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Peak oil: no silver bullet?

Back to peak oil. Recall that the world is heading toward a peak in the amount of oil it can pump out of the ground on a daily basis. This peak is the seemingly inevitable consequence of the geology of oil fields, and after it arrives we can expect a fairly rude transition to the post-peak world.

In the midst of this handwringing over peak oil, a reasonable question to ask is: haven’t we heard this tune before? Over the years, plenty of eminent experts have sounded the alarm bell over this or the other impending crisis. Often the experts arrive at these predictions by extending today’strend lines out into some dire future and concluding that the world better get its act together, or else.

And inevitably these experts are proven wrong, usually because their models are too simple, or because they fail to anticipate changes in technology, or because the laws of economics provide a countervailing force to the predicted catastrophe. For example, population scientists warned in the middle of the last century that the world was heading toward widespread famine. Then technological advances in farming techniques ushered in the Green Revolution, saving the lives of billions.

In the case of peak oil, should we expect a white knight to arrive in the form of improved exploration or drilling techniques? Perhaps the discovery of a major new oil field will grant us a reprieve. What about the oil sands in Canada? Or the deposits beneath the North Sea? More generally, don’t rising oil prices mean that eventually it will become profitable to mine oil that currently we pass over?

Never say never, but there are good reasons not to expect any miracles. For starters, many of the technological advances under development increase the amount of oil we can extract from the earth, but do little to address the more basic problem of how fast we can reclaim it. Remember: hitting the peak doesn’t mean we’ve run out of oil, just that we can’t get at it as quickly as we used to. When American reached its oil peak in 1970, 50% of our reserves were still in the ground, waiting to be tapped.

So cheerfully vapid articles like this one, which concludes that a combination of supercomputers, microbes, and offshore wells could yield an additional 4 trillion barrels of crude, entirely miss the point. We don’t just need more oil, we need it now. If worldwide demand for oil is 84 million barrels per day and rising, it doesn’t do us much good to pump 50 million barrels per day for the next 200 years.

There’s also the issue that, despite enormous technological advances over the past several decades, the rate of discovery of new deposits has been steadily dropping for a long time. Expecting that trendline to turn around is an exercise in blind optimism.

Finally, the declining productivity of most of the world’s oil wells (everywhere other than Saudi Arabia, really), means that we need to pump faster just to keep in place. Any new sources of oil are going to have not just add to the world’s current daily output, but actually reverse powerful trends in global production rates. That’s a tall order for some pretty marginal new technologies.

This might be one case where it pays to bet on the fortunetellers.

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