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Evidence that oil production may already have peaked [ClearOnMoney]
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Evidence that oil production may already have peaked

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Commentary

Evidence that oil production may already have peaked

20 Mar 2012 by Jim Fickett.

Most arguments about future oil production revolve around estimates of reserves and resources. But the fundamental idea of peak oil – that each oil field, each oil region and, ultimately, the earth, has a point of peak production – is still worth studying from time to time. In a Nature article from January, Oil's tipping point has passed, James Murray and David King, both environmental scientists, point out that, recently, changes in demand result in price volatility, but not much change in production. This is evidence that production is near the peak.

Production of crude oil increased along with demand from 1988 to 2005. But then something changed. Production has been roughly constant for the past seven years, despite an increase in price of around 15% per year (at Brent crude (London) prices) from about US$15 per barrel in 1998 to more than $140 per barrel in 2008. The price still reflects demand: it declined to about $35 per barrel in 2009 thanks to the 2008–09 recession, and recovered along with the upturn in the global economy to $120 per barrel before declining to its value today of $111. But the supply chain has been unable to keep pace with rising demand and prices.

They show a scatter plot of production versus price. For 1988 to 2004 the points lie along a line of positive slope, showing just what you would expect of a market in which supply adjusts to meet demand. But from 1998 to 2004 all the points are grouped around a vertical line, i.e. prices have varied but production has not responded.

The world is a complicated place, and this argument alone certainly does not prove that we've seen peak oil. But it does support the idea. The authors come to a conclusion that is pretty much the consensus now in the oil industry:

We are not running out of oil, but we are running out of oil that can be produced easily and cheaply.

And they suggest that energy efficiency and alternate sources of energy need to be much higher priorities:

The solutions are not secret or mysterious. Globally we get 55 × 1018 joules of useful energy from 475 × 1018 joules of primary energy from fossil fuels, biomass and nuclear power plants. The difference is due to energy losses and inefficiencies in the conversion and transmission processes. By increasing the efficiency, we could get the same useful energy by burning less fuel. We need to specify conservation goals for improving the efficiency of use of fossil-fuel energy. These include taxing oil to keep prices high and to encourage a reduction in energy use; encouraging nuclear energy; questioning if and how economic growth can continue without an increase in fossil fuels; lowering speed limits on roads and encouraging public transport; or redirecting tax credits towards renewable-energy development. The transformation will take decades, so we must begin as soon as possible. Emphasizing the short-term economic imperative from oil prices must be enough to push governments into action now.