Thursday, August 30, 2012

Don't Worry, There's Plenty of Oil

Reposted from Energy Bulletin. By Richard Heinberg. 

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In recent months we've seen a spate of articles, reports, and op-eds claiming that peak oil is a worry of the past thanks to so-called "new technologies" that can tap massive amounts of previously inaccessible stores of "unconventional" oil. "Don't worry, drive on," we're told.

But as Post Carbon Institute Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg asks in this short video, what's really new here? "What's new is high oil prices and … the economy hates high oil prices."


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We can fall for the oil industry hype and keep ourselves chained to a resource that's depleting and comes with ever increasing economic and environmental costs, or we can recognize that the days of cheap and abundant oil (not to mention coal and natural gas) are over.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media and politicians on both sides of the aisle are parroting the hype, claiming — in Obama's case — that unconventional oil can play a key role in an "all of the above" energy strategy and — in Romney's — that increased production of tight oil and tar sands can make North America energy independent by the end of his second term.

We need your help: Please share this video and help bring a dose of reality to the energy conversation.

The Script

Our civilization runs on oil.

It’s the cheapest, most energy-dense and portable fuel we've ever found. Nature required tens of millions of years to make petroleum, and we've used up the best of it in less than two hundred.

A little over a decade ago, eminent petroleum geologists calculated that global oil production would soon hit a “peak” and begin to decline, no longer meeting ever-rising demand. But oil industry spokesmen countered with the message, "Don't worry, there's plenty of oil!" and assured us that everything would be just fine.

So what actually happened? World crude oil production flat-lined in 2005, and oil prices went crazy. Wars erupted in the oil-rich parts of the world, and the global economy went into a tailspin. The term "Peak Oil" entered the lexicon.

The oil industry is now staging another PR counter-offensive. They're telling us that applying "new" technologies like hydrofracking to low-porosity rocks makes lots of lower quality, unconventional oil available. They argue we just need to drill more to produce more. Problem solved!

But wait. What's actually new here? Most of this technology has been around since the 1980s. The unconventional resources have been known to geologists for decades. What's new is high oil prices.

It’s high oil prices that make unconventional oil worth producing in the first place. It takes lots of money and energy, not to mention water, to frack low-porosity rocks. And the environmental risks are staggering.

How does the economy handle high oil prices? Well, it turns out the economy hates high oil prices and responds by going into recession. Which makes energy prices volatile, rendering the industry subject to booms and busts.

So, what’s the bottom line here?

Yes, there's still oil in the ground. We just can't afford it. In broad terms, the peak oil analysts were right. But the fossil fuel industry is winning the PR battle.

What really matters, though, is not who wins the debate, but how we prepare for the inevitable. We’ve got to wean ourselves off our high-energy lifestyle.

We'd be foolish to wait for events to settle the debate once and for all. Let's say goodbye to oil. It's saying goodbye to us.


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  1. xlinknzSeptember 1, 2012 at 9:09 PM

    Bear in mind cars are becoming more fuel efficient a consumer who users a car that uses 7L/100km is using half the that of a V6 that does 14L/100kms, many cars are now <4.5L/100kms [Hybrids, small diesels etc]

    High Energy lifestyle is inefficient energy use e.g. using cars that use more than 8L/100kms, the problem is education

  2. Southern LimitsSeptember 3, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    The situation is much more complicated than that. From a previous post:

    "New engine technology uses fuel much more efficiently than old cars. But does this make any difference to the fleet as a whole? Not according to the Australian Public Transport Users Association (PTUA). It has been documented that as fuel efficiency increases that engine size tends to increase shortly after due to consumer demand:

    “....Hybrid technology, it seems, is being used in much the same way as earlier under-the-hood innovations that increased gasoline efficiency: to satisfy the American appetite for acceleration and bulk....Consumer Reports, in an article published in May, found that in actual on-the-road conditions the Accord hybrid averaged 25 (miles per gallon), versus 24 mpg for the 4-cylinder model and 23 mpg for the nonhybrid V-6....If every car in the country were converted to a hybrid with that improved mileage, the gain would be swallowed up in three to four years by growth in driving demand.”
    -“Hybrid Cars Burning Gas in the Drive for Power”, New York Times, 17 July 2005

    “At the launch of the new-generation Toyota Prius in Sydney yesterday, chief engineer Akihiko Otsuka admitted the company had opted for a bigger, more powerful engine because customers had demanded it...."With a different approach, we could have done even better. However, customers told us they wanted more performance. In response, we selected a larger engine.””
    -“Prius a paler shade of green”, The Age, 7 July 2009

    Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that between 1995 and 2007 fuel economy of the average passenger vehicle has remained relatively unchanged.

    Transport researcher Patrick Moriarty has argued that improvements in engine efficiency over the past few decades have been offset by trends towards larger vehicles such as SUVs, increased use of air conditioning, electronic components demanding greater weight and power input, aging of the car fleet and comprises required to reduce air pollution.

    The PTUA also reports that according to Tom McCarthy in his book Auto Mania, while the 1970 oil shocks resulted in short term fuel efficiency gains, once oil prices stabilised in the 1980s drivers reacted with such fervor that any long term benefits were wiped out. Fuel economy became associated with sacrifice and poverty, two notions which had no place in the new age of materialistic pursuit."

  3. xlinknzSeptember 6, 2012 at 9:40 PM

    I agree it is a complex issue, but regardless of car or engine size a car that uses 7l/100km uses half the fuel of one that consumes 14l/100kms, if fuel consumption has not declined it is because as you allude too because people are buying SUVs or driving more etc again, as I pointed out this is an education issue, even the EECA and AA agree that the public are woefully uninformed about how much they would save using more fuel efficient cars. It is astonishing we have TV ads about electricity e.g. switching energy providers but the average consumer would save up to tens times as much if they used half as much petrol