections are in the range of 3-5 degrees). At 2 degrees Celsius, there is no more agriculture in California, or other large areas of land that depend on snowpack and glaciers to water their crops. New York gets a Sandy-sized hurricane every three years. Miami goes underwater.
We can’t outrun peak oil. It’s coming up on us quick. It’s bad news, but burning the stuff would be worse.
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