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Objections to Peak Oil

There have been many people who object to the whole idea of oil depletion and/or peak production. Some accept the idea that oil will peak but believe that there is more oil than the pessimists suggest. Others object to the theory of the Hubbert Curve in general, taking the view that more oil will be found or that other sources of energy can easily fill the gap. This page summarises those objections and offers the answers of the Hubbert Curve proponents.

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The Amount of Oil

People have predicted the end of oil in the past

  • This is true but, unless you believe that oil is infinite, oil must peak sometime.
  • Not all those who predicted depletion were wrong (see Previous Forecasts).
  • The accurate forecasts are about oil peaking, the inaccurate ones tended to be about oil running out.
  • The optimists have also been wrong in the past (for example, in the 1980s oil industry analysts were predicting that US oil production would return to peak levels by 2000).
  • Hubbert was right in his prediction about US production (see Hubbert Curve)
  • Because they were wrong in the past does not mean they always will be.

There is plenty of oil in the ground (according to the USGS)

  • The USGS forecast of 2000 claimed that there was far more oil left to be discovered than the pessimists accept (although even that would only shift the peak year by a few decades). Richard Heinberg in "The Party's Over" pointed out where this went wrong because they were using the US-48 growth to extrapolate for the rest of the world. Unfortunately the rest of the world in the first half of the twenty-first century is very different from the USA in the first three-quarters of the twentieth.

There is plenty of oil in the ground (as much as we've already extracted)

  • We all agree. Running out is not the problem. We probably never will actually run out. The problem is the end of cheap oil with the resulting shortages and high prices.

There is plenty of oil in the ground (the R/P ratio says 40 years)

  • If oil could be produced like wood from a pile (see Production) and consumption remained level, the oil would indeed last for about 40 years (and more, allowing for discoveries). Unfortunately oil production will drop, consumption is rising and, again, the problem is the end of cheap oil, not the end of oil.
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Future Discoveries

Reserves keep growing

  • In the 1980s, OPEC increased its reserves despite no major discoveries. This is acknowledged as "creative accountancy" (see the Reserves Fiddle).
  • Increasing reserves do not indicate new discoveries, only re-estimating the amounts in old fields. If we want to know how new discoveries are going, they need to be backdated to the original date of that field's discovery (see Creaming Curves and Reserve Growth on the Jargon page). This indicates that discoveries have been falling since the 1960s.

We will find more oil in the future

  • Most of the world has already been searched. When OPEC cut oil production in the 1970s, the oil companies began searching elsewhere for alternatives to the Middle East. The result was the North Sea, the Caspian and deep-water oil. By now, there is little left to search. (No, there isn't any oil on other planets, even if we could return it to Earth; oil was formed by microscopic plants and animals in the distant past and no other planet is known to have had life).
  • There is little room left for giant fields to be hiding. Finding small fields will not make much difference to oil production.
  • Discoveries have been dropping since the 1960s (with occasional short reverses) despite four decades of searching. To prevent peak production, we would need to actually turn the discovery trend around, not just slow it (see Discoveries).
  • Production lags discovery by 20 or 30 years. Even if we find oil now, we will not be able to use it for decades (see the Importance of the Discovery Curve).
  • Even a large find would only put back peak oil by a few years or slow the decline slightly.
  • Little oil was found in USA-48 despite declines and searches. If the USA, with all its finances, experience and technological skills could not reverse the trend, there seems little reason to think that the world could.

New technology will produce more oil

  • See the last point above. In the three decades since the 1970s, the US oil companies have been using all of their knowledge to find new ways of extracting oil from the US fields. Some technological advances were made but oil continued to decline. We cannot rely on discovering new techniques continuously.

New oil is being produced all the time

  • This is the abiotic theory of oil. A few scientists believe that oil is created continuously within the Earth rather than by the compression of organisms over millions of years. There is very little support or evidence for this and, besides, it seems to have little effect on countries' oil productions.
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Production

The Hubbert Curve is too simplistic. Some countries don't follow it

  • The Hubbert Curve was never meant to be an exact representation of oil production. With most countries, external factors alter the curve and it is a statistical trend anyway. It was designed to show how production normally occurs (see the Hubbert Curve). The important points are that production peaks when about half of the Ultimate is extracted and that it will decline thereafter inevitably. These points have so far been shown to be accurate.

Why should we assume the world production curve will follow the Hubbert Curve?

  • Hubbert Curves are designed to apply to large areas, not single fields. The curves for countries have shown to generally follow the Curve; in that sense, the world acts like a larger country.

OPEC and wars will effect the world production curve

  • If you look at the production curve for the first half of the 20th century (see chart P5), the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam had little effect on the curve. Nor did the Great Depression or the First World War. The only effects came when OPEC artificially cut back production in the 1970s and 80s. These were political moves – they could only slow the upslope. When production begins to decline, the only thing that somebody like OPEC could do is decrease production, not increase it.

When production falls, we simply build more wells or pump the oil faster

  • Wells can only flow at a certain rate. As USA showed, it is difficult to increase production by very much, no matter how many wells you build (see the table in the Hubbert Curve).
  • Even if building more wells could extract more oil, that wouldn't create any more. The result would be that the eventual decline would be even steeper and more disastrous.

As oil becomes more expensive, more oil becomes available

  • It is true that reserves depends partially on what can be extracted and the price of oil. Oil costs money and energy to extract; if the price of oil on world markets is $20, then if the oil from a field costs $25 to extract, it is not worth extracting. If the world price rises to $30, then that oil now becomes viable. Unfortunately that new oil will be expensive and that is what peak oil is about – not the end of oil, but the end of cheap oil. And it is this which will bring recessions, unemployment, famines, etc.
  • This also suffers from the "Law of Receding Horizons". A rising price may make certain oil sources more valuable but it is likely that other elements would also rise in price – materials, equipment, wages and the energy itself which is needed to extract that oil. It may mean that the oil would still not be worth drilling for, whatever the market price.

We can reduce the taxes to make oil cheaper

  • That would make it cheaper to individuals, but not cheaper to the governments and oil companies. Eventually, as the oil price continued to rise, there would be no more taxes to cut.
  • It would not create any more oil, just use it quicker. The eventual decline would be steeper.
  • Governments would have to get their money from somewhere else so people would not actually benefit.

Conservation measures would save energy

  • There certainly would be less energy used but if populations continued to grow and developing countries still wished to increase their living standards and energy usage, the effect would be slight.
  • More efficiency invites people to use more. If more fuel-efficient car engines made travelling cheaper, people would tend to drive more. Cheaper electricity bills encourage people to use more appliances.
  • Conservation costs money and energy in the manufacture of newer, more efficient cars, insulation materials, fluorescent lights, etc. Replacing old cars and appliances with the newer types could use more energy than simply sticking with the existing things.
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Alternatives

Wood gave way to coal; coal gave way to oil; oil will give way to another source

  • Both coal and oil were superior to their predecessors – they had more energy per kilogram and were more transportable. The replacements for oil only produce electricity or are inferior (like biomass) so do not follow that trend. There is nothing suitable to replace oil.

Gas will replace oil

  • Gas, being a fossil fuel, is running out as well. While, at the moment, it would last longer than oil, if we switch from oil to gas, we would end up depleting it more quickly (see Natural Gas).

Coal will replace oil

  • Coal produces far more carbon dioxide than oil and gas, therefore causing more problems with global warming and pollution.
  • Coal produces electricity but cannot produce all of the products of oil. Coal to oil conversion is not very efficient.
  • Coal produces less power per unit than oil so we would need to use far more to replace oil and gas.
  • Mining is an energy-intensive process and most of the easily accessible coal has already been extracted.
  • See the Coal page for more details.

Renewables will replace oil

  • Developing and building suitable renewable replacements will take many years and much energy. There isn't much of either.
  • Most renewables produce electricity, not the other products of oil such as plastics and fertilisers.
  • They cannot produce the consistent and instant power output of oil and gas. We would need some way of storing electricity for the periods when the wind/sun/tide isn't available.
  • See the Renewables page for more details.

Nuclear will replace oil

  • Nuclear power produces many pollutants such as radioactive wastes and carbon dioxide. This will cost much money and energy to deal with.
  • The high-grade uranium will not last very long if we switched to creating most of our electricity from nuclear power.
  • Nuclear power only produces electricity, not the other products of oil and gas.
  • See the Nuclear page for more details.

Fusion / thermal depolymerisation / Tesla / other exotic sources will replace oil

  • We have been working on nuclear fusion for four decades without success. The other exotic sources are still theoretical. There is very little time or energy left to spend on something which may never actually work.
  • They would only produce electricity, not the other products of oil and gas.

Hydrogen will replace oil

  • Hydrogen is not a fuel, just a carrier for electricity created somewhere else.
  • The creation of hydrogen always uses more energy than it produces.
  • It would be expensive and potentially dangerous to use hydrogen to replace those situations where oil is currently used, such as air and road transport.
  • See the Hydrogen page for more details.

Tar sands and oil shales will replace oil

  • The production of unconventional oils is slow, expensive and polluting.
  • Some unconventional oil uses more energy than it produces (EROEI).
  • We could never produce enough unconventional oil to replace normal oil in the time left.
  • See the Unconventional Oil page for more details.
 

Contents

The amount of oil

Future discoveries

Production

Alternatives

 

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