Peak Oil

International Energy Agency Resorts to Fanciful Future Oil Sources

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 18, 2010

A November 14 blog entry on the New York Times asks the provocative (for the Times) question: Is 'Peak Oil' Behind Us?

It opens with a chart sourced from the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook report showing overall daily oil production by source from 1990 to 2035.

Daily oil production by source, 1990-2035 (Source: IEA)
Daily oil production by source, 1990-2035 (Source: IEA)

The most interesting part of the chart in the entry is the light-blue area on the right, "Crude oil: fields yet to be found".

What the IEA is saying here is that, starting in five years, the oil industry is going to discover enough new sources of conventional oil to keep total production increasing steadily (albeit at a drastically slowed rate) until an overall peak some time around 2040.

There's just one problem: There's absolutely no reason to expect that so much conventional oil is still lying somewhere waiting to be discovered. Conventional oil discovery peaked around 1960 and the number of new discoveries has declined steadily since then. It's astoundingly unlikely that we'll suddenly reverse that 50-year decline in new discoveries at just the right moment for our overall production rate to go on increasing.

What the report really tells us is this: Declining overall oil production is so unthinkable that the IEA would rather invent fanciful sources than admit that the current plateau in oil from all sources, which started around 2005, will slide into permanent decline five years from now.

It acknowledges what we've been saying for years: that non-conventional oil will not be able to achieve a rate of production high enough to cover sustained shortfalls in conventional production, let alone continue growing the overall daily production.

The IEA, keep in mind, already has by far the most optimistic outlook among industry analysts; and they admitted last year that they have been finessing the numbers to push out the production peak.

Their idea of an "undulating plateau" in which the current flat production rate persists with slight growth until the 2030s is sheer wishful thinking.

(h/t to RTH user JonD for sharing the link.)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 18, 2010 at 13:12:06

I would definitely have to question the predicted natural gas reserves in that chart. It really doesn't line up with anything I've read about gas supplies. Natural gas may be the cleanest burning, but it's the least reliable fossil fuel by far. The reserves are the smallest, and the decline (because it's a gas, not a liquid or a rock) will undoubtedly be the fastest. Peak coal and Uranium are still largely theoretical, but peak gas is already well under way.

http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3673

Once you start looking at other resources this way too - EROI, how much has been used historically, and where things are going from here - it becomes very clear that oil is far from the only crucial resource beginning to run dry.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 18, 2010 at 16:41:15

@Undustrial

There are apparently dozens of rare earths that are rapidly being depleted by the semiconductor industry and electric motors that are almost entirely obtained from Chinese mines... and China is considering protecting them as a strategic resource.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted November 19, 2010 at 08:59:55

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 12:05:40

With the new fracking techniques natural gas production is looking good. Oil is the real problem.

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By oily (anonymous) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 13:20:10

It certainly would be convenient if oil just kept bubbling up from the core, but even if it did, it's of little use if it can't bubble up as fast as we use it..

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 19, 2010 at 13:32:03

Gold's theories are just another re-hashing of the old abiotic oil theory. It's not some revolutionary new view - it was actually quite common in the USSR - until their oil peaked and their empire collapsed within a year or two.

Wikipediarticle

As much as I love scientific contrarians like Gold and Dyson, it's important to recognize their role in the scientific community. They bring a lot of unconventional ideas to the table (like the mythic "Dyson-Sphere" built around a sun), but also spout numerous nonsensical ideas, seemingly for the fun of it. Whether or not some oil, or even all, was created by underground microbes (one way or another, it's mostly heat/pressure), that doesn't mean that there's enough being generated in places we can recover it to meet our current demand. American oil production (at least in the lower 48) peaked decades ago, and despite money and technology most countries could only dream of, it's been falling ever since.

Maybe the oil was put there by god. Or aliens. Or Satan. Unless we come across some evidence that it's being put there again, as we use it, at a similar rate, we're still in trouble.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 15:00:11

I've read a lot of negative outcomes for communities that have allowed Natural Gas fracking. Recently a documentary was released explaining how a community's water was made undrinkable through fracking.

Here is the trailer for the Doc.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZe1AeH0Q...

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By bigguy1231 (registered) | Posted November 19, 2010 at 16:43:31

There was actually a story on I think it was 60 Minutes last week about fracking and all of the damage it is doing to the water table in the US. It's making alot of the land owners rich beyond their imaginations but it does terrible things to the environment.

Actually, part of the storyline on CSI last week had to do with fracking and the damage it causes.

Comment edited by bigguy1231 on 2010-11-19 15:44:04

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 19, 2010 at 23:29:48

I saw the Fracking CSI espisode (made all the more golden by the frackin' Battlestar Galactica cameo) last week. Blew me away (no pun intended).

Like tar sands, mountaintop removal, deep-sea drilling and other uber-destructive ways to economically extract the last of our fossil fuel reserves, fracking is far more of a warning sign than a solution.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted August 21, 2011 at 07:38:06

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/08/15/the_americas_not_the_middle_east_will_be_the_world_capital_of_energy

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By HM Tilford (anonymous) | Posted August 30, 2011 at 10:46:02

McMaster Receives Nearly $2.2-million For Oil Sands Research

Hamilton, ON. August 30, 2011 – Researchers at McMaster University have received nearly $2.2-million to examine important environmental processes in Alberta’s oil sands, which could help speed up the land reclamation process for one of Canada’s largest oil companies.

The project team, led by Lesley Warren, a professor in the School of Geography & Earth Sciences at McMaster, was recruited by Syncrude Canada Ltd. to investigate bacterial sulfur reactions occurring in its composite tailings. Composite tailings are the byproduct of the oil sand extraction process. They are high in alkalinity and salinity, and extremely low in organic matter.
Syncrude will invest more than $1.14-million over the three-year research project, with an additional $1.05-million from a Collaborative Research & Development grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

“We are examining the biogeochemistry of the composite tailings, or more specifically, the role of bacteria in sulfur cycling,” explains Warren. “The sulfur reactions occurring in the deposits cannot be explained solely by chemical reactions, so we need to understand the whole process better and determine how bacteria are driving the reactions.”
The research is critical to Syncrude because the company is in the process of creating a pilot 17-hectare fen wetland, as well as its 50 ha watershed, as part of oil sands reclamation of a former mine at Mildred Lake, north of Fort McMurray. The pilot fen will be established by placing peat, as well as plant and tree material recovered from future mining areas, over composite tailings and sand.

“Syncrude is committed to responsible development and that includes continuous improvement in our environmental performance,” said Brian Schleckser, Syncrude's Vice President of Technical. “This research will provide vital information needed to effectively reclaim our former mine into a productive and healthy wetland that supports natural processes.”
The research team will also include Brian McCarry, professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry, and Greg Slater, associate professor in the School of Geography & Earth Sciences and up to 16 graduate and undergraduate students, post-doctoral fellows and research technicians.

“This collaborative research project exemplifies the value of research partnerships between industry and academia,” said NSERC President Suzanne Fortier. “Dr. Warren’s fundamental research addresses a major challenge faced by Canadian oil sands operators, while also benefiting students who will be working on a project that is highly relevant to industry.”

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