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Peak Oil: the end of affordable petroleum

Discussion in 'The Pub' started by jekyll, Apr 3, 2008.

  1. While the majority of people refuse to give it much thought, it's a truism that fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource. What follows is my attempt to summarise some of the thinking, as I understand it, about what that actually means.

    "Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum production is reached, after which the rate of production enters its terminal decline." - Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil

    If you graph oil production over time, whether globally or regionally, you will get roughly a parabola. On the left hand side, production in a region increases gradually; then it ramps up, plateaus out and eventually declines. This is a recurring pattern which can be seen in regions which have exhausted their economically obtainable oil, e.g. the USA.

    Demand for oil, however, shows no sign of abating. We use it for an incredible variety of purposes - spend a few moments thinking about plastic. And then there's agriculture; for each kilojoule of food energy we ingest, perhaps ten kilojoules of fossil fuels are used in production and transport. Our entire economy - which must grow constantly to be considered healthy - is driven by the ever increasing consumption of abundant, cheap petroleum. China and other developing nations are now developing their appetites for Western standards of living, which will place an incredible burden on oil production when you consider the populations involved. The demand for oil increases daily.

    So crudely (no pun intended), you've got a bell curve (production) and a curved line from zero to infinity (demand). When you superimpose them (availability) you get a pretty sudden drop on the right hand side just after production begins to decrease.

    To the right of that cliff, a candle is sometimes drawn for dramatic effect by the pessimistic; the idea is that because of our insatiable and increasing demand, the decline will not be felt as a gradual transition; it will be sudden.

    Every aspect of our society depends on cheap oil, and there is simply no precedent for what will happen when we no longer have access to it. There will almost certainly be (more) oil wars, and many predict that the Great Depression will look positively rosy by comparison to the effects on our economy. There will be no more riding any of the bikes we now own, either - sorry.

    So when does this happen? It depends who you ask. There is an enormous gulf between the most pessimistic and the most optimistic opinions: the most optimistic (Shell) say it won't happen until 2025 or later; some oil industry insiders and scientists say that production has already peaked. I expect it sometime in the next few years; it may be delayed, by ramping up production and obscuring the truth about available reserves, but that will only make the cliff steeper.

    I'm sure I'll elicit all sorts of reactions for posting this. I'm just putting it forward as a topic of discussion because I've been tracking it for years now, and I get the impression few here have heard of or looked into it very much. I hope I've been reasonably impartial in the way I've presented the information, and leave you to consider your own opinions and conclusions - but make no mistake, we are running out of oil, and it's going to have a big impact on your life.

    There are plenty of sources of information (and disinformation) on the internet, and many books on the topic. I will update this post with links later; for now Google will get you started.


    Oh, and if you care, sign the petition:


    Now go ride that thing like it's going out of style :)

  2. Oil will eventually become so expensive that alternative fuels will begin to make sense.

    I still posit that Australia, as a vast semi-arid mostly desert nation, is sitting on a veritable solar energy goldmine.

    LPG is making increasingly more sense, with the break-even point for conversion down to 12 months now. That'll help tide over the peak-oil crisis.

    Issues with hydrogen fuel storage are looking like they've largely been solved.

    What is really needed is for some country, and it most likely won't be Australia to do it first, to start investing in large solar array power stations that use boilers to generate electricity to drive hydrogen production from water.

    This is my personal dream for the future. Water is split into hydrogen and oxygen through solar mirror array power stations. Hydrogen is transported to wherever it has to go, and from there into your car where whether through fuel cells or ICE, is combined with oxygen from the air again to produce water vapour as an exhaust, and energy.

    No emissions any more. The only requirement is a BIG initial capital expenditure and plenty of sun soaked unoccupied landscape, and whammo - cheap, renewable, sustainable energy for the lifetime of the planet and the sun.

    I think my dream will happen one day, but it likely won't happen in my lifetime. I think it'll happen by 2100 or so, but until then, there's going to be some rough times as the world economy weans itself off oil.

    What I think will come of it though is a vast improvement to the world-wide political landscape. With free, cheap, affordable energy, much of the grief over the middle east just becomes a local issue once again.

    My only real concern is if the ethanol mafia gain too much power and take us down the misguided path of consuming the world's arable land for ethanol production. That'll never work. The solar array panel idea makes good use of non-arable land, and frees up arable land for food production.

    Cheap solar power (after the initial investment) may also be used to drive enough desalination to fix Australia's water supply crisis.
  3. Agreed Loz.

    It's long been a suspicion of mine that battery electric development has been deliberately stifled by those with a vested interest in fuel production, distribution and retail. Hydrogen suits them very well as it would fit within their existing systems. Battery electric, however, puts the distribution network and the profits into the hands of a whole different set of companies.

    Mind you, we'll have to get our Edwardian power distribution networks into some kind of acceptable shape.
  4. Given that we have only used about 10% of the near surface oil reserves, peak oil is an economic concept, not a real threat of exhaustion.

    There are resereves bigger than all the existing oil prodution fields to date. Mostly in South america, northen america and Russia. China also has massive oil fields yet untouched.

    Document for reference


    I have worked in a past life as a geologist.
  5. Yes loz, batterys are awesome. But where is the power going to come from? :p
  6. OK so apart from coal, there's solar, geothermal, wind power, tidal energy generators and hamsters on wheels...

    Tidal in particular is an interesting proposition; enormous masses of water that move in a predictable and repetitive pattern at well documented times each day. Environmental impact of tidal energy generators is very small, they don't chop up fish like the wind ones do birds, and they don't root anybody's view...

  7. Problem with many of those other reserves though PP is finding ways to make them economic - same with any other mineral reserve. When the easy to mine stuff starts to run out prices will increase until such reserves become economic - otherwise production simply stops

    Biggest problem which many people overlook is not cars but planes - you might be able to live with an electric car but you're not going to get a 747 off the ground with solar cells or wind power. If airline travel starts becoming unfeasible then we'll see major changes in the world.

    The classic "bell curve" model also doesn't apply. With things like this you'll find technology tends to ensure consumption continues to increase, the only thing that changes over time is price. Eventually though you'll reach a point where technology is simply incapable of producing oil cheap enough to compete with alternatives, even though "in theory" there well may be shiteloads of the stuff still in the ground somewhere. At that point oil supplies start to run out very quickly, even though many will no doubt continue to claim there isn't a problem right up until that point.

    The best historical example is whale oil. At one point people assumed it was plentiful and would last forever. When whales started getting harder to catch the advent of new harpoons, faster boats and factory ships improved hunting and maintained supply. Eventually though a point was reached where ships would return empty. Sure there were still whales in the ocean, but finding them and catching them was a different matter.
  8. With respect - and I'm sure you know a lot more about some of the topics involved due to your geology background** - I found that document somewhere between laughable and ludicrous.

    Sure, there's lots of shale and tar sands and whatnot - that's like telling a man dying of thirst that there's plenty of moisture trapped in the sand a few feet under where he's standing ... it's the end of cheap oil that's the problem. Really cheap, really high energy, liquid fuel.

    The rest of the pdf was just fluff copy sending out feel-good nevermind rays. It's an advertisement, for an oil company. What are they going to say? "Hey, haven't had any really successful explorations for years now, and we never really planned for this enormous, inevitable disaster looming, or invested at all in renewable energy. Expect our company to be worth WAY less soon." - not the kind of message multinationals like to send to investors.

    Contrast that to eg the Hirsch Report, prepared for the US Dept of Energy in 2005.
    Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hirsch_report
    Summary: http://www.acus.org/docs/051007-Hirsch_World_Oil_Production.pdf

    Let me quote the opening words:
    And a few salient points:

    Or for another point of view, check out the sizzlingly titled "Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations", the September 2005 report prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


    *cough* Iraq *cough* :bolt:

    These aren't tin foil hat wearing UFO spotters talking; these are government agencies with less motive for lying to themselves than a company has to lie to potential investors and consumers.

    I hope I didn't come off as too argumentative, Pro-Pilot - it just seemed a good opportunity to bring these sources up.

    Oh - and thanks for all the interesting discussion so far everyone.

    And Loz - damn that Lightning looks good. Tesla Motor's cars look pretty spoogeworthy too.
    ** although Deffeyes is a pretty qualified geologist too, and a lot less optimistic. http://www.trincoll.edu/~silverma/reviews_commentary/hubberts_peak.html
  9. True. The era of cheap, fast international travel for individuals and cargo may end and there will have to be radical changes in the way economies work as a result. However, there may be viable alternatives to a portion of the vast game of human chess that such air travel allows and even encourages.

    For cases where there is no alternative but to move people around, we might have to accept that some things simply can't happen tomorrow but will have to wait a few days while the airship waits out some bad weather, or a few weeks until the next passenger ship arrives. Not convenient or particularly compatible with our current business models, but only winding the clock back to a point well within living memory, rather than to some ancient transportation dark age.

    I'm more worried about the shortage of oil and gas as feedstocks for chemical production, because without affordable plastics/polymer composites etc, it'll be bloody difficult to do renewable energy effectively.
  10. Nuclear FTW! :LOL:

    +1 to Battery powered stuff... we already hold a battery in our bike, why not replace it with a more advanced one when replacing the engine... My concern is batteries are still pretty heavy for what they can output.
  11. How much air travel is business-related, and how much leisure? Business travel can largely be rendered unnecessary by video-conferencing. Leisure travel? Let them travel on ships, 2,500 at a time at less than the cost of a 747 taxi-ing to take off. Or not travel at all; there'll be plenty left then for those of us whi have to use cars/bikes to get places where lazy governments, who are bleating about climate change because it's politically-expedient, but won't build cheap public transport, to go.
  12. Using alternate sources of generation for electricity frees up coal reserves for liquefaction into fuel. The estimates of coal reserves are 10 to 100 times known oil reserves. Coal is too useful to be wasted burning in power plants.

    When I was working at the Coal-to-oil research plant in Morwell we were turning about a tonne of coal into a barrel of petrol. The 50 tonnes per day pilot plant was completely successful (we were running a 50cc scooter happily on the output from the plant). For commercial use it would need some further refining so probably 1 - 1.3 tonnes of coal per barrel of oil equivalent (up to 2 by the time you include the energy used in the production).

    Costs were an issue - at the time to be viable the fuel would have needed to be sold at the then current tax-included price per litre before taxes to be viable. However it was never intended to be about price but proving the concept to enable security of base supplies should the supply from the Middle East go belly up.

    China is setting up Coal to Oil plants (as are the Yanks) using the SAsol process (similar to what we were using) since they have lots and lots of coal but not a lot of oil.

    Estimates of economically viable brown coal deposits in Victoria vary a bit but at current usage rates there's around 1000 years worth there using present mining technology.

    There's a plan for a 60,000 tonnes per day diesel plant using Victorian Brown Coal. The Vic Govt has actually licenced a consortium to do this - using Shell's Fischer–Tropsch synthesis technology. (a gasification process which is then converted to liquid fuels) This would use about half as much coal as is currently used for power generation.

    Bearing in mind that Australia has enormous black coal reserves as well - at least 75 billion tonnes. While liquid fuels may get more expensive they won't be running out for a long time - but only if we don't waste gas and coal on producing electricity.
  13. Some maybe, but other travel certainly not. A meeting is fine over video but to solve a technical issue with a factory/production facility you most definitely need to actually be there. Already skilled personnel are in short supply and many places rely on experts that can be flown in at short notice to fix problems to survive.
    Without airline travel many such operations would be forced to run far less efficiently, or not at all. It'll also have a massive impact on small rural centres and in particular remote mining towns. It'll be a long, long time before electric cars can ever meet the range requirements of driving Townsville-Mount Isa or Meekatharra - anywhere with civilisation for example. Of course internationally it'll have even greater impact, with small developing nations becoming effectively cut-off from foreign aid and/or tourism money they rely on.
  14. Actually, speaking of...


    Skysails just completed their maiden test voyage. Big aerofoil sail for reducing the energy requirements of sea transport.

    The reimbursement scheme is interesting - a company's proposing paying the ship crews themselves a % of the money saved on fuel consumption if they utilise the system.
  15. I've got an article about a solar-powered sailboat in the works at the moment...
  16. Do one about a wind-powered sailboat...
  17. Ooh yeah good point, wind power is all the rage. I'm surprised nobody's done one of those yet.
  18. I'm going to invent a wind-powered sailboat... give it some really weird name, of a spelling that will be used to confuse kindergarteners for centuries... "yacht" or some shit.
  19. Wind powered boats will never work. The weight of the wind turbine generator, electric motor and storage batteries would be far too much with current technology.

    I think a better alternative needs to be found, wonder how heavy a load a whale or dolphin can drag behind it..... :-k.