Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Need to Get the Facts on Oil

The most useful things Democrats can do in the next two years is find out what the real situation is with energy supplies and specifically natural gas and oil. It is also important to know how the burning of fossil fuels is related to Global Warming. We cannot avoid the connection between the two concerns. Nor can we avoid the likelihood that the biggest political opportunity for those who want to make mischief and fat profits is to obscure the motivations of people raising these concerns and to doubt their judgment. So it is important to be informed and to know what some of the alternatives may be. Let me repeat, by the way, what I have said before: we have known for over thirty years that we have an energy problem.

There are a number of stories that have been catching my eye in the last few days concerning oil and energy. Let's begin tonight with just one article, this one by Kevin G. Hall of the McClatchy Washington Bureau:
Far from being a nearly exhausted resource, the world's oil reserves are three times bigger than what some popular estimates state, and peak global oil production is still about a quarter-century away, according to a new study by Pulitzer Prize-winning oil historian Daniel Yergin.

The remaining oil resource base is about 3.74 trillion barrels, according to a report released Tuesday by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, which Yergin runs. That's more than three times the 1.2 trillion barrels that "peak-oil" theorists suggest.

Let's look at that 3.74 trillion barrels that supposedly remain for a moment. There's a pie graph in the article to the right. The pie graph has a wedge that represents 1.07 trillion barrels that says "Yet to be discovered." Nothing is said about when that oil will be discovered or when it will be produced (assuming it's economically feasible) or even if it exists! But one thing is certain: it's not oil currently in production.

The pie graph also has a wedge that represents 1.91 trillion barrels called "Unconventional sources" that we are told includes "arctic, deepwater, enhanced oil recovery, heavy oil, oil shale extract." First of all, I'm not sure that's a complete list of unconventional sources; coal-to-oil and oil sands are probably included in that definition. In any case, every item that may or may not be included as an unconventional source is expensive and hard to get. When people talk about Peak Oil (and I'm not certain exactly where I stand on this, by the way), they are almost always talking about the peak production of cheap, easily obtainable oil; very generally speaking, light sweet crude is what is meant though some heavy and/or sour grades of oil that are more difficult to handle have been produced all along and are often included in what is meant by Peak Oil. Sometimes, natural gas is talked about as well. It is a fact, by the way, that light sweet crude has become increasingly harder to find and produce. That is why it is now feasible to turn to unconventional sources: the conventional sources are getting harder to find and production of conventional oil is having trouble keeping up with worldwide demand.

If we add the ephemeral "Oil to be discovered" (1.07 trillion barrels) to the oil from very expensive "Unconventional Sources" (1.91 trillion barrels), that comes to 2.98 trillion barrels. Subtract that 2.98 trillion barrels from 3.74 trillion barrels and you get .76 trillion barrels of conventional oil. Now notice that according to the pie graph, 1.08 trillion barrels have already been produced. So let's say that again: 1.08 trillion barrels have been produced during the oil age; .76 trillion barrels of conventional oil remain. Which number is bigger?

The Cambridge Energy Research Associates appear, on the surface anyway, to be playing word games. Oil is being discovered all the time (even fields in production are often found to be bigger than originally thought), and yes, more discoveries will be added to the totals but the key is that the discoveries are getting smaller and fewer, and the time lag between searching new sites and finding producible oil and then producing that oil is growing and becoming more expensive.

The real key is that oil prices are increasingly volatile and in a relatively short period of time (perhaps in 5 to 30 years from now), even unconventional sources of oil may not be enough to handle our energy needs. And then there's the issue that even conventional oil results in considerable environmental problems including Global Warming. Some of the unconventional sources of oil create even more environmental problems.

In 1950, halfway through the oil age that we have been living in up to now, there were 2.5 billion people in the world. The use of oil has been accelerating. Today, there are 6.5 billion people. For many reasons, the boom days of oil are limited and it's time to do something about it. We are entering an age of transition. There are, unfortunately, many powerful economic forces that would like to delay the day we start to deal with the problem. We need hearings in Congress that give us a much clearer picture.


Blogger Always Question said...

Someone at work pointed this article out to me saying, "Look, there's twice as much oil as you said there was!"
Industry-sponsored think tanks... Remember when the tobacco industry was reassuring us that smoking was a harmless recreation?

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Craig said...

Always Question, thanks for the reminder about think tanks! If a thousand scientists say something industries don't want to hear, they'll find the three scientists who disagree and stick them in a think tank.

6:22 PM  

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