Thursday, June 5, 2008

Government Accountability Office - Peak Oil Report Feb '07

As I have stated in previous posts, I am certain oil is a finite resource and will run out. Also, our current civilization is heavily dependent on oil for even our most basic necessities. The severity of the effects of the depletion of the world's oil will depend on several factors:

1. When it occurs
2. How quickly it occurs
3. How demand and consumption respond to it occurring
4. The availability, supply and price of alternatives

These are the factors that I am not certain.

Many people are very certain of these factors, unfortunately few of them agree. They all cannot be correct. Hence, one of the reasons I began my amateur research and ultimately this very blog. So, I continue my search for reliable data to make my predictions and share them here.

I found a report by the GAO (a hopefully unbiased and balanced source) from early last year that:
(1) examined when oil production could peak,
(2) assessed the potential for transportation technologies to mitigate the consequences of a peak in oil production, and
(3) examined federal agency efforts that could reduce
uncertainty about the timing of a peak or mitigate the consequences. To address
these objectives, GAO reviewed studies, convened an expert panel, and consulted
agency officials.

It can be found here:

It is a rather comprehensive report that examines many of the issues I am currently interested in. It covers the following main topics: key peak oil studies, the difficulty in determining peak oil, and key technologies to enhance oil supply and displace oil consumption in the transportation sector.

Key Peak Oil Studies:
This is the main reason I am highlighting this study. I, like many others, would really like to know when we are going to begin to run out of oil (my 'nocs would be in focus at that point). Over 20 separate independent peak oil studies were examined. The entire list can be found in the appendix. This graph shows the disparity in consensus:

As one can see, the studies predictions ranged from peaking right now to some time in the next century. My rough estimate (hardly a rigorous statistical method) would be to take the mean or median of these wide range of experts. That would put us in the early 2020 time frame for a 'peak' of oil production. One might wonder about the reasons for such a wide range of results. The study examined that as well.

Difficulty in Determining Peak Oil:

The difficulties in determining peak oil can be broken down into several main reasons.

(1) The amount of oil in the ground is uncertain. The entire earth has not been surveyed. Even results from areas that have been surveyed are not always public knowledge. Many OPEC producers keep reserve data secret. So, we have to guess if they are declining production to moderate the price or because there is actually declining reserves. The report suggests that we fund more studies to better determine reserves.
(2) The definition of 'oil'. There are many definitions for 'oil', which are encompassed by light, heavy, conventional, non-conventional and others. These definitions are not universal and many of the studies use different definitions. The GAO study touches on this disparity (some heavy oil is considered to be conventional, while others consider it non-conventional). It also notes that this nomenclature changes over time. I do not attempt to claim I fully understand the differences.
(3) Political and investment risk factors also could affect future oil exploration and production and, ultimately, the timing of peak oil production. A large percentage of the world's remaining oil is in unstable political areas. This in and of itself is a reason to begin to believe peak oil is coming sooner rather than later. Oil may not have actually 'peaked', but it may 'virtually' peak if the Saudi monarchy is overrun by Al Qaeda. If the oil costs more energy to extract than it contains, it is effectively not there.
(4)Future world demand is uncertain. Will demand continue to increase, even when the price increases? Oil demand seems to be inelastic in the short run, but rather elastic in the long run. Americans are already consuming less gasoline in response to increased prices. Will the world follow suit?
(5) Technological, cost, and environmental challenges make it unclear how much oil can ultimately be recovered from (1) proven reserves, (2) hard-to-reach locations, and (3) nonconventional sources (normally defined as shale oil, tar sands, heavy and extra-heavy oil).


There are two areas of technology that this study examines: Increasing production and decreasing consumption (only in the sector with the largest demand - transportation)

The technologies for increasing oil production were new to me, as I have little background in the oil industry. I found it very interesting. They include things such as deep water and ultra deep water wells/platforms and injection technologies (steam, water, CO2). One disturbing point was raised - certain fields that are not expolotied using advanced techniques are forever limited in the amount of oil that is recoverable. Many foreign state-run oil companies do not use the latest advanced techniques, thus lowering the amount of oil ultimately available for recovery.

As for key technologies that may help us in curbing consumption, it does not break much new ground, but gives various figures and reasons on costs, benefits and challenges of many technologies I have already talked about in previous posts (bio fuels, hydrogen, coal Gas-To-Liquid, hybrids, PHEVs, EVs, etc). One caveat: the price of oil was under $70/barrel in February 2007, which clouds any economic viability discussions.

All in all, I found this to be a great primer for peak oil. It is not overly 'doomsdayish', provides a lists of challenges as well as suggestions for government to begin to look for solutions. For some it may be too little, but I think it is a good start. A must read for budding 'peak oilers'.

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