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What Does Peak Oil Look Like?
Jamais Cascio, 1 Jun 05

oildepletion.jpg"Peak oil" -- the notion that global production of oil will soon reach its maximum, and will subsequently decline (even while demand continues to rise) -- is getting quite a bit of attention lately. It's not surprising; peak oil is a useful metaphor for the broader problem of not paying attention to longer-term problems, as well as an implicit driver for a move away from fossil fuels. If global warming isn't reason enough, the argument goes, and if sending money to corrupt and unstable nations isn't reason enough, running out of oil is.

Today's Green Car Congress has a brief post that provides a useful visual companion to the peak oil argument; I've reproduced it at right. It's an image of the Abqaiq oil field in Saudi Arabia taken by a device that measures vertical fluid density.

By using different colors the authors have shown the different fluid densities, and these can simply be translated into four zones. Over time the field has been injected with water (the blue zone) and this has pushed up the oil (the green zone) into the wells. The red is the overlying gas cap. When the reservoir was untapped it was likely all red and green. After all these years of pumping you can see how little of the green—the oil—remains.

Political blogger Kevin Drum, over at the Washington Monthly, has written a short series of posts going into a bit more detail about peak oil arguments, avoiding the energy industry jargon that often infects them. Part 1 nicely illustrates the sometimes-ignored fact that oil production peaks differentially -- it peaked in the US in 1970, and will peak in the non-OPEC world around 2010 (according to ExxonMobil, hardly a scare-monger in that regard). When oil will peak in OPEC countries remains a point of debate. Drum's Part 2 gives a bit of history to the peak oil concept, and Part 3 looks at where future oil production will come from once the easy-to-get oil is gone. Drum promises that more posts on the subject are to come.

It's worth pointing out that peak production does not mean final production. That is, once we hit the global oil peak, petroleum production does not subsequently collapse. It's a decline, to be sure, but it can be a slow one, and will fluctuate with new (albeit hard to reach) discoveries and improved technologies. And even if we can't do anything about the planet running out of accessible oil, we can do something about our consumption. Lower oil production only matters if demand is greater than supply. As we've demonstrated here time and again, we have the tools and models necessary to shift into a high-efficiency, low-energy-consumption, high-quality lifestyle.

We just need to make the decision to do so.

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"We just need to make the decision to do so." That is absolutely the correct thing. The problem is that in the U.S. - as well as the rest of the world - not everyone will do something just because it is the correct thing to do. They have to be "forced" one way or another to do it. Some will bend just because it is the correct thing and more will bend to the pressure of saving the environment. Most people will not change until it "hurts" them one way or another. It is not something that can be legislated - at least not in the U.S. In much of the rest of the world, maybe. In much of the world, Politics dictates the economy but in the U.S.the economy dictates the politics, When the economic "hurt" individually and/or corporately gets bad enough, then the politically correct thing will happen and efficiency will improve.

Posted by: Larry Weaver on 1 Jun 05

In the United States, politics directly influences upon and is influenced by, economics. Unfortunately for most of its citizens, the current and probably subsequent administration as well, are using and will use corporate economic health as a criteria for change. Business is what matters to them. Financial markets. Money. The problem with this is that economies tend to make abrupt changes, while the problem of peak oil is an unprecedented one in scale and in history - and will demand a far-sighted approach; one that requires planning. We cannot afford to wait while politicians nested comfortably in corporate pockets dither and deny.

Posted by: Sarah on 1 Jun 05

Interesting. With Exxon-Mobile (late to the party) pointing out peak oil is as real as the sun rising, and in 2010 to boot,

perhaps Kenneth Deffeyes analysis that oil will peak this year around thanksgiving can now be evaluated without bias.

Posted by: Jon S. on 1 Jun 05

America is lurching toward peak oil with a hodgepodge of constituencies and agendas. The most positive signs are probably the long history of alternative fuel enthusiasts, and the recent burst of hybrid buyers. At the negative end, we've got a war in Iraq which ... no matter who you talk to, has a "resource component."

Personally, I think it is time to face "no blood for oil" in the eye. Even if this was not a baldly calculated resource grab, there is a component. We need to deal with that, and with how far we will really go for the (old style?) American Dream.

Of course the Worldchangin' think would be a Dream that didn't need quite that much (Persian Gulf) oil.

Posted by: odograph on 1 Jun 05

If it peaks this year, we are screwed.

Posted by: bigelow on 2 Jun 05

Has anyone furthered any research into the idea that oil is actually abiotic and that reserves will "refill" themselves over time? This might suggest that a peak will only be for financial gain, if at all.

Posted by: Soaklord on 3 Jun 05

Its true that hydrocarbons are refilled over time but an oil field doesnt exactly refill like that. And besides the rate that the earth belches up hydrocarbons while truely amazing isnt as important as how fast it manages to trap them and keep em where we can siphon em off.. wich is far far less. Much of the hydrocarbons the earth subducts get farted out again from vents and volcanos after all.

Posted by: wintermane on 3 Jun 05

Wow, where to begin. First of all this field is the oldest field in Saudi Arabia. The benign moniker of "mature" in the title of the research paper on multiphase pumps doesn't, oddly enough, get much attention. Having experience in the oil and gas business (upstream), I can say that to get almost 60 years of production from a field is fantastic!

Secondly, the graph does not show fluid denisities. They used fluid densities in the calculations but the graph shows Water Saturation (Sw).

Posted by: Joey on 7 Jun 05



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