Science: “Peak oil production may already be here”

HSBC Bank: Oil will be gone in 50 years


Perhaps the most sobering outcome of a non-OPEC plateau might be reminding everyone that even planet-scale resources have their limits. And that when you are consuming them at close to 1000 gallons a second, the limits can catch you unaware. The next 5 years, assuming oil prices remain on the high side, should show who the realists are.

That’s from the 3/25 issue of Science magazine, which has long been warning of peak oil (see “Science/IEA: World oil crunch looming? Not if we can find six Saudi Arabias!“).  None of this is a surprise to CP readers (see “Peak oil production coming sooner than expected“).

More and more serious analysts are warning that conventional oil is at or near peak production levels (see “WikiLeaks bombshell: Saudi reserves overstated by 40%, global production plateau immiment” and “German military study warns of peak oil crisis” and World’s top energy economist warns: “We have to leave oil before oil leaves us”).

Now the British bank HSBC, the world’s second largest in assets, joins those who warn we’ve run out of time, as CNBC reported (with video):

There could be less than 49 years of oil supplies left, even if demand were to remain flat according to HSBC’s senior global economist Karen Ward.

Key strategies for dealing with peak oil remain fuel efficiency, mass transit, and plug-in hybrids, as I’ve said for many years (see Peak Oil? Consider it solved! and Plug-in hybrids and electric cars “” a core climate solution, nationally and globally)

Now McClatchy takes the opportunity to ask, “Is the moment for electric cars finally driving up?

Interest in electric vehicles has ebbed and flowed with the price of oil over the last three decades, but something new is clearly afoot. General Motors and Nissan already have electric cars on the streets of major U.S. cities, and intensified battery research is bringing down costs.

In 2005, there were no makers of lithium-ion batteries in the United States. Now, more than half a dozen battery plants are open or near completion, thanks in part to $2.4 billion in co-investment from the federal government.

Chevy’s Volt battery costs about $8,000 now, down from $12,000 or more a few years ago.

“The question is: Can these guys make a battery that is five times cheaper? I think yes. I think we can do it,” Eric Isaacs, the director of the Argonne National Laboratory, said in an interview. Argonne, outside Chicago, is the Department of Energy’s lead lab for advanced battery research and development. Its 15 years of research into lithium ion batteries resulted in the one that’s now being used in GM’s Chevy Volt.

The Energy Department estimates that there’ll be enough manufacturing capacity for 50,000 electric vehicle batteries by the end of 2011 and 500,000 by the end of 2014.

The bottom line is that electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence.

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83 Responses to Science: “Peak oil production may already be here”

  1. Richard Brenne says:

    Certainly electric cars plugged into smart grids powered by solar panels on every home, office and building on Anthro-Earth is the most positive vision if we’re to keep our current lifestyles going.

    But I think our current lifestyles are doomed no matter what we do because they’re simply unsustainable for countless reasons.

    The most positive vision I can imagine is solar and wind with optimal European or Japanese-style density. Farmland and forest surrounds towns that are served by light and heavier electric rail. Every train has designated spaces for bikes and electric bikes, and most people ride to these trains.

    There is no more fossil fuel use, and a flying unicorn sweeps down and carries me to lollypop land, where the streetlights are made of chocolate –

    Waa, where am – Darn dream-activated software!

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    A few things to keep in mind:

    All that matters is the interplay between supply and demand. We can still likely conserve and transition away from oil quicker than the supply will decline, but time is running out very quickly.

    We’ve been on a production plateau for a few years, so the real question is not when will we hit the peak — we probably did a couple of years ago — but how soon will we come off the so-called “undulating [production] plateau” and how steep the decline will be. There is plenty of reason to believe that we won’t collapse because of a leap to $500/barrel oil or go straight to a Mad Max scenario because we can’t fuel food delivery trucks. As supply begins to decline we’ll see higher prices, but that will spur us to (finally!) pick a lot of the low-hanging conservation fruit and (sadly) resort to ever more use of unconventional petroleum sources like tar sands, ultra deep water, and even (shudder) coal-to-liquids. Everyone says we’re horribly inefficient in our oil use, which is true; the flip side to that is we’re surrounded by opportunities to use less without making huge changes to infrastructure or lifestyles.

    The problem, of course, is the intersection between PO and CC. Some of those unconventional oil supplies carry ugly GHG emissions. If most American consumers have a choice between $4 gasoline and more CO2 vs. $5 or $6 gasoline and less CO2, they’ll pick the first one 10 our of 10 times. You couldn’t ask for a much clearer example of the “free market” giving consumers incentives to act against their own long term interests than that.

    And then there’s the possibility of resource wars, which is almost too awful to contemplate.

  3. Sasparilla says:

    Nice to see more big entities like banks are starting to talk about this, at least some discussion can take place in the financial industry ahead of falling production (which will occur at some point and cause big problems).

    Just to clarify the Energy Department battery production estimates (which seem a little on the low side for 2011) the GM Volt’s battery production facilities in MI will be making Volt batteries by mid 2011 with a facility capacity of 60,000 Volt batteries (although GM has been talking lower production numbers than that) – supposedly MI sourcing of the packs was to start later this spring. By the end of 2012 Nissan will complete its battery production facilities in TN with a stated capacity of 200,000 Leaf batts a year to match US production of the Leaf, also starting in 2012.

  4. chaitanya says:

    hmmm, keen to know more about efficiency and eroei of electric cars. not too happy with the current numbers we see. and that video report is on conventional oil I suppose, so a lot more dirty drilling and extraction awaits us unless milions of people have something to say about that.

  5. Crank says:

    not sure how one would calculate the eroei of an electric car. Surely it depends primarily on the source of the energy you’re using to charge it?

    I share the same concern, though, in terms of the manufacturing energy expended amortized over the life of the battery. I’ve heard conflicting views on whether this is a problem.

    Not only that, I’m also wondering where we’re going to get the lithium from. It’s great that GM is manufacturing the cells locally, but isn’t the lithium imported from China?

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    One more thing: I think we need to keep in mind that we’re not going to make a single, big phase change conversion from what we’re doing today to Something New and Different and Better. We’ll go through at least one or two (or more) intermediate phases, with big differences in which countries do what, when, etc.

    One peak oil starts to bite (and it hasn’t even started yet), the trick will be to keep things moving — transportation is by far the biggest component of oil consumption in many countries, including the US — without digging our climate change hole too much deeper and also not running the economy into the nearest ditch.

    What we really need is Gene Kranz (flight director on Apollo 13) to tell us this will be our greatest triumph, not a disaster. Or Richard’s flying unicorns. Those would be seriously cool.

  7. espiritwater says:

    This, no doubt, is why Obama is sneaking oil shale across Canada’s borders…

    According to Mike Ruppert, author of “Crossing the Rubicon”, it requires tons of petroleum just to make one vehicle. With 300 million Americans, all needing to drive (or have parents that drive), wouldn’t this be a bit of a problem– switching to electric cars, etc.? (7 gallons per tire, and then there’s the oil and gas for paint, the exterior, etc.)

  8. Michael Tucker says:

    Conventional oil at or near peak? Well of course it is. That is why we are now getting so much from tar sands and oil shale. I wonder how long the unconventional oils will last.

    Did you know both Israel and Jordan would like to develop their oil shale reserves? Too bad they have such a horrendous water scarcity problem.

    “…electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence.”

    I think so too but we need to be careful. First, switching from oil to electricity means we will be relying on domestic water. Domestic water for industry, for agriculture, for homes, and now for cars. Can we keep up with demand without making some important and expensive changes? How many electric cars? Maybe 200 million in the US alone? Then there are the resources that are required to make these electric vehicles. I sure hope we have enough.

    I keep having this feeling that we are relying on a techno-fix that is not fully developed. How long have we making and using batteries? Well I am optimistic that inexpensive solutions are just around the corner.

  9. ToddInNorway says:

    Hi Crank @5, the main lithium resources currently known are in South America. Chile is the world´s largest lithium producer. China is number 3 or 4. Wikipedia can be trusted for this.

  10. sault says:

    espirit, vehicle manufacture uses, at most, around 20% of the energy a vehicle will consume during its lifetime. Operating the vehicle uses 60 – 70% while disposal uses 5 – 10%. Also, since electric cars powertrains have fewer moving parts and last much longer than combustion cars, the initial production energy embodied in the vehicle will be spread out over more miles and/or years. On top of that, electric cars use about 1/3 the energy a gas car does to go one mile, so their operation usage is that much lower.

    Please give a link that shows the President’s activities concerning shale oil & Canada.

  11. Richard Brenne says:

    espiritwater (#6) – Your excellent comment includes the term “sneaking oil shale” which is remarkably similar in all ways to “snake oil sales.”

    Lou Grinzo (#3) – Another of your excellent comments with your needed economist’s (I’d call you a rare and essential ecological economist, and I’m sorry for slamming all economists in past posts, I just mean all non-ecological economists, or I’m afraid 90-some per cent) perspective.

    You mention the “possibility of resource wars” which I also sadly agree with, if by “possibility” you mean “certainty”, since the U.S. alone is currently involved in two and a half such wars or at least occupations.

    Afghanistan has a high percentage of the world’s lithium (Bolivia has the most, now how do we overthrow their carpetbagging native Indian leader, if by carpetbagging I mean his ancestors around 11,000 years ago) so our oil wars can become lithium wars.

    And I don’t believe in a Mad Max scenario either, because ultimately I don’t see enough oil to fuel hot rodding around.

    The only problem with the Peak Oil graph heading this post is that the fall from the plateau will be a lot quicker than the climb to it.

    In 1970 when the U.S. reached Peak Oil the world’s primary oil economies were primarily the U.S. and Canada, Western Europe, some of their former colonies and increasingly Japan. Now those include China, India and every other nation either has an oil economy or wants one. So demand is only increasing while supply is only decreasing, so I think we could see $500 a barrel oil in our future sooner than we might think.

    Simplistically and wishfully one might imagine that Peak Oil would mean less fossil fuel burning, but an economist like you is in the best position to point out that that will probably mean we use more tar sand, oil shale, coal to liquids and biomass (imagine billions without the fossil fueled heating and cooking sources they were used to) to compensate.

    Then we’re no longer in the virtual reality constructed by economists (present company excluded) but the non-virtual or real reality best understood by physical scientists. At the top of this list I’d put Jim Hansen, who famously (here anyway) said that if we burn all available fossil fuels he’s “dead certain” we’ll create a runaway greenhouse effect and Anthro-Earth’s climate will come closer to resembling that of Venus, of course a dead planet.

    Since everything we’re experiencing is completely unprecedented in scale, precedents are like metaphors and helpful only in part, and speaking of parts, I’ve just noticed mine now extends pretty much from one ear to the other.

  12. Bob Lang says:

    Not until I see the heavy equipment made by Deere & Co and Caterpillar run on batteries do I believe that anything close to our current lifestyle can continue without oil.

    The quantities of unconventional liquid fuels, such as tar sands and biofuels, are negligible compared to current consumption.

  13. Wonhyo says:

    Here’s what I think is necessary for an orderly transition to a post-peak world:

    First, a rapid and sustained reduction in energy demand. Convert as many jobs as possible into telecommuting jobs. For non-telecommuting jobs, incentivize carpooling to the point where average occupancy rises to 3 passengers per vehicle. If 76% of jobs are converted to telecommuting jobs and the 3 passengers per vehicle is reached, that will reduce private auto fuel usage by 92%. This can be achieved within a year, if everyone commits to it.

    Second, a rapid and sustained deployment of renewable energy. Require every new home in a sunny area to have 80% of its viable rooftop area installed with solar PV and/or solar heating. Give the home buyer the option of buying the equipment, or let the utility buy the equipment (and lease the rooftop space) if the home buyer declines. Either way, offer whatever government subsidies, grants, loans, etc. are needed to make it happen. Require every existing home renovation to meet the same requirements. Require every major roof maintenance to meet the same requirements. This should harvest all of the viable residential solar power within 20 years.

    Shut down all new military equipment procurement. Phase out all obsolete military equipment. Maintain existing, viable military equipment that is cost effective to do so. Switch the military industrial complex over to production and deployment of solar panels, wind generators, smart grids, etc.

    Deploy wind generation everywhere there is sufficient wind. Prohibit production of new gasoline-only vehicles. Require all new vehicles to be high efficiency hybrids, with additional incentives for efficiently-sized plug-in hybrids.

    Proceed with all of the above steps at a pace that is limited only by nature.

  14. Lewis C says:

    Lou at 2/. –

    “All that matters is the interplay between supply and demand. We can still likely conserve and transition away from oil quicker than the supply will decline, but time is running out very quickly.”

    There are a few points troubling me that make your view seem pretty optimistic.

    First, while supply and demand is of course fundamental, there’s a further factor which changes the outcome – The fraction of production used within most producer countries is rising steadily – at the expense of the fraction available for export – Thus traded oil available to importer nations is likely to decline substantially faster than global production.

    Second, as far as I remember the DOE report of March 2009 projected a production shortfall of around 10m barrels/day, from the level of traditional demand growth, five years after decline in production began in 2012. That 4%/yr production decline seems highly likely to be raised to 5% or 6% by the producers’ consumption issue. I doubt the US could match that rate by import decline for long before it found itself trying to import a rising fraction of global traded supply, and thereby pushing prices to ruinous levels.

    While you’re right to remark that the inefficiency of US usage implies plenty of fat to be cut away before impacting real needs (e.g. recreational use, school-runs in SUVs etc) there are two ways of achieving those cuts – by price or by ration card – (The tradable ration being discussed in the UK seems off the US radar at present). Which means in effect that the blue collar worker will find fuel becoming unaffordable quite early on, short of some massive govt intervention. And that takes the bottom out of the economy, out of the wealth to fund a boom in electric vehicles, and out of the confidence to fund further acceleration of the deployment of non-fossil energies both to power those vehicles while also displacing coal-usage with raised coal exports.

    Third, the Hersch Report (for the DOD in 2005) was commissioned precisely to assess the time needed for a crash program of industrial reform to avoid massive disruption due to Peak Oil. After long and very thorough research, the team found that at least 20 years was required so fundamental is affordable oil to the global society and so scarce are the scaleable replacements. According to the DOE (2009) we have less than 20 months before the onset of a global production decline.

    Yet I fully agree that we’re not looking at an overnight crash of industrial society – the collapse of the oil-price after the 2008 oil-price spike, followed by a rapid return of global demand driving price recovery (Brent’s at over $120 today) is a clear indicator that a ‘sawtooth’ pattern of economic decline is the likely outcome, rather than a ‘Visigoths torch Rome’ scenario.

    A further factor that needs recognition lies behind the fact that here in the UK it seems that we’ve just completed the first tooth of that pattern, in that GDP was officially growing until Q4 of 2010, when it fell by 0.6%, putting the economy back to about 4.2% below where it was in Q2 2008.

    – Those happy talkers who claimed that fall was only due to bad winter weather went a bit quiet when it was pointed out that the arctic winds we suffered for over twelve weeks came off an extraordinary arctic high pressure system over the Kara Sea, that had failed to freeze over last autumn. When it finally did freeze in late January, we rapidly returned to mild normal temperatures. –
    No doubt such identifiable interactions between the economic impacts of CD & PO will become commonplace as each accelerates its rate of change.



  15. Michael Tucker says:

    “…shale does not only contain natural gas. The U.S. is thought to have 1.5 trillion barrels of shale oil, while China has some 355 billion barrels. Israel ranks third, just ahead of Russia.”

    “The World Energy Council estimates Israel’s shale deposits, located some 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem, could ultimately yield as many as 250 billion barrels of oil. For purposes of comparison, Saudi Arabia has proven reserves of 260 billion barrels.”

    This could all be lies but if we have 30 or 40 years of conventional oil left the unconventional oils could easily extend that well into the latter half of this century.

    Could Israel Become an Energy Giant?

  16. Wonhyo says:

    Michael Tucker, #15: “…unconventional [shale] oils could easily extend [oil supplied] well into the latter half of this century.”

    If we burn all our conventional oil, then proceed to burning unconventional oil, atmospheric CO2 concentration will skyrocket and climate change will accelerate. There may not be many people left in the latter half of this century.

  17. Joan Savage says:

    Peak Oil is accelerating us through Peak (Fresh) Water with hardly a public shout-out about dependence on oil for access to reliable water, or to water-dependent products, agricultural or industrial, that are shipped great distances.

    Time to look at a map and reconsider the shipping distances.

    One friend has a fabulous dream of sailing ships plying the oceans, following the winds as in earlier centuries, shipping primarily food. Nice thought.

  18. Alec Johnson says:

    I may have my figures wrong, but I thought the world consumed 1,000 barrels of oil per second, not gallons. Does anybody know which figure is correct?

  19. Rob Honeycutt says:

    Richard said… “The only problem with the Peak Oil graph heading this post is that the fall from the plateau will be a lot quicker than the climb to it.”

    I’m not so sure about that. The price of oil will climb and become less attractive as an energy source. As demand exceeds supply that will drive prices up. People will adjust their ways to compensate and prices will fall, and we’ll start the cycle again. That’s likely to happen a lot in the coming decades. And in the process new forms of cheaper and more predictable energy will come on line and oil use will fall.

    Ultimately, you gotta admit, oil is a rather magical material that can be converted into a huge variety of products. It will continue to be useful for other things than burning and we’ll continue to use less and less of it over time until it’s just uneconomical to process it. But that could be a couple hundred years from now.

    This issue we have facing us now is, we need to quit burning this stuff. Soon. Let’s keep it for all the other fantastic things you can do with it.

    Airborne carbon = bad.

    Sequestered carbon = good.

  20. Lewis C says:

    Alex – you are correct.

    The quote from the Science article is out by a factor of 45.
    We’re using 1,000 barrels per second, or thereabouts.



  21. Mike Roddy says:

    Slightly OT, but since there are so many readers here-

    Blood River, by Tim Butcher, about a trip down the Congo in 2004. Plenty of connections to future scarcity, and even oil, as motorbikes are powered by black market hybrid fuels. The whole book is fascinating.

  22. Dallasm says:

    There ya’ go.

    Peak Oil: The Libertarian Solution to Global Warming.

  23. Bob Lang says:

    The question of when the oil will run out is of purely academic interest.

    I’m having trouble imagining the world functioning on a 5% shortfall between supply and demand, let alone the 10% shortfall predicted as early as 4 years from now according to this EIA chart:

    Every $1 increase in the price of gas/diesel takes a million? vehicles off the road. The question should be at what point will the trucks stop rolling and the store shelves be empty?

    The road down the Olduvai Gorge has begun:

  24. Aaron Lewis says:

    Sometimes it falls to me to say things that nobody else will:

    The current human population is unsustainable. It happens to lemmings, and it has happed to us. Cheap oil makes our food supply possible. Less oil means less nitrates and pesticides. Less nitrates means less food. Less food means fewer people. Solar power is good for some stuff, but oil is the base of our organic chemical and fiber industries. Every microchip is put in a little plastic carrier – made out of oil. Cheap oil is the base of our civilization.

    Mother Nature does not need a place at the table, because she is going to have the last word.

  25. Robert says:

    Cars will not be the problem – most car journeys can be replaced by some form of electronic communication. There is rarely a need to actually haul your physical body from one point on the planet to another to achieve whatever it was you felt you needed to achieve.

    No. The real problem will be food. Every stage of food production requires huge fossil fuel inputs and without them I guess it will be back to the 17th century where we all work 12 hours a day in the fields (or possibly back to where parts of the third world are today). Except that most of us wouldn’t be very good at it, even if we had the slightest idea of how subsitance farming works anyway…

  26. Lore says:

    It’s inevitable that the crisis of oil will trump climate change. Humans have a very difficult time juggling competing catastrophes. You can see it in our short news cycles. Where a world event would take center stage for weeks, it now gets pushed out of the headlines by the latest disaster in days. If you noticed lately, these disasters are coming faster and faster. People are still dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet such news barely makes a footnote anymore.

    Peak Oil is the end of cheap oil. At some point we will not bounce back from the undulating plateau as the real fundamentals of supply are realized by competing nations. There will be no gentle slope affording us enough time for some quick techno fix, or will there then be the old energy necessary to make an all out effort to transition to the next best alternatives. Instead, there will be a panic of political and ideological competing ideas all attempting to manipulate the precious resources and time we will have left to us.

  27. Mike Roddy says:


    Yes and no. There will be a frenzy to get oil from shale deposits, disguised as domestic oil “security”. If Obama can do it, what can we expect from the rest of them?

    We are on a suicide mission that can only be interrupted by an enormous crisis. It will be a terrible price to pay, but BAU is leading to a much more comprehensive collapse, in all areas.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I was always quite impressed by the observation of one of the ASPO crowd that the peak was reached around Thanksgiving 2005, and that we have been stumbling along the peak production plateau ever since. The fall is nigh and will be precipitous. The depletion rates on some massive fields like Cantarell in Mexico are hair-raising. I think it was in a blog called the ‘Olduvai Scenario’ or some such, that I first came across Peak Oil as a concept. The blog title was implying that the cheerful author saw us heading back to the early Stone Age, and what with the amazing energy resource of hydrocarbons wasted by 20th century Homo hubris, that civilization would not be making any comebacks. And what, pray tell, happened to the ‘abiotic oil’ crew-so endlessly entertaining in their own way?

  29. Steve O says:

    “The question is: Can these guys make a battery that is five times cheaper?”

    Five times cheaper? What exactly does that mean? Isn’t “one times cheaper” already zero? He probably means 80% cheaper, but this colloquial usage drives me crazy. Particularly from a scientist.

    Sorry for the rant. As you were.

  30. Tom says:

    The mantra goes out that market conditions will solve this mess. Unfortunately for Americans it will. Yet why hasn’t any one propose a national gas tax of 10 cents per year for 10 years. Either way, the market conditions will demand more then 10 per/year if we do nothing. At least if we tax we would have some funds that will be able to accomplish what is necessary. For this energy burden is going to take place if we prepare or do nothing.

    It’s either simple energy tax that will prepare our economy for the mess that is to come. Or. Market conditions, what a sham.

  31. beesaman says:

    Another peak of peak oil, these seem to come along every decade and then move along again. Harldy gives confidence to the reporting does it?

  32. Anne van der Bom says:


    I guess it will be back to the 17th century where we all work 12 hours a day in the fields (or possibly back to where parts of the third world are today). Except that most of us wouldn’t be very good at it, even if we had the slightest idea of how subsitance farming works anyway…

    Lol. Modern biologic farming with electric tractors will do just fine.

  33. Joan Savage says:

    Meanwhile, the ozone hole opened over the Arctic this winter, and a mass of fresh water in the Arctic is being monitored for its possible perturbation of the north Atlantic currents..

    My, my, how much time do we think we have to do a progressive transition from Peak Oil?

  34. Mark says:

    Microbes rule our future

    First there’s this: some companies want to tap microbial power to extract natural gas from coal beds

    Then there’s this: microbes are the engine behind a potential “compost bomb” as circumpolar permafrost melts and the organic part starts decomposing.


    If the little buggers have oxygen, we get mostly CO2. If not, they’ll give us methane.

    My question is…. why are these companies trying to convert COAL to methane instead of southern permafrost, that is likely to be converted to greenhouse gases anyway? Although less than ideal, wouldn’t that be a step in the right direction?

  35. Lore says:

    Oil shale is just another mirage, like ethanol. As recently pointed out we generate 400,000 barrels a day from Bakken and the projected maximum ten years from now is only around 800,000. It’s not easy or inexpensive to get at.

    The rest of the shale in the Western states is not actually oil but kerogen, which has to be processed to be made into usable oil. The conversion which requires the use of lots of energy will most likely never be profitable enough to go into mass production.

    None of the above including, drill baby drill, will meet our present needs of 7 billion barrels a year in the U.S. while our conventional sources continue to rapidly decline, let alone, any future needs that would require more oil for the unsustainable growth of BAU.

    As for how tight we are bumping up against the world supply margins now, you only have to watch the news to see how the markets move on the threat of loss from minor players of 300,000 – 500,000 barrels a day. SA is having a rough time of it just trying to replace the light sweet crude of Libya and who knows how much, if anything, they have left in the pipeline to push out.

  36. Anne van der Bom says:


    Oh dear, there we go again. Why have people so much trouble of grasping the concept of a transition?

    Large scale migrations of one technology to the other take time, decades. Electric cars & renewable electricity must be rolled out in parallel. Driving an electric car today is just as much about getting the technology and mass production off the ground than about ‘saving the environment’. As time progresses, the focus shifts more to the latter.

    The author also ignores V2G technology and variable charging to compensate variable renewable output. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    And lastly the writer didn’t count on these solutions.

  37. Pacquiao says:

    One peak oil starts to bite (and it hasn’t even started yet), the trick will be to keep things moving — transportation is by far the biggest component of oil consumption in many countries, including the US — without digging our climate change hole too much deeper and also not running the economy into the nearest ditch. At some point we will not bounce back from the undulating plateau as the real fundamentals of supply are realized by competing nations. There will be no gentle slope affording us enough time for some quick techno fix, or will there then be the old energy necessary to make an all out effort to transition to the next best alternatives.

  38. Roger Blanchard says:

    Lore #37,

    The latest data I have from the US DOE/EIA has an oil production figure for North Dakota of 342,000 b/d (Oct 2010). Most of North Dakota’s oil production comes from the Bakken Shale. Based upon my modelling of Bakken Shale production, it could peak as early as 2015 if the percentage rate increase of the last 2 years were to continue.

    I think there is a high probability that deepwater Gulf of Mexico oil production has peaked. It has declined approximately 140,000 b/d since the second half of 2009.

    Roger Blanchard
    Sault Ste. Marie, MI

  39. Ed Hummel says:

    Aaron Lewis #25, I totally agree with you that most people fail to state what should be obvious about our present population being unsustainable, no matter how we try to sustain it. I don’t write posts that often, but whenever I have mentioned the necessity for reducing population as a major factor in ameliorating some of the coming disasters, I have either been taken to task or completely ignored. The fact is that there is no possible way to support the 7 billion of us today without cheap oil; our whole infrastucture, food supply, and way of life demand it. Those who tout one solution or another seem to make light of the extreme difficulty and complexity involved in weaning ourselves from one energy infrastucture and mindset to another. And it will definitely not be done in time by relying on markets which will most likely continue rewarding wrong choices way before it forces right choices, most assuredly when it’s already way too late.

    Many posters here have mentioned Pearl Harbor moments and World War II efforts in the past whenever discussions about what it would take to change our path come up. But most fail to mention that with every passing day the world’s population continues to climb, and the destruction of the world’s resources and ecosystems continues to accelerate. We have never been in such a situation in human history so that all comparisons with past endeavors become almost pointless. I have come to the strong conclusion that only a vast military style, disciplined effort at forced change of “business as usual” to more sustainable ways will be effective. That includes a drastic reduction of population to levels that our severely degraded ecosystems can deal with. Of course such an effort must be run by enlightened individuals who are guided by the best scientific minds in the world and there must be complete cooperation among all peoples with nothing as petty as national interests and priorities interfering with what must be done globally.

    But this is most likely a wishful fantasy on my part that will probably never happen because of humanity’s inate instincts for self preservation coupled with an “us vs. them” way of dealing with difficulties that usually lead to political squabbles and wars. So I remain profoundly pessimistic that anything even remotely constructive will be happening over the next few decades as the threads of increasing population, diminishing resources of all kinds, accelerating food and water shortages, and increasing climate disruption exascerbating everything else all come together in the fairly near future to lead to the global chaos that everyone with any sense should fear. From my experience, proponants and prophets of a much smaller society and economy such as James Kunstler, Paul Erlich, and Richard Heinberg among a few others continue to be ridiculed by the majority of opinion makers as being unrealistic. Sadly, it seems obvious to me that it’s definitely the other way around; only this tiny minority is being realistic.

    I really feel for the young people of today who will most certainly have to deal with the calamities which are coming, and the biggest calamity of all will most likely be their much shortened, increasingly miserable lives as nature plays the last hand of the human drama according to her own rules based on physics, chemistry and biology.

  40. Robert In New Orleans says:

    Oil is way to valuable to burn as a fuel. Can you imagine trying to make the computer monitor that you are staring at out of wood?

  41. Leland Palmer says:

    Unfortunately, there’s a lot of heavy oil and tar sands out there. And eventually, we could even exploit the oil shales- and that resource is many times the amount of petroleum in the Middle East.

    What’s happened is not “peak oil”, so far. It’s “peak easy oil”. Drillers have gone deeper underwater and into areas politically opposed to the West to get the oil. By the way…Iran has a lot of oil, hence the drumbeat of criticism and crisis talk about invading Iran, IMO. And all of the crisis talk about Iran’s nuclear program, I think.

    Also unfortunately, the greenhouse gas contribution from exploiting the heavy oils and tar sands is also much greater than from traditional crude oil. Fossil fuel has to be burned to generate the heat usually used to release the heavy oil from its geological matrix.

    How much petroleum is left?

    Much more than we should burn, for the sake of the climate, I think.

    Drilling and prospecting technology has also greatly improved, unfortunately. And, oil corporations are salivating at the prospect of drilling in an Arctic which is ice free in the summer, and exploiting the huge methane hydrate resources of the Arctic.

    Obama’s real mistakes?

    Not nationalizing the fossil fuel corporations and the coal corporations,leaving the fossil fuel driven financial elite power structure in place, and believing in free market economics.

  42. Lewis C says:

    Anne at 38/. –

    “Driving an electric car today is just as much about getting the technology and mass production off the ground than about ’saving the environment’. As time progresses, the focus shifts more to the latter.”

    . . . as time progresses . . .

    Does this mean that additional coal burning to meet the additional power demand for electric cars should be tolerated because one day we’ll all be able to afford both solar garages and electric cars, thereby ending oil and coal demand ?

    Non-fossil energy supply will not grow noticeably faster because electric cars are being sold to those who can afford them – particularly in an economy in decline due to PO & CD. Electric cars thus will raise total fossil power demand almost pro rata.

    In terms of assisting the termination of fossil fuel dependence the electric car appears financially impractical even in the wealthiest nation on the planet, let alone in the poorer nations whose vast populations aspire to something quicker than an ox cart.

    Given a 20-year crash program – such as Chu & Obama are nowhere near launching –
    and ample liquid fuel supplies to allow a thriving global economy –
    and the absence of intensifying climatic destabilization of both the global economy and its food production capacity –
    then electric cars might have been an excellent focus of effort – say back in 1980.

    As it is, far from being “Just-In-Time” as a techno-solution to oil dependency, they seem more like a classic ‘JTFL’.



  43. Rick says:

    Interesting how people always bring up the “electric car” — these people clearly do not understand what Peak Oil means.

    For those who want to be enlightened, they should read this article:

  44. Adrian says:

    Uh, lets see. So we’re going to solve peak oil with a combination of non-conventional oil and electric cars

    [JR: Who said that?]

    Why are so many people so fixated on electric cars? This is another way to pretend that technology will somehow “save” us, so our wonderful, polluting, earth-destructive way of life can continue.

    Comprehensive collapse, as Richard Brenne, Mike Roddy and others point out, seems pretty much a given, one way or another. And no one here has yet mentioned the biological collapse currently proceeding pretty much apace. Just one example: pollinator decline brought on by, among other things, oil-fueled, destructive farming and gardening practices.

    Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Electric cars are another version of the old model.

    The new model, I think, involves socio/enviro/economic changes such as re-localizing economies and agroecology, conducted according to deeply un-American values such as accepting limitations imposed by nature and acting with restraint. Many people (like the transition and permaculture folks, and so many others) are working on this. Are enough of us working on it? Who knows.

  45. Roddy Campbell says:

    Who remembers President Carter’s Peak Oil speech on national television? Does even that not give you some pause?

    Why are people so scared of oil getting more expensive? I thought you’d be happy! It’s been around $20/$30 for most of my adult life, far too cheap. So the price goes up, a bit more exploration happens, and alternative transport fuels are stimulated.

    What’s the problem? You don’t want cheap oil because of the CO2 issues, so you want a higher price, no?

  46. BBHY says:

    I don’t understand why people are so down on electric cars. If you don’t want one, don’t buy one.

    Personally, I don’t want to be BFFs with Exxon, Chevron and BP, and it is my right as an American to choose an alternative.

    I also don’t understand that link: “Do you think it might be a political problem if 10 million lucky Americans get to drive electric cars…”

    Gee, I don’t know what that is supposed to mean; was it a problem when some people got to drive cars and others still had horses? Is it a problem now when some people have private jets and the rest of us drive cars? Was it a problem when a few people had big screen televisions and most people still had regular ones? I don’t recall any major political issues at those times. People understand that transitions happen and adapt. No big deal.

  47. Barry says:

    Many “peak oil=economic collapse” folks, in comments above and elsewhere, ignore this basic fact: the planet has gigantic amounts of hydrocarbons than humans can turn into liquid “oil” at prices humans will be willing to pay.

    — coal to liquids
    — tar sands to liquids
    — methane hydrates to liquids
    — air-CO2 to liquids

    We are functioning as a very advanced society with $100/barrel oil. In fact it is cheaper than many bottled waters. We waste oil in mind boggling amounts everyday.

    The number one oil consumer is USA. Americans pay less than half what Europeans pay for gas. Europeans seem to have avoided hair shirts and the dark ages even with $9/gallon gas.

    So USA could easily transition to $200/barrel oil and still be much like today. Better even. Right?

    “peak cheap oil” will be bad for climate at least until it drives a major build-out of ever more competitive renewable alternatives.

  48. Lewis C says:

    BBHY at 48/. –

    “Personally, I don’t want to be BFFs with Exxon, Chevron and BP, and it is my right as an American to choose an alternative.”

    Unless you happen to be one of the tiny minority who can afford a solar garage as well as the electric car, then the the alternative you claim the right (as an American) to choose – amounts to raising the combustion of coal – that is, becoming BFFs with Peabody et al.

    It could be argued that Americans, of all nations on the planet, have no right whatsoever to raise their combustion of coal.



  49. Barry says:

    espiritwater (%7) says “…it requires tons of petroleum just to make one vehicle. With 300 million Americans, all needing to drive…wouldn’t this be a bit of a problem”


    Almost all the energy that goes into cars is in the gasoline to drive them.

    Yes, cars have total embedded energy equal to around 3 to 4 tons of oil by the time they are built. (based on Argonne labs data)

    But that is dwarfed by the literal TONS of gas needed to shove them around for 160,000 miles:

    Prius: 10 tons of gas
    Yaris: 16 tons of gas
    Accord: 21 tons
    Outback: 23 tons
    Odyssey van: 27 tons
    F150: 34 tons
    Escalade: 36 tons
    F250 awd: 46 tons

    And that doesn’t count the increasing amount of embodied energy in the gasoline used to run these cars.

    Bottom line is that the gasoline you put in the tank just dwarfs the car or the car’s embodied energy.

    Focusing on the “physical car” is a big mistake if you care about total oil and energy consumption.

    Math minded folks will quickly see that it would take much less oil to scrap every new car in America and build a new Prius to replace it…taking the embodied energy hit…and still save tons and tons of gasoline.

    Scrapping a brand new Escalade…building a Prius and driving that instead will save 23 tons of gasoline over 160,000 miles. And at $5/gallon you will save over $41,000 on gas. More than enough to buy the Prius.

    Why do you think Big Oil is so against better mileage standards?

  50. Barry says:

    Lewis C (#50) “It could be argued that Americans, of all nations on the planet, have no right whatsoever to raise their combustion of coal.”

    I agree that we don’t want to replace oil with equivalent amount of coal. But from what I have read, charging an electric car at night in USA won’t increase coal use much if any.

    My understanding is that coal plants are running at night well beyond demand because they are thermally slow to ramp up and down as needed. Therefore the USA has lots of excess electric capacity at night that goes unused.

    If so, it is very reasonable from climate and energy standpoint to switch from gasoline car to night-charging electric car.

    In fact this would even be cleaner than solar charging your electric car as you don’t need to build the solar panels. So there might be a sweet spot for many years for night-charging electric cars.

    Also electric cars get cleaner as the grid gets cleaner.

    Gasoline cars are getting dirtier because the oil stream is getting dirtier as we ramp up unconventional oil (aka tar sands) in USA.

  51. Barry says:

    Also Texas and other wind power areas often have lots of excess wind power at night.

    That is why Texas is one of the leaders in trying to get electric cars going. In particular they want V2G cars so they can dump their excess wind electricity at night into electric car batteries…then draw it back out during the day instead of burning more fossil at that point.

  52. Bob Lang says:

    It is interesting to see all these posts are about “electric cars”.

    It amazes me how many people seem to think that peak oil and industrial civilization is all about getting their rear end from A to B in a private automobile.

  53. Adrian says:

    Re #46

    “Uh, lets see. So we’re going to solve peak oil with a combination of non-conventional oil and electric cars?

    [JR: Who said that?]

    –Sorry, Joe, I know not you–that was a sarcastic comment about our society in general, present company excluded.

    I agree that “Key strategies for dealing with peak oil remain fuel efficiency, mass transit, and plug-in hybrids…”

    However, I’d say more mass transit, less electric cars, since I stand by my other comments. We are way too car-centric and have let reliance on motor transport substitute for sensible planning–an obvious point, but bears repeating.

  54. Lore says:

    Bob Lang @54

    “It amazes me how many people seem to think that peak oil and industrial civilization is all about getting their rear end from A to B in a private automobile.”

    You are correct, it’s the result of “in-box with lid on thinking”. Unfortunately, not until we are forced to, will we give up this love affair with the auto and all the waste it produces.

  55. Joan Savage says:

    Sarcasm here: as light crude becomes scarce and bitumen more common, there might be a temporary glut of asphalt available for road repairs, in the next 50 years. Plus, some of the asphalt gets re-used.

    I’m noticing a lot of potholes from the winter of 2010-2011, and I was reflecting that jarring rides and the loss of axle or tire are thought to be temporary. How trusting I am that government is prepared to repair.

    Budget constraints on road repair would make individual car use less attractive. That is, regardless of the kind of engine in the vehicle.

    When my household went through the “Mad Max” watching phase, I always marveled at how the roads in the movie were in such good repair! Haha!

  56. Dean says:

    Roger Blanchard and Lore…outstanding posts. You guys clearly have a deep understanding and insight on the complexities of peak oil.

    The thing that bothers me the most in the mainstream media is the complete lack of understanding of the laws of thermodynamics and EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). Most of this oil stays trapped in the shale or under the miles of deepwater due to the fact that it takes more energy to extract it than is contained within the oil itself…

    The same arguments apply to biofuels, the “hydrogen economy” and most of the so-called green energy alternatives as well.

  57. Richard Brenne says:

    What great comments! Generally there are many expert big picture comments from Ed Hummel, Mulga Mumblebrain, Mike Roddy, Adrian and many others combined with pro-solar-electric car technology expertly expressed by Anne van der Bom and Barry.

    If we were back fighting WWII, I’d like to see the former group as the equivalent to Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall, Eisenhower, etc and the latter as the equivalent to Patton and Montgomery. Anne and Barry are experts at visualizing and realizing important objectives, but Ed, Mulga, Mike, Adrian and others like them appear to me to see the big picture most clearly, something that is essential to all large-scale strategic thinking.

    Sorry for the fairly constant WWII metaphors, but as Ed and others so expertly point out, what we’re facing is completely unprecedented in scale and scopes, something I don’t hear the techno-optimists among us appreciating with many statements implying “No problem!”

    WWII is the best precedent we have, especially with the rapid and complete transition in the U.S. from a peacetime to a wartime economy serving as inspiration for the much harder transition from a fossil fuel and selfish to a renewable energy and selfless economy. Precedent and metaphor, while imperfect, are two of the best ways to get our thinking around this unimaginable colossus (and by that I mean not just Donald Trump’s hair) we’re facing.

    Rob Honeycutt makes great points in his comment at #19, but I predictably take issue with his taking issue with my issue about the bell curve of peak oil production. Rob mentions extracting oil in some form for another 200 years, but the one concept not mentioned nearly enough here or anywhere is Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI), because once it takes more than a barrel of oil worth of energy to get a barrel of oil out of the ground (or sands, or shale), then you’re done with that well, field, national or global supply.

    We started with 100 to 1 EROEI from the gusher oil wells drilled at places like Spindletop in Texas in 1901, with the current world’s best the Saudi oil that is around 30 to 1, tar sands dropping to as low as 3 to 1, and even a positive return at all debated from corn ethanol itself.

    Without the robust economic system of the past and without access to sufficient capital to make increasingly risky investments, I think more conventional and unconventional oil might stay in the ground than we now think, when most people extrapolate on a linear line from our unprecedented and almost certainly unique past. All fossil fuels that stay in the ground will be good for climate change (and I support their staying there at whatever cost to my lifestyle), but will make transitioning to anything like the total global consumption of energy and everything else we’ve known doubtful at best.

    The Second Law of Thermodynamics and all other such physical laws trump the laws of economics. Put another way, reality trumps wishful thinking.

    The left hand climb to the current peak of oil production began in 1859 with Colonel Drake’s well, even with miniscule use mostly for lubrication and especially lighting for the first half century, then on an ever-accelerating curve in the last century. As you so adeptly point out, if we were smart (which we’re not), we’d use oil mostly for manufactured goods (although most Americans could cut to a tenth then a hundredth our current consumption of those) and not burn it, using our atmosphere as an open sewer.

    When the U.S. reached peak oil in 1970 the world had around half as many people with less than a quarter living in nations with oil economies. Now every national economy is an oil economy or wants to be (and pretending Denmark with 20 per cent of their electricity generation from wind or any other large and/or industrialized nation is not based on an oil economy is facetious – how and where do you suppose they get all their stuff?), so it appears to me that a more rapid decline is inevitable, despite a series of recessions leading to small erosions of demand as you say.

  58. Richard Brenne says:

    BBHY (#48), whose comments I always admire, asks “Was it a problem when people started driving cars and others still had horses?” and then concludes that the transition will be “No big deal.”

    Well, BBHY, those people hadn’t had their cars taken away from them. They hadn’t built up anywhere from a half-century to a century of entitlement that they should be able to drive anywhere they ever wanted for as long as they wanted, and that all the electrical energy they ever wanted should also be available to them at the flip of a switch at extremely low prices.

    When that is taken away from them, there will be issues. The Nazis and Japanese leading up to and including WWII (there I go again) developed ideologies to excuse their colonizing other lands, especially those that had the oil they so desperately wanted. My own nation (the U.S.) has developed similar ideologies over a longer period of time that “the U.S. way of life is non-negotiable.”

    While making good points, the techno-optimists among us in just this discussion have used expressions like “Gee,” and “My dear” and “LOL” and “No big deal” while the deeper and more big picture thinkers have used no such expressions.

    I’m always alert to when someone, even a very good and deep-thinking person, has some addiction that suddenly is speaking for them. When smoking was more fashionable, comedians who I otherwise like such as Bill Mahar would make jokes like “People can take their crying babies on an airliner but I can’t smoke there?” I realized at that point that for a short time I was hearing from an addiction more than a person (even one who I otherwise admire).

    The insistence that our lifestyles are non-negotiable and the snippiness associated with such insistence makes me think that in part we’re hearing from our strongest addiction, that to our very lifestyles themselves that are based on oil (substitute electricity), cars (substitute electric cars), and freedom (substitute selfishness).

    What Adrian, Ed Hummel and the other very deep thinkers here are saying is that we might say that our way of life is non-negotiable, but as Jim Kunstler says, reality is waiting at our door, about to negotiate in a matter with which we are not recently familiar.

  59. Robert says:

    I don’t really understand why we need cars any more. Everything you need is piped to you via the internet, cable TV, mobile phones, etc. Even the rare trips to the shops are only necessary because we forgot something on the weekly online shop with Tesco.

    Why do people bother going to lectures at uni when all the lecture notes and videos are online? In fact, why do they even bother going to university at all. Basically, any activity that is about information exchange can be done faster, cheaper, with near zero emissions and just about as well without ever leaving your home.

    I gave up long commutes working for big companies about 11 years ago. I make far more money developing software at home and my commute has reduced from 55 miles each way to about 4 yards. I occasionally have real meetings with clients but mostly I work by logging into their networks, FTP’ing files, phone, email and so on.

    Cars – so 20th century.

  60. espiritwater says:

    Salt, #10, it’s from the book, “Storms of my Grandchildren” by Jim Hansen.

  61. espiritwater says:

    Michael Ruppert wrote an excellent book on Peak Oil called, “Confronting Collapse”. The following is an excerpt:

    Civilization breaks down…
    The key to understanding infrastructure lies at the heart of complex civilizations. When roads and bridges fail; levees aren’t rebuilt; when dams, transmission lines and generating stations are not maintained; when any of a 100 possible things fail for lack of money or material.. civilization starts to break down.

    Consider the implications if a bridge washes out and that bridge is the only way to get heating oil to a small city in winter… Consider the implications if the electricity, generated by oil/gas stops providing the power to pump water out of NY subways 24/7…

  62. espiritwater says:


    FTW: “And natural gas?”
    Savinar: ” …with gas, which doesn’t follow a bell curve (like oil); but tends to fall off a cliff. There will always be oil & gas in the ground, even a million years from now. The question is, will you be a microbe to go down and eat the oil in small pockets at depths no one can afford or is able to drill? Will you spend 100’s of 1,000s of dollars to drill a gas well that’ll run dry in a few months? All the big deposits have been found and exploited. There aren’t going to be any dramatic discoverys and the discovery trends have made this clear… we’ll see the inevitable issue that follow a major black out: no water, sewage, no gasoline. The gasoline issue is very important. Our gasoline stocks are at near all time lows. With the black out, more than 700,000 barrels per day of refinery capacity were shut down. People were told to boil their water… on electric stoves which weren’t working. What then?”

    (The cash generated by power companys won’t go back into fixing the infrastructure, building energy reserves (for emergencies) or preparing for weather-related emergencys. Because it’s privately owned and de-regulated, thanks to Bush!)

    “…an American president… coming to grips with the energy crisis… American attitude of throwing money at (solving a problem)… but that cycle will end before the 2012 U.S. Presidential election when the accounts come due and can no longer be passed on— when printing money will not solve … money has no value with out energy to back it up.”

  63. Barry says:

    Bob Lang (#12) says “Not until I see the heavy equipment made by Deere & Co and Caterpillar run on batteries do I believe that anything close to our current lifestyle can continue without oil.”

    I don’t see why these need to be run on batteries to solve either peak oil or climate change.

    According to EIA diesel fuel is only 16% of USA petroleum consumption. And that include diesel fuel for heavy construction equipment, trucks, buses, tractors, boats, trains, and some automobiles. Surely we have enough oil to handle the essentials in this mix.

    Also USA uses 16% of its diesel fuel for heating. That is a good cushion easily switched to natural gas or other fuels.

    And many vehicles that use diesel can be transitioned to other fuel sources.

    Seems doable without collapse to me.

  64. Lewis C says:

    Barry at 52/. –

    Got any numbers on your idea that coal power companies are dumping electricity at night due to the lack of load-following capacity ?
    How many thousand or millions of vehicles are you proposing could be powered from this source ?

    We have this problem with nuclear stations in the UK, but not with coal-fired gennies – and we have far less manufacturing capacity running at night than in the US to use up the surplus.

    As a result, a huge underground water reservoir and tunnel-turbines system was developed to take power at night from nuclear stations in order to produce extra hydro-power in daytime – but there are no plans for such facilities to utilize surplus night-time coal-power.



    PS. re yours on resolving PO at 65/.: “seems doable to me” – I’d suggest reading the Hersch Report to start to get an idea of the scale and fundamental difficulties of this issue –

  65. Barry says:

    Richard Brenne (#59) says “the one concept not mentioned nearly enough here or anywhere is Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI), because once it takes more than a barrel of oil worth of energy to get a barrel of oil out of the ground (or sands, or shale), then you’re done with that well, field, national or global supply.”

    Many peak oil people mention EROEI on why civilization is on the edge. The concept is once it takes more energy to extract oil than you get when you burn it…presto, no more recoverable oil.

    The flaw in this idea is that it doesn’t account for fuel trading.

    In fact civilization has been built in large part using energy that has a negative EROEI. In other words, we routinely use energy that required more energy to produce than we get back.

    The most common example today is burning coal to create electricity.

    1 unit of electric energy returned for every 2 to 3 units of coal energy invested. Now that is a sucky EROEI.

    A diesel generator that runs many rural towns requires far more energy to be “invested” than is ever “returned”.

    The department of defence says it regularly uses diesel oil that has many times more energy invested than they get back when they use it.

    The Alberta tar sands have an EROEI that has fallen to 5:1 from latest I’ve read. But they mostly use natural gas to extract oil. Now there is talk of using nuclear power to extract oil.

    There are just huge amounts of hydrocarbon sources on earth to convert to oil even if the EROEI is negative…like with coal fired electricity.

    EROEI doesn’t mean the end of “oil” it just means increasingly dirtier and increasingly more expensive oil.

    Peak cheap-conventional oil isn’t a cliff. It is a rising price threat and a rising climate threat.

    In other words, “peak oil” is not going to save us from climate disruption…quite the opposite.

  66. Barry says:

    Lewis (#66) many groups have researched the effect of electric cars on coal usage in USA electric grid. Here is a page that summarizes several along with links:

  67. Barry says:

    EROEI: Photosynthesis has negative EROEI and yet it has powered the biosphere for billions of years.

    In Photosynthesis, solar energy is used to create long-chain carbon molecules that are later burned to extract some of the energy. Energy Returned is less than Energy Invested.

    No reason humans can’t do the same to create a perpetual source of negative EROEI “oil” from the air in the future.

  68. Lewis C says:

    Barry –

    thanks for the link to Calcars, but I was hoping for something impartial and rigorously quantified, rather than a site with a highly partisan position not even on EVs, but on PHEVs.

    The best the linked calcars page provides on power supply is the following three quotes:

    1/. “They reinforce the Pacific National Lab’s January 2007 findings that we won’t have to build new power plants for cars that charge at night.”

    — This is not in question – there is obviously massive idle coal-fired generator capacity at night.

    2/.“PHEVs will generally recharge at night using excess power from plants that can’t shut down completely — so they don’t add to the peak load.”

    — This assertion is unquantified, unreferenced and misleading – a minimal fraction of national generator capacity is held as ‘spinning reserve’ to meet any surge from night-time demand. It is correct but misleading in saying that the new demand wont add to peak load, but only because that occurs in daytime. What it will add to is off-peak load.

    3/. “PHEVs are meant to plug-in at night. In many areas of the country, overnight power is available at a lower cost. As PHEVs start to enter the marketplace, we’ll see increasing support from electric utilities, as they’ll offer reduced nighttime rates to incentivize off-peak charging. In some areas where wind and hydropower is wasted at night, the rate can be as low as 2-3 cents per kWh.”

    — Night-time power is cheaper not only because there is massive capacity lying idle, but also because nuclear, and some wind, and some hydro during excess river flows, all produce power at night almost regardless of demand, so it is sold for what it will fetch.

    The only mention of wasted power generation in any of these quotes from a partisan website refers to wind and hydro-power, not to coal stations.
    If even this partisan website with its unquantified assertions doesn’t support your assertion that EVs will be charged with wasted night-time power from coal capacity, who will ?

    Perhaps you should quantify just how many vehicles your proposed ‘wasted coal power’ would charge each night, and explain just why that power is being produced at present ?

    Regarding EROEI, you apparently confuse the efficiency of fuels’ usage with the EROEI of their production. You’ll find some excellent articles on the subject of EROEI over at ‘The Oil Drum’ if you’d like to get past this basic misunderstanding.



  69. Richard Brenne says:

    Barry (#67) – More good points but Mother Nature just has to keep any number of species alive (and she lets natural selection decide this for her), so she has a different objective than humans and so there are the inefficiencies you mention of photosynthesis and predation.

    But any animal that expends more calories than it takes in over a long enough time will weaken, be vulnerable to disease and ultimately die.

    Similarly any human enterprise that uses more energy to extract less energy will also prove unsustainable over time. The coal you mention has already been extracted and there are inevitable inefficiencies in its burning and the transmission of electricity.

    But a coal company wouldn’t consistently use more energy (in dollars) to get coal than it was extracting (in dollars), or if they did that for long enough they’d be out of business.

    So I feel you’re speaking mostly of inefficiencies due to the second law of thermodynamics rather than true EROEI that would lead any sane oil company to stop drilling when it consistently took more than a barrel of oil to get a barrel of oil out of the ground.

    By the way, Dean (#58), you beat me to mentioning EROEI. While you were posting your comment I was writing and rewriting mine (just to make sure they were too long) and they were also held up in moderation, otherwise I would’ve acknowledged that your post was the first to address EROEI.

    I also agree with your assessment of the excellent peak oil posts by Lore and Roger Blanchard, and I would like to add that I also appreciate all those by Leland Palmer and Lewis C (and those are just the Ls), and more recently the hard core peak oil comments by Roger and especially espiritwater – excellent points and posts, all.

    All in all I think this is CP’s finest thread of peak oil discussion ever. Let’s keep it going.

    I think peak oil is like the jab that breaks our nose, while climate change and all other environmental catastrophes will be the haymaker that ultimately knocks us out. But that’s just my cheerful view.

  70. Barry says:

    Richard (#71), you made a very specific statement about Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI): “once it takes more than a barrel of oil worth of energy to get a barrel of oil out of the ground (or sands, or shale), then you’re done with that well, field, national or global supply.”

    And I pointed out very specifically why this is wrong.

    I gave numerous examples on massive scales where humans everyday convert lots of one form or energy into a smaller amount of another form of energy.

    All these have NEGATIVE EROEI:

    — coal to electricity
    — natural gas to electricity
    — corn to “oil”
    — frontline diesel in military
    — and so on

    You responded saying: “Similarly any human enterprise that uses more energy to extract less energy will also prove unsustainable over time.”

    But again this is wrong. The example I gave is photosynthesis. The entire biosphere has negative EROEI and yet has grown in complexity for billions of years. It works not because nature is red in tooth and claw but because the earth receives a new supply of energy from the sun constantly. It isn’t a fixed energy system.

    At the very least, your statement that when EROEI goes to 1:1 then that “oil” can’t be extracted and used is just plain wrong. Humans do this all the time.

    If you don’t think so, just ask how it is possible that an electricity utility could possibly stay in business when it consistently takes lots more than a kWh of coal energy to get a kWh of electricity.

    It is called fuel conversion or fuel trading.

    That is why EROEI for “oil” is not a “cliff” any more than it is for electricity. Instead EROEI is a nasty threat that will increase oil prices and probably oil CO2-intensity for years.

  71. Barry says:

    Richard (#71) says “But a coal company wouldn’t consistently use more energy (in dollars) to get coal than it was extracting (in dollars), or if they did that for long enough they’d be out of business.”

    OK, now you are totally changing the argument from “Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI)” to “Dollars Returned on Dollars Invested (DRODI)”.

    If you want to talk about DRODI then the argument gets even weaker that there is some point that we run into an “oil” cliff.

    All that is required is for the price of “oil” to rise enough to cover the cost to produce it.

    If that is the measure it is very easy to see how “oil” with a negative EROEI continues to be produced. That is because “oil” is so valuable compared to the alternative of humans doing the work themselves.

    As Bill McKibben points out, a barrel of oil has energy equivalent to many years of human labour in it. So how much will people pay for years of human labour? Hmmm…I’m pretty sure it is a lot more than $1,000/barrel.

    In fact the USA Military is paying around $16,000 a barrel for frontline diesel. So we can get a glimpse of what people will pay vs the alternative.

    If you look at what people pay for oil products in the poorest nations compared to their incomes you find that these folks already pay what to most Americans would be hundreds of dollars a barrel.

    How much “oil” can humanity produce at hundreds of dollars a barrel? That allows for a hugely negative EROEI.

    The real measure is human effort invested vs human effort saved. And by that measure we have “oil” with a gigantic price rise potential which will create the ability to fuel convert with very negative EROEI.

    The reason Joe rightly focuses on conversion of infrastructure from oil-requiring to electricity-requiring is because that is the only route that frees us from needing so much of a particular form of energy called “oil”.

    The reason the focus is on cars is because road gasoline is about half of USA oil use and oil is the biggest CO2 source in USA. You can’t solve either peak oil or climate CO2 without getting cars off oil.

  72. Barry says:

    When you buy a 1 to 2 ton beast of a car you are also making a commitment to buy 10 to 40 tons of more stuff from Big Oil.

    That 10 to 40 tons of gasoline will become 30 to 120 tons of littered waste in the form of CO2.

    Over 90% of the physical car stream in USA is recycled leaving a few hundred pounds of mostly fossil fuel trash in the form of plastic…which is mostly re-sequested in landfills.

    Meanwhile 0% of the gasoline waste stream is recycled leave 30 to 120 tons of it as trash. This is dumped directly into our ecosystems.

    The fossil fuel trash from gasoline is hundreds of times greater than from the physical car.

    Even worse the fossil fuel trash from gasoline has a climate warming hammer of 100,000 times more than the heat released when it was burned. Plus it acidifies the oceans.

    It is the invisible stack of gasoline barrels that are attached to each car that have the big hammer on climate and peak oil. We need to focus on that component too if we are going to make good decisions.

  73. Dean says:

    Excellent comments from all…

    Barry, I agree with your points at #74, but I’m not sure I get where you’re coming from with EROEI. I get the sense that you are massively confused by the concept.

    EROEI is a ratio: energy returned (numerator) divided by energy invested (denominator). When numerator is smaller than denominator, you get a number less than one…(it’s never “negative”, as you assert).

    Being a math guy, I’d be interested in seeing your back-of-the-envelope calculations to back up your statement that coal to electricity has a “negative” EREOI.

    Energy is energy, be it human effort, or chemical energy bound in the photosynthetically created sugar molecules of a plant, or released as heat by burning fossil fuels, or the kinetic energy of motion, or the atomic energy bound up in an atom. Humans like energy, because we can harness it do work.

    It cannot be created or destroyed…

    Energy converts in only one direction- useable to unuseable. This is entropy, and this is why the universe tends towards disorder.

    There are no perpetual motion machines and there are no free rides. As a society, we just succeeded in the span of 100 years of burning up millions and millions of years of ancient sunlight stored up as photosynthetic chemical potential energy. This energy is NOT coming back.

    A final thought…you mention the energy bound up in a barrel of oil, and how much work this equates to in human effort. You then go on to ask what humanity is willing to pay for that barrel of oil…$1000? $10,000?

    I’m going to open a can of worms here and ask you…what is money? Can I burn it in my car, or eat it?

    I think you’re confusing fiat currency for energy. Money is abstract and a human construct, capable of doing no work on it’s own. Money is subject to inflation and degradation. When Ben Bernanke decides that we need another round of Quantitative Easing, the US Mint will fire up the printing presses and generate some more. We can’t do this with energy…

    Energy and the laws of thermodynamics are absolute, and they WILL have the final say…

  74. Richard Brenne says:

    Dean (#75) – That is a truly excellent explanation, far better than I could have done (or did).

    Barry (#74) – Excellent points with unique insights and statistics you bring to your posts, and that’s why I ride my bike.

  75. Barry says:

    Dean (#75) and Richard (#74) I very well understand EROEI. I’ve read about it for years, researched the fine details of it as it applies to various energy sources, and had many discussions on this very subject with one of the top peak oil guys and others who publish on this subject. Geez I never knew that the laws of thermodynamics are absolute…wow, thanks.

    Rather than being condescending to me on this, why don’t you just explain clearly the basic statement that Richard and others have made: “once it takes more than a barrel of oil worth of energy to get a barrel of oil out of the ground (or sands, or shale), then you’re done with that well, field, national or global supply.”

    Please explain why it is not possible to use say 1.1 units of natural gas energy to extract 1 unit of oil energy for an EROEI of 1:1.1.

    All the EROEI data I’ve seen on oil production use EI of the units of energy consumed to extract the oil. Yes? Or is there some other EI that you use for your EROEI ratios? If so please explain this to me.

    Obviously it is not only possible to have EROEI below 1:1 in the example I gave, it is also potentially very profitable depending on the relative prices of natural gas and oil.

    As I pointed out, and you both fail to address, EROEI below 1:1 is very common today when millions of tonnes of coal are burned to produce electricity. Around 2 units of coal energy are used everyday to produce 1 unit of electric energy for an EROEI of 1:2. Why can coal have an EROEI ratio less than one but “oil” can’t?

    Dean, you complain about my use of “negative” EROEI. Obviously the ratio is just less than one and not “negative” but I’m using a colloquialism that I see often to refer to the fact that you are ending up with a less energy than you started with (ER-EI)…which is how many people think of this. I’m happy to use “ratio less than one” if you want to be exacting. But if you want to be exacting then I recommend you do the same with explaining exactly what your units are for ER and EI. What i’ve seen so far on this comment threat about EROEI is hand waving and unit mixing and fuzzy thinking…followed by finger-waving lecturing.

    So please Richard, Dean and others claiming that 1:1 EROEI means no more oil…explain your units for ER and EI and how they relate to published figures in the peak oil literature for oil ratios.

  76. Barry says:

    Dean (#75) you say “You then go on to ask what humanity is willing to pay for that barrel of oil…$1000? $10,000? I’m going to open a can of worms here and ask you…what is money? Can I burn it in my car, or eat it? I think you’re confusing fiat currency for energy. “

    You misunderstand me. I’m using money as a proxy for human effort.

    My point returns to EROEI. Most people talk about ER and EI in terms of the energy embodied in various non-human energy sources. Example EI is the sum of all the electricity, oil, natural gas and other fuel sources that go into the production of oil…while ER is the energy embodied in the oil itself.

    I’m trying to get people to look at oil using human energy as the unit for both ER and for EI.

    McKibben points out the ER per barrel is many person years of effort.

    My point is that “oil” will still be valuable to humans as long as the EI per barrel is a significantly smaller amount of person years of effort.

    Lets be very conservative and say that one year of human labour EI makes the 8 or 9 years of human labour saved in ER worth it. An EROEI of 9:1 for “oil” using human labour as the units top and bottom.

    The question is what is the money proxy for a year of human effort? Depends on where you live. But in USA currently it is tens of thousands of dollars.

    We have a proxy in poor nations where people spend a much higher percentage of their human labour on a given unit of oil than we do in USA. Clearly oil has a large human labour upside in wealth world.

  77. Leif says:

    I think that the problem here between Richard, Barry and Dean is that the oil companies do not have to pay for that barrel of oil that it takes to get another out of the ground and to market. As long as the barrel that they sell is profitable, it does not make any difference if they need two or even ten. Look at the energy wasted in “flaring.” Those other barrels are free or at worse “cost” so it is someone else’s problem. Price carbon at the well head with no subsidies and that will change the whole equation.

  78. Barry says:

    According to studies by Pimentel and Patzek (2005) as well as a study by University of Minnesota published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences in July 2006, several forms of biodiesel and ethanol have EROEI below one.

    Humans are already producing “oil” with EROEI below one.

  79. Barry says:

    Leif, I agree the solution to both peak oil and climate chaos is to price carbon.

    There is another issue here. Humans have billions of pieces of expensive infrastructure that require “oil” to function. Until we transition our infrastructure away from needing “oil” then humans will have a desire to buy “oil”.

    As high ratio EROEI oil runs out we see prices rising and CO2-intensity rising. This means increasing peak-oil price shocks and increasing climate hammering from each gallon burned.

    My concern is with one meme of peak-oil which has some people thinking that EROEI approaching 1:1 means “oil” is going to suddenly disappear. This is wrong in my understanding of this issue. What it does mean is that oil will get more expensive and dirtier. It becomes an increasingly bad actor…not one that suddenly leaves the stage.

    “EROEI < 1 = oil cliff" meme is based on people misunderstanding the issue and being vague in their thinking on what exactly the energy units top and bottom are in real world terms.

    Achieving clarity on what exactly the threat is from falling EROEI for "oil" will help us understand what we need to do. And from my view what we need to do is exactly what Joe has pointed out for a long time and that is focus on transitioning oil-requiring infrastructure to electricity-requiring infrastructure while also increasing climate safe electricity sources.

    But people who think peak oil EROEI will save us from having to do that because it will cut off oil to the system are, in my view, incorrect and can miss the urgency to transition away even while oil still exists.

  80. Dean says:

    Here’s a link to an open source document that gives probably more insight than anyone could possibly need on EREOI:

    “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable
    Society Must Have?”

  81. Barry says:

    Thanks Dean (#82) for the link. I’ve read that paper before and it certainly seems to me to support exactly what I have been saying in these comments namely:

    * EROEI is a very complicated subject that requires that you define the denominator clearly if you are make any pronouncements about it.

    * EROEI for society has to be considered as a whole for all fuels to make meaningful society wide statements about it. Not just oil.

    * The earth receives huge quantities of energy each day from the sun so it is not a closed energy system.

    * Energy conversion between fuel types is common and operates always at a loss. So EROEI below 1 is common if you define the EI as the energy embodied in the fuel being converted.

    For all these reasons and more, it is clear that humanity has the ability to energy convert one kind of energy into another at a loss and maintain that for a long, long time. We do it with coal to electricity and we can do it with other energy sources to produce oil.

    “Oil” will be able to be produced long after humans pass the point where we dump far more joules of other kinds of energy into each joule of “oil” we produce.

    This is wasteful because it is inefficient, expensive and climate dirty. That is why we need to transition all our oil-dependent infrastructure to something not requiring oil.

    If you look closely at the denominator of EROEI for oil you see that it can be expressed in terms of human effort (the biological analogy used in the paper you link to). By that essential measure, “oil” is dirt cheap now compared to the alternative of human labour…meaning energy conversion of other energy sources into oil will be done despite the damage associated with it for as long as we are dependent on oil to run our infrastructure.

    There is no “oil cliff”. Just increasing oil hammering on economy and climate.

    We have to leave oil long before oil leaves us.