Peak Oil

Drilling Our Way to Oblivion

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 17, 2005

(This article has been updated)

In what passes for an energy policy south of the border, the US Senate has voted 51-49 to add drilling the Actic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to its budget.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that the ANWR's so-called "1002 area" (after Section 1002 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act) is 95 percent likely to contain 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil (BBO), 50 percent likely to contain 7.7 BBO, and 5 percent likely to contain 11.8 BBO. [1]

America consumes some 20 million barrels of oil a day, so we can calculate how much supply the ANWR will add.

The ANWR drill isn't a done deal yet, as it still has to pass in Congress. On March 14, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-Maryland), Chairman of the Projection Forces Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee (whew), delivered a surprising presentation to Congress on the looming prospect of peak oil.

Update: Bartlett's full presentation, including graphs, is available for download (as a PDF).

Bartlett started with an explanation of the bell curve that oil wells follow: slow output initially that accelerates to a peak and then declines until the energy return on energy invested drops below 1:1 (i.e. it takes more energy to draw oil than the oil itself provides).

He then followed with a succinct review of Shell geologist M. King Hubbert's model of oil production.

Hubbert noticed when the bell curve reached its peak, about half of the oil had been exhausted from the field. Being a scientist, he theorized if you added up a lot of little bell curves, you would get one big bell curve, and if he could know the amount of reserves of oil in the United States, and he was doing this in the 1940s and early 1950s, and could project how much more might be found, he could then predict when the United States would peak in its oil production.

Doing this analysis, he concluded that we would peak in our oil production in 1970. This curve is what is known as Hubbert's Curve. The peak of the curve is what is known as Hubbert's Peak. ... So peak oil for the United States occurred in 1970, and it is true that every year since then we have pumped less oil and found less oil.

He noted the minimal effect the opening of the Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska had on the overall decline of America's oil output, and pointed out that the ANWR has "probably not even half as much as Prudhoe Bay".

After this, he turned his sights on global oil production, noting that:

from the most pessimistic to the most optimistic, there was not much deviation in what the estimate is as to what the known reserves are out there. It is about 1,000 gigabarrels. That sounds like an awful lot of oil. But when you divide into that the amount of oil which we use, about ... 83 1/2 [million barrels a day] ... you come out at about 40 years of oil remaining in the world. ...

The Energy Information Agency says that we are going to keep on using more oil. ... That cannot be true for a couple of reasons. We peaked in our discovery of oil way back here in the late sixties, about 1970. In our country it peaked much earlier than that, by the way. But the world is following several years behind us. ... You cannot pump any more oil than you have found, quite obviously.

Bartlett pointed out that humans have already used about 1,000 gigabarrels of oil, meaning we are at or near global peak production. Exploring the consequences of peak oil, Bartlett noted the obvious: as the energy cost of extracting oil goes up, profits for oil companies are squeezed.

He went on to point out that America has 2 percent of the world's reserves but 8 percent of the world's output, meaning America is pumping its oil 4 times faster than the rest of the world. At that rate, and assuming consumption grows steadily, America will have to rely increasingly on imports as it depletes its own reserves.

Bartlett took his analysis still further, demonstrating that since 1982, oil companies have been consuming more oil searching for oil than they have found in new reserves. Today, the oil industry finds one barrel of oil for every six barrels it pumps.

He then described Jevon's Paradox, which states that efforts to solve a problem often make it worse. In this case, efforts to improve energy efficiency make more energy aviailable, which simply drives more consumption instead of prolonging reserves. He used the following example to illustrate this:

Our refrigerators today are probably twice as efficient as they were 20 or 30 years ago. But instead of a little refrigerator, we have a big one. Instead of one, we may have two. So I will bet we are using as much electricity in our refrigeration as we ever used.

Mentioning Malthus and his infamous relationship between an exponentially growing population and an arithmetically growing food supply, Bartlett cited the Green Revolution not as a repudiation of Malthus but as a tremendous example of Jevon's Paradox.

By extending the earth's carrying capacity massively (using cheap oil to produce plentiful fertilizers and pesticides), the Green Revolution allowed the earth's population of humans to double and double again - just like using the energy savings from a better fridge to make a bigger one.

Bartlett concluded that America's - and the world's - only hope to survive the end of cheap oil without complete social breakdown is to buy enough time, through aggressive conservation and development of renewable energy, to make a planned transition to a lower energy economy. We need "to reduce demand so that prices do not get so high that it is impossible to invest the capital necessary to develop the alternatives."

This is consistent with the recent US Department of Energy study that stated, "Waiting until world conventional oil production peaks before initiating crash program mitigation leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for two decades or longer." Starting a "crash program" ten years before the peak would soften the energy crisis, and starting twenty years before the peak would avert it.

The report concluded, "Without timely mitigation, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), accompanied by huge oil price increases, both of which would create a long period of significant economic hardship worldwide."

Unfortunately, the available evidence is that it's too late to avoid entirely an energy-related crash, and probably too late to do much about it. At the same time, if a conservative Republican like Roscoe Bartlett can recognize and speak out about the situation, it's possible that enormous political will may yet be brought to bear in meeting the challenge to reduce our energy consumption sharply instead of merely drilling our way to oblivion.


[1] These numbers, recalculated in 2001, are higher than the original numbers from the 1998 report, which indicated 1.2 BBO, 5.3 BBO, and 9.4 BBO, respectively for the 95 percent, 50 percent, and 5 percent scenarios. This recalculation was conducted after the Bush administration announced it wanted to open the ANWR to drilling.

Dare I suggest the USGS may be susceptible to political pressure? According to the US Energy Information Agency (EIA):

The initially recoverable oil and gas resource volumes in both known and undiscovered fields are projected to increase through 2020 in all cases. ... These adjustments to the USGS [world oil reserve assessment] ... estimates are based on non-technical considerations that support domestic supply growth to the levels necessary to meet projected demand levels. [my emphasis]

This is consistent with previous USGS reports that sought to mislead the public about energy reserves based on political considerations, as reported by "peak oil" geologist Colin J. Campbell.

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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