The Oil and the Glory

Peak or no peak?

Peak or no peak?

Do you ever get the feeling that some people want the world to run out of oil, really really soon? That runs through my mind sometimes with the flood of peak-oil material at conferences, in books and in the media. Among the latest are a couple of new reports with yet more alarming findings. The headline: We’re in trouble.

At the University of California Davis, researchers use a novel approach to reach the conclusion that we will run out of oil a full century before any alternative can take its place, reports Karin Zeitvogel of Agence France-Presse. Needless to say, that’s a long time in the dark.

The Davis researchers — engineering professor Debbie Niemeier and postdoc researcher Nataliya Malyshkina — published their conclusions in Environmental Science & Technology. Their methodology involves inferring the behavior of oil and alternative fuel companies through their stock prices, and then mathematically reaching the conclusion that oil runs out three or four decades from now — somewhere between 2041 and 2054 (in their equations, alternative energy scales up only around 2140).

You were looking for date certain. This is pretty close. I just thought I’d point out one thing: Niemeier and Malyshkina use the figure 1.3 trillion barrels of oil as the total global supply. That may be the case, but some researchers dispute the number. Cambridge Energy Research Associates, for example, says the actual figure is three times the size, or 3.7 trillion barrels of oil when you include conventional plus unconventional petroleum like oil sands and very heavy oil.

The second report, by the International Energy Agency, confirms that production of conventional oil peaked four years ago, writes John Collins Rudolph at the New York Times’ Green Blog. The Paris-based agency says that some 70 million barrels of conventional crude was produced in 2006, and thinks that production is going to plateau at just about that level for another quarter-century.

After that? Perhaps the Niemeier-Malyshkina scenario.

Not everyone is so pessimistic about the energy future. The New York Times’ Clifford Krauss weighs in today in a special energy section of the newspaper with a superlatively positive outlook for global energy. Krauss says that the totality of new oil development around the world, in addition to technological advances that have created a glut of shale and liquefied natural gas, provides for a long runway of time in which fossil fuels will continue to power the world. Exxon Mobil’s William Colton tells him, “There’s enough oil to supply the world’s needs as far as anyone can see.”

Even in the green space there are still optimists. In a new report issued today by the Council on Foreign Relations, four authors suggest ways to create low-carbon alternative energy in cooperation between the United States, China, Brazil and India. These authors — Michael Levi, Elizabeth Economy, Shannon O’Neil and Adam Segal — start with the reasonable premise that the United States is never going to dive wholeheartedly into expensive low-carbon fuels as part of a climate-change policy unless such a policy is intermingled with incentives to get the other three countries on board. Then it sets out prescriptions on how to address the very different set of domestic motivations in each of the countries.

How does one square these final pictures with those of the Davis researchers and the IEA? One doesn’t. The contradictions say much about the continuing unfathomability of the geology underneath us.